I grew up, somewhat displaced, on a small farm in south Sligo, in the beautiful west of Ireland. We lived near the village of Aclare, snuggled on the lee side of the Ox Mountains which kept the worse of the Atlantic storms at bay. It was my home for about fifteen years, from age two to seventeen when i departed for college and whatever life might hold.
We had been uprooted from our home in England in suburban Windsor when my grandfather, who lived alone, became ill, and we returned, my Irish father, my English mother, my siblings and i, to care for him and the farm. I was too young to remember but not too young, i suspect, to be emotionally rendered.
Our new home had no telephone in those early days and communication was by letters, often tear-stained, both in the writing and the reading.
I do not know to what degree we were traumatized by the loss of all familiar, if we went through a period of mourning and a recovery process. I have no memories of my time in England — though photos sometimes create false echos. Children are resilient and the freedom of country life was a great healer, we went to school, made friends and played sport. We grew familiar with the changing seasons and slowly put down our roots until south Sligo became home and the ever present horizon of the Ox Mountains became embedded in our hearts and minds.
“Go”, my father said, “and don’t come back”, by way of loving fatherly advice, not once but oft repeated. Not with any apparent bitterness but with an acceptance that south Sligo offered little of economic opportunity and even less of the freedoms offered by the world . We did not talk much, my father and I, and that one sentence sums up most of the advice he offered.
And so i left, left for college in the grand city of Galway, population at that time of about 20,000 people, many strangers to each other. Perhaps the first rendering made the second one easier. My early memories are of sore feet from walking on the concrete pavements and embarrassment from meeting people and feeling i should salute them, heresy in the country not to. I relished, though, shaking off the small-minded shackles of Church and State, of sport and culture; though the marks of the chains do not fade easily.
And i kept going as in those days obtaining a University degree was like a one-way ticket out of country life – you had to leave to get a job and there was no easy way of going back. I visited occasionally, but there was no draw, no ties, only the faint rattle of shackles, a rattle which did not call to be investigated too closely.
Now many years have passed, my father has gone and the world has changed. The rattles have become fainter and seem less dangerous. Now i recognize my roots, and the rich Sligo soil which feeds them; my heart yearns for that familiar horizon, the outline of the mountains sheltering us from the westerly gales, for the sound of the familiar, for stories of ancestors and cousins, all mixed in an earthy life-affirming south Sligo soup.
Of course, i can go back physically, now and anytime but i cannot recover a life rooted in my home place, cannot relive those vagrant years, cannot visit those abandoned family and neighbours, cannot regraft those severed roots.