Tuesday, June 19, 2007

A risky childhood

Once the trigger on nostalgia is pulled, there’s no knowing where the bullet will end up. Such as the phrase ‘Gordon Bennett!’, which I’ve only recently learned is an exclamation for Australians like we’d say ‘Jesus!’ when surprised.

But Gordon Bennett in Kildare is related completely to the 1903 race sponsored by the New York newspaper publisher of the same name. And the direct Kilcullen Gordon Bennett connection is Bardon’s, now a thriving pub but in those days an hotel where a number of the international contestants stayed. A Visitors Book with their signatures still exists.

Bardon’s in my memory, however, is a place where the Byrne kids’ best friends lived, and where we played together a lot, mostly whenever they weren’t playing at our house. It’s the kind of scenario where the youngsters in a family got to know each others’ homes intimately. Maybe it doesn’t happen so much today, because games are played on consoles and computers instead of in yards, gardens, barns and sheds.

Bardon’s was full of imaginative possibilities. As well as being a pub, grocery and draper’s shop it was a place of history and mystery. The latter because there were rooms which were closed and not used. The yard at the back was surrounded by outbuildings, including a coach house and various stores for the pub. There was a magnificent vegetable garden further out, where Mr Bardon spent all his spare time. It was his retreat from the pressures of the world, and a place we children were discouraged from going to. The property also included a paddock with an open hay barn. Between it and the main yard there was also a loft, originally used for storing dry goods such as sacks of flour.

A lane from the yard led down to Bardon's Field, which connected to the Liffey and bridged the space between what was then Nugent’s field and the cattle mart field bordering Castlemartin Woods.

All that suggests the extent to which we children could play and wander, depending on the weather, the humour of adults, and what we figured amongst ourselves we wanted to be doing anyway.

There were certain prescriptions. For instance, if we Byrne children wanted to play with the Bardons after tea, it was mandatory that we took part in the praying of the Rosary in the living room, now the section of the pub to the left as you walk in, where there’s a real fire in the winter. Picture the children of two families kneeling against chairs around the wall, reciting a decade apiece as quickly as was decently possible so that we could get about our real interests.

The kitchen which was at the back of the house has its own memories, not least of an Esse cooker that provided localised heat and hot water to the Bardon family as well as its cooking facilities. A large wooden table in the same room was where meals were taken. It may seem strange to today’s youngsters that there was a time of no central heating, where families effectively lived in a couple of rooms in winter even if they had a big house. Ours at home was similar.

The yard was a summer place of play where we often copied cricket in afternoons and evenings, usually with a tennis racquet for a bat and a bucket for the wicket. There was a tree halfway along which registered a six if the ball got caught in it. The ground was cobbled and couldn’t be predicted in how a ball might bounce. Windows had to be watched when batting; Mr Bardon had a gruff response to accidents.

He kept his car in the original coach house, today an apartment. He drove it just once a week doing home deliveries from the grocery. A Ford Consul of the ‘fifties’ square variety, it was very off limits to us kids, as was, less effectively, the coach house itself.

The upper end of the yard, where was also located the bar’s outside toilet, was always stacked with boxes of empty bottles. These had to be sorted, which work was sometimes a source of pocket money for the children of both families, alternating between the Bardon and the Byrne pub businesses. Pennies were important then.

We also had the chance in both places to label the bottles for money. This involved spreading a board with glue, on which we stuck the folded labels before plastering them on the bottles. The rate might have been -- memory gets hazy -- a penny per two dozen. But when my Dad bought a labelling machine it finished the children’s cooperative movement.

In the barn up by the paddock we used bales of hay to build ‘houses’, though now I know they were quite dangerous play practices. Still, on a rainy day it was fun to look out on the poor weather from the comfort of our individual ‘homes’.

That previously mentioned loft was the other play location on such days. Despite being warned off by the Bardon parents, we used to tread not so carefully around the gaps in the floor, often by swinging between the rafters above. It was the kind of thing today’s kids only experience in a computerised virtual world. And the consequences of a slip for them are only virtual too, not like it could have been for us.

But we survived. We got through the mandatory Rosary, the clambering into the tree in the yard to regain a ‘sixed’ tennis ball, the potential catastrophes of tumbling straw bales, rotten floors, and scratching Mr Bardon’s Consul.

And we had a full childhood based in real experience. As much as were the lives of the racers who came to Ireland and Kilcullen in 1903 to compete against each other on a course that bore no relation to what a friend of mine describes as the ‘sterile ultra-safe confines of a modern motor racing circuit’ contested by today’s Formula One ‘heroes’.

I take some relatively minor risks today as a motoring and travel writer. But aren’t I so lucky to have been a child when oftentimes the real risk was at play?

Gordon Bennett, yes!

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