By Gilbert McCullagh
Sweetmount Avenue starts opposite the Carnegie Library in the village of Dundrum, in south County Dublin. It curves south-westward up an incline and, in the late 1950s, was enclosed between golden granite walls, nine or ten foot high, and here and there mounds of ivy cascaded over the tops.
Behind the wall on one side was a line of various types of tall deciduous trees, while only a few trees rose in the field behind the wall on the opposite side. In late Autumn the Avenue was like a river of gold with leaves in various shades of yellow, orange, red, and brown, that had been shed from the sycamore, chestnut, oak, birch, and other trees whose branches overhung the walls.
Halfway along its course, on its south side, the Avenue widened in an arc. Here the wall was punctured by a small wooden wicket gate and, nearby, two tall silver iron gates, set between high, stone, gate posts. These opened onto one of the private avenues that lead up to a big house called Laurel Lodge, one time home of Dr Isaac Usher.
Behind the wall, between the wicket and silver gates, stood a two-up, two-down gate lodge, the home of my maternal grandparents since 1923. In the late 1950s it was home to my widowed grandfather, Joseph Gilbert, my maiden Aunt Kay, my Uncle Des, and Sean Hogarty, a cousin, both of whom were bachelors.
The wicket gate gave access to the back door of the lodge, from where there was a panoramic view eastwards over a large fruit and vegetable garden, fields beyond and, in the distance above the trees, the bell-tower of Christ Church Taney on the rising ground beyond the village.
The garden contained fruit trees and bushes of every description, large vegetable plots, and in the verges flowers buzzing with bees, all nurtured and tended by my grandfather, a gifted gardener.
A number of corrugated sheds dotted the periphery of the garden, these remnants of a cowshed, henhouse and stable and other small buildings, had long since been repurposed. In one corner stood a laurel tree, sculpted into the shape of a large mushroom, with one side open where you could sit in the sun.
This is where I went, two or three times every week after school in Holy Cross Boys National School in Dundrum. The reason for this diversion on my journey home was to go get ‘messages’ for my aunt in Byrnes shop on the main street in the village.
The messages varied but could include items like a fresh loaf of bread, packet of tea or sugar, butter, tomatoes, and a pack of 10 cigarettes.
On my return my aunt would give me a snack, usually a doorstep slice of the fresh loaf, thickly layered with butter and plastered with home-made raspberry or blackberry jam, all washed down with a cup of strong, sweet tea. With my errand done and snack polished off, there was time for adventure before heading home.
My playground was the garden and the surrounding fields, where, with a vivid imagination, great adventures could be had. To an 8 or 9 year old aspiring cowboy, normally corralled in a terraced house in a housing estate, the garden could become Tombstone, El Paso, or Fort Laramie, and the fields beyond, wide open prairies teeming with buffalo and marauding Apaches.
If I wanted, I could be a lawman with a badge and a Navy Colt at my hip, tied down, chasing outlaws across the prairie or in the Texas Panhandle or a cowpoke riding the range, protecting herds of long-horned steers from rustlers or driving them along the Chisholm Trail to the railhead at Abilene.
This was my idyll, my paradise, where, it seemed, it never rained and the sun always shone.
But this was not to last. In less than a decade, with my dreams of a life as a cowboy dislodged by puberty, my idyll had been swept away by the tide of urban expansion. My prairies were buried beneath lines of semi-detached houses and the site of my grandfather’s house became somebody’s front garden.
Such, they say, is progress, and while it can change utterly the physical landscape, it can never destroy happy memories. ÷
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