Thank you 190 – Tony

Well it’s been a while. There have been days when I’ve thought about another thank you. But it just seemed too hard. In a world as crazy as the one we currently find ourselves in, sometimes it is too hard to find the gratitude. Or the news is too interesting or there are dishes to be done or meetings to attend or visitors to entertain. And finding five minutes to write is a challenge.

But there are other days. More auspicious ones. Where you can only be grateful and remember. A feast of memories. And so it begins.

An Intermediate Certificate mock history paper. Eight sections. You completed three. C – Renaissance and Reformation. D – 19th century. F – Modern History. You didn’t do the other five sections. Unless you did. You recalled facts on history you’d never learned. And your error was shared with the class. To great hilarity. But you didn’t make the same mistake when it came to the real exam. And you dropped history immediately thereafter.

You made other choices after the Inter Cert. And the choices you made were polar opposites to some of your classmates so you ended up in a group of 26 who spent varying amounts of time together. So we shared only the non essentials. Like Civics and Religion. You knew yourself better and chose wisely. Art and Technical Drawing. I chose less wisely. History and Accounting. 

I don’t recall too many conversations in that old classroom on the rare occasions we were both there at the same time. It seems there were brief moments where I remember a quiet comment coming from a far corner. A comment that made me laugh. Made me notice. Something somewhere. A connection.

I do remember sitting on my parents’ kitchen counter trying to talk someone out of taking my parents’ car the night we over celebrated leaving school. 17 and 18 and 19 year olds in a parent free house too early in the morning. I don’t know if I ever told you that the keys were in the drawer under where I sat. That I knew they were there though I’d sworn they weren’t. I remember the start of tension brewing in that kitchen and, I don’t know how you did it, but you read the situation and diffused it. And I don’t remember ever thanking you.

I remember Joanne being born and a quiet conversation in the loudness of a Charlestown disco. I remember Aengus stretched out in a hospital bed and you in another one. Two future professional cyclists knocked out before they had a chance to shine.

I remember friendship growing between two families and nights out that still make me smile. Or cringe.

I remember a quarry. 

And being hungover at Mass. And Elaine Kilcoyne’s wedding. When we thought we were all grown up because one of us had gotten married.

I remember us seeing Tony Burke and Anne Ryan together for the first time.  In Toffs. That was the night of the quarry.

I remember more weddings. And nieces. Lots of nieces. 

I remember the week the Germans came to Tubbercurry. And sitting round the table in the back of Nathys on the Thursday night of music week with Maureen and Clare Duffy and the Germans and you arrived in with a Donegal woman. She was quiet. But I remember liking her.

I remember another wedding. In Moville. And the piss being taken out of most people. And the news breaking about the imminent arrival of another niece. 

I remember walking down The Rocks in Sydney and hearing a laugh that makes you feel good emanate through an open window in a nearby pub and turning to Kai and saying “he’s in there.” And Kai didn’t know how I knew. Not then he didn’t. He would now.

I remember nights in Germany.

 I remember years of story telling.  And jokes half told. Where the punchline gets lost in gales of laughter. 

I remember nights in Donegal. Four of us squeezed into one hotel room. And nobody sleeping. Just laughter and more story telling.

I remember sadness being eased by your presence. And joy being accentuated by it.

I remember 30 year reunions and the questioning looks of some who didn’t know we’d found each other just as our schooling ended and our lives began.

I remember most of it. But especially the quarry.

Thanks for being my friend and happy, happy birthday, Tony

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Thank you 189 – Ríonach

It was cold in that hallway. Always cold.

You’d stand there with a coat or two on. And a scarf. Your gloved fingers fumbling with coins and A buttons or B buttons. You didn’t make many calls. You didn’t receive many either. You were easier to find in The Palace Bar where your mother could leave a message and John or Liam or David would tell you to call your mum or your mother or your Ma when you’d invariably drop in.

But you got one call in that hallway that you still remember. One you were expecting. One you’d hung around that hallway waiting for. And when it came on the 19th December 1995 you didn’t care that it was a cool, wet miserable day with an easterly wind and no sunshine recorded. Anywhere. On the entire island. Except maybe in that cold hallway. When the news came that a child had been born.

It was cold that December in New York. Always cold.

You’d need two or three coats. And a scarf. And a hat or two. Your gloved fingers fumbling with coins but no A buttons or B buttons. You didn’t make many calls that trip. You’d emailed lots. Long, rambling emails about the things you saw and the thoughts you had. Phone calls though? You weren’t making any of them.

But you found yourself on the 19th December 2002 with a pile of quarters in a phone box. Shivering. Until a seven year old voice came down the line and agreed that yes, today might be her birthday and yes, it would be Christmas next week. And when you told her how lucky she was, she told you, in no uncertain terms, that yes, she gets one good week and the rest of the year is shit. And a little ray of sunshine warmed through your layers and you laughed until the tears froze on your cheek.

It’s warm today in Melbourne. Not exceptionally so but warm enough. The clock has ticked over on the other side of the world where a now 21 year old is probably sleeping. It’s a little too early to ring. But there will be a call. There will be no fumbling with coins and certainly no A or B buttons.

But there will be laughter. And there will be warmth. Here where it is warm. And there where it isn’t. Lots of warmth. And laughter. And love.

Thanks, Ríonach.

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Thank you 189 – Ríonach

It was cold in that hallway. Always cold. 

You’d stand there with a coat or two on. And a scarf. Your gloved fingers fumbling with coins and A buttons or B buttons. You didn’t make many calls. You didn’t receive many either. You were easier to find in The Palace Bar where your mother could leave a message and John or Liam or David would tell you to call your mum or your mother or your Ma when you’d invariably drop in. 

But you got one call in that hallway that you still remember. One you were expecting. One you’d hung around that hallway waiting for. And when it came on the 19th December 1995 you didn’t care that it was a cool, wet miserable day with an easterly wind and no sunshine recorded. Anywhere. On the entire island. Except maybe in that cold hallway. When the news came that a child had been born. 

It was cold that December in New York. Always cold.

You’d need two or three coats. And a scarf. And a hat or two. Your gloved fingers fumbling with coins but no A buttons or B buttons. You didn’t make many calls that trip. You’d emailed lots. Long, rambling emails about the things you saw and the thoughts you had. Phone calls though? You weren’t making any of them.

But you found yourself on the 19th December 2002 with a pile of quarters in a phone box. Shivering. Until a seven year old voice came down the libe and agreed that yes, today might be her birthday and yes, it would be Christmas next week. And when you told her how lucky she was, she told you, in no uncertain terms, that yes, she gets one good week and the rest of the year is shit. And a little ray of sunshine warmed through your layers and you laughed until the tears froze on your cheek.

It’s warm today in Melbourne. Not exceptionally so but warm enough. The clock has ticked over on the other side of the world where a now 21 year old is probably sleeping. It’s a little too early to ring. But there will be a call. There will be no fumbling with coins and certainly no A or B buttons.

But there will be laughter. And there will be warmth. Here where it is warm. And there where it isn’t. Lots of warmth. And laughter. And love.

Thanks, Ríonach.

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Thank you 188 – Sligo Central Library

Once upon a time there was a world filled with magic.

It was unexpected, that world. Hidden on a busy street behind an iron gate. In my memory, the railings of that gate were painted white. Not a pristine white. More grubby from years of manhandling and exhaust fumes filled with lead and other things that do you harm. Flaking paint that might rub off in your hand as you touched it. But you didn’t care about the gate. 

There was a path leading to a door. A big door. You’d skip up the path with your pigtails swinging as you went. Your scuffed shoes kicking up the loose gravel as you went. Your heart thumping with excitement for you knew the treasures that lay just through that door.

You didn’t stop to appreciate the architecture. You didn’t stop to think that the building had stood since the 1790s. You didn’t gaze at its stone or its high arched windows. You didn’t think of the many thousands who had walked this path before you. Or the many thousands that would come after you. You didn’t care about any of that. You didn’t know that a hundred years earlier some smart thinking people had made a decision to put a public service in place for the people of your county. That they were only the second smart thinking people on the whole island of Ireland to decide this might be a good thing for the local people. You didn’t care about any of that. You just knew that someone somewhere had stocked this magical place just for you. 

So you’d get to that big door. And you’d stop. Take a deep breath. Walk in. Turn. Into the magic.

The things you learned there. Practical things. Like how to tiptoe. Or how to stretch . Or to step on one shelf and hold your balance on another so that you could stretch further. How to be quiet. Really, really quiet. How to make a decision when you were faced with a thousand choices. How to pick things perhaps a little inappropriate. How to visit faraway places. Just by turning a page. How to be responsible. How to treat public property. How to queue. How to understand you’d grown. Just a little bit but enough that you didn’t need to stretch so far this time.

And when you’d grown as much as you would ever grow you found yourself back in that magical place. Smaller than you remembered but just as magical. And you watched a new generation learning. Just as you had and just as you hoped many thousands yet to be born would also.

You haven’t been back there in a long, long time. Twenty something posts ago you remembered another magical place that was threatened by closure. But what you didn’t say then was that there was another magical place. Your first one.

You never forget your first one. Your once upon a time. You hope it lives happily ever after.

Thanks, Sligo Central Library

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Thank you 187 – the Managing Director

You can’t help but think of what you were doing this time that time five years ago.

You have to do the maths first. If it’s 8am here it’s still yesterday there. And you were in Furey’s having a quiet pint. If it’s 7pm here it’s 10am there and you were grabbing a quick shower. When it’s almost tomorrow here it’s coming up to 3pm there and you remember exactly where you were. You can see yourself. What you were wearing. What the weather was like. The sounds of life on the street below. The silence within you. When in an instant the life you knew was gone. Just. Like. That.

You remember what came after. You often think of it. But you remember more what came before. Not all of it, admittedly. But the important bits, you remember those. And some of the not so important bits as well.

The embarrassment of her standing at the end of the dance hall. Ten minutes before you were due to be collected. In a knitted coat and a wooly hat. Mortification. 

Those green trousers. Like she was a 4th generation Yank on a mission to reconnect. Mortification.

The laugh that turned into a snort. Mortification. For her.

Passing a lit cigarette at a wedding so that Dad wouldn’t know she was smoking. Then realising she had passed it to her daughter who definitely shouldn’t have been smoking. Mortification. For everyone.

Learning that gin cured all ills. But not yet having learned to drink it without ice and mixed with water.

Marvelling at an ability to walk in high heels. And knit like a whirlwind. And knock up a frock on a sewing machine before dinner. And make a dinner that tasted better than anything else. Ever.

Learning how to set a table. To put cups on saucers and milk in a jug. To spread a tablecloth and have matching crockery. To look in disdain at a neighbour who assumed visitors were expected. And to mutter under your breath that this was how we always set for tea. Mortification. For him.

Being introduced to rugby. And loving it. 

Watching snooker and tennis and horse racing and football and hurling and the Winter and Summer Olympics. And Dad laughing at any ice-skater or gymnast who took a tumble and her telling him, with a look, that his behaviour just wasn’t on.

That look. Everyone got it. Everyone deserved it. Everyone moved on. Until the next time. Mortification. For everyone.

Giving directions. Literally and figuratively. She was good at that. And if you took a wrong turn that was nobody’s fault but your own. But she’d still give you more directions. Dad referred to her as “the managing director”. He was right.

For the laughter, the living, the learning and the loving. And even for the mortification.

Thanks, the Managing Director. 

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Thank you 186- Uncle John

“Who wants  to see Dublin?” he’d ask. And the children would giggle hysterically and yell, “me, me, me.” 

We’d be down in the dining room. Lined up like the silly school children we were. Jumping up and down with excitement beside the bar heater that scalded the side of your calf and left the rest of you frozen. “I want see Dublin,” we’d shout. “Me, me, me.”

You could hardly contain yourself when you got picked. Two strong hands cupped around your ears. Then you’d feel it. 

The lift. As your little feet left the ground and you rose higher and higher. You’d swear you saw Dublin. Every single time. There was no fear. You never worried your head might fall off. Or he’d let go of your ears so that you’d go tumbling to the ground. Or that your mother would come in and put a stop to the whole dangerous thing. You were seeing Dublin. Safe in the hands of your big, strong Uncle John.

You’d never admit it but you were always a little disappointed on the days he’d be gone to a match. Or the evenings he’d be out at a meeting. You’d cross your little fingers and hope that nobody would mention going home before he got back. Not just because you wanted to see Dublin. Mostly because you wanted to see him. Your big, strong Uncle John.

He stopped lifting you up to Dublin a couple of years after you got too big to lift. And too soon after that you were seeing Dublin for real and seeing Uncle John far less often. And even though he was shorter than you now, he was still your big, strong Uncle John.

You saw him cry when his mother died. Quiet tears. Strong tears. And you saw him share a quiet word with friends and family and neighbours who had come to mourn with him. And a strong handshake. And a smile. And a quiet realisation that he was now the head. The patriarch. The first of the next generation. The shortest one. The one we all looked up to.

You allowed the years go by without seeing him as often as you should. On your brief soujourns back to Ireland your mother would quietly ask if you intended seeing your Uncle John. And you always intended to but sometimes you let other things get in your way. And sometimes you didn’t. So you’d find yourself on the Main Street in Athleague watching him at work. Sneaking you a Club Orange. Buying you a pint in the pub. Walking with two sticks by then. He was still your big, strong Uncle John.

You saw him cry again when your mother died. And three too short months later when his sister died. You marvelled at his strength. At how despite his dodgy leg he stood by that coffin. Your big, strong Uncle John. 

And in the years that have passed since you’ve seen a little more of him. Not enough but a little. On each soujourn now he’s on the list of must sees. You’ve spent your first Christmas together. Watched him taste his first prawn. Seen him accept a gluten free diet after 80 plus years of loving white sliced bread. Smoked too many fags with him. Covered your ears at the loudness of his telly and given up on showing him how the subtitles work. Refused to discuss politics with him. Revelled in listening to his memories. Loved introducing him to your friends. Enjoyed every second you’ve spent with him. Your big, strong Uncle John.

There’s a part of you that would love to go back to that dining room. To be that little girl again. To feel those young, warm hands cup your ears and lift you up to see Dublin. And while you can’t do that, you can remember. And smile.

For not ripping my head off by the neck, for always being my big, strong Uncle John. 

Thanks, Uncle John.

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Thank you 185 – trees and poles and a little boy

What with Brexit and Australian elections and Republican conventions and leadership challenges and coups, news feeds and blogs and social media have been full of all things political. This is not a political memory but it starts like one.

Between June 1981 and November 1982 the good voters of Ireland were subjected to not two, but three general elections. It was the days of Garrett Fitzgerald and Charlie Haughey and some now forgotten leader of the Irish Labour Party. 

History books tell us those were dark, uncertain days. Perhaps no darker nor uncertain than the days we now find ourselves in but a different kind of dark. An uncertainty of another hue. And those of us who have lived through both the now and the then know that it’s not about what the history books say. It’s about how you live and, eventually, about how you remember.

When you go upstairs in 25 Ballina Road and look out the front window nothing and everything has changed. The lawn has been paved and filled with plants. There’s a tree on this side where there was first no tree and then a sapling. It’s full with leaf now and so dense barely a chink of light gets through. 

But there’s another tree. Across the road. A strong, majestic horse chestnut that was there before you were born and will likely be still there long after you’re gone. You think it hasn’t grown for it’s always been at least three times bigger than you. It’s the sense of continuity on the Ballina Road. Where in the 40 odd years you’ve known it – it’s good to know that amidst all the changes, some things have a solidity to them. So when you look out the window and think of all those that have gone you can remember them as they were when you and the tree were young.

There’s an electricity pole beside the tree. It’s more hidden than it used to be. Because when you cut down a tree it stops growing. 

In the early hours of some long forgotten morning an erstwhile Fianna Fáil lackey got out a ladder and stuck the face of the party leader on that pole. Not an election promise, not even a local candidate but the hawk eyed face of one Charlie Haughey staring in the bedroom window of the children of another Charlie Haughey. And if it confused the children in that bedroom it confused an even smaller child growing up beside the tree even more. 

When you’re two or three years of age the world is both simpler and more complex than it may ever be again. So the Charlie on the poster and the Charlie across the road may have coalesced into one. And the small child , smaller than the gate whose bars he held so tightly, would shout hello to his neighbour. Every day. Every time. “Charlie Haughey up the pole.” Long after the poster had disappeared a little voice would call across the street. “Charlie Haughey up the pole.”

And the small child, like the tree, grew up. Out of his short pants and his Popeye the Sailorman tee-shirt. Went to school. Moved across the road. Got siblings. Learned the flute. Discovered photography. Lost his hair. Changed careers. Found red wine. Joined a band. Met a girl.

When you go back now to the Ballina Road and think of the changes time has wrought it could sadden you. Until you see the tree and the pole and you remember a little boy who always made you smile.

Thanks, trees and poles and a little boy.

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