Saturday, 15 August 2020

August 15th in another universe

 Is it my imagination or did Irish country people have more reverence for the Blessed Virgin than town or city folk?

 

Whatever the answer rural areas definitely celebrated the Feast of the Assumption on August 15th with more vigor.

 

Did that veneration hark back to the pre-Christian roots of the harvest? Perhaps, for on the Feast of the Assumption country people in their Sunday best cast aside their innate shyness and proudly promenaded along County Wexford’s many beaches.

 

My grandfather, Thomas Hughes, stonecutter and widower, went one better. After mass and an early lunch (which we called dinner) he would pack us grandkids into his blue Morris Minor and drive all the way to Tramore in Co. Waterford.

 

He had never quite mastered the relationship between clutch and accelerator and thus we would depart Wexford town with a mighty roar on this 45-mile odyssey.

 

What with the heat and anticipation I remember little of those journeys except the inevitable traffic jam on the quays of Waterford City as we joined a cavalcade of other small cars on our annual culchie pilgrimage

.

Onwards we crept with the excitement building until turning a bend we beheld the majestic sweep of Tramore beach. The name itself was an Anglicization of Trá Mór, or big strand and it was no exaggeration.

 

In my biased memory it was always sunny, and thousands sweltered and sweated as they strolled back and forth along the miles of pristine sand. 

 

The men wore dark suits and starched white shirts, those of a frisky nature removed their ties; some even discarded shoes and socks, rolled up their trouser legs, and frolicked in the foam and spray.

 

Likewise many country ladies skittishly gathered their flowery dresses up beyond their knees and waltzed out with their men folk into the waves.

 

Few adults swam in those days, perhaps due to the impropriety of disrobing in small cars, besides which many the rural priest on his constitutional would have looked askance at a woman displaying bare arms and legs on the Virgin’s feast day.

 

We pagan children had no such scruples. Even now I can taste the salt on my lips and the whip of the cold spray on my face as we raced into the frigid South Atlantic and dared the huge waves to bowl us over.

 

Meanwhile my grandfather would watch from the dry sand as his four charges cavorted for hours. But I could tell his mind was elsewhere for he had often mentioned that he and my grandmother made that same pilgrimage every August 15th

 

There was always a sadness about him when he thought of her. They had been very close and the whispered word around the kitchen was that “he was lost without her.”

 

But that was a grown-up matter and I had more immediate concerns, for Tramore was bursting with “amusements” such as swings and dodgems (which we called bumpers), and Thomas Hughes carried a pocketful of change to make sure that we had our fill of such entertainment.

 

Pop songs crackled from overdriven speakers as we meandered along avenues of vendors hawking ice cream, lemonade and toffee-apples.

 

While in many spaces between stalls buskers made their stand, attended by cardsharps, and other sleight-of-hand merchants enticing you to gamble away your hard-earned pennies and thrupenny bits.

 

This was the old hidden Ireland where I was first introduced to the like of Margaret Barry and Pecker Dunne who traveled the roads singing the lays and laments of our people that would soon be swept away by the electric onslaught of Beatles and Stones.

 

Then way too soon we would dig into our parting feast of greasy chips smothered in salt and vinegar and be on our way in our blue Morris Minor, our necks craned backwards for one last view of the magical beach.

 

And somewhere beyond the town of New Ross Thomas Hughes would lead us in the five Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary in honor of Mary, Queen of the Gael. 

 

My two younger brothers would doze off to the comforting drone of Our Fathers, Hail Marys and Glorias, while my grandfathers’ eyes would grow soft as he recalled other times when he and his lost wife made the same journey home.

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