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I like to write and I like to party, but mostly just the writing. Disclaimer: A lot of these stories are true ones. The memory of growing-up in and around Killybegs. When you hold a mirror up to small communities, sometimes there are those who don't like the reflection. Capote knew this only too well. If you find the refraction just a little too much and would like the angle of incidence changed in your favor, please email me at georgevial@hotmail.com and I will be happy to make a name change here or there.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

The Badger Den

Found this lovely little picture of the Estuary at THIS LINK

The smell of the morning fry, the sound of BBC Radio 2 coming in from the living room and Aunty Francis' soft, yet deep, voice saying "rise and shine" as she hands you a freshly-made mug of tea with two sugars and a splash of milk. If there is a greater way known to man to awaken, it has yet to be discovered.

Depending on the day, you might get up right away, vitalized by the tea or get served breakfast in bed. A feast of fried bread, rashers, sausages, Mallon's thick, fat sausages, black and white pudding, sometimes mushrooms and beans, but always a fried egg. Francis worked at Chappie's MACE shop and always had a well-stocked pantry of delights. A well-stocked pantry would never last in our house due to the shear volume of hungry mouths. No matter how big of a shopping Mum would get in Dunnes or Tescos we'd consume it exponentially, "pack of savages" Dad would say.

If the feast was served in bed then we would put on the radio and listen to the 2FM morning shows, Top 40 chart hits on The Larry Gogan show with the Just a Minute Quiz. People calling in from all over the country, Dublin, Galway, Limerick and Cork and all sorts of places, every once in a while there be someone from our part of the country and we'd cheer for them.

Larry would run through his list of questions (these are actual Larry Gogan quotes):

Larry Gogan: "With What town in Britain is Shakespeare associated?"
Contestant: "Hamlet."

Larry Gogan: Name the BBC's Grand Prix commentator?...I'll give you a hint. It's something you suck...
Contestant: Oh, Dickie Davies (Murray Walker is the correct answer.)

Larry Gogan: What was Jeeve's Occupation?
Contestant: He was a Carpenter.

Larry Gogan: Complete this well known phrases, "As happy as..., hint think of me."
Contestant: Flies on shite.

Then he would announce the results in his usual drole fashion "Mary from Letterkenny...you got four correct answers...sure the questions didn't suit you, did they? What have we got for Mary? A 2FM t-shirt, that's great."

If the radio was boring, we'd turn on the small portable black and white TV and watch morning cartoons; if it was summer time we'd watch the Welsh children's program Why Don't You, a show that actually encouraged you not to watch it. Genius.

Uncle Aidan would already be in his comfy-chair by the range, rolling his Old Holborn tobacco with red Rizla papers. Licking the papers delicately, a lover's kiss, rolling the pinched tobacco between forefinger and thumb, a perfect roll popped into his mouth and instantly lit. A plume of blue-grey smoke rising above his head and drifting through the morning sunbeams bursting through the window of Kit's Cottage. His eyes would be bright and full of energy behind his glasses and beard, like he was in disguise hiding from someone. Aidan loved to engage us in conversation, probe our growing intellect with all kinds of questions about music, current events, literature and science.

Aidan would talk about history, about World War I and World War II. As he talked we would all look up at Uncle Tommy's medal on the wall. It made those wars very real to us, having a connection to them right there in the room. Our own flesh and blood shot in an orchard, scouting a German artillery position. The medal was huge, like the world's largest penny, a penny for some seriously deep thoughts.

Then Aidan would turn to us and inquire, "So what are you boys up ta today?"

"Might go down the woods or walk into Carrick" Paddy would say, 'cause lads our age didn't really plan ahead. Usually waited to see what the day's weather was like and planned accordingly.

With these words my ears and Derek's would prick-up. Going down the woods was the best thing about staying with Paddy, well that and going up the mountain. Either destination was an adventure in itself, places of beauty, where your imagination could run loose. A fantastic escape for young boys like us who spent their day-to-day life in the little concrete and pebble dashed town of Killybegs with its fish factories and stinky fish lorries sloshing mackerel slurry all over the streets, giving the town a permanent stain and odor of filth.

We would put on our adventure gear, purchased at the Army Surplus store in Carrick. Infantry issued belts and RAF replica officer caps and corduroy trousers we pretended were army combat pants. Decked out like "Little Officers" as Francis would call us, invisible guns and bayonets at our side we'd march off down the woods, along the winding muddy path, part grass, part rock, all mud. 

Ferns, wild flowers, brambles and whin bushes brushed up against our legs and arms, which we slashed at with our sticks, but Paddy had a real machete like you'd see explorers wielding in the movies in the jungles of Africa or the Amazon. Depending on the time of year, the ferns would be either be brown and dead to the ground, or bright green and towering above our heads, forming a canopy that heightened the illusion of a worldly adventure.

Paddy leading the way, then Derek, me and the dogs; Kit, Lucky, Badger, Doogle, Snoopy, the names changing as we grew older and they passed on to the big farm in the sky. Branches would snap back and you'd have to be on the ready or you'd get a smack in the face. The first thorns of the day would already be finding homes in your legs and hands and you'd spend the rest of the day squeezing them and fiddling with a needle later when you got back to the house. Thorns were nothing too serious, but we were always in fear of getting one from a Hawthorne tree. Uncle Aidan warned us about them and we knew that one in the wrong place was guaranteed gangrene and certain amputation of the forsaken limb.

Walking through the woods in early summer you could smell wild roses, fox glove and wet hazel, the moist dirt beginning to dry in the sun would leave a mineral tinge to the air, augmented by the proximity of sea, a hint of salt that you could almost taste on your tongue. The summer flora having just replaced spring's bounty of bluebells, daffodils and crocuses. The bouquet of which mingled with the iodine of seaweed drying on the shore as the morning sun grew stronger, as we continued our march towards the the estuary and the sea receding for its next cycle of tides.

Aidan mentioned that we should check out the badger set. Said there had been recent activity down at the main den. We loved and feared badgers in equal measure. Loved them because they were beautiful, rare, strong and Ireland's only carnivore of note, hedgehogs don't hold much weight. The character in Wind and The Willows called Badger was the only one who could save old Toad, Ratty and Mole from the evil Weasels. Feared them because we knew that their bite was stronger than any dogs, and if they took hold of your arm then it would have to be amputated too, worse than hawthorns or rusty corrugated iron.

Approaching very stealthily up to the badger den for fear we might come face to face with one of the black and white wee buggers, imaginary guns at the ready. Evidence of freshly churned up earth and badger poop confirmed Aidan's intel. Paddy found a badger skull half buried in the dirt. I'd only every found one in y whole life, but Paddy found them all the time, it wasn't fair. Aidan would clean them and then varnish them and display them on the book shelf in the cottage. I wanted one of mine up there on display, but it would be Paddy's again.

Derek and I were dead jealous of Paddy. He was an only child, which meant he didn't have to compete all the time for thinks like Derek and I had to. He could watch his own TV shows, get his own clothes, not hand-me-downs from his older brother. He got all his parent's love, our mum and dad had to portion theirs out between the five of us and there was never enough to go around.

Looking at Paddy standing there in the woods, in the middle of the badger den, with the skull in his hands, a sharpened hazelwood spear in his hands and a bow slung across his shoulder, he looked regal: a prince of the woods, the last of the high kings of Ireland. Me a weekend visitor, a pretender at best, a serf to the king.

Paddy or Paddy Joe as my mother called him, had three scars  on his face. Two from a dog bite when he was just a child and another from falling on some rocks over at Derrylahan beach when we was just a little older. The scars were his medals, his royal insginia, what made him king of the woods. I wish I had scars too, but I didn't want to go through the pain of acquiring them.

After a while, we'd march on down to the estuary, in single-file like the good little soldiers we were. There was a rope tied to a tree to help us scale down the rocks, salvaged from an old fishing boat's castaways. Landing ourselves onto the small, seaweed and trash covered beach. We would comb around for half an hour or so, turning up all kinds of ocean deposited treasures. Scampering over and back to each other, showing-off to each other what we found: a burst football, an oil slicked buoy, a monofilament net lost by a couple of poachers. Bottles and bottles and bottles, every color, shape and size and the occasional light bulb that would shatter in a puff of smoke when thrown against a rock. We would line all the bottles up on a natural shelf of rock and make targets out of them. Bladder rack squeaking under our feet, we grabbed stones, found leverage in the slippery surface, took aim and fired. We took no prisoners. Within five minutes nothing would be left but dust and glass and the sound of our own laughter.

Thirsty work all that destruction, so we would lap water from fresh water pools just above the tide line, the first few sups taken from our cupped hands and then bending over and putting my head almost directly into the water, I'd drink like a camel getting ready for a months walk in the desert. After calming our thirst we'd walk over the estuary, kicking limpits and mussels off the rocks as we went. At the low tide on the estuary a whole other world is exposed to our adolescent destructive nature. Turning over rocks and pulling back blankets of seaweed searching for crabs and the promise of a big crayfish. We'd dive our hands into the soft sand hoping to catch a razorfish before it sucked itself deep into the earth safe from our wrath, at least until we could come back with a spade. The abandoned oyster bed still producing a fair crop every year, Aidan told us not to "fuck with it" so we left it alone, but in later years we'd feast on its bounty with glee.

Salt water drying and deposits of salt caking on our faces as we splashed through the tidal pools. Sand and mud thrown at each other until Derek would say "Cop on," if a stray shot hit him in the face, but my noggin was fair game to him and Paddy. Our walk across the estuary would take us to the point where the sea stopped it retreat and gradually went deep again. From there we could easily walk around the coast to Derrylahan beach, but not today. Instead racing back towards the Salmon Leap River, to the confluence of seawater and fresh, connecting two aquatic worlds and like certain species of fish and wildlife, us boys could survive in both. Aidan told us Congers liked to inhabit this in-between world, so we stabbed deep pools of water to swiftly knockout any unsuspecting boy-eating conger eels.

The junction pool, where the Yellow River flowed into the Salmon Leap, was a pool of unfathomable depth, so we were told and terrified into never finding out. After sending a few choice stones skimming over its surface, we'd hop back over the barbed wire fence of Mick O'Donnel's field and make our way back home, famished. We try to stay out of the way of the young bullocks grazing in the rush filled field, as they'd be likely to demonstrate their manhood, or lack-there-of, and chase us young soldiers back over enemy lines.

Marching up the soggy hill, avoiding the tell-tale bog cotton warning of dangerous bog swamps that would swallow you whole, Hollywood quicksand style, we'd pop over another barbed wire fence and onto the lane with the grassy mane leading us back down to Kit's Cottage. But of course, before that, even though we know we shouldn't, like helpless moths to a flame, we wander over to the edge of the bog swamp.

King Paddy plunges his hazelwood spear into the soft earth, making squidging noises as it seeks the depths of the swamp, all the way up to the hilt, almost five feet deep. As he tries to extract it, his face reddens with effort, Derek pushes through to have a go, even I lend a hand, like young King Arthurs pulling excalibur from the stone, but the hazel stick in the bog stays where it is. The lady of the lake can keep that one. And it's off home for lunch for King Paddy and his soldiers.

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