I always like driving home, especially after a long day in the office, but I really love driving Home. To the one with the capital ‘H’. Milltown, Kilmainhamwood, Co Meath. A place that lots of people haven’t heard of. ‘Ah, Brian Stafford country’, some people say and I wonder is it really that long since we have had a GAA legend in our midst. ‘Near Gypsum Industries’. Or mention Cabra Castle, outside of Kingscourt and someone says that they have been to a wedding there. ‘Oh, to be in Dun-A-Ri …’, the song goes. (Although one must emphasise that Kingscourt is in Co Cavan, albeit only two miles away, and therefore is a different republic altogether … obviously).
I’m of that rare breed that Home is actually the house where I was brought up, the expectation from a farming background that Home is a constant. I love driving up the Milltown Glen, the steep incline, the final furlong on the drive home. If you blind folded me, I think that I would know when I arrived in the Glen. It’s a damp woody smell. The sound of the river. The temperature a degree or two lower than on the main road, the overlapping trees keeping the sun out.
I come from a large family, many of whom still live in proximity to where my family live, the Russell family home. The children get confused about who-is-who. There was a stage when I could fob them off with the blanket explanation, ‘he/she is your cousin.’ Not anymore. The first/second cousin/second cousin-once-removed craic is so confusing, that I get confused myself. And that's before we even mention my Mam's family, the Bellews. Can we not just say that we are related ?
My parents' house is sometimes like a train station. When the word gets out that someone is ‘home’, random rellies can pop in at any time. I spent four rare days there recently, with the children. At one stage, so many school friends/cousins/uncles/aunts had called in that Mya, eyes wide open said, ‘I wonder who will walk in through the door next ?’
Two uncles happened to arrive at the same time last Saturday. Between them and my father, they discussed/ranted/cursed about Greece, the Euro, the Angelus, milk quotas and GAA. The language was colourful. Uncle James told a tale, as only he can, about a fella he knew. It was probably half true, although I’m not sure which half. The grown-ups laughed. My children sat watching this mini drama unfold before their eyes, not really sure what was going on, but amused by it all.
As children, the gatherings usually included myself and my three brothers, my cousins that lived across the hedge on one side, and other cousins who lived on the other side, with just a field in between. We could run safely between the houses. Our cousins-cousins came along. And sometimes kids from ‘the town’ came along too. And if you were lucky, the Bellew cousins. To bring the cows home for milking along the dry mud tracks or to pick stones from newly ploughed fields. The more the merrier. Summers seemed endless. The sun always seemed to shine. Spontaneous picnics with cream crackers and diluted orange. Maybe even a sugar sandwich thrown in there too. It was one big adventure. Gradually, we started to grow up and move away and while it is harder to get us all together, the family connection and the importance of the Gathering of the Clan has always remained strong.
I’ve spent a lot of time at home this year. Mostly to help heal my little heart. Although I am 41-and-a-half and really should be pampering my Mam, she is spoiling me. Homemade bread and tea in bed. Minding the children, so that I can have a lie-on, listening to the river. Doing my laundry. Praying for me. Listening. We hop in the car and go visiting. Chatting in the car, where all life’s problems are solved. Delighted that I made the effort to visit someone, but then feeling guilty about those I didn’t. There’s never enough time and too many relations. Next time. Uncles don’t ask me how I am, but squeeze my hand, or hug me a little bit harder than they normally would, or throw me a wink and I know that they are thinking of me.
The Gatherings now centre around the next generation of cousins and second cousins. And our cousins-cousins children. My cousin Anthony’s 40th birthday party last weekend was one such example. Everywhere you looked, there was a clatter of children, running, laughing, tousling. Red cheeks, snotty noses and wet socks. Admiration for the latest arrivals and marvelling at how they have progressed. Watching your cousins grow into their roles as parents. Messing and craic. Slagging – leave your sensitivity at the door. Tea and wine. Home baking and cooking. All Russell specialities.
A walk to Ervey Lake and I head back to Kildare tired, but recharged. Always glad that I made the journey, but happy to be home (small ‘h’), to unpack my freshly laundered clothes. I flick through the radio stations a few days later and I hear Hector Ó hEochagáin and his thick Meath accent and the slagging. And I feel a little pang as I think of Home.