Saturday 17 February 2018

'Local children stare as if we were visitors from an exotic foreign metropolis'

Writer Dermot Bolger recalls an idyllic holiday to Mrs Butler's Guesthouse in Courtown, which would turn out to be the family's last before his beloved mother died

Memories: Dermot Bolger, centre, with his sister Deirdre, mother Bridie, brother Roger Junior and father Roger Senior
Memories: Dermot Bolger, centre, with his sister Deirdre, mother Bridie, brother Roger Junior and father Roger Senior

If I had experienced other family holidays after that sun-drenched week in August 1969, then my memories of it would have faded by now. But, although we were unaware of it, the seeming infinity of my childhood would soon be truncated. Therefore, all these decades later, I can smell the floor polish on the gleaming lino of our large bedroom; feel undislodgeable grains of sand stuck between my bare toes and breathe in the summer air through the open window of Mrs Butler's Guesthouse, a mile outside Courtown in County Wexford.

I see midges swarming beneath trees in the adjoining field, hear the distant chirp of hidden crickets and remember being 10-years-old and standing alone in that large back room which, during that week, was occupied by my parents, my sister, my elder brother and I.

Wexford was in our blood. My father had been bombed on dangerous wartime voyages to Lisbon on tiny Wexford ships - a forgotten chapter of Ireland's maritime history which I tried to recapture in a recent novel. In 1969, nights home were still rare treats for a seafarer. That is what makes our time in Mrs Butler's Guesthouse so special: we were rarely together as a family for so long. It was not our first holiday there, but it would be our last. By Christmas 1969 my mother was dead and childhood, as I knew, had ended.

But there was no hint of foreboding in my memories of that week. They are of a truly happy time, interrupted only by occasional childish squabbles. Mrs Butler's house seemed huge back then: the kitchen passageway out of bounds. Other families are staying there also. A Ford Anglia with a Cork registration is parked on the gravel. The boy whose father owns it dances across the grass to the strains of 'Via Bobby Joe' - a hit song on the radio.

But other music fills Courtown at night. At dusk in the swirling lights of a carnival - where children race through the shadows, faces bearded by wisps of candyfloss - The New Seekers blare out from fairground loudspeakers: "Say goodbye my own true lover, this will be our last farewell..."

I move among booths where rifle sharp-shooters take aim. Goldfish tremble in plastic bags. Squadrons of pubescent girls whirl through the air, screaming and swaying towards shouting boys in flailing swing-chairs.

Mrs Butler is kindly, but I'm scared of her. Mary - her courteous, elderly serving woman - carries large jugs of milk up the road to the house.

The boy from Cork plays pitch and putt with his father. I watch in envy as the greens shimmer like a mirage. A play is staged in a parish hall. Years later I realise it was 'Philadelphia Here I Come'.

I play beside a pond near Mrs Butler's house, exploring the imaginary canyons of Wexford. A donkey watches me with patient eyes while flies torture his face. My brother and the Cork boy kick ball on the gravel outside the house. Local children stare in through the gate as if we were visitors from an exotic foreign metropolis.

At dusk the house is framed by a fan of light. My mother calls us in to eat unfamiliar sickly desserts. Curdled concoctions of tapioca and rice pudding that resemble the frog-spawn in the pond. Over dinner adults discuss the dangers that bands of Hells Angels might invade Courtown from Tramore. A mile away in the dusk Courtown throbs with sins I have yet to discover.

We walked that mile so often that the route should be engraved in my memory. But some years ago I drove for hours along a maze of lanes before realising that I had passed Mrs Butler's house several times without recognising it.

I stand at a padlocked gate needing to ask a neighbour if this is the house. It seems tiny now, Mrs Butler long dead. Can this be the front garden where I played or the window at which we ate our meals? I look down the road and imagine Mary's stooped figure carrying warm jugs of milk.

I see my family leaving this house for another day on Courtown beach, awaiting the magical moment when we crest a slope and catch our first mesmerising glimpse of the sea. I imagine us happily walking back at dusk.

I do not climb over the wall and approach the deserted house. Instead I close my eyes and ascend those stairs again, with grains of sand between my toes and a week-long holiday stretching ahead like eternity.

I remember my family going downstairs and leaving me alone there one evening. Later I would recognise the sensation I felt as the moment when lines enter a poet's head. But at 10 years old, I am simply puzzled by an imperceptible yearning. I just sense that for some unknowable reason I need to try and remember everything about that moment: the summer air through the open window, the drone of crickets, the chamber pot beneath the bed, the sand clogging up the lino.

During that bliss-filled moment I stand alone there, tired and happy, with my forehead pressed against the coldness of the window frame. Then my brother calls up the stairs to me. I turn at once and run downstairs, laughing and chatting excitedly to my family, with none of us having any sense of how our lives would soon be irrevocably altered.

Dermot Bolger's 'The Lonely Sea and Sky' (New Island €13.99) is out now

Irish Independent

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