He gave me sixpence. Well, not precisely me, I was a new born baby, but he reached over the garden wall and gave my father a silver sixpence. For me. I’d just been born in that house, and he’d heard the crying. And the sixpence was some kind of luck token. A tradition, then. Not sure how well it worked in my case. Not even sure if my father ever gave me that sixpence. But he did tell me the story. And a story is worth more than money. It cannot be spent, and grows with each telling.
My parents called him Barry. An old man who kept an old horse in the field beside our house. The horse’s name was Paddy. And when I was no longer a new born baby I watched my sisters playing with him, riding him around the field. I was never particularly interested in horses. But one of my sisters was, and her interest grew to the extent that she now owns a large equestrian centre. So I reckon she can thank Barry for that.
His name wasn’t actually Barry, in the sense of Barry this or Barry that. Barry was his surname. But my parents were of the class and times who called working men by their surnames. Though this didn’t seem to be a rigid system. Because they did have a gardener, and called him by his given name, John. And in his case they never did use his surname, and if they wanted particularly to define him they called him John the gardener, as if there was John the this and John that, also in service around the place. There wasn’t, there was just John Cunningham. He lived in Dalkey. And commuted to work in our garden. On one of those bikes you see leaning against pub walls in John Hinde postcards. He had been the gardener in my grandfather’s house in Dalkey. And my mother sort of inherited him. I’m sure she would’ve preferred the mansion. She liked a bit of style. And had a maid, who was ‘first name’, Theresa, or Mary. Though not at the same time, there was only one maid. We weren’t rich. And later when there was less money we had no maid at all but a cleaning lady coming in. But she, being an older woman, was respectfully called Mrs Finlay. From St Patrick’s Square in Dalkey. I never knew her first name. It’s an interesting topic, all that, names and surnames. At school we were called by our surnames, but I suppose that’s all died out. And nowadays people call you by your first name on first meeting. Even if they’re not trying to sell you something. Instant friendship. Like instant coffee I suppose, no way as good as the real thing.
But Barry, back to Mr Barry. I never found out his first name, he lived over in Honeypark. This was a clachan-like settlement beyond the fields which were soon to become the housing estates of Avondale and Sallynoggin. His cottage was several miles from our house and it’s a mystery to me now why he didn’t keep Paddy nearer to hand. Maybe there was just no land available. The big landowner in the neigborhood was Paddy Belton, and maybe he didn’t want Barry’s horse on his land. Not that I’ve any reason for thinking that, other than the fact that Paddy Belton’s daughter Avril grew up to be the politician Avril Doyle. I suspect sympathy for the landless peasantry is not too strong in that quarter.
Yes, Mr Barry was landless, didn’t actually own the field beside our house. It was owned by Valentine Kirwan, a solicitor. My inner genealogist tells me he was part of a well known
legal family. And that maybe a descendant is the Valentine Kirwan, author of legal books. Maybe. But it hardly matters. Genealogy is much like theology, or indeed like any word that ends in ogy. It hardly matters. The earth spins, the stars shine. We live. We die. All that. Dublin
And so why these ruminations?
Because today is my birthday. And on this day half a century ago (plus a bit), an old forgotten man leaned over a garden wall and handed another man a sixpence. And it’s time for me to say thanks.
Thanks, Mr Barry.