We mended fences, my father and I,
during the off-season, in the Well Field.
Now, whether good fences made good neighbours
or merely kept our cows out of Ahern’s meadow
it didn’t much matter. He stood on a boundary ditch,
half-sliced angry whitethorns with his billhook,
bent them to his will, trained them across gaps.
Come night time his rough hands chafed,
infested with splinters and micro-thorns.
He handed me a sewing needle, deferring to my keen eye
and sure touch. I eased the needle’s point
under the skin, probing, pinching, nudging
until I had teased the buggers out. He never flinched;
I had his unconditional trust.
The barbed wire fences were another thing,
the strands of wire stapled to stakes he cut and shaped
and rammed into the earth, using no mallet,
but the blunt iron of a heavy crowbar.
I balanced each paling post between my hands,
braced for the impact, praying he’d not miss,
knowing he never would.
Handiwork of long ago: my frail hands at his mercy,
his coarse hands in my care.
The poet, from his seat near Baggot Street Bridge,
observed a barge bringing mythologies.
Managers of the Grand Canal Company
oversaw boats and boatmen ferrying cargoes
of asbestos from Athy, sugar beet for Carlow,
firkins of porter from St James’s Gate
to Limerick and other far-flung towns.
Deckers, enginemen and greasers
with quick wits and jazzy nicknames –
Gurkyman Anderson and Bishop Whelan,
Lamp Conlon and Tom The Guy,
B&I Dunne and Joney Judge,
Capetown Maher and Lucky Roche,
Bogeyman Kelly and Banagher Jack –
grew acquainted with long days and short pay,
absences from family, bugs, blow lamps,
hot bulb engines, backfire black smoke,
perils of flywheels, stop ropes, lake swells,
and hauntings at Lanesboro and the 13th Lock.
Children on Killaloe’s trendy boardwalk
turn towards The Pier Head and Lough Derg,
and look! barges are chugging downstream
from Kildare and Inchicore, crewed by forefathers
bearing their names: Conroy, Kennedy, Nolan,
O’Donoghue, Lawlor, Bowers.
We cut our country down to size,
Mountains of Mourne, Comeraghs, Slieve Bloom
reduced to herring bones on hand-drawn maps;
the river sisters, Barrow, Nore and Suir,
crooked limbs on a withered tree;
counties a patchwork of asymmetrical fields;
towns like Ennis, Castlebar, New Ross
the inky detritus of leaky pens.
But Ireland made us look small:
collecting materials for a sale of work,
we crossed the black-and-amber bridge
at Kilmastulla, three schoolboys in alien terrain,
like John Clare in Northamptonshire,
disoriented, four miles from home.
Now, we Google-search Bordeaux and Barcelona,
bring up street views, consult trip advisors,
book flights and accommodation from our phones.
We doze while the plane traverses the Pyrenees,
the herring bones that mark off France from Spain,
oblivious of rivers, fields and towns mapped far below,
those lines and random shapes, those inky spots.