'I walked so slowly I almost made childhood stand still'

Seaside Haunts/Dungarvan: In the final part of the series, Thomas McCarthy recalls childhood holidays of cut feet and high tides…

Seaside Haunts/Dungarvan: In the final part of the series, Thomas McCarthy recalls childhood holidays of cut feet and high tides in Co Waterford

Childhood begins at ground level, with bare feet chilled by the sea and toes frosted with sand. It is the summer holidays of 1963. It must be August, because I associate the day with Abbeyside Pattern Day. A long stretch of grey sand, hard as a mud-flat under my bare feet, stretches ahead of me. The shattered blue, black, striped fragments of razor shells have accumulated around tufts of windblown grass. Here, now, I am in the absolute depths of a Co Waterford childhood, my athletic and physically strong Sullivan cousins from Keating Street, Dungarvan, shouting at me in the distance, telling me to hurry on.

The tide is coming in, the Cunnigar will be cut off: we'll have to go round the long way if I don't hurry up. The fact is, I've just stood on a razor shell and my big toe is bleeding. My cousin Michael, strong, fatherly, the John Wayne of the beach, runs back to inspect the wound. "It's nothing. It'll stop if you run fast enough, run back down into the salty water." I do as instructed, the rising grey water stinging me as if I'd stood on a jellyfish. My other cousins continue shouting: the tide of Dungarvan Bay is now flowing quickly. We have to run. People have been trapped and drowned on the Cunnigar. That's part of the folklore of Dungarvan summers.

We reach the high ground and the hot asphalt of the summer roadway. I put on my blue plastic shoes, bought in a shop in the Square, my toe stinging, my mind raging with the injustice of seasides and razor shells and strong cousins. How I longed to be back in Cappoquin, sitting outside the Desmond Cinema and chatting with the projectionist John Crowley, or down at Cappoquin railway station, waiting for the Mallow train with the GSWR clerk, Jackie Green. I longed to be back in the company of chatty adults. At the age of nine I considered most children to be Barbarians. I wanted to be anywhere but here, on this beach, bleeding. How I hated the physicality of the sea, the compulsory games, the lack of toilets, the absence of books. On holidays I was one miserable child.


But Dungarvan remains for me the summer place. Now an absolute jewel of a town, with restaurants, art galleries, a brilliantly stocked public library, terrific shops and pubs with real Deise music, it was in the 1960s an undressed but sun-drenched borough. Mai O'Higgins's Dungarvan My Hometown still wafted across the night air, reminding Deiseachs of victories on the playing-fields. Limping with various wounds, I would explore the lanes and backstreets between the square and the quays, look across the water at the fancy people who lived in Abbeyside and scowl and bitch about them with my cousins. The Enterprise in the Square sold exotic ice-creams, the magical shop on Mary Street sold dart-guns, pellet-guns and knives that looked like razor shells, brilliant stuff, and the Ormond Cinema with its summer matinées was a kind of semi-dark forest of mysterious shuffling and screaming; an usherette with a flashlight muttering "Is dat you agin Dunne? Feck off outa da cinema!" These are dangerous places, I would say to myself, where a boy from Cappoquin could be drowned or stabbed - and he 11 miles from his mother.

Conventional summer holidays - two weeks in Tramore or Ballybunion or Butlins, Mosney for the entire family - were out of the question in my family. Such vacations belong to the childhood of my own children, but in the early 1960s working-class children were farmed out to cousins who lived by the sea or near the sea. My brother and I, and later, my sister, left home reluctantly enough on these temporary absences, where we could get our doses of iodine and wounded feet. We were solitary children by nature, and thrived in our own company. McCarthy blood is a solitary blood, I think, and even to this day we all thrive on solitude of one kind or another. Even at the age of nine other people exhausted me, and the idea that I would be thrown into guaranteed ebullient companionship for up to two weeks filled me with alarm. I had no sooner arrived in Dungarvan than I'd begun to develop strategies of escape.

I KNEW THAT many walks to and from the Cunnigar - that spit of sand that juts out into Dungarvan Bay - lay ahead of me. Beautiful, hot sunny afternoons of exploration and hiding, of orange ice-lollies, warm corned-beef sandwiches and Deasy's lemonade. Each hour on the Cunnigar I drank in, knowing it was healthy and good, exotic and wild. But the key strategy I developed was the gift of walking slowly. By the end of my Dungarvan sojourn I walked so slowly I almost made childhood stand still, the immensity of the sea flooding in, myself lost to the forest of razor shells, boyhood's battlefield landscape of dunes and skeletons. One by one I lost my cousins to their own activity. Thinking I couldn't keep up with them, they couldn't keep back with me. That was the difference: they had a childhood, I had a strategy with a private Cunnigar for myself.

It was nearly 10 years later, when I'd got hold of my own motorbike, a Honda 90, and could travel freely through the west Waterford countryside, that I found a summer place for desolate and happy reading. That was Whiting Bay, a truly bleak and private windswept place where a teenager who loved books and solitude could escape from the ebullience of those who run wild. At the end of a byroad on the way to Ardmore, this place is still unchanged and perfect. The sea comes crashing in, windswept, uncelebrated, birds skimming across the foam. I remember trying to read Thom Gunn's poems here, and the republished North Ship of Philip Larkin. The binding of Arnold Bennet's Journals as well as Arland Ussher's The Juggler were destroyed by the sand here. Tea, whiskey and champagne have been consumed here as part of windblown toasts and celebrations. As a non-swimmer my relationship with the sea has always been elliptical, cagey, more grudging than respectful. It was only with the discovery of books, preferably really big books like Journals and Collected Letters, that I began to feel completely accepted by the sea. Those who have had normally supervised childhoods by the sea continue their unbroken childhood relationships with goggles, surfboards, jet-skis and snorkelling gear. The rest of us, those who never bought into the beautiful physicality of it all, find a complete licence through reading huge books while feeling the sun and wind. Books parent us, books create a cordon around the hot spaces where we squat. Happy as Larry, wine and biscuits at hand, Five Seven Live coming through on the sand-encrusted radio, we hold our ground in a way we never could as children.

I was reminded of the Cunnigar only in the last year. My sister has moved back to Dungarvan from England, into a beautiful lodge only a walk away from the sea. The landscape of Dungarvan Bay has changed over time, with ramparts, in-fill and development changing what seemed to a child to be a remote desolate place into an almost suburban edge to the sea. But my brother-in-law walks his dog there. The sharp wind blowing around An Rinn from Helvick is bracing and iodine-filled. And the strangeness of the name, the Cunnigar, still lingers. My mother used to say it had something to do with hounds, and a Portlaw cyclist resting in The Railway Bar, Cappoquin, said that it had something to do with rabbits. Goats and donkeys grazed there on the little vegetation. Today the Cunnigar - best seen across Dungarvan Bay from "the lookout" of the old Stokes Baths - is a refuge for sea-birds. Rabbits were introduced into the area at the time of the Desmond Geraldines, hence the name, An Coineagéar. But, even more interesting (for those of us who like to take dictionaries down to the sea), Risteard Breathnach in his Seana-Chaint Na nDéise has included an Irish word with two 'g's, Cúnggar, meaning a short cut or, indeed, the quickest way to say something. Invoking the poet's licence over language and all its meanings, I choose the second explanation of the word, for the Cunnigar will always remain a Dungarvan short cut to childhood.

Series concluded