Tralee Life Life In An Irish Town


Walking Home

autumncolorsWalking through Tralee on a damp autumn morning you see an Irish town coming to life. On Oakpark Road buses, cars and trucks queue at the lights, waiting to deliver goods and occupants to opening businesses. The driver of a delivery van rolls down his window to empty his takeaway coffee onto the road. At the four-cross junction, traffic coming up Edward Street streams past, led by a driver on the phone, seemingly unaware of the law or the dangers of doing so.

Outside the entrance to the Sean Mhuileann apartments two young men in suits are fixing their jackets. Dressed in black and carrying shoulder bags, they look like the Mormons I often see around town. As I approach they are putting on their name tags and the taller of the two turns towards me.

“Good morning sir,” he says, pointing at the blue, leather-backed Bible in his left hand, “have you heard about this?

“Morning,” I reply, following with a “yes, thank you,” but not stopping. I don’t want to be rude, but I’m not about to discuss the Bible at such an early hour. Crossing the road without looking back, I presume they are still walking and not too offended by me.

Ashe Street is a bustling place at any time of the day with a good mix of business types. At the top it’s dentists alongside solicitors, doctors' surgeries near insurance companies and a newspaper office near a medical supply outlet, which is close to a pharmacy. The face of a local TD dominates the window of his constituency office. There is even a church for those who search for sanctuary from it all. The footpath reads like a guide to Ireland’s communication history with a utility cover bearing the logo for the old P&T followed by ones for Telecom Eireann, Eircom and Esat Digital. Ironically the one for P&T looks like the only one designed to last. Everyone is walking towards town with some going through open doors along the way, getting to work, buying what they need or meeting appointments.

On the steps of the courthouse a barrister is having a cigarette while talking to a client and sipping a coffee. We nod in acknowledgement. Behind the imposing pillars a silent gathering smoke their last ones before going to face the music. A solicitor darts down the steps, maybe he forgot an important brief back in the office. The door of the Italian deli is open and the smell of freshly-baked bread mingles with their hams and cheese, filling the street with the scents of Scilly. People are already having a morning coffee on the tables outside Mozarts cafe, while the queue at the door of the Credit Union is inching its way inside.

At the end of the street people are going every which way. Some are heading to the pedestrianised Mall, while others turn to the banks and shops along Castle Street or pass me going for Ashe Street. The suits are heading for Denny Street, men and women going to work in the auctioneers, investment banks, solicitors and financial advisors of this side of Tralee. Outside The Grand and The Imperial delivery trucks are offloading laundry, cleaning supplies and the fresh produce needed daily to keep fine hotels ticking over. The street is alive, like the rest of the town, adding to the sense of business; a town at work with a lot to do.

At the bottom of Denny Street I skirt off through the park. The golden autumn leaves cover the paths and grass, reminding me of the time of year, even though my jacket is open. The quiet of the park contrasts with the streets and it is amazing how quickly the silence descends. A grandfather is laughing with his granddaughter and I think how lucky the two are to have each other’s company. I round the corner by the top of the slight incline and it feels as if my day is done. I check my phone; it’s just gone 10.15.

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The Laughing Undertaker


This morning is beautiful and if I lean back in my chair I can just see the tips of the town park’s trees catching the early morning sun. I’m reminded of such a morning, a few weeks back, the last time the weather was as good.

Daisy and I were walking in the park. I had her off the lead, and she was darting in and out of the trees, chasing shadows and yapping at other small dogs. As we were coming up to the Rose Garden, a most beautiful, carefully maintained spot which at the moment is full of colour, I spotted a man, sitting on a bench, drinking a can. It was only 11 am, the bells of the nearby St John’s were ringing and the sight made me smile. Dressed in shorts and a polo shirt, can of beer on the go and his bike leaning gently against the back of the bench and now soaking up the sun, the man just looked so happy. And why wouldn’t he be? He obviously felt he deserved the beer, he’d done his exercise and now he was being rewarded. As it was a bit early to have bought the can, he must have brought it with him; he was planning this treat, possibly well in advance.

Daisy ran up to him and around his legs. I called her back and the man turned to see who was behind the voice. As he saw me he got up.

“Terrible day for a hangover,” he said.

“It’s never a great day for a hangover,” I answered.

“True,” he said laughing.

We were by now side by side and I stopped walking.

“I’m wrecked,” he said, “I’ve been in England for the last four days and I’m still all over the place.”

He didn’t look too bad, considering he was necking a can at 11 on a Sunday morning and had been on the beer for the last four days.

“Good time?” I asked.

“Great. Over visiting the brother, the cousin came with me.  We got the bus and the boat, non-stop drinking.”

Getting the bus and boat used to be the standard way of getting to England but to do it for a four-day trip seemed very time consuming but I think the travel was half of their fun.

“You know how much they charged for two whiskies on the boat coming back?” he asked.

I shook my head but I remember in my day drinking on the boat was very cheap.

“Thirty euros,” was his answer.

“Thirty euros?”

I was genuinely shocked.

“As true as I’m standing here.”

“Wow,” I said, not doubting him but at the same time not believing that two whiskies could cost so much.

“Look,” he said, rummaging in the back pocket of his shorts, pulling out a piece of paper and giving it to me.

I opened the scrunched up receipt and there it read €30.00 for his two whiskies, with the time and date of 4.11 AM the previous morning.

“I hope they were worth it,” I said.

He looked at me.

“I wasn’t paying that, I told him to feck off and left them on the counter. We went off down the duty-free. A slab of Tennant's for €9.99. Perfect I said.”

“Better value there,” I laughed.

“But you know what? I paid the money and then the girl said you can’t take them out of the shop till we get to port. We were caught.”

“What did ye do then?”

“Went to the other bar and had a pint.”

We both laughed.

“I’ve been drinking those cans since I came home,” he nodded towards the one on the bench.

Two men then passed by, one was the local undertaker.

“Hey,” my man said, “I don’t want to be seeing you for a while yet.”

“If you can see me you’re doing fine,” laughed the undertaker, “it’s when you can’t see me is when you’re having the trouble.”

'Perfect', I thought, 'just perfect.'

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Back in Bed

Imagen 5

Being self-employed and working from home makes it difficult to enjoy a bank holiday. After all how can you have a day off from yourself? This morning over breakfast Lisa was looking at me as if waiting for something. I was consciously not looking at her, as all I wanted to do was go back to bed, drink my coffee, enjoy the silence and read my unfinished magazine.

“Are you finished? Lisa asks.

“Ah no, not yet, why?” I answer hesitantly, not wanting it to slip what I wanted to do.

“Cos I want to finish my coffee and have a read in bed,” comes the answer.

Thank all that is good in our world that I have married such a practical person, one who knows how much a small indulgence can mean and how to take one when it comes along.

On finishing my coffee and magazine it's nearly nine o’clock. Back downstairs I rinse my cup and look out the window. The drizzle hasn’t lifted, the cars of fellow residents are still outside their doors and the dog is looking at me is if she’d rather be in bed than go for a walk. So do I.

It’s then that I remember the book beside my bed and how I got it.

Ten days ago I was in the library with Freddie. He was looking for a book and I was strolling between the aisles looking at titles. Going down the B’s I met one of the librarians. A friendly woman, with straight, bobbed hair who always has a smile. We often pass each other with a familiar nod of recognition from another place when walking the canal or around town. As we are in the B’s I asked her about a writer I like but whose books weren’t to be seen.

“Have all the Maeve Brennan books gone back?” I ask, referring to the collection of her writings they had on loan from different libraries a couple of months ago.

“Yes they all had to go back” she answered, “we do have one or two of our own but they must be out. But you know you can order one?”

“Grand, will do,” I say, “I only discovered her in the last year and she’s such a great writer it’s amazing how little she is known.”

“It is,” my librarian friend says.

Maeve Brennan was an amazing woman. If she were a man we’d all know her name and be praising her as one of the great Irish writers. From Dublin, she made her way, on her own, in the New York of the late 1940’s. Living in hotels around the city she soon had stories published in The New Yorker magazine, the home of great writing and still today almost impossible to get into. Not only that but she had a regular column by the early 50’s, becoming part of Manhattan life and is thought to be the inspiration for Holly Golightly in ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’. Her beautiful observational pieces get as much into one page as I would into twenty. Her constantly changing city is seen usually over a martini but sometimes from just a glimpse out of a twelveth-storey window. That this beautiful, intelligent woman ended up living on the streets and suffering all the indignities of alcoholism and mental illness adds the tragic ending that shouldn’t happen, but does, to so many creative Irish people.

Two days later I get an email from Tralee Library. A standard one saying that the book I ordered was in stock, waiting to be collected. This surprises me as I have two books on the go and hadn’t any on order. Reading down the email I see that my book is one by Maeve Brennan, a collection of her New Yorker columns. Last Monday I took my book from the shelf of orders. They wrap them in white paper with the title and your name. I often look this over to see what others are reading. My friend was at the checking desk and I waited for her to be free.

“Did you order this for me?” I asked, “cos I don’t remember doing it?”

She started laughing.

“About an hour after you were in the other day a woman brought this one back. I immediately thought of you and put it aside,” she smiled up at me.

I was genuinely touched. Who wouldn’t be?

“Thank you very much,” was all I could say “you know this is the one I really wanted too.”

Back in bed again I read some wonderful, beautiful writing by a woman who deserves so much more recognition and all because of the thoughtfulness from an employee of a great public service.

Not so bad a bank holiday after all.

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Killed Stone Dead

Tralee town centre at the moment is fast moving building site. Some large amount of money, at least what was once a large amount, but probably now less than what an average hedge fund manager earns in a year, is being pumped into rejigging the area. Roads are being dug up, traffic redirected and footpaths realigned. All part of what is said to be a brightening of the area, make it more attractive to shoppers and bring out the style of the town once more.

Remarkably the work is moving very quickly and the disruption is fairly minimal. You see very few men leaning on shovels looking into holes and though noisy and dusty, it is still possible to get on with your routine without too much interference. The final production is supposed to make Tralee great again and you can only wish those behind the scheme well in their endeavours.

Freddie and I were out looking for boots yesterday. Last week Fred realised his old boots were gone, Daisy had chewed them when just a puppy and the old pair he’d had for a while, went in the bin. After much complaining and searching Fred petitioned me for replacements and so we set out to have a look in the shops around town. We parked on the Mall and had a look in Pennys. Nothing there and we decided to have a look in Heaton’s, next door and to the left. This route had us passing the top of Denny street, where most of the work is going on at the moment.

The footpath linking the two shops is bordered by traffic control barriers, as erected by the construction company; solid ones that are fixed together and unlikely to fall over too easily. When driving through town during the week, I noticed how there is always a congregation of people gathered behind them and that you often see people leaning on the barriers, usually men, watching the other men at work. I suppose when the workers are moving and doing something they make interesting viewing. No doubt some of the watchers are actually taking in what is happening and reporting back when they get home for lunch or dinner. Others probably have an opinion on what is happening and either wish they were there working, or thinking that they would do it differently themselves. Of course, there are some who are just leaning there as a new place to hang out, somewhere to meet others and have a chat. It’s amazing how quickly humans can colonise a new space to stop and talk. Added to the overall mix are the smokers from Paddy Macs bar, who may or may not be happy with all this activity on their doorstep.

Fred and I had to pass two women, who were standing side by side, with just enough room between them and the crash barrier for a single file of people to make their way through. We stepped back, to leave an older couple pass through the gap, who thanked us as they went by. The two women were busy looking at the work, going full tilt on a Saturday morning, when one of them said, without looking at the other:

“The traffic is very dangerous isn’t it?”

The woman beside her, without turning too, but staring straight ahead replied, poker faced:

“I was nearly killed stone dead there yesterday girl.”

By now the couple had passed and Fred and I continued on. I never did get to hear how the woman was ‘nearly killed stone dead’ but it’s a phrase I haven’t heard in years and I’m so glad to hear it’s still on the go.

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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.



Troubled Soul


The man walking towards me looked a bit different from most of the others I see on the canal. Usually it is couples, groups out running, or men walking a dog or a couple of dogs. It’s still a bit different to see a man under fifty walking alone. Maybe they think it’s not for them, they haven’t reached that stage yet or maybe they haven’t got the time. If I ever do see a man out alone either he is running, dressed head to toe in Lycra, or else he’s a troubled looking sort, out occupying his time, clearing his head, dealing with his demons.

This fellow was well-dressed in a padded, blue jacket, warm black scarf wrapped around his neck and a clean pair of jeans that ran into a comfortable looking pair of shoes. These were the giveaway. He wasn’t wearing runners or walking shoes, more the type you’d wear around town and the canal is that bit too far from town for you to wander onto it when out buying milk. No, this man looked the type who might be out for a pint, or as I thought when I saw him, out avoiding going for a pint. He was looking over my shoulder, beyond the immediate start of the walk, either judging how far he was going to go or, as it was getting dark, if he would even go at all. Sometimes these are the fellows best avoided, they could be the ones with the awkward questions or the ones difficult to walk away from when you start a conversation.

He continued to look over my shoulder as I walked towards him, looking around me even, trying to get a view along the bend of the canal. In his right hand he had a pair of black gloves, matching the scarf and he was slapping them off his left hand as he looked. I put Daisy on her lead again, readying her for the walk on the road. As I approached him he spoke, while still looking beyond me.

“Did you see an older man with a couple of terriers down there?” he asked.

I stopped beside him and looked back down the canal walk too.

“No, not that I can remember,” I answered, thinking that I hadn’t seen anyone with terriers but mentally double checking on who I had passed in case I was missing someone, “no definitely didn’t see a man with terriers and I walked down as far as the lock gates.”

“Oh, maybe I missed him so,” he said slightly disappointed, but yet with the air of a man who has learned to take life’s disappointments in his stride, when maybe he hadn’t in earlier years. I took a few steps to show I was moving on, continuing my walk home.

“Sure I’ll walk back along with you,” he said.

Was he making an excuse just to start a conversation so he could then walk with me? Was he someone who doesn’t know his social boundaries? I tend to attract all sorts and I love talking to anyone, hearing their story, but when they volunteer to walk with me it becomes something different, possibly a situation when I may need to come up with an excuse to get away from some poor troubled soul, which in turn will make me feel bad. Most times all is okay and a few minutes of chat is all that is wanted by both sides, but a stranger who wants to walk with you isn’t always welcome, as it can lead those awkward moments.

“Who were you looking for?” I asked, as often making the person come up with a name can often tell if they are genuine.

“Oh a neighbour of mine who walks his terriers here most days, Francie Murphy, from Stacks Villas. I like walking with him.”

“I know Francie,” I say, relieved that my man knew one of the regulars, “he’s definitely not down there as I would have stopped to say hello.”

Francie is a big man, probably in his sixties who walks his two terriers along the canal everyday and often has a few other men with him. He usually has a heavy raincoat on, with a high-viz jacket over it, for when he’s on the road. His long walking pole suits the look, as do the heavy-duty boots and he has one of those kind faces that you know has seen a few things in life.

“Oh, Francie’s a gentleman, I could listen to him all day, known him all my life.”

I reckon Francie must be at least 20 years older than my new companion and he may be a bit of an anchor in life for him. Like an alcoholic who seeks out a sponsor when in need, a troubled soul can also get great solace from a familiar face, from someone who can be just a friend to spend time with when needed.

“Where are you off to?” I asked, now that he had turned away from the canal walk I wondered what he was planning on doing.

“Just doing some shopping for the dinner,” he answered, “get a few things in town.”

“Did you have a nice Christmas?” I kept the conversation going.

“Yes, I watched a lot of documentaries of the television, ones about Jesus and Noah’s Ark and the search for places in the Holy Land and other stories from the bible.”

“Sounds good,” I say.

“Ah they were excellent really, I’d watch them all again.”

Now I didn’t want to get taken down the road of Jesus stories, so I didn’t follow him on any of the topics raised. Maybe he was a man who found a lot of comfort in religion, with great reasons too, as many others do, but I didn’t want a religious conversation to start.

“They’re great company, aren’t they?” he said, nodding towards Daisy.

“Oh, the best,” I said, “she goes everywhere with me, keeps me going out, even in the bad weather.”

“I had one for 14 years, she died a few months back, I loved taking him out with Francie and his dogs.”

“Will you get another one?”

“I will, I will,” he sounded sad, as if thinking of his lost friend, “what do you feed her, she’s got a great coat.”

“The dried food, a bowl a day keeps her going.”

“They love yoghurt, love it.”


“Yeah, just a spoon a day but it’s very good for them, my old one would go mad for it, you should try her on it.”

“I will,” I laughed.

We came to the junction where the road into town branched off to the left and where my own home was off to the right.

“I’m going this way,” I said, pointing to the right.

“Ah sure I’ll walk a bit more with you,” he said without stopping, “I can still cut back along to the road to town up by the roundabout.”

So we walked the ten minutes to the roundabout. I was beginning to feel uncertain that he would head off into town. There was a sadness, a loneliness, about him, which can sometimes turn into wanting to make you into a new friend. I didn’t live too far away and wondered if I would be taking him home for tea. We talked about dogs and life in general and how Christmas is a special time for kids and that’s what it is all about. At the roundabout I stopped at the crossover, to wait for traffic to pass.

“This is me here,” I said, apprehensive that he may choose to keep walking with me. To his left was the road into town, if he followed me there was nothing except houses, where he didn’t have an excuse to come.

“Oh okay,” he sounded a bit sad, as if he wanted the chat to continue, “I’ll go off and get the butter I suppose.”

He put out his hand

“See you again,” I said, exchanging a firm handshake.

“Nice meeting you.”

I crossed the road, looking over my shoulder when I got to the other side, to see him walking up the empty street under the amber lights, hands in his jacket pockets, alone and maybe would be for the night. The long evenings of the winter can be the worst when people are on their own, with nothing to look forward to except the company of the TV and going to bed. I hoped he would be okay and that he wasn’t heading for a bar somewhere.

I headed for home, thankful more than ever for the family waiting there and the warmth of their company on a dark cold evening.




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Red Wine and Pork Chops


Early yesterday morning there is a knock at the door, where my friend Dan hands over a bag of the biggest pork chops ever seen, along with a thank you. Dan bought two pigs in the early summer and kept them in a pen at his parent’s place. Fed on standard feed, along with the apples from the orchard, scraps from the kitchen and acorns from the oak trees in the large fenced off area, the two boars were a fair size before going to the abattoir.  The ‘thank you’ is for me feeding the pigs at times when he was away, a job I loved doing and I grew fond of the two fellows now in a bag in my hand. It was a running joke when Dan and family were on holidays that the vegetarian was feeding the pigs, which were being fattened for Christmas.

Later in the morning I stop off at the farmer’s market to buy some bread. The cupcake craze of a couple of years ago, put me off going to markets, but the Bácus stall here has some professionally baked bread, which tastes like bread should do and is a nice treat for a weekend lunchtime. As it happens the baker is sold out completely; a good complaint and testament to the quality of his product. He tells me he was up at 5am baking and he never has enough to keep everyone happy. Baking, along with butchering is one of those trades under threat from the rise of the supermarket chains but both have fought back in recent years, with a product far superior to that bought off the shelf. Though I don’t have any bread, I do have Dan’s chops as a testament to what can be produced using a bit of love and care, along with some time thrown in for good measure.

Going to the market gives me a chance to talk with Chris Moloney, a friend who is also keeping an old tradition alive and seems to being doing a good job of it too. Chris may well be the last, or one of the last, door to door milkmen in Ireland, delivering milk in the old glass bottle. Twice a week he drops off the litre bottles on doorsteps around Tralee, collecting the empties as he goes. If I’m awake about 6am on a Tuesday or Friday morning I hear him at work around our development and the fresh milk is by the pots outside the front door when I come down to start breakfast. He bottles the milk at his own small dairy, collects the money monthly and even washes the bottles ready for the liquid bought locally and pasteurised at his plant. The full fat and skimmed are non-homogenised, so you get the cream floating to the top if you leave the bottle stand in the fridge. On Saturdays, he runs a stall at the market, selling the milk, signing up new customers and supplying existing ones who are not yet on his route.

If Chris isn’t the only one doing the door to door deliveries in a glass bottle, he certainly is the only one from Queens New York. I never tire of his accent and you can almost see the street scenes of the city of his birth as he talks. He is passionate about his product and it shows in the quality and the popularity of it. I once spent a couple of mornings with him on the route, as part of a documentary I was working on and I thoroughly enjoyed it. At about 3am he collected me and for the next three hours we drove around Tralee, in the cold of a February morning, dropping and collecting while Chris spoke about his life. Funnily enough one of his first jobs as a kid was a paper round in Queens, again getting up early to do his work. At the time, he never guessed that he’d be doing early morning rises to deliver milk, in an Irish town he probably had never heard of, when he’d be the age of people receiving the papers he was delivering.

As we spoke about everything from Dan’s pork chops to life in general, I spotted a guy approaching from our left with one of Chris’s bottles in his hand but full of a deep purple liquid, instead of the usual virgin white milk. Chris greeted him and thanked him for the rabbits. Apparently, the balding man, probably a bit younger than me, has a licence to shoot rabbits and does so for local farmers. After a recent shoot, he’d dropped off a couple to Chris, skinned and gutted, ready for the pot. Chris said his kids loved the ‘stu’ he made and they didn’t mind that they were eating Floppy and Thumper. In fact, his boy expressed an interest in shooting and hunting, which are skills necessary for proper management of the countryside. Not many people do it anymore but too many rabbits will destroy plants, resulting in fewer birds and more bugs. It is important that people learn the times when to hunt, how to do it cleanly and what to hunt at the right time of year. Stock management would probably be the degree course if there was one to follow. These are skills you pick up on the hoof, learn from someone who has done it all and who knows the importance of handing on their knowledge.

“What’s in the bottle?” Chris eventually asked.

“Take a sniff of it,” the man says, screwing open the gold cap with the ‘Ballymac Dairy’ sticker on it.

The smell of alcohol nearly knocked me back.

“Mulled wine?” I asked.

“Homemade red wine,” the man smiled a gentle smile, delighted with his product, “a present for you Chris.”

Chris took the bottle, obviously touched by the sentiment.

“Well it would be a shame not to taste it,” he said, getting three plastic cups out from his stall.

The purple liquid looked delicious in the mid-morning sun, just a couple of fingers in each clear cup did us fine. There we stood, sipping our drink, talking of wine, milk, rabbits and I even spoke of my homemade cider which I’m keeping for Christmas. It went down easily and though all three of us expressed an ignorance of what good wine should taste like, we all agreed it was delicious. For me that is all any drink, food or treat should taste like, along with leaving you with a desire for more.

Noon on a Saturday was a bit too early to be looking for more wine and I said my goodbyes when the snifter was gone. Back home Lisa had two loaves of homemade brown bread ready for lunch, which was just perfect after the wine. Dan’s chops are on the menu for tonight, the vegetarian won’t get any pleasure from eating them but I will from cooking the right recipe which the kids will enjoy.

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