FERGUS FINLAY: Grand Slam, snow jam, and a prayer that always catches me

Workhouse Grotto

Sometimes when you have to cope with the first world problems we deal with these days, you forget how lucky we are. 

All sorts of first world problems, for example, got in the way of this column this past weekend. Tension, anxiety, relief, technology, weather. But nothing that really mattered.

We gathered in Shillelagh for the match — the missus and me, my brother Hugo and his wife Joan, Vicky and Tony and three of our grandchildren. 

I figured it would be better that way — because I’d never be able to stand the tension if Frieda and I watched it on our own. If you think I’m bad during a match, you should see her. 

I sit hunched up in front of the telly, unable to speak and unwilling to let anyone else speak. She paces up and down endlessly, turning on the kettle to dissipate tense moments.

That makes me all the tenser. 

A few months ago I had a hearing test (another of those first world ageing things) and discovered I have 40% hearing loss in lower ranges. It means a lot of words, and conversations, become very indistinct. 

Hearing aids miraculously cured the problem, and I never start the day any more without putting them in. 

I find now that people ask me if I wouldn’t mind turning the volume up on the telly — before the hearing aids they used to beg me to turn it down.

The only problem is that when I’m watching the match, and the kettle gets turned on behind me, the noise of the kettle drowns out the commentary. 

Another first world problem, I know, but really. When you’re trying to concentrate … 

That’s why I felt that if we were all together, I’d have to abandon my usual habits and just go with the flow. But as it turned out, there were six tense anxious adults in front of the telly instead of the usual number.

But the tension had pretty well dissipated by half-time. Once that Jacob Stockdale try was approved, there was really no way back for a hapless and utterly disorganised English team. 

Jacob Stockdale scores his side’s third try during the NatWest 6 Nations match at Twickenham Stadium yesterday. Photo: Gareth Fuller/PA Wire
Jacob Stockdale scores his side’s third try during the NatWest 6 Nations match at Twickenham Stadium yesterday. Photo: Gareth Fuller/PA Wire

We were stuck to the edge of our seats until the final whistle, because you just never know. But the Grand Slam was won, and England were done, by half time.

And then it started snowing. Now, snow in Ireland is one thing, snow in Wicklow is something else, and snow high on the Wicklow hills something else again. When we woke on Sunday morning the entire countryside was covered in a thick blanket.

Not that long ago, that would have presented all sorts of problems. Technology, for example. A short few years ago, there was no such thing as broadband anywhere near Shillelagh. 

Transmitting anything to the Irish Examiner meant driving to the nearest high hill, attaching your phone to the laptop, and hoping against hope that you’d get a signal for long enough to enable my magic words to get through.

Of course, even that was better than trying to find a carrier pigeon and pointing it towards Cork. But those days are gone. 

Shillelagh has the best of broadband and wifi and all that good stuff now. The distance between here and Cork, home of Ireland’s best newspaper, is about 210km by road, maybe 180km as the pigeon flies, but it takes a nano second through cyberspace.

Which is just as well, because there is no chance of climbing a hill in the heart of Wicklow when it’s snowing. 

You’d need Edmund Hilary and Sherpa Tenzing around here once the weather settles in. At the worst of the snow, even going out the back of the house for a few logs felt like an intrepid adventure to an old fella like me.

When the blizzard had passed, and the excitement of the match had worn off, I trudged down to the old Shillelagh Workhouse. That’s where the first world problems fell away.

There’s no workhouse left. Just a collection of the original stones, formed into a rough grotto. It has always been a melancholy place, but never more so than the other day, under its blanket of snow and with a chill wind in the air.

There’s a sign in front of the grotto that has a prayer carved into the stone, for all the souls who died there, so they may find themselves in a place of rest “where no sorrow is, or pain, or sighing”. 

I’m not a believer in prayer, but I never read that without it catching at me.

The Shillelagh Union Workhouse, built as part of the Poor Law system, was declared “fit for paupers” in the early 1840s. It cost around £7,000 to build and was meant to house 400 people. 

But at the height of the Famine, from 1847 to 1850, nearly 800 men, women and children were packed into it. Men and women were divided from each other — there were no married quarters — and the whole thing was surrounded by a high wall.

By early 1847, there was a fever epidemic. More than 300 people died in the workhouse — in part because of overcrowding, with new admissions being packed into wards full of sick people. 

Causes of death included famine fever, smallpox, influenza, dysentery, diarrhoea, a bacterial condition called scarlatina and whooping cough. Very few people died from hunger.

Like other workhouses around the country, it was hell on earth. There were a number of severe weather events throughout the period the workhouse flourished, according to the Met Office’s files. 

But there was no central heating, no cheery open fires, no quilted jackets or toasty gloves to keep children warm.

Every time I go into that field, especially if I have my grandchildren with me, I can’t shake off the memory of what the children back then went through. They were effective prisons, and those who went in served life sentences.

The workhouse wasn’t a place you went to for relief or respite. If you could no longer provide for your family, you went there to live and die. 

There was a school for the children, but those children who graduated went into servitude, and lived the rest of their lives as stigmatised labour. 

Families were routinely separated from each other, often never to see each other again. Those lucky enough to avoid the workhouse, looked down on those inside the walls.

And it wasn’t that long ago.

Although the workhouses were at their height in the middle of the 19th century, the one in Shillelagh didn’t close down until 1921. There was an Irish government in place by then.

Back in Vicky’s house, the fire was roaring, the central heating was on, and Vicky had prepared a wonderful dinner. 

Later that evening, well insulated from the cold outside, she tried to download a movie on the telly, and for some reason the broadband was slow.

It made the movie jerky at first, and it made the rest of us impatient. “For God sake,” someone said, “nothing seems to work around here”. 

For sure, we’ve come a long way, haven’t we?


Lifestyle

From Turkey to Vietnam, here’s where the chef and food writer has fallen in love with on her travellers.Sabrina Ghayour’s top 5 cities for foodies to visit

Dr Dympna Kavanagh, chief dental officer, Department of Health (University College Cork graduate)Working Life: Dr Dympna Kavanagh, chief dental officer, Department of Health

Like most Irish kids of our generation, chillies, spicy food, heat were never really big aspects of our formative eating experiences.Currabinny Cooks: Getting spicy in the kitchen

New Yorker Jessica Bonenfant Coogan has noticed a curious discrepancy between east and west when it comes to Cork county; arts infrastructure has tended to be better resourced in the west of Ireland’s largest county.Making an artistic mark in East Cork

More From The Irish Examiner