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The Moon at Clonmel - Chosen by Tom Ryan

THE MOON AT CLONMEL by C. J. BOLAND. It was ten o’clock at night when I reached my station on the Kerry line, after a lonely drive over the mountains from the Black Valley, and the mail train was not due for a full hour to come. But Nature had provided a lavish compensation, for the scene before me was one to linger over at the time, and to recall with delight in after years. The moon was shining in the heavens with a bridal radiance, bathing mountain and sea in floods of liquid silver. Above me the bare faces of the rocks high up the mountain side, still wet from the day’s rain, were gleaming like burnished shields. Beneath slumbered a little hamlet, with its coastguard station snowy white beside the yellow strand. In front the sea was shimmering in an ecstasy under the moonbeams. Beyond it lay the dark blue promontory, with the narrow mouths of two harbours plainly visible; while the lovely Blasquet Islands, as they stood clear-cut in the silver sea, for once lost their aspect of gloom and desolation. I was leaning on the low parapet of the station wall drinking in the beauty of the SCENE – one of those that are said to call up tears to the eye of the beholder. Silence deep and perfect save for the occasional sobbing of the surf as it broke against the cliffs far below, only served to lend added charm to the somewhat ghostly beauty of the night. Suddenly, not without irritation, I heard footsteps approaching along the rough gravel of the platform. The thought of being interrupted in my visual feast did not appeal to me, but when the stationmaster – for it was he – also leaned silently on the coping in contemplation of the scene, I unconsciously admitted him a partner in my feelings. Perhaps the fact that we were both smoking aided our tacit companionship, and it was some time before words were spoken on either side. “A lovely moon,” I said at length; “I don’t remember ever having seen it so perfect.” “Then,” said the stationmaster, as he took the pipe from his mouth, “then you have never seen the moon at Clonmel,” I said nothing; accent alone betrayed him a townsman of mine, but I did not then nor afterwards acknowledge it. Later on, I was glad of my reticence; for I found him to be a man living a memory long since grown into a crystal, which contact with reality would have hopelessly shivered. I looked at him, and saw a far off reminiscent look in his bright old eyes as they gazed over the prospect, and as I felt an intuition that he would continue to speak I remained a listener. I wonder it did not strike me at the time that his language was superior to what might be looked for in one at his position; but I fancy he must have read much in the necessarily long intervals from duty at his small hillside station. “I’m certain of it,” he continued, “and if you are ever there, and such a night as this comes out of the heavens, you will recall my words. “Twenty years ago I left Clonmel, where I did night duty at the railway station for five years. Winter and summer, in snow and rain, wet nights and fine, I was porter at the night mail; but the only nights I remember now are the moonlight ones. The train was due about two o’clock in the morning – I say about two, for it was oftener nearer to three when she’d whistle at Patrick’s Well. When she was gone, and I had turned out all the lamps, I used to walk home to Irishtown by Gallowshill. Moon or no moon, Gallowshill was dark. Heavy trees overhang it at Prior Park, and maybe it was the trees, or it might be the thought of the hangings in the bad times which gave it its name, that made my heart sink as I walked along in the early morning before dawn, with the silence of death around me. Sleep didn’t come easily to me in those days, perhaps because I was a new hand at the night work; so I was in the habit of taking a walk to tire myself before going to bed in the small hours. I am glad of it now, for the look of Clonmel on a night like this is in my eyes and in my heart forever. At that hour there wouldn’t be a soul in Johnson Street or Duncan Street except the watchman; but the sleepy cry of him as he droned out, “Past three and a fine night,” wouldn’t have disturbed a weasel. And then I came on the river. The mournful swish- swish of the water, when the river was low, making its way through the weeds, and the dark outlines of the lighters, covered with tarpaulins, made me feel as if I were alone in the world. To stand on the Old Bridge, on such a night as this, is an experience not to be forgotten. If you go there, look across at the mountain, framed by the high buildings like a slender picture; the fences are as clear as on a map, and Pelissier’s Castle and the flagstaff as plain as print. Or lean on the parapet of the bridge, and look down the river at the dark, deserted corn-stores and Grubb’s Island, with the branches of the big sally-trees kissing the water, and the river bubbling along happy and careless. Or turn your eyes up the stream, over the weir, towards the Boathouse; there are trees fringing each bank, and one tall poplar in the distance to finish off the view. “Then, maybe, I’d go on by Spring Gardens, walk then by the tan-yards, and across the fields towards ‘Little Hell.’ The river is heavy and sluggish there, and you might think it a trifle gloomy, but you will change your mind when you pass the Thirteenth Hole, and stand on the Convent Bridge. Take the view down the river now. Irishtown is asleep on your left, and on the other side lie level fields, with big briar fences between the river and the mountain. You see the mountain again, only more of it, soft and sheltering, with the rugged ridge of the Reeks in the distance, and Slievenamon calmly watching over all. If you can tear yourself from that picture, look up the river once more along the sallies of Purcell’s Island, and along the deep shadow thrown on the water by the Convent wall, and I’m mistaken if the moon won’t pick out the Gravel Island for you, and Newbolds, where the Clonmel schoolboys make their first attempts at swimming. “At first I used to go straight home from there. But after my little daughter died–”

There was trouble with the stationmaster’s pipe at this point, and I became deeply interested in the progress of a fishing corrach which had shot into the line of light, propelled by oars that struck a phosphorescent flash from the sea at every dip. The stationmaster, meanwhile, had overcome the difficulty with his pipe, and resumed. “I don’t say that others can feel in the same way as I do towards the old churchyard of St. Stephen’s, because I have a special reason. I lost my little daughter, and there she lies. She would be three twenty now if she had lived. But God’s will be done! He took her when she was only two, with her laughing face and her wavy black hair like her mother’s. “From the time she went, I took in the old grave-yard on my moonlight rambles. Goodness knows ’tis a lonely spot. The tall poplars stand around its sides like ghostly sentinels, but the light comes freely between them, and somehow I never could think it a gloomy place. The ruined chapel loses a few centuries in the softness of the moonbeams, and the tombstones leaning this way and that from age gave me the idea that they were human in their weakness, and that they too longed to lie down and be at rest. I never could bring myself to look on them as mere limestone and granite; while others forgot and slept they kept watch, and to me in the moonlight they seemed to feel a sympathy with the lives and the loves of the people they covered. There I could sit by the hour, and maybe it wasn’t good for me, for the thought of my little girl would come so strongly over me, that I could fancy I saw her stumbling towards me across the graves, with her bright eyes laughing and her pretty hands stretched out to me to catch her before she’d fall.” The stationmaster paused, and then, as if to himself, said, in a softer voice- “And when it comes my own turn to go, I like to think I’ll feel her little hands in mine, and that they’ll help me. “Sometimes,” he continued, “sometimes I feel the wish to go back to the old town again, but perhaps I would be sorely disappointed. ‘Tis hard to believe what I’m told, that in twenty years there is scarcely a name on a sign-board in the Main Street which hasn’t been changed. And then, I know I’d miss the old street characters that were as familiar as the face of the clock at the Main Guard. But though all these have changed, I am certain that the moon at Clonmel is shining to-night on the town and river and hill with the same beauty as twenty golden years ago. “And what wouldn’t I give to see it? ” A long, shrill whistle from the approaching mail, the gleam of the engine’s fire, and my train drew up at the station.

I shook hands with the old stationmaster, as warmly I hope as I felt towards him, and told him I hoped to be in Clonmel before long.

“Give it my love,” he cried, as the train steamed out; and at the turn of the cutting the station, and the kind, loving soul that brightened it more than the moonbeams, were lost to me, perhaps for ever.

CJ Boland

Scattered references to CJB, which mention that he was born in Clonmel, though no date or details, that his parents were Master and Matron (to give them their proper titles!) of the Clonmel Workhouse, that he himself made a career in the Civil Service and became Valuation Commissioner, if I remember it rightly, in Dublin. He died in 1918. There was an obituary to him in an Irish literary magazine of the time, with a copy still in the National Library but not accessible online. Another reference seemed to suggest that he was an ancestor of the modern poet, Eavan Boland & her father Frederick who was an Irish diplomat at the UN (You may know all this already)


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