Last week, the 2017 East Wall History Festival began with a tribute to my uncle Tommy who sadly passed away in June of this year. As well as being a key figure in local drama and the East Wall community, Tommy had been involved in the History Group since it first formed. The evening involved performances from members of the P.E.G. Drama & Variety Group, Tommy’s grand-daughters Sophie and Ella , his son Anto and Peter Sheridan.
Tommy has been an inspiration and support to so many people over the years, including myself. This event gave me the chance to share my experience of delivering coal with Tommy when I was a younger man, and also to think about those days of ‘handballing’ cement and plaster to building sites with my own father, who also passed away earlier this year…
‘Got to keep those arms straight,’ he says.
‘Carry the weight along the shoulders,’ he means.
Because this route is all about the coal.
Summerhill and Donnycarney. Phoenix Park to Ballybough.
And isn’t most of the trail made up of flats. Those flights of uneven steps.
The pinging of footballs and the dogs baring teeth.
Jesus. That pressure in your elbows. The feel of it slipping away.
You‘ll be begging them to tell you where they want it dropped.
Don’t forget the narrow dark lanes and stubborn gates, bunkers and boxes and sheds. There’s a man in Fairview with a room full of porcelain owls. A girl in Arbour Hill who keeps handkerchief to mouth until you’ve left a bag of the smokeless. One woman on Constitution Hill has a floor covered in newspaper, shares her place with twenty cats. The reek of animal and piss and loneliness.
‘You met Bridget, did ye?’ He says.
‘The heart goes out to her,’ is what he means.
Back in the truck with the smoke and the dust and the Dempsey on the radio. And it’s difficult to shake the idea of her being in that flat at night, the felines crying like infants, scratching and tapping about the room.
Does it affect you? These people. This place? This route and this job.
Because it’s the same with your brother, isn’t it?
He does the cement, the lime and board. To building site and renovated home. Barren rooms and crusty floors and black webs that connect wall to wall and tie lampshades in knots.
‘I’m good at what I do,’ he says.
‘I do it for the family,’ he means.
This route is battered Dublin. Things free themselves from the lorry bed. Scrap of rope or loose Juncker, mostly it’s an empty sack. You might spot them in the grip of a tree or travelling through the air. To be caught on the rusting fang of an empty shed. To whip and thrash against the windscreen of a second-hand car on the airport road. To the coast where waves storm the rocks and the wind carries the taste of salt. Where you once drove a mini, too heavy with people to climb a steep hill.
To the factory and the outlet. Always rolling or moving. Conveyor belt. Wheel nut. Spinning tyre. The bar and the banter, the queue three person deep.
‘You can tell a lot about a man from standing next to him,’ he says.
‘Personality has substance,’ he means.
It’s not always about how they speak or what they plan to do. It’s as much about what they have done before.
You’ll find that in the Sunday scoresheets or in the names on a local plaque.
It is in the people, the traders of stories.
The jokes and the sayings.
Don’t give a monkeys, he says.
Go on ye head-a-ball, he means.
It’s in the script in the drawer or the recipe for baking scones.
It’s in the shoebox on top of the wardrobe , the one with ill-fitting lid. In the photographs it contains. In the bundle of ticket stubs or football programmes. In the birthday card at the bottom. The words inside are large and unsteady. A child’s writing.
‘To Granda’ it reads.
‘Love always’, is what it says.