Friday, September 21, 2012

Birthday story

Fifty years ago to the day I swam across the Estuary of the River Corrib in County Galway in the west of Ireland and back. I had drunk at least four pints of Guinness and swallowed  three dozen oysters or more. This tale of excess occurred during the Galway Oyster Festival where I was a guest invited in my role as editor of a magazine devoted to food and drink. It is  as much a confession as a  boast because I am no longer proud of the feat if feat it was. Pumping testosterone I must have been showing off or at least trying to prove something no longer worth proving. I was of course only 29, a poor excuse but a genuine one. How do I know with such certainty that this took place precisely 50 years ago? Because today is my 79th birthday.  Here is the connection.

I left my friends on that warm afternoon outside the pub called Moran's by the Weir, without a word except to say that I was going to swim to the other side of the river, about 300 yards. I stripped down to my under pants and having made a pile of the rest of my clothes, crossed the estuary without difficulty.

On the far side  I walked in my bare feet up a grassy slope  to explore the walls and gardens of the abandoned house which had prompted my venture in the first place.

"It must be your birthday." The voice from behind a pile of stones belonged to an old woman seated as I recall in a worn armchair and smoking a clay pipe.

 "How did you know it was my birthday?"

" Because you are in your birthday suit. Or almost. "

I laughed,  drunk enough to be surprised  at nothing and amused by almost anything.

"You sound like  a foreigner, English I expect. A bloody colonialist back to the scene of his crimes. We burnt this place down you know back in The  Troubles, as we politely called them. It belonged to one of your lot, a lord or a sir, I'm damned if I remember."

By this time I had sobered up and stopped laughing. "Never mind," she said, "you look innocent enough, and too young to be one of the criminals. Probably don't even know what it was all about. 

I do know," I said but felt that it was not my place to apologise. 

"That's as may be," she said. "let's  talk about it no more young man. Instead I'll make you a prophecy: 50 years from now I will long be under the turf. But you, if you are spared, will remember our conversation and think of the old woman you met in this ruined house when you were wearing no more than your birthday suit." 

And yes, as it happens, I do.


  1. A remarkable story, wonderfully well told!

  2. I'm late to the OFD party, and a day late for your birthday, which I have never been able to pinpoint exactly before, though I knew it was around this time.

    I belatedly wish you a happy birthday, and many more to come, and a fair wind for this new exploit, which I am enjoying immensely.

    Not really wanting to come in with editorial suggestions, interpretations etc doesn't mean I have no responses, simply that, being a bear of ponderous and haphazard brain, I am not necessarily certain of them prefer to let them stew a bit. And I think the perhaps the point of this kind brief and elliptical writing is that it is not susceptible to those kind of judgements, but needs to be taken as found, if turned this way and that and subject to personal preference in the response - I like some better than others. (It does strike me that once one commits to prose, writing is much more up for grabs than poetry is...)

    Having said all that, I'm tempted of course to ask if, or how much of, this tale is true, but I know that's really an unworthy question; there's true and true, and I'm much better off left wondering! It's a delightful one, and I love it.

  3. Thank you, Lucy for your good wishes. For the sake of precision I wrote the story on my birthday and posted It yesterday. How much of it is true? The old lady and her prophecy are pure fiction. I tweaked time a little too - the year and the dates within it to suit the story. Other events and the location are true as far as my memory serves me.