Tralee Life Life In An Irish Town


Homeless in Tralee

winter morningThe first time I spot him he is crouched under a tree in the park, looking at his phone, an old Nokia, as if waiting for it to ring. A couple of days later he’s walking towards me and I make a point of saying hello to him. He looks surprised but after a few days of me persisting, with nothing more than an ‘hello’, he begins to nod in acknowledgement. I would put him in his late twenties, though the short, cropped black hair is already receding. His skin looks healthy, though the ingrained dirt gives him a tanned look that oddly enough doesn’t suit the poor weather we’re having. His dirty jeans drag along under his heels, the permanent creases even blacker than the rest. A dark jumper comes down over the top of his waist, covering his hips. Smaller in height than even me, though not too skinny, his eyes have the look of someone lost, someone used to being loved and the words ‘some mother’s son’ always come to me when I see him. Even in the height of a busy summer I see him somewhere in the park and an ‘hello’, followed with a ‘how are you?’ are usually answered by a polite ‘ok, thank you’, in a difficult to place accent. I never see him drunk, or bothering anyone or even in the company of others, no matter the time of day. If you only see someone once, looking as he does, you might say he was on his way home after a bad night out, but daily, in the same clothes and around the same spots, can only put him among the numbers of our modern great shame: the homeless.

Towards the end of the summer, I add the riverbank walkway to my nightly route. The walk is well sheltered and once you get beyond the Aquadome the street lights brighten what can be an imposing darkness. It’s a bit more industrial, with the poured concrete walkway, the drinkers on the benches and continuous traffic close by, obvious contrasts with the peaceful surroundings of Tralee town park. Oddly enough the man disappears from the park during August and pops up at times along the riverbank, where we continue our brief exchanges. I wonder if the crowds became too much for him and he’s escaping to the riverbank for some peace.

The man disappears completely in late August. I don’t see him a for a couple of weeks until one September evening along the riverbank, he’s sitting on a bench, looking at his phone. There is an immediate look of recognition between us and he smiles in response to my hello. I see him nightly at the same spot and on a few early-morning walks he’s there too. As the bench is close to some thick bushes I wonder if that is where he sleeps at night. He looks a lonely sort, possibly dealing with his demons or maybe he’s one of us who just can’t fit into society. Seeing him on the same bench, always alone, in the same clothes, just looking straight ahead and always the old phone in his hand, makes you wonder how he ended up on the margins.

For the rest of the autumn and into the early winter we pass each other. As the weather turns he gets a black jacket that he keeps zipped up. One November morning I’m walking  by Lidl and I see him coming out from the store ahead of me. He has a bottle of cheap beer in his hand and he’s heading for the little picnic area across the road. As soon as he’s into the privacy of the park, he pops the bottle into his mouth, flicks the hand holding it and spits out the cap, which he picks up and puts in the bin. Then the bottle is back in the mouth and half drained in one gulp. All of this is done in seconds, while he keeps walking. He doesn’t look at me but walks over the bridge at speed, back to the riverbank and I pass him a bit later, sitting on his bench.

He disappears again as the weather turns nasty for the winter. I presume, or hope that he is in the shelter in town. There are few people around the park or down riverbank, except fellow dog walkers and those keeping fit. Then one day last week I’m looking at shampoo in a supermarket when I get a slight tap on my shoulder and an ‘excuse me’. I turn and it is the man.

“Oh hello,” he says, in surprise, followed by “it’s you.”

As usual I say hello and ask how he is. As usual he says ‘ok, thank you.’

In his hand is a bottle of cheap beer and he holds it up to show me.

“Can I borrow 20 cents?” he asks.

“Of course,” I answer and dig in my pocket for change. I have a load of coins and I give him the twenty cents.

“Do you need more?” I ask.

“No just this for this,” he says, holding the coin and the bottle up to show what he means, before adding a ‘thank you’ and heading off for the tills.

As I queue I see him slide into the dark evening. No repeat of the opening of the bottle with his teeth but he does put it inside the black jacket he’s had since the early winter. He looks healthy and I hope he’s got somewhere to go, somewhere warm where no one will bother him and where his gentle soul will find peace for the night.

It’s all anyone deserves.




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Powerful Day

Daisy andPowerful Day[1707] I are heading for a walk down the canal. Between one thing or another we haven’t been on the canal for a few days. The weather was against us on Friday, when we got as far as the towpath, only to be caught in one of those biblical-like deluges that use to scare me when reading about them during Religion class, back in St Joseph’s during the mid-70's.  Time constraints, along with me picking up a bug which sapped my energy, kept us on the shorter, round the park route, earlier in the week.

It’s beautiful day. The sun is shining, even bordering on warm, I’m feeling strong again, plants are budding in the early spring weather and everyone I pass seems to have a smile on their face. All that is missing is one of those warm, Disney choruses singing how wonderful the world can be. True Daisy barks at any dog who dares cross her path and more than one couple walks by without saying hello or answering my greetings. I can understand a single person, lost in their own thoughts but surely one of a couple could at least say something; married life can slide into silence but it doesn’t have to, not if you make an effort.

As I cross over the bridge at Blennerville, a couple, coming off the path leading to the canal gates, smile and both say ‘lovely day’. This cheers me but what I see coming behind them, at the top of the towpath, really gladdens my heart. Three men are walking in a perfect line across the path, men in their sixties I guess, though guessing age is not my strong point. If you were casting three Irishmen for a Hollywood movie you’d pick these ones. The man on the left, closest to the canal is the taller of the three. A strongly built man, possibly younger than the other two but not by much, a weather-beaten, handsome face and a near balding head, with decent lines of thick, sandy hair above either ear. He’s wearing a long raincoat, down to his knees almost, covering the top part of an old pair of suit trousers, which just reach the lip of his black walking shoes. His walking stick is of a length of aluminium, with a few layers of tape as a grip. The beauty of the other two is that they are both pushing bikes, older bikes, and they’re holding them by the centre of the handlebars, the point of perfect equilibrium. If this was that Hollywood movie the picture would begin to blur at this moment, the music would get sentimental and as the focus returns you’d have three young fellows in exactly the same poses walking into the frame.

When I was going to school, it was a sight you saw all over the streets of Cobh, as no doubt you saw anywhere else, but you don’t see as much anymore: two young fellows pushing their bikes and a third lad walking beside them. The two want to spend time with the walker, so instead of cycling by they stop and walk, using that time-honoured, centre-of-the-handlebars grip to steer. Here I am seeing it again except this time it’s at a much later time in life. The two bikers are dressed in short jackets, one has a grey pair of trousers meeting his green jacket, while the other is in the reverse, a short grey jacket just reaching the top of his green trousers. They are both white haired and each has a good crop on their head still. The three are deep in conversation, free flowing chat that only happens among good friends. There is a good chance they’ve known each other all their lives and the walk with the bikes is as natural to them today, as it was fifty years ago, when they were all at school together. A simple scene in so many ways but such a beautiful one too. Old friends still together, still smiling, still sharing jokes, still with similar interests in life and remarkably still pushing bikes like they did when teenagers.

The man in the middle is wearing glasses, the only one of the three, and I recognise his face. A local man, who lives just over the bridge by the school and we used to talk when I collected Freddie during his time there. He recognises me, I’m guessing from the smile, says hello and asks how I’m doing. The other two smile too.  I return the greeting as I walk by and at a decent distance I turn to see them at the bridge, talking some more, until the man I know and the walker, head over the bridge, while the other man crosses the road, to take up the towpath back to town.

About twenty minutes later I meet him on my way home. He’s just taking up a spot on a bench about three-quarters of the way up the canal. The bike is leaning against the edge of the seat and he’s stretching out his legs, while pulling down the zip of the jacket a bit, to take in the air. A contented sigh is all that is missing and then I hear it as I approach.

“Hello,” he says as I walk by.

“Lovely day,” I say.

“Powerful, powerful,” he says, closing his eyes against the warm sun, while leaning his head back against the top bar of the bench.

I smile and head for home.

The simple things in life really are free.

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The Roundabout

raymond norris

(Image © Raymond Norris)

A couple of days ago I was off to collect Ruby from school. Nothing unusual in that, we’ve been doing it in one form or other for nearly 15 years now and I love doing it. It’s just a short drive from our house, ten minutes or so, around the roundabout, along Dan Spring Road, around the second roundabout and up to her school. Every time I go around the first roundabout I say, to myself, ‘there’s the first roundabout in Ireland to have a fountain on it’ and smile at the odd facts I store in my head and what prompts me to remember them.

Each time I say such a fact I picture myself on the final of ‘Mastermind’ or in the chair at ‘Who Wants to be a Millionaire’ and the seemingly impossible to answer question is asked:

“For a million euros Mr Verling can you tell me where is the first roundabout in Ireland to have a fountain as its centrepiece?”

People all over the country will gasp at the difficulty of the question: “He’ll never get that,” they’ll say or “how’s anyone supposed to know that?”

I’ll look at the camera and say:

“At the junction of the Ballyard Road, Dan Spring Road, Princes Street and the Dingle Road in Tralee.”

The gasps will ring out and the money will be mine.

Anyway, last Thursday I was driving around the roundabout, the fountain isn’t on at the moment, when I saw a man walking along the footpath to my left, coming out from the town side, just where Princes Street meets the junction. The man looked familiar but I couldn’t place him. He had a black jacket on, a receding hairline which was catching up on his grey, short-cut hair and a well-kept beard. He looked deep in thought, almost as if he was solving a complex problem in his head or maybe something was bothering him. I was trying to concentrate on the busy traffic, while keeping an eye on this man I knew from somewhere.

“Where do I know that man from?” I asked myself as an old lady racer sped out from the left lane, just far enough ahead of me not to cause me to brake. I did slow though and I had a closer look at the man.

Sure enough I knew him and it was actually the deep-in-thought look that gave it away in the end. He wasn’t wearing his glasses, as he usually does when I meet him and normally he’s either driving or in our front room, marvelling at the softness of the rug Lisa bought last summer. That was the thing too, he was walking, not driving. This man loves to drive and there isn’t much he doesn’t know about the workings of an engine. He’s also a man who is always thinking, always working something out in his head and if he has a question for you it’s usually a good one. A parent of one of Ruby’s best friends, he’s a regular in our home and always has a smile on his face. His soft northern accent draws you in but his full attention to anything you say is a lovely attribute too.

It was seeing him out of the car that threw me. Seeing him walking along the road, out of context, had me confused. He was deep in thought, now he may only have been wondering what’s for dinner, but the expression was there and that flipped the switch of recognition in my head. I couldn’t stop and say hello or even beep, as it would have disturbed the peaceful flow of traffic on the roundabout, but I did wave, not that he would have seen me at that distance.

I said it to Ruby a bit later, when we were coming back home via the roundabout, that I’d seen him walking there earlier but didn’t recognise him as he was out of the car.

“What was he doing there? Walking? He’s always driving,” she laughed.

“I know,” I answered, “strange world, isn’t it?”

Now every time I’ll go around the roundabout I’ll think of our friend, as well as the millions I’ll win some day.



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The Journeyman

Thjackete man beside me picks a bottle of beer off the shelf.

“Like the craft beers?” I ask.

“Yeah, love this one,” he says, “made with unfiltered water spring water. You never know what’s in the water these days.”

“True,” I answer, “I like this one.” Picking a bottle of Journeyman IPA off the shelf, not knowing if it’s filtered water or not, but that it is a good drink for a winter’s evening.

“Never tried that one,” he answers, looking at the bottles on the shelf, while rubbing his grey hair back over his ears, sliding a hand along either side of the head. The denim jacket looks in good condition but must be one from the eighties, as I haven’t seen one like it in a long time. No Status Quo or Black Sabbath badges on the pockets but this man looks old enough to have appreciated all the great bands in their heyday.

I’m always wary of recommending anything to anyone, in case they don’t like it and blame me. The best I can do is say how much I like something and leave it at that. Also if someone doesn’t like something I do like, it often makes me wonder about my own tastes. What am I missing? Have I got everything wrong my whole life? What am I doing wrong that the good looking, suave, sophisticated, urbane other person is doing right? So leads to a world of doubt that makes therapists rich. Best to just leave each to his own and get on with your own life, I suppose.

I leave my aging rocker at the shelf and go off to get wine for Lisa. At the checkout he’s standing in front of me, paying for the three bottles of Journeyman IPA the assistant is putting in the bag. Solely on me saying I like the beer, me who’s he’s just met, he’s buying three bottles and I notice none of the one he was taking before I spoke up. On paying he turns the other way, not seeing me standing behind him and heads off out the door. I just hope he likes it and I don’t hear a “Hey you!” someday soon when walking the streets of Tralee and have to duck the three empty bottles chucked at me in anger.

Six weeks later and I’m walking down the aisle of the local Super-Valu. Around the corner by the mustards and tomato sauce, comes a man in a classic blue denim jacket, shoulder length, wavy grey hair and white runners finishing off the blue Wranglers. There is nowhere to go, the aisle is empty, the last person scurries around the corner toward the tills. All we are short of is the music from the Good, Bad and the Ugly stand-off scene, though we do get a ‘Shane Murphy to the self-service area please’ over the instore Tannoy. I’m not even looking at anything and a sudden turn to check the noodles in the Chinese section may show my guilt.

As he walks towards me I look him straight in the eye. He stops and points and me; instant recognition may or may not be a good thing. He looks at me for a second or two longer before he places me fully, giving me that slightly quizzical turn of the head to make sure he has the right person. I raise my eyebrows; my usual response to people who think they may know me. He smiles. I relax and let the Beta blockers take over.

“The craft beer man,” he says.

“That’s me,” I laugh. Along with my beard, black coffee and natty dressing, thanks to Lisa, the liking of craft beer just ticks another box in the hipster textbook. In my defence I’ve been brewing my own beer and drinking black coffee since the early eighties, though if it wasn’t for Lisa I’d probably still be dressing like the early eighties too.

We get into a discussion about beer and life in general. Not too surprisingly he plays guitar, though just a home with friends in the afternoons. We get into how big brands and the big retailers are defining our tastes and limiting our choices when out shopping. The worst are the big breweries and now both of us have lost our love for Guinness, which hasn’t been the same, in our opinion, for years.

“Fluoridation of water is the biggest culprit, ruins everything, killing us from the inside out,” I’m told and I nod, as it’s not a favourite of mine either.

Before I know it a quarter of an hour has gone by. I’m late, it’s almost 3.45pm and I need to collect Ruby in five minutes. We say our goodbyes. Just as we shake hands he pulls me slightly towards him, looks me in the eye and, while still holding me in a tight grip, says:

“Thank you for that beer,” there is a genuine appreciation in his voice, “the best yet, I’m just on my way to buy some more.”

I smile, relieved as he hadn’t mentioned the Journeyman and I was worried that he may not have liked it.

“No problem, good luck.”

We go our separate ways and there is a smile on my face as wide as Cork Harbour.

He’s made my day, though he may never know it.