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Friday, August 14, 2009

Waiting for the sun

My feature on the summers of yore growing up in Kilkenny that appeared in the Irish Independent on Wednesday of this week.

People who grow up in Kilkenny must accept that they will face certain inescapable realities for the rest of their lives. For instance, no matter where you are in the world, or who you’re talking to, or what your feelings are towards the place, you automatically go on the defensive any time someone refers to Kilkenny as a ‘town’ rather than a ‘city’ (try that one out on the next Cat you meet).

Furthermore, if you’re male (and sometimes, even if you’re not) you’ll forever be asked if, a) you went to St Kieran’s College (I did) and, b) if you play and/or are any good at hurling (I did, briefly, and I’m really, really not)

More than anything, however, every person born and raised in Kilkenny has been gifted with a truly heightened sense of irony, and an innate appreciation of, and capacity for, sheer brass neckery. How could it be any other way when you hail from an area with the Swift-ian audacity, with the outright temerity to officially call itself part of the ‘Sunny’ Southeast? That’s like Washington DC advertising itself as “the city where all politicians are honest and on the straight and narrow!”

Because, having spent at least 18 summers in Kilkenny, one of the major elements missing from the experience was the sun. Indeed I can recall one July day back in the late 80s when the appearance of a strange yellow ball in the sky sent the entire region into a panic akin to Orson Welles’ radio broadcast of War of the Worlds in the 1930s.

Seriously, for years, I honestly thought that rain was just God sweating from the heat while (s)he looked over the ‘Sunny’ Southeast.

This sunshine deficiency, coupled with the fact that Kilkenny has no coastline, meant that it was only fair that Marble Kiddies get at least a week away somewhere else during the summer holidays. Of course, growing up during the Celtic Turtle years of the 1980s and early 90s, it was considered a holiday if you travelled as far as your next door neighbour’s house to camp out in the back garden.

Every summer, we Cashins fled in search of sunnier climes, staying in caravans in Tramore, Co Waterford and Courtown in Wexford, obviously thinking that Kilkenny was the only part of the ‘Sunny’ Southeast axis drawing the short straw in terms of natural Vitamin D provision.

We ventured further afield too to the likes of Killarney and Salthill, having great fun, and finding reassurance that there were at least two other counties that were wetter than ours.

Yes, they were simpler times (mine is the last generation to get away with saying that), meaning that, as kids, we were genuinely very easy to please during the summer months. I grew up in the countryside, about three miles outside the city, so summers very much revolved around the local woods where there was officially nothing to do, but it still seemed like the best place on earth, and a friend’s garage, which had a pool table.

Indeed, today I always smile at the start of every summer when the papers carry pages and pages of advice on summer schools and events to keep the kids entertained. Summer school “back in my day” consisted of my mother instructing us on the first day of the holidays to: “Go outside and don’t come back in until September”.

Being somewhat, erm, lacking in the sporty department, I then spent countless summers standing in goal during neighbourhood soccer matches, and “keeping score” on the sideline during our annual homemade Wimbledon tournament, until I got all hard and rebellious, and blew off those squares to go hang out for the summer with the cool kids (you know, the Famous Five and the Hardy Boys) in Carnegie Library on John’s Quay.

Our treats, though minor by today’s standards, were all the better when they came: tea and a scone in The Pantry or Michael Dore’s and Sunday afternoons in Jenkinstown Woods watching the deer while consuming ‘hang sangwiches’ and flasks of tea; swinging about on the (then measly) playground in the Castle Park; and the odd Friday evening supper in Supermacs, the opening of which generated a level of excitement at the time that wouldn’t even be closely matched today if Heston Blumenthal were to open an eaterie in the city.

One of my abiding memories of my youthful summers in Kilkenny was the visit of the annual 2FM Beat on the Street road-caster, which would set up in the car park of Dunnes Stores, and which my brothers, friends and I would attend decked out in our finest X-Works jeans and St Bernard Touchdown runners. Man, we were the business.

What’s more, to this day, I can remember the evening in the summer of 1992 that Linda Martin, hot off her Eurovision success, came to perform on the road-caster stage (in the rain, natch), her passionate refrain of ‘Why Me?’ signalling to my 10-year-old brain that Kilkenny, now, must surely be the Las Vegas of Ireland.

Then, of course, there was the jewel in the crown of the Kilkenny entertainment scene: the Regent cinema on William Street, since torn down. This was one of the old one-screen cinemas, staffed by stern old ladies who scoured the theatre with their torches, blinding you in the eyes if you so much as coughed.

If memory serves, the first movie I saw there was The Care Bears Movie with my sister-in-law (circa 1985), and the last one was Titanic, which took residence in the Regent in January 1998 and stayed showing there until even after the building was demolished a year or so later (I think they still project it on the side of the new structure that replaced the cinema).

By the by, a little-known fact about Kilkenny: British actor Ralph Fiennes and his family lived for a time in the city, and resided in the house next to the old Regent cinema. Ralph even went to my secondary school. So there.

Of course, as I got a bit older, the summer activities in Kilkenny evolved. There was a lot of general aimless hanging around the Town Hall and lurking about the Market Cross Shopping Centre trying to be cool, not an easy look to pull off when one used to put half a tub of red Dax wax in their hair and then comb it into place. Yes, with an actual comb.

I got a summer job the day I turned 16 (earning the then unprecedented part-time sum of £3.18 an hour), and became involved in local youth theatre, (dis)gracing the stage of the Watergate Theatre in the likes of Joseph and His Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat and The King and I (all evidence of which is now stored in a Dick Cheney-style underground bunker).

And what kind of Kilkenny boy would I be if I didn’t volunteer at least once during the Cat Laughs Comedy Festival? In the summer of 1997, I was the king of ticket-collectors in the Friary Hall, and nobody could stack chairs or deliver a pint of Smithwicks to Rich Hall or Drew Carey like me.

I haven’t lived full-time in Kilkenny since I left for college in 2000. Every time I go home now, the city has changed again in some way. There’s a new restaurant, shop, hotel or pub, all of which sprung up to cater for the bazillions of stag and hen parties that descend there every weekend. One thing remains the same, however: the Trade Descriptions Act-violating weather. God bless the Sunny* Southeast.

*Terms and conditions apply.

1 comment:

Ă“rla B said...

Younger sister directed me towards this...excellent article Dec. My first film in the Regent was "Care Bears" too! :-) Remember Linda Martin too, to my shame...