‘Terrorist’ kids on the loose!
Walk down an Irish Lane
By Terry Reilly
With Christmas just behind us, and hopefully also the end of the cold snap that had the country in its icy grip over the New Year period when temperatures fell to minus 10 degrees Celsius, our thoughts turn to Spring, lengthening sun-lit days and a good old rummage in the garden as we prepare for another season of good intentions.
But just not yet! Older people have been getting great mileage from recounting their experiences in the Great Snow of 1947: the country, or large swathes of it, were buried feet deep under white powdery stuff for weeks on end, and volunteer groups had to go out and clear roads so that supplies could be delivered to isolated villages. In some areas, only the tops of the telegraph poles were visible.
Talking of icy conditions, when you columnist was a youngster he gathered with the rest of the pals in the street to create a marvellous slide on a public footpath -sidewalk, I think you call it in the US of A – down a steep hill. We waited for days as the evenings got colder, read the frost signs as clear days gave way to crisp, biting afternoons. Liberal supplies of cold water were applied lovingly to the clean concrete sidewalk, and prime patches were polished until they glistened as tiny eager feet launched themselves down the slope at terrifying speed, accompanied by great whoops of bravado, with the girls every bit as boisterous as the boys! Good leather soles or better still boots were perfect for the longest slides.
Of course, while it was great fun for the youngsters, it must have been terrifying for the elderly residents who also had to use self same footpath to get to the shops. We did not think of that when we were young, and it is only now that we recognise how the senior citizens must have felt as they clung to walls on their way to town the following morning. It is perhaps worth nothing that we were never admonished by the older folk as our slide grew and grew with each passing night, and a runway emerged that would have done justice to a Winter Olympics.
In those days we did not have computers and all the modern gadgetry that kids of today enjoy. We amused ourselves. There was a season for ‘sliding’ (if we had skates we would have called it skating al la Rockefeller Centre on 5th Avenue); and that often co-incided with sleighing down snow-covered hills all around us. Our typical sleigh, or sledge as we called it, consisted of a car bonnet turned upside down and launched off the incline at an uncertain, dizzying angle; better prepared (or richer) kids had wooden sleighs which they straddled and zoomed away on as we bonnet riders looked on enviously and tried to out-manoeuvre.
When winter weather gave way to softening springs, it was time for marbles, ‘mugglers’ we called them. Our version of the still popular kids’ game saw two competing contestants wage so many marbles at a time, (an equal number by each contestant) and cast them into a hole around three inches by three inches we had chiselled at the apex of wall and sidewalk. The contestants bet on even or odd numbers ending up in the target area, with the winner taking all. The top contestants, either through good luck or daring (skill seldom played a part) amassed much envied collections of marbles that filled biscuit boxers and were gambled away with the same abandon as the desperate on the tables in Vegas. In attics around the world there must be vast treasurer troves of coloured marbles!
There was the hoopla hoop season, the weeks of swimming and fishing in the river that was so central to our lives; the football season, the cricket season (played on the self same public street with a biscuit tin as the stumps); and of course the chases we called tick (also known around the world as tag, tips, dobby, chasey, tig, and many other names), again carried out on the street outside our front doors.
And of course there was the chestnut, or ‘conker’ season, associated with the autumn. And I am not talking about the fancy, edible type but the horse chestnut of which there are many trees in Ireland, though they are not actually a native tree. They are native to Asia and Greece. Many grew on the Belleek estate, near our home.
White, pink or yellow flowers appear in May, but it’s not until the autumn that we start to see the chestnuts falling from the trees. The fruit of the horse chestnut are these shiny brown chestnuts that are commonly known as ‘conkers’. They grow inside a thick, fleshy casing that has sharp little spikes on the outside to protect it.
In the autumn, lots of these chestnuts can be found scattered on the ground all around the great horse chestnut trees, and you will still see children playing the game by banging ‘conkers’, swung off a piece of string about 12 inches long. The best, most durable conker or chestnut in the hand of an expert is hard to beat.
Throw in go-karting, yes, down the same hill as doubled for the above mentioned skating rink earlier in the year, or a launch pad for learner bike riders; we also amused ourselves with cowboys and Indians, raft building, pole vaulting and wrestling; and racing around the streets with a recycled silvery bicycle wheel, without tyre, guided skilfully and at great speed with a short hand-held stick with which to propel and steer. Our fun was endless, the cost was zilch and you never heard any of us utter the word ‘bored’. If we did we’d likely as not be yanked off to the vegetable garden or the bog to help save the essential peat for winter warmth.
Mind you, we were not as wild or daring as our older cousins or uncles and aunts. Again, off the same hill they used to climb inside the rim a big tyre and launch themselves down the slope, spinning and trundling on for the best part of 120 yards until they came to a stop beside a gate guarding access to the river. One dare devil did not stop at the gate (which had been opened unbeknownst to him) and shot right into the river!
One another occasion, the same gang of older neighbours started up one of those great big steamrollers (left ticking over while the driver was at lunch) and headed up the hill. Luckily for all concerned, it ran out of steam before any damage was done.
If you did any of these things nowadays the police would be on your case!
Now, how about sharing some of YOUR childhood memories with the rest of us through this column? Go on, have a go. My email address is below.
Until next time, Happy New Year and Slan
*Article written for Irish American News, Ohio (www.ianohio.com)