Sunday, December 09, 2007

A night for the dentists

This is a transcript of a talk that I gave to the Kildare Dentists on the occasion of their Christmas Dinner, held in Fallons on 8 December 2007.

I'm still a little unsure of how I got to be here ... as a journalist I'm normally reporting on the after dinner speeches, not giving them.

But when Gary Collins asked me to to come and join you on this occasion, I thought it might be a good opportunity to briefly recall where Kilcullen has come from ... and mark where it is today ... by using a few of my own memories.

The basis for me doing it is that I'm -- frightening thought -- the senior man of a family that has been here for four generations, since my great grandfather arrived as a young carpenter from Myshall in County Carlow to help a pair of elderly aunts.

They had a grocery shop and bar up there where the supermarket is now, and when my great-grandfather wasn't busy helping his aunts with their business, he made coffins out in the back yard, which is how my family got into the funeral undertaking business.

Anyhow, his son Jim moved things on a bit and set up a hardware and drapery operation beside the pub and grocery, and later, in 1922, he bought Flanagan's Motor Bar up on the Chapel Road corner and turned it into Byrne's Hotel. He also developed a land sale and auctioneering business.

In the 50s my dad, also Jim, took over the hotel and turned it into what became rather famous as The Hideout, with Dan Donnelly's Arm and other stuff -- but that in itself is a story for another time.

Through the eyes of a child, here's a few snapshots of the kind of place Kilcullen -- and every other small town in Ireland -- was like in the 50s.

Across the river we today have what's called the Valley Park. When I was a ten-year-old that was a steep scrubland almost impenetrable to an adult, but for us kids there were a series of trails and tunnels through the thorny brush that were playgrounds like none that are available today.

Then there's the woodlands surrounding what is now Tony O'Reilly's Irish home at Castlemartin. When I was at the playing cowboys and indians stage, all of us youngsters had the run of those woods, They were in a rather decrepit state but all the better for that -- we had camps, gangs, and streams flowing through the woods into the Liffey that became places for ambushing each other. There were climbing trees and storm-downed trees that made bridges over some of the muckier parts.

After a school holidays afternoon spent there we'd come home dirty, scratched and bleeding sometimes, often with soaked and soggy shoes. Occasionally minus shoes which had somehow floated away down the Rio Grande of the Liffey. And we'd be tired too, but we'd had great times, and there was always the prospect of tomorrow.

There's no such prospect for today's kids, of course. Castlemartin, like all the other big estates around, is well guarded now. The holes in the walls through which we gained access to the woods have all been long since repaired, and any bunch of small intruders these days would probably have a posse of garda cars surrounding them in double jig time, responding to whatever alarm systems are around the place.

In the supermarket today there are an amazing variety of cartons of milk -- vitamin enriched, low fat, whatever. But in the 50s, local farmer Tom Molloy had a herd of cows out the road which he would bring in twice a day to be milked in a shed just behind where the Credit Union is now. And twice a day, myself or one of my brothers, would bring a brace of tin milk cans down to Molloys to have them filled by a jug dipped into one of the buckets of milk, fresh from the cows. Lots of our friends were doing the same chore.

It was all right going down the town with the empty cans, but bringing them back full wasn't so nice. The cans had thin wire handles and they could really cut welts into small hands by the time we'd got home again.

Just across the road was Jim O'Connell's bakery, and when not on the milk run I'd often be sent down to buy a batch loaf or two hot from the ovens. He'd wrap them loosely in a kind of a soft tissue paper, but by the time I got them home, I could have eaten a hole halfway through one of them. Those batch loaves had a kind of texture that lent itself to being pulled out in strips and munched all the way back up the hill. Somehow, the wrapped Old Mr Brennan's Pan in the supermarket doesn't have the same attraction ... albeit, it will get home in one piece.

Kilcullen was a very small village then, but I remember it supported no less than five drapery and outfitting stores, all of which were attached to other kinds of shops too. It was long before Dunnes Stores was even imagined, and if somebody really needed to push out the boat in getting clothes, an annual expedition to Clerys in Dublin was the thing. But for the rest of the year, any clothing needs were all met locally.

The same local emporiums had big rolls of material for women's clothes too, and there were quite a number of local women who made their living sewing up gunas from a pattern which would have been chosen at the same time as the material. Just over there in the corner of the square, where the new development is being completed, one of those women lived, and I have many recollections of going into her parlour with my mother and watching a new dress or suit being pinned up at a fitting.

Where we're sitting now used to be Jim Kelly's tailor shop. He made up suits for a lot of men around, and he lived to a great age. He was also the town's historian, and over my later years I'd often come to talk to him. Indeed, he told me a story one day that there was a girl buried down on an island in the river below Castlemartin, a place where I used to swim as a child. He wouldn't tell me the circumstances -- there were still family members of the people involved living here, he said.

But I went away with the thought in my head, and some time later I used the idea as the basis for a short story which I set in the early part of the 20th century. It became my first published fiction. When it appeared in Woman's Way some time later I brought a copy down to Jim. He read it, nodded, and told me that fiction or not I'd got very close to the truth -- just the time was a little out.

And he still wouldn't ever tell me the full real story ... so if you hear a ghostly whisper here tonight, maybe he has decided to reveal it.

I was a child of a business family, and we Byrne kids were friends of children of other business families, like the Bardons just over the bridge. But though our parents would have been described as comfortably off, it didn't mean that we were flush with spending money. We earned what we could, but at least the earning possibilities were availble to us 'in house', so to speak.

Bardons had a pub, just like we had, and in those days all the pubs used to bottle their own Guinness and ales, whiskeys too, from barrels.

The bottles had to be labelled, so we Byrnes would go down to Bardons to help our friends stick the labels on the bottles with our pals, getting paid something like a penny a dozen, and the Bardon kids would come up to our pub to do the same at a similar rate.

Then my dad bought a semi-automatic labelling machine, in the process thus eliminating a valuable income stream for us kids.

I wasn't of an age to notice, but I was growing up in the Lemass era when the country was beginning to find its own place in a Europe and a world still reeling from the effects of a world war. So I was growing at a time towards and into the 60s which was heading towards exciting.

That was yet to come, though. The big excitements for us coming into our teens were the annual parish carnival in August, with amusements and marquee dancing. In between Augusts we made do with whatever films were showing in the cinema across the road there. Today it is our leather seated town hall theatre and our Heritage Centre, where you can see quite a collection of pictures and other memorabilia, much of it from the times I've been wandering on about.

I remember going in there to see Tom Mix and Flash Gordon 'folloyer-uppers' -- serials -- and later the big Cinemascope specials like Giant and Audie Murphy's To Hell and Back, and others. And of course it was the time of a host of horror movies like I Was A Teenage Werewolf and The Blob and lots of other stuff like that . And we absolutely loved them.

At the time it was 8d to get into the show. We'd typically come down with a shilling, leaving 4d to spend in O'Connell's sweet shop that used to be just the other side of the alley there.

One film that I remember running for a week, Rock around the Clock, with Bill Haley and his Comets who started what became rock 'n' roll. And it was also there that I saw the movie based on the BBC TV pop series Six-Five Special. I went back every night just to hear the one song, the one that prompted me to take up the guitar myself, Lonnie Donegan singing 'The Grand Coulee Dam'.

Tonight that same location is packed out with an audience appreciating the continuing work of a drama group that can trace its history back to the 1940s, and I for one think it is great that there's still an interest in going to local live entertainment produced by local people just because they can.

All those thoughts are, quite frankly, an indulgence on my part. Because having to come up with something for tonight gave me the opportunity to wallow a little in my past.

Kilcullen today is quite different, rapidly shifting from a position of a declining population as recently as 1997 to bustling with a growth that has resulted in more than doubling the number of people living here in the space of a very few years. And there's no slowing of that in sight.

The new people -- who now vastly outnumber us 'old' Kilcullenites -- are bringing new ideas and movement into their adopted home town. They bring also the possibility of viable new services, like Gary's full time dental practice which compares well to the annual visit of the dentist to the school in my national primary days. We have new shops and boutiques which could never have survived in the most recent decades, and no doubt there will be more.

Kilcullen can only prosper as it moves forward with yet another generation. Those who have come to live amongst us have inherited a number of very good facilities provided by the imagination and initiative of others living here before them, and they will build on that. The town, I'm sure, is in good hands.

For me, it's a funny weekend, that in a way closes out how I started with you tonight.

When I left the family business, the Hideout, 30 years ago, to try and make a living by writing, my younger brother Des took my place. Des sold the Hideout a decade or so ago, and with his wife Josephine continued to develop the filling station and shop beside the home where he and I had grown up.

Des died two years ago yesterday, prematurely, a victim of lung cancer. And tomorrow evening, Josephine retires from the shop and petrol station business, ending a presence of the Byrne family serving Kilcullen people that began four generations ago when my great-grandfather, sitting on the shaft of a pony and trap where he had hitched a ride, came to help out his aunts.

We've come a kind of a full circle, haven't we?

I hope I haven't bored you with these few very parochial thoughts. But, perhaps because we all live such busy lives, we don't often take the time to detour back down our own memory lanes ... and so I thank Gary, and yourselves, for unwittingly giving me the chance to do so this evening.

Thank you.

I acknowledge with thanks the donation which the Kildare Dentists are making to the Hospice on the Curragh because I gave this talk.


Niall said...

Thanks Brian,
For some good memories. Keep up the good work.

Niall said...

Great recollections. Bring me back. keep up the good work. Niall