When Are You Going Back? – Poet & Author Tom Ryan Recollects.

When Are You Going Back?

It’s that time of year again and pretty soon we shall be meeting our townspeople who now reside in distant places; from London to Manchester, from New York to Houston Texas; some absent for nigh on 50 years or more. No sooner will we lay eyes upon them, then we’ll ask: “When are you going back?” and that’s the essential difference between an exile’s holiday and that of the unknown tourist from abroad.

My first memory of emigration was as a boy in the 1950s, going up from the Watery Mall to the railway station in Thurles, to meet my uncles, aunts and cousins, all coming back home for a couple of weeks.
One of the reasons, at seven or eight years of age, I enjoyed their coming was because they were such lovely people; decent, down to earth plain souls, who had worked hard in order to be able to return for their holidays.

Old picture of Thurles Railway Station

They, during scarce times, would bring home comics, like Rupert Bear and give me chocolate and money for the pictures in Delahunty’s Cinema down the middle Mall (“The Wan Below) or McGrath’s Capitol Cinema (“The Wan Above”) or that spin in a motor car that they would hire out some days, to go to Holycross Abbey, to Killarney, or to visit my relatives in Co. Cavan.

The car was a scarce enough commodity in Thurles in the hungry days of the 1950’s. This was a world with no television, only that radio with the dry and wet battery we had purchased up in Donoghue’s electrical shop on Friar Street.
But there was the Sunday ‘Coordeek’ (from the Irish ‘cuirdeach, meaning a house visitation) in my uncle Mick’s house in Fontenoy Terrace, where Mick, who worked on the Council, played the accordion and songs such as Moon Behind The Hill, The Rose of Arranmore, Irene, Goodnight, Irene, etc.
I can clearly picture my father; John Joe Ryan (and a bed in Heaven to him, as the old folks say), in his white shirt, peaked cap and dark trousers, leaning up against the kitchen door in my uncle Pakie’s House in Cabra Terrace, Thurles, singing his perennially favourite party piece, The Rose of Mooncoin.
It was only on my father’s death that I realised why I had hummed that Kilkenny hurling anthem every morning for years.
My uncle, Danny who lived in Caterham, Surrey, UK and worked with British Rail, used to bring all the suitcases up to nearby Cabra Terrace from the station on a fine strong ‘High Nelly’, bicycle belonging to my father. It was a ritual he insisted upon. No taxis then for Danny Boy who, like his brother, Tommy in Caterham, was also an ex RAF man.

Then, for all, a quick visit to Bowes’ bar to quench the thirst caused by those hot summer days, after the train journey, before facing into the re-unions at home.
I remember the joyful laughter and camaraderie and the rousing music of those days quite vividly still and the trips hither and yon in the leather upholstered motor car.
I thought my uncles and aunts must have been all millionaires, and that England must be a great country entirely. But whatever envy I might have had in that respect, soon faded on the night before my relatives departed for England once more.

On the night of that “American Wake” we would be up above in Leahy’s Field not far from the Thurles Clonmel railway line, where kids put pennies on the railway tracks to be flattened by the wheels of the trains approaching from under Cabra Bridge.
I recall my uncle Danny, a bit of a joker, always trying to get some folks not in the know about it, grabbing with their fists the electric wire fence for keeping the cattle in their place. But not on that particular evening, when a terrible loneliness would descend like a mist on the rich hay-scented fields, as I would
sit on the wooden plank spanning the cart and hold the reins of ‘Jenny the Jennet’ (pronounced jinnit), which I used to drive up and down from Cabra Terrace to Leahy’s Field.

It’s strange how some of the most defining moments of my life featured a field, and even on his death bed in 1990, my father lifted his eyes from the pillow of his bed in the Hospital of the Assumption, in Thurles, towards Semple Stadium and said quietly: “They’re all over in the field now”, Being himself an old Sarsfields hurler, ex hurley- maker and an ex steward, that field meant a lot to him.

Up in Leahy’s field, which was, at that moment in eternity, my whole world. I felt like bursting into tears at the terrible unfairness of the end of this wonderful idyll. I would miss my aunts and uncles and cousins.
I would not really know why until many years later. Emigration, for those who did not wish to go, was definitely an evil and in all the homes of the terraces, roads, streets, avenues in Thurles and all over this land, there are similar bittersweet memories of our dearest summer visitors.
But our hearts are in a hurry again for their coming and please God, come next summer God will be in his heaven sure as water runs and grass will grow.
There will be dust on the roads again … and we will look forward to meeting our Ould Townies, the Real Ould Stock, once more.

Tom Ryan, “Iona”, Rahealty, Thurles, Co. Tipperary.


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