Sunday 20 January 2019

Gilded treasures from summers of my youth - I will always return

From the silence of Zimbabwe's Matopos Hills, a homesick Fergal Keane reflects on a holiday in Co Cork

The sea at Myrtleville, Co Cork. Photo: John O’Sullivan
The sea at Myrtleville, Co Cork. Photo: John O’Sullivan

Fergal Keane

The story of our younger summers is always a story of loss. It is also, in one way or another, a love story whose pleasures tantalise and can never be quite matched again.

I am in Africa gazing out across the silence of Zimbabwe's Matopos Hills. It is just after sunrise in this place where rocks perch precariously on other rocks and the cave paintings of vanished tribes recall great hunts and feasts.

I was awoken by the barking of baboons. I should be inspired by the beauty here. But it is winter in this southern land. The dawn is cold and I am homesick. Memory is flaring. So there follows, with no particular logic, a succession of pictures from old summers that I summon for comfort. Here are the glad confessions of a nostalgist.

There was a mynah bird in the bar at Roberts Cove. A talking bird in the summer of 1968. What did it say? Where did it go? Does anybody else remember it? Cork and its coastal haunts were my escape that year, my heart swelling as we drove south from Dublin, stopping for soup at Urlingford, gladly sweltering in the jungle green of Glanmire Woods as we came at last to the city.

That was the same summer my mother took us to Sandycove every afternoon and we plunged into the waters of the Irish Sea. To my boyish eyes, my mother was impossibly glamorous, suntanned and sunglassed, bestriding the walkways like the Queen of Dublin Bay.

I remember my hand scorched on the bonnet of her maroon coloured Anglia - registration DZL 407 - imprinted forever, the numbers and the fierce heat of that afternoon sun.

But it is Cork and Ardmore that I return to endlessly.

That last summer at St Joseph's national school before going on to secondary I came home to my grandmother's garden and the scent of blackcurrants and rice pudding, and ice cream foaming in Tanora and salads of ham, wilting lettuce, sliced tomatoes and tinned potato salad. The food of an Irish summer!

And fishing with John Ryan, and his sons Stan and Karl, at Whiting Bay, Caliso Bay and Ballyquin. I persecuted John with questions about fish and he patiently taught me all he knew of bass and flounder, the workings of tides and winds. Some nights Eric Malley came with us. He was the only Ulster protestant we knew in our becalmed southern village.

Only later did I understand the courage it took for him to come this far south on his holidays. But Ardmore captured him as it captured us. Eric was a moderate, a man of infinite kindness. He'd lost a relative to IRA violence but still he came with his family. With him and the Ryans one night at Murphy's Rock, opposite Youghal, I caught a pollack that weighed 5lb. I was 12 then and growing into the 1970s. Rock 'n' roll and girls were beckoning and our gang of Ryans, Whelans, Malleys, Nugents and others who came and went, roamed the road to Goat Island.

At Myrtleville, one July afternoon of heat and longing, I watched a girl cut clean lines through the water as if she would swim clear to America, and I knew in an instant that the summer of 1976 was a place to which I would return eternally in moments of self-doubt or pain.

That was the summer of Neil Young's Harvest.

"Did I see you down in a young girl's town

With your mother in so much pain?

I was almost there at the top of the stairs

With her screaming in the rain.

Did she wake you up just to tell you that

It was only a change of plan?

Dream up, dream up

Let me fill your cup,

With the promise of a man."

It was also the summer of car headlights tracing lazily across a bedroom ceiling in Ger O'Leary's house on Western Road. His parents were away and we had the run of the place. On the Mardyke outside, Sean O Faolain's Talking Trees whispered the names of girls we loved and would lose.

McEnroe and Connors and Borg. And Abba. Always Abba, floating from the Stardust nightclub on Grand Parade, with the girls in cheesecloth shirts and dungarees. I stole my uncle's Old Spice until we discovered Brut - oh dear God, Brut - and after that the drench of patchouli in Sir Henry's hard rock cafe in a Cork city that dreamed it was San Francisco. Freddie White - one of our own - sang Tom Waits's Martha in what we knew were "days roses, poetry and proses" that would never come again.

But who knew then the turns of the road ahead when all roads were lit by dreams like the road past the Lough at two in the morning, the air alive with the sound of moorhens and ducks and me dizzy with joy; the walk to Ballyquin across Ardmore beach and Curragh in the last years of the 1970s; the road at the end of the decade that would lead me away and into a muddled and incomplete version of manhood.

But I am here now. Better and worse. The winter sun is full and high above the Matopos Valley. There will be an election here tomorrow and things may or may not change. Whoever wins I will be on my way to Ardmore in a few days.

I am not a sentimentalist. I try to see the past as it was, not as I would wish it to have been. The Ireland I describe had much about it that was dark and imprisoning. But my summers gave me a store of treasures that amount to a kind of enduring grace.

I will always return.

Fergal Keane is a BBC special correspondent and Africa Editor

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