Looking back is pleasurable but it is important to remember to celebrate the here and now
I watched the All-Ireland football final last week and like most of the country I was shouting for Galway, even though I was in the heartland of a less successful Connacht county. I was sitting in Aclare, Co Sligo, with my partner’s mother and her two sisters. These women love their football and at the ages of 89, 86 and 93 they have seen some amount of matches in their lifetimes.
Being Sligo women they are used to losing so they take pleasure in small triumphs and the entertainment the matches bring them. Sligo has never won an All-Ireland, while Kerry calls it a famine when they don’t win one for eight years.
The three sisters are steeped in Gaelic football tradition. Sons and husbands and grandchildren, grand-nieces and nephews have all played for the county or continue to play in local teams.
One of them is a Marist sister who spent 30 years in Fiji and the other two were local teachers of great renown. When they were growing up there was one radio between so many houses and people would stand around the window outside to listen to the All-Ireland.
Now in 2022 they ask Alexa to switch on and off the radio. They are here to witness artificial intelligence at first-hand.
You know you’re getting older when all the favourite places of your childhood and early teens start to disappear
It was a great pleasure to spend the day with the three sisters, who are absolutely thriving, but I couldn’t help thinking about my godparents — my father’s brother Thomas and my mother’s sister Valerie — who passed away in the last few years. They were only in their early 70s and are a huge absence in so many lives. They are still around in my imagination. I can sense them and their chat and laughter. I see them so clearly in my mind’s eye.
It is also places that now exist for me internally — no longer physically here in the real world. You know you’re getting older when all the favourite places of your childhood and early teens start to disappear. You rely more and more on memory to keep them alive.
I looked out on the garden at home in Edenderry, Co Offaly, which consisted of a lawn and apple trees and a tarmacadam tennis court now all flattened and ploughed, getting ready for a new road and development to come into being. I stared and heard the shouts of us as kids banging the ball back and forth across the net, fantasies of Wimbledon, doing impressions of McEnroe screaming at the umpire.
Then in the winter we played soccer on it, four sets of brothers, Man United versus Liverpool, I would do the commentary — and in the summer on the top lawn for Brazil v Argentina, World Cup of ’78, we’d play until we could hardly see the ball.
I turned to the empty space where the old shed used to be where we’d play make-believe cowboy storylines about being held up in a siege inside, waiting for the attack. Our imaginations fuelled by spaghetti westerns and more traditional cowboy films like True Grit, viewed at the Saturday matinees at the local cinema.
The cinema is no longer there of course, another place that only exists inside my head. I can still see and hear the 500 children packed inside. The stink of the sweets and the odd cigarette up the back. As a teen I hung out with Steve, the cinema manager, surveying the town square. He’d wrangle the odd classic poster for me, a Blue Velvet or Once Upon a time in America. When I look across now there are three self-service washing machines spinning around where once people queued in their droves to get in to see The Robe with Richard Burton.
Further down the town there is a large, empty space where once upon a time there was O’Brien’s universal store, set up in the 1860s by my great- grandfather MP O’Brien. There was a famous fire in 1955 and then it was rebuilt and reopened in 1960. In the early ’70s there was a large extension built and it was opened by TV legends of the time, John Cowley and Annie D’Alton who starred as Tom Riordan and Minnie Brennan in the iconic RTÉ farming soap The Riordans. I was around seven at the time and had to present Minnie with flowers and give her a kiss on the cheek.
I worked there in the summer of 1983 and I’ll never forget the different characters and the chat of the men at the back of the builders providers. I did deliveries in a van around the area with a lad who gave me Major cigarettes and told me tall tales about all the women he’d been out with.
The supermarket was eventually sold to Quinnsworth in 1984 and they moved in 2001, leaving the building idle for over 20 years, through the boom and the bust, until it was knocked earlier this year. Hopefully now a new library and performance space will be built.
Things move on, but ghosts and memories still linger. The impermanence of it all. But at this time of year, the feast of Lughnasa, the ancient celebration of the harvest, it’s important to take joy in the moment. Like the company of the three sisters in Sligo watching the All-Ireland. It is important to celebrate the small things we have. The small kindnesses we show each other. Because we never know the hour or the day.