Kids are growing up too fast these days, says RACHAEL SHEARER, who fondly remembers her own Irish childhood, much of it spent outdoors.
Childhood is a weird, foggy blur of memories that is shunned and ignored while you’re busy being a teenager, and then suddenly resurfaces in your twenties as something that happened eons ago and must be held onto for dear life.
If your house was burning down and you could grab one thing? Photos, diaries, beanie babies – anything that I treasured as a child, because that is what’s irreplaceable.
Most functional, balanced humans (obviously including myself here) are highly protective of their childhood memories, fragile as they are and further plunging into the foggy depths as we get older and older every year, inching closer to death, etc.
However, there is something spectacularly magical about a childhood spent in Ireland that has an extra essence of mysticism, a little je-ne-sais-quoi that makes us feel a bit special, and often incredibly strange.
My first seven years of life were spent in Dublin City and Waterford City, and ne’er were there two more contrasting cities. I was too young to remember any of my time in Dublin other than a snapshot of my child-minder’s house, which had a pond full of gigantic coy fish that I would gleefully permit to suck my fingers.
The early years of Waterford revolved around my grandmother’s house while my parents put their young lives’ savings into a townhouse that was being transformed from a pile of rubble into something a touch more liveable. To think that they were basically my age with a newborn and the beginnings of a mortgage makes me itch.
Nana’s house is where all the most Irish happenings happened. This is where all of the grandchildren bathed in the kitchen sink and the toast was only toasted on one side.
Nana always kept bags of dillisk (seaweed) hanging in the back yard (literally a concrete semi-outdoor corridor in which she hung clothes to dry) to dry out which, at the time seemed completely insane but which I now realize was early-stage development of trendy hipster seaweed snacks. Munching on salty, chewy seaweed and slices of confusingly half-toasted toast while watching your baby brother or sister be washed in a tiny kitchen sink might seem ludicrous, or highly impoverished, but I guarantee you this was relatively normal activity.
Our house was the most stereotypical terraced house you could imagine, apart from the fact that my parents insisted on painting the interior a garish shade of orange, off-set by trimmings of forest green and brass detail. I have not, and never will understand this – the 1990s made people do strange things.
We had a teeny tiny garden surrounded by high walls and would be kept awake at night by our neighbors kicking several footballs against the metal gate beside us. I could have walked to school, but my mom insisted on driving me every morning. We were very happy to move to the countryside.
I was just about to turn eight years old, and we had moved into a split-level house that had been BURNED DOWN. My bedroom had green wallpaper plastered over a thick layer of soot. The lower half of the house was quite literally a bat cave and everything stank of flames.
But we were on an acre of land and on the same road as all of our cousins, so who cared?! We felt like millionaires. As our parents painstakingly renovated the house around us, my brother and I embarked on years of building dens, climbing trees and forging strong neighborhood friendships.
The fields offered fairy-rings, freak woodland clearings and faces etched into the bark of trees. We could spend hours wandering the abandoned railway tracks hunting for blackberries, or capturing bucketfulls of slugs and racing them when they were set free.
For a solid three years I was convinced I was a witch with magical powers because I could always guess the color of the next car to zoom down the road (they were almost always red) and would occasionally flee from my friends screaming for my life convinced that an evil lord named Athius was coming for me. Totally normal.
School was fine, teachers were fine, whatever. All I wanted to do was get back to our house in the middle of our field, and run around outdoors having adventures.
Our imaginations were on fire, constantly coming up with weird and wonderful games to play which would make "The Hunger Games" look like a casual spot of Twister. We fought gruelling dragons and armies of warlocks, exhausting ourselves and destroying every thread of clothing we owned. We were fearless freaks, footloose and fancy free.
And then I went to secondary school and realized that it would have to end soon. Back in the city and among more “mature” girls my age, I had to accept that it was not cool to prefer hanging out with your younger brother in the back garden wearing old duvets as capes and pretending to kill ogres. Or to scoot around the house while clicking my tongue and making absurd convulsive body movements as if to imagine that I was not on my rusty scooter but was in fact riding a valiant steed.
I had to get a Walkman, learn how to sulk and start to appreciate the many colors and flavors of lip gloss. I had to fancy boys. Gross.
I did it all, but with great reluctance, and still continued to behave “like a child” and play like a child until I was 15 and finally got my braces off which meant I could actually wear these lip glosses and fancy these boys without immediate rejection.
But if I had done it their way, I would have been growing up a lot faster. Nowadays, it pains my soul to see how quickly playtime and sillytime are abandoned in favor of iPhones and Nicki Minaj.
I always had it in my mind that Ireland permitted children to be children for so much longer than other places. We’re in such a safe country, free of war, full of green pastures – what’s not for a kid to love?
So I leave my room untouched, and I hoard everything. The peaceful countryside is still here, and I have vowed that my children (unfortunate little beings) will be reared in the great outdoors like wild animals so that they too learn how to play and imagine. I will bathe them in a kitchen sink and they will learn to like it!