Monday 5 December 2016

In my memories it's forever summer

Childhood holidays linger in Miriam O'Callaghan's mind, because when you have your family, you have love and life itself

Published 24/07/2016 | 02:30

It is 6 o'clock on Saturday morning, when a week is the summer and the summer is forever. Inside its green-and-yellow paint, the guest house rattles with crockery, cutlery, pots.

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On the stairs, we hear the scraping of toast, chairs and, possibly, though I would not have known it at the time, a conscience. Above us, in the curtained bedrooms heavy with holiday sleep, somebody stirs. In the dining room, against the soft thuds of glasses placed on white linen, a man is singing. "Tell me when will you be mine. Tell me quando, quando, quando."

In those days, I was prone to confusion. Never having seen the term in print and knowing it only from ferocious stories, I thought the Black and Tans were the Blackened Hands. Easy then to mistake the Italian adverb 'when' for a woman. Even in her diphthonged Cork appellation - Quahn-doah - she wouldn't be Irish. I imagined her with waist-length black hair, like the flamenco dolls our next-door family the Maddens brought from Spain. Or like the actress Movita Castaneda, who, according to my grandmother, was presented by her boxer husband Jack Doyle to the people of Cork from the balcony of the Savoy. Or maybe the Metropole? Regardless, it was some time and place before the madness of drink did for their marriage and Mrs Doyle became Mrs Brando.

The previous night, my father has been swept along to the train by hordes of other Corkmen escaping the city after a week of work, joining their wives, children and in-laws already on the summer holliers in Youghal. But now he and I are up and scrubbed, sneaking off to Redbarn to be the first on the strand. In the 1960s, Ireland had only strands. Beaches, like skin cancer and allergies, had yet to be invented. And if you were first on the strand which we always were - or once were - so had the world.

Now here we are, my white Clarke's sandals slapping, my father's tan corduroy Bungees squeaking over the mosaic hall-floor. The door is heavy, fiddly. But suddenly we're out, down the steps into salt air, the unwarm sun. He toggles up our holiday lumber-jackets knitted by my mother. In seconds we're on the boreen to Redbarn, the drifted-sand silent underfoot.

As we walk, hand in hand, the fields either side are low-slung, anchored by marram grass, dotted with summer houses - converted railway carriages - oblongs of red, green, like building bricks from Mrs Hickey's Junior Infants.

En route - that's French he says, like eclair and bon voyage and bouquet - we have our Discussion. The merits of his childhood Honeybee Toffees versus the contemporary Trigger Bar. The height of the Dutch people who flocked to Owenahincha. How in a thunderstorm, you must never, ever shelter under a tree, but lie flat-out in the middle of a field.

My father is keen on revolutions. Particularly those involving Ireland, France, the poor or the Potomac River over which American revolutionaries gazed. We wonder how, if after the French nobility were guillotined, the right aristocratic head was buried with the wrong brocaded body. Are there ghosts in Paris wandering around not just decapitated, but discombobulated because all the heads are buried in one part of the city, all the bodies in another? We consider Napoleon and Elba which reminds me of Peach Melba.

An Iron Curtain has fallen over Europe. It has swept away all the colour. Behind it, people live in black-and-white. Though I am six, from my mother I know about Imre Nagy and the last broadcast from Budapest Free Radio: SOS. But there are good Russians too. Tchaikovsky and Tolstoy. I can read a book by Tolstoy when I am 16. It's called Anna Kareneena. In Russian? No. In English. Today, in our house Anna Karenina still exists as her diminutive Kareneena. A mispronounced, instinctive kindness that might have spared her Count Vronsky or the train.

Since my father's death I think often of those summer mornings when we were the first and only people on the strand, in the world. But every time we get to the driftwood turnstile, take off our cardigans, shoes, start to run like tipsy Bedouins across the sand, I stop typing. These are moments to be relived, not recounted.

Because for generations of Cork people, Youghal is not just a place, luminous, watery. It is a portal between worlds, memories, generations, allowing transition, metamorphosis. Between the vast skies and sands, we become our essential selves, who we are as individuals and families. Everything thereafter being simply a tinkering, an adjustment.

On the walls around my desk are photos of five generations of O'Callaghans in Youghal. My father's grandparents, hatted and elegant. His aunts, glamorous young women pictured under a bookstall sign. His grandchildren flying kites, digging out "rivers". In one photo he is in his togs, beaming on a sunny, windy day, his back to Claycastle under the caption Pat Youghal 1947 written by his mother. He is 15. In another, taken 20 years later, a small girl clings to his knee. In the last, it is the day after my sister's wedding. The father and mother of the bride face away from the Atlantic towards the Strand Palace where they had their first dance. He is holding my son's yellow plastic shovel.

The older I get the more I see we should all have the opportunity to meet - just for one day - family who come before us, after us. We should have a long lunch, drink wine, eat strawberries and cake in a garden on a warm sunny day, with the men, women, children, who were once, or would become, our family.

They say the death of a parent moves us up to the front line. It also makes us consider our own role as the links between the family's past and future. In Youghal the clock tower is newly-restored. It was built in 1620 to toll the deaths of children. It was the year the Mayflower left Plymouth. In her autobiography Love in the Fast Lane, Countess Joan de Frenay writes that later, the clock tower bell tolled only for deaths of the Holroyd-Smith family of Ballanatray, the Ronaynes of Ardsallagh.

For other generations of Cork people, Youghal is synonymous with the bell for early mass at the north chapel or Spangle Hill or Blackpool. Then the throngs to the train, all scratchy carpetbag seats, leather window-straps, glistening floors, piercing whistles. Or Youghal is the ballrooms of romance, where for 10 bob you got the return train trip and a night with Mick Delahunt and his band at Showboat or the Strand Palace.

For others it's string bags bursting with stinky egg sandwiches, tomatoes that would be sliced on the spot, sliced pans and butter, full tea trays with extra boiling water hired for one-and-six at the seaside shacks. For more it's children in dripping togs that look like sealskin, guzzling warm Tanora or Rasa from picnic cups they can barely hold in their death-white, shrivelled fingers.

For me Youghal is Monatrea House viewed from the prom. It is my father going fishing and catching a seagull. As I wrote once, it's a slow sparrow colliding with a clunky truck, leaving a tincture of red on the road and small girl open-mouthed in a guest house garden. It is a rose-pink eiderdown bought in Merrick's that brings a bit of summer to winter, comfort to small children raving with tonsillitis or women hallucinating, hoping as they are dying.

Above all for me, Youghal is about who we once were, are now, will become.

It is the truth staring from photos of the five generations. As from the promenade at Nice. That when you have your family, you have everything. Because you have love, life itself.

Life's a Beach ... a guide to the best beaches, coasts, pints and drives, see the Living Section

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