In ancient Ireland poets underwent a rigorous training, an apprenticeship. The severity of the process reflected the high status and recognised power of the poets, the bards. In this reading I have attempted a meditation upon these ancestral poets of mine. The images are all my own and taken variously in the foothills of Na Staighre Dubha, the Blackstairs Mountains and Rinn an Dubhain, The Hook Peninsula, The dolmen is Brownstown Dolmen, Co. Carlow with reputedly the largest capstone of all the dolmens.
At school the tension had been barely restrained all day. Every chance to whisper, to pass notes, had been taken. There was plenty of scope for furtive planning. The teachers were much busier than usual with errands to other rooms. Grinning at each other in the corridors they gave an occasional glance towards their rooms. Their talk was all about the match. All of them had been. The boys whispered about the homecoming. Only the lucky few had been.
In the yard at little lunch Reilly shoved Power against the pebble dashed wall in the far corner. It was bright in the September sunshine, an hour before the Angelus. It helped that the sunlit corner was also farthest from the gate. The teachers were still staying close together on yard patrol, leisurely going through the details of the match.
“What ya do that for?”
Walsh was big, not as tall as Reilly, but heavier and much better in a fight. Like a lot of the lads he hung around with, there was a hurl in his hand that day above all days. Reilly stepped away, shrugging back his jacket. Keeping his eye on Walsh he finally said, steady enough, “I was saying I have flares for tonight, he called me a fucking liar, that’s it.”
“Yeah? How many?” The thought of letting off some flares in the crowd immediately interested them all.
“Three!” piped up the squeak Brennan. He was always doing this, almost physically putting both feet in it at every inopportune moment. In class this earned him a lot of cuffs across the ear for blurted wrong answers, where silence would have been merely ignored.
Just then they noticed the teachers coming their way, the growing crowd now too big to be ignored. Walsh grabbed a sliotar from one of the younger boys brave enough to fringe the edges of the big lads. A quick puck of the ball and a chorus of “catch it sir!” ringing around the yard was enough of a diversion.
Shortly after the bell went and in their lines they filed inside.
It was after the Angelus prayers, while they still stood silent, that he laid down the law.
“Fools names, like fools faces, are often seen in public places.”
He often quoted the only graffiti he ever saw that he asserted was worth reading.
“If I see any boy from this class, no, from this school.” He paused for effect, for emphasis, to range his eyes over them, closely seeking close attention. “Up to any sort of mischief, anything I say, then he will pay for it.”
He looked at the neat rows of boys. They looked at the floor, looked sideways, glanced away; anything to avoid being caught in the glare, being singled out.
“We all remember the Patrick’s Day Parade, don’t we Callaghan?”
That was the cue for a permissible round of laughter. They all remembered Callaghan bursting out through the barriers as the head of the parade turned into High Street. He swaggered along for a few yards, delighted to be showing off. A Garda Sergeant gave the nod and a couple of stewards chased him back into the crowds of spectators. It was only a momentary distraction on the day but the following morning’s retribution was both swift and harsh.
As the final bell of the day rang, before the stampede for the door, he called out one last time. “Remember what I said lads. Enjoy yourselves at the homecoming, but you don’t have to act the maggot to do that.”
Then they were gone, racing out of the yard, out through the gates, only slowing down as the different little knots formed and went their differing streets. Reilly, Doyle and Cleere went down the hill, aiming to take a short cut through the lanes and back across the bridge as fast as they could. They all lived near enough the railway station. They could be there, at the very start of the homecoming.
“It’s not every day you get to see the McCarthy Cup up close,” piped up Brennan, skipping along at their heels, having finally caught up with them. The rest were too excited to be bothered by him. When it came time for them to disperse momentarily homewards they all roared around the crossroads, “come on the cats!” and shouted that they would be back at the same spot early.
Disappearing home they were gone to dump bags and books, to collect colours and flags, gone to wolf down a meal and ignore parental warnings and avoid the care of younger siblings where necessary. Who wanted to care about anything or anyone else? Tonight was a free night and who knew where a fair wind down John Street might blow you? Reilly took the three flares down from a shelf in the coal shed before he left. This was going to be a homecoming to remember.
“There he is!”
“Where? I can’t see a thing in this crowd.”
“Come on, we can squeeze along the back there.”
The crowd heaved towards the station entrance leaving a thinner press along the edges farthest away. Doyle and Cleere ducked and dived through the throng, Doyle calling back helpful hints to Cleere. Reilly, sheltering behind a fat lamp post, held his jacket tightly closed with his right hand, his left hand thrust deep inside held the flares unseen.
“We can see nothing here,” complained Brennan. They were all dwarfed by the crowd, the people pressed closer, the roars were loud and prolonged. They were almost trapped.
“We should’ve gotten into the station earlier,” shouted Doyle, “we could’ve at least seen the hurlers then!”
A man with a small child clutching a flag tightly on his shoulders overheard. He smiled and told them, “listen out for the detonators lads. Ye’ll hear them at least.”
“Detonators!” They were impressed and wanted to ask more but the man was gone. They could see the child’s flag further in, tiny amongst all the other banners snapping and crackling in the breeze. Their view was blocked in every direction. Others from school were being equally pushed back to the edges.
“Here, Walsh,” said Reilly, “what’s the story with the detonators?”
“They’re on the tracks,” chorused three or four of the lads in unison. Others added in bits they’d heard.
“They put them on the tracks.”
“Train rolls over them and boom! They set them off!”
“A whole load of ‘em.”
Reilly was getting exasperated now.
“They’ll be nothing. You won’t even hear them down here.”
Face flushed and eyes bright with excitement Walsh shot back at him, “you’ll hear it! Don’t you worry you’ll…” As if on cue they all heard it and they and the crowd roared as one, answering the train whistle’s first shrill blast.
Just as the crowds roar died away, just as breath was taken again, just as the whistle’s echoes died away, the first of the detonators exploded. Louder than they had expected the sharp reports satisfied them deeply. A series of loud bangs rapidly filled the air until lost in further rounds of cheering all around them, the closer sounds muffling the more distant. There was a forward surge of people pushing even more urgently towards the station. The release in pressure created spaces and they were gone.
Moving downhill, down John’s Street, away from the station, they headed towards the team’s ultimate destination. Getting ahead they might have some chance of climbing to some decent vantage point. Reilly felt a warming glow of excitement when he fingered the cylinders tucked deep inside his jacket. He twisted sideways through knots of people in his way, anxious not to bump into people lest they collide with his flares.
Brennan and Cleere were laughing at the drunks staggering out of pubs along the way. Bench hugging oul’ lads, tongues loosened with drink, were letting fly their usually corner mouthed comments on the passing parade.
“Dan!” They called loudly, “you’ll be late for your own funeral! They’ll be gone on ya before ya get there!”
Poor Dan was confused, some of the crowds were heading towards the hurlers and others back across town. His staring eyes were opened even wider than usual, even more obviously astonished by the world around him. Girls with woollen colours woven into their hair flirted with face-painted boys. Mothers with buggies grew snappy with Council workers trying to keep them behind crash barriers, trying to keep the roadway clear. Dan ignored the drunks and with flailing arms was gone further into the streams of people.
“This is worse,” Reilly said to the rest of them when all forward movement finally stopped. They were over the bridge but ahead both street and pavement narrowed and now they were being funnelled back off the road, behind the barriers. Gardaí joined the council workers in trying to marshal the flow.
“Fuck this for a craic,” Cleere suggested turning away, down the river and through theCastlePark. “We can look out over the Parade from there. It’s the only way we can get anywhere now,” he added.
The four of them looked at each other and, without a word spoken, backed left away from the throng. In seconds they had burst through and were on their way, running towards the roar of the river falling over the weir. They only stopped when they had to, when even the fittest of them had to put his hands on his knees or lean on the trunk of a tree, gasping for breath.
The flares were large in their small hands. Passing them around in a circle they each of them acted as if this were nothing new. None of them wanted to appear in any way anxious. Doyle held one of them out from him by the base, gauging the weight. He caught their eyes, grinned and flipped it in the air in a double loop. He caught it again, easily, held in the same hand it had left. He was an expert at the game where they threw penknives between the feet of an opponent.
Cleere held it up and looked at it closely, wondering what to do with it. He tugged gently at a little ring on the end of a line. “What happens if I pull this?”
“What do ya think’ll happen? It’ll go off in your hand, that’s what’ll happen!”
“Do it!” Brennan shouted. “Go on! There’s no-one around.”
No-one expected the sudden response. Blinded by the intense purple light their little circle exploded outwards. At the first burst of flame Cleere had luckily, instinctively, dropped the flare. A tongue of almost white heat shot out from the cylinder, causing it to turn on the ground here and there, in random patterns.
Light on their feet they skipped and screamed out of the way of the writhing object on the ground. Their screams echoed off the walls of the park, rang out among the tall stately trunks of centuries old trees. Water pouring over the weir drowned the sound of other, more widespread, celebrations.
Even before the purples and reds and other blinding, dazzling colours had finally faded they were gone, gone further down the deserted riverside park. Gone over the wall, where they knew it could be done. Gone, with the remaining flares held tightly by Reilly. Gone from scorch marks across the gravel littered with the first of the falling autumn leaves.
They trotted together, avoiding the open spaces, keeping out of sight among the trees. Skirting gingerly around the edge of the Castle they paused and crouched down, peering around the base of a turret. The Rose Garden was all that lay between them and their goal. The walls along by the great public square of the parade were encrusted with others like themselves. Older boys and young men had achieved advantaged views by climbing on the roof of the public toilets tucked against the walls. The homecoming crowd were jammed in their thousands into every available space. The Mayor and the Corporation in their scarlet robes had their own viewing point, a temporary platform across the Parade where they would officially great the returning champions. As one Reilly, Cleere, Brennan and Doyle raced to find a space across the Rose Garden.
Walsh looked behind him, hurl still in his hand. He saw them running towards where he stood with lads taller and older than himself, struggling to hold his place, precariously balance on the flat concrete roof. “There they are! I told you!” he shouted, tugging at the arm of one of the older lads. Others turned with him as the boys reached the garden side of the wall.
Jumping down one of the older boys grabbed Brennan and lifting him off the ground threatened him, “Where are they? Give me the flares or I’ll fucking kill ya!”
Brennan was paralyzed into silence. Others he didn’t know, all of them older, all of them bigger, were on the grass now and Cleere was rolling on the ground, hands held around his tummy, winded by a punch. From above them Walsh shouted, “He’s the one! He has them!” His free arm was pointing at Reilly who was struggling, one arm twisted behind his back. “Leave me alone, they’re mine, let go of me, you big thieving bastard!”
It didn’t matter, not even Doyle kicking one of the bigger lads on the shins, leaving him hopping ludicrously around, yelling uselessly. There were tears of frustration in Reilly’s eyes as the two flares were torn out of his grasp.
Their attackers whooped and yelled and scrambled back up on to the toilet roof. In front of them the crowd was facing away, across the Parade to where the first of the hurlers mounted the steps of the platform. The sight of the silver cup gleaming in his hand drove the crowd into their greatest frenzy yet. No-one was bothered by the first of the flares rendering purple the shadows under the old leafy trees. No one noticed Reilly climb up on to the roof, wiping his tears away and pushing forward, eyes fixed on the last flare and the hand that held it. Only those closest in the knot of youngsters on the roof knew that he was tugging at the last flare.
“Give it back! It’s mine!” he screamed with rage. There was a tug of war, it was brief and ended when neither of them let go and the string was pulled and there was a flash of light and heat.
One by one the hurlers mounted the steps and took their place on the platform. All eyes were on them, all eyes except at the back of the crowd, pressed against the toilets, jammed against the wall. There they saw the flames, the jumpers ablaze, the hair on fire, they heard the screams of young boys, they heard the bodies falling down, through the leaves, through the branches, landing with heavy sickening thuds on the concrete of the Mayor’s Walk.
Long-listed for “Fish Story Competition” 2011