“Watch out! Lordy’s coming!” It was enough to send shivers down your spine as the adrenalin pumped through your whole body. Your breathing quickened and pupils dilated as you scanned the area for any slight movement. When your friends ran, you ran. You weren’t going to hang around even if you couldn’t see anyone. Picked apples were soon discarded, falling out from under rolled up jumpers and makeshift t-shirt holdalls.
Fight or flight? We never thought in those terms. There was never a choice. It was always flight. For us, it was much more. It was life or death. To get caught meant death. Not that Lordy would do much, if anything, to us. It was the disgrace of having Lord Sligo or Lord Altamont from Westport House complaining to your parents about orchards being robbed, animals being disturbed or plants being uprooted. That was the big fear, yet it never happened.
Those of us who lived in St Mary’s Crescent have a special affinity with Westport House and its grounds. We saw it as our back garden! Most of us knew every tree and bush and path and trail. We knew what birds lived where. We knew their calls, their nests and their feeding grounds. We knew the animal trails intimately, when to run and walk quietly. We even made ‘new’ paths, through the bamboos and lush vegetation that was our world.
Bamboo Island was the secret garden. It was linked to the Lawn of Westport House by a bridge, with another bridge the other side to bring you ‘ashore’ on the orchard (or zoo) side. We usually crossed the orchard bridge, which had wooden planks and an iron support frame. There were more gaps in the wooden planks than potholes on the Cogaula Road. The iron frame was covered in rust growths with gaps in its design never intended by its maker.
Exerting too much pressure on a given plank or iron support was lethal. Crossing it was a huge risk, on several fronts. If you fell in, you landed in deep water strangled by years of fallen debris, weeds, reeds and the unknown. Fear would have been the deciding factor and the outcome would not bear thinking about. A worse fate was the drenched ego and the terrible shame when your friends found out.
That was, what we called the ‘First Bridge.’ Linking the island to the riverside walk on the Lawn of Westport House was the ‘Second Bridge.’ To cross this you had to have some kind of death wish. It was lethal. The gaps between the well rotten planks were such that you had to jump. It was more a hop, skip and jump across! The merest touch would rattle your iron frame hand supports. Woe to you if the landing plank did not support your weight! Every inch of that bridge groaned.
The other risk was if you crossed to Bamboo Island then you were marooned if Lordy came from one side and a farmhand from the other! There was no escape! The only consolation was that you knew neither would ever venture across!
Then there was the sluice gate on the orchard side at the waterfall outside the old church. You crossed a metal pipe to get on to the waterfall. When the sluice gate was open the flow of water was unbelievable. (Note to council, open this to let the Carrowbeg River flow when in flood!) If you fell in you would have been washed down to Bamboo Island, as happened to Smokey, one of my dogs! He survived, after I risked all to haul him ashore!
Years later, when recounting our escapades to Jeremy Brown (Lord Altamont) he would always tell us of his insurance concerns and that someone would get injured. We saw injuries as war wounds! May Jeremy’s memory be a blessing.
The Westport House Brownes will always be a blessing. They will be sorely missed. The Hughes family is wished every success continuing the history. We all share their fire and hopes. The centuries old Westport House once again ventures into its youth, ancient footsteps like the motion of the sea.