( a poem primarily for the 15 McCarthy cousins )
Lift up the latch on the creaky gate,
once flaky green, now painted silver,
and it’s seven steps on the narrow path
to the stained-glass door of 34.
To the south, once, was a trellis of roses
just at the top of the slope of the garden
in which Pop-Pop planted a crop of potatoes
in the long summers of the "Emergency" --
an event never quite acknowledged
by the new Irish nation, although
over the waters east beyond Clontarf shore
people called it the Second World War.
Then the house stood solid, square and new,
a redbrick perched on the brow of a hill,
looking down on the long broad valley of Dublin,
on a turbulent old city hugging an ancient river.
But this semi-tragic city full of cheerful ghosts
appears snug and lightly-grey now, quietly pretty,
and beyond it rise the blue and lavender hills
of Wicklow, where the rest of Ireland begins.
Stand on the green and now potato-free lawn
(mowed by Uncle Thomas over so many years),
or even better leap up to the grey stone wall,
and you can see this same old oddly soothing sight ...
as the children, our parents, did before
stepping out the door of 34.
Abundant life and voices seeped slowly away
as they begin to do, must do, in all large families;
there were the two never-known uncles who died of TB,
two laughing young men who never grew old
in the natural way that our own parents did
and over whom our Nana wept scalded tears,
inconsolable, remembering their eyes and faces,
by the black fireplace in the sunken scullery.
But then there were the courtships and marriages,
the setting up of new hopes on low wages
(“Sure, won’t we drop in to see you on the weekends!”),
and poor dear Lily going off to God-knows-where
and with her children barely known to anyone.
Soon there was only Pop-Pop, Nana, and Kathleen,
and then there was only Nana and Kathleen:
after that, for many years, only Kathleen.
Now there is … what? A silent sturdy old house,
familiar to us all, once a symbol of permanence,
but also an impermanence we should have seen coming,
and which we did see coming, but turned aside from.
Where now is the spirit of that house on the hill?
Four -- and now five -- generations of our family
have been loosed from the moorings from whence they came
and only an emptiness, an absence, and silence remain:
No more come the excited shouts of young children,
Auntie Cack’leen, Auntie Cack’leen!!
Well, I might just find a few sweets and chocolates,
I might, only if you promise to be very very good.
No more come the hurried calls from the Airport,
It’ll only be two weeks and we’ll fend for ourselves!
Well, ye’ll blutty well have to! I’ll put on the tea now,
but I’ll not be doing the cooking for the lot of ye!
And yet there’d be Irish rashers and sausages galore,
(not the very items, I confess, I’ve seen Kathleen enjoy!)
and not only for the arrival but for every morning after
because there was no boundary, no limit to the kindness,
and no limit to the love. Then, of course, there was
that bouncing little cutie from Japan, Brendan’s child,
all of six-years-old, a self-important miss at Marino School,
who set out, strictly, impatiently, to teach Kathleen Irish!
Immense progress, I’m told, was made.
Yes, immense progress was made in many many ways,
and perhaps it’s only now we can come to realise
how central she was to us all.
For how can you say that you’ll “miss” a river,
or a mountain, a valley … or even a whole country
that no longer really seems to exist without that
central someone? You do, though; you carry on.
The family is large, active, supremely vibrant,
quick-witted, quick-speaking, in the good Dublin way,
but the house we all came from lies now cold and empty
behind the stained-glass door of 34.