Monthly Archives: June 2020


Hunching into the crook of his arm to light his cigarette. The high heathery bank stretches off desert-like behind him, on towards Drumhanny and Drumcolligan.  ‘Bugger’ he says, after short gust of wind quenches his match. ‘Did you ever see what it was like after they bombed Birmingham?’  I ask quizzically. No response, at least not immediately, a cloud of smoke suddenly billets up from the overcoat and he is lit. ‘Birmingham’ he says ‘No, no I didn’t’.

He stoically surveys the black rows of turf footings, our mornings work. I look at him as he inhales deeply, his ruddy, gaunt birdlike face, his long fingers, varnished by decades of tobacco smoke. He won’t chat. Two more drags on his cigarette, more silence. I watch a blue, shiny dragonfly hover and zip along the surface of the dark boghole surface. ‘Terrible thing to do’ he finally says. ‘Cowardly’. I look up but now his attention is on the plantation of birch that marks the boundary of the bog and the small garden meadows beyond. ‘Were you there that time?  I ask.  ‘No’ comes the swift reply. The reply is so adamant, so instant and so sure in itself.  He looks studiously at his company watch, the reward for thirty years of punctuality from Massey-Ferguson, then takes another long drag on his cigarette. From the acrid cloud of smoke around his head some words emerge, slowly, ‘but I was not far away, I was in Coventry. Yes. You had to keep your head down if you were Irish that time’.  

Carefully he squeezes the tip of the cigarette between forefinger and thumb, like an altar boy quenching a candle after mass. The black ended butt is placed securely in his breast pocket. It will emerge on his next smoke-break in half an hour. The fag-breaks in the factory must not have been long enough to smoke a full cigarette. ‘We wouldn’t even speak to each other if we met at a bus stop, in case someone heard the accent’ he turns towards the ordered rows of turf, ‘unless you wanted trouble’.  Back to work it is for man and boy, backs bent low on a turf bank in Leitrim in early June.

My grandmother once told me that he had worked on the building of the reservoirs in Wicklow, high up near Blessington and Poulaphuca. It was 1938 and the first chance her youngest brother had to earn a pay packet. Within two years he was in London working with her and two other brothers. He stayed after the War and found work in the midlands and settled in Coventry. Every year he comes home to help on the farm. Not much of a holiday I think, making hay, rearing turf. My brother and I stole some of his cigarettes last night and smoked them in the byre. It was a tip less John Player and we both felt dizzy and nauseous after. The granduncle won’t talk while he works, and he stays with his back bent low the whole time. I pop up every minute or so like a cormorant coming up for air. An ocean of unturned turf lies ahead of us, at least another week of hard labour, my annual penance.

‘What was it like in the Blitz?’ I ask. He sits now, cross-legged, his coat spread under him to keep the pismire ants from stinging his arse. Slowly he opens the bottle of sweet milky tea. ‘That’s a long time ago’. I pretend not to hear him and press on, ‘Did you ever hear the doodle-bug?’ He takes a swing from the bottle ‘Oh aye, you could hear it plain, rattling across the sky and I saw it too’ .  Wow! I replied excitedly ‘What did it look like?’ I had only seen it this secret weapon missile in comics like ‘Victor’ and ‘Warlord’. ‘I can’t remember’. ‘But You saw it?’ I ask curiously. ‘Didn’t I just tell ya I saw it’. I open the biscuit tin and unwrap the napkin covering the sandwiches. I offer him one and he takes the egg and onion one in his bony fingers.

‘Did you ever hear the V2’ I ask. ‘Yes…. if you heard that one you were alright …… it meant it had passed you by and some other poor bugger was going to get it. Ah yeah. I heard a few of them. Loud bugger too’. He is finally opening up I surmise, ‘They are supersonic that is why you would have heard them even though they had passed’. He looks at me through his narrow eyes, weighing me up. I feel the need to continue, to explain, to wash away his doubts about me, ‘you see that’s why you hear them after they’ve passed, they are travelling faster than the speed of sound’’. ‘Who told you that?’  he grunts.  ‘It’s science, it was travelling more than the speed of sound, that’s more than 800 miles an hour’. He pulls the cigarette butt from his pocket and lights it. ‘I don’t think so’.

Slowly he gets up, picks up his coat and begins to pat it, dusting it down. ‘I saw one over Croydon you see, and it wasn’t going that fast’. He stubs the butt out on the bank and begins to turn back towards the long runs of turf. As he does, he mutters, ‘Ya had better work like the speed of sound, there’s rain comin’

Far from the maddening crowds – Galway 2020

I had an appointment in Galway yesterday and took advantage of the good weather to take a stroll around town and visit my alma mater. It was comfortable to walk around in the absence of the usual throngs of this time of year. It was also a bit eerie. The city should have been buzzing. It was chosen as the 2020 European City of Culture and many were hoping to reap the bonanza such an award brings. Instead many business premises are using the lockdown to redecorate their premises. You can get a takeaway coffee or a gelato in town but that’s about it. I hope they all survive as I’m sure many are tied into big rents and paying big rates. When you’re giving unto Caesar there is often very little grain left for your own cupboard. Sin sceál eile.

The last time I walked down Shop Street in summer was several years ago. It was like scrambling to get into Croke Park ten minutes before throw in. It was probably worse. Over-tourism destroys many places; I’m thinking of postcards of Trevi Fountains and Bridges of Sighs; yet when you get to these places they are like anthills. Am I a curmudgeon? I don’t think so. I guess we all just want these places for ourselves. Galway is in the same category.

I had a lovely walk by the canal from Jurys to the Salmon Weir Bridge. Small groups of people were sitting out on the embankments.  Social distancing was adhered to also, which was good to see. Plenty of cans and bottles in hands but no sign of any litter. An odd guitar strummed too. I’ve never made my mind up about the Cathedral. Some days I like it and others I think it’s a monstrosity, but if Galway is to be a city, its skyline needs a Dome and the Cathedral has a great Dome. The University is looking well. The grounds are beautifully maintained. There is a lot of concrete and steel squeezed in between the Newcastle Road and the Corrib these days. Somehow the excellent landscaping blends everything in. I turned at the Quincentennial Bridge and came back along the very pleasant river walk. Almost on cue a couple of skulls passed by on the river their blades shimmering in the light as they cut the dark water. The grass verges have been left like almost meadow which is great for the bees. Nothing worse than an over manicured lawn for the fauna. For all the beautiful new buildings, each of sound architectural merit, the Quad is still the jewel in the crown on campus. Satisfied that my Alma Mater is in sound hands I strolled down Canal Road and headed for the West End.

On the opposite bank with its high wall I was hoping I might see one of the Poor Clare nuns abscond in an East Berlin type dash for freedom. It didn’t happen. I made a few detours to see old flats and houses I once called home. The Connacht Laundry is now closed. For years this place put hard earned pounds into students’ pockets, notes that would very soon be resting in neat rows in Mick Taylors till. Monroe’s looks well, pints and pizzas will return soon.

There is always a bit of breeze in Galway no matter what time of the year. As I walked back to town along the Eglinton Canal the wind was playing havoc with my lockdown locks. If only there was a barber shop open. In College days I liked to spread my non-existent loot around, so I went to three barber shops. A very odd time I went to a lad on Abbeygate Street, just behind Lynch’s Castle. He certainly gave a good haircut but wasn’t much into conversation. You need conversation in a barber shop.

Barber shops these days are all hot towels and beer fridges. There are some great ones, but you sometimes think many are all fur coat and no knickers. These establishments used to be a lot more puritanical, functional, unpretentious, friendly fiefdoms of masculinity. There were two other great barber shops in Galway that I remember fondly. Both could easily straddle either the traditional or the modern era. Tom Nally is still going in his shop between Griffins Bakery and the Kings Head. A tall, lean greyhound of a man always dressed very suave, a great man to talk GAA. If you had any talent and were unaligned Tom wouldn’t be long getting your name on a transfer form. Before you knew where you were, you’d be signed up for his beloved St. Michaels out in Shantalla / Rahoon.

When I lived over the West End I used to go for the chop to ‘Chick’ Gillens. I only found out today his real name was Michael John. Chick was a great character. I can still see him in his white coat, dancing around his customer on the balls of his feet. Like any good boxer he had great feet. If it was GAA that ruled in Tom Nally’s, Chicks place was a shrine to the Pugilist. The walls were adorned with all sorts of boxing memorabilia and the man himself had an encyclopedic knowledge of the sport. It often felt like you paid for the tales and anecdotes, but the haircut came free. There was something very manly about that shop and that man.

One day he told me a story about a young lad from the Claddagh called Tony who was very bright. He won a bursary to the University in the early 1960’s. The young student found the first few weeks in the College very difficult. The rest of his classmates seemed to be from privileged homes, and he was from a humbler background. Chick said he spotted there was something up. One evening as he was closing up he spotted the young lad walking by on his way home. Chick called him over. They had a good chat and the lad began opening up to him about his feelings. Chick said I’ll give you a haircut while you’re here and they chatted more in the relaxed environment of the shop. In the heel of the hunt the young lad didn’t drop out of University; in fact he went on to have a great career, one which crossed paths with my own. I never told Tony what Chick had said. It’s a bit of a parable but Chick was only doing what he had done for decades in his boxing clubs, giving young men guidance, self-belief, confidence in their own abilities. It was Chick who spotted an eleven-year old traveler boy at a tournament in Ennis and took him under his wing. It was the start of a collaboration that led to that young boy carrying our national flag at an Olympic opening ceremony. It might not be Selma, Alabama but it’s still an iconic moment.

Michael John ‘Chick’ Gillen died last week at the age of 87 and you can’t help but feel that a little piece of Galway died with him. The city that he loved will survive and prosper.

Chick Gillen photo credit Oisin Browne twitter