Hilary Fannin: The unbridgeable distance to the Kinnegad of my youth

I loved Kinnegad, despite the disparaging rhyme my father taught me about it 100 years ago as we spluttered home along the road to Dublin

Kinnegad in 1998. Photograph: Matt Kavanagh

Kinnegad in 1998. Photograph: Matt Kavanagh

 

I bypassed Naas recently. It was a Sunday, clouds brooding, occasional rain smattering the windshield. That mealy- mouthed, self-satisfied wind, that crashing bore of a wind that’s been blowing its own tuneless trumpet since autumn, flailed the torn shrubbery all along the dull road.

I can’t bypass Naas without thinking of that rhyme – you know the one: “The town of Naas is a terrible place/(insert town name of your choosing here) is just as bad/But of all the kips I’ve e’er been in,/ F*** me, Kinnegad!”

It was a rhyme my father taught me about 100 years ago as we spluttered home along the road to Dublin, having visited his two ancient aunts in Athlone.

“F*** me, Kinnegad,” we’d sing to the hedgerows. “F*** me, Kinnegad,” we’d chant to the blackbirds, rolling down the windows of his bravely limping Ford Capri to roar our refrain at random knots of sheep.

I loved trips in that car, that baldy old gigolo of a car, with its threadbare tyres and undependable doors, the moss growing around its stuck-fast fly windows.

I loved the leatherette bucket seats with the frown lines and scars, those suave, sink-into-me seats that made you feel like you were in your own movie.

“F*** me, Kinnegad!” I murmured to my passenger as we bypassed Naas that recent Sunday, sailing along in the silky slipstream of family saloons, all, like us it seemed, on their way to the outlet mall.

“F*** me, Kinnegad!” I whispered, but he had his earphones in, and anyway he is used to blanking out my pronouncements, assuming that all I talk about is homework and lost-property boxes.

I barely remember the aunts, the sisters who owned a pub and grocery in Athlone. I remember the mad smells and the stained housecoats; the steep steps that brought you skidding to a halt on their cracked linoleum; the strange, mocking faces of the bar’s clientele; the tins of Bisto on the bowed shelves; the bottles of Powers whiskey in the hungry crate.

“Girlie,” they’d say. They called everyone who wasn’t a boy “girlie”.

Last season’s ‘must-haves’

The mall’s car park was jammed. We snaked around, squeezed ourselves between two growling four-wheel drives, cars that were delighted to have my shabby vehicle to bully when we disembarked to peruse the designer village.

The mall, too, was heaving, the mock New England-ish streets full of young families roaming among last season’s “must-haves”, couples with big buggies and bigger handbags, and toddlers grizzling in complicated leisurewear. Presumably shopping is a distraction from the mind-numbing wind, from the thought of Monday, of the creche and the commute.

I hate crowds and am, at best, ambivalent towards polo shirts. I am certainly not the world’s most patient or talented shopper.

When I began to wilt, I excused myself politely and went outside to sit on the edge of the ornamental fountain. People throw money into the fountain; wobblers and toddlers, released from their designer carriages, run around and around it, not caring less about embroidered ponies and the sullen wind.

I sat on the edge and thought about those two old grandaunts in their broken bar, about how the road from Dublin to Athlone, Athlone to Dublin, felt like a great journey, a pilgrimage that required breaks to sustain the weary traveller, a pint and a Club Orange and a couple of toasted ham and cheese sandwiches in Harry’s Bar in Kinnegad.

“How many miles to Kinnegad?” I’d ask my father. “How many miles now?”

Despite our versifying, I loved Kinnegad, the pure foreign sound of it. “Kin-Ne-Gad!”

The aunts sat nightly in two armchairs, either side of the hearth. Eventually they stopped bothering to climb the stairs to their quarters. One of them died in her chair. They said it might have been days before her sister noticed. Empty bottle. Ash-sunk hearth.

“Are you awake? Are you? Are you awake?”

We bought a takeaway coffee and some designer juice that cost an insane amount of money, probably because it had the word “ginseng” somewhere on the label. We retreated to the cowed car.

“Okay?” I asked my passenger.

“Yeah,” he replied. “There wasn’t much. We should come back when they get new stock in.”

We were home inside an hour; the clock registered 100km.

“What’s 100km in miles?” I almost asked, but I stopped myself. What’s the point? A kilometre is a kilometre. A mile is a mile. The distance to our past is immeasurable.

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