You waited for Friday night to come around. There were some weeks when it arrived in nothing flat and the other weeks when you’d nearly give up on it arriving at all. You’d have the cows milked a bit early, shave, dress and when your father looked up from staring into the coals in the fireplace he’d say, “Are you goin’ out then?” Rather than risk argument, you’d remain silent, just nodding and holding your hand out for the ten-bob note that he eventually had agreed to give you. A grunt would serve as acknowledgement, then off with you into the fading light for the two mile walk to the village chewing on a pig’s cheek by way of dinner. Within a mile the collar stud might be biting into your throat and you’d curse yourself for not leaving it out until you reached your destination. The old fella’s greatcoat from the war kept the mist off your brown pinstripe suit. The cloth cap you bought on your first and last trip to Dublin nine years ago kept your head dry.
The walk was distinguishable by its sameness. You’d hear the pigs in Conway’s byre as you passed or the curlews hiding in the fields. The grass was always either wispy green or yellow mown. The few trees were the only evergreen fixtures and the roadside hedges either boasted their berries or they didn’t. Only the colour of the sky changed with the seasons, offering a thousand different insinuations of greyness. The Galtee mountains seemed closer than they were – a sure sign of foul weather on the way. The peak of Galteemore was lost in the clouds, like a tired old man had pulled the blankets up over his head to keep the day away. The roadway waltzed down the contours of the slope, helping you along your way for the inward journey at least.
You’d join the single street at the schoolhouse where you, your father and his father had learned the rudiments – though you grandfather’s brother had to find a hedge school during the Penal Days. Master O’Dowd had great hopes for you to do the scholarship for Maynooth Seminary but you were the youngest, the only one left to carry on the farm. You’d get into Trinity College, he used to say, if they only allowed Catholics. That used to spark a few daydreams alright; walking through the great gates of Trinity like Goldsmith, Wilde, and Tolstoy. The tall creamery building marked the far end of the unusually broad street but the church dominated all from its central position. It went beyond dominating just the geography in its mission into the minds and souls of the locals. It was down this street that Liam Hanlon was dragged by his bound feet behind an army truck before the British major administered the coup de grâce to what was left of his barely conscious body. You were there watching with your father because attendance was compulsory for all above school age. One of the rules of colonisation – educate them young. All you can remember was panicking in the press of bodies but later in Biddy Hanlon’s kitchen you heard your first swear words: “Fuckin’ Black’n’Tans.”
Gallagher’s Bar sat on the corner of the narrow Bog Road next to Gallagher’s Undertakers and Gallagher’s Motors. The friendly smoke rising from the chimney signalled the end of your journey as you grasped the brass handle and thumbed the latch, pushing the door open. The indoor fog was a fusion of tobacco and turf and the smell of both hit you like a punch after a week in the clean breath of the hillside. Mary Brigid would start pouring your pint as if intuitive to your presence and by the time you reached the counter after exchanging some greetings, her broad smile was lifting your mood. She placed the pint of stout in front of you, today making the annual declaration she remarkably had for every regular patron –
“Happy birthday a chara – have this one on the house.”
“What age have you these days,” Francis Xavier O’Neill’s lilting voice enquired.
“Does it matter as long as I have the strength of a horse?”
“…and the prick to go with it”, whispered some wit – to ribald guffawing.
“’Tis grand to have your health alright,” would be followed by concurrent indications of agreement.
“Will it rain for the mowin’?” This from Dan Hartigan to nobody in particular.
“Nary a drop.” Ned Flannery, certainty in his brevity.
“The hills are looking close,” you advised in a tone suggestive of deep insight.
Old Finbar Roach over by the fireplace picked up his button accordion and drew a discordant moan into the bellows as conversation dipped to a lower pitch. He fingered the opening notes of a lament for lost love and by the time he finished, the pub had become as silent as the parish graveyard. For some, reflective periods of varied emotional depths passed before they rejoined the conversation. You took longest of all because you feared that your larynx would betray your memories of the girl who couldn’t wait for you as she rushed to embrace her passion for life in places far beyond the village.
More pints followed, jigs were demanded of Old Finbar and the night passed as quickly as the foot-tapping on the floorboards until Mary Bridget called, “Time” and all present said their goodbyes and made their way outside at intervals, instinct pointing all towards their scattered homes. You faced the dark road thinking that next birthday, your sixtieth, might be better – maybe something like that visit to Dublin nine years ago.