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A Touch of My Youth

by Con O'Hanlon

I was a country boy, because I lived 1¼ miles from Newbridge, in a little place of no consequence, except to residents, called Kilbelin. It was flanked by the river Liffey, and it was my home ground for 23 years.
Somebody once wrote: "A boy's will is the winds will, and thoughts of youth are long, long thought." I suppose there is truth in this. Youth, with its wishes of great deeds one day blown away as the wind, by some loftier ideal.
Growing up beside a river ordained that a great part of my youth would be centred around it. Looking back over the years, what a tragedy for this Grand River; the harvesting of its waters by the E.S.B. at Poulaphouca.
In my youth the River and its vicinity had so much life, and so much to give to the exploring mind. Fish life abounded, fine trout in the still pools and rapids. We would watch enviously as the real big ones rose to flies in inaccessible places.
Pike, too, in all sizes were there in haunts known as "Dardis Flat" ― "Blackthorns" ― "Flanagan's Hole" and "Fr. Kavanagh's Rocks," which was a deep stretch of water, shrub and tree lined on one side; it had an aura of lurking danger.
The many happy hours spent poking through the lovely clean moss on the river bed seeking the Stickle-back, Colic and other small, rare fish. The Crayfish hidden under stones - we had a healthy respect for their claws when walking barefooted in the water.
We fished with the crudest of rods, brown line that seemed to weigh a ton when wet, made up flies which many a fish cast a jaundiced eye at. For the minnow we used thread and a straight pin bent to taste. Old leather cast-off boots were our waders, turned up trousers to give depth. Our nets, if any, were the old onion containers which had some resemblance to nets. Usually we tried to flip the fish on to the bank, and scramble up to claim and assess him.
Bird life abounded too. Hawks across the river in the near wood and the far wood. Corncrakes clacking out their messages in the meadows. Up river the Dipper or "Polly White Throat," spring legged on some large rock. The beautiful Kingfisher, that we took for granted. Great flocks of Curlews, Plovers, the Swifts and Sand Martens, and the Larks overhead.
We all had our boxes, saw-dust or wool lined for collection of bird's eggs. Early morning quest for mushrooms would startle the Water Hen and her brood, or perhaps the ever wary Wild Duck.
Rafts, too, were always part of our youth. Spending weeks looking for old oil-drums and other items not so readily come by.
River flooding was always with us, depending on the rainfall. At their worst they were a frightening force; trees, debris of all sorts, cocks of hay and sometimes animals were swept past our lane. They were the great cleansers and beautifiers in the life of the River.
We swam endlessly in summer. Usually morning ― day ― evening sessions. Up through Counihan's meadow to our own private pool, or down-stream to Grimes, to mingle with neighbouring peasants. You got your unwritten diploma when you were capable of swimming the deep water here. Grimes also possessed a high-diving plank which jutted out from the river bank. Many a persons bravery was gauged on his willingness to dive from it.
How we looked forward to sheep dipping in the river during the summer. A flock would arrive in the care of 3 or 4 men and penned in a corner with cart creels. One man was delegated to stand in the river whilst his companions slung the sheep to him one by one. He dipped each one thoroughly, before pushing them away. What a drenching this man got.
Sixty four years on and I tread the paths of my youth with sadness. I see a river narrow and weed infested, rushes and reeds and briars fighting for its bank space. No hedges of note for the birds, all gone before the farmer's greed for prairie-land. No Lark song to rekindle the past, no Kingfisher to enrich the future.
Thomas O'Crohan in his wonderful book "The Island Man," which dealt with life on the Blasket Island said, "The likes of us will never be again."
Youth, being what it is, accepts Nature's bounty without really savouring it. Old age brings regret, for we know the likes will never be again.

Con O'Hanlon.
26 August 1989

In 1989 Con O'Hanlon recalled growing up alongside the river Liffey at Kilbelin

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