A Good Deed is a Selfish Act

When I was quite young, I saved a kitten’s life. I can’t be sure but I reckon I would have been about eleven or twelve at the time. 

I used to walk the dogs up along the wooded riverside walk we all called The Back Avenue. At the end of the walk, there was an open green area where you could sit and watch the river while the dogs splashed about in the water. It was a nice place and it’s still there. Have a look, sometime, if you’re driving past.

Anyway, this one day, I was sitting there, being all eleven-or-twelve-year-old (as you do) when there was a sudden commotion in the water. Laddie, the German Shepherd (see earlier posts) had found something in the depths and he was agitatedly tossing it around and catching it in his jaws. I called him ashore and he came, because he was trained that way. He gave up his find somewhat unwillingly.

It was a kitten. A tiny, waterlogged, bedraggled kitten. Laddie hadn’t hurt it, as far as I could tell. I laid it on the grass as I warned the dogs to stay away.

I was young but I was wise enough to the harsh ways of the world. This kitten would have been an unwanted addition to some family. Unforgivable though it is, somebody would have bundled this little creature into a coal sack with some rocks and would have thrown it into the river.

I took off my shoes and socks and had as good a wade around as I could but there was no more kittens to be found. One had escaped. Maybe there had only ever been one. An unconvinced maybe. I was, after all, wise to the world.

In retrospect, I didn’t then have a quandary but, at the time, I thought I had. My Mum and Dad would not want me to bring a stray smelly kitten home to the house. I thought there would be fallout and retribution. Heaven knows why, there never had been about anything else.

Still, I felt I had a decision to make. Leave the kitten or face some troublesome consequences.

I couldn’t leave the kitten. Who could?

I put the little thing on my shoulder and set off home. All the way, it clung to me and mewled and piddled on my coat. Eventually I got there. 

This next bit is my most vivid part of this memory. When I got to the side of our house, I felt I could not bring the kitten indoors without some element of forewarning. Instead, I turned the steel lid of the dustbin upside down and put the kitten inside there. Then I put the dogs in the back garden and went into the house.



“There’s something…”

“What is it?”

“There’s something I found…”

I took her out and showed her. Somehow, it seemed easier. The kitten had made damp-fur-art in the ash dust of the upturned lid. It was a sunny day and it looked a bit happier on the warming metal.

“Oh the poor thing! Where did you find it?”

And, after that, everything was better. In fact, I got a bit carried away after I found out that Mum was okay about me saving the kitten. Always a fan of James Herriot’s books, I now felt that that kitten had to be rushed urgently to a vet to be fully checked over. Mum didn’t agree. The cat seemed fine and vet’s bills were very expensive.

When Granny came to the house in the afternoon, as she always seemed to do, she said she knew of a woman on her street who had her eye out for a new cat, her old one having sadly passed away. Granny took the kitten home with her in her straw shopping bag. I had a bet with myself that there would be some wee in there when she got home.

Granny’s neighbour took in the kitten and (this is true) for years after I would often see the sleek cat patrolling around her adopted street, wafting in and out of a nettle patch, eyeing me curiously. 

The cat survived, and had a long life. All on account of me.

The other day, I was driving along and this memory assailed me out of nowhere. I hadn’t really thought of it in years. It made me smile and it made me a lot happier than I had been before I thought of it. 

That’s the point. Sometimes you do a good thing and you might think it’s a self-sacrificing, difficult, thing you have just done. But it almost never is. Every little extra good deed we do goes into a subliminal memory bank to make us feel better about ourselves. Someday, perhaps when you least expect it, the memory of one of your good deeds will pop up and remind you that you are, in fact, quite a good and valuable person.

Don’t take my word for it.

Go. Do. 

The Tree is Turning Without Him

Walking home from town this morning, and burdened with two large bags of shopping, I decided to take a break at the green and sit on a bench for a rest. It was a lovely morning and sitting there was a nice peaceful experience.

My eye fell on a large Horse Chestnut tree on the other side of the green, just across the road from the old church. This tree had just started to turn. The foliage was just beginning to hint at that golden hue, the top branches seemed portentously thinner than the rest, and there was a small littering of leaves at the base.

It reminded me very much of the tree which sits across the river from my parents house in Sligo. A huge Horse Chestnut too. Dad would always say that this was the first tree to ever show any sign of Spring or, indeed, Autumn.

I think he was right. Before any other tree around had any inkling that Summer was once more slipping away, this big riverside tree would be gone solidly brown and ochre. It was always ahead of the game, be it with good news or bad. 

Dad is gone now, of course, and that tree is turning without him. I thought about this as I sat with my shopping bags at my feet and watched my own, somewhat more tardy, Horse Chestnut. If my one is turning now, then Dad’s one must be well-advanced. Many of the leaves may have even fallen from it and been swept away by the river beneath.

Life goes on, unaltered, after we leave it. That riverside tree keeps predicting the seasons with unerring aim, regardless of whether an old man watches out for it or not. So what does the  old man leave when he goes, if the tree just keeps on turning regardless? 

There are some nutrients, I suppose. Some small element of ‘giving back to the ground’ and, although he is a few miles away from the riverside tree, there is at least some theoretical value in the notion that he is giving back to the tree via the soil in this most basic chemical level.

“It’s not much, is it?” I thought to myself as I sat and watched my own tree, “all those years of witnessing the turn of the years and all that is left is a hint of some ‘butterfly effect’ soil nutrition. It’s not much of a legacy.”

Then it all suddenly became perfectly clear to me, such that I had to smile a little. The soil wasn’t really the legacy at all. There was one much greater and much more profound and also much more simple than that. 

It was me.

Here was I, sitting on a bench in my town, noting the seasons turn on the evidence of a tree, just as Dad had done before me and perhaps others of mine may continue to do after me. 

He’s left more than his nutrients to the ground. He’s left me, with so much of himself inside of me and me being so like him in so many ways. He couldn’t stay to watch any more seasons turn but he could genetically entrust me to almost-subconsciously do it for him.

That’s why we don’t need immortality or reincarnation or any such thing. We live our lives and we leave our traces behind when we go, in many different and profound ways.

And that shall be enough. 

Notes From A Town That Could Soon Be Champions

Most of these posts don’t need dates on them. They just tend to float along in an irrelevant little bubble of their own. This week’s is a bit different though. This week’s post needs a little tethering in time.

It’s Sunday the 15th September 2013. This day next week, the place where I live will send its football team to Croke Park in Dublin. And there, in front of 82,000 screaming attendees, they will try to become the Champions for the first time in 62 years.

I’m not a major sports fan but it’s fun to live in a county who may next week be champions. It’s even more fun to live in the county-town of that county. It’s strange. The county in question is County Mayo of course and next week they will face up to the challenge of the mighty Dublin and God help us all when that finally happens.

Mayo takes its GAA Football very seriously and I’ve lived here since 1997 so, even though I am not a died-in-the-wool fanatic, it is impossible not be swept along somewhat with the energy and the anticipation and, yes, the fear that a prospective final generates.

Mayo, you see, are due a Championship title. In fairness, that may be understating the case. Mayo are nearly always contenders, there-or-thereabouts, they have come second-best in no less than six finals since they last won, way back in 1951. The most recent one of these was just last year. We had all of this last year, the aforementioned energy, anticipation, fear and we had the disappointment and awful dullness of defeat too.

Now it’s a new year and, yes, here we go again.

The town, my town, Castlebar, goes a bit mad. The team colours are now everywhere. Red and green flags protrude from practically every house and every car. Every shop has personalised posters wishing their team the best and proclaiming tortuous puns about the anticipated winning of the ‘Sam Maguire’ cup. (The library has Sam ‘Booked’). Each locality wishes their own players well. All the players are from the county, gleaned from the little parish teams who battle each other every week. Farmers cut messages into their land. I saw a red and green sheep in a field last Tuesday.

Everybody is talking football and, even more so, everybody is on a quest for tickets for the match. Everybody asks everybody for tickets. It has eclipsed the weather as the primary form of greeting. “Any tickets?” Nobody has any tickets and nobody gets any tickets in this way but still everybody asks.

The vibe among the good townspeople this year seems to me to be even more nervous and fearful than usual. So many big days out, so many defeats, have left their mark. There comes almost an expectation that the hex cannot yet be broken. But two different forces are at work this year. Firstly, the team is excellent. A superb team with a superb management. They have cut through the opposition like butter and, even in the semi-final when they were well-tested by Tyrone, they rallied and battled and won out. This is a team that could actually win this damn thing and that, conversely, makes the nerves of the passionate supporters even greater.

The second thing which is making us all nervous is the opposition. Dublin. In their own semi-final, Dublin presented the country with an awesome vision of power, skill, and determination. Like Maverick in that old television show, Dublin did not come here to lose. Such was the impact of their semi-final win, Dublin now enter next week’s fray as the favourites. This is fine by Mayo. Nobody wants the pressure of being viewed as the top-dog.

So long as we win.

We have to win.

It’s been so long, with so many near-misses, even some moments where victory was literally snatched from our hands. It’s our time, it has to be our time…

But that’s the beauty of sport, isn’t it? Mayo won’t win because it’s been a long time since they won and now they deserve a win. Mayo won’t win because of any weight of history or perceived entitlement. 


Mayo will win if they can beat Dublin on the day… and the day is next Sunday.

Tune in, you people around the world. It will be quite a spectacle. Two highly skilled teams at peak fitness, a wonderful stadium, packed to the rafters with the small percentage of people who actually managed to get those tickets. It promises to be an epic battle. And, when you're watching, bear in mind the most astonishing thing about the whole day. This is an amateur sport. These sportsmen will not be paid and will return to their everyday jobs, win or lose, when the adventure is over. 

They have risen out of their small parishes, the back fields and the community centres, to become true and enduring local heroes. Actual heroes who walk among us in our town. Our little town which, this week, will be giddy and a bit shaky from the anticipation. 

I’m not from here originally and I've lived in many places so I view it, as I view most everything these days, with a certain level of detachment. But only a certain level. I live here now. This is my place and, more than anything, on Monday week, I long to see a town which literally does not know what to do with itself. A town which has not known a win in over sixty years, where generations of rabid fans will never have experienced the feeling that comes with the big win.

What will happen on that day after we win? Nobody really remembers. Everybody hopes they will find out. 

It’s not my sport, it’s not my place of birth, but there’s a wave swelling up here once again and I can’t help but be swept along with it.

Hon Mayo!

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Thinking Back

I’ve never been a fan of the notion that we had previous lives before this one. Mostly because it’s bullshit. You know what I mean, that thing you see in movies sometimes where a hypnotist (usually a young Anthony Hopkins) takes somebody back to who they used to be a long time before they were born.

Rubbish. A dramatic device at best. I had some further proof of this, not that I needed it, when I was entranced by a stage hypnotist in my younger years (I wrote about that in more detail here) and he ‘took me back to a previous life’ by muttering prompts at me which I duly repeated. I don’t believe there was a previous life, I don’t believe there will be a next one. But I’ll respect what you believe, so no worries about that.

But, even if we can’t venture back… back… back… to another earlier life, there is still something we can try to do and I’ve been trying to do it quite a lot this week. We can go back… back… back… in this life. We can see how far back we can actually go and what we can actually remember.

Take the moment of birth as the limit of how far back you can go. You’re not going to get too much good stuff before then. How far back can you go? In short, what is your earliest memory?

But wait.

Don’t just reel it off , your earliest memory that is. I know you’ve got one in your head, the one you throw out whenever someone asks you what your earliest memory is. That’s not good enough for this exercise. You have to stop and think for a few moments. Think hard. Put that well-worn early memory aside and find another one, an earlier, cloudier one.

Give it a go.

We don’t remember all that much, do we? It’s a bit saddening to reflect on that. All the nurturing, all the love, all the utter safeness and warmth of those earliest years are really not retained by us, on a conscious level at least. I mention things to my kids these days “You must remember that,” I say but they don’t. They were just too young to retain it. At least our parents retain memories of their early love and protection, that’s some consolation. Alas my own parents are gone now so my ‘memory keepers’ have gone too. Perhaps this, in itself, should act as a sort of an encouragement to remember more, to remember better for ourselves.

So what about me? What can I remember? How far back can I go?

Let’s see.

The memories I have landed on tend to tie in with famous moments in history so that I can validate them. There are obviously lots of memories that don’t relate to songs or TV or such but I cannot place them accurately in time so they don’t help me much with this exercise. I’m fifty now so I was born in July 1963 so I was five months old when John F Kennedy was assassinated. No, I don’t remember it first hand. 

In 1969, I was six years old and it’s easy to remember the ‘First Man on the Moon’, my namesake Neil Armstrong. We had our black and white telly but it had a blue magnifying screen fixed to the front of it to make the picture bigger and, um, bluer. I remember the whole landing thing taking far too long and losing interest in it intermittently…

Back… back… back…

In June 1968, I was four. I clearly remember a man being shot and the house being in uproar that it could ‘happen all over again’. My memory is that the man was walking up a huge wide flight of stairs when he was killed. This is patently incorrect. Robert Kennedy was in a hotel kitchen when he was gunned down.


In 1966, I was three. I clearly remember having green and orange election leaflets and stickers for Eamon DeValera. We played with them. Research tell me that this was the year in which DeValera ran for his second term as President of Ireland.

Back… further back… as far as I can go…

Okay, deep breath. I remember being in my pram in our living room and our neighbour, Mrs Hopper, talking to me in the pram.  What age was I in my pram? One? Two? I don’t know. 

These are my early memories or some of them at least.

But, wait a minute, are they really real?

That’s a good question. Are they actually real?

I think some of them are not. Take the ‘Mrs Hopper and the Pram in the Living Room’ one. That’s not a real memory, I reckon. If I was that young and in the pram, how would I have such context on the memory? I would just remember a big face peering in at me. I would know nothing about a pram or a living room, all of which feature in the mental picture I have of the memory. As I think more about it, I reckon this memory is real but is from when I was about five and it was actually my little sister who was in the pram and I was a witness to it. I’ve just put myself deeper in the picture than I actually was. I reckon that’s probably close to the truth of it.

So what can we trust if not our memories? Well, nothing, really, but that doesn’t mean that the memories don’t have value for us. They are only memories after all, they were never intended to be historical records. They are our memories and we made them and kept them for ourselves. Of course they are valuable, or course they are real.

And I’ve saved my oldest one for last. There are bars and I am holding on to them. They are the bars of a cot. The cot is not in my home, it is in a hallway. People are walking by. I am sitting and holding onto the bars and peering out through them. I am singing a song or at least making the noises I can to represent the song. The song is ‘Walking the streets in the Rain’. A woman in a white uniform stops and smiles in at me, “That’s a lovely song,” she says and then she moves on. In 1965, that song was the Eurovision entry for Ireland. In 1965 I was in hospital for a small operation. In 1965, I was two years old.

That, I reckon is as far back as I can definitely go.

But I could of course be wrong.

Insult To Injury

This week I injured myself with a bin liner. I’m looking at the bruise now as I type this. It’s quite sore.

This reminded me that I tend to do this quite a lot. I injure myself in silly ways. I've been doing it for years and have actually got quite good at it, even if I do say so myself.

So how do you injure yourself with a bin liner, Ken? Eh?

It’s easy, really. You know how they come in rolls? Bin liners, the tough black ones. Well you unroll one and you persuade yourself that you've found the perforations between that first bin liner on the roll and the next one in. So you grip the roll, with one hard either side of this perceived-perforation, and you give it as big and as brutal a chuck as you can, to tear the first bag off, to put in your bin. Except it isn’t the perforation, is it? It’s all part of the same bag and you pull so hard that your fingernail gets pulled clean off cos it was snagged in the bin liner. Then you dance around and swear a bit until your lovely wife turns up and quietly enquires as to what you have done to yourself this time? You know the scenario. No, of course, you probably don’t.

The bin liner thing was mild, although you wouldn’t have known that from hearing the roars and shouts that came out of me when I did it. In the scheme of things, though, it was small. I’ve made a career out of giving myself silly, cartoon, injuries.

When I was younger, many of these injuries seemed to stem from trying to do things far too quickly. I’ve referred to it before somewhere in these posts but my trademark silly injury, back in the London years, was for me to close the car door on myself before I’d got myself fully into the seat. I was always rushing around in such a tizz, I used to jump into the driver’s seat and slam the door but I would do it so quickly that I wasn’t actually fully in the car, the result being that a leg or an ear or some other appendage would get nipped. It was sore and embarrassing and I have it on good authority that it looked incredible silly when viewed from the street.

Now, in later life, the silly injuries seem to come much more from lack of attention than from speed of action. I can’t seem to cook anymore without cauterising myself. This usually relates to the extremely high moisture-content of whatever tea towel I selected to extract the pan/branding-iron from the oven. If it’s not that, it’s the special pot we paid a lot of money for, the one where the handle is exactly as hot as the hottest part of the bottom of the pot.

But leave all that aside. There’s a zenith. A ‘Daddy of All Stupid Injuries’, an undisputed champion, and, in my life, I have done it twice. Not once. Twice. That’s how good I am. You’ve seen it in cartoons and probably on old ‘Three Stooges’ shorts. You’ve thought it was quite funny. I am here to tell you that it isn’t. It isn’t funny at all.

It is of course ‘Stepping On a Rake’.

‘Ack’, you say, ‘Ack. Stepping on a rake must be embarrassing and even a little bit sore but it’s hardly the worst thing ever, is it? It is, though, take it from me, stepping on a rake is the worst thing ever and I should know – I’ve done it bloody twice.

Think about it. Think.

The key to the true horror of stepping on a rake is that you do not know you have stepped on a rake. If you had seen the rake lying there on the lawn, prongs skyward, you wouldn't have stepped on it. You would have sashayed to one side, pointed knowingly and grinned in the window at your long-suffering wife (who is still cleaning up the mess from that dinner you burned). No. The awful thing is, like that shot that will kill you, you never see it coming. One minute you are out walking your land, like your man with the Golden Retriever from Downton Abbey, the next you have been smashed as hard as you can be smashed, right on your nose.

What was it? What hit you? There was no assailant, there was nothing. As you crumple to the floor you imagine some H G Wellsian invisible fugitive or perhaps a team of super-skilled Ninja warriors intent on stealing your garden implements. Wait. Garden? It was that stupid rake again, wasn't it? Oh God, no. Now the embarrassment sets in, the feeling of stupidity. “You've stepped on the rake again, you twat.”

All of this is so terrible; the unexpected nature of the assault, the burgeoning shame. But it’s the third part that’s the worst.

It hurts like hell.

That, right there, is the worst part.