BY NED EGAN
Seventy five years ago now. An age – or a minute? Both. It was the end of the school holidays, in the hard and hungry 1940s – 50s. The Crossroads I lived on looked towards Slievenamon in the vicious winters of the time, towards the blue hills of Kilmoganny in the sweet-remembered summers. That’s how it was. To me, anyway.
Early up on this particular day. Bread toasted over last night’s griosach, and a slash of tea from the black kettle on the crane was my usual routine, for the Ma’s breakfast. I was often a ‘bold boy’ I suppose, but for this small act, and the bringing home of cowslips and primroses, I was forgiven. O, also the stories and lies I’d make up to keep her happy – Ma was a lousy housewife – a slattern, really – but she was a musician, and an academic – what more in life could a lad want? The word “love” was never mentioned in those times – but it was there, sprongfuls of it.
After the ‘tay’ was taken up the wobbly stairs to the Ma, I was ready to go. My older brothers, Jim and Alec, were getting the gear ready. Last minute job – as usual.
We were readying for the three mile trip to Knockdrinagh, a favourite hill for rabbits and woodpigeons – both of which brought in a few handy bob in winter time. But it was timber we were after this time out – or rather, the brothers were. Busy now hunting up cross-cut saw, hatchet, sledgehammer, and a few steel wedges. Also a rope, in case the wounded tree refused to fall. A not uncommon problem – making tree–felling a dangerous game, right up to this modern day.
Only the one bike in the house – a sturdy Raleigh – bought by the ever efficient Jim. The two lads up on the bike, gear tied on with the rope, and myself ‘ready to trot’ all the way to Knockdrinagh; no bother to me. Down past the hovel of ‘the Maid of the Poor’ as she was called, on past the home of a woman so obsessed with Shirley Temple that she named her little tot after that tiny star, up past where Bob Cody was out with the new-fangled binder, and it clicketty-clacking along, spitting out a bound sheave every few clacks. And good son Ray making stooks as he followed the magic machine.
On we wsojourned, with my bare toes kicking up little puffs of dust from the unpaved roads and lanes. Knockdrinagh loomed into sight, my first view of that famous hill, almost entirely covered with furze and trees; mighty oaks, graceful poplars – their leaves tickling and fluttering in the breeze. We got half way up the hill when jim said “That’s the one” – a great elm monster, with a skelp of bark knocked off to identify it. Culleton, from Kilkenny, the contractor – had said “It’ll be ‘blazed’ – keep yourself in line with two farmhouses back behind you as you climb the hill”. He wasn’t wrong.
The lads set to with the crosscut, having cut a huge notch with the hatchet in the side opposite their cutting, to encourage the tree to fall that way. We bore in mind that a wayward tree had ended the young life of a local lad on this very hill, short years before. Anyway, Jim had allowed for wind direction and slope – he could do no more. The rope should not be needed – although attached, payed out, and ready. All went well, they sharpened the saw halfways through, and drove two wedges in. The wind was steady, not swinging about, but I was ordered back a safe distance. A bit more sawing, a few hefty hammer slaps on the wedges, and, with a mournful groaning sound, the green giant toppled and fell almost exactly as intended.
Now the hachet again, as all small boughs and branches were lopped off, the lads working with great speed. Soon the fallen colossus was reduced to sections that could be lifted by a few men. As if by clockwork, a fine lorry appeared, grinding through bushes and gorse with no bother at all. “The bould Culleton” said Alec, who knew said KK City man well. No mucking about for this lad, he was out and throwing on branches like a Goliath. Between us all we loaded up the big lorry in new time, then up goes our bike. The tools were hidden in the furze, well out of sight, for another day. Then up the three of us get on the back of the lorry with the timber, and off we go. I wondered, in the way children do, if the dead tree somehow knew that it was leaving its birthplace. But soon Culleton’s rather hairy driving style meant we had to be on the alert for shifting logs. No Health and Safety laws then – “ya took yer chance”
The bike took a few small hits, we hopped and jumped.
On we swept, blasting along at a savage thirty miles an hour, between the dying hedges of late summer, by villages I’d never heard of in all of in my six or seven-year old life. As we passed one sleepy little hamlet, I looked backwards and saw a cloud of feathers – which meant one RIP hen hadn’t timed her run to perfection – and paid the ultimate price for her bad-speed day.
Very soon, at this demonic speed, we were in Kilkenny City, my first time. Over a huge bridge and a silver river, and we charged recklessly up the ancient streets, creating mayhem amongst cats and dogs, who were unused to spectacular traffic of our kind. Maybe they just liked a bit of excitement, like all of us.
And Culleton had a name to live up to. I forget the full route, but we ended up at The Woolen Mills, I think near a Railway Station. Maybe a canal. I know we fired off the timber by a long line of sheds, the rain now pouring down. ‘Milling down’, as we used to say. Job done, and Alec took his share of the spoils from Culleton, and off with him towards a local pub, not to return home to Baurscoobe for several days. Drinking and card-playing would have left him destitute again. Similar to all the rest of his days on this planet. Jim, a life-long teetotaller, put me up on the crossbar of the Raleigh, and down we went, into the guts of the lovely KK Town. Into Hickmans, where a fine icecream was provided for me. Then down to Woolworths. I can still remember the lovely rich smell of that place, which I looked on as the ‘Centre of Civlisation’. Which it was, in those innocent days – to many – who had little. Then Jim bought me two great ‘sponge’ balls for handball and hurling – both with beautiful mixed colours on.
After that, it was out and off home with me on the crossbar again, Jim pedalling the hard ten miles to Baurscoobe, via Kells, in the rain. The best day of my young life, made possible by a generous and good brother.
I was in Kalgoorlie in West Australia when the dear Jim Egan died. The local priest – a good lad – heard my loved brother was ‘on the way out’. He kindly gave me the key of his Church, saying “If you need it, boy”. When Jim went on his Last Journey, I went into the Church, late at night, and cried my heart out for the loss of a great brother. Next day, I returned the key to the priest, telling him I’d said no prayers, only cried for Jim. “Ah, what better place to mourn than the Church” he said. “Tears can be as good as prayers, betimes”.
The opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints of The Kilkenny Observer.