The place I spent my childhood summers holds the most glorious, golden memories that cannot be improved by time, or by rose coloured spectacles. I can picture scenes of happy children playing in a world of colour as clearly as if it was yesterday. The experience is like stepping into a painting, a very special painting, of a Kilkenny garden.
Having lived now for over fifty years and therefore one of the older generation, I look back and remember with huge gratitude those who went before; who looked after us when we were children.
Childhood then was a time unencumbered by the constant call of technology; it was an era when a child’s life was full of invention, imagination, games. The days seemed full of excitement. Best of all, at least in our family, it was a time when the issues of the adult world had absolutely nothing to do with us.
I was put on the train from Dublin to Kilkenny, (different days) to spend blissful, long, happy summer holidays and I could hardly wait for the train to pull into the station when I could join my cousins for weeks of freedom and adventures.
Our grandparents had a big, rambling, charming house that lent itself to children’s holiday visits. The land has not been in the family for many, many years and the lovely old house is long gone. It could not be described as a grand country manor; it was a spread out, higgledy-piggledy affair, full of nooks and crannies.
There were dark staircases up to small landings, with doors leading into lots of rooms; some big, some tiny. The place seemed simply enormous to us children. In a downstairs room a yellow bird sang in a pretty, cream coloured cage and like many homes at that time, on huge sideboards were various stuffed birds, resting on their perches under glass domes.
The real magic bit was at the back, where my grandmother had created an enchanted garden. This absolutely vast place – or so it was to us – was an adventure in itself; a child could almost get lost among the growth. We children, way back then, were allowed such liberty, that some might have called us wild. There weren’t too many rules; our grandparents, aunts and uncles loved us, nurtured us and generally let us get on with enjoying our childhood.
Left to ourselves, we lived in a magical world full of escapades. We slid down haystacks or fished with a jar and a little net on a bamboo handle. Progressing to wild and sometimes dangerous games; we tested our vigour, faced our fears and discovered our strengths and weaknesses.
The absolutely forbidden practice of leaping from a wall onto the back of the old, patient horse, sliding off, crashing to the ground, then climbing up and doing it again, was one of our chief delights. Later, we proudly compared our bruises. It seems to me now that we laughed from morning to night.
There were long, idyllic days when we weren’t running wild in the surrounding countryside, when we spent time in our grandmother’s garden. Heavenly, drowsy days spent reading our books or talking to her, the only sound the drone of the bees, the chirping of song birds and all around, the scent of many marvellously coloured flowers. Her garden was the stuff of – indeed may have been inspired by – a Mildred Anne Butler painting.
Here in the hills of Southern France, I keep a postcard of The Lilac Phlox, Kilmurry, painted almost one hundred years ago by that wonderful artist. Something about this quiet, peaceful colourful work brings me back to those childhood summers.
The painting is not of a formal garden; it is of a wide, overgrown drive, with a brilliant splash of Lilac among the many shades of green and yellows. There is an open gate at the end, inviting us in to the painting. I like to think that perhaps behind the gate there is an old summer house, like the green and white one we used to play in…
All these years later, I appreciate how very lucky we children were and how much influence these people, especially my grandmother, had on me. Allowed to grow, but with firm boundaries set, we thrived and developed. Our busy lives, so full of fun, adventure and invented games, were played out against a background of colour and heady scents. Days spent as children’s should be; innocence and adventure hand in hand, surrounded by nature. Safe in that most precious world; childhood.