Leaving Cashel…extract from Cashel: Tales of the emigres

In preparation for departure suitcases of clothes and toys were sent down from Francis Row to Boherclough. One by one they’d be sorted; the case closed and stored in Mikey’s shed at the end of the back yard. Afterwards Keela sat with Mikey, she smoking a cigarette delicately held in a gold plated holder sent over from America; he smoking his battered old pipe.

These sultry August afternoons lingered… longer than is usual. In a haze of smoke, talk and laughing reminiscence, father and daughter rehearsed the final scenes of their lifetime together subconsciously savouring each bitter-sweet moment. As each day passed; as inexorably the final day approached neither acknowledged the looming end during these afternoon idylls. It was as if its merest mention would shatter the perfect illusion they’d wrought.

Mammy Brien spent these same afternoons playing with her grandchildren. Despite reassurances, she knew she wouldn’t see them again. It gave these days a sadness that she couldn’t master. In the middle of the night, when Mikey was deep in drink-induced sleep, she crept from bed. Downstairs by the range she made tea. She poured herself cup after cup from pot after pot. She sat, wrapped in her threadbare black woollen shawl, staring into the flames as blinking tears silently wet her cheeks.  Alone she thought about what alone would really mean. She sat and thought and hoped and remembered until daybreak. Then she took her cold tea outside and drank it as she drank in the last cold dregs of the night’s air – not yet warmed by  the morning sun.

She ventured to play the games she’d long played with her grandchildren and in particular the ones she’d devised with Shane. Her empty purse made all sorts of imagined purchases from imagined shops from the imagined Main Street that populated his magic rug. It was the same rug that had carried her own children Keela, Ellen, Ninette and Leo on many a flight of fancy up in Mammy Nonie’s house. It had had passed down here to Boherclough after Nonie’s death.

Her grandson’s smile magically brought the faded rug to life. But as she smiled back she knew the magic wouldn’t last. She knew her life-cruise was weighing anchor. Sadly self-aware she watched her grandson’s playful embarkation on life’s voyage tortured with the poignancy that hers was nearing its final port of call. She recalled another mother, her own mother; she recalled the games she’d once played with her; games vivid in her mind’s eye; games she’d forgotten she’d even remembered.

For Mikey, his wife and his daughter for these weeks, days and hours the remorselessness of ticking clocks measured time’s remorseless march across their lives. And finally, the day of departure dawned.

As with any long anticipated event – be it wedding or christening or birthday party or first holiday – time itself suddenly moves into another gear and events blur….so it was on the day Keela and the children left Cashel.

Bella and Gael were in a state of Christmas-like excitement from the first beams of sunlight.  As so often with children it’s a heady brew that’s bound to end with tears.

Shane’s oblivious to all but the fact that he’s being dressed, redressed and in his view overdressed for the exertions of the day. He’s stuck close to his mother watching his siblings in their fevered, tireless, dervish whirl.

Ninette and Leo arrive early in Francis Row – Leo to lug more suitcases down to Boherclough, where the cars were already waiting in determined timeliness to take the travellers to their train; Ninette to inspect her new kingdom. A tearful parting‘s made – both sisters lamenting the fact that Keela won’t be at Ninette’s wedding that now is only a few weeks hence.

Then, dressed in their ‘Sunday best’, the three children and Keela make their way to Boherclough, processing slowly along Main Street for the last time as habitants of Cashel. They stop at most shops and many houses, including the Woods’ sisters, to say their wailing Irish farewells.

Inside Boherclough they make nervous conversation over cups of tea..

By now emotions are running so high and restraints so fearfully imposed that there seems to be little air to breathe on this stifling August morning. There’s little conversation.

Mammy suddenly hugs Keela tight and Keela reciprocates the desperate cleaving intensity of her embrace. Mammy presses a bundle of pound notes into Keela’s hand; there’s over five hundred punt. Mammy offers no clue to its origin.

In the midst of this Keela remembers Mammy’s day at the Corpus Christi Day races. They’ve never spoken of it. It was the fateful day Tom left. Now, she wonders if this is in some way related to Mammy Brien’s unexpected visit to Francis Row that afternoon. Keela wants to ask her; it’s too late. The mystery hangs between them. Surely they‘ll resolve it another time? It’s left.

Shane, out of character, plays up. He will not let go of Mammy’s skirt. He cries and screams. His little hands are white with the intensity of his grip upon her apron. He little understands he’s clinging to the certain love that his grandparents have been to him.

Mammy distracts him with their usual game of buying and selling.

Later, as he’s passed to Keela in the car, Mammy hands him her battered, empty, pale-pink leather purse as a promise, a gifting-token – a symbol of Boherclough.

“Now here ye are and take care to give it me back when you’re down to see me again.”

He will never see her again. He will not remember these words. He will not even remember her.

She kisses Keela. Then she kisses Shane and Bella and Gael.

She pulls herself from the car and turns and falls into Mikey’s arms. It’s the last image she will have of her daughter as she cannot bear to look as the cars leave.

Mikey, comforts his wife with gentle pats to her back as he watches the cars gently pull away from Boherclough; they pass the fountain and then drift into the far distance. It feels to Mikey like his life is stretched out upon the same road to the very same edge of the far horizon and stretched thinner and thinner until it hardly seems he’s alive at all.

They are gone.

Back inside he makes a pot of tea while Mammy Brien cries her heart out. Neither of them have ever before felt so abandoned, so bereft; so alone, so old; so very, very old. Like the ending day they feel life closes about them.

Mikey doesn’t go to the bar. Nor will he go for several more nights. He has no stomach for the drink.

He and Mammy Brien, ‘my Cat’rin’, cleave to each other as if in their early courting days. This is their emotional response to their catastrophic loss.

In twilight staring at each other over the range they know they’re poised on the threshold of another ending.  Neither wishes to speak of what’s to come.

From now on their present will blink by while their past will swirl about their days like autumn mists. Housed in life’s archive, memories will decorate their simplest daily tasks…memories of a past that will feel strangely more alive than their present…. And reminiscences will bring tender tears. They’ll warm the fading days of two lives drawing to their winter’s close…




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