THERE are huge advantages to having a clatter of sisters and brothers. Not least the fact that you can go out of an evening with them, have a few pints and go home without any big fuss.
It was just such a scenario when I was in the local pub recently. There was a trad session going on in the corner but we barely registered the music. It was quite unobtrusive. Harmless, really, like something you’d hear in a film that was pretending to be Irish.
Then, a garrulous, gravelly voice began to sing something about someone called Willie and what had happened to him in 1916.
The voice belonged to a newcomer to the session, who was playing the mandolin. He not only sounded like a forgotten member of the Wolfe Tones, but he looked like one, too. He had a lined, jowly face under a mop of grey, curly hair.
“Who’s your man?” my sister Siobhán asked one of the regular musicians, Michéal, as he passed us on his way to the loo. Now, Michéal and my sister had gone to school together back in the day and had remained friends, tentatively, ever since.
“You mean to tell me that you don’t recognise him?” Michéal replied, clearly relishing knowing something that she didn’t.
“I wouldn’t have asked you if I knew, would I?” Siobhán countered.
“Go on, have a good look at him. You know him,” Michéal replied, clapping his hands in glee.
And so this banter went on between the two of them, as if they were back in fifth year or something.
Yes, there were serious advantages of having brothers and sisters who are much older than you. Being the sixth-eldest, or third-youngest, whichever way you want to look at it, I had loads of people looking out for me when I was little and they, in my eyes, were big. They used to give me sweets and bring me down the town with them to such exotic locations as the chipper, Luigi’s.
The chipper back then was much the same as any chipper is today, except for the cigarette smoke mingling with the stench of stale chips.
It was a particular treat for me to be brought there because, apart from the chance of getting a bag of real chipper chips, it was fascinating for the seven-year-old me to see the other teenagers that my older sisters hung out with. The biggest attraction, above all, was the juke box and the endless treasures that lay within its lighted frame. You could actually see the shiny singles being lifted up by an electronic arm when you put your money in and selected a song.
One afternoon, Siobhán was put in charge of minding me, while my mother and younger kids went off for the day.
“Right, so, we’re off down the town,” Siobhán said to me as my mother’s car was pulling out of the yard. “We’re going to Luigi’s to meet my friends. There’s a gorgeous fella who’s just moved down from Dublin who’s going to be there. I’ll give you chewing gum and money for the juke box if you’re good.”
Chewing gum and money! What unprecedented joy I felt at such sophistication.
When we arrived, Siobhán’s friends lolled against the plastic tables and chairs in the dining area. They were hanging out, trying to look cool in their cheesecloth shirts, flared jeans and bad haircuts.
Then, he appeared. Liam Taylor, the new boy in town. All the more exotic because he hailed from Dublin and had the blondest of blond hair. To his shoulders, no less!
With his denim jacket and jeans, he was a vision in blue. Jesus, even I was impressed!
Siobhán almost crumbled when she clapped eyes on him, but fair play, she kept it together as he walked straight over to us.
“How’s it goin’?” he asked, not bothering to take the fag from his mouth.
“Grand,” she replied, thus beginning a relationship that lasted the entire summer, when my big sister was just 16 years’ old.
Back in the pub, the garrulous mandolin player led the session, calling the tunes for the others to follow his lead. Michéal was still teasing Siobhán about the identity of the mystery newcomer.
“Michéal, will ya ever just feck off and tell me who it is,” she snapped, getting tired of the game now and wanting Micháel to leave her alone.
“Siobhán, my dear, that’s the one and only Liam Taylor. He’s only just here for the night. Did you really not recognise him?” he said.
With that, my sister squealed like a young one and whipped out her mobile phone to take a picture of an aged man, unrecognisable from his God-like teenage years.