The Great Provider
Oh how I long to be with that man, digging for cockles on Sandymount Strand,
He brought me everywhere on the cross bar of his bike, and explained everything in detail about the values of life.
He was warm and gentle and also kind, and could always tell what was on your mind!
He brought home food and coal from the docks, by hook or by crook it had to be got!
The great provider.
The Old Men and the Sea
Back in the 1950s I was brushing up on my Cathechism, as I was getting ready to receive my first holy Communion in a couple of weeks' time. My father let a shout into the bedroom, “you better hurry up or the tide will catch us out!"
“All right Da, I’m finished!”, I replied as I walked out.
My father was pumping up the wheels of his old bike, getting ready to bring me with him. Every summer we went to Sandymount to dig for cockles, especially when he wasn’t working on the docks as he only got casual work. Times were tough in Dublin and Sheriff Street was a poor place to live. But we were very lucky: my father could turn his hand to any thing. He could fix old radios, fix old bikes, he could also paint and decorate. And when he was working on the docks, maybe digging coal boats, he would always bring home a bunker of coal in his saddle bag or maybe some loose tea or tinned fruit or tinned salmon. We never experienced a hungry day. If I asked my father about the swag he would say, “It fell off the back of a lorry, son”. Or sometimes he would mumble to himself, “To the victor the spoils”. That’s the type of man he was.
So off we went, but this time in the saddle bag we had one onion sack and two old spoons for digging cockles. We finally arrived at the Martello tower at Sandymount and I was glad to jump off the crossbar and rub my backside. The sun was splitting the sky and the tide was miles out at sea. My Da said, “Right son, let's make hay while the sun shines”. We left the bike against the wall and took off our shoes and socks and started that long walk out to the waters edge.
We spotted some of the old men we knew from previous digs. They greeted us with a big wave of their hands. Eventually every one was on their knees, digging for cockles. One of the old men showed me the best way to find the cockles under the sand. He said “dig between the ripples of the sand. Now you try it!” And I did, and it worked perfectly. Then the conversation began about 1916-1921 and the IRA and the Black and Tans and who ambushed the Tans in Dublin and this went on for a good while. I just sat there on my hunkers listening to everything. Time passed. We had about two stone of cockles in the sack and the tide was starting to come in around us. My father said, “I think it’s time to retreat, Jim. The tide has beaten us".
Old man Jim said, “But sure tomorrow is another day. Anyway I think we have plenty”. We all walked back together back to the Martello Tower. A small trapped lake of sea water lay about one hundred feet away from the tower. The men put the sacks of shellfish into the water and dragged the sacks up and down the lake in order to wash the excess sand from the bag; that’s why they used onion sacks. It was evening time. We all said goodbye to each other. My father said, “Right son, we better saddle up and ride into the sunset. I think Mrs Foran will be worried about us!” (Sometimes my father would refer to my mother as Mrs Foran, but mostly Mary-Ann).
We made our way along the coast road as the sun was going down fast. We got to the Customs House and on to the cobble stones. I managed to look back at the saddle bag and saw the sea water was dripping on to the stones. I thought we’d never get home. I then said to my father, “Hey Da, did that old-man-Jim really ambush the Black-and-Tans?”
“Oh yes, I know that man a long time. He knew your grandfather well, but they took different sides during the Civil War. Thank God they never met each other at the time. By God, your ears were well-cocked! Ya don’t miss a thing.”
We finally got back to the flats where we lived. My father put the cockles into the throw and washed the remaining sand out of them, and my mother put them on to boil. I went into the bedroom to read a an old comic I had. About one hour later my father brought me in a small plate of steaming hot cockles and two slices of brown bread and a mug of tea. They tasted lovely.
Many years later I often stopped at the Martello-Tower and looked out to sea hoping to glimpse the old men waving to me. I’ll never forget those beautiful days I spent with my father, that lovely quality time we spent together. I'll never forget
The old men and the sea.