No one's sure how the tradition began, or who consulted us, but whenever the school summer holidays started my sister Paddy - her Daddy called her Paddy cos he thought she'd be a laddie - and I were sent off to spend the six weeks with Uncle Peter, Auntie Nelly and Auntie Margaret, unmarried survivors of my father's many brothers and sisters. They had retired from the Oldpark to live in Castlewellan, where the aunts ran a small pub and Uncle Peter walked. Just walked. In all weathers. From early morning till his dinner was ready.
When we were there he walked us to Newcastle and back every day. His bald head and ruddy weather beaten face glowing ahead of us, we followed in single, whinging
file. Townies first and last, we wept and we wailed and begged him to stop. No chance.. Four and a quarter miles each way. That sign post is burned onto my retina. Newcastle was not then the thriving resort it is to-day. I don't know what was there in the early fifties. All I can remember is the sea wall. And the cold. .
We spent the evenings cutting up newspapers for lavatory paper and playing cards
Then they moved. To Dublin.
Oh holy God, said Paddy. Dublin.
When we got to Drogheda, the Guards got on the train to inspect our luggage for contraband. Paddy was affronted. The man took a brown paper bag containing certain feminine items from her case and was about to open it.
"Thank you!" she said firmly, slamming the lid on his fingers. He made a quick retreat, his big country boy face burning.
In Clontarf nothing had changed. Of course, the food was wonderful - the house smelled of fabulous home made soups, breads, sodas, wheatens, cakes, jams . But Paddy was not to be consoled. She missed The Bone.
The cherished mahogany furniture from the old house crowded in on us as we sat playing cards. The dresser, the massive chairs, glowed amber in the half light, the great cut glass tantalus on top of the desk which the Boss ( our long dead grandfather) had had made for himself.
Paddy's brow lowered, the furious huge eyes in the tiny face were only just visible across the table.
To make matters worse, she lost at Old Maid three times.
We all knew what that meant.
Nellie and Maggie giggled, hiding behind their hands.
"You're going to be an Old Maid!" they teased her.
"That' all right", Paddy said with a ghost of a smile, "I'll come down here and live with youse'ns!"
Shock. Horror. Silence.
Typically, heartless adolescents, we laughed ourselves silly at their reaction....and their plight..
"I was engaged once......" said Nellie, in an almost inaudible voice. .
"Your Uncle Peter didn't approve" said Margaret, in a tone implying that herself wouldn't have put up with such nonsense. Money or no money.
We didn't go back again.
That was the last of our summer holidays.