We are two years old, me, and the little girl who drowned in the canal. When I close my eyes, darkness surrounds me. I am outside the house in the front garden. I cross over the road to the bank of the canal. Kneeling down I can see a little girl looking back at me from the black water. I reach in my hand to pull her out, she reaches a hand towards me, but I tumble and fall into the blackness. My feet are stuck in mud, I cannot move, I scream for my mother. She bursts into the room, the landing light blinds me and turns her into a giant looming shadow, I scream some more. I am sitting on the floor in the middle of the bedroom. My mother consoles me. They say it is only night terrors and that I will grow out of them. I do not.
Our earliest childhood memories, apparently, go back to when we were between two and four years of age. My earliest fragments of memory, dream or possibly imaginings, are two incidences of drownings involving children in the Grand Canal that ran just across the road from our home in the town of Tullamore, Co. Offaly. In 1957, a girl aged two years drowned just opposite our front door, and in 1962, a boy, aged nine, lost his life in the same stretch of water.
The earliest drowning happened when I was two years old and the little girl lived in the same row of houses. My family occupied the end house in a row of homes that looked out onto the Grand Canal. It was my parent’s first abode together and, like all the newly housed residents, they quickly made a home for themselves with their growing family. These new houses were much sought after, at that time, and the location, overlooking the Grand Canal, was an added attraction. I remember that each house had a front lawn bounded by a low-level wall fitted with a railing on top. Our railing and gate were painted turquoise. The metal gate had vertical bars and a latch-lock system that secured young children while playing outdoors. Directly across from our front garden we had a view of the banks of the Grand Canal with fringes of wild reeds and flowers on either side. There was no barrier between the roadside and the canal.
One spring day in 1957, a little girl and her brother were playing with a ball in their front garden. The handball rolled across the road and ended up on the canal bank opposite. Between them, these two toddlers managed to pry open the garden gate and went in search of the ball. The ball was not on the solid grassy bank but caught in long reeds just off the bank. The girl reached in to pick it up and slipped into the water. Immediately, her brother ran back over the road to his house and alerted his mother. Sadly, the shock, the cold, the nature of the canal, and time, all conspired to end her young life. I held onto a memory about this tragedy and in my later years, I researched the newspaper archives and read the following statement about the girl ‘her body was recovered three hours later with the efforts of local residents and the police.’
Part of the memory concerned the change in atmosphere in our home and the adults about me becoming more serious. There would have been a commotion in the house while my father went out to help in the search for the child. My brothers were three and four years old, so there was likely plenty of talk about the incident.
I had clearer memories of the second drowning in 1962 when I was seven years old. On a Saturday morning, as we were having breakfast, there was a determined knock on the front door. My father left the breakfast table and headed out through the hall to the front door. Padraig, my older brother, pushed back his chair, making a scraping sound on the floor and tried to follow him. My mother told him sternly to ‘sit back down, this minute,’ so he did as he was told. Within minutes, Dad arrived back into the kitchen and closed the door behind him. The look on his face had changed, and his eyes seemed to be staring blankly. He reached out to grab his jacket from the back of the kitchen chair and began to pull it on. Mam instructed us to go out to the back garden to play. When she called for lunch, we left the questions to Padraig.
“Where is Dad?”
“Outside!” answered Mam.
“Sit down and have your sandwiches.”
I left the kitchen to go to the toilet. Instead of climbing the stairs, I opened the sitting-room door very quietly. With the curtains closed, the room was very dark. I pulled out the heavy curtain and the net curtain from the corner of the window and pushed in beside the windowsill. I could see out through our railings and over to the canal bank. People were standing in small groups on the road, and on the bank of the canal, there was a row of adults standing side by side. These people were looking down into the water. Dad was at the end of the row and had one arm on the shoulder of the man beside him.
After we had finished our lunch, my mother explained what was happening outside. She said that a young boy from nearby had fallen into the canal and that Dad was helping the neighbours search for him.
“What happened?” We asked.
“He was fishing with his friend, and he fell in.”
“They are going to drag the canal to find him.” She said.
“Is he dead?”
There was no answer from Mam, but Padraig whispered:
“Of course, he is.”
“How do they drag the canal?” I asked.
“That’s enough questions for now. Go back out and play.”
When we were outdoors, Padraig gave us his explanation for what dragging the canal meant.
“They put this thing into the canal that is like a sweeping brush with a very long head on it. They drag it along the bottom slowly, and it gathers everything up into one spot.”
I formed an image of our sweeping brush but with a brush head that reached from one side of the canal to the other. I imagined that the people I saw looking down into the water when I sneaked a peek out the front window, were watching this big brush being pulled along the bottom of the canal. I felt afraid for the boy.
Reading the newspaper archive about the drowning of this nine-year-old boy in 1962, the report describes how two boys, aged nine and ten years, went fishing in the canal. In a childish prank, they threw each other’s fishing rod into the water. The older boy removed his outer clothing and went into the water to retrieve the rods. He got into difficulty and went down in the water. His friend watched as the water reached the boy’s mouth and his body pulled under. The friend ran to get help. The report states that ‘A man in the town, on hearing that there was a boy in the water, cycled to the canal bank and jumped in fully clothed.’ He dived several times, but was unable to recover the body until somebody on the bank shouted:
“There is something in the water under the bridge.” This man swam to the bridge and found the boy’s body in about six feet of water. The town’s people regarded him as a hero for his efforts to recover the boy. The Coroner recorded a verdict of accidental drowning.
Perhaps it is not so strange that I have never learned to feel safe in water. I have completed some indoor swimming courses over the years; friends and family have tried their best to assist me, but still, I feel panic if I move too far away from the poolside.
I felt a deep sadness and trepidation when reading the original newspaper reports of these drownings. The horror that these incidents presented to the families of the lost children is too unbearable to dwell on. The abruptness, with which the canal water stole their life, and living, seems unforgivable to me. I hold a sense of intrusion into grief that does not rightly belong to me, though, at some level, I was a witness to both drownings, and fragments of memory from that time will remain with me always.
(c) Phil Carrick