In 1948 I made my first and (so far) only trip to my ancestral home in Ireland. I think now the trip was mainly so my father could say goodbye to his mother, brothers and sisters because it had been decided we were going to emigrate to America–which we did the following year. All went well–in varying degrees–until I was nabbed by Irish Customs on the way out of the country.
We rode the train to Holyhead in Wales, then boarded a large ferry to cross the Irish Sea, a notoriously unruly body of water. It was a dark and stormy night–rough seas and a high wind singing in the various wires and halyards strung between the ferry’s mast and funnels. And I loved every minute of it.
My father’s village, Cashel, County Tipperary, sits at the foot of the Rock Of Cashel, probably the most photographed spot in all of Ireland, and one of the most photographed places in the world. Not so in 1948. Tourists had yet to discover Ireland, there was no Aer Lingus offering non-stop flights from Chicago and Boston so that retired cops and firemen could visit the Ould Sod, cry over pints of Guinness because the old days were gone forever. That all began to change a couple of years later when John Ford, John Wayne, Maureen O’Hara and Victor MacLaglen arrived in County Mayo to make “The Quiet Man”–for my money the most charming and loveable two hours of bullshit even put on film.
I remember my grandmother as a rather fierce-looking old lady, with a hard face and dressed all in black (although that last is probably my fractured memory). Family lore says she was a dedicated rebel during Ireland’s War of Independence, which may explain her coolness to a grandson who spoke with a distinctly English accent. There is a story (which may be as much bullshit as “The Quiet Man”) that a meeting of rebels was being held at her house and they were warned “the Tans” were on their way. (It’s always “the Tans” in these tales, as if British regulars never left their barracks. More dramatic, because the Black and Tans were mercenaries and generally murderous bastards.) At any rate, my grandmother and her chums hid their guns in the bushes out in the yard. In the event, the British never showed up–which was just as well, since during the night a herd of goats had eaten all the leaves off the bushes, leaving the guns dangling in plain sight.
I have no idea if it’s true–but it’s a nice story all the same.
My grandmother’s house was at least a hundred years old. Maybe more. There was a courtyard in back enclosed by a stone wall. At the end of the yard was my uncle Bill’s blacksmith shop. It was a true forge, like something out of the 18th century, with a huge hand bellows which he let me operate for him. He made his own horseshoes in the forge (along with a lot of wrought-iron fencing, gates and railings). Being a blacksmith in Ireland those days must have been a license to print money. There were a helluva lot more horses in Ireland then than internal combustion engines–draft horses, hunters, thoroughbreds and all manner of (generally bad-tempered) ponies. My uncle shoe-ed them all–hot shoes glowing red from the forge, hissing and smelling as he placed them on freshly-trimmed hooves. The various draft horses, I remember, had hooves the size of dinner plates.
Among her many other attributes, my grandmother had a grim sense of humor. One afternoon she sent me out the shed to bring in turf for the fire (she actually did some cooking in a great iron pot in an open fireplace). I went out, flung back the shed door and this great bloody red thoroughbred reared up and missed my head by inches (again, this may be my poor memory, the horse probably missed by six feet, but it felt like inches). The horse was still hitched to a cart and just as startled to see me as I was to see him. I stumbled backward into the yard ass over tip–all of which Grandmum thought was bloody hilarious.
Oh, yeah–my brief career as a smuggler.
For some reason my father bought a football (soccer to you) to take back to England. Have no idea why, except that maybe footballs were hard to come by in England since we were still on wartime rationing. At any rate, there must have been a custom’s duty on footballs (or maybe they were outright contraband), because my dad deflated the thing and tucked it into the shoulders of my overcoat. I don’t know if, when going through Customs, I looked guilty–or if a 7-year-old with shoulders like a longshoreman looked suspicious–but I was stopped by the Customs Inspector at the foot of the gangplank. I remember him as a tall dark-haired man in a trench coat (honest to God) looking a bit like James Mason–and enough like my father they could have been brothers, or at least cousins. I think now the Customs man was delighted to not only have apprehended a smuggler, but an English one at that. That’s when my dad stepped forward and the two had a quiet chat–in Gaelic, by God. That language made all the difference and I was sent on my way with a stern warning: “Don’t you bloody try that again, lad!”