Tradition : A way of thinking, behaving or doing that has been used by people in a particular group, family or society for a long time.
(For the first time in about fifty years I am breaking the ‘mannin’ tradition. When I was training to be a nurse and then a midwife I always managed to get down even if it was just for a week. When I had my own children I continued the tradition, as did my sisters , and though our father is now dead and my mother no longer able for the camping life, we continue the tradition. But this year for different and for one very happy reason, I will not get down. Instead of being sad about it I have decided to write some memories of my childhood summers there, where bare-feet and freedom to swim, fish, boat, explore or sometimes just BE were the order of the day. Where the word boring did not even enter our heads and where, when we eventually had to leave and head back to the city we cried bitter tears as we watched the twelve pins disappear into the distance…..but first we had to get there.)
Six children, one of them struggling with a toddler, are running down a grassy bank towards the sea.
They are barefoot.
Their shoes lie abandoned in a messy heap on the floor of the car in which their parents are still sitting.
Their mother, holding a wiggling baby on her knee, braces herself against the dashboard with her free hand.
‘Careful’ She is saying, then, ‘Maybe I should get out and follow the children?’.
‘Nonsense’ her husband is frowning in concentration and cursing loudly as a strong smell of burning clutch mingles with a smell of seaweed and wafts in through the window.
He struggles with the gears and the car followed by a large caravan ease forward. ‘Now that wasn’t too difficult’ He states with obvious relief.
‘I hope we can get back up again!’ the woman looks anxiously in the car’s wing mirror at the steep sandy hill they have just driven down.
‘We’ll worry about that when the time comes’ He absent-mindedly picks up a babies nappy and mops his brow with it. A smear of baby spit joins the streak of sweat on his forehead.
The children have disappeared out of sight in the direction of the sea.
My father always had a fear of burning clutches and therefore so did we.
I can still recognise the smell of one a mile off and if I’m in the company of my siblings we will eye each other knowingly and burst out laughing.
Each of our memories are different but are very specific.
Mine is of winters when my dad would pour over maps laid out on the dining room table, looking at towns through a magnifying glass keeping a sharp eye out for steep hills, clutch burning hill’s.
To this day I can name any town in Ireland that has such a hill in it.
My dad was a perfectionist but he was also a lover of the wilds, of fishing and exploring and bringing his large brood initially camping then caravanning. These were not a good choice of pastimes for a perfectionist and caused him much stress.
His Vauxhall estate car hadn’t quite the capacity to haul the large caravan needed to accommodate us all, along with a dingy, tents, dogs and all the paraphernalia for a months holiday in the west with its unpredictable weather.
Therefore every hill was approached with trepidation for fear the engine would ‘give up’
As for what we needed to bring with us?
This was the 50’s and 60’s, a time before Google and long range weather forecasts so all eventualities had to be taken into account…
my father sometimes conceded to ringing the met eireann though, to get some idea as to what we were letting ourselves in for…
He would dial the number on the black house phone, listen gravely to the monotonous tone coming down the line, before shouting ‘rubbish’ into the receiver and slamming it down on the cradle.
We would smirk and continue to pack out shorts and t shirts into pillow cases and then like ants we would scurry to and fro carrying everything but the kitchen sink out to the caravan under the watchful eye of my mother who could spot a smuggled teddy bear or doll a mile off.
The perpetrator of the smuggling would be turned shamefacedly against the tide of ants to replace the beloved creature sadly back on his or her bed.
There was no room in our already bursting load for luxuries.
Our all important rain gear and my father’s fishing waders were packed in a large plastic dustbin. An ingenious idea as it could be left waterproof-idly outside the caravan thus leaving more space for us to draw and paint or read inside on those wet days…
It would take two to carry out this bin, a job we avoided as it was slow and cumbersome and left us out of the competitive racing game we secretly played.
As any member of a large family knows, competitiveness is rife where the best parental attention you might receive was a clip in the ear for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. But I suppose being children and therefore optimistic we were forever hopeful that we would get a hug or better still, some praise for packing the caravan so swiftly. So we would race each other with our loads.
My father didn’t partake much in the packing. He felt his duty was the tedious drive ahead so other than making sure his hardy rod and fishing equipment were on board he considered it a job for his wife and children.
Coming near the hour of departure (he was a punctualist as well as a perfectionist) he would sit into the driving seat, toot the horn loudly and enquire crossly ‘What’s keeping your mother?’
eanwhile my mother would be frantically checking had every body been to the toilet (nothing worse to a mothers ear than hearing a plaintive voice from the back after just a mile down the road) and that chore completed she would herd all her chicks into the car, and getting in herself(baby on knee) would turn and count us, (her biggest fear besides the toilet one was the possibility of leaving one of us behind, especially a valuable one like the ‘water getter’ or the ‘tent putter upper’.
Then, happy we were all on board she would turn and say serenely to my father ‘now not too fast dear’ (as if) and off we would go, waving goodbye to our house, to running water and flush toilets, to proper beds and cookers that lit easily.
If my mother dreaded these holidays which must have meant a lot of extra work for her she never let on.
But I am jumping ahead of myself here .
Back to the matter of packing!
I never remember a first aid box being included but I do remember the skill with which my second oldest sister, standing at the door of the caravan, would take and place the ferried goods from the rest of us, and put them in their proper places making sure the load was correctly distributed, mostly over the wheel area and up front because even the youngest of us knew that too much of a load placed to the back of the caravan would lead to the dreaded ‘snaking’. A thing to be avoided at all costs…
‘Is she snaking’ my father would roar from behind the wheel and we would stop our games of silent wrestling in the back and look anxiously over our shoulders watching for signs of the tail of the caravan swinging rhythmically into view….’No’ we would shout back in unison over the drone of my youngest brother who would for some reason chant to himself in a sad voice ”its too darn late to go home’ and the above mentioned sister would sigh with relief that her packing was successful.
When I think of it we never had the ‘snaking’ problem thanks to my sisters good packing and to the slow speed we were travelling at.
In later years I wonder did my dad make it up in order to make the journey seem more exciting and dangerous
Anyway snaking or not we would resume our silent wrestling as a means of occupying ourselves on this long and tedious journey. I say silently because any noise from us would bring my fathers hand sweeping back and he would roar ‘quiet’ over the increasing sound of the struggling car engine and he would threaten for the umpteenth time that if we didn’t behave he would turn round and drive home and we would settle down again until boredom overcame us once more.
He also had a thing about unexplained noises in the car and when the engine wasn’t struggling our journey was interspersed with his ‘sushing’
‘Shhhhhh’ he would whisper out of the blue ‘ what’s that noise’ and we would strain our ears frantically (afterall there might be a word of praise for the identifier of unexplained sounds) but no matter how hard we listened we would hear nothing.
‘shht! there it is again’ he would say
Once my eldest sister fainted because she held her breath too long while trying too hard to listen.
Beside wrestling there were other games we played too.
Waving at overtaking cars was one and as we drove further into the countryside waving at old farmers on bicycles ..
I remember one time an old farmer wobbling into the ditch as he, thinking he knew our smiling faces and waving hands, took his own hand off the handle bar to wave back and lost control of his bike. we screeched with delight as he fell then once more my fathers hand came sweeping back.
It would take us two or three days to arrive… mostly it was fun but now and again the tension would build up as we approached a town with a hill and we would pray silently that there was no market or tractor to stall us and burn the clutch…
We would automatically lean forward as my father wound down the wind and anxiously sniffed the air as we headed upward asking ‘do you smell anything’? and we would all sniff like mad.
If we had behaved in what my dad viewed as reasonably good, we would stop in kinnegad for an ice cream cone.
Kinnegad is a small town (now bypassed) about sixty miles west of Dublin. Nowadays it would take an hour to get there. Back in the day of my story it took at least two.
We were ready for a break at that stage and the town had some pluses.
The most important being, of course, it had no hill’s.
But for us it was the ice cream cones. Bought from the little shop on the corner where we would turn left for Galway they were out of this world.
Smooth, thick and creamy as though made from jersey cow milk they were worth behaving for and we eaked them out for as long as we could. And being us it became a competition as to who could make theirs last the longest.
For my dad the plus was the pub across the road where they let him use the facilities without buying a drink.
My dad was one of those men who was never cheeky and would never try and slip into a pub toilet unnoticed. He would always ask permission. Sometimes the proprietor would demand he buy a drink, so, the fact that he could use the one in this small town freely raised it considerably in his estimation.
‘And my wife’ ? He would ask when he was leaving and he would scurry back across the road with my mom in tow….as we got older I began to worry that the pub owners might think we were ‘travellers’.
But no one would mistake my parents for travellers. Eccentric they might have been, but they had something special about them. ‘Arty’ I suppose would be the word used nowadays.
We had a few more stops to make along the way. One overnight one at the Ballinahinch lakes but by this stage we were impatient to get to our final destination and we wished our dad would just keep driving throughout the night.
But we always got there eventually.
To that old familiar gate tied with shut with a piece of rotting rope gate
Kicking off our shoes we would tumble out alongside the designated gate opener and before she had even started her struggle with the knot in the rope would have scrambled up and over the rusty bars and running delightedly, our bare feet drumming on the hardened sand, would follow the road for a while before wheeling en mass like a herd of young horses over the grassy bank, our heels kicking up in delight, (we were not allowed scream or shout unnecessarily).
‘How the hell am I suppose to tell the difference between you being in trouble or just having fun?’ He would roar.
So we learnt to curtail our squeals and put our energy into running with speed.
The odd leap into the air was our way of showing our glee at being free from the confines of the car.
Then as we take that short cut over the grassy bank and beat the car to our favourite camping spot, we sigh with relief at its emptiness,(though a wild place others may find it by mistake as we did years before).
We throw ourselves on the flowered carpet like grasses in the sun, Flowers that are splattered here and there like tiny stars. some so minute they are visible only to our knowing eyes and allow all the stresses of that long journey be washed away by the sound of the waves before we are up and away again making sure nothing has changed since the year before.
Checking that the sand is just as white, the sea as turquoise blue, the rocks as smooth under our bare feet and we would have continued further and further along this magical place but a roar halts us in our tracks
‘Where do you think you are all going! there’s work to be done!’
Our Dad is standing on the edge of the beach, fishing rod in one hand, the rope of the dingy, oars lying askew in it in the other.
We run back more slowly this time,
‘Your mother needs help and don’t forget to put down the legs of the caravan before you start unpacking’ He instructs as he passes us, pulling the dingy behind him. His wellingtons scrunching over the tiny cowrie shells.
We climb back up to where the caravan is now unhitched from the car and is nestled cosily in the same sheltered hollow as the year before and the year before that again.
My mother has started unwinding the legs.
The baby has crawled beyond the rug and has happily found something to chew on, probably a hare’s dropping.
my eldest Sister heads off to the well with a bucket.
We get to work, pitching small tents for those who don’t have a bed in the caravan, circling them around the main encampment.
We smile at each other as we hammer in pegs and tauten guy ropes.
Another year has come around.
we are ‘back’.