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Space to Think, a new book celebrating ten years of the Dublin Review of Books More Information 

The Hurley-Maker's Son

Patrick Deeley
Doubleday Ireland


From Chapter 1

'Are you after losing something, son?' an old man with a Dublin accent asked, gingerly placing his hand on my arm. 'That's the fourth or fifth time you've gone by me in the last half-hour.' 'I'm just stretching my legs.'

The train's rhythmic clack grew louder in my ears as I stepped into the next carriage, bracing against the side-to-side jostle and relishing the sensation that the ground itself was fleeing from under me. Finally, beginning to feel dizzy, I chose a seat in an empty compartment and pressed my forehead against the cold windowpane. Trees and houses glided past, and bales of hay stacked in high-roofed barns, and plumes of smoke trailing from stubbled cornfields. A low hedge hurried alongside us for a moment, a grey-faced quarry gouged into a distant hill drifted slowly behind. A farmer waved, seeming more to beckon than to greet, and immediately was gone.

The news about my father had come the previous evening, Wednesday, 20 September 1978, while I was out enjoying a walk with my girlfriend, Judy, in Kenilworth Square. I remember us holding hands as we strolled, and laughing as we swung each other around under the trees, and then arriving back at my bedsit in Terenure to find a message for me left on the hall table. 'Your father has had an accident. Your family wants you to go home.'

I fell in a slight faint on reading the message, and Judy put her arm about my back, steadying me. My father, Larry, had been cutting trees in a place called Moore, near Athlone. This much I knew from the letter he had sent me a week or so previously. But if he was injured, there was no word as to how badly, and nobody I could contact since neither my parents nor their neighbours owned a phone.

Trains and buses to the west had stopped running for the night, so I had no choice but to wait before catching an early-morning train from Heuston Station. Now, bleary-eyed through lack of sleep, I fidgeted, my mind slipping from thought to thought, unable to focus on anything. I leaned back and started rocking, as I had often done on the wooden, unpainted horse my father had made for us when we were children.

Slowly the morning darkened. Rain lashed the window - thin, scar-shaped drops linking and zigzagging into rivulets that trickled slowly down. We crossed the River Shannon with a loud metallic clatter. I peered out at the dim, phantasmagorical fields. They seemed burdened by the sheeting rain, the stone walls and abundant clumps of furze that hemmed them. The River Suck swirled under us as we nudged into Ballinasloe Station. I alighted and crossed the rusty footbridge to where a lone taxi waited as if by prior arrangement.

Soon I was being driven along wet country roads that grew more familiar and discouraging with each passing mile. Aughrim, Cappataggle, little Poppyhill came and went. The rain abated at Mullagh Cross and sunlight dazzled the road. Outside Owenie Connolly's shop I saw two men shaking hands. One of them was my father's brother Mattie. I could tell he was crying. The worst had happened. I knew, yet felt no emotion.

'Will I stop?' the driver asked, as though he had already pieced everything together.

'No. Keep going.'

He dropped me at the head of the little boreen that led to the large, square-faced, two-storey house half-hidden behind the row of cypress trees. I paid him and was aware of nothing more until I stepped into the kitchen where Mary, my mother, sobbed fiercely as she pressed her arms about me. Then my sisters Ena and Bridie, and my brothers Simon and Vincent, joined us on the concrete floor. We huddled together there, holding each other but not speaking. Only after some moments did I realise that the kitchen was full of people. I stared at my old neighbours sitting in complete silence and with slow, scarcely discernible nods they stared back.

It would take days before Simon and Vincent could talk about the accident, their faces still glazed with shock. Neither they, nor my father, had intended going to the wood. There was a field of barley to cut in the small farm of less than thirty acres where my parents kept cattle and sheep and grew some crops. The farm, located roughly midway between Loughrea and Ballinasloe, had ensured that even if money was hard to come by - either from my father's carpentry business or indeed from the land itself - we were at least able to produce much of our own food.

'The barley's overripe,' my mother, the chief farmer in the family, told the others. 'If it's not cut soon, it'll lodge and the crows will swipe it all.'

The morning had started bright but too breezy for felling timber. Then, just as my father and brothers were about to commence the scything, a cloud came over, drenching the barley and causing the wind to die down. So they changed their minds and after speaking with my mother drove to the wood at Moore, about twenty miles from home, where they had bought ash trees for making into hurleys and where they had already been felling for a week or more.

'There's only a day's work left,' my father said. 'We might as well get it finished.'

He vaulted the four-foot perimeter wall - look what the old man was still able to do - but his heart hadn't been in this particular job from the start. The trees at Moore were rooted close to one another and in their reach for light they had grown unusually tall. He and my brothers didn't have much room to manoeuvre. Mishaps came thick and fast that week. The chainsaws gave trouble. It was a struggle to cut the trees, still in their summer sap. One day a falling tree hit the telephone wires at the edge of the wood and knocked them out. On another occasion a tree rebounded so close to Vincent's face that he could feel the draught of air as it kicked past his chin.

He and Simon worked together, in a separate part of the wood to my father - two chainsaws cutting in close proximity to each other would add to the danger.