Where town and country met


EXTRACT:THE DIFFERENCE between town and country in a small place like Portlaoise was impossible to ignore, if only because the line, like the frontline of a battle zone, was constantly shifting and therefore under constant observation. Kids who cycled in from the country one week cycled home the next to the near edge of town, thanks to a terrace of new houses or a sprinkling of new bungalows which required the ongoing revision of our mental maps, writes PAT BORAN

Outside of these troubling liminal zones, however, the differences between town lads and country lads were to us so patently obvious as to be almost beyond consideration. Town lads and country lads dressed differently, spoke differently, moved differently, as if their very skeletons and muscles were assembled and subsequently had developed in different ways. Town lads walked in straight lines, and their feet and legs and even the cheeks of their backsides had acclimatised to this movement; country lads on the other hand lolloped and swung, their distinctive gaits and long wide strides clearly the product of the open spaces to which they were heir.

Across the divide, town and country boys also had different ambitions and, in many cases, their very different futures were already mapped out for them on the basis of where they’d been born and raised: which parish, which townland, which end of a half-mile of lane. Two small incidents, ten years or so apart – and both involving animals – might illustrate how some of these differences expressed themselves.

The Country Zoo is how I recall it, in the way that we sometimes label our memories in an effort to have return access to them. What it was really called I don’t remember, but I do remember that one day in St Paul’s National School, up on the Borris Road (and therefore at the then edge of town), we were rounded up and led outside to the school gates not quite knowing what to expect, to find a small van, customised (to use a word that did not exist in its present meaning back then) so that instead of solid sides it presented to us a flank of hinged or fold-down panels behind which, in cages and cubicles of various sizes and proportions were about a dozen living creatures few of us townies had up to then ever seen up close.

A hen, a rabbit, a small red fox . . . and creatures whose names many of us could not even guess (a badger, a pheasant, a weasel or stoat) . . . And while we stood there and stared open-mouthed, at first the country boys stared too, before quickly realising there was as much entertainment to be had in staring at us, as if we were in fact the most exotic creatures there.

The second incident happened while I was still in the same school, but four or maybe five years afterwards. We were on what must have been the first of our few school tours, two classes of us loaded onto one of Johnny O’Brien’s coaches (“No chewing gum. If I catch any one of you chewing gum . . .“), off to see the Curragh of Kildare – the endless grass, and furze, and grass and sheep, and furze and grass and sheep – then on to Bray to see the sea (a maiden voyage, no doubt, for some of us), and in which seaside town, overcome by excitement, first one boy then about twenty of us in all sent into a furious spin the postcard stand outside a seafront souvenir shop until the owner emerged brandishing a shillelagh and everybody ran, the promenade behind us strewn (I couldn’t help thinking even as we ran) with hundreds of tiny photographs of itself.

It was the main stop, however, that provided us with the most memorable moment of the trip. For here, as the sign in the car park had it, were the legendary Zoological Gardens. “The A-Zoo” as the lads at the back of the bus kept saying, in what they imagined would pass for Dublin accents.

Monkeys and snakes were the early definite winners. Apart from brief infatuations with the sheer physical scale of giraffes and elephants (with their impressive volumes of steaming, straw-packaged dung) and, of course, the wow factor of the lions and tigers, the seals and polar bears, most of our time was spent around the monkey and reptile houses, in the former recognising least favourite teachers in the swinging simians and anus-stretching apes, in the latter simply delighting in the proximity of dozens of coldblooded, slow-motion, lethal tubes of death, brightly coloured and dramatically marked, and on opposite ends of which we imagined we could hear (through the inch-thick glass) the tongue flickering between venom-tipped fangs and the distinctive rattle which was the last sound so many cowboys and Indians ever heard.

In these and other encounters, it was us against the world, boys against animals, no marked difference between town and country cousins. Until it was time to leave.

Having visited the gift shop, the pet shop and toilets, we were marched single file back into the bus, counted, counted a second time, told to behave ourselves and counted for a third time. Johnny O’Brien turned on the engine, the singing started almost immediately – Old McDonald Had a Farm – but just as the bus was about to pull out we became aware of a disturbance, an argument taking place at the door of the bus between one of our teachers and a security guard from the zoo.

EVERYONE WENT QUIET,not out of shock, or respect, but the better to hear. Just then a ripple of laughter went up from a seat down the back. We all turned around. The sound, or the lack of a sound – the engine being suddenly switched off – spelled deep trouble somewhere. And as we sat there, backed up by our teachers the sullen security guard in cap and uniform came slowly down the aisle, placing one big hand on the headrest of each of the seats in turn, giving his progress through the bus the look of something vaguely ape-like in itself.

And even before he came to our classmate Pat “Budgie” Keogh – an inveterate prankster, visibly trembling now with delight and fear – it was already clear that the game was up.

And before guard or teachers could utter a single word, extracting himself from his accomplices the bold Pat rose to his feet, at once class hero and class fool in the same tension-filled moment.

And given that he lived then out the Ridge Road, where town and countryside met, one might say, producing from under his jumper a stolen pet shop bunny he was, to the country lads, the lunatic town, and a wild country lad to more sophisticated townies like myself.

The Invisible Prison – Scenes from an Irish Childhoodby Pat Boran is published by Dedalus Press