Ciara Kenny

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Thinking of all the little things of family

Thirty years ago I left home, and for the rest of my parents’ lives I would live at the opposite end of the world to them. But there was more than just distance to deal with, writes PHILIP LYNCH

Fri, Nov 2, 2012, 08:53


Thirty years ago I left home, and for the rest of my parents’ lives I would live at the opposite end of the world to them. But there was more than just distance to deal with, writes PHILIP LYNCH

Philip Lynch in Tasmania, where he has lived for 30 years

I LEFT IRELAND for good almost 30 years ago. On that eerily still June morning when I was about to go, my mother reached into her apron, and pressed 20 folded pound notes into my hand that she’d somehow salted away. But she was too distressed to utter any words.

My leaving was straightforward enough – or so it seemed at the time. I boarded the ferry at Dún Laoghaire and caught a one-way flight from London to Melbourne. And although I didn’t know it, I was about to live at the opposite end of the world from my parents for the rest of their lives.

It’s all the little things about my parents’ lives that remain in my memory to this day. Not necessarily their struggle to raise 10 children on a modest size farm. Rather, it was their matter-of-fact, no-frills approach to getting on with life.

I remember my mother trying to learn to drive in the back field one Sunday afternoon – and my father in the front seat, instructing. We all gathered to watch the reversing, swerving, black Morris Minor. We heard him yelling and saw her exiting the car. And she wasn’t game to ever try again.

I’m told that in her last decade, she started going to Mass every morning. Maybe she liked the curate. My sister said she’d cycle the two miles on a dodgy bicycle in all kinds of weather.

One year she cooked a turkey for my April homecoming; to make up for all those Christmases I’d missed, I guess. She knew I loved the stuffing. It was too long roasting. She must’ve underestimated her new fan-forced oven. But I was touched by all the trouble she took.

She tolerated a man who would come around in a Ford Anglia van, usually after children’s allowance day, with cheap sheets, towels and blankets.

Business was done out on the road at the gable of the house. “Mam,” he called her, touching his cap, in-between showing her his wares.

For years she baked soda bread every evening; right up until the night she had her stroke. In minutes she’d have the dough flattened, crossed with a moist butter knife, and in the oven. Lathered with marmalade while still warm, it was irresistible.

She was a woman of few words. “Sure I’ll put you on to your pa,” she’d say after a few minutes at a loss when I’d ring, and she’d slip away.

The unsuccessful driving instructor quit school to work on the family farm. “Ploughing with two horses when I was 12,” he’d boast, knowing, of course, it was a feat we’d never match. He was belted at school for writing with the wrong hand. Signing cheques would get him all flustered.

For years he wouldn’t have a TV in the house. He swore we’d never get our homework done. But then, when he relented, he’d never miss the news or Coronation Street and EastEnders.

Joyce’s Ulysses and several books by Dickens lay among the westerns and Ed McBains on the book shelf upstairs on the landing. He finished The Pickwick Papers one year. It took him all winter.

In his final few years all he’d read was the Anglo Celt newspaper. He’d go over it ponderously, page by page in the evenings, his glasses on the end of his nose; calling out the names of those who’d copped it for no insurance and bald tyres, and driving under the influence.

He drove the tractor, the Massey Ferguson 35, into the haggard gate one morning, rupturing the radiator. Furious, he blamed my brother, who was cavorting on the dunghill and distracting him.

A frugal man too, he had a weakness for auctions and bargains. He brought home so much furniture and, once, a portable dunny. He couldn’t believe no one else would bid for it. We were mortified.

He got on well with a Protestant neighbour who drank too much, and who later turned his rifle on himself in his upstairs bedroom. They’d stop to chat for ages when they met on the lane on their tractors.

When we were little, he broke his ankle, while shifting a tree stump. My mother made toast for us all through the evening, the slices piling high on a plate on the kitchen table. So much toast, it could never all be eaten.

Everyone reckons I’m a carbon copy of him. No comparisons were ever made with my mother.

We lived on opposite ends of the world. But it wasn’t just the distance.

Now they lie side by side, a world away, in the local cemetery on the bog road. I still think of them often.

This article is printed in the Life pages of The Irish Times today, and is on the main website here.

Philip is a regular contributor to Generation Emigration. Read previous pieces by him about visiting Belfast after a long time away, his relationship with his ageing parents, and about his dwindling connection to Ireland

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