Thursday, July 10, 2014

Sun Worship

First published in the Western People on Monday.

Why is the great Irish nation so fascinated with the weather? For this reason: when the sun comes out in Ireland, it isn’t just that it feels like you’re living in another country. It feels like you’re living in the best country in the world.

Being bathed in sunshine isn’t the island’s natural state. Someone has quipped that the difference between summer and winter in Ireland is that in summer, the rain is just that little bit warmer. That’s not far off the mark.

Just as Eskimo languages are said to have many different words for snow, so too the first language of Ireland, Gaeilge, has a variety of different ways of telling us it’s raining, each more horrendous than the next.

So that’s the first thing about the sunshine. When the sun is shining it cannot be raining, and we are therefore already ahead of the game. And then when we look around, we see the real difference that exists.

The grass is that much greener, the sky that much more blue, and the beaches are transformed through the sun’s strange alchemy from a drab grey to a warm golden sheen. Even the sidewalks, buildings and roads of the towns and cities are strangely different – brighter somehow, more open, less claustrophobic. It’s like one of those days at school when you were let bring in your toys.

Look back on old family pictures to see the difference. See how much happier people are in summer, happier even than at Christmas, with all its hidden tensions? It’s very hard pull faces or throw strops when the sun is beating down and the planet is smiling back at it.

Not, of course, that the sun is always your friend. Your correspondent realised that he had crossed that divide between boy and man when my scalp started getting sunburned at Championship matches. A consultation with a hand-held mirror revealed that battle had turned early in the gentleman’s long war between scalp and hairline, and the fall of the hairy kingdom was inevitable.

Now, a hat and an application of sunscreen as heavy as butter on toast is the order of the day if I’m to be abroad under the sun. While a toasted pate stings like the devil, sunburn can lead to other embarrassments. Some years ago, when all the world was young, a friend of the column was at home for the summer, studying for repeat exams at the University, and discovered this the hard way.

After a hard week of looking out the window, our man went into town to refresh himself. He had a skip of beer, staggered home, and feel into bed, content.

The content was quickly replaced by panic and a thunderous headache when the next thing of which he was aware was his mother, roaring at him, shaking him awake, telling him it was Sunday and time for Mass. And if he didn’t get up right this minute, she would get him up, put him in the shower and wash him herself – many’s the time she’d washed him as a child, and did she think she was ashamed of it? No, she was not. And so on, et cetera, ad infinitum.

A splitting head and cramping belly is infinitely preferable to the Irish Mother when she goes full Barack Obama in terms of oratory. Our man got up, showered, dressed, passed on the great big fry for breakfast, and set off walking down the road to the village church, a twenty-minute stroll or so.

After about the twelfth minute of the stroll, Barack-Mammy had faded entirely from memory and all of which that our man was aware was the sun beating down, his head blowing up and general bodily agony. In the distance, the church bell rang, putting another shudder through his nervous system. It was time for an Executive Decision.

He hopped the ditch, lay down in a field and fell into a blessed and blissful sleep, curled up like a baby.

Our man woke with a clear head – the benefit of breathing God’s clear air, rather than the smoky atmosphere of the Irish public houses at the time – and the awareness of a gnawing, all-powerful hunger. Sunday dinner wouldn’t be long dealing with that. He climbed over the ditch again, and hurried home.

Our man walked into the kitchen by the back door and sat down without a care in the world. He was slightly surprised by the absence of a big pot of spuds on the range. He looked around – his younger siblings goggled at him, but were afraid to say anything. They knew there was a storm brewing, and didn’t fancy getting caught in the squall.

“And where were you?” asked Mother.

“I was at Mass,” says our man, oblivious.

“Who said it?” queried Mother, relentless. “What was the sermon about?”

“Father Molloy said it,” replied our man, “and the sermon implored us to love God, and to love our neighbour.” He stressed the second part, to show just how much attention he had been paying. No stranger to the inquisition, our man was confident that this detail would win the day.

Strangely, it was doing anything but. Our man surveyed the field. The younger siblings continued to goggle, while the mother still looked like thunder. What was going on?

“And how long did Father Molloy take to get it through to you that you should love God and love your neighbour?”

“I don’t know, maybe ten minutes. Why?”

“Because,” said his mother, menacingly, “I don’t think you were at Mass at all. I don’t think you even know it’s nearly three o’clock in the day. I think you spent the past three hours passed out from drink ASLEEP IN A FIELD!”

Horror! It was like the woman was psychic – how could she know? Our man swivelled around the kitchen to get his bearings – and suddenly caught sight of himself in a mirror.

He walked over to inspect his reflection. A straight line ran vertically down his face, dividing it neatly between left and right. To the right, he was pale as a pint of milk. The left side of his face, however, was as red as a side of bacon.

And then the mother let a gasp of a laugh, the spell was broken, and they were all falling about laughing after that. In the summertime, no-one stays mad for too long.