Ours was a privileged summer. Three months of freedom, a peculiarly Irish phenomenon. And we had a house in the Sunny South East. I live in Germany now where the school summer is half that time off and there is no summer house, only traffic en route to the beach.
Summer began the minute school was out. Uniforms were barely off when the car was loaded with bags, bikes, sheets, windbreakers, picnic baskets, tennis racquets, golf clubs and sleeping bags. Watching my father fill that car with its hatchback boot imparted packing skills and spatial awareness that stay with me to this day. He managed to fit luggage for five people for a three-month period into that confined space. We would leave early for what is now a two-hour drive but at that time, with small children, an inevitable backlog at Jack Whites pub, a bottleneck at Arklow bridge, driving on winding country roads behind tractors, the journey seemed to take all day or perhaps that is a mind trick of memory.
When we arrived, it was always sunny. Childhood photos are a testament to this. Sunburnt noses, brown skin, the kind of tan you get only in Ireland. A deeper, burnished brown, courtesy of the wind, not the smooth, even, continental tan you get after two weeks in Spain or Portugal. This was altogether ruddier with patches of red as applying sun cream was not a thing then. We were outside from morning `til night, always playing, always moving. So even though we had a house my memories are not of the building but of the outdoors. We wore shorts, swimsuits, tennis gear. We never wore anything long. The physical act of pulling on a pair of jeans in September, the material feeling strange against your legs is a sensation I still remember.
In June, we played tennis every day wearing headbands à la John McEnroe with matching sweatbands. We won and lost tournaments, collected trophies; interest peaked during Wimbledon. The highlights show then was on late, around 11pm, on BBC and if we could keep our eyes open after a long day in the fresh air, it was a treat to stay up and watch the matches we had missed during the day, drinking cocoa in our pyjamas. There was always an interview with the players. This was the only glimpse available of the personalities on court, there was no Google, YouTube or 24-hour news channel.
There were rabbit ears on the TV and they were temperamental. Many hilarious efforts were made to get the tv to work that I often recall now when trying to get Wi-Fi in a remote area. Similar acrobatic efforts were needed. They included jumping up and down in front of the TV, sitting directly in front of it but leaning slightly to the right or left, or physically lifting and moving the TV back and forth and if all that failed, hitting the TV, hard! One day my brother sat on a part of the floor where there was a dip and found that this improved the quality of the TV reception dramatically so from that moment on someone always had to sit there and to this day that dip is still in the floor.
We were the only house with a TV. When Princess Diana got married the whole estate crowded into our living room to watch her emerge from the car in that famous meringue dress. We were also the only house with a phone. This was because my father worked through the summer and would drive down on the weekends and bring any supplies that hadn’t made the cut in the original journey. My mother and father would talk every night and marvel at how sunny it was in Rosslare and yet raining in Dublin. Sometimes it would even be raining down the road in Wexford but in our tiny enclave the sun always shone. Flourishing palm trees and exotic flowers in ordinary gardens are proof of this micro climate.
My mother liked to think that she was on the Costa del Sol and wore only a bikini for the entire summer – even when it was raining. If we weren’t on the beach she was sitting in her ‘sun trap’ at the front of the house, still in her bikini. It wasn’t however the Costa Del Sol and despite the edits of memory, over the three-month period there were many long days spent shivering on the beach, goose bumps on the skin, wrapped in a damp towel, sitting beside a flapping windbreaker that had so many holes in it, it didn’t really serve any purpose. Limp, damp sandwiches languished in picnic baskets, soggy bags of Tayto and bottles of flat, yet bizarrely warm TK lemonade was a regular lunch, followed by a BBQ in the back garden for dinner, cooked often under a golf umbrella to protect from passing rogue showers and because of the ever-present wind coming in from the Atlantic you found sand in your mouth and ears for days after being on the beach and forever in your hair. This is one thing I really notice about continental Europe; the beach is an altogether less sandy experience.
After Wimbledon, it was the Tour de France and the bikes would come out of the garage. This was the era of Chips, the tv series about the police duo on motorbikes. We made walkie talkies from tin foil and cycled around pretending to be Eric Estrada. As well as the Tour de France, July hosted the British Open. Golf bags were slung over shoulders, and the links course braved. The course ran parallel to the beach so my father would stick his head over the dunes to say hello to us somewhere around the 15th hole. July was the birthday month, mine and my mother’s, always celebrated in Kelly’s hotel, where the warmth of the staff, the flavour of the food and the memories of dancing to show band tunes feels like a warm blanket on a cold day.
Drives to Hook Head, Dunmore East, Johnstown Castle, Wexford town, to Carne and Ballytrent beaches are vivid, sunny, slivers of memory. We would often talk of taking the ferry to France but stopped short of it. The furthest we ever got was to the harbour to watch the boats coming in and out-a rainy day pastime.
August heralded back to school and the annual shopping trip to Wexford town for school shoes. The weather would change almost imperceptibly, the air cooling, the days shortening and you could feel the new term in the air. My mother insisted on staying to the bitter end, only the day before school began we travelled back to Dublin. The Great Clean Up of the house would begin early in the morning while my father took care of the packing. There was always a James Bond movie on when we got home to Dublin and McDonald’s for dinner as we hadn’t had a cheeseburger for three months.
These memories are even more potent now for many reasons, the principal one is because my father is dead, but thanks to him, his grandchildren experience the same sort of childhood summers we had, only the TV has more channels, mobile phones have replaced the landline and the biggest development of all, there is a McDonald’s in Wexford. The other reason is, I live abroad now, so I no longer find sand in my shoes in October and it’s been a long time since I have seen a windbreaker but while the summers in Germany are shorter, there are some striking parallels. The beaches are unspoilt and uncommercial here too – for uncommercial read unused as the climate here is similar to Ireland, if not colder, and even though we have the Atlantic which is a freezing cold swimming experience, Germany has the Baltic which is much the same.
The main thing I miss about Irish summers is the sunny, smiling presence of my father as he, like a lot of fathers worked long, hard hours so summer was the time we saw him more often. It is thanks to him that I have this golden box of memories I can open any time no matter where I am in the world.
(c) Michelle Walshe