My earliest memory is being carried on my father’s shoulders across the Barrow bridge that led from County Kildare into County Laois, the river being the border. I think I was about three years old and I was very scared as he walked along the verge beside the bridge wall. I was a long way up, the river was a long way down and I was a bit of a wimp. We were headed about a mile from our house to a local farmer to pick up the fresh milk in a tin billycan – a regular evening ritual. Pasteurisation was unknown – this was milk warm from the cow. Before we got to the Barrow we had walked across the ‘high bridge’ over the canal (below). You could see the grooves in the bridge walls where the ropes had cut, as horses towed barges up and down the canal. That era had ended by the late fifties, with barges now powered by engines. But the grooves remained, testimony to an earlier era.
I was brought up by two strong women, and a good father. We lived with my granny, she had one child (my mother) and I was an only child too. My granny’s husband ‘disappeared’ in the Somme mud near the end of WW1, and my granny had raised my mother alone, with help from her family. So their bond was deep. Basically I never had a chance of ‘getting away with’ anything – if one didn’t catch me, the other one would. Of course the upside of this was that I got all the attention too, I’d like to think I didn’t abuse it but in retrospect I may well have done (time to ‘fess up’, finally).
I visited that old house recently – my granny’s – for the first time in many, many years. It was never re-occupied after she died. She rented it from someone who lived far away, and it was a damp house due to its proximity to the Barrow navigation canal. Which probably meant it lay fallow thereafter. The canal loops in and out to enable barges to skirt the shallow stretches of the river, and was a key element in enabling produce like barley to be carried to Dublin and the Guinness brewery. So I grew up beside the canal, with the Barrow a few hundred metres beyond.
The house is now completely overgrown, and as I expected its smaller than I remembered it (I think that’s normal). I saw huge trees shooting from the adjacent former garden area, and I remember those being put in as seedlings. I am however glad that nobody lived there after we exited. Somehow it seemed nice (but weird) to see the wallpaper that we put up round 1973 still hanging tattered from the walls. Shows what a great job I did (he said, immodestly).
I was a bit surprised that I did not feel more emotional about the experience, but it’s been a long time and – as they say – a lot of water has flowed under that Barrow bridge since then. And life goes on.