An Intervention 1
Finally summer, long anticipated, much craved, arrived, and the annual trip to Westport drew closer. A month free from school and homework, to play on the beach on the wild Connaught shore, to wade in the stream in front of the cottage, to wander the boreens that wound hither and thither. In history class earlier that year, Stephen had learned of Cromwell’s order to the native Irish to get “to Hell or to Connaught!”. Move to the poor and barren lands west of the Shannon, the dictator declaimed in 1652, or be slaughtered by his marauding army. The teacher had described it as a Hobson’s choice, that is, no choice at all, and one was near as bad as the other. But to Stephen’s eye, Connaught was a paradise. The landscape hid magic in its seams and folds. The roads wound, serpent-like, round hills and lakes, through forested valleys and narrow gaps in mountains. Goats stood on rocky outcrops and kept guard over the passing traffic. The dips and hollows held ghosts of rebels and brigands, ever ready to descend upon the invader.
The appointed Saturday soon arrived, and they all piled into the car and started out on the long journey west, Stephen and his brothers James and Andrew squirming and fighting in the back while Mammy, the baby on her lap ,took the front passenger seat. They rolled through the monotonous Midlands, field after bright green field of neatly drilled crops or grazing cattle, town after dusty town of low-browed, suspicious shopfronts. Then, as the boredom threatened to become unbearable, the arrived at the bridge at Termonbarry. Here Daddy let them out to stretch their legs and gaze at the Shannon,. “Longest river in the Ireland - huh!”, James scoffed, and they agreed it wasn’t half as impressive as their own mighty Liffey. Daddy was in a good mood and bought them each an ice-pop, and a choc ice for himself and Mammy. Then refreshed and renewed, they crossed over into Connaught.
Almost immediately, the landscape began to change. Stone walls meandered the hillsides, collapsing here and there into piles of rocks. Bright furze dotted the fields. Ponds and lakes gathered in the valleys. Mammy started to recognise pubs at obscure crossroads or along tree-lined, narrow roads. Her long dead father had been a travelling salesman with a fondness for the drink, and he often took his favourite daughter with him on his trips. She began to repeat her tales, of ring forts desecrated and the fairys’ grisly revenge, of men guilty of obscure moral failings found hanging in the woods, of the coffin train from Achill carrying the bodies of drowned sailors. Even as she talked her accent softened, losing the respectable Dublin modulation she cultivated, as she lapsed back into the rural Mayo of her childhood.
Just past Castlebar, they saw a travellers’ caravan on fire, the flames shooting 20 feet into the air, and not a soul to be seen around it. Their mother told them that it was their tradition. When an important traveller died, his relatives burned the caravan, and everything in it.
Finally, after three or four hours in the car they crested a hill and Westport lay below them. First stop was Aunt Mary’s on the Castlebar Road. They unwound from the car and accepted an invitation into the little kitchen behind the shop. Stephen and his cousin Kevin were the same age, and every year they resumed their friendship as if they had seen each other only yesterday rather than nearly a year ago.
After an hour or so, they all piled back into the car and drive the short distance to Bridge Street. They filed through the narrow shop where their taciturn Grandad, their father’s father, stood watch. In the back kitchen their Granny greeting them affectionately, calling them ‘agradh’, the Irish word for darling. Though wheelchair bound. Granny ruled the kitchen and manoeuvred deftly as she threw a heavy kettle onto the range. Soon the tea was made, and Aunts and cousins crowded in, as news of their arrival spread.
Finally, as evening approached, they made their goodbyes, and drove out past the derelict warehouses on the quays, following the rocky coastline out towards Croagh Patrick, the holy mountain all the Westport relatives called the Reek. Just past the inn from where the pilgrimages started, they turned right into a boreen about after half a mile in length, and arrived at the high gates that marked the entrance to an estate. James, being the oldest, jumped out to open them and they drove down a fuchsia lined driveway, past a large house, and onto a lane leading to the sea. Here, three whitewashed cottages stood facing the stream which dissected the property.
Finally, after the rows over who took what bed were settled and a visit to the scary outside toilet, they succumbed to the exhaustion of the day, and quickly fell asleep. The next morning was bright and sunny, a good omen. The tiny church at the top of the reek was clearly visible, and the boys donned their wellies and began to reacquaint themselves with their summer playground. Later that afternoon, leaving James in charge, Mammy drove Daddy back to Westport to catch the last train to Dublin so he could go to work in the morning. They would not see him again until the following Saturday, when Mammy collected him from the train. This had been the practice over the past several years they summered here.
The days soon morphed into one another so that they rarely knew what day it was, Only the arrival of their father from Dublin each Saturday separated one week from the other. Their dailly routine was the same. They would get dressed, put on their wellies, and fetch a bucket of water from the well. Milk for the cornflakes came from their landlady's cows. Then they would be free to roam, to explore the fields, to create paper sailboats and race them down the stream. They would fight pitched battles on the gorse choked hill behind the stream, using hurleys as rifles. They would try to steal honey from the nest in the dead tree in the orchard, and come away with nothing more than a few stings. They would try to ride the unbudging donkey in the field beside the sea.
In the evenings they would see the lights illuminating the windows of cottages on Clare Island, and wonder about the people there. Mammy told them stories of the famous pirate queen Grainne Mhaol, known in English as Grace O'Malley, who lived in a castle on the island, and who had met Queen Elizabeth 1st on equal terms. Mammy said that her mother had been an O'Malley, which made her a descendant of Grainne Mhaol. Stephen didn't doubt it, since his mother could be quite fierce too.
Every couple of days or so they would all pile into the car and drive to Westport so Mammy could do a bit of shopping. Stephen would hook up with Kevin and explore the Altamont wood, or try to walk across the slippery waterfall below the bridge. James and Andrew would take up with older cousins from the Newport Road and do things far too sophisticated to be discussed with a baby like Stephen.
Coming back to the cottage after a few such trips, Mammy started to chew over remarks Auntie Mary or Auntie Brigid had made. “’Isn’t Joey great’”, she would quote sarcastically, “’giving you all a great holiday, while he slaves away up in Dublin’”. “You’d swear the sun shined out his backside”. “Hasn’t he done great for himself, with his big job in the civil service.’” she would repeat in a wheedling voice. “No ‘Aren’t you great, looking after a baby and three kids all by yourself in a cottage with no running water, having to wash clothes in a stream.”
Every morning they would gaze up at the Reek – if you could see the tiny rectangle of the church at its peak they would have a good day, and might even get to have a swim. Mammy would bring a blanket to the little beach and happily chat to the occupants of the other cottages, if there were any, dangling the baby on her lap, or dipping her feet in the bubbling surf.
One day a dog followed them home – they three boys had walked to the top of the boreen to buy some lamb chops from the van that served as a travelling butcher’s shop, calling to the various houses and cottages along this stretch of the bay. They had paid the poor beast some attention while waiting their turn to buy meat, and that seemed to have enamoured them to it. Mammy had always been a collector of strays, Their house in Dublin always contained at least one dog, as well as a cat, a budgie, and for a short while a rabbit, so she did not object when they named it Skippy, and made a bed for it in the woodshed at the side of the house. The next day they took it running in the boreen. Then something frightening happened. A dog from another farm along the boreen jumped on Skippy’s back and twisted around. Then the two dogs seemed to get stuck together. They tried to pull them apart, even hitting them with sticks, but nothing worked. Then the farmer came out with a bucket of water and threw it over the two of them. They yelped, and sprang apart.
When they got home, they told their mother what had happened, and a funny look came over her face. She told them all to get in the car, dog and all, and she drove a few miles in the direction of Louisburgh. At the side of a bog, with no houses visible in either direction, she stopped the car and told then to put the dog out. Then, against their protestations, which she silenced with an angry bark, she made a u-turn and drove back to the cottage.