My Wild Irish Rover
I’ll never forget the first summer I spent with my great aunt Clara. I was seventeen, she was about seventy and County Wexford in Ireland was the last place on earth that I wanted to be. Great Aunt Clara lost her husband to a heart attack the year I was born.
I’m not sure whether my being named after her was supposed to be some sort of consolation, or whether there was more to it than that. Everyone said she’d ‘married well’ when she married Paddy, an irrepressible Irish entrepreneur said to have found gold at the end of his particular rainbow.
“He may be a Wild Irish Rover,” my grandmother said, “but she’ll want for nowt.”
Dad had wanted to name me Lily after his mother but Mum said his family hadn’t two ha’pennies to rub together. She insisted on calling me Clara after my wealthy, recently bereaved, childless great aunt.
I grew up overshadowed by my namesake. I hardly knew her, but grew up intimidated by her reputation. Mum said she could haggle for Ireland and win. “Nobody puts anything over on Aunt Clara,” she said. “Sharp as a tack, she is. You’d do well to follow her example.”
I remember her visiting when I was about five. I was rolled out for her approval.
“Not much to her,” she’d said looking me up and down. “A sorry looking bag of bones if you ask me. Still, she’s time to grow I suppose.”
Mum and Dad treated her like royalty and when I finished school my mother insisted I spend the summer visiting my namesake in Ireland.
“She’s an old lady and you can make yourself useful,” Mum said. “Won’t do any harm to get to know her. She’s family after all.”
“Aye and she’s got more money than God,” my grandmother said with a sly grin.
It wasn’t my idea of fun. I was just out of school and filled with the arrogant confidence of any teenager waiting to go to Uni. A far as I was concerned Great Aunt Clara had nothing to offer that could possibly compare to the thrill of a gap year backpacking around the world, but Mum was adamant. I thought perhaps if I made the effort I could make some excuse after a couple of days and catch up with my friends.
The cottage where Great Aunt Clara lived was a short walk from the fishing village of Kilmore Quay. The stone walled cottage was huge and rambling. Rambling? I should have said crumbling, it’s grandeur obscured by an overgrown jungle of vegetation. Large chunks of thatch hung from the roof leaving gaping holes to let in the rain, the white-washed walls were blackened and peeling. In picture-postcard order the place would have appeared imposing but it had clearly fallen into disrepair. It now carried the look of faded gentility, I saw no sign of the great wealth and enviable lifestyle Mum always attributed to Great Aunt Clara.
Unsure that I was in the right place I timidly lifted the brass knocker on the multi-stained, oak door and announced my presence with several loud raps. I heard shuffling feet and then my great aunt appeared, shorter than I remembered and more rounded. Her auburn hair had faded and was streaked with gold. Her clothes were fresh and bright but dated. Tan leather sandals encased her well worn feet. Eyes sharp as emerald chips appraised me. I shuddered beneath her scrutiny. Even at her age she remained a formidable woman.
“So, you’re Clara,” she said. “Well, you’d better come in.”
She stood aside to let me pass into the hall. A quick glance at the browning wallpaper told me the inside was as poorly maintained as the outside.
“Upstairs, turn left, first door on your right. I’ll leave you to get settled,” she said. “You’ll excuse my not coming up. I’ve got a jam pan bubbling on the stove. Don’t want it to burn.”
‘Not the warmest welcome in the world,’ I thought. She wasn’t at all what I’d expected.
“Thanks,” I said, managing to control the frisson of alarm that ran through me. What on earth had I let myself in for? And what had happened to my great aunt’s supposed riches?
Upstairs I unpacked my few possessions into a rickety chest of drawers and even more rickety wardrobe. The room was surprisingly pleasant. Sunlight poured in through sparkling windows, the walls were freshly painted in pale pastels and the rainbow quilt covering the bed matched the cheerful curtains. Bunches of dried lavender scented the air. I smiled. My great aunt had gone to a great deal of trouble to ensure my comfort, despite her off-hand welcome.
Heartened, I ventured downstairs to find her in the kitchen scooping jam into sparkling jars. I watched as she put rings of waxed paper on top of the jam and sealed the jars with covers dipped in cold water and stretched over the top to be held in place by elastic bands. Once the jam was finished she and took two glasses from a cupboard and a jug of lemonade from an ancient fridge. “We can take this outside,” she said handing me a glass, “then I’ll show you around.”
She led me outside onto the terrace where a table and several wrought iron chairs sat in the shade of the huge climbing roses covering the overhead beams. The air was filled with their scent, an aroma I came to associate with great aunt Clara. Beyond that the garden stretched as far as I could see. A sizeable plot near to house had been cultivated to provide a kitchen garden full of vegetables, soft fruit and herbs. Further on, in the middle of a rough, overgrown patch of grassland and tangled bushes I saw an archway, so dense with brambles it veiled the pond that lay along its length. Behind that I could just make out a substantial orchard.
“Your mother tells me you’re eager to help out,” Clara said. “Not that I haven’t been managing for years. Still, another pair of hands wouldn’t go amiss I suppose.”
I felt a cold thud in my heart as I realised I’d been sent to ingratiate myself to this redoubtable woman by working in the house and garden that time forgot. There was no sign of the lavish lifestyle my mother had predicted.
Later, over a super of fresh caught mackerel and vegetables from the garden Aunt Clara said, “Not what you expected is it?”
I shrugged. “I’m not sure what I expected,” I said, untruthfully. “I thought it might be a bit less – a bit more – I mean – well, more…” I was lost for words.
Aunt Clara chuckled. “Never believe all you hear,” she said. “Appearances can be deceptive. That’s something your mother never understood.” She took a sip of last year’s Elderberry wine. “How is she? Your mother? Still trying to keep up with the Joneses?”
I grinned. “Actually I think she’s trying to overtake them,” I said.
Clara’s whole face lit up and her eyes sparkled like diamonds when she laughed. “You’ll do,” she said.
Over the weeks I gradually got to know Aunt Clara. Old fashioned and slightly faded she reminded me of a well worn sofa, bulging in odd places¸ sometimes uncomfortable but always reliable. Our days fell into a rhythm of breakfast, working in the garden, lunch, then either a stroll along to the harbour to visit the small shops and buy fish for our tea, or along the cliffs where Clara, resplendent in a sunflower patterned shawl and huge red straw hat tied on with a pale blue chiffon scarf, would set up her easel to paint. Then I would wander along the beach to sunbathe, swim or feast on fresh strawberries and cream until tea-time.
Sometimes I’d walk to the harbour to buy ice cream. That’s where I met Erik, a Norwegian student working on the boats for the season. I’d just bought a triple scoop cornet and turned to walk back along the quay when this man-mountain roller-skated into me. Luckily he managed to catch me in his arms, spinning me around to prevent us both falling to the ground. Most of my ice-cream ended up on the floor, apart from the bits that were smeared down his shirt. He was unlike anyone I’d ever met before. A hearty zest for life shone in his cornflower blue eyes.
“I’m sorry,” we chorused in unison. Then we both laughed.
“I’m so sorry, it was my fault,” he said in his clipped English. I was immediately smitten. He smiled and the day suddenly became brighter. He insisted on buying me another ice-cream and escorting me to a seat by the harbour so I could enjoy it in safety. That was the beginning of a magical summer. I still remember his crazy sense of humour, the hesitation and precision in his voice when he spoke and the way my heart soared at his easy laughter. Tall, broad-shouldered and blonde, Clara called him ‘my catch of the day’. Those glorious summer days and cloudless skies had a rich mellowness only ever recalled in retrospect.
Erik was studying Marine Biology. He opened my eyes to the beauty beneath the sea and the wonders of nature all around us. He told me about the rock formations and the cycles of the moon and how they affected the tides. Our summer romance was brief but it changed my life. He’d awakened within me a thirst for learning. When I returned home I switched my course to study the things that Erik studied.
I was surprised Clara did everything herself.
“I used to help my father on the allotment,” she told me one evening after supper. “Soon as I was old enough to hold a trowel,” she said. She smiled and stared at the sky as she recalled her childhood. “We didn’t have much in those days, but then nobody did.” She sighed. “We helped each other out. If we had anything to spare we’d share it with our neighbours and they with us.” She paused. “Not like today,” she added. I caught a hint of bitterness in her voice.
One lunch-time we were sitting out on the terrace when I saw some boys creeping among the apples trees in the orchard. I pointed them out to Clara. “Should I chase them away?” I said.
She chuckled. “Heavens no,” she said. “I have more than I need. If they asked I’d give them the apples but they prefer scrumping – it gives them a feeling of doing something naughty, something forbidden. That makes it exciting. We should all have some excitement in our lives when we are young.” She stopped to gaze down the garden for a few minutes. “You can shout at them now if you like. It’ll give them a shock and make it even more thrilling.”
So I did.
It was just as Clara had predicted. Whooping and yelling they made a frenzied exit over the fence carrying their haul of illicit fruit. I could hear their howls of delight all the way along the lane.
Another time I asked her why she didn’t get someone in to clear the garden and cut back the brambles that covered the archway over the pond in impenetrable profusion.
“What, and frighten the dragonflies,” she said. “I prefer dragonflies to people – they have no sense of status. They swoop and chase in their iridescent colours and bring nothing but good cheer. Why would I want to disturb them, they’ve done nothing to harm me?” She smiled wryly. “I did have a gardener once but he died and I have never felt the need to replace him.”
Once a week Clara would take a basket of fruit and veg from the garden to the ramshackle fishing sheds by the harbour, where colourful boats rocked gently on the waves and the air became salty with sea breezes and the pervasive smell of fish. She’d stop and chat to the woman who sorted the fish and mended the nets and pots.
“Marie’s got six kids to feed,” she told me, “and her husband lost at sea.” She’d leave the fruit and vegetables, together with some eggs, cheese or ham she’d bought in the market.
“There’s too much for me,” she’d say, “and Clara here doesn’t eat much.” One day Marie offered Aunt Clara a fresh lobster but Aunt Clara refused it. “I could never bring myself to cook it,” she said with a grimace. “Not while it’s alive.”
That evening she told me about moving to Ireland and how she missed her family. “We were close, your grandmother and me. Being the youngest and only girls with six brothers we stuck up for one another. We shared everything, clothes, make up, hair clips.” Clara eyes clouded over. “I did miss her when I got married. This time of year I’d always think of her and how, when we were kids, we’d go Blackberrying together and our Mum, your great grandma, would make jam. Sugar was on ration then so she’d swap eggs from the chickens your great granddad kept for the sugar. It was like that in those days, everyone helping everyone else out.”
Gradually I came to understand my great aunt. She hated waste. I guessed it was a legacy of her upbringing. Everything she had was used. Heads of the fish were given to a neighbour for her cat, peelings and left-over food was used for compost or taken to the pig farm. She would shake her head at the antics of the kids today, saying they had things too easy. I suppose, compared to her generation, we did.
I once asked her why she didn’t get people in to help around the house and garden, given that she was reputed to be quite wealthy. She laughed.
“Would that make for a better life do you think?” She said, leaning on the fork she was using to dig the potatoes. “Would my life be any better or more fulfilled if I had people in to do everything for me?” A look of determination crossed her face. “I have everything I need. I do as I please. I am quite content. The happiest people I know have very little. Anyway, Aiden from the garage helps from time to time with the heavy digging in return for some of the produce to take home to his mam.”
I thought of my mother and her endless aspirations. That summer taught me what was important in life.
I went back to visit Clara the following year, and the year after that, then I decided to stay. I’d met my own Wild Irish Rover. His name was Finn and he was a fisherman. His hair was black as night and his eyes the colour of a summer sky. I was nineteen by then and I’d grown weary of the lads at home and their broken promises. Finn offered nothing, promised nothing but gave me everything. The laughter dancing in his eye, his simple philosophy of life and the way he made me feel all came free. We met on the Quay where he was unloading one of the boats. At first glance he was just one of the boys but he had a vitality about him that didn’t diminish as he chatted, flirted outrageously and gently teased me. I was instantly and instinctively drawn to him. His boyish charm and soft Irish lilt made my heart scramble and flounder. He had a mischievous sense of fun, humour that folded me in half with laughter and a capacity for kindness that left me gasping.
On our first date he took me to a ceili dance. Clara assured me that the music would be lively and the craic legendary. She wasn’t wrong. We’d hardly arrived before the hall exploded into life as the band struck up. Within minutes the floor heaved with dancers, reeling, skipping and yoo-hooing to the rhythm of the music. Finn pulled me onto the floor into a line of whirling dancers spinning so fast I could hardly catch my breath. It was impossible not to be swept up in the excitement. The swirling colours the rousing voice of the caller, the pounding of feet and the clapping along with the energy of the music. At the end of the evening, breathless but eyes sparkling, I felt a stab of disappointment that it was almost over.
When Finn took me in his arms for the last waltz he set my heart on fire. I danced with my cheek pressed to his face, feeling the slight stubble on his chin and breathing in his woody aroma. I had to suppress a smile when I realised I’d expected him to smell of fish. I knew then that I wasn’t going home, that this was where I belonged, that we’d be together forever.
My biggest regret is that Clara didn’t live to see us wed. She died just before the wedding, but not before I‘d asked her about her alleged ‘great wealth’.
She chuckled. “Paddy was a gambler,” she said, “he took huge risks just for the thrill of it. Our fortunes went up and down quicker than a frog flicking flies.” Her face spread into a smile. “Oh, the excitements of it – we travelled the world you know, stayed in the best hotels, saw everything. I wouldn’t have missed it for a bucket of gold. When we were up we soared so high we could touch the stars and even when we were down Paddy had a way with him and we were never down for long. After he’d gone I found out we’d lost everything except the house. He never risked that.”
She looked at me. “People treat you differently when they think you have money” she said. “We fooled ‘em didn’t we?”
I thought of my parents and the way they fawned over her. I squeezed her hand. “You sure did,” I said with a grin. Her fabulous wealth, so beloved by my mother, was an illusion. Her riches lay in the people she knew, the friends she made and the life she lived. My memories of Clara are more precious than jewels.
She left me and Finn the cottage and the grounds. We’ll move in when it’s been renovated and the garden put back into some sort of shape. Should be ready by the time the baby’s due. If it’s a girl we’re going to call her Clara.
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