Monday, 21 April 2014

Spring Unleashes Memories

            Isn’t it odd how spring unleashes memories?

            The other morning while looking out the window at the concrete fields of Manhattan I was transported back to a farm on the South East tip of Ireland where the South Atlantic crashes headlong into the Irish Sea.

            It was a wild, salt-sprayed place where shipwrecks were often left to rust on gravelly beaches. On summer days, however, there was nothing like it – no people, just seagulls diving against a backdrop of the moody Saltee Islands. The beach was ever treacherous for the gravel moved under the pounding surf; we children were forbidden to swim there.

            My father, a merchant marine, didn’t give a damn. If the mood was on him, he’d hop in and swim outwards, folly in itself, for the currents and eddies could sweep you out to sea.

            We watched fearfully but he never stayed in long. “Just coolin’ off,” as he put it, “nothin’ like the sting of the salt on your skin!”

            Perhaps he needed it, for he was the eldest son and had a tense relationship with my grandfather who owned the big farm, and another of equal size on the outskirts of Wexford Town some 12 miles away. They clashed often for both were strong-willed, with the result that my father would storm off to sea leaving my grandfather to brood in his absence.

            The old man was beginning to lose it but was unwilling to give up the reins - a common enough situation on the farms of Ireland back then, probably still is today.

            But that’s just the background, the memory is of an early summer’s morning when my father, my brother and I drove fifty or more prime bullocks from the windswept farm to the rich pastures outside Wexford, where they would fatten until the fall before being shipped to Birkenhead for slaughter.

            I was probably eleven years of age, my brother, Jimmy, ten. Strange how huge livestock could be afraid of such tiny drovers, but we wielded our sticks with authority and weren’t shy about whacking an errant bullock on the behind.

            We set off at dawn for it was imperative to get as much of the twelve miles covered while traffic was light. My father drove a grey Volkswagen ahead of the herd while Jimmy and I brought up the rear. Bullocks are stupid but they can be curious too and often wished to make the acquaintance of their peers who watched them pass from behind ditch and fence.

            My father knew all the broken gates and loose palings, and lined up the car beside them; then when the herd had passed, he’d rev up that bug and inch forward to lead the way again.

            The morning was glorious - thrush and lark serenaded us as we passed through land that had been fought over by every invader who ever set foot in Ireland. The roads were narrow and we moved uneventfully with many the wave from laborer’s cottage and farmhouse.

            But our trial came at the village of Killinick on the main road from Rosslare Harbor where we hit traffic arriving off the boat from Le Havre. Many the speeding German and French automobile was stopped in its tracks and forced to fall into convoy behind the ambling herd. A number of motorists jumped out to take pictures of the pint-size herders, but Jimmy and I paid them no heed, though secretly we were chuffed.

            We crossed over Killinick railway bridge then up the steep hill, thirty or more cars straggling in our wake, until we made it to the winding back roads that led to the farm outside Wexford.

            I still retain a sense of power of the land that struck me on that dewy morning. Politicians and priests may think they control it, but they’re just transient possessors. The land endures - or does it?

            Some years later, after another row, my father stormed back to sea, my grandfather died soon thereafter, and the beautiful farm outside Wexford Town was swallowed up in a miasma of housing estates.

            The other farm still stands; I occasionally stroll its salty beaches and look for two worried boys watching a father swim out to sea - when spring unleashes memories.

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