Thirty Wonderful Years

I was the very first there. In my dress suit and my natty grey tie. Standing outside the Claddagh Church in Galway with a loaf of sliced white bread under my arm. The bread was there for a reason. But I must confess I also enjoyed the incongruity of it. Some things don’t change, even thirty years later.

Yes, that’s right. This week, my lovely wife Patricia and I will celebrate our 30-year wedding anniversary. And it’s been thirty wonderful years, which has taken us right around the world and back, living in London for the early years, and then eventually returning back home to Ireland.

And I remember our wedding day just like it was yesterday. That means I remember bits of it and am not fully sure about the detail of any single part of it... just like yesterday.

But here are some bits I think I remember about that day. They’re probably all wrong. Trish will straighten me out later on.

When Margaret, my sister, arrived I passed the loaf of bread to her.

“Here,” I said, “you know what to do.”

And she did, and, when the time came, she did it. Fair play to her.

I remember random things about the wedding ceremony itself. I remember Patricia being walked up the aisle by her brother Kieran and how beautiful she looked. I remember the priest saying, ‘and now the ceremony of the candles and me saying, “what the fuck is the ceremony of the candles?” I remember the reading from the Book of Tobit that I picked out because I’d read it in ‘A Prayer for Owen Meany’ and that it said, “Grant that she and I may find mercy and that we may grow old together." We’re working on that, so far so good.

After we had got married and had walked out of the church to smiles and kind applause, Patricia got talking to some folk, so I went around the side of the church to reflect on how married life was treating me so far. I hadn’t realised that the whole ‘Patricia talking to someone’ was actually the formality of waiting in the church porch to be congratulated by all the guests as they streamed out. Trish has to put up with quite a few ‘so he’s left you already’ comments before someone came and got me. Nice one, Ken.

The O’Reilly Family Photograph outside of the church stays with me. Patricia’s family are the O’Reilly’s, and they are lovely and hard to coral into one place, in equal measure. This photograph, outside the church, took an absolute age. Any time 90% of the cohort was gathered, someone would wander off or just simply vanish. Eventually they all coincided in one spot for a millisecond and the photographer clicked. Job done.

While that was going on, Margaret had gone with her loaf of bread and done her thing. As I said, fair play to her. If you ever get to visit The Claddagh in Galway City, then do. It’s a beautiful place by the water with fishing boats and picturesque little houses across the way and a grassy quay… and swans. There are a lot of swans. And that’s why the loaf of bread was there. I thought it would make a nice photo if loads of the swans were enticed close to shore with some bread and we got our picture taken with them. The bread worked and the swans came. The photo itself proved to be a small disappointment. It’s over-exposed so that the swans are puffy white blurs rather than anything meaningful. A shame, really. But there was a compensation. One of my best memories of the day was hurrying back up along the quay to our waiting families and friends, bride and groom, happy as happy can be. That, on its own, was worth the loaf of bread.

There was a wee woman outside the gates of the church, on the street. We didn’t know her. She came up to Patricia and pressed something into her hand. It turned out to be a small set of rosary beads. “You are a beautiful bride,” she said, “a beautiful bride.” Then she slipped away. It was a very Galway thing to happen.

We went back to the church for a look a few times after, over the years. Again, if you’re in Galway, check it out. It’s a marvellous location. I went back once by myself in recent years. I had time to kill because Patricia was having a very major surgery in the hospital up the road. She had been brought in before eight in the morning, before I could get there, and she wouldn’t come out again until close to midnight. It was that kind of a big deal. I had the day to get through and I didn’t want any company with it. I ducked into the Claddagh Church around lunchtime. There was a ragtag choir of young people practicing something. I wandered around the aisles and lit a candle as we sometimes do. This was where we had tied the knot and the knot was still strong. That day worked out okay, in the end, and on we went. Maybe the Claddagh candle helped, maybe it didn’t. It helped me.

I feel a sense of considerable pride at hitting the thirty-year anniversary. For a fuckwit like me to hold onto a lovely girl for this long is no mean feat. I feel lucky too. We have been allowed to have something that not everybody gets. Time.

So Happy Anniversary, when it comes, Patricia. She’ll read this later and probably say, “Why didn’t you put up a photo of the two of us?” I’ll say, “Because I look like a feckin’ greyhound, haven’t you seen those photos recently?”

Besides, it’s a lovely picture. Isn’t it?

Perseid Gazing

If you have two identical zip-up sweaters, and they are both in rotating use, then you are 87% more likely to go out without your house keys. I may have just made that statistic up. Let’s not dwell in it.

I went out to the back garden on Friday night at around midnight, after the telly had closed down. No, of course the telly didn’t close down but do you remember how it used to? The announcer would wish you a good night and the test card might come up. Here in Ireland, they put up a film of a billowing flag and played the National Anthem. We didn’t tend to stand up unless we were heading for bed, as we frequently were, or locked out of your house in the back garden, as I was, even though the telly was not shut down, just switched off.

I’m losing you. Let’s get on with this.

There was a black cat on the front door mat who didn’t bother to move when I opened the door. It just looked up and enquired about the possible of a) food and b) access, neither of which were forthcoming. Our own adopted wild cat is not sociable by any definition of the word, so it was nice to have this black bundle purring and making itself available for my patented single finger head stroke on account of my allergy to cats. I closed the front door behind me so the cat couldn’t duck in and then realised I had the lesser of two zip-up sweaters on… the one without the house keys. It wasn’t a problem, I texted my sons and one of them opened the door for me. All good.

(This thousand-word thing is going to be a breeze. We’re a quarter of the way through and nothing’s happened yet… welcome to my blog.)

As the title, so very far above, suggests, I was venturing into the garden on a quest to view a little of the Perseid Meteor Shower which assails our world around this time every year. I always try to get a look at one or two meteors at least and I have done so ever since the night, as teenagers, my friend Fergie ran a lit match across the front of Dermot’s binoculars as he scanned the skies on Cairn’s Hill and his back stiffened in a way that I still laugh to myself about.

So, I went out to catch me some Perseid.

I was an evening too late for the peak activity, but it was cloudy on Thursday with no chance of a sighting. Friday was good. A nice clear sky, no moon. We get a bit of light pollution from down the town but there’s still plenty of stars to see.

I have two moulded plastic chairs in the back yard, and I kept some of the large red cushions from the old couch when we replaced it last year. So, I brought two of those puppies out and laid myself out on one of the chairs. They’re moulded at quite a reclined angle so it’s a good way to view the sky. I zipped up my lesser-of-two sweaters and waited for some action.

The experts say that you have to be prepared to wait a while and, really, you do. Although you might be able to see plenty of stars up there, it does take some time for the eyes to adjust. You can see a shooting star any old clear night and there’s usually a satellite or two easing across the firmament. But the Perseid can give you a bit of a show, if you hang in there and if you’re lucky.  Your average shooting star is just like a little dot of a star that races along the sky or drops easily down. But the Perseids can come bigger and faster than that. One of the ones I saw last night even seemed to leave a vapour trail behind it.

It was a good show, but it got pretty cold. Those experts recommend a hot water bottle, but you’d want to be a special breed of a lad to go to all that trouble. After a while, I was ready to go in.

“One more,” I said to myself, “I’ll hang in for one more.”

But the one more was not forthcoming. Plus, there in the darkness, I was becoming increasing aware of the danger of one of our transient garden cats coming and jumping on me and dispatching me from sheer fright.

It was time to go in. I even had my door key. Let’s go.

It was then that my mind turned to God, of all things. I’m not a terribly Godly person but, in that moment, in the dark, I got to thinking about how, if God wanted to send a sign, he probably wouldn’t levitate the old Volkswagen Beetle up the road or cause the neighbours to turn purple.

He would probably send something like a shooting star.

“So come on, God,” I defiantly thought (quite loudly), “Send me one more Perseid Meteor so I can bugger off to bed.

But no meteor arrived. It was almost as if God was now holding back on the shooting stars on account of my cheeky request.

Then I thought about my brother, Michael, who passed away suddenly such a few short weeks ago. Perhaps he was now up there with some access to the controls that ran the shooting star machine. Perhaps he could send one down for me.

But I couldn’t even begin to play that game. I could play a silly game with God, who I am never terribly sure about, but I couldn’t do it with my brother, who never-ever let me down.

So, instead, I thought about my little Nephew. Today, we will place Michael’s ashes in their final resting place in the new wall in Sligo Cemetery. “I don’t want anyone having to look after a grave for me, stick me in the wall,” Michael had said. His firmly stated wish perhaps echoed W.B. Yeats in a funny way. “In a year's time when the newspapers have forgotten me, dig me up and plant me in Sligo”

His young Nephew, Eamon, will read a few words for him at the simple ceremony. Michael loved books and he effortlessly passed on this love to little Eamon, who just lived a few doors up, plying him with wonderfully illustrated editions of great works and Eamon, in turn, making his way down to Michael’s house to get him to sign all the books for him.

Today, by the new wall in the cemetery in Sligo, Eamon will read an extract from The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint Exupéry:

“You alone will have the stars as no one else has them. In one of the stars, I shall be living. In one of them I shall be laughing. And so, it will be as if all the stars were laughing, when you look at the sky at night. You - only you - will have stars that can laugh. And when your sorrow is comforted (time soothes all sorrows) you will be content that you have known me. You will always be my friend. You will want to laugh with me.”

I never saw that one last Perseid Meteor. In the end, I just went off to bed. But I was happy enough to have seen as much as I had seen.

Nothing more required.

Meanwhile, Down the Garden

My wife knows what kind of birthday presents I like.

I wouldn’t thank you for silver or gold (okay, I actually would but let’s run with the idea for the purposes of this paragraph). Neither would I thank you for wads of cash money (ditto, but stick with it). But I get a big kick out of watching the wild birds come down in the back garden and feed on the small amount of seeds I scatter on the paving, or having a bath in the terracotta flowerpot base and the old iron pot that I keep full of water. What can I tell you? I just enjoy that kind of stuff.

So, Patricia bought me a simple little belated birthday present, and I love it a lot and I am getting a big kick out of it.

It’s a plastic bird feeder and a big bag of wild bird seeds.

I filled the feeder up with seeds and hung it on a swaying branch of the Leylandii evergreen down below the redundant trampoline. Would any of the birds spot it? Would they come and have a tentative nibble on the treats within? I waited to see…

Friends, I have started a war.

The House Sparrows have been a regular feature for some time in my garden. Near the start of the whole lockdown saga, I started putting out a little seed on the ground and it was mostly them who showed up. They were sweet and entertaining, feeding the littler ones, scattering at every twitch in a bush but never going too far, always coming back again for more.

So, the House Sparrows found the feeder fairly quickly. But they’re a difference bunch, off the ground. There’s only two little perches on the feeder so it’s a strict ‘wait-your-turn’ system. Except, of course, it’s not. What it is, is like a pub near closing time where all the drink is being given out for free. You just have to get to the counter. It’s a pitched battle between the house sparrows for the perches and it’s no holds barred. The two that are on the perches chuck seed all over the place, in their urgency to feed. The grass beneath the new feeder will probably become some patch of exotic growth on account of the pile of seeds that have already dropped there. Meanwhile the waiting hoard lurk on adjoining branches and periodically dive bomb the ones on the perch. Fluttering and pecking like wild things (yes, I know). You have to be a tough House Sparrow to keep your spot on the perch for very long. If you don’t watch out, you’ll get fluttered off.

Then there’s the matter of seed consumption. As I said, Patricia bought me this fairly big bag of seed. I figured this would last me for a couple of years, at least. A little refill ever alternate fortnight and the feeder will be right.

That’s not how it is. You knew this but I didn’t. The full feeder gets decimated in a matter of an hour or two. It’s mayhem down there at the bottom of the garden.

What on Earth have we done?

Will we soon have a hoard of fat sparrows lying around exhausted on our patio? Will dietary regimes have to be introduced? Where will it all end?

To be honest, I’m hamming it up a bit, as I usually do. It has its mad moments, sure, but a lot of the time it’s fairly laid back. A well-timed house sparrow, if she’s lucky, can have the place to herself for a while. And, when it’s really quiet, and the mob of sparrows have gone off to blitz some other birdbox, an unusual little visitor or two can drop by.

We don’t get many varieties of bird. Not yet anyway. There’s been some finches in the garden, but they haven’t tried the new taverna yet. We have a single Coal Tit who drops in regularly, picks up a little seed and retires to another branch to consume it before returning for another. Of course, I had no idea it was a Coal Tit. I looked it up on the Internet. It’s all good fun, isn’t it?

The cat seems to be having fun with it too, on her occasional returns to the garden to lick the gravy off the cat food I give her. She stalks around the vicinity of the feeder, throwing all kinds of Kung Fu/Matrix shapes and being utterly ineffectual. The birds mock her from the bush and wait until she fucks off again. One day, she’ll have a little sweet revenge, one feels.

I’m off out now to fill up the feeder. I try to do it while it’s still on the branch because I reckon if I take it off and on too many times, the branch will get weak, and the feeder will slide off. It’s a bit of a stretch and I may not present the most elegant vista as I do it but, to hell with that, it’s my garden and you don’t have to look.

The feeder sways on the branch as all the little birds come and go from it. It’s like a little ship at sea with its mutinous crew bickering and chucking their rations about.

It’s the very best present ever.