8. Alarums and Excursions
As children we had our quota of bumps and bruises and weathered the usual childhood diseases. I can recall three potentially serious accidents. The first occurred when I was about three years old and I have only the vaguest recollection of it. I fell into Katie Kierns' well in Urker when my mother was visiting her sister Alice O'Reilly. I remember falling in but not how I got out; I believe my cousin John, four years older than I was, pulled me clear. The second happening was a fall from my Uncle Joe O'Reilly's taxi on the way to my Boyle grandparents in Tullydonnell. I was in the back seat and somehow contrived to open the door while the car was in motion. I remember tumbling over and over on the grass verge. Luckily it seems that the taxi was going quite slowly at the time. The third event happened when I was about eleven when I "borrowed" May's bicycle and took it to the top of Annie McShane's hill. This was a very steep, narrow and winding lane that terminated in a T-junction with the Glassdrummond Road at the foot of a short sharp rise. I was not a very experienced cyclist and had only recently learned to ride. Nevertheless, I took off from Annie McShanes gate and freewheeled down the hill, gathering speed rapidly as I went. As I rounded the last bend and sped towards the facing stone wall on the Glassdrummond Road I seemed to be doing about ninety miles an hour and, to my horror, I realised that I could never negotiate the T-junction at the bottom. In my terror I froze and forgot to brake and crashed straight into the wall. Luckily in those days traffic was light or I might have encountered a vehicle. The bicycle was wrecked and so was my face. I was either extremely lucky or someone was watching over me as no bones were broken. I must have been quite a sight when I limped into the house a few minutes later with my mouth and nose pouring blood and my face swelling up like a balloon. The bike needed new forks and front wheel and I needed TLC. Apart from a few loosened teeth I suffered no permanent damage.
When I was about ten my mother had to go into hospital for a serious operation. She was gone for some time and when she came home she needed to rest for some weeks to recover. This was a very anxious time for us as we were afraid we would lose her.
On a later occasion I vividly recall my mother being brought into the house after she had taken a spill off her bicycle on Legmoylin Hill after a visit to her brother Felix, who lived at the top of the hill. I believe the carrier bag she was carrying got caught in the front spokes and she was pitched over the handlebars. The road had recently been tarred and was covered by sharp chippings. One side of her face was twice the size of the other, a mix of red and blue from the blood and bruising, and cut, scratched and pocked by the chippings. The other side was unmarked. We used to walk round her to see the two different people - the familiar Mammy and the grotesque stranger. Luckily she had broken no bones and made a rapid and complete recovery.
In the winter of 1952, aged 14 and just after I had started at the Abbey Grammar School, I developed an enormous carbuncle on my jaw and ended up in Daisy Hill Hospital for six weeks. Strangely, I didn't feel ill and found the inactivity hard to handle. My treatment seemed to consist of two enormous daily injections, in the thigh. I can also remember the food which, unlike today, was plentiful, hot and nutritious. I can still see, smell and taste the breakfast fries and the piled up, steaming, Irish Stews. My mother visited me, as far as I can recall, every day, which must have been quite an effort and expense, involving a 24-mile bus journey. She kept me supplied with cowboy books, which I enjoyed at the time but after my discharge seldom read - I had discovered science fiction. Even in the dark evenings I always knew when she was coming as I could recognise her step.
The ward was in the old Fever Hospital, now demolished, (converted from the old Workhouse which had been abolished by the advent of the new Welfare State in 1948). It was surrounded on three sides by a high stone wall in which I could see a double gate. The ward window looked down towards the main hospital and I could watch the comings and goings. Hospital Matrons ran strict regimes in those days and extra-curricular activities by nurses were frowned on. I can still see the nurses shinning over the wall after elicit absences in the late evenings and early mornings. The ample display of leg in the process was also much appreciated by a growing boy.
The hospital had two wings and I spent time in both. In the first one there was a mixture of boys of different ages and for a while a nine-year old girl. I recall that her name was Patricia McAleenan and she came from Hilltown in County Down. She was a bright child with long fair hair. She was there for only a short time. About a week before I was discharged I was moved to the other wing. This was gloomier than the first one and looked out on a green patch that I think may have been a paupers' graveyard attached to the old Workhouse. It was a geriatric ward, full of old men all of whom seemed to have the most enormous ears. They were all bedridden and for the most part very quiet. Conversations were short and intermittent. I got on with them well enough and I think that most of them appreciated the company of a young person. It was the only time, before or since, that I had an appreciative audience for my singing. I was however very glad to go and I can recall how strange and fresh the countryside seemed on the bumpy bus journey home to Creggan.
When I was about ten my mother took us on a bus trip to Warrenpoint. Although Dundalk was only about 12 miles away I had never been to the seaside before and I can remember the excitement of my first sight of the sea at Narrow Water Castle as we approached the town. The large town square was packed with rows of buses from all over the country and what space was left was taken by a substantial Fair. There were swingboats, chair-o-planes, hobbyhorses, bumping-cars, rifle ranges, coconut shies, hoop-la stalls, fortune-tellers and hucksters of all kinds, selling tickets for Spin the Wheel or other games such as Find the Lady, designed to part the holidaymaker from his and her money. The place was packed with more people than I had ever seen in my life. They came in all shapes and sizes, in all kind of outfits, speaking in strange accents. Everybody seemed to be eating and drinking - fish and chips out of newspaper, ice creams, popcorn, candyfloss, toffee apples, sticks of rock, huge yellow and red lollipops. The crowd surged hither and yon, making it difficult to make way. For a small boy, used to the peace and quiet of a sparsely populated countryside, the place was a turbulent ocean of strange, noisy, boisterous giants, whirling, roaring, clashing machinery, shrieking children, stressed and paranoid parents, shouting showmen and panhandlers of all sorts.
Despite the noise, the press and the bustle, we all enjoyed ourselves. I really liked the hobby horses. There I was, perched on a gleaming gold and crimson charger with flaring nostrils, flying mane and galloping hooves, whirling round and round while pumping up an down and hanging on for dear life to the upright pole which pierced the charger's back. The bumping-cars were just as good, spinning round the metal deck, being flung in all directions by accidental and deliberate collisions, amid showers of sparks from the contacts on the wire mesh roof and the acrid metallic smell of the electricity. I did not like the swingboats. After a few swings my stomach seemed to be trying to enter my throat and the nausea was too much to bear so I threw up all over the boat. Luckily for my sister on the other seat this happened when I was on the down swing.
Then I got lost. I don't know how it happened but it must have been next to impossible for mother to keep us all together and she also had Eileen in a pram. Anyway I found myself alone in the throng. I recognised no one and no one was interested in me. For a while I stood there petrified, too scared to move or ask anyone to help. After a while I decided that I would go to the bus and wait there. This was a sensible idea but its execution was more difficult than I had imagined. I moved into the rows of buses. Which was ours? They all looked the same. They were all the same shape and colour. There was nothing to distinguish the one we had come in. They were all locked and every destination board said "Private Hire". I panicked, I was lost for ever, I would never see my Mammy again. I stood there is a red fog for some minutes. Then I figured that it would be sensible to get out of the "bus park" to a more prominent location. I thought it might be best go to the first bus on the first row nearest the Fair and wait. It seemed to me that I was there for ages, buffeted by the surging waves of humanity, feeling emptier by the minute, convinced that my family had already gone home without me. At last, a shout and a familiar face, I had been found. Then a cuff around the ear and home.