Being 50 today is forty years short of being 90.
I once sat drinking whiskey with Alan, a man of whom I have only happy memories, on his 90th birthday. We were sat in the front room of his house as the light of a late November afternoon faded.
“How does it feel to be 90?”
He looked at his tumbler of Power’s and then looked up. “It doesn’t feel like any other age. Apart from a bad knee, I’m still the person I always was. I remember when I was 82 thinking that I was no different from the person I was when I was 28”.
He was a man of whom I was very fond and I still raise a glass each year in his memory on 26th November, his birthday.
He had a great fund of stories of his childhood life in Co Kerry and of an Ireland that was very different. He could retell moments in a way that was so vivid they seemed almost present.
He reduced me to a fit of giggles on one occasion in his telling of a memory of the day the telephone arrived at a little town in Kerry. A country woman came into the post office and looked at the apparatus with great wariness and suspicion. Finally, the engineer persuaded her that it presented no threat and suggested she might speak into it. Holding the earpiece to her ear, the woman recoiled with fright. The engineer at the other end had said “Hello”, to her. It wasn’t natural for strangers to be speaking to a woman like herself through such a contraption. “How do you know me?” she demanded of the voice at the other end.
“How do you know me?” he repeated in the broad Kerry accent of his childhood and threw his head back in laughter.
His fund of stories was boundless and only when he died in 2004 did the I realize that lost with him.
He grew up on Valentia Island off the coast of Co Kerry, where his father worked in the Transatlantic cable station. His memories of those times were of the Great War and the Troubles and the early years of the Free State. He would recall a childhood memory of the station being attacked by rebels who thought to disable the place.
“There were these glass domes filled with acid in the power room and they came in and smashed them. They hadn’t realised it was acid and it splashed over them. The next thing we saw was them running down the beach into the water to try to stop the burning. “Do you know how long the station was out of action for? Forty minutes. They stopped it for just forty minutes. What was the point?”
He shook his head in disbelief at the story – even after eighty-odd years there were episodes he could still not fathom.
His stories of the cable stretched near and far. I was in the post office the day the day the telephone came to Cahirciveen. The engineer was fixing it up and a woman from the country came in. She looked at it very suspiciously and the engineer asked her if she would like to try it. He hands her the earpiece and this voice in Killarney says, “Hello”, and in this broad country accent she says into the phone, “How do you know me?”
“There were two brothers who worked for the cable company. One was on Valentia and the other was in Newfoundland; at night when things were quiet, they would communicate with each other”.
The advent of the telephone was to eventually make the cable redundant, but it took a while. “Do you know how much a telephone call across the Atlantic cost when they began? Fifteen pounds!”
Memories of him are reassuring. I drank a parting glass to him this evening. May I see 90 and feel 28.