Hilary Fannin: wasps congregated and school smelled like a rotting banana

We would disembark from the train at Killarney, my mother and I, around the same time every year, for our annual summer visit to Kells Bay in Co Kerry

Kells Bay: a place to start daydreaming about in May

Kells Bay: a place to start daydreaming about in May

 

I looked up from my book as the train pulled into Killarney Station and felt a jolt of recognition, a blister-pop of excitement, a sharp, discernible tug to a distant time and place. Maybe it was the bleaching sun, but the station looked entirely unchanged to me since 1969, when I was seven and my mother was more or less Doris Day.

We would disembark from the train at Killarney, she and I, around the same time every year, for our annual summer visit to her aunt and uncle in their seaside cottage on Kells Bay, a low-lying whitewashed dwelling with pillar-box-red window frames, shouldered by purple mountains and lulled by the sea. It was a place to start daydreaming about in May, when summer whispered its imminence and the wasps started congregating over the classroom bin and the whole school smelt like a rotting banana.

We would disembark in our crumpled finery, the remnants of our egg and tomato sandwiches scrunched up in parchment paper, after the long, soporific journey from Dublin. I would be in my blue gingham dress and the blue sandals that I had yet to grow into; my mother would be wearing a sleeveless tight-ribbed top, her peroxide blonde hair, back-combed and hairsprayed, standing in a stiff, unassailable, halo-bright bouffant. Her bulbous red earrings netted the curious glance of the stationmaster and confused the diligent bees, who mistook them for extravagant, ambulant fuchsia.

The trained moved on. I watched our ghosts shimmer and dry, evaporate in the wild, barely believable heat.

Listowel, my final destination that day, was on fire. Listowel Writers’ Week in a heatwave – no one, it seemed, could quite believe it.

Lugubrious beast

A pianist was playing on the square, notes scattering in the open air. Cafes spilled on to the streets, the clientele drinking coffee in the sunshine. The audience for the historical walking tour, fanning themselves with festival brochures, followed their guide like a single lugubrious beast in Ray-Bans. Poetry drifted up from beneath the castle walls, exhalations vaporising on the air. Shopkeepers leaned against doorways in rolled-up shirtsleeves. Someone was filming someone else, an umbrella held over the lens to curb the glare. Below the town, the river ran silver.

The heat, the heat, the heat, the heat, the heat.

Only the foreigners walked on the shady side of the street. They had sun hats and cotton shawls and wash-bags full of sunblock. We Irish, like mad, thirsty, pinkening dogs, crowded under the steady sun, tongues lolling, yapping at each other.

“How long will it last, do you think?” we quizzed each other. “And God almighty, wouldn’t you kill for a summer like this after the winter we’ve had?”

“And last summer? Only a name stuck on a season of indeterminate origin. Another winter, whistling Dixie through its bluing lips.”

Festive streets

“And where would you be going at all if you had weather like this? Where would you be going at all, at all?” we asked on the festive streets, under the blue Reeks and the yellow Paps, under a varnished, cerulean sky. “It’s a beautiful county,” said a friend as we sped along country roads, stopping by a ditch and pulling in the mirrors to let a herd of jostling cows continue on their urgent journey. “But you pay dearly for the privilege of living in it. Mist and rain and long winter nights.”

In the rear-view mirror I watched the cows’ backsides sway along the shaley road. Ahead of us a hen sprinted home, flapping and fussing and mopping its brow with its hanky. It looked like it was hurrying back to pare its bunions in front of a soap opera.

My friend brought me to a holy well near Ballyheigue, a beautiful, lovingly tended spot where the well water is reputed to cure diseases of the eye and where a vaulting wisp of a greyhound, who had followed us from his home, lassoed us to the spot, smiling through his blackened gums, circling us like a whip curl.

The ruins of St Daithleann’s Convent stand on a hill beside the well, and the story goes that when the nunnery was attacked the saint struck the would-be despoilers blind, informing them that on the cessation of their molestations they could bathe their sinful eyes in the well to regain their sight.

I knelt, lifted the water to my face with the plastic ladle that lay there. I’m not good at prayer. I just thanked the sun and sea, the cows and rocks, the luminous mountains and half-forgotten ghosts for their glorious, uplifting visibility.

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