Terry Prone: We’re frazzled and dazzled after our day by the sea

From smallies hurtling towards the water the instant they arrive, to a couple embracing at dusk — it really has been a perfect day
Terry Prone: We’re frazzled and dazzled after our day by the sea

On an Irish beach, some things never change — from parents lugging a whole living room of kit to the strand, to the pure unbridled joy of children discovering the seaside for the first time. File picture

No red sky in morning threat as dawn breaks. Rather, the quiet promise of grey light on flat sea. Sounds of swimmers calling to each other, even that early.

No wetsuits because it is already warm. They struggle with the big red balloons to which they’re tethered and laugh. No cold waves to rise above, this morning, in that ritual dance of avoidance until nothing will do but to meet a wave and get every bit of themselves wet.

This morning they plough through the glassy cool, side-to-side movements against the press of the water, their comments competing with the dawn chorus — about which I now have doubts, since my son told me that beautiful cacophony of birdsong is, in fact, the territorial imperative set to music: “This is my branch and you come near it, you little sparrowfart, I’ll peck you to death, we clear on this?”

Lifeguards were keeping a careful eye out as they minded the sunseekers enjoying the warm weather at Fountainstown beach in Co Cork yesterday. Picture: Eddie O'Hare
Lifeguards were keeping a careful eye out as they minded the sunseekers enjoying the warm weather at Fountainstown beach in Co Cork yesterday. Picture: Eddie O'Hare

Some acoustic quirk associated with the cliff walls surrounding the little cove means that conversations on a clear windless day can be heard with perfect clarity from my open bedroom window.

Eavesdropping is easy. So different, those conversations, from what’s on the radio, where everybody disagrees with everybody else, someone must be blamed for some aspect of where we are, and leadership is defined as telling Nphet to go take a running jump at themselves.

The dawn conversations between spurted swims from buoy to buoy are gentler things about how so-and-so is feeling about her pregnancy and what the grandmother said about the car someone bought. Almost no references to the pandemic.

'The canoes and kayaks and paddleboards, slithering quietly in and out of the swimmers...' A serene early-morning paddle with Summer SUP at Old Head in Clew Bay, Co Mayo this weekend. Picture: Naoise Culhane
'The canoes and kayaks and paddleboards, slithering quietly in and out of the swimmers...' A serene early-morning paddle with Summer SUP at Old Head in Clew Bay, Co Mayo this weekend. Picture: Naoise Culhane

The earliest to arrive in the little bay each morning are the women in swimming groups. Then come the families. Another contrast.

Six years ago, this small beach, when crowded, held perhaps 60 people, all speaking different languages. This weekend, when crowded, it holds more than 120 people, broken into families, and not a word of anything but English.

They come in dribs and drabs from about 8am, and negotiate the way to the sand. Not an easy beach to reach, this one. You drive past the Martello tower where I live and enter a viewing point before parking and gathering towels, chairs, food, and drinks bottles, and slithering down the dried-out sandy clay slope to the beach.

They struggle to keep upright, and then survey the cove to select their spot — some wanting their backs to a rock far from the sea, others out in the open sand, sheltered by big bright umbrellas, unbothered, yesterday, by the faintest of breezes. 

Making their own fun: Girls on a train excursion from Cork City competing with all their might during an impromptu sprint race on the beach at Youghal, Co Cork, circa 1925. Picture: Irish Examiner Archive
Making their own fun: Girls on a train excursion from Cork City competing with all their might during an impromptu sprint race on the beach at Youghal, Co Cork, circa 1925. Picture: Irish Examiner Archive

On arrival, the children want to run to the water’s edge, but the parents want to lay everything out neatly and get them into swimsuits.

More contrasts with the recent. No inflatables. The message seems to have got through that they’re dangerous. And no ghetto blasters. A generation of us went off going to the beach because of ghetto blasters rooting us to the sand with the exigency of their thumping beat.

No phones, either. Of course they have them somewhere in the stuffed beach bags, but nobody walks the beach with head bowed to the digital deity.

The eternal verities of beaches stay the same. If a relative over 60 accompanies the group, they get the first seat to be skeleton-structured, the one doing the structuring standing, hands on hips, awaiting the verdict: “Comfy? You feel secure?” 

'We’re all set to take children to the water’s edge... to recreate the magic of one’s own childhood.' Cian and Missey O'Neill with their daughter Cabhla at Tramore, Co Waterford yesterday. Picture: Dan Linehan
'We’re all set to take children to the water’s edge... to recreate the magic of one’s own childhood.' Cian and Missey O'Neill with their daughter Cabhla at Tramore, Co Waterford yesterday. Picture: Dan Linehan

Then we’re all set. All set to take children to the water’s edge, carrying buckets and spades and kneeling to recreate the magic of one’s own childhood. Standing on the breeze-catching roof of the tower, I watch them earnestly work their way to inevitable defeat.

The sand here is big-grained stuff amenable to nothing other than holding the footprints of walkers like an ad for insoles. The children cop on quicker than do their parents, turning their attention instead to chasing the sea as it stutters its way toward full tide and retreating when it comes after them.

Some visitors regard a beach as just another place to read a book, setting themselves up on a framed lounge under an umbrella.

Others, lying on sand, tilted upwards using the flat from elbow to wrist, simply watch. Because the beach always provides something to watch. The children, stroking a leashed greyhound at the full length of little arms, not knowing what to make of the slender contempt of him.

The togged swimmers making their way from pebbles to shells to sand, the laboured gait of them, old before their time because of the difficulty of the terrain, and then like penguins made graceful and powerful once submerged.

The canoes and kayaks and paddleboards, slithering quietly in and out of the swimmers while tiny dogs run up and down the water’s edge, barking terrified defiance at an ocean uninfluenceable by their volume.

Buzz O'Connell and his grandchildren Caoimhe and Cian Scannell from Douglas, Cork, enjoying a grand day out at Fountainstown, Co Cork. Picture: Eddie O'Hare
Buzz O'Connell and his grandchildren Caoimhe and Cian Scannell from Douglas, Cork, enjoying a grand day out at Fountainstown, Co Cork. Picture: Eddie O'Hare

Around the tower, the Veronica hedges (or hebe, I never know which) have their purple flower clusters busily worked on by more bees than can be imagined, so they vibrate and seem to have a threatening buzz about them, those hedges.

But then, hot summer is all about buzzing noises. The bees, sounding mad as hell. The electric saws and strimmers from the gardens all around.

Out in the sea, the mad fury of jet-skis chasing each other like motorised teddy boys, with silent sailboats gliding past them, knowing the soft power of the wind links them, down all the centuries, to the great Greek myths — whereas these ratty little machines will never amount to anything. And overhead, a single plane evidenced by a silvered jet trail.

As the afternoon wears on, babies and toddlers are tucked into shaded towel-covered shelters in the sand for a nap, and the older children stand, eyes scrunched in exaggerated self-protection, as parents smooth sun protection cream onto faces, backs, and arms before letting them off to the sea again.

Everyone enjoys the seaside including the Cork Under-20 hurlers who cooled down with a dip in the sea at Fountainstown, Co Cork, after a weekend training session. Picture: Eddie O'Hare
Everyone enjoys the seaside including the Cork Under-20 hurlers who cooled down with a dip in the sea at Fountainstown, Co Cork, after a weekend training session. Picture: Eddie O'Hare

The shadow of the Martello tower grows across the bright green lawns. Lawns not yet parched by promised and present sunshine. It grows towards the east, that shadow, so that by seven o’clock its version of its own chimney points to people climbing the rocks.

By then, the logistics people are at it again, collapsing umbrellas and seats, demanding that others check nothing has been dropped and left in the sand, before heading towards the exit climb, hoisting their loads, switching them from side to side, the children following, never looking back, because memory just happens, for children. Doesn’t have to be captured and caught, the way adults do it.

'The families are mostly gone by ten... As dusk falls, a couple, fried and frazzled by the heat of the day, kiss in the shallows...' Another perfect day comes to a close on an Irish beach. Picture: Denis Scannell
'The families are mostly gone by ten... As dusk falls, a couple, fried and frazzled by the heat of the day, kiss in the shallows...' Another perfect day comes to a close on an Irish beach. Picture: Denis Scannell

The families are mostly gone by ten, but the beach and the sea are still crowded, the watchers seeing a boat — a rib — come in on the sloped sand and disembark small passengers who get carried up the beach.

As dusk falls, a couple, fried and frazzled by the heat of the day, kiss in the shallows and the acoustics carry their comment to the watching tower: “Just a perfect day.”

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