Sunday, 25 August 2019

A Kind of Love - Long Ago


It was the sweetest farm you can imagine: one hundred acres of lush grassland almost within sight of Wexford’s spires.

I can’t say I remember every blade of grass but I can still summon up every stream, hill, lake, and valley though I haven’t set foot there since the 1970’s.

I think of the farm often, particularly in times of stress. Life seemed a lot simpler then in the big old house at the end of a rutted avenue where my grandparents lived.

Theirs was not a marriage made in heaven. He was from stolid cattle-dealing stock while my granny was from a nautical family and cut from more dramatic cloth. 

As my father, a plainspoken merchant marine once remarked, “There was no small problem she couldn’t turn into a full-blown crisis.” 

And yet, my grandparents were in their own way devoted to each other.

They didn’t seem to converse much but I’m not sure many married couples of their generation did.

They did have a certain comfort level though, or perhaps by the time I was old enough to observe they had come to understand that neither was going to change the other. I suppose that’s a kind of love in itself.

They did like to attend race meetings together and we’d often head off to Gowran Park in Co. Kilkenny, Tramore in Co. Waterford, or even mighty Leopardstown. 

They didn’t care for Wexford Racecourse. My grandfather complained, “That place is so full of auld nags it’s hard to predict form there.” 

Television, oddly enough, brought them closer because with its arrival they could attend Aintree, Ascot and even Longchamp for the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, without leaving the comfort of their armchairs.

It’s hard to overestimate the importance of racehorses in Irish life. There’s almost a spiritual connection between these highly-strung ponies and the Irish people.

We all bet on them for back in my boyhood there was no age bar in a bookie’s office. The lowest wager allowed was “a shilling each way” and I remember my first win. ‘Twas a French filly, Petit Etoile and my grandparents beamed their approval.

Yet, if horses were sacrosanct, then cattle were beyond importance to my grandfather. He had no time for milch cows and would barely cast them a glance, for the bullock was his bread and butter.

He bought them at fairs and cattle markets; had them delivered to his farm where they would sate themselves on the rich green grass until they were deemed fat enough to be transported to Birkenhead, outside Liverpool, for slaughter.

He moved among these gelded bulls as if he were a ghost. They barely noticed his presence whereas they would gaze sullenly at me or bound off in a haze of horseflies.

He counted them every morning after breakfast and immediately after evening tea, unless Raymond Burr or Jackie Gleason were lording it on the black & white television in the kitchen corner. 

Shep, his faithful sheepdog, accompanied him on these excursions and I watched them grow old together. Finally Shep could no longer make it past the outer haggart and would sink down in the grass to await his master’s fatigued return.

My granny would watch fretfully out the window awaiting the peak of her husband’s cap to come bobbing home above the yellow gorse hedgerows. 

By the time his faltering step would echo in the scullery she would have composed herself. I used to wonder if he knew the turmoil she had gone through in his absence.

I would have accompanied him on his rambles for there are few things as lovely as an Irish farm on long summer’s evenings. But he preferred his own company, this taciturn man who merged effortlessly with the trembling rural silence.

When you’re young you think all things will last forever. But what does youth know?  Shep died first, then my grandfather, and finally my Granny was forced to move.

The farm is long gone, replaced by one hundred acres of suburban homes that I’ve never seen. 

And why should I risk viewing such a blasphemy, when I can summon up fields and trees and streams, and grandparents that are as real to me now as they ever were as a boy.

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