Your Will Bear Witness
“Where everyone knows your name, and a safe place to raise a family.”
A Special Gift by Terri Heynes Roach
Childhood. Born as a babe innocent of sin. Devoid of evil or a corrupt mind. Growing up oblivious to the troubles and travails of the world delighting only in the discovery of fairies, tall tales and all the freedoms of a virtuous and guiltless soul. Growing from infancy into the bosom of a village to be raised and watched over free from distress, grief or pain. The right of every child surely. Emerging from the safety of the watery asylum of the womb into the arms and assumed safety and desiderated arms of the ambivalent mother, a child is born on, 17 January 1962 in the District Hospital, Gurrah, Mother Ellen Morrissey, Father Unknown. It was Wednesday, under the sign of Capricorn. Into this Cold War world of uncertainty and “Troubles” a child is born, seemingly to its immediate family and outside world wanted, but to its mother hated from its first mewling wail. However, society protects its new members and offspring. It is the most primeval emotion to shield, protect, chaperon, protect one’s, own neonates. They are the future. It is the way nature intended it, is it not ? The insurance of a bantling’s survival cannot be left to one person, not that pure, unadulterated, precious commodity. It takes a village to raise a child and a village to ignore one. It takes a village to raise a child and a village to abuse one.
In a seaside village, all is seen and heard. The fishermen are witness to all that happens and all who pass on the harbourfront. What boats sail in and out of their harbour. Make no mistake about it. It is their harbour. It is their forbears in the 1840s that dredged every drop of water and built the dam to keep the Irish sea back, while each Connemara stone was carefully laid in place, creating a secure and masterful safe, secure and unassailable harbour, protecting both the village of Ballyculchie and providing impregnable homes for their fishing trawlers. They intimately know the routines of their fellow fisherfolk and families. The little details of family life that are shared by those who work hours together during the dark, potentially lonely hours in the middle of the night in the Irish sea, on a freezing winter’s night, with just the sound of caught flapping fish, lapping waves against the boat and the measured, judicious conversation of old friends to be heard. Conversations could range from important exchanges about the weather, a heated debate on politics, to a discussion on the upcoming nuptials of a friend’s wedding, remarks about Father Daly’s Homily last Sunday, repartee about the team chosen to play the next Hurling match on Saturday, a speech given by one who liked the sound of his own voice on the youth of the day; listened to patiently by the other men who knew him of old, genuine consultation about what was to happen with Mrs di Maebdh now that her old Joe had died last week and she could not cope living on her own and then there was just the plain old gossip session imparting knowledge gleaned from their wives at the dinner table that evening. Never to be outdone one man would be sure to have a better tale than the other. Gossip was genderless in Irish society. It was a true beast of equality far ahead of its time. After a full night’s fishing the men and boats returned to the safety of the Harbour, always grateful to be home safe, prayer shared as they sailed down the ‘basin’ into the main harbour in thanks as Rosary beads ran through their fingers rhythmically in gratitude. A safe night’s fishing was never taken for granted. The Irish Sea was a serious beast who could throw up a storm startlingly quickly and with such ferocity, it knew no mercy. The cross-channel winds whipped a storm in a matter of hours from the Welsh mountains and across the Irish sea. Reaching port safely in Summer, the men were greeted by the local hoteliers eager to have the pick of the catch for their customers. The rest of the catch went go to market in the local town. Children ran excitedly up and down eager to see their fathers before going to school or happy to help clean the boat if it was a weekend. A few fish were brought home for that night’s dinner. By eleven o’clock the fisherman’s work on the dockside was done and they were away home for some sleep before repeating the same routine the next night. It was a peaceful existence. A wholesome family life. It belied the underbelly of another trade more lucrative.
The women of a village can attest to all who go to school with their children and those that do not. They know. They see. They hear stories. They tell stories. They see those children who go to Mass with their parents on a Sunday and those who do not. All spectate upon children who walk the streets. They know which children exist. Those who drink in the pubs and hotels at night see and hungrily observe the actions of their fellow imbibers and bear countenance to their comings and goings. Transactions openly public, not covertly hidden, are laid bare for all to view. Passing through doorways with explanations neither sought nor given. Childhoods that disappear or are destroyed under all the watching, unseeing eyes. Children disappearing or giving birth under the watchful eye of a village that sees all, but chooses to ignore.
If one swam away from one of Ballyculchie’s beaches, the nearest stop was Wales, England or Scotland and folklore has it that on a clear day Wales could be viewed from the tallest sand dune of Ballyculchie, sixty miles south-east of Dublin. It is affectionately referred to as the “sunny south east”. As the light plays on trawlers swinging at their moorings, crab pots can be seen dangling, moving occasionally, then being pulled in with strength by a deckhand and emptied into waiting boxes for transport to the harbour for sale or transport to market. On a still, quiet night, the crabs can be heard clamping their claws against the sides of the boxes from the shoreline as they crawl over each other in vain.
The Harbour, deep and with a wide entrance and carefully positioned in the 1840’s to resist the worst of the Irish Sea storms, still plays hosts to yachts from around Ireland, England and France. It has a thriving yacht club in existence for over a hundred years and an attraction for well-healed tourists.
The farmland surrounding the village is rich dairy land set in soft rolling hills, rising gently from misty morning valleys. Generations of families have passed farms down the lineage with Catholic names like O’Connor, O’Brien, Ahern, MacAteer and Brennan, proudly passing from father to son. Protestant landholders holding larger lands, run larger enterprises bearing names such as Edgeworth, Cullen or Warren. The fields are deep, rich green often called referred to as forty shades of green. It is called the Emerald Isle for it’s rolling green pastures that nourish its sanguine cows and provide such rich, creamy milks and cheeses for which it is famous. As the area was covered in the Ice age, a bed rock was laid down which laid down rich soils knows as ‘brown earths’ perfect for dairy farming. Driving through the countryside in summer you are greeted by a deep yellow of a hedgerow of gorse, the deep black of blackthorn and black bush, enclosing the green pastures. Throughout the fields are enormous oaks, beech, ash and birch trees rich in foliage in summer, deciduous bare in winter. Underneath, heads down eating contentedly or lying down chewing the cud, or suckling newly born calves, are cows enjoying their truly innocent, bucolic home. County Wexford is also home to famous stud farms where majestic stallions await their duty and mares hover submissively.
Ballyculchie exists in two distinct seasons. In winter it belonged to the locals, fishermen and farmers relieved of the resentment of sharing their coveted and private world. In the short winter dark days when the sun lazily rises at 8 am and sets at 4 pm even daylight hours are dim, suggesting an intimacy, communion and confidentiality surrounding the villagers, alone with their own kind, their own kindred spirits and confidantes. What happened in the environs stayed there. Old Seamus could amble on his gammie legs with his Border Collie at heal into the hotel at 6 pm just in time for the Angelus and his stool was vacant at the bar each night with no threat of an incorporeal being in the form of a tourist sitting on his seat. Seamus was renowned for his ability to debate any topic and it used to be said that he had the ability to argue either side of the question all at the same time. All the days paper were kept for him and he read them cover to cover voraciously. If you made the mistake to stand near him for too long he bent your ear on his favourite topic of the moment relentlessly but he was a kind man who always bought me a packet of Tayto crisps which I could eat if my parents were not in the bar. Mr. Breathnach liked to sit by the fire in the afternoons in winter and came in around two o’clock for two pints of Guinness. Just two pints mind you. Never one and never more than two. Just two. He was a retired fisherman and still wore Wellingtons as if he had just come off the boat. His duffle coat was the same as worn by the fishermen and if the fire was lighting he never took it off. Down he sat on his own and stared into his pint, slowly consuming the black liquid with the white top licking the residue from his upper lip after each sip. It was a well-practiced ritual. Other drinkers bid him the time of day and stopped for a chat which he invariably brought around to the fishing conditions of the day. He was always eager to hear any news from “the water or harbour boats” and ready to offer sage advice to the patient listener. On completion of his second pint, usually, an hour and a half later he quietly slipped away home for the evening passing the harbour to watch the boats preparing to leave for that night’s fishing expedition. Oh, how he must have missed it. Men shouted up a greeting to him and he jovially replied “Sail safe there” rang around the stone walls for all to hear.
The morning routines of children attending school who ran in gaggles, chirping away exicted for the day to come and women going to mass, passed peacefully with regularity and surety with certain knowledge of who passed by your house at a certain time bringing their child to school and being seen at the Church for Communion. Returning fishermen wound their way up the road home for breakfast after a night on the briny deep, hopefully with news of a successful night’s fishing. Some called into the pub for one pint of Guinness or Ale to wash the salt off their lips before the last few vestiges of seaweed were walked off their Wellingtons. On the street farmer’s wives alighting from cars dropping their children off to school then joined the villager’s wives at Mass. The feminine Catholic intercourse communing under the cross of Jesus each morning with absolute ratification. The comfort offered to all in its practice. Such was the comforting rhythm with which each weekday passed.
Summer created a starkly different village ambivalently playing host to unwanted but much-needed tourists from faraway towns, cities and countries from around Ireland and across the water. Those who came to walk the beach, spend their precious two weeks holiday at the idyllic seaside. Their business was welcomed but their presence resented. Those that had holiday houses there or had their yachts in the Harbour were treated with barely hidden disdain but their money was greedily accepted and a necessary part of the local economy. They always were visitors never “one of us”. They were always excluded from certain conversations, never given the first choice of the fisherman’s catch. It was subtle but it was real. If the villagers saw anything suspicious they never divulged, protecting their own, respecting the right of their own to make money in whatever way they could. The villagers saw everything and nothing.
The beach was constantly changing with the tides. In winter, at low tide on some days, it stretched for five miles with vast sand cover between the vegetation strewn dunes and the sea. Other days at high tide there was barely enough beach to walk upon. During the full moon, if there had been a storm, the sea’s high tide voraciously consumed the entire beach, stripped back the soft golden sand on it’s way out, revealing a water-worn pebble surface. Children delighted in the pebbly beach and the treasures revealed. Fishing nets tangled around driftwood and buoys popped their metal heads up like sentries. Stunning tree trunks worn smooth by the buffering waves shone, smooth to the touch with no splinters to snag your tiny hands. Long craggy branches reached out ensnaring the fishing nets which had all sorts of shells and detritus entangled in their web. It was a shell collector’s paradise, as shells deep from the ocean floor were scooped up in the nets, not even open, but still safely home to their unsuspecting occupant, unaware of their impending fate. My favourite (which I later learned was called the Queen Scallop) was a stunning variegated three quartered scalloped shaped shell with two flat pieces joined at the top. It had distinct lines which ran from top to bottom. It was deep pink at the top and faded to a lighter shade of pink until it reached the circular edge at the bottom which became deep pink again. It was exactly the same shape on both sides. If you found one open and you matched the two pieces together, they fitted as if never opened. One just opened contained an opal white, bulbous, meat-like substance, attached by a circular ‘tube’ to the bottom shell. I never took it out of it’s home. That seemed cruel. I just collected the empty shells. I delighted in these. My discoveries were made alone. When the other children came I retreated behind the dunes and watch from a safe distance, happy to watch their antics and play. I never played with the village children. Their world, though familiar and captivating to me, was sadly foreign and forbidden. They created cubby houses. Military forts formed where the Irish stories and legends learned at school and home were re-enacted. Young girls dressed as ‘selkies’, mythical seal folk in the large, long flowing, purple, hue Bladderwrack seaweed with its fibrous roots perfect for wiry hair. The air resonated with the joyful shrieks of children’s play. Swords fashioned out of tying bits of driftwood together with old rope and scraps of tin became shields. Hours of unstructured play evolved and it was only the dying light of day that drew the play to a close and the children found their way home to the safety of their homes. Safe for all except one who went home nonetheless, knowing no different. Home was not safe but it was home nonetheless.
The true treasures were to be found at the base of eroded dunes. The pulverising sea revealed hidden secrets left behind by the departed summer visitor whose loose coins and other precious bric-a-back had fallen out of trousers or coat pockets. It peeked out of the ancient, time-worn sands like a tree clinging to an escarpment. Eager fingers carefully and gleefully plucked the coin out of its winter’s lair with triumphant joy, it’s real monetary value of little consequence. A salvo of triumph travelled along the beach as other eager scouters enviously listened, hopeful that they might be next. I watched from a distance but delighted almost as much as the elated explorer, eagerly waiting for them to leave the beach so I could go on my own solitary, though nonetheless exciting, expedition. A find was rare but once found never forgotten and the thrill was pure ecstasy but never to be shared. A secret I hid lest it be snatched away. Any such discoveries, personal treasures or even gifts were taken from me instantly. Presents from sister Jean in Canada were always removed even if hidden. There was no place that was safe. My shell collection might last three days at the most.
Wending east down to the beach and harbour, a road dissected the village into two distinct zones. The Seaside Hotel owned by my parents where I lived which occupied most of the street along with a small supermarket and four two storey detached houses also owned by my parents. There were carefully manicured front gardens with lawns bisected by a pebble path leading to an elegant Georgian doorway. On the opposite of Cil Dara (Church Road), were two small public houses and twenty tiny terraced Fishermen’s cottages. The cottages consisted of four rooms with no hallway and low hung door requiring the visitor to stoop down to avoid bumping their head on the mantel. Two small square windows of four panes each peeped out the front of the house surveying the street in front. There was no front garden. Entering the abode you walked straight from the footpath into the sitting room and from there into the small kitchen with it’s perennially lit Aga Stove oven for heat and cooking. Off these two rooms were two-bed rooms, one for the parents and one for the many children of the family. Irish families were not small. Houses were painted white but clearly distinct from each other with colourful front doors.
To the west of the village, Cill Dara lead to more houses and cottages lining both sides of the road. The cottages lead straight onto the street but the houses had neat front gardens with loose stone walls, with each stone carefully fitted into its place to provide a secure structure to enclose the well-kept garden. Some gardens had dogs in them that eagerly bounded up to the front gate to greet you as you passed pass, desperate for a pat or hello and acknowledgment. Only one gate had a sign that said: “Madraí Rabhaidh” (“Warning Dogs”). Those dogs were not friendly but rather ran at the gate and barked incessantly until the passerby had moved on. The owners of those houses were friendly but not the house with the sign. His name was Mr. McChoill and he was a native Gaeilge speaker and widower, living on his own in his two storey house with a garden of four meticulously kept rose garden beds and manicured lawn. He could be seen sitting at his downstairs window, lace curtains parted, malevolently staring out of the window at anyone who had the temerity to pass by his gate. Women on their way to Mass or School walked slightly faster as they passed his house. Children not so fast. It was fun apparently to make Mr. McChoill’s dogs bark behind their locked gate. The game was to make McChoill rise from his window seat and bang on the window pane, shooing the children away. An adult nearby admonished the children saying “Sure, leave the poor dogs alone there. What harm are they doing you? You are only upsetting the poor man. About your business now, or I’ll be telling your Mam and Da about you and your wouldn’t want that now would you? Off to Scoil with ye”. The children just laughed and skip or run off on their way. I used to see Mr. McChoill walking to the post office at the other end of the village, always on his own. He was a tall, erect man only ever so slightly stooped with age. A shock of thick wavy grey hair adorned his crown oiled neatly back shoulder length though trimmed, well-kept. He wore a long tweed coat and scarf in winter with a Tam o’shanter accentuating his gracious carriage. In summer he wore a light sports jacket. Always smartly turned out he stood apart and you could not but notice he was separate from the villagers. He went once a week on a Friday carrying a letter in one hand and his walking stick in the other, the dogs dutifully walking in front of him. They were not mixture dogs like so many of the village dogs but purebreds, Scotties I think the same as Scottie and Westies I used to see pictures of on the Black and White Whiskey bottle in the bar. I sometimes wondered what Mr. McChoill really saw from his window. Did he see me as I wandered the streets on my own? Did he ever wonder why I was never with the other children or going to school? Did he notice me at all or was his just another unseeing adult eye?
Six houses past Mr. McChoill’s house was the School and Church. They occupied the largest area in the village. The school was one level of brick with a pitched, slate roof and a small bell tower to the left of the wooden front door whose bell loudly heralded the start and end of each school day. It was a two-roomed schoolhouse with two teachers. In each room were wood burning stoves for heat in the freezing, damp Irish winters. Long, tall windows, six on each wall graced both rooms. Desks were shared in threes with the heavy Oak bench attached and immovably fixed to the floor by black wrought iron legs. There were inkwells in each division of the desk and three lids revealing a box into which books could be deposited. I never attended the school as a student, but one quiet Autumn Saturday when I was about 10, I snuck past Mr. McChoill’s house, the other five houses, entered the school playground and finding the door open entered the first classroom. To my shock there was a young fair-headed woman with her hair tied up atop her head, sitting at the top table. “Hello”, she said cheerfully. “Come in”. I was transfixed to the spot. “It’s okay”, she said gently, “I know who you are. You are Mr. and Mrs. O’Byrne’s, daughter. Come and look around. See if you like it. You might want to come”. I looked around and drank in the room, with the tall ceiling and rows of many desks, three across. So many children must come here. I did not speak to her. I was not allowed to speak to people. On the desk in front of her was a round ball blue and green in colour with some brown patches. It was balanced on a flat bottom and had a half piece of metal supporting it. Fascinated, I walked up, touched it and it moved. I pulled my hand quickly away. “It’s okay. “That’s what it does, it spins. It’s called a globe and it represents the earth. Here, I’ll show you Ireland”, the softly spoken lady said. She magically spun the ball around and pointed to a small green shape, surrounded by water, besides a bigger green long shape and said that the small shape was Ireland, the longer shape was England !!! Wow I thought. So that’s what they look like. I had heard of England from my sister Pip who lived there. To see where she lived was so exciting. The lady asked me my name. I cannot say that. No, I must not talk so I ran away as fast as I could, but I never forgot what she said and her simple kindness. I never knew her name but she noticed me. She knew who I was.
The Church loomed over the Schoolhouse, three times its size. I never entered the Church until I was sixteen. It’s impression on me then was profound and perplexing. It had beautiful stained glass windows through which multicoloured light flowed with pictures of Saints, Mary, God, Jesus and the Apostles. They told the story of Our Lord. His journey through Jerusalem and across Galilee, his liaisons with the Apostles and Mary Magdalene and other sinners. The Ten Commandments. All depicted through the stained glassed windows, the skilled craftsman interpreting the stories evocatively and often painfully. The apparent violence, conflict, bloodshed, and brutality co-existed in such beauty in the house of God. Why ? What was the message to the Worshippper?
Wooden pews were rowed up from the entrance to the Altar, four rows across. Around the walls were twelve pictures. Indubitably sad pictures depicting the twelve Stations of the Cross, the journey Our Lord took through the streets of Jerusalem on his way to being crucified. Indescribably dismal, melancholic and heartbreaking for anyone who dared to openly engage with them. The altar was huge and opulent with enormous gold candelabras holding candles waiting to be lit at the next Mass. Large bouquets of flowers adorned the altar supplied, I later learned, by my parents each week. Then suddenly I saw Him. Suspending in free air from invisible lines from the high ceiling down from above the altar. Jesus on a wooden cross, his hands and feet nailed to the foot of the Cross, bleeding. Atop his head was a crown of thorns pressed into his head and forehead. Blood was gushing forth, flowing down his pale face. His face was pained and in agony. Who could cause such pain to a Man? What had he done to deserve such a violent death? I had two long years in which I found out. Two agonising years when I paid for what happened to Jesus.
Two long years when I acted as an altar girl and stood every Sunday on that altar and question is what is seen and not discussed intentionally ignored or purposely overlooked ? Is one childhood more valued than another? Is the person who ignores a child as culpable as any perpetrator? What constitutes a stolen childhood? All questions that may never be answered or resolved. The ancient African proverb of it takes a village to raise a child seems noble and with it an unspoken protectiveness. One that should engender trust in one’s neighbours and family. Life is richer when you are part of a network of friends and family, a neighbourhood. Surely it must be. Why would it not be? Under what circumstances was a child not be safer in a village that sees all? Ask yourself that question. Under what precedence do you judge that you do not see? Where everyone knows your name, and a safe place to raise a family. Is that the advantage of bringing up a child in a village? Obviously, I had done something so evil it had made me and my pain invisible. Surely the punishment was to be over soon and I was to be released from my sin. Surely soon. I was invisible.