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A Brief History of Automobiles in Rural Ireland

A modern day Macondo, dragged into modernity by Ford, Austin and Renault.

 

Growing up, everything significant that happened to me and my family somehow involved a car. I came from the sleepiest of sleepy villages. The car woke us up.

My great-grandfather owned the first television in my village. He also owned the first radio, and on match days he’d run a wire from the living room out onto the window sill and put the radio there so all the boys who liked Gaelic football could sit on the road outside his house and listen to the commentary. Some of them passed around Old Holburn rolling tobacco; all of them stood up when my great-grandmother left the house.

My village is called Sallins. During my great-grandfather’s time, 500 people lived there, and during my time 600 people lived there, and when I finally left, aged 17, there were close to 2000. Today there are close to 6000 people living in Sallins Village. They still call it a village but that makes no more sense than full-grown lovers calling each other baby. At the beginning of this century Sallins expanded like a cancerous growth until the quiet lanes became loud booming alleys, the corner shops were converted into ALDIs and the neighbors finally bought locks for the doors.

The change happened organically but its harbinger was definitely my great-grandfather — or, more accurately, the Ford car he bought in the 1930s. It was the first car in the whole region, at a time when there were about 7000 petrol cars in all of Ireland. It was green, I think, but all I’ve ever seen of it was a black-and-white picture with its outsized front lamps, side board, and tiny wheels that won’t have offered much protection from country roads. On weekends, he’d take my grandparents, and my mother when she was born, on tiny invasions into the Irish countryside. The local police who were stationed about five kilometres from my great-grandfather’s house would walk out to him to requisition the car on days when they had to transfer a prisoner. My great-grandmother would make them ham sandwiches and tea and they’d sit around the kitchen table with the prisoner, he’d be fed too, and then take the car off to Portlaoise or Dublin and return it that evening with a crate of stout on the backseat as a present. It didn’t matter that my great-grandfather barely drank — my great-grandmother did.

When I was born, there were a few more cars on the streets of the village but not many. We didn’t have one anyway. My grandfather had a mustard yellow Opel Astra that we borrowed from time to time. He was a semi-professional golfer and I remember whenever you sat in the back you’d have to run a hand over the seats to make sure you didn’t get a tee up your ass. In the countryside around the village, they dug turf and the farmers would drive these unsecured truckloads of the stuff from the fields to the packing areas. Some of the bricks would fall off and my father and I would go on drives where I’d sit, with the door wide open, one leg on the floor, the other hanging in the air, picking up the pieces of turf as my father weaved across the road, keeping a steady 10km an hour.

That summer, a lot of country dogs got run over in the village of Sallins. We took it hard, as any village with a community of just 600 would.

When I went to school I made friends with a kid called Fran. One day Fran’s dad picked us from school in a Fiat Ritmo and asked us if we wanted to go for a spin. His dad wore tight jeans and an Iron Maiden t-shirt and he looked too young to be a father. He drove us out to the new motorway that was under construction on the outskirts of the village playing Fear of the Dark on the tinny Bose sound system built into the Ritmo. The construction workers must have been on holiday or something, because Fran’s dad just removed the bright red cones blocking the incomplete road and drove through. The tarmac was fresh and there were no markings and apart from the odd bit of scrap timber and builders’ rubbish, the road was as smooth as vinyl. I’ll remember that forever as the first time I ever went over 140km on land and the first time I ever vomited in a car. After vomiting, I cried and after that Fran’s dad drove me home. He’s in prison now for attacking a police man with a shovel.

Me and my sister used to play kerbs on the street. You stood on either footpath and threw the ball so it would bounce back off the concrete kerb. But one day we couldn’t play because a red Talbot Alpine was outside the house blocking the kerb. My father had bought a car. It was an old car. When I sat in the back and looked down at my feet I could see the road staring back up at me through the last rugged remains of chassis. On wet days if we drove through puddles I’d get mud all over my shoes. Our dog, a black and white dalmation called Pax, would yelp every time a piece of grit rattled the doors. You had to carry two litres of water with you for when it eventually overheated, and the radio only worked if you threaded a metal clothes hanger around the broken antennae. Still, I loved that car and drew the Tsymbol all over my school desk until a kid called Trevor got the blame for it and was suspended from school, so I stopped.

Our dog Pax was run over on the last day of summer by a white Hiace van. Pax was an anachronism in a world that was slowly becoming motorised. She lay out in the middle of the road, walked benignly up to quick moving cars and probably wagged her tail at the one that killed her. She’d never known a lead, never known training. The only time she ever heard a firm voice was when she climbed on the bed with mucky feet. That summer, a lot of country dogs got run over in the village of Sallins. We took it hard, as any village with a community of just 600 would.

Did you hear Max got hit by a cement truck?

He did not.

He did.

Terrible shame. Lovely personality.

Great smile.

That’s true.

Great wag on his tail.

He’ll be missed.

We took it hard but we also took it as a sign that the rural village we lived in had become dangerous. An evil presence raced amongst us. And once the cars had gotten over the thrill of killing our dogs, they came after the children.

 

 

The first car that hit me was a Volvo 760 going at no faster than a brisk walk. Still the wing mirror managed to clip my bicycle, knocking me to the ground and I had to get two stitches on my knee and three days off school and when I returned I was treated like a war hero and didn’t have to do any homework.

Did it hurt? The girls asked.

No, I lied.

Will you have a scar?

Yes, I lied again.

My mother didn’t want me cycling to school anymore so she rang around the parents and arranged for me to get a lift. The woman who brought me to school drove a Ford Granada Gia. It had electronic windows and a sunroof. The car was the same color as a box of Benson & Hedges, the cigarettes I’d just started to smoke. Hanging from the rearview mirror was a cardboard fir tree that smelled of vanilla. Even today, whenever I catch the smell of vanilla, electricity shoots along my spine and down to my crotch. Let me explain that.

You see my driver’s name was Mrs. Dempsey and she had two kids of her own who were both younger than me. They sat in the back and I’d sit up front beside her, shivering in the cool AC, which was hardly necessary in a country as cold as Ireland. Mrs. Dempsey was my first crush and the cause of many of my first erections. She had a tight blonde perm and wore suit jackets with short skirts and thick nylons and heels. From what I knew, she didn’t even have a job and after the school run would just go home, kick off her heels and presumably watch TV for the rest of the day, but still, for that brief period every morning, she’d get all dressed up and I’d sit up front, separated by nothing more than a handbrake, watching those legs bounce from clutch to brake to accelerator and fighting back the nausea from the sweet, artificial smell in the air. I had a recurring dream that in a moment of mad teenage lust, I reached across and grabbed her thigh and Mrs. Dempsey reacted as best as she could by dropping the wheel all the way to the left and we spun off the road killing her two children. Every morning after I’d had the dream I’d sit in the car with my hands under my armpits and my teeth gritted tight trying to contain the passion inside me that might lead to the destruction of Mrs. Dempsey’s family.

And then along came a bus. On the same day that the new local bus service started, we were allowed to miss class and watch it. We were given balloons and little flags. Some transport official gave a speech but it was drowned out by the sound of the bus’s Plaxton engine churning diesel into black smoke. We threw the balloons into the air and walked behind the new bus shelter to keep practising what we were slowly getting the hang of: smoking cigarettes.

And then along came a bus. On the same day that the new local bus service started, we were allowed to miss class and watch it. We were given balloons and little flags.

There were roads in my village where the grass grew so tall along the middle that robins built their nests in them. But that changed with the advent of the bus era. We turned from a collection of loafers and corner boys to a settlement of early-rising commuters. It brought traffic, but also its own anxieties. We’d grown accustomed to having no way out and now that one presented itself, the pressure to change was overwhelming. Boys in school no longer wanted to work for their fathers as carpenters, barmen, casual laborers, they wanted to be in business and finance although none of them knew what that meant.

Roads across the country improved dramatically. Distances that had previously took six hours, now could be traversed in three. Ireland, a country seemingly broad and long, was reduced to a a series of drives that took no longer than one or two album’s length. Fran’s father, who must have been out on compassionate leave at the time, brought him all the way to the very north of the island and back just to find the latest Liverpool jersey. Fran was a goalkeeper. He got Bruce Grobellaar’s name printed on the back. A few months later Grobellaar was implicated in a match-fixing ring. His name became synonymous with cheating. I don’t know if Fran gave the shirt away but he never wore it again.

Crime spiked in those days, too. City hoods found that they could drive down under cover of darkness, park nearby and slip their way into homes guarded by broken latches, loose hinges and dogs that had lost their bark due to post stress traumatic syndrome brought on by run-ins with fast cars.

When I was 16, I was assigned a seat in class beside a girl called Maeve. I didn’t really like Maeve. Her incisors shot back across her front teeth and made her mouth look like a crab’s or some household incinerating device. Not that any of us could claim to have straight teeth in my village but hers were particularly bad. We got teased because we sat side by side and that brought us closer together, close enough that she asked me to go watch a movie with her. All I really remember about that night was how quickly I surmounted my fear of Maeve’s mouth when I saw the car she drove. It was a moss green Nissan Almera that smelled of breath mints and belonged to her mother. At one stage during the movie our hands brushed and I could feel the metal keys in her fist, her tight, moist fist, and while she probably thought I was falling in love all I really wanted was to hold them.

After the movie, she drove me home and as we sat outside my house with the engine dead and hardly any kerb space left to play a game, and all the dogs at home, behind big metal fences that were built for their own safety but only made them vicious, I reached across the handbrake and the gear stick, and the distance was so much further than I’d anticipated in the days of Mrs. Dempsey and I put an arm around Maeve’s waste and she pivoted in the mauve colored seat and opened her mouth for me. The incisors pulled apart, I stuck my tongue between and that meant she was my girlfriend.

 

 

That summer they installed a pedestrian crossing in the village. When I wasn’t driving around the country with Maeve, we’d sit at the bus shelter, smoking Benson & Hedges, talking about the jobs we’d have when we were older, and running over to hit the button every ten minutes just to watch the traffic stop. The drivers gave us dirty looks but they respected the red light in the same way mice and voles in the long grasses respect hawks in the sky.

The increasing amount of traffic slowly changed the indigenous color of the village. Our walls and windows became ingrained with black dust and the flowers and vines that grew alongside them wilted and died. It grew louder too. Large trucks passing in the night would shake the windows in the houses. But one of those trucks did us a huge favour. It was just before Christmas and there was a thick coat of snow on the ground. The road through our village began with a long, twisting bridge. A truck lost control in the snow and drove through the wall of the bridge rendering it impassable. For two weeks, they closed both ways in and out of the village and Sallins was effectively cut off again. A calm returned. We cycled to school again, the dogs were let out from behind their rusty fences, and the drunks leaving the pub one night found a football and played a game right out in the middle of the main street with the traffic lights for goalposts. Someone even wrapped a length of tinsel around the light and the machine for stopping non-existent traffic became a machine for celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ.

In the new year, I split up with Maeve and left home. I was 17. They rebuilt the bridge and added another lane, allowing even more traffic to enter Sallins. The population boomed. Every time I’d go home, I’d hear accents from all parts of the country, all parts of the world. Supermarkets opened with aisles and trollies and their own traffic systems and attendant problems. A car dealership opened offering attractive rates to young men regardless of the destructive thoughts in their heads. They left tire tracks all over the tarmac that looked like hieroglyphics from God. An Alfa Romeo flipped and landed in the canal one night. My parents left around about the same time that everyone started buying jeeps and SUVs. They moved through the village with the awkward, confused grace like the obese through turnstiles. The roads were widened once more. They introduced a pay-for-parking scheme and another set of traffic lights.

My great grandfather’s name was Jack. I inherited his name, his freckled skin and his dislike of too much alcohol. And Sallins inherited his love of cars until the village was stretched and dissected and buried under layers of cheap concrete that buckled in the rare summer sun and flooded in the downpours until the roads were all that mattered anymore and my village could be more precisely described as a settlement between lanes, a dwelling encircled by crash barriers or an unplanned stop on a high-speed, cross country carriageway, somewhere close to the middle of Ireland.