Monday, 17 May 2010

The Island 3

Tabulae mundi mihi, The Island

The Island 3

Nexis Pas

© 2010 by the author

When we arrived in Munfrees in May 1951, the village was home to perhaps a hundred people. The many empty houses testified that the population had once been larger. When a family moved away or the last member died, a relative might claim a vacant house if it were better than his current one, but most of the empty houses were left to decay. A house known to be abandoned was considered to belong to the village, and, after a ‘decent’ interval of a few weeks, the other residents stripped it of useable materials. The walls of an abandoned house usually lasted long after the roof had gone, the plaster gradually falling off to reveal the stones beneath. In time, even the walls disappeared as the stones were scavenged for other uses. When we moved to Munfrees, only some thirty houses were inhabited.

Most of the houses had two stories. The ground floor was usually divided into two rooms, a larger room that was a combination kitchen and living area and a smaller room used as a bedroom or a sitting room. A flight of steep stairs led upward into a sleeping area under a steeply pitched roof, again usually divided into two rooms. The front and back doors were squarely in the middle of the ground floor, with one window to each side of the doors on the ground floor. Some houses had a row of windows on the first floor as well. The houses were heated only by the fireplace in the kitchen. In the early 1950s all the inhabited houses were whitewashed.

It would be another seven years before electricity arrived in Munfrees. Until that time the only lighting was provided by candles or lanterns or the kitchen fires. There was no running water, and we relied on the water in the streams flowing down from the hills, rainwater collected in barrels, and wells.

The inhabitants of Munfrees were poor. Oddly enough, however, the people I met in the 1950s were better off than their parents and grandparents had been. So many people had left the village that those who remained benefited. The size of the pot remained the same, but there were fewer people living off it. Sheep and wool were the principal products of the farmers in the village. Everyone had a small garden plot to grow potatoes and sometimes vegetables—cabbage, kale, turnips, onions, and carrots.

There was a pub run by one of the Aherns. It was a small, one-room building. As was common at that time in rural Ireland, only men patronised it. Most evenings probably ninety percent of the adult males in the village stopped into the pub, if only for a few minutes.

The only other ‘business’ in Munfrees was Feelihy’s shop. Feelihy’s was an emporium. It sold groceries—sugar, tea, flour, canned goods—and supplies—the white gas we used for our lanterns, matches, caps, top boots, cloth, kettles, string, paper. If Feelihy’s didn’t have what you needed, it wasn’t to be had in Munfrees. If Mrs Feelihy, who ran the shop, bought a carton of tinned pears, we ate pears until all the tins had been sold and she ordered a new box of tinned fruit. If she bought a bolt of blue-and-white-striped cloth, all new clothes were sewn with blue-and-white-striped cloth until the bolt had been finished and she purchased a new bolt. An amazing variety of goods was packed into the store. It might take Mrs Feelihy a few minutes to find what you wanted, but she often had it. If she didn’t, then you had to wait until you or someone willing to buy what you needed for you went to Killybegs. Mrs Feelihy was also the post mistress, as well as the main conduit of information in the village. A stop at Feelihy’s was as much a visit to exchange news as it was a matter of purchasing goods.

Feelihy’s sold nothing that was perishable. We either grew our own vegetables or purchased them from our neighbours. A farmer who decided to butcher a lamb or a sheep might be willing to sell some of the meat to others. More often, it was simply traded against a future promise to return a like amount of meat when you yourself slaughtered an animal. Most households had chickens for eggs and eventually the pot. The butcher’s cart stopped in Munfrees on Tuesdays. He sold mostly bacon and sausages. Occasionally he might have beef or pork, but few of the villagers could indulge in those luxuries. The injunction against eating meat on Friday and other fast days was largely meaningless in Munfrees. Meat was not part of the daily diet for most people.

Munfrees was then part of the Gaeltacht, the area in which the main language in everyday use is Irish. Both my mother and my aunt spoke some Irish, enough to get by. My primary schooling coincided with one of the government’s unsuccessful attempts to teach Irish in the schools, and I had been exposed to it. I quickly picked up what I needed. Many of the older people spoke no English or knew only a few words. Most of the conversations I report in this work took place in Irish.

Like many rural Irish settlements, the houses extended along both sides of the road in what is now called a ‘linear village’. The house that my mother and aunt had inherited was at one end slightly separated from the nearest house by several vacant lots and decayed buildings. It followed the general pattern of having two rooms on the ground floor and two on the floor above. My mother and aunt each took one of the rooms on the upper floor. To my delight, I had a room for myself, the second one on the ground floor. That was the first time I had a room of my own.

The house was dark. There were only three windows on the ground floor, two at the front facing the street, and a third one in the kitchen in the back. For economy we lit the gas lantern only at night. I did my schoolwork sitting next to the window in my bedroom, and my aunt and mother similarly worked at a table drawn up next to one of the windows in the kitchen. I was allowed to read outside during the day if the weather was good.

The property had one feature that intrigued me. My explorations on the day after we arrived soon led to a discovery.

‘What is that building?’

My mother crossed to the window where I was standing and looked out. ‘It’s a cow shed. Uncle kept a cow.’

‘Where is the cow?’

‘Mr Thomas Ahern has been taking care of it since Uncle died. We told him to keep it, and in turn he has agreed to supply us the milk that we need.’

‘But it’s our cow. We must get it back.’

The idea of owning our own cow appealed greatly to me. My knowledge of cows was limited to the friendly brown and white creatures smiling from the pages of books. I knew that they mooed and wore bells around their necks, and I knew that they ‘gave’ us milk. I had no idea of the process involved, but the notion that cows made us a present of milk was firmly entrenched in my vision of the animal. How could one not want to own such an animal, especially since we had a building specifically designated as a home for it? To me it seemed irrefutable that a cow shed required a cow. We had the one, and we had been, I became convinced, dispossessed of the other by a hasty and injudicious, not to say foolish, decision of my mother and aunt.

‘We do not have land on which it can graze, nor any way of getting food for it. And neither your aunt nor I wish to milk a cow. It would provide far more milk than we could use, even if we made butter and cheese. It is much easier to let Mr Ahern deal with it and get what milk we need from him.’

‘I could take care of it. Mr Ahern could show me what to do.’

‘You have your studies and other work to do.’ My mother smiled at my aunt over my head.

I found these excuses paltry, although I did not say so aloud. Once I had finished my assigned task of unpacking my few belongings and putting my clothes in the old press and my school supplies on the table in my bedroom, I put on my coat and pulled on my topboots (as we called wellies then). I wandered out the back door and casually inspected the area behind the house. A stone wall about three feet high enclosed an area of fifteen by thirty feet. Most of this eventually became our vegetable garden. A rough stone path led to the outdoor bog in the far left-hand corner. The cowshed was in the other corner. It was a dilapidated stone structure open on one side, walled off from the rest of the yard. A wooden gate in the back wall opened onto a small field beyond.

I took care not to appear to be in haste to inspect the cow shed lest I attract my mother’s or aunt’s attention. It took me a good quarter hour to reach that part of the yard, and any observer would have thought me far more interested in the stone wall. Even when I reached the cow shed and looked in, my gaze was perfunctory. The cow shed had been in use until our great-uncle had died a few months earlier. Clearly it was still functional. I knew that cows ate grass, and the field on the other side of the gate had grass. I concluded that all that prevented us from having a cow was my mother’s and my aunt’s misguided assumption that I was incapable of handling ‘our’ cow.

I wandered onto the road and looked around. There was no cow in view, but, I reasoned, as our new house demonstrated, cows were kept in sheds behind houses, and it would be necessary to look behind each house. The houses on the other side of the street were on the ocean side of the village and had no fields behind them. These seemed unlikely candidates for the stabling of a cow. A slow, meandering ten-minute walk took me to the other end of the village. I peered between each pair of houses but found no cow. I walked back the way I came. I pondered if I should ask my mother where Mr Thomas Ahern lived. Would that give the game away? I decided that it might.

I re-entered the area behind our house and unfastened the gate that led into the field. The ground sloped gradually upward away from our house. I climbed to the upper end of the field and sat on the stone wall. From that vantage point, I could see the back sides of all the properties on that side of the road. All of them were much like ours. Outbuildings in various states of decay and disrepair, many of them little more than rough piles of stones fashioned haphazardly into walls. I could see chickens and sheep, but no cow. Clearly Mr Thomas Ahern had not only purloined our cow but also hidden it from view in an attempt to prevent its rightful owner from repossessing it. A hot coal of indignation burned in my soul. I spent the rest of the day plotting schemes to find out where the cow was being kept.

A man came down the road toward the village pushing a barrow holding several pails. He stopped in front of our house. I could hear my aunt and the man talking. After a few minutes he continued on. An hour or so later, my mother called me into the house for tea. Those first few days in Munfrees, our meals were rather simple because of a lack of supplies. It would take another week or so for my aunt and mother to get the housekeeping organised. Our tea that evening consisted of potatoes and bread and jam.

The table held one surprise. The cup that my mother set in front of me held milky tea. We hadn’t had milk for our breakfast tea. Somehow during the day by means unbeknownst to me milk had made an appearance in our house. ‘Where did this milk . . . How . . . ?’ My suspicions made me incoherent, all the more so because I had to suppress it lest my schemes be revealed.

‘Uncle Thomas brought it by a while ago. Did you not see him?’ My aunt placidly spread jam on a slice of bread, either unaware of her treachery or dissembling her own part in the plot. She was consorting with the enemy, trafficking in stolen goods. And Mr Thomas Ahern had become Uncle Thomas. The man had suborned the affections of my aunt and mother. (He was in fact a relative of ours. Determining the exact nature of relationships in the village would have challenged the most astute genealogist, however. We settled for calling members of the previous generation ‘uncle’ or ‘aunt’; members of the same generation referred to one another as ‘cousin’.)

The recovery of our cow would require more cunning than I had anticipated. But I now knew one fact I hadn’t known before. The Ahern man had approached the village from the road that extended southward along the coast to the main fields. The pails on his cart had held milk, and therefore the cow was not in the village but was being held prisoner somewhere outside it.

I had been awoken at daybreak that morning by men talking as they walked past our house on their way to the fields. I realised that I would not be allowed out that early. My mother would insist that I eat and complete my studies first. I could, however, watch them to make sure that Ahern was among them and then follow them later. The geography of Munfrees worked in my favour. There was no avenue of escape. And besides I had done nothing—yet—to put Ahern on guard. He would have no reason to suspect me.

I rose early the next morning and sat at the table beside the window. I had a book propped open in front of me, and in the guise of a young scholar I watched for my quarry. Several people passed down the road in the right direction. I discounted the women, since I knew that Ahern was male. One man carried shopping bags and was, I surmised, headed toward the N54 to catch the bus into Killybegs. That left a half-dozen possibles. My aunt and then a bit later my mother came down the stairs and greeted me as they passed the door. I hoped they were pleased to see me at my studies so early. Soon I heard the sounds of our morning meal being prepared, and I was called away from my observation post shortly, without catching sight of Ahern.

There was milk for our breakfast that morning. I asked innocently whether Mr Ahern had made a delivery that morning and was told that it was left over from the previous evening, that he would bring milk only once a day. ‘So cows give milk in the afternoon?’

‘I think they are milked twice a day.’ My mother queried my aunt with a look.

My aunt was uncertain. ‘I believe so.’ She smiled at me. ‘You can ask Uncle Thomas this afternoon.’

The subject had been broached, with little prompting from myself. I had, in my eyes, been given permission to investigate the matter and was emboldened to interrogate them further. ‘Where does Mr Ahern (I refused to admit kinship to the robber) keep our cow?’

‘He has a field somewhere toward the end of the valley.’ My mother inclined her head southward. ‘He is grazing it there.’

Success! I had the information I needed. I helped with the washing up and then did my assigned lessons for the day. Around mid-day, I presented myself to my aunt and mother to be quizzed on that day’s readings. After acquitting myself admirably (the recovery of our cow was not to be risked by failure and an afternoon devoted to review of what I had neglected to learn in the morning), I was given permission to spend the rest of the day outside. I even asked if I could follow the path southward to the end of the valley and was told that I could but not to venture too close to the water.

The road through the village turns eastward a hundred or so yards outside our house and ascends the hill to the outside world. South of the turning, the road degenerates quickly to a path following the shoreline, bordered on the landward side by stone fences and the seaward side by rocky outcroppings. There are many muddy patches where water seeps down from the hills, and I soon learned that I could make faster progress by walking closer to the walls, where the ground was covered with stones.

Many things caught my attention, and I noted them for later investigation. That day I had a mission. I was just tall enough to see over the walls, and I examined each field as I passed it. There were fields filled with plants; there were fields with sheep, some of whom paused in their activities to regard me as closely as I was regarding them; there was even a pig in one field. There were dogs guarding the sheep. There were men engaged in what to me were still inexplicable activities. I was stopped by one of them who asked me if I was Mrs Brennan’s boy. I told him that I was. He nodded and then went back to work, curiosity apparently satisfied.

And finally there was the field with the cow. She (it is a measure of my ignorance that I initially thought of the cow as a he) was standing twenty or so feet away from the fence and eating grass. As I watched, she bent down and tore off a mouthful and then used her pinkish-grey tongue to manoeuvre the grass into her mouth.

My immediate reaction was disgust. The cow bore no resemblance to the sleek animals I had seen in pictures and drawings. Her back sagged between bony shoulders and hipbones. Her flesh drooped, appearing to be only loosely attached to the bones. And she was filthy, her legs covered with mud up to the knee joints, her tail a dirty flail. Then there was the business of the udder hanging forward of her back legs, a curious, quivering appendage with no claim to ascetic value. The cow was, not to put too fine a point on it, ugly. She turned my way and regarded me without interest. I watched her for another quarter hour. She continued to eat. The animal had no sense of the drama, no sense of the potential magic of cowness.

I turned away in disappointment and continued down the path to its end. I found many more rewarding things to occupy my attention. Had an informant been available, I would have pestered him or her with questions about the nature of the things I was encountering. Several hours later, I returned along the path. As I approached the field with the cow, a man pushing a barrow came towards me and opened the gate to the field. He was, I concluded, the elusive Thomas Ahern.

When I came abreast of the field, I stopped and watched him over the fence. He attached a rope halter to the cow’s head and led it toward towards a stake in the ground that I had overlooked before. He tied the other end of the rope to the stake and then took a three-legged stool and several pails from the barrow. At that point he noticed me and waved. ‘Are you the Brennan boy then? I’m your Uncle Thomas. Come in and keep me company while I’m milking.’

I pushed the gate open and walked over to him. There was a smell, a smell that grew stronger the closer I came to the cow. Uncle Thomas sat down next to the cow and placed a pail underneath her udder. He pressed his head against her belly and then began milking. He puts his hands around two of the teats and began pulling on them. With each stroke, a jet of milk squirted into the pail. At first, when the pail was empty, there was a sound of milk hitting metal with a clang. As the pail filled, the sound changed and became liquid hitting liquid. I craned my neck and looked into the pail.

The cow continued to graze, ignoring both of us as Uncle Thomas asked me questions about our life in Dublin. Occasionally the cow would move about, and Uncle Thomas would interrupt himself to coo ‘Cush, cush, stand still, girlie,’ at the cow. When the first pail was full, he handed it to me and asked me to carry it over to the barrow. I took that opportunity to examine the milk. It was foamy and bits and pieces of grass floated on the surface. It also smelled unpleasantly of cow.

When I returned, Uncle Thomas asked me if I would like to try milking the cow. I didn’t really want to, but he seemed to expect me to try. So I sat down and modelled myself on him. I pressed my head against the cow’s belly as I had seen him do. I placed my hands on two of the teats. They were unexpectedly warm and rubbery. I yanked on them. Nothing came out. The cow, however, turned her head around and looked askance at me. As I pulled at the teats again, in another vain attempt to produce a stream of milk, she swatted her tail across my face, leaving a slimy trail of muck on my cheek.

I jumped up, tipping the stool over and falling backward onto the ground. Uncle Thomas guffawed and helped me up. I stepped away, out of the reach of the cow’s tail. I pulled my handkerchief from my pocket and anxiously scrubbed at my face. I thought I would never be clean again. The handkerchief quickly became soiled, and I threw it away in disgust.

‘That’s just a love tap, lad. Nothing to worry about. Now, try again.’ Uncle Thomas picked the stool up and sat it back in place. ‘Here. Let me show you.’

He put a hand on my shoulder and pushed me back beside the cow. He knelt down and showed me how to form a circle with my thumb and other fingers and then slide them gently down the teat. This time my efforts were rewarded. I soon mastered the particular rhythm of milking. I wasn’t quite as fast as Uncle Thomas, but I did manage to fill a pail.

On the way back, an older man joined us in walking back to the village. Uncle Thomas related my experience. The man laughed and told a story about his first attempt to milk a cow. He had been kicked for his troubles. His story turned my experience into a common happening. I was part of a band of fellow sufferers. The beasts were not to be trusted. They inflicted similar insults on everyone. When we reached our house, Uncle Thomas gave my mother the pail of milk I had produced and told her that I had the makings of a fine cowman in me. As soon as the door closed and Uncle Thomas moved off, my mother gave me a basin of water, a bar of soap, and a cloth and ordered me to scrub myself clean.

That evening when we sat down to tea, my aunt lifted the pitcher and began filling the cups halfway with milk. I told her that I would henceforth take my tea without milk. The knowledge of where milk came from—it was hardly the gift I had imagined—had turned it into poison for me. I was told not to be silly. A growing boy needed milk. I let the tea get cold in the hope that I would be able to dump it out later when no one was looking. I finally drank it under duress.

It is a wonder that any of us survived. Life in Munfrees was unsanitary. Dirt, and the germs that went with it, was ubiquitous. It soon ceased to bother me, and my mother even allowed me to have a grimy face and hands on occasion. I don’t recall having more than the usual run of childhood diseases. Perhaps my memories are not accurate.

But, then, memories such as these are composed of equal parts of remembrance and forgetting. My stories of Munfrees, polished over countless retellings, are romances in the original sense of that term. The dirt and the smells, the stultifying poverty, the wresting of a livelihood from the recalcitrant soil—those disappear in my stories. One forgets, I forget, the worse aspects of that life.

Certainly the child that I was then did not express himself, did not even think, in the vocabulary and concepts that I use to tell these stories. But are these stories any less valid because they are fictional, because they are told with an adult’s sensibilities? Are imagined recollections less real than true ones? All these memories are what I am, they are part of what I have become. I am a teller of tales, and fiction is a way of truthsaying.

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