Mo Laethanta Saoire: vital life lessons from Ballybunion’s surf, amusements and Bunyan’s shop
You’re walking around the North Kerry seaside town of Ballybunion. It’s the summer of 2022. The day is blustery and sunny.
You’re thinking of the summer holidays you and your family went on — to Ballybunion every year from the 1950s to the late 70s. How everything has changed and how everything is the same.
Such a feat of logistics and emotional intelligence to transport all eight children from Mallow, year after year. But your mother and father managed it: sometimes with the help of John Mannix, transporting beds and a clothes drier on a Springmount Dairy van. Mary remembers stopping at McKenna’s in Listowel to rent a washing machine and a TV for the fortnight. How very 1960s.
One year, when you were three or four, you forgot to bring your imaginary friend, Chummy, with you. When you realised your mistake you went into hysterics. What did your mother do? Turned the car around. Now, if the car had been closer to Listowel than Mallow there might have been a different result, but Chummy had a great fortnight at the seaside.
When was the last time you were here? You can’t remember. In 2018 when you were at Listowel Writer’s Week and took a little pilgrimage out to look around? Or was it 2019 when your pal Mick Quaid invited you to 18 holes on the Old Course? A stunning golf links which you can no longer do justice, but that’s okay too. Time erodes everything, including golf swings.
You walk out the Doon Road to the north of the town. Costello’s shop is long gone. What a magical place it was when you were a child. A cornucopia of wonder. A milestone when you were first sent to that shop on your own to get the messages. That mixture of pride and anxiety to have such a monumental responsibility. It helped that there was no money involved, Mrs Costello having a ‘book’ in which she totted up everything at the end of holiday, when your mother would pay up.
You call into Bunyan’s just down the road and when Liam tells you he still uses that system for regulars, you are heartened. The Bunyans have been trading there since 1957; some things are different, but some things stay the same.
The Ladies Strand still seems as stunning to you after all these years. Especially since the tide is coming in and the wind is whipping up towering waves which crash against the jagged cliff. Even through your jaded eyes, it still seems wondrous.
Did you and your brothers and sisters really dive into that tumultuous surf when you were small children? Did you lay down rugs in gale-force winds? Did you leave your clothes and towels in the shelter and run down through the rain to the distant sea at low tide?
Was the sand as soft and golden as it is today? Was the coast of Clare so close? Were the white horses so wild? Was the sky so blue and the clouds so white? Was the wind whipping off the water so bracing?
Memory is fallible. Like sepia-tinted photos, it fades. It can hide blemishes and beauty alike. But the ice cream cones were sweet and soft, the flakes hard and crumbly underneath. The water in the pools by the cliff was warm. The caves in the cliff were magical. The walk over to the Black Pool was thrilling. The bumpers and the amusements were electrifying. The dinner was served in the middle of the day, piping hot with floury spuds and butter. The salads for tea were delicious. The forty-five in the evenings was great fun — your mother, especially, loved those card games.
The days were as long and as full as days can be. You were never happier than on that strand with a ball at your feet or a hurley in your hand, your family all around you.
You walk out to the cliff-top chalets where ye rented in the later years. You are surprised they’re still here. Surrounded by ribbons of houses, now, and a plethora of mobile homes. The chalets look a bit jaded. All privately owned, these days, Liam told you. You’d forgotten how they all angled away from the central road. You think the final year for you was in 1977, in the last one on the left; could that be correct? You remember the shock at Elvis’ death and you know that happened when ye were on holidays, when you were 16. Padraig and Pauline went one more year with your Mam and Dad.
Year after year, your mother and father managed to treat you all to that holiday, until — one by one — late teenage ‘sophistication’ eroded its wonders and other priorities took hold. How you were all nurtured and provided for so well for so long. It’s only now you realise that the nurture and provision never ended. Instead, it is being passed on to the next generation and the next one after that.
These days the holidays may be in the Cote d’Azur, or Noosa, or Hilton Head, or Gruissan, but the joy is just the same. You all learned how to have fun in Ballybunion — a vital life lesson.
You check into the Cliff House Hotel, which was known as Bernie’s when you were a child. Your father would have approved of you forking out a few extra bob for a sea view. He used to have a pint there and tell Bernie (the legendary GAA man, Bernard O’Callaghan) what was wrong with Kerry football. Bernie must have enjoyed that. You remember when Pecker Dunne played there — how exotic that name to a 1960s child.
Later, you walk out to Nun’s Strand. There’s an old photo of you with a donkey along that path and you’re surprised there are no donkeys in the fields anymore. Some things change.
You meet a woman from Brisbane, her name is Catherine. You tell her about your niece, Una, living out there with Joel and Ronan. Catherine tells you she’s here to spread some of her mother’s and father’s ashes into the sea the following morning on the strand. Her father (Listowel) and her mother (Abbeyfeale) met in Montreal and then moved to Australia where she and her brother and sister grew up. They loved coming back to Ballybunion and now they will be reunited there again — this time, forever. She shows you a black-and-white picture of her mother taken at the very spot you are standing now — in the photo she is wearing a hand-knitted cardigan; she looks very like your own mother.
You walk around the town. The amusements are open and you see children grouped around a shining noisy game. A boy passes you, hopping a football. Four American golfers cross the road. Some things stay the same.
On Church Road you can’t find the house you rented for a few years — the one with the big garden where Dermot took all those photos. You think it’s been knocked down to build a Celtic Tiger housing development. Some things do change.
In the morning you wake to the sound of the sea. Which was what you wanted more than the view. The sound is constant and is very like a distant wind. It’s the same sound you fell asleep to and woke up to all those years ago as a child on your holidays.
You chat to Maggie and Kevin at Reception as you check out from the hotel. You tell Kevin a story about your father and he tells you a story about his — the aforementioned Bernie. You turn the car left at the end of Church Road and head out on the straight road to Listowel and home. You think of Catherine’s mother and father and your own mother and father. You think of your brothers and sisters. You think about what William Faulkner meant when he said that ‘the past isn’t over; it isn’t even past’.
You wonder when your next trip to Ballybunion will happen, but in another sense, you know you’ve never left at all.