Boyhood in 1940/50s Ballinasloe
Chapter 12 – Earth, Air, Fire and Water
by Declan Burke
The Ancients felt the world around us could be reduced to these four 'elements'. A modern day physicist would have trouble cramming the universe into those categories, but for my purposes, I believe I can re-construct the omnium-gatherum* of my world of the 50s nicely under that tent.
Earth: the fertile topsoil of our garden in back of our home on Dunlo Hill must have attracted my father in 1939 because some hint of the up-coming world catastrophe occurred to him. He instinctively felt it would be very desirable to have a home grown supply of garden produce and he was so right.
We had a plentiful supply of potatoes year round as well as celery, strawberries, cabbage, carrots and parsnips in return for the hard labour poured into that willing soil. We did not lack produce through World War II.
As a child, I helped as much as I could, and I recall splitting the seed potatoes the night before planting them and the disgust I felt as I placed that fresh seed potato on a piece of horse dung prior to covering it up and awaiting the miracle of nature which, a few months later produced a smiling spud on the dinner table. (Horse manure was considered the 'be-all and end-all' of fertilizerdom)
I was well able to 'let back my ears' to those potatoes, combined with butter and salt which led to a life-long love affair with that lowly tuber.
"You can take the boy out of the potato patch, but you cannot take the potato patch out of the boy".
That sounds idyllic, but it was at the cost of hard manual labour. I was not an eager worker. Weeding was boring, digging was back-breaking and picking the potatoes from the half frozen soil made my fingers aches like they were beaten, and in those days of physical punishment, I was no stranger to that either.
The blasted weeds were the bane of my existence. They sprung up overnight and made like they had all read "Jack and the Beanstalk". Regularly, my father would send me into the abandoned garden next door to mow down the accumulated armies of weeds with a scythe.
Now, the scythe is a mighty weapon. It is made to conform to the human shape with its multi-curved handle and hand-holds at right angles to the shaft that are the product of generations of experience.
As an adolescent, I could work for hours with one. The rhythm of the swing and the fall of the cut in regular rows, once you got the 'hang' of the thing was in its own way, satisfying. The soft iron of the blade required frequent honing. This all fitted the over-all cadence and explains how manual labour once supported us.
I became an unconscious expert on use of the scythe from that experience and whenever I see one being used in a movie or TV documentary, I know immediately if the user is an actor or really able to use a scythe.
If there was an Olympic category for weeds, I believe Ireland would take gold, silver and bronze, hands down, going away. Especially in the stinging nettles division. There are two kinds of nettles, bad and worse.
The merest brush will bring instant burning pain, but I learned as a small boy, a bold grasp will result in no pain at all. "Grasping the Nettle" was a saying denoting a bold approach to any problem.
I used to pull a nettle from the ground and chase my playmates around as a (pesky) small boy.
Belated apologies, girls, now ladies.
The Emerald Isle gets its name from that good black earth and its top-notch ability to grow greenery. Aided, I hasten to add, by the moist prevailing climate. (Said he, tongue in cheek).
Air: so clear at times that major astronomical discoveries were made from Birr Castle in the not too distant past. Admittedly the old joke about Salthill, "if you can see the Aran Islands, it is going to rain, if you cannot see them, it is raining" underlines the plenitude of moisture in the Irish atmosphere.
But in between showers there can be a startling clarity to Irish air. I recall seeing the Milky Way clearly at night and my father taught me to recognize many constellations. I understand the night sky is not nearly so clear any more, in part due to outdoor lighting. If so, more's the pity. We used to see the Aurora Borealis from Ballinasloe in the 50s.
But the air moved a lot too. I built model airplanes powered by tiny engines that were intended for "free flight", that is, they were intended to fly in circles and glide to a convenient place to land when fuel ran out. That was the theory.
In fact any breeze at all meant a lengthy trek to recover the model plane and we had only two days in succeeding years calm enough to "free fly". I remember them well as they both fell on Good Friday.
Also there was a tremendous storm in the summer of '59. It was so strong it snapped mature oaks across in mid-trunk but it also heralded the arrival of the chain saw. Roads and streets that would have taken days to clear in previous years were open the next day as a result. Crews of men with big cross-cut saws would be working for hours doing the work a single chain saw took minutes to do.
That same storm pried slates off roofs and they made the most dangerous of missiles as they tended to fly like a frisbee and could easily decapitate the unwary. I attempted to drive 8 miles that day but I had to abandon the trip and park the car in the middle of a field when I was blocked by a falling tree in front and when I tried to backtrack, another tree fell across my escape route. That was some storm.
Last summer I was delighted to see the big graceful wind generators on the skyline of Derrybrien, south of Loughrea, gathering some of that energy that is otherwise wasted.
Fire: my father was an explosives expert and was called on to supervise blasting locally. This was a job he hated as the nitro-glycerine gave him severe headaches. That was also in the days of the lighted fuse and the intense worry if the explosion did not occur. Did it fail to reach the explosive or was it just hanging fire till someone approached?
He occasionally brought me along to watch from a safe distance and I was fascinated by how he handled the stuff and moulded and inserted it into drilled holes and then covered the whole thing with a dam of water.
There were two really big fires in Ballinasloe in the 50s, the Workhouse and the Flour Mill. Both structures were gutted but there was no injury other than financial. But they were thrilling to watch.
The really big fire in our lives was the sod of turf 'won' (i.e. harvested) from the local peat bog, Pollboy.
This was our domestic source of heat that allowed no slacking and required constant attention. That fuel burned quickly and had to be replenished all the bloody time, as the sods were not your modern compact briquettes but large spongy lumps which when dry, burned quickly but when damp, were difficult to manage.
The fire irons were in constant use and once I had a live ember jump out and go down my leg inside the rubber boot (wellies) I had on. Removing the boot meant the ember had to be pressed deeper into my leg and though it only lasted a few seconds, I remember it well.
Dancing at Lughnasa, Brian Friel's play mentions the ancient pre-Christian fire ceremonies. Some fragment hung on till at least my time and I recall people leaping across a bonfire in the Fairgreen in August a couple times. Of course they may have been doing it just for a lark, but anyway they did it.
Bonfires were lighted, maybe just to burn some trash, but they were certainly lighted.
Water: now what can I possibly say about that ever-so-scarce resource in Ballinasloe? (Said he, tongue in cheek, again).
I remember one summer vacation from secondary (high) school that we had rain every blessed day. And that was the dry season!
I often wondered how the town actually got built at all with all the rain it got, all the time.
My mother was continually running back and forth to her clothesline to retrieve the half-dried laundry before the next shower drenched it all over again.
We learned to look at the grey sky to see if there was "enough blue to patch a sailor's trousers". If there was, the rain would clear and the sun would shine. If not, soldier on.
There was a well-spring behind St Michael's Church that produced the coolest, clearest, tastiest water I have ever imbibed. I suppose it has been placed off-limits by now since it is not "official" water. I think it is streets ahead of Evian water and the town could make a fortune if it was bottled and sold, on its merits alone.
In the 50s Josh Ward ran the Water Treatment Plant out Derrymullen way. He invented a machine to accurately add the proper amounts of the treating chemicals to the water supply and Engineers came from all over the world to see this invention.
I gather he was highly praised for his work.
*Omnium-gatherum = bog-latin for wrapping everything up.
Declan Burke is now a medical doctor and lives in Culpepper, Virginia, USA.