The last guest blog of 2018 comes from the River Barrow and brings us back to simpler times in the company of the Connollys of Aylwardstown via the pen of Brian Forristal. The area of Aylwardstown is beside the river Barrow close to Glenmore on the Kilkenny side and Tommy was well known in Cheekpoint as a builder and repairer of the distinctive local boat the Prong. Brian like myself was raised around the river and has a deep appreciation of it and the people who lived upon it. I loved this account and I believe you will too.
Tommy realised as he looked to the north east that there was snow on the wind and it was blowing savagely down an angry River Barrow. He knew that there was a lot of work to be done before Christmas arrived and the last thing he needed was a blizzard of snow to delay him.
That Christmas tree he had seen last week in Graiguenakill, softly nestled in a grove of larch wood needed chopping before anyone else cast their eye on it. A splendid specimen, not too tall so as to fit into the kitchen of the cottage nicely, and not too broad as to impinge on the tight space near the dresser. He had better go soon and cut it down for he had to drag it back to Aylwardstown across the fields as he did not want anyone else to see him take it out of the larch wood.
That was one of the pre Christmas jobs to be done, another was to kill the goose he kept on the commons and had been fattening for the previous months. Extra kindling had to be brought in, in case the weather took a turn for the worst, which meant dragging it from the cutting shed situated just north of the cottage on the river bank. Country cottages were always adorned with holly and ivy for the festive season and gave a natural feel of the outdoors, indoors; this had to be gathered from the surrounding fields.
He dallied about which to do first and after much soul searching decided to go after the tree, that was the one that could not wait, all the rest would still be here when he got back.
He informed Molly that he was heading for Graiguenakill to cut the Christmas tree and would be gone for a few hours. She asked him would he be back for his dinner at 11 o’clock and he said he would, seeing it was only 8am, he thought he had plenty of time to get there and back.
Gathering an axe from his shed he headed along the road as far as the railway tracks and cut into the fields that ran behind kelly’s big house, then veering right in the direction of Carrigcloney until he met the road that ran back to the river. Moving on north west from here he cut across the large stubble field behind Killivory/Kilmokevoge ruined church, he was now in sight of the glen where the larch wood was. He crossed the stream at the end of the gorge and climbed the winding lane that led through the larch wood. About half way up this lane and in behind the first few lines of larch stood the tree that Tommy had eyed up weeks before. Taking off the rope that he had carried around his shoulder, he firmly gripped the axe with both hands and began to chop at the butt of the tree. While it did not take long to cut through the stump, by the time he had felled it he had worked up a good sweat, which kept the biting cold at bay. He proceeded to tie the rope around the butt and then headed for home making his way more or less back along the same route taken previously towing the tree behind him.
When he got to the ditch at the far end of the stubble field, just as he was about to push the tree over onto the road, a voice bellowed to him from the roadside, it was Dermoy Ryan from Killivory just along the road.
“I see the Christmas tree is free again this year Connolly?” he shouted
“As every other year” he retorted back.
“You must be frozen to the bone crossing that 5o acres of stubble, come up to the house and we will have a Christmas drink to put the heat in you”
Tommy tied the tree to a fence post on the inside of the ditch, out of sight from anyone using the road. Both of them headed to Dermoy’s cottage along the roadway and went inside, Tommy sitting in beside the fire to feel the warmth of the glow. Dermoy handed him a full glass of whiskey and then joined him by the fire.
Both men talked and drank for ages and those reminisces of years ago entered their conversation with laughter and good banter. One glass led to another and before long Tommy had forgotten about the time and the dinner, when something tweaked his memory he jumped up suddenly and bade Dermoy farewell and a happy Christmas and sprang out the door to look for his tree. Luckily his tree was in the same spot so he untied it and headed for home, even though as a much slower pace that he had left that morning.
It was now around 1 o’clock and he still had a number of jobs to do around the cottage. Getting back to Aylwardstown he was met by the wiry comment from Molly that a liquid lunch must have been provided by the fairies considering the state he was in. He shook off the verbal onslaught and brought the tree into the cottage and sat down and had his dinner before tackling the other jobs on the list.
Molly said she would look after the tree and decorate it while Tommy finished his dinner and got on with the other jobs. Having soaked up much of the whiskey he set about killing the goose for the Christmas table and was glad he had a few that morning to steady his nerves. The kill was swift and humane and the bird did not suffer, the prized goose was prepared for the pot and left to hang until the flesh was ready for the pot in the days to come.
By now a few flakes had started to fall and gathering in the holly and ivy was now paramount before the real cold spell arrived. Two fields over towards Carrigcloney lay a grove of hazel and hawthorn trees which had a good covering of ivy and would be easy enough to pull from the trees. Having arrived and pulled the long strips from the bark he rolled them into circles and tied them down, now they were handy to throw over the shoulder for the short journey home.
For the holly he would travel up the lane and over the railway tracks to the Phelan’s land. On the boundary ditches lay some good specimens of holly which always supplied a good crop of berries; without the berries the spirit of Christmas would not sit in the cottage, this was his way of thinking.
With all that collected and left in the yard, Molly worked away at making it into shapes that were accessible inside the cottage. The list was dwindling and now all that was left was to get the train into New Ross and gather the groceries to tie them over the festive spell. A little extra would be bought in the event the weather turned bad and they were unable to get out of Aylwardstwon over the coming weeks. Shopping completed Tommy would head into the local pub to catch up on the news with old friends and acquaintances, while Molly would head over town to do the last few bits and pieces. When fishermen get together there is no stopping the talk and the time passes quickly, half one after half one soon disappear and merriment ensues.
As dusk begins to fall and Molly returns to collect Tommy, they both head across the bridge to catch the returning train. Weighed down with several bags they would be glad to see the sight of the cottage and the flowing river, home they would be, tired but happy that they got through the necessity of the festive shop and they could now relax and enjoy it all together.
Christmas morning brought a late dawn with grey skies and a bitter cold feel to it. Tommy had a blazing fire going early on to keep the bitter cold out and the crackling of the blocks sent slivers of red hot wood out into the centre of the cottage room. Dinner was prepared early as they usually had theirs at about 11 o’clock in the morning. At that time Molloy and himself sat at the little table that looked out over the yard and out to the river and rejoiced in the little feast that lay before them.
The shortness of the winter light soon caught up upon the Barrow valley and Molloy drew the curtains and settled down to the evening. The television was put on first to see if there was anything of interest to watch, failing that the radio was engaged and some traditional Irish music would sooth the evening away. Tommy was often tempted to take down the fiddle and join in with the music, but he preferred a few people to play to than rather an almost empty room.
Both of them sat in on the fire and watched the embers glow and talked of the day, what tomorrow might bring and past Christmas’s had went. The clock chimed on the wall and the night was still, crackling logs the only intruder into the stillness.
About 8 o’clock when all was quiet a faint knock appeared on the front door, slightly startled Tommy shouted to know who was there.
“Tis Seán Óg Kennedy from Rathinure”
Tommy opened the door and the dark shadow of Seán entered the cottage spouting seasonal greetings to them both.
On been asked what brought him out on a dark and cold night, he said he could not put up with listening to his brothers bickering any longer in the house, even on Christmas night they argued about the price of cattle, what field to sow potatoes in next spring, who’s turn it was to feed the calves in the morning. He had enough and strolled to the river to find a bit of solace and a quiet corner to sit in.
Shuffling in on the floor he warmed his hands and then Tommy handed him a glass of whiskey and the chat ensued. They talked well into the night and the sign of sleep never set upon any of them. As the clock chimed midnight Seán decided he had taken up enough of their time and decided to head for home. Tommy offered him a spare bed in the back room if he did not fancy going out. Declining, he faded into the darkness of the night with the words of Tommy ringing in his ears not to go home by Kilcolumn graveyard as the dead would still be about celebrating the festive night and he might get caught up with them. If he felt any fear at walking home at that hour it was the last thing he wanted to hear then.
The cottage door was bolted and the two elderly people made their way to their bed. Another Christmas night had passed and now they looked forward to the New Year and the coming spring, when the haggard would take all his attention to get ready for another growing season. The spirit of Christmas had for another year settled on the cottage by the Barrow and gave it its blessing, all was quite there again.
My thanks to Brian Forristal for bringing that slice of life from the River Barrow at Christmas, even if you did not know the people I’m sure the characters depicted would be familiar to you. A neighbour of the Connollys on the Wexford side of the Barrow was John Seymore, known as the god father of self sufficiency who I have written about before. Guest blogs are published on the last Friday of the month and if you have a story to share about the three rivers or the harbour area please submit it to firstname.lastname@example.org
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