I have just returned from 10 happy days travelling around the south of Ireland with friends, and we happened to visit or pass through some of the places I had been on holiday with my family in the summer of 1970, when I was eight. My recent trip has inspired me to dig out and write about some of the mementos from that holiday. I remember it vividly, as it was an idyllic holiday for a horse-mad little girl: for the first week we stayed in McCarthy’s pub/guest house in Kilbrittain, Cork, but for the second we hired a horse-drawn “Romany” caravan in which we lived and journeyed about the countryside. Our horse was a gentle dark brown giant named Steve, who was introduced to me personally by the Blarney Romany Caravans proprietor Mr Joe O’Reilly. (The same as this Joe O’Reilly, I wonder?) I can still remember how I trembled as he handed me Steve’s halter lead and cheerily instructed me to take him away. My parents were astonished to see their tiny child leading the huge powerful beast towards them, but they needn’t have worried: he was a lovely friendly animal and a willing worker who gave us very little trouble and much pleasure. I adored him and was heartbroken to have to leave him behind when the holiday was over. As consolation I was allowed to buy this china donkey for my “ordiment” collection, which I named Steve in memory of my equine friend. It was a treasured favourite and has survived intact in the Usmeum.
Keeping a log book on holiday was a family tradition, as far back as my parents’ honeymoon and before they even met (Dad’s here, Mum’s here). The Irish trip was no exception and it’s lovely to be able to read it now, and compare the 1970 experience with the 2012 one.
Diary entries are written by Mum, Dad and my brothers, with one attempt by my 8 year old self on the first day (before we began the caravan trip), which reads: “I found a horse shoe. A small and rusty one. It has still got some nails in it. I have got two Irish pennies so I am not worried about money. I enjoy being here, because there are plenty of animals”. (I kept the horseshoe as a souvenir for many years, but I don’t know what happened to it in the end). Alongside the diary entries are postcards, sketches by Dad (who came from a very artistic family) and even a pressed shamrock and a piece of heather, remarkably well preserved. Dad enjoyed sketching and produced some lovely work with his untrained hand and ballpoint pen: below is his impression of Blarney Castle, which can be compared with the postcard image above.
Blarney was one of the many sights we visited on that trip and yes, we all kissed the Blarney stone. This was a terrifying experience which entailed being held by the legs and dangled backwards over a sheer 200-foot drop with just a metal rail or two between yourself and the ground. I was white-faced when I came up! Whilst staying in Kilbrittain we took various daytrips including a sunny day on the beach at Rosscarbery Bay where we ran into friends of my parents who lived near us in London, natives of Cork who were also on holiday there. The diary records my parents spending occasional evenings in the public bar of our guest house where there are “real Irish sing-songs … lasting til midnight”. On one such occasion, “Jim [Dad] obliged with ‘Maggie Cockabendie’, which was a great success, and, on the strength of this, we were invited to a party up the street – tea & sandwiches, & Guinness – which was also a success, Jim in particular not getting home until 2.30am. The house is owned by the man who invited us, Mr Dan Roach…We had some jolly good songs there, including an elegy to John F. Kennedy, to the tune of Kevin Barry“. Dad also played the harmonica and I have vivid memories of sitting up in the front of the caravan with him, the lush green fields rolling gently past us as he held Steve’s reins with one hand and played a tune on the “mouthie” with the other. Steve seemed responsive to the music and especially enjoyed the jig “The Irish Washerwoman” which would make him pick up his hooves with a perky gait. (Incidentally, “Maggie Cockabendie” was the song my Uncle John sang at his son’s wedding many years later!).
Our week in the caravan took us from Blarney to Killarney, Bandon, Kilbrittain (where Dad paid a return visit to McCarthy’s bar), Garretstown, Kinsale, Cork and back to Blarney. We stopped overnight at appointed caravan sites where the horses were left in a field overnight and we caught, fed and harnessed them each morning. Steve usually obliged with this arrangement until the day we started late and he had decided he was having the day off. He got his hoof on the lead of the halter Dad was trying to put on him, and carried on grazing, cleverly evading capture this way for a good half hour: it’s no easy task to move a ton of horse that doesn’t want to be moved!
The log book contains descriptions of life in Ireland at this time, some of which survives today: my recent trip included plenty of music in pubs, both organised sessions and spontaneous singalongs. Much more is long gone. Dad describes a journey along the back roads of Timoleague in Cork: “In one of these we came across a party of men playing some sort of local game. Already we had noticed chalk lines across the road, marked ‘start’ and finish’. The game seemed to consist of throwing a heavy round stone as far as possible and following it up. They were very keen about it. I suppose in the course of time heavy traffic will put an end to it. Pity.” At the end of the log book he has written a section entitled “Impressions of S/E Ireland in summer”:
“very green, wooded and beautiful: fine roads with little traffic: much horse transport still such as horse-drawn milkfloats: friendly people, & pubs: much given to singing: strong & vocal I.R.A. tradition: many, many ruins, old memories, & many memorials: food very dear even for the natives: water in plenty.”
My impression of the same region in 2012 would be very similar, only without the horse-drawn vehicles and obvious “I.R.A. tradition”. (In 1970, the Irish Republican Army were revolutionary heroes and the subject of much national pride. The split between the “Official” and “Provisional” IRA had only just happened and it was the “Provos” who went on to commit the atrocities against civilians with which the IRA are now associated in the public mind). The beauty, music and friendliness remain, in plenty.