“You know, they’re not as young as they used to be”

Fr Bobby Gilmore recalls a visit to see his parents in the 1980s when he met a neighbour and the conversation forced him to think about the conundrum of where is home?

You know…

There is an instant when one is about to leave home in which an image of where one is leaving is idealised. A mental and emotional picture of people and place imprints a tourist brochure picture in the memory bank and remains frozen in that time. It is a useful sanity shield that helps deal with the confusion and discomfort of new and unfamiliar surroundings one is experiencing on the journey and on arrival.

In such situations of confusion that picture instantly comes alive momentarily displacing the confusion. It is as if a source of security offering a safety net to pause, reflect, recompose and begin again to grapple with the present uncomfortable reality.

A tourist brochure picture is an asset in the migratory mind. But, it can also be a prison in which the past is lived out in the present, as if caught between two worlds like a bird whose wings are caught in two branches, betwixt and between, neither here nor there, hanging between the past and the present, always on a threshold, liminal. It is an unhealthy anxious situation probably carrying a burden of unresolved grief, nostalgia, a hankering for the past one has left.

But that is not all this story is about. My neighbour, Joe Divilly, from his early years had a business-oriented mindset. My lasting memory of him is from 1948 as a young boy in short pants before school on a dark winter Friday morning reversing his father’s truck loaded with agricultural produce for the Galway City market, stores and hotels.

After finishing school at fourteen he started work, apprenticeship, in his parent’s village country store. Gradually, he soaked up the procedures, processes and the politics of running a business. At his father’s passing he took on the day-to-running of the business helped by his mother and sisters. In doing so he gradually became acquainted with the countryside and its people who were his customers.

It must have been difficult as a teenager in 1950s post-colonial, newly independent, rural Ireland experiencing high levels of unemployment, poverty and emigration. Joe must have been seriously tempted to emigrate like his contemporaries. Decline in population is not a good omen or encouragement for business expansion.

Yet, he stayed at home, using his energy and acumen kept the business not just going but gradually expanding. He had antennas as to what was stirring in the country as the government of the day gradually expanded the economy into the rural farming areas in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

He met and married Theresa. She had an experience of business from her role in her uncle’s public house. Both experiences gelled and brought a new energy to an old established rural business. They were not just serving the needs of the public. Looking at the future they were able to pre-empt emerging needs and market demands.

They knew the countryside and the people they served not just those who came to the store, but in a mobile store that travelled the country byroads. They were, so to speak, the daily eyes and ears, the social media of the countryside. As their young family grew up they too helped in the daily chores.

Sometime in the 1980s I was making my way home to visit my parents. Somewhere along the way I met Joe who welcomed me. As we sat having a drink discussing the past, present and future sharing our experiences, Joe talked about the happenings around the countryside, births, marriages and deaths.

He recounted how the countryside had changed, people coming and going, business, politics and general gossip. He had a relaxed way in easy conversation, news and events not reported in the formal media. He assured me that my parents were hale and hearty.

And then relating to my parents he said something that I was not thinking about but he felt a neighbourly need to kindly remind me. Joe said, in a kindly reminder under-toned aside, “You know they’re not as young as they used to be.” Temporarily taken aback, his remark was letting me down easy as it defrosted my tourist brochure frozen image of the way they were the day I left many years before.

There and then I realised I wasn’t coming home to the countryside I knew or the parents I bade goodbye to many years before. I wasn’t coming home, my home was elsewhere? I was a visitor. 

My tourist brochure picture of home and people I loved was out of zink with the reality of the present. Time had moved on. It was, as if, a wake-up call to confront and deal with the reality of the present. There and then I realised my parents were in their feeble senior years and I was no longer young either.

As we went our separate ways I was confronted with the conundrum of where was home? Was it in the places I went to school, lived in and worked, Garbally Park, Dalgan, Philippines, London, Jamaica or did I carry it around in my back? Eventually, I reached the conclusion that home was in my shoes wherever I happened to be. Meeting Joe was a re-awakening opportunity that I will always appreciate. Thanks Joe.

…they’re not as young as they used to be.

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