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Remembrance of Things Past

For a long time, for me, July was always associated with childhood holidays to Bettystown, a seaside village 30 miles north of Dublin, much changed in the 50-odd years since. Then, half our circle of family and friends – cousins, close neighbours, various dogs and cats – would decamp to the rented holiday houses we’d live in for that feral month, creating memories that bring a smile to this day. Long swims in the sea, dar-dar in the burrows (cops and robbers to you, perhaps), pillow fights and midnight feasts, games of spin-the bottle and tennis marathons played out on rickety grass courts; the days went on and on, the memories for even longer.

Those holiday memories were, I think, the greatest gift our parents gave us. They provided us - two boys, three girls – with many shared moments of laughter and recollection, and forged a bond between us that remains unshaken.

It can’t have been too much fun for my mother. I have no idea how she and Dad coped with the five of us and the afore-mentioned pets (one year we had to bring new-born kittens with us when Tomser turned out to be Thomasina). There was no hot water, for starters. The kitchen was tiny and it was long before washing machines. I have no recollection of the lines of (hand)washing there must have been, or kettles being boiled for dishes to be washed. I remember her scrubbing our little heads in the rainwater tank out the back, a massive stone creation that always seemed to have tiny little red things swimming in it. It was freezing cold and I hated the red thread-like creatures but she said it would be good for our hair and give it a nice shine. I think it was and it did, but I still shudder at that memory.

The years since created other July memories in another place when, as adults, we would get together (as many of us who could) in July in Alliihies on the Beara peninsula. We’d stay in grander, rented houses that my mother could only have dreamed of in the Bettystown days, enjoy tea-time pints and take turns to cook the communal dinner. My nephews and nieces grew up with new memories (and my own children to a lesser extent as we didn’t get over as often as I would have liked) and would create their own summer rituals. Over the years, the place and the people came to have the same significance for me as Bettystown did to my younger self.

There is another reason while Allihies and July will always be inextricably linked in my heart. My eldest brother Dave died while there, on 14th July 2007 and was buried in the village churchyard. When, six months later, our brother Peter died, we brought his ashes to lie in Dave’s grave. Three and a half years after that, on 24th July 2011, our youngest sister Sheila died and there was only one place to bring her ashes, and that was the same churchyard in the village. Five months later, my last remaining sister, Linda, died and her ashes lie there too, now (as do Sheila’s husband’s, Joe's, who died a year and a half after her.) My mother, bless her, also died in July, the 8th, in 2004.

So July, for me, is freighted with many emotions and in a strange way I wouldn’t be without them. Our memories become part of us, make us into the people we become, and if, in acknowledging, the joy I also conjure up the sorrow, then so be it. I’ll take that. 

Here is my poem to them and to Allihies:

ALLIHIES FLOWERS

The hills, weathered grey and downy brown
by ancient rock and moss stand sentinel
along the way. The hedgerows have shut up shop
but there are still a few dishevelled lemons
and oranges among the sensible greens. One last
turn where white caps roll into the bay
then you face the guardians of this place:
the Caha and the Goula, Slieve Miskish mountains.

 There is a certain peace among the stones
that stand above you now. I’m grateful for
the quiet air, the distant rolling of the tide.
Here’s some monbretia, feileastram dearg,
gathered from the roadside for your graves.
Monbretia. I never knew their name before;
called them Allihies flowers until you told me.
There’s some in our back garden, too, stowaways
across the sea that fell in Shropshire soil.
They are keepsakes of that place of high sorrow,
the precious ground of home that holds you all.

 Here’s some monbretia, feilestram dearg,
gathered from the roadside for your graves.
I’ll scatter them for you here and there
until my bones lie down along with yours.


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