Red River Day

It was a surprise to see my father cycling into town.

I had been to see Red River, the cowboy film everyone in my class wanted to see. It was late in 1948 and I was nearly eleven. In the Confirmation class at school I was learning about courage and standing up for one’s beliefs. The film had been a great example of such things and I felt that cowboys like James Stewart were nearly as good and as brave as saints and martyrs.

Out of the cinema (the Palace in McCurtain Street) I found myself in a thunderstorm. I got on the bike. I had no fear of thunder and lightning since the day when, seven years old, a great thunderstorm had sent water cascading down Barrack Street where we then lived in the Apple Market Tavern(now The Brown Derby). The roaring and the flashing made me sure it was the end of the world, an eventuality of which I had heard much in Sister Aloysius Flanagan’s First Communion class at the nearby Saint Mary of the Isles School. So I asked a man, “Is it the end of the world?” “Yerra no, boy,” the man replied, “sure ‘tis only an oul’ thunderstorm.”

So, completely unafraid, I headed off to our new home at Hollymount on the Lee Road.

It was dusk. I had three miles to go. The rain fell in sheets. I heard a man cry out, as if in fear, but I felt utterly secure – it was not the end of the world, not yet.

Then, on the Western Road, I saw my father on his bicycle. He was pedalling madly into town. He did not see me. I thought it was very strange.

Beyond the last of the infrequent street lamps as I dipped down from the entrance to the Mental Hospital and past the dark gates that led to Doctor Horgan’s house everything went black. The huge raindrops gleamed as they came towards my Miller dynamo lamp. I imagined that fireflies probably looked like that but I was sure there were none in Ireland.

It was dark when I reached home, an old house high above the Lee Fields. I was wet through but the last long climb up to the creeper-covered house filled me with a warm exhilarating glow. The lights in Clancy’s house next door cheered me – I had good friends my own age there. I put the bike away in the garage and pushed open our door – it was never locked – and went into the kitchen from which warm foody vapours came out to greet me.

It was a big surprise to see my mother, my sister, my younger brothers and Ellen the maid all on their knees saying the Rosary – it was still too early for that bedtime ritual. The praying stopped as I entered and everyone got up. I saw that some of them had been crying. I learned that they were all afraid I was going to get killed by the lightning and that my father had gone out to look for me.

We finished the Rosary, praying now for our missing father.

Our heroic Daddy returned later to a relieved welcome. Everyone was talking at once. There was no scolding at all. There were smiles, there was laughter, there were sweet mugs of Fry’s cocoa and thick slices of Simcox’s bread, delivered to us in a horse drawn van, were being toasted in front of the turf fire before being plastered with melting butter.

It seemed to me then that the little red paraffin lamp in front of the picture of the Sacred Heart had never burned so brightly. But I was also aware, for the very first time, that lightning was a dangerous killer and that I would never again face it without fear.

Barry Tobin, Cardiff, 15 September 2006.

Barry Tobin