Ciara Kenny

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Impressions of changing times on a sunny trip home

Mediterranean weather wasn’t the only unusual thing John Flahive experienced on his summer holiday in Kerry this year

Thu, Aug 22, 2013, 11:47


John Flahive

Though I’ve been living in London for 26 years, I still return three or four times a year to visit family who still work the farm on which I grew up in Annascaul, Co Kerry. I can’t remember a trip coinciding with this July’s Mediterranean temperatures. This trip also coincided with a couple of events and signs of changing times.

Cycleway to a better future

On my first day there was the official opening of the new section of road with a separate cycleway running parallel on both sides, which starts close to our farmhouse and continues to Annascaul village 4.5km away. A good sized crowd for that Friday noon came to see the Minister for Transport cutting the tape.

I encountered a couple of old schoolmates on holidays from other parts of Ireland who I hadn’t seen for about 20 years. The worthy speeches on the importance of investing in infrastructure and tourism were dull, but Leo Varadkar seemed a smooth operator for these occasions, and it was interesting to see how political rivals such as the Healy-Rae’s felt compelled to attend and share the limelight. With Kerry becoming a single five-seat constituency instead of two three-seaters there’s a lot at stake for the politicians.

The cycleway is popular locally and I’m a fan. When I was a youngster my late mother fretted every time we walked or cycled on the old twisty main roads full of blind bends, she would have been very happy about the cycleway. As a competing veteran athlete it’s brilliant for training runs, I can do the 9km to the end and back in 36 minutes at a steady pace.

The times they are a changin… slowly

For the first time ever a visit home coincided with the Munster football final in Killarney, and I accompanied my brother Patrick and sister Mary to the match. My last Munster final must have been in 1987. Kerry were ahead from early on and never really looked like losing though a good lead narrowed uncomfortably towards the end.

They announced a crowd of 36,000 which was down from the 42-45,000 that used to tightly pack Fitzgerald Stadium. Some of the passion seemed to have gone out of the age-old Kerry-Cork rivalry, the Rebel County fans used to put on a colourful display waving large red flags with all sorts of designs which sometimes included the Stars and Stripes and even (dubiously) confederate flags, but this was a quieter crowd.

The match programme included details of an impressive high performance centre that Kerry County Board were building outside Tralee. I wondered how long the GAA can keep accumulating all the facilities and other attributes of professional sport whilst insisting that the players remain amateurs who get no financial reward. I’ve long felt that GAA sports should abandon sham-amateurism, go professional and transform the All- Ireland into a league format, which is easier now with the decline of the provincial finals. But the wheels of change turn very slowly at the GAA.

Ghost estates

Inch is a magnificent beach just 5km away, and the big change here was the unfamiliar large crowds due to the hot weather. Actually it was more a reversion to a distant past when Irish summers seemed to have reasonably regular spells of sunshine but definitely new were the surf schools touting their services.

When I was a boy Inch strand was often busy and I thought nothing of it. But as an adult I’ve become one for culture vulture holidays, visiting museums and historic sites rather than sun and sand. Now I prefer uncrowded (usually cooler) beaches where one can appreciate nature.

Still… the crowds meant bumping into some more rarely seen former schoolmates. One of them had a brother who worked two days a week in London and commuted back and forth. The thought of doing the same felt tempting, as much of my work involves sitting in front of a computer, but I’ll put off thinking about that until the next trip when Kerry is less like the Mediterranean.

Away from the beach I strolled up the hill behind where one of Ireland’s many ghost estates can be found. Despite sitting there unfinished for five years in a spot with plenty Atlantic wind and rain, the six house development showed no sign of dereliction – presumably someone is keeping an eye on it. There is a fine view of Inch Island and Dingle Bay from the site so maybe that will result in it being finished in better economic times.

Nearby, a row of much older terraced holiday chalets were in an advanced state of dereliction, with the roofs caving in. A friend had stayed there for three months in the early 90s to write his book. Perhaps it was a result of the endless run of bad summers, as their neglect long pre-dated the crash. If this glorious Irish July proves to be a rare exception, dereliction might also be the eventual fate of the new development.

Changing moral attitudes

On my way back I fitted in an afternoon in Dublin. I hopped on a crowded Luas tram at Heuston station, and standing nearby were a couple of teenage boys who hopped on at the same time. They had put their arms around each other and it wasn’t long before they were kissing. My first instinct was to worry about their safety – public displays of same-sex affection are not unusual in central London where I work, but even there you don’t see it much on trains and buses. This was a tram from Tallaght to the Point, not London’s Soho, and these teenagers looked barely 16.

But nothing happened, I heard no mutterings of disapproval, there was no outrage or name calling and nobody got irate. A bunch of young girls giggled and whispered among themselves but like everyone else they tried not to stare.

The Luas emptied out and the two boys sat down, one on the other’s lap still with arms around each other until Busarus where they got off and disappeared to wherever they were going. Thus a situation where I might have felt compelled to intervene to try to calm things never happened.

When I emigrated in 1987 it was unacceptable for an unmarried man and woman to live together or even share a room if they went away somewhere, but now you have gay teenagers snogging in public.

With moral attitudes it’s been a case of “all change” and it’s very hard to sustain a sense of the nation’s mood from afar despite very regular trips home. My mother updated me one time with a derisive “they all do that here now”. From London I’d read about the discussions on a possible gay marriage referendum and thought Ireland was hardly ready for it considering the storm it generated in supposedly liberal godless France. But even with daily online access to The Irish Times and other news sites from Ireland, this exile was still oblivious to changing moral attitudes.

It’s good that there’s now an Ireland that wants to understand and not exclude those who don’t fit previously cherished norms. An Ireland where two teenage boys are able to express their feelings for each other in public feels like a much better place than an Ireland of 30 years ago, where Anne Lovett, who must have been around the same age, died attempting to give birth in secret along with her baby.

John Flahive (48) emigrated to London in 1987 after studying business at the University of Limerick. After some years working in accountancy and then for the British Film Institute, he now runs Wavelength Pictures, his own film distribution and production company.