Monday 19 August 2019

Billy Keane: 'Some say good riddance to bad rubbish - but for me filling up a skip retold the story of our lives'

Keane's Kingdom

'Anthony told me of how his customers told him the filling of the skip was like watching a documentary of the story of their lives' (stock photo)
'Anthony told me of how his customers told him the filling of the skip was like watching a documentary of the story of their lives' (stock photo)
Billy Keane

Billy Keane

'A skip is therapeutic," said the man collecting the big skip from outside the back of our pub. The skip was full of piled-high rubbish which was in a way a bit like a layered dig on an ancient archaeological site.

The Vikings left combs, coins and shells. Ours was broken beer garden furniture, cracked toilet cisterns, damp duvets, treacle paint buckets and old clothes left by the inebriated and not so much as stylish enough for the togging out of a scarecrow.

The remains of the torn, the broken and the useless were piled high. I didn't dump anything of importance. There is no doubt but that we often buy so much we want but don't need.

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Goodbye then to the tailor's mannequin I used to scare off would-be robbers. One woman was sure there was a body dumped in the skip when she saw a leg sticking out.

This was the story of a home and a pub, a family, of all of our lives and the memories came back incrementally with the finding of every piece of home lore. One memory triggered another. Forgotten history was brought back before our very eyes.

There was the treasury of old photographs. My Mam was kissing Uncle Dan goodbye at Kennedy. That one made me cry. It was the last time they met.

Then there was one of Mam and Dad with their arms around each other and you could see how much they loved each other. They are still together... somewhere. The photo was a reassurance they are still very much in love... wherever.

We found a whole story of old Christmases and me there with my big mad head of black curls whooping it up with the brothers.

There were letters from Dad to my sister Joanna. He wrote of how much he missed her when she was away in college and how he was so happy to have finished writing his novel 'The Bodhrán Makers'.

We found Joanna's old record collection and my Greek grammar. I was in the last class in Ireland to study Greek and I loved it. I gave an hour going back over the phrases from far away and long ago.

We found my granddad's collection of Charles Dickens and a letter from Brendan Kennelly to me, praising a book I wrote when I was badly lacking in confidence after a terrible review.

It wasn't just the going back but the learning of life lessons. I resolved to write to people who I admired and to praise them.

The skip man was right. This going back was good for me. I couldn't even get myself to watch Dad on Youtube because it made me too lonesome.

I spent days going through the big plastic bags stored in the attic in the extension our parents built when we were teenagers. It was a gentler way of reminiscing as I slowly and carefully sifted through the story of us.

There was an old football jersey I permanently removed from the Listowel Emmets kit bag by way of a secret protest. It had 17 on the back and I was peeved I didn't make the first 15.

I came across a picture of our under-14 football team. We won a lot together and we lost a lot together but we always stuck together.

I had it in my head to bring it to Maurice Walsh, my pal since babies class. He passed away on Thursday. I loved that man. He always had my back, on and off the pitch. Maurice backed me even when I was wrong. He was a fine footballer, brave and honest. The old photo is in front of me now.

I found buried treasure there among the dust and the cobwebs. There was a clearing too. I could see the contour of the rooms in our tiny upstairs over the pub and out the back where us boys were moved. The decluttering was like setting a bird free from a cage.

Soon enough the skip went public. The skip foragers were looking for items that may have been of interest to them but of little use to anyone else. One woman took a green-from-the-mould plastic chair with a broken bottom that was a cracked buttock pincer.

Then late at night I spotted a man bringing two bags of assorted rubbish, a child's car seat and a fur coat made from what looked like rat hide.

I left him be.

All he had to do was ask and I would have said "belt away" but I'd say getting permission was no good to him. It was like raiding an orchard when we were kids. The people who owned the orchard would have given us the apples no bother but there was no fun in that.

Then this lad wearing a waist-coat asked how long we were going to keep the skip outside the back door. "It's an eyesore," he said, "and will draw vermin." He wasn't even from Listowel - the tidiest town in Ireland.

"The skip is here for good," I said to him. "We got a grant from the Arts Council. The skip is an installation."

Off he went, full of fight, looking for some victim to unload his angst upon over the shameful carry-on by the Government.

I was going through the last bag when I found the lost one-act play. It was called 'Mother Columba' and was written by Dad in the early Sixties. The play was written in his own hand, in pencil, in tiny writing, barely readable. The play was never heard of and it was about life in a convent.

I think Dad may have chosen not to go on any further as Auntie Kathleen was a young nun at the time and he was afraid he might embarrass her.

The skip man was right. There was therapy there upstairs as I sifted through lives and times in the cold air. I probably wouldn't have been able to face the looking back if it didn't happen upon me accidentally in the course of the tidying.

The skip man's name is Anthony Sexton from Templeglantine in west Limerick. Anthony told me of how his customers told him the filling of the skip was like watching a documentary of the story of their lives.

We meet philosophers in all sorts of places and situations.

There was a sense too of just how much we lived. The findings were a timeline through a life I had lived but largely forgotten.

I felt I had lived longer than I thought I had. Looking back without tangible and tactile reference points can be too condensed, too quick.

There is no time to think and no hints. The skip doesn't skip.

Irish Independent

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