If it is mathematically possible for a square to be the centre of anything, then Liberty Square is the centre of Thurles. It is not, in fact, square-shaped – it is much more of a rectangle. Doubtless, the Christian Brothers’ geometry book with its shiny, smelly pages, its spindly drawings and its baffling theorems would have supplied the exact term for it among its heptagons and trapezoids and isosceles triangles. As I passed over the Suir Bridge at the end of the Square, I was often tempted to throw pons asinorum and its fellow-theorems into the river. Only the fact that the book needed to be sold or passed on to a younger sibling would have deterred me.
Apart from Maths and Science, I suffered the curricular subjects – and Latin and English in particular – gladly enough. But as the final examinations came to an end, and ecstasy and optimism began to supplant pessimism and dread, the watery grave I had wished on my geometry book was actually inflicted on some hated poetry books by my vengeful classmates. Immediately after the English exam, a ‘post-mortem’ took place as answers were compared; then a noisy funeral service ensued, during which honours editions of Milton and Wordsworth were cheered on their final journey over the railings and into Spenser’s ‘gentle’ Suir. I felt like a man at a hanging, afraid to provoke the crowd by admitting to being a friend of the accused.
A town that calls a rectangle a square may be out of line in other respects also. In the matter of saluting friends and acquaintances, things are somewhat backward. The answer precedes the question.
‘’Well’, someone will begin.
‘How ya?’, his friend will respond.
And those buses parked each Saturday in the Square – what on earth is a yellow bus marked ‘Heathrow’ or a more sedate one announcing ‘Welsh Valley Tours’ doing there? Is the town a Bermudan Triangle for buses? Or an unlikely tourist destination? Ask the driver and his French-like Tipperary ‘r’s will admit that his secondhand bus is destined for nowhere more exotic than Drangan or Drombane.
The Welsh Valley bus is crammed with plastic carrier bags rather than suitcases. The Heathrow bus is having a new lease of life among the minor roads of Tipperary, paying unconscious tribute to Tony Ryan, the Thurles man who got Guinness Peat Aviation off the ground.
Thurles has had other aberrations on offer also – the New Cinema, for instance. How could such a building – obviously well into its maturity – be called ‘new’?? We were perplexed when the teacher posed this challenge to our ten year-old brains, until I triumphantly ventured ‘Because it was new when it got the name. Sir’. Knowing that my grandmother numbered women called Baby and Babs among her friends and coevals helped me to intuit the answer.
The films that were shown in Thurles’s two cinemas (the Capitol being the alternative venue) weren’t exactly new either and I remember being treated to Sunday matinées of Old Mother Reilly who had stomped straight out of the ‘Film Fun’ comics of my father’s generation. I also recall some pathetic film or other being trumpeted on the basis of ‘Last Showing in Ireland’, which I recognised even then as a pretty desperate advertising strategy.
The house I grew up in with two sisters and three brothers, isolated but not far from the town, is called ‘Galtee View’, though I’m by no means sure that the dim range of upland to be seen from its bay windows is in fact the Galtees. A Trade Descriptions Act would have a difficult time around Thurles. What is beyond conjecture – and beyond description is the peculiar smell that every wind brought us from the sugar factory in the distance. That fermenting smell can never be dislodged from the memory of any Thurlesian, nor can the sight of the pale, parsnip-like sugar beets that would tumble from overloaded trucks.
The sugar factory offered work during its ‘campaign’ to temporary staff. In the summer, those in search of casual work could turn to the bogs a few miles from the town. ‘Footing’ turf quickly exhausted the townies who tried it and most of us had to draw on fictional resources to conjure up the early start, the twittering lark, the blue sky, the implements, the hard work, the compensatory bag of delicious food as we struggled to satisfy our teachers’ perennial appetite for an essay about ‘A Day on the Bog’. Sods of rich brittle turf – barm bracks in which real gold might be found buried – would be dislodged at crossroads and sharp bends alongside sugar beets; and old men would hobble out from town to gather them. It’s not surprising that the German artist, Joseph Beuys, should have smeared some nutritious-looking peat briquettes with butter during an Irish visit and regarded them as works of art. Man does not live by bread alone!
Work was an awesome concept as one reached the final year at school. A good Leaving Cert would mean a ‘call to training’ from one of the teacher colleges in Dublin or Limerick or entry as a ‘Junior Ex’ in the Civil Service – short, a better life than bog or sugar factory seemed destined to offer. As I learned the chief industries of Norway or the odes of Keats by heart, I knew that everything in my future depended on my studies. As an added incentive, a tongue-biting teacher would occasionally demonstrate the effects of a thick leather strap on thin pink skin. One of the Christian Brothers admonished us:
‘Christian Brothers’ boys don’t fall in for money or businesses like boys from richer backgrounds. You will have to work for a living’.
The Christian Brothers’ school which I attended until – barely 16 1/2 – I sat my Leaving Cert exams in 1970, was actually a more mixed school than that Brother seemed to realise. Not ‘mixed’ in sexual terms – I hadn’t encountered a female teacher or pupil within its precincts – but ‘mixed’ in the socio- economic sense. The sons of doctors and bank managers and ‘strong’ farmers carved their names in the old wooden benches alongside those from poorer backgrounds. The name ‘Ryan’ crossed the class barrier and had to be qualified in some way. ‘Which Ryan is he?’ , an adult would be heard asking. And back would come his verbal identification tag – he would prove to be Ryan Sweep, Ryan Bishop, Ryan Fox, Ryan Linnet or some other Ryan from the litany or menagerie of possibilities.
While the school undoubtedly offered more equality and fraternity (whatever about liberty) than might be found in most city establishments, it would be wrong to pretend that snobbery was unknown. Its nuances were communicated by those parents who urged their children to shun friends who came from mere terraces rather than from individually-named bungalows. A few parents sent their sons and daughters to more sophisticated schools in the final year or two, hoping – vainly, in both senses of the word – that boarding school would add a patina of polish to their dull surfaces. During one of our ‘religion’ classes in a dusty, partitioned, creosote-floored room at the top of a stairs that would barely suffice as a fire-escape, a Brother was doling out advice: ‘Don’t dream of marrying a girl from a better-off background than your own – it’ll never work out. A girl from a poorer family will easily rise to your level’.
Although things became more flexible under the headmastership of Brother Peter Guilfoyle, an inspiring and cultivated man, the commitment to Gaelic games demanded of the school’s pupils was enormous. The Gaelic Athletic Association had, after all, been founded at Hayes’s Hotel down the street. And we regularly enjoyed half-days from school when Tipperary hurlers were indomitable and former pupils like Jimmy Doyle had come to annually display the All-Ireland cup. Some cheered for Jimmy, a few of us for the half-day. I was one of the dissidents who attended national hurling games in the towp only to watch the three-card-trick man’s dazzling dexterity or to listen to the hawkers (‘Ice-cream. Suir Valley Ice-Cream. The last few tubs of ices now’) and showmen (‘Come on and have a go with your old friend Joe; your mother won’t know and I won’t tell her’).
There was a hurling field, Kickham Park, next to our house. I had been kitted out with a beautifully-grained hurley and O’Neill boots. My elder brother kept back-issues of Gaelic Weekly. Past games could be relived in a wallpaper sampler that was kept as a scrapbook for G.A.A. cuttings in our sitting room. But some genetic freak (for there were hurling fanatics on both sides of the family) rendered me useless and, worse, indifferent when it came to hurling. I would make one or two asthmatic runs after a ball to stay warm during school sports sessions in the railway field. After a few wild swipes at the air with my
stick (more Christy Mahon than Mahon than Christy Ring), I’d be met by cries of by of ‘Keep out of the way, Driscoll’ s from a contemptuous full forward and I’d retreat towards the sideline and my friend, John Hickey. John, like a number of students in the school. came from the the Kilkenny side of the border and so, might have seemed less friend than foe to those who viewed the world in hurling terms.
It was with John Hickey that I slipped away from the school crowd as we were being marched to ‘games’ one afternoon, the way we had marched in pairs to confession when younger. John and I took our places in the public seating of the courthouse near the school. We had an absorbing afternoon watching neighbours accusing each other and witnesses contradicting each other. What didn’t know was that the rain had begun pouring even more heavily than normal and that the class had returned to the schoolroom. ‘It was then (and only then!) that we were missed. In my speech for the defence next morning, I said that I’d gone to the court because I was hoping to make a career of the law when I left school. A grudging reprieve was granted and I later fulfilled my undertaking to study Law.
When club games were held in Kickham Park, it was, once again, the peripheral excitement rather than the sport that would entice me from our back garden. If I wasn’t standing behind one of the goal posts acting as a kind of ball boy. I’d be tormenting the man who sold fruit, chocolate and minerals from a van that seemed as ancient as himself: ‘Have you any turnips there, Danny? I’d ask, thinking I was the soul of hilarity. One night after a game, Danny offered a lift to a player who was walking the mile or so back to the town. ‘No thanks, Danny’, the player answered, charily eyeing the van, ‘I’m in a bit of a hurry’.
The teams’ supporters would be hoarse with shouting ‘Go at em like tarriers’ or ‘Keep the ball on the ground’ and rushing all over the place with bottles of water and bandages and oranges. As the tussle between the teams intensified, the language would become less sporting and, at one time, a painted sign stood at the end of the field insisting in large, hand-shaped letters: ‘NO CURSING, by order of the Committee’. I represented the Kickhams’ own team in 1966 and actually won a silver medal – not for hurling, needless to say, but for verse-speaking. I declaimed poetry from the back of a truck in Templemore, having reached the final of a festival of sports and culture in honour of Thomas McDonagh, the Tipperary-born poet who had been executed fifty years before. My twelve year-old mug scowled out of a number of newspapers and and I was mocked both within and without the family for my fey accomplishment.
Of the sights to be witnessed on the way home from school, none was more startling than that to be seen at the front of Danny, the van driver’s house. As well as hawking at hurling matches, he used to kill and pluck poultry for a fee. His death sentence was carried out slowly – he placed an old car battery on each neck and, taking a short detour, we would watch the writhing feathers on his lawn.
Like wary politicians, we were forever taking detours, afraid to risk the deadening boredom of the same route home two days in a row. Detours to look at the Dinky cars in Kilroy’s. Detours to pick out a comic in Russell’s dark newsagents in West Gate. Detours to see if the conkers had begun to appear on the huge chestnut tree in Ikerrin Road. Detours to view a model tyre in Shanahan’s Kickham Street garage or to buy a lucky bag in Muck Gleeson’s of Mitchell Street. Like most people, we called Kickham Street and Mitchell Street by their older names, The Pike and The Quarry, chanting
Up The Quarry and down The Pike,
That’s the way to ride the bike.
The journey home from school was full of patriotic possibilities, of which an encounter with streets named after Mitchell and Kickham were but two. Every taste in heroes was catered for, other streets offering options on such figures as Emmet, Parnell, O’Donovan Rossa and Cuchulain. It was the shops, however, and not the names of the streets they stood in that inspired us as children. Sutton’s seed shop smelled of a nutritious mixture of the grains and meals that were on display in jute sacks. Molloy’s andJ.K. Moloney’s had little cable cars to transport money from customer to cashier. Harry Cuthbert presided brusquely but efficiently over his ice-cream machine. The mina bird in Condon’s miniature sweet shop loved the sound of its own voice.
There was even a branch of F.W. Woolworth in the town, which we walked round and round during wet lunch hours. The greatest attraction of the place was its stock of exotic, garishly-coloured American comics featuring cartoon characters or outer-space voyagers or heroes of classics and fables. They were fascinatingly different from our usual fare of Beano and Topper, with ads for pimple removers and trick cushions and prices in dollars and cents. Even the coupons interested me. What was a zip code? Was Tipperary a state? I was reminded of early childhood when I wasn’t sure where I lived but conjured up a sleek and ghastly, machine-like vision of the country called ‘Ironland’ of which my parents often spoke.
The pimples foretold by the American comics surfaced in due course (prompting me to conclude that, like the leopard, the teenager cannot change his spots). Pimples and awareness of sex erupted simultaneously and somewhat incompatibly. We began with only the vaguest ideas about sex, ideas embodied by a girl in a blue Ursuline uniform whom we would have ignored or disdained not long before. The clerical students from St. Patrick’s seminary who came to our school as religious instructors were tolerant, frank and unsensational in the face of provocative interrogation on the subject. They fleshed out our vocabulary and theoretical knowledge but we still had a shaky perception of what it amounted to in practice. One Thurles friend told me recently that, prior to receiving education on the topic, he thought sex was something vaguely like yoga’. In Buttevant, supporting the school hurling team, he bought a book called ‘Techniques of Sex’ from a stall. When he perused its contents on the train back to Thurles, he was both educated and alarmed. When a Christian Brother in the carriage asked him what he was reading, real panic set in.
If you were ‘going out with’ or ‘shifting’ someone in the town, your attempts to keep the relationship private would be futile. Your first slow march together down the ‘watery mall’ would scarcely have begun when news of your forwardness would have reached home. Like smoking (shops near the school would sell single cigarettes), kissing was one of those activities that never went unobserved. It was the late sixties and, even if love was not free, hair grew longer, skirts were shorter, Simon and Garfunkel filled the youth club with the sound of silence, Rolling Stones clones toted guitars at talent competitions and some of the Christian Brothers’ liveliest pupils flirted with what passed in Thurles for Maoism (but even the most paranoid adults can hardly have felt that Liberty Square was in any danger of becoming a red square). Though there were ‘socials’ in the Confraternity Hall, afternoon ‘hops’ in Holycross, showbands in the Premier Hall and ceili classes in Glenmorgan House, I was content to see life from the standpoint of the Square at lunchtime, the place itself like a dancehall with young males and females congregating separately. One man, having left school early and found gainful employment clearing the drains at the mushroom plant, was the first of my generation to marry. On his wedding morning, he declared, ‘Sure I might as well be a poor man as a poor boy!’
‘Free education’ had begun in the sixties and with it came the ‘free buses’ which allowed for a good deal more freedom among the sexes to mingle on the way to and from school. The endless rattling of bicycles on our potholed road came to an abrupt stop. The town’s car-park blossomed into a field of buttercup-yellow buses. My family lived too close to the town for any of us to qualify for free transport. We spoke of ‘townies’ with some derision but we weren’t quite from the country either. My father was a farmer’s son with a foot in the business world and this, too, denied us a clear identity. Mill Road, where we lived, was one road that lived up to its name, with mills and the remains of mills. We would watch the mill-wheel at Burns’s circling in the green scummy water like a paddle ship. The nearby house, occupied by Paddy Doran – now well known for his skill with greyhounds -, was prone to flooding. Every so often, Paddy would emerge, cheerful as ever, from a floating kitchen.
Farther down the road, was Brady’s mill, a fine stone building that was unceremoniously demolished some years ago. Dan and Josie Brady had retreated to a few small rooms in this cavernous structure with smells of mildew, acidic apples, drying clothes, paraffin oil, Churchman’s cigarettes. Josie Brady had been a talented musician and still loved to listen to ceili music or take part in a sing-song. ‘O Laws!’ , she’d exclaim as she reminisced about hours of listening to the Gallowglass Céili Band at a Fleadh Ceoil or nights of dancing in Borrisoleigh. At dusk, accompanied by Rex the terrier, she would venture out past a precarious sculpture of boxes and bottles and jam jars’ through bluebottles and midges and spicy hedges, to check the water level for some official survey in Dublin. I often posted the cards containing those scrupulously-recorded details of river and mill-race; and I often shopped for Josie as well as my mother after half-ten mass during the summer holidays. Apart from groceries, 1 might have to bring some article from a clothes or hardware shop on ‘appro’, the assistant recording this fact in a book until the customer’s choice was made and the goods were either bought or returned. Paying for the items could be postponed as ‘tick’ was fairly readily available.
Dan Brady was a sombre man with a quizzical mind. ‘Supposing I owed three men £10 each and I only had one tenner. If I let each of the men hold the tenner and pass it on to the next man, wouldn’t I have them all paid?’. Dan’s poor grasp of economics was evident in the rot of the building around him, mould consuming his wife’s framed Pitman’s Shorthand certificates, woodworm perforating his furniture. He constructed a loom that produced excellent tweed and devised a method of opening the large side gates that would allow the Hillman car an easy passage on its way to Sunday mass. Dan had harnessed the river’s current for electricity and when the level was low on summer evenings he could rely on an hour or two at most of power. The bulb would flicker, then peter out altogether. The Tilly Lamp would be lit and my brother, Seamus, and I would sit on the old leather car seat chatting with the Bradys in the grey and silent evening. They believed in the banshee and had heard its wail foretell death many times, including no doubt the time when their only child had died in infancy. Josie Brady once showed me a page which she had inherited of the manuscript of Knocknagow, Charles Kickham’s novel which exerted a huge hold on older Tipperary imaginations. Actually, it was a half-page of manuscript, part of it having been given to a Christian Brother who coveted the relic.
One of the big attractions of Brady’s was television, which my parents refused to allow at home in case it would interfere with our studies. My first encounter with television as with so many things (life included – I was born in St. Anne’s Nursing Home on the Square in 1954) took place on Liberty Square. Telefis Éireann had recently begun its broadcasts and O’Connor’s electrical shop was displaying the new device in its window. I joined scores of people outside that window one cool night to watch an episode of ‘Have Gun Will Travel’. We were awestruck by the invention, the neatness of it, the luxury of it (a cinema at home). A TV Rentals company would soon open farther up the Square.
If you didn’t feel inclined to join one of the local clubs and societies in Thurles, there wasn’t a lot to do except talk or take to the high stool. Television aerials began to sprout as suddenly as the mushrooms we used to gather in soft white clumps, their mousy underbellies a pleated marvel. The advent of television did little to affect the level of drinking, since most pubs had acquired a set, but it greatly reduced the incidence of ‘visiting’ – calling, usually unannounced, on neighbours for a gossipy chat.
Our own entertainments included the Sunday drive – out to Holycross and back by the sugar factory is a route I monotonously recall. Or we went ‘rambling’ with the golden cocker – exploring nearby fields, leaping over ditches of slime and mud, listening unselfconsciously to the narcotic whirrings of summer. Or we picked blackcurrants near a drowsy rose bed in our garden.
Or blew bubbles. Or played Post Office. Or laid traps for wasps, counting the corpses in their Kilkenny colours of black and amber. Or on Saturdays we’d watch the traders on the Square peddling glass cutters and pencil torches and secondhand suits. Or on wet Sundays we’d attend a sale of Work in aid of of the convents and suspend breathing until the Wheel of Fortune had made up its mind where to stop. Or there were Shamrock Bus Tours to Glengariff and The Burren with storytelling drivers and ballad-singing passengers. There were plays: Jackie Andy Ryan directed a cast of seminarians in Juno and the Paycock at St. Patrick’s College, the falsetto rising among the birettas; the annual Muintir na Tire Drama Festival introduced me to Ibsen, Sheridan, Synge and an even more obscure and as yet unNobelled playwright called Beckett, who had my schoolfriend, Michael Kennedy, and me speaking in halting dialogue for weeks after the Guinness Players from Dublin had left us reeling with astonishment at ‘Waiting for Godo’t in the Premier Hall.
And there was the Library where Queenie ruled so benevolently, her voice softened by a lifetime of whispering. She knew everyone’s taste and would select a ‘doctor and nurse’ story for my mother or a military history book for my father if they were too busy or unwell to make a visit themselves. I wouldn’t let anyone do my choosing for me, though my choices were predictable enough for years, especially as I had stuck with Enid Blyton the whole way from Noddy to Famous Five. I dared to momentarily interrupt the author’s prodigious flow with a fan letter to which she responded in neat blue biro and characteristically excitable style: ‘Thank you for your well-written letter… Perhaps one day you will write a book – what a thrill that would be for you – and how proud you would feel when you saw your very own book in the public library! … ‘.
In time, Enid Blyton’s works were displaced in my canon by Bunter rolling into the quad (no mistaken geometry there), William waging war against civilisation and, best and funniest of all, Jennings watching his plans go awry. The Jennings stories were the first in which I noticed (or was taught to notice by A Bookful of Jennings) the contribution that imagery and style could make to the enjoyable telling of a story: ‘His glasses were perched athwart his nose like a percentage sign’; ‘He tut-tutted like a geiger-counter stuttering over a deposit of uranium’.
I rigged up a large tea chest in the garden at the spot where the snowdrops oozed through the ground each spring. Seated imperially on some comfortable cushions inside the chest, I discovered new worlds in books that obliterated my own world. On other days during holiday periods, I would head off for a cycle with my friend, David O’Connor. We would pick out an old monastic site as a destination and would pedal along past cottages with open doors and stripped Anglia cars, past sleeping sheepdogs and gawking children. We made trips to Kilcooley and Holycross and Hore Abbeys and several to Leigh, a monastery founded in 580 A.D. – the first recorded fact in Kennedy’s ‘Chronology of Thurles’. It was a monastic refuge for us that, sheltered enough already, we scarcely needed. But we enjoyed the compacted peace within its walls and marvelled at the slim crucifix on one of the tombs. On the roof, a warm breeze ruffling David’s Beatle-style haircut, we would look across lush fields and grazing dairy herds and lapping brown oceans of Bord na Mona bog. I wrote an avant-garde poem about the place when I was in my early teens and I composed the club song for the Lone Pine Club, a treasure-hunting, adventure-seeking society based on Malcolm Saville’s nimble stories. Somehow we failed to achieve the level of excitement attained by our fictional models and, after a few attempts to shadow suspicious-looking characters around the town had proved inconclusive, we disbanded our club. Derrynaflan was only eight miles away – well within our cycling range – but it was two non-members with tutting metal detectors who would later discover the ornate gold treasure hoarded there.
Other summer diversion was provided at Ladyswell by a tame stretch of the river that flowed just beyond Burns’s mill. A swimming pool, promised to the town for years, had still not materialised – one of the essays I had won a prize for in local competitions was called ‘Dream Swimming Pool’. Meanwhile, the rough banks of the stony river had to suffice on warm days for the pale children with jam jars in which gudgeons were caught, their own pale fish bellies destined to be upturned by morning. The grown-ups were swimming in the deeper, dammed part of the river farther up, splashing and showing off or teaching girls how to stay afloat without needing a patched tractor tube to do so.
After the swimmers’ short season had dissolved in rain, Ladyswell was left to the fishermen. A cooked trout, the same colour as my distempered bedroom, had landed on my plate a few times after my father had gone fishing. I witnessed him wading (without waders) into the river after a pike had threatened to confiscate his rod and I was shocked to see him trying to kill an eel that seemed electrically-charged as he incised its cable with a razor blade.
There was a spring at Ladyswell from which neighbouring women carried buckets of water for drinking and cooking. A bucket was hung from each handle of a bicycle which they wheeled back slowly in all weathers, chatting and spilling an occasional asterisk of water on the road. Water for washing purposes was collected from rain barrels linked to drainpipes. Winter mornings would begin with a breaking of patterned ice.
The weather as the Inter and Leaving Cert examinations loomed always seemed to be uncharacteristically hot. I remember studying the Mithridatic wars in a bedroom that threatened to curl with the heat. Crowds with towels and tubes and togs and transistors were ambling by on their way to Ladyswell. Summer was rich with sounds – a pheasant like a squeezed toy, the lingering bark of a fox, the teasing call of a cuckoo, an air force of insects. The thud of a ball on hard ground can be identified. The conversation of two cyclists rises and falls. Maybe rock-and-roll music can be heard from a carnival in the town and the imagination turns to chairoplanes and bumpers.
When we were younger, we would have been herded to bed while all this commotion was occuring beyond the open window. I thought perhaps of these lines from A Child’s Garden of Verses, the first of many books of poems I borrowed from Thurles library:
‘In winter I get up at night
And dress by yellow candle-light.
In summer, quite the other way,
I have to go to bed by day…’
But there would be tomorrow for playing with the Tri-ang trucks in the sandpit. Or for speeding downhill in the ‘toboggan’ which Seamus and I had built on pram wheels. Or we might exercise the new-found freedom of cycling by heading up the road past Cawley’s wattle tent. Mary and JohnnyCawley were as smoked and fierce-looking as Indians but equally friendly and gentle to those who had made peace offerings of food. If we ventured as far as the town we might have enough money (especially if an uncle had presented us with ‘change’) for a ripple ice-cream and a bottle of Sinalco at Bertie Connaughton’s. The little tailor might be steering his Baby Ford towards Mitchell Street; and there’s Johnny Connors, not exactly a giant either, surveying the world from Molloy’s corner.
Childhood summers blend into one another for most people. For me, the mowing tractors and sighing cornfields and blooming cowslips belong to no particular summer. The smell of hay was pervasive. The red evenings, flushed with the day’s excitement, lingered on for a last look before crumbling into a powdery darkness. As the light dimmed, the fluorescent statue of Our Lady glowed comfortingly in my bedroom. A plaque above my bed showed a child with a candle illuminating the words ‘If I die before I wake/ I pray the Lord my soul to take’.
The Catholic Church, to which the care of most of the town’s souls was entrusted, brought social as well as spiritual comforts to its flock. The half-ten masses which I attended in Thurles cathedral during holidays drew people together for chat as well as prayer. Occasions for prayer seemed infinite – First Fridays, Stations of the Cross, Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament, Our Lady’s and Sacred Heart sodalities, Corpus Christi and May processions, Holy Week … Retreats brought their own special frisson – the men and women had separate retreats (because they yielded to separate categories of sin perhaps?) as well as separate sodalities and favoured sides of the church. We had a powerful and cathartic sense of spiritual uplift when the visiting preachers had preached, old habits had been confessed, the Papal Blessing had been administered and the final hymn – ‘Faith of our Fathers’ probably – was sung in spirited unison through a haze of holiness and incense.
The Archbishop’s palace, the Presentation convent, St. Patrick’s seminary, the presbytery and the Pallotine Fathers’ college extend out at one side of the river. On the other side – like the second wing of the Holy Ghost are the Christian Brothers’ schools and part of the Ursuline girls’ school. St. Patrick’s college is said to have been proposed in 1851 as a suitable location for the Catholic University that was then planned. Would the sonnets of Gerard Manley Hopkins have been more ‘terrible’ from a Thurlesian exile? What would the student Joyce have made of Thurles dialect? Having in fact become a successful training centre for priests, an extension to the college was opened in the mid-sixties reflecting an optimism that was rebuffed by a more secular age: the road to heaven is paved with good intentions. The names of the newly-ordained now take up a very modest space in The Tipperary Star.
Like other boys in Thurles, my earliest education was at the hands of nuns, the Presentation Sisters in my case. I remember the teachers at the convent as patient and generous, tending our homesickness with some of the most marvellous toys I had ever seen (a pedal-car fuelled my fantasies for months; a farm set was displayed in a glass case like Sunday china). I had learned to read before I started school at the age of four and I was repeatedly called upon to demonstrate my skill to every visiting nun and inspector. My refusal to drink school milk was looked on in a less indulgent light. I hated the stuff and was more than happy to leave it to its rightful owners, the calves. The formidable Sister Benedict made me stand under a crucifix in her office and gulp down a large glass of it, bearing in mind the sacrifices God had made for mankind. It was the last glass of milk I ever drank.
The sacrifices we made for God included abstaining from sweets for Lent, leading to orgies of eating on Easter Sunday. I enlisted in the school branch of the Legion of Mary and my first duty was the delivering of Catholic newspapers with my classmate, Michael Donnelly. One Sunday, cutting through the grounds of St. Mary’s Protestant church on our paper round, we paused to hear the small congregation praying and singing unfamiliar hymns. Out of curiosity and rebelliousness and fellowship, we longed to enter the plain damp building with jeeps and towbar-fitted cars parked outside. But there was little ecumenical spirit at the time and our underarm sheaves of Irish Catholic and Catholic Standard seemed hardly likely to inaugurate it.
As older Legionaries, we visited the Hospital of the Assumption, alias the County Home, originally the workhouse, and chatted with inmates. A number were bedridden, others were strolling vacantly around the garden or huddled in the ‘smoke house’, a structure rather like a public shelter in an English seaside town. The comparison wouldn’t have occured to me at the time, holidays in Curracloe or washed-out day-trips to Clonea or Tramore being all I knew of the sea. We were inland people with accents as flat as the landscape. Thurles was pronounced ‘Turrless’. When an English tourist asked me (about two miles from the town) if she was on the right road for Thurles, the perfectly-tongued and grooved ‘Th’ of her pronunciation and the way she rhymed it with ‘hurls’ confounded me. Having denied all knowledge of the place, the embarrassing truth dawned on me a couple of minutes later when she had disappeared into exhaust smoke and virtually reached her elusive destination.
To grow up in Thurles, whatever one’s pronunciation of the name, was to grow up in an anonymous town with no claim on national, let alone inter- national, attention. We regarded Radio Eireann as far too Dublin-centred and , later, too preoccupied with ‘the North’. But we survived without attention, self-contained and parochial, old-fashioned in our dark suits and jumpers like photos of Albania. We drank Pomara or County Lemonade and were refreshed by it. We bought solid ice-cream cones in The Milk Bar and were glad of them. We went to Scanlon’s or Kennedy’s or Killackey’s aor Hayes’s if our bicycles needed fixing. Willie Moroney would sing to us from teh organ loft of the cathedratl or give us a ‘tight’ haircut in his barber’s shop. We flowed with the consistency of the river up the Square each year in the Corpus Christi procssion, the shops replacing brushed-nylon nighties and Guinness toucans with statues and embroidered cloths. We received communion hosts at the altar rails and ate local bread – Sweeney’s, Coady’s, Butler’s – around our kitched tables.
The essential point, of course, is that one can experience immortality anywhere. My childhood intimations in Thurles were as strong as Wordsworth’s in Cumbria, the same unshakeable sense of being among eternal things that I would enjoy eternally. It is because such certainties are irrecoverable that things associated with childhood become imbued with a wonder that is more than mere nostalgia. And this is no doubt one of the reasons why I am always gland when the train eases itself into Thurles station and te water tower can be seen perched above the town like a parachute. And perhaps it is also why, even eighteen years after my inevitable departure to a Civil Service job in Dublin, I alwsys feel a bit gloomy when I take mhy place on the platform to leave all it stands for behind me again. As I climb into the smoky, beery Sunday evening train, I rememeber the railway carriage lines from ‘A Child’s Garden of Verses’:
Here is a child who clambers and scrambles
All by himself and gathering brambles;
Here is a tramp who stands and gazes;
And there is the green for stringing the dasies!
Here is a cart run away inthe road
Lumping along with man and load;
And here is a mill, and there is a river;
Each a glimpse and gone for ever!
Dennis O’Driscoll’s collections of poetry are ‘Kist’ , ‘Hidden Extras’, ‘Long Story Short’, ‘Quality Time’, ‘Weather Permitting’, ‘Expemplary Damages’, ‘New and Selected Poems’ and ‘Reality Check’ . Dennis also was responsible for ‘Stepping Stones’: Interviews with Seamus Heaney.