Monday, 29 October 2012


In the windswept cemetery of an unremarkable village on the Atlantic coast of North Kerry, there is a gravestone with my name on it. 
This is Ballyheigue. It boasts half a castle and mile after mile of sandy-coloured sand.  The tide here goes out a long, long way.  Anyone planning on a swim to Nova Scotia could save valuable hours by setting off when the beach is at its fullest extent. Ballyheigue lies on the southern side of Kerry Head, a small headland, as its name suggests, that separates Tralee Bay from the estuary of the Shannon.  The Shannon is Ireland’s longest river, ‘broad’ and ‘majestic’ according to the dentally-challenged Shane McGowan, ‘dark’ and ‘mutinous’ according to James Joyce. My father, Jack, was the eldest of nine and was born and raised in a tiny house on the north side of Kerry Head looking across the mouth of the Shannon to County Clare.  According to legend, he walked three miles to school every day in bare feet to Tiershanahan School where children were savagely beaten for failing to remember their catechism or their Irish. If you follow the Shannon upstream, you’ll arrive at the port of Limerick, the miserable, rainy city that earned a Pulitzer Prize for Frank McCourt where similar abuses against schoolchildren were allegedly commonplace.  The accents of the older hill folk, those of my father’s generation, are largely impenetrable to visitors, and after a few pints of the black stuff, to each other. A stranger walking into one of Ballyheigue’s five pubs in the winter could be forgiven for thinking they were in Baku or Minsk or Donegal. The profusion of drinking dens is balanced by the presence of a grotto dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary and, up in the mountains, St Dahilan’s Well, whose water restores the spirit.
It is August 1993. Although I visited Ballyheigue as a child, I am now 29 and it is thirteen years since I last stood in this little cemetery and gazed upon the grave of my grandfather, after whom I was named.  He passed away in 1966, two years after I was born in London, but before we made each other’s acquaintance, an unhappy fact that is a constant source of pain to my father. Last time I came here I was the eldest son in a nuclear family of four; now I am the husband and father of my own family. I have a wife and two daughters; the girls are aged five and one. My grandmother, Hanna (nee O’Connor), died in 1985 and now occupies the other side of the twin plot. I remember her long plait of silver hair and her soda bread. How difficult it must have been to raise a family in such difficult conditions, such difficult times. Nearly all her children eventually crossed the Irish Sea to England to find work, most of them living near us in London at one time.  With the sole exception of my father, they all returned home to Ireland at various times during the Seventies.

It is 30th December 1993. I hadn’t planned to come back so soon. We land at Cork Airport at 9pm: my mother, my sister and her husband, my wife and I. In the hold of the plane is a coffin carrying the body of my father; he is coming home as had been his wish. In the terminal, we are greeted by a bewildering array of relations, many of whom I haven’t seen for years and many of whom I had seen in August for the first time in years. Some belong to the Cork branch of the family; my father’s sister moved here with her husband and raised eight children, seven of which are older than me. Others are making the return trip to Kerry tonight. Ballyheigue is normally a two-hour drive from Cork but there is snow in the Cork and Kerry mountains.  The cortege sets off with the hearse leading the way.  My cousin, Brendan, drives the second car carrying three passengers; the widow of the deceased – my mother, the eldest and only son of the deceased – that’s me – and the driver’s mother, my Aunt Valerie, a formidable English woman. Behind us, there are another two cars and a minibus in which the whiskey is being passed around.
A third of the way into the journey, the cortege pulls up at Macroom for refuelling at the Victoria Hotel. Bladders are emptied and bladders are refilled, mine on Guinness. My cousin Marie Brophy, a live-wire, runs around allocating readings and prayers for the next day’s funeral while my mother sips orange juice and worries about the poor priest waiting to greet the coffin in Ballyheigue. Eventually we set off again, and given the late hour, a signal is given to the undertaker and the convoy takes off over the snow-capped moments and soon we are swooping down into Killarney before swinging north towards Tralee, the understated county town of Kerry.  Throughout the journey, my dear Aunt regales us with tales of the recent EU-funded road improvements on this route. Once we’re out of Tralee, we slow down to a respectable pace again and are amazed as further cars join the cortege as we progress. 
Arriving at the Church in Ballyheigue at 1:30am, we see the car park is half-full and the priest is waiting to welcome the coffin into the church.  There are rumours that two of the pubs in the village have stayed open to accommodate the thirsty in our party, but my mother will not countenance any attempt to verify this.  The next day we bury my father. His coffin is borne the 400 yards from the church to its final resting place on the shoulders of brothers, cousins, nephews, friends and his son - me. It rains.

It is February 2000.  We were here in the summer with my mother; she looked better than she had for years, enjoying the sea air, walking here and there. I hadn’t planned to come back so soon. We land at Kerry Airport at 4pm; this airport is so small, it should be a request stop – ring the bell if you want to get off. My sister is carrying my mother’s remains in a small wooden casket. My mother hated fuss and had asked for a quiet cremation, which we had given her in London. She would have been embarrassed at being the centre of attention. I’m not sure, and neither is anyone else, as to whose idea it was to reunite her with her husband in death, but here we were again. Photo ID is now required to travel by air between Britain and Ireland.  My sister doesn’t have any.
            ‘But this is my mother’ she says, proffering the casket toward the official as if the ashes of a close relative is an approved form of identification. He allows her to pass; after all, this is Ireland and this is Kerry. Like the licensing laws, this rule is merely a guideline to help us.
Ballyheigue’s half a castle now has half a golf course in its grounds; nine holes, a monument to the prowling Celtic Tiger. The village now has a ‘museum’ containing the skeleton of a fin whale that washed ashore a few years ago; the bones are surrounded by a few photographs of the event. All the postcards in the shops have the slogan ‘Having a whale of a time in Ballyheigue’. The next day, after a brief service, we inter my mother’s remains in a corner of my father’s grave. It rains.

It is August 2010.  I stand once again in the windswept cemetery. Nobody places fresh flowers on the graves of their loved ones; they would be blown away immediately. The locals refer to the prevailing hurricane force winds as ‘a bit breezy’. Looking down the graveyard, there is the beach and beyond it to the south, the Dingle peninsula, the western outpost of European civilisation. Beyond that again, but out of sight, lies the Iveragh peninsula, better known as the Ring of Kerry, beloved by coach parties of elderly Americans wearing name badges saying ‘Chuck’ and ‘Lucille’.  There are now two graves bearing my name, as my father’s youngest brother has joined the long list of uncles, aunts and cousins that have died since I returned in 1993.  I wonder how the undertaker has time to run a chip shop, let out holiday homes and run an estate agency. Ballyheigue’s half a castle still has half a golf course, but the pubs in the multi-coloured street are half-empty and various housing developments have been abandoned half-finished.  The claws of the Celtic Tiger are blunt, and my dark hair has turned grey.
It is some time in the future. One of my children is standing with their own children in the windswept cemetery of an unremarkable village on the Atlantic coast of North Kerry.  My name is on three of the gravestones.  The light rain suddenly turns heavy and the children run towards the car.

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