23 July 2016
It was the summer before the ‘Summer of
Love’. But did I learn much Irish in Kerry?
How are memories triggered? How do our memories from childhood and our teen years wash in and out of our minds like the tide and the sand on a beach?
My walks on the beach near Rethymnon over the past three weeks brought back memories of long walks and long summer afternoons on the long sandy beach in Ballinskelligs, Co Kerry, fifty years ago in July and August 1966.
Irish was a compulsory subject in all schools in Ireland in those days. You had to pass the Irish language paper, or else you failed all your exams, and risked either having to repeat the “Inter Cert” or the Leaving Certificate exams – or, if your parents could afford it, being sent to school in England.
It was a year that I was growing uncomfortable with Irish politics. Nelson’s Pillar had been blown up a few months earlier, and presaged the political climate that was developing around the fiftieth anniversary of the 1916 Rising.
My parents were worried that three of us were becoming a risk because we did not have enough Irish and could become extra liabilities. We were packed off to spend four week in July and August in Colaiste Mhichil in Ballinskelligs, on a remote western tip of Co Kerry, off the Ring of Kerry (N70), and off the R566 and R567 between Cahersiveen and Waterville.
We were told we risked being sent home if we were caught speaking English, although this might have been a problem for the three of us – I think my parents were on holidays in England or Spain at the time.
I had been innovative earlier that summer and found a paper round with a local newsagent, and so I headed off with a secret stash of cash that I knew would give me extra spending capacity. I was putting into practice an early lesson in economics.
It was also an early lesson in geography: it took more time that day to get there than it takes me to get to many parts of the world today. The lengthy train journey to Faranfore was followed by a tortuous bus journey in the rain along the Ring Kerry. When I arrived I found I could not understand the local people. They thought my poor attempts to pronounce Irish were risible, and when I realised the threat of being sent home carried no punch and reverted to my own first language they thought I was English. I did not understand them either, and did not know the difference when they were speaking English or Irish.
I can still name seven or eight of the teenage boys of my own age group who squeezed into the Sugrue farmhouse in Dungeagan for those few weeks. I was the only one who lived in Dublin at that time, most of them came from Cork. Two (Dick and Tom) were my first cousins; two more (Mattie and Jerry) were from the village my mother grew up in; and for a few years after I kept in touch with two brothers (Terry and Brian) from Cork, and with Donal from Nenagh who also stayed in the house during those four weeks.
In the mornings, we had classes in Irish in a wooden-built schoolroom that was partitioned into two classrooms. Much of the work was on grammar and vocabulary. Of course, every essay could truthfully open, without fear of being clichéd, with those two well-spun sentences: Lá brea samhraidh a bhí ann. Bhí an ghrian ag taitneamh go hard sa spear. I imagine the teachers thought they were introducing some lighter moments to those boring mornings when they tried to introduce us to poetry and songs.
In the afternoons, there were walks to a long sandy beach or out above the bay, and the blessings of hindsight have turned each and every day into one filled with summer sunshine. I never learned to swim that summer, but there were impromptu football matches, and lengthy discussions that boys of that age revelled in – on politics, sport, literature and the pop culture of the time.
There was a smaller, stony, rocky beach nearer Dungeagan, where we were not supposed to venture, but it was a popular venue for smoking and for secret meetings between boy and girl.
As teenage boys in groups on the longer sandy beach, we thought we were talking about sex, although we knew nothing about it. We were probably not even being risqué, and although this was the summer before the ‘Summer of Love’ (1967), it was the summer after the ‘Bishop and the Nightie’ storm created by the Late, Late Show.
It was the summer the Beatles were topping the charts with ‘Yellow Submarine’ and ‘Eleanor Rigby,’ and with ‘Paperback Writer,’ it was the year Simon and Garfunkell were listening to the ‘Sound of Silence’ and would soon invite us to ‘Scarborough Fair.’ It seems now that on the walks back from the beach every afternoon we sang ‘Sunny Afternoon’ by the Kinks. I remember dressing most days in black roll-neck sweaters and blue jeans, and I imagined myself on marches against the bomb and the Vietnam War.
Culturally, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and the Kinks were far more important than the Irish songs our teachers tried to impart at the ceili dances in the evenings. Those dances had names that were strange and inexplicable – the Walls of Limerick, the Siege of Ennis … -- but we boys put up with them because they provided opportunities for close encounters with girls of our own age. The boy from west Cork who could play Wooden Heart on his tin whistle never got to do a star turn at a ceili … I wonder whether he grow up to do Elvis impersonations?
There were rambling stories from the seanachai, Seán Mhártain Uí Shúilleabháin, sometimes in the morning classes, and sometimes too at the ceili dances in the evening. Most of his stories were very long and I doubt whether any of us understood them, no matter how long we listened, or how many times they were repeated.
By that age I was already a precocious reader. I remember reading The Diary of Anne Frank on the sand dunes while others were swimming. If we were not supposed to speak in English, then I suppose we were not to read in English either. But I also remember reading Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, George Orwell’s Animal Farm, Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood and travel books by Wilfred Thesiger.
By then I was also reading newspapers every day. The Irish Times was not available in places like this at that time, but with my accumulated paper-round earnings I could afford The Irish Press every day. My uncle and foster-father worked there on the News Desk, and The Irish Press was on the cusp of a revolution in Irish journalism, attracting new writers and creative journalists.
It was the summer when a U-2 plane disappeared over Cuba. The Vietnam War was at its height, the Civil Rights movement and its marches were spreading across the US, John Lennon had to apologise for remarks about Jesus and popularity, the Cultural Revolution was launched in China with Red Guards waving Mao’s Little Red Book, and Mao swam across the Yangtze River.
There were times too when we did nothing more than just hang around. There were three shops in the village, but we seemed to prefer John Jo’s shop, sitting on biscuit boxes, sipping coke, wondering about the goings-on in the back bar, and being entertained by his fascination with Jean Shrimpton, the ‘Face of the ’60s.’ If I never learned to swim that year, I never learned to smoke either.
We got away from it all one day with a bus trip and a ferry crossing to Knightstown on Valentia Island. I had no interest in Gaelic football, but I remember some of the group becoming excited as they realised they had seen the Kerry footballer Mick O’Connell. Curiously, we then sang what were then called ‘rugby songs’ in the back seats of the bus all the way back to Ballinskelligs.
I was slowly developing an interest in rugby, aided by the infectious interest in rugby by two brothers from Limerick. But I had been brought up on a diet of English boys’ comics and football magazines.
My cousins persuaded the nuns in a nearby holiday convent that their mother knew some of them, or went to school with one of them. The accuracy of the story mattered little. The convent had one of the few televisions in Ballinskelligs, and the nuns let us in one Saturday afternoon, and they fed us with biscuits and orange juice as we watched the World Cup Final in Wembley.
It was Saturday 30 July 1966 and England beat Germany 4-2 after extra time. It is still England’s only World Cup trophy, and I still remember Geoff Hurst’s hat-trick – the first one ever in a World Cup Final – and that controversial third goal.
I was the only boy in the group cheering for England. I am perplexed then, and still am to this day, when Irish fans can cheer any side but England. But it was 1966, and the fiftieth anniversary of 1916. The songs in the charts in Ireland that summer included ‘The Sea Around Us’ by the Ludlows (‘Thank God we’re surrounded by water’) and ‘Black and Tan Gun’ by the Johnny Flynn Showband (‘It was down in the town of old Bantry ...’). Dermot O’Brien was soon to have a hit with ‘The Merry Ploughboy’ (‘We’re off to Dublin in the Green’).
I thought I had found my first girlfriend. But she did not think so. I imagined I was heartbroken, but that feeling was dissipated when my foster parents decided to take me back to my grandmother’s farm near Cappoquin, Co Waterford, for a few days. I was back among the people I loved and who loved me before I went back to school that September.
When we were asked later ‘Did you learn much Irish in the Gaeltacht?’ we all thought it was witty to reply: ‘No, but I learned a lot of French … kissing.’ But did those four weeks in Ballinskelligs improve my Irish?
I must have learned something. At the end of the four weeks, I came away with the fáinne airgid or silver ring awarded to speakers with a basic working knowledge of the Irish language. I received a pass mark on a pass paper in the ‘Inter Cert’ a year later and did the same at the ‘Leaving Cert’ in 1969.
After the ‘Leaving Cert’ I returned to Ballinskelligs once, and stayed a night in a tent pitched in a field beside the Sugrue family’s farmhouse. I have been back to Kerry many times since, as recently as two months ago [28 May 2016], but I have not been back to Ballinskellings … yet.
Next Saturday [30 July 2016] is the fiftieth anniversary of that World Cup final between England and Germany. Memories like this seem to be embedded in everyone’s mind. But did my stay in Ballinskelligs leave me with an interest in Irish?
I never use the language, partly because of the impression that the Irish language was already being hijacked in 1966 for political purposes by people who used it as a cultural brand in a way that I knew excluded me. I can still understand the news in Irish on television, but have greater difficulty when it comes to the news on the radio. Like sand on the beach, my memories of the Irish language have been washed away by the tides of time.
I still know just enough Irish to grind my teeth every time I hear Gerry Adams trying to speak it. Part of my cultural heritage was robbed from me at a time when I did not know how to offer any resistance.
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