A yard often frequented in childhood sprung to mind when leafing through the latter pages of ‘The Road to Avondale’, a wonderful memoir penned by 96-year-old Cavan native and Crehana resident Thomas ‘Tosty’ Briody.
In many ways a typical farmyard, it was flanked by buildings on three sides – the family home directly facing you when strolling through its gates, with two sheds on either side.
To the right of the yard was a stream, complete with a concrete shore which made filling buckets that little easier when it came to fulfilling daily chores.
Beyond it lay a patchwork of fields bordered by furze which gave a lovely golden tinge that streaked across the foothills of Slievenamon.
Looking beyond those sheds, beyond the hay barn behind the yard and just a few fields away stands the mighty mountain that dominates this portion of South Tipperary.
The townland of Toor was often visited during my formative years and it was a delight to see it referenced in ‘The Road to Avondale’, which was published last month.
Both the place and its people became well-known to Tosty when, aged 27, his work as a forester brought him to Kilsheelan in 1941. It’s worth noting that he first visited the area while serving his time as a trainee.
Above Kilsheelan and beyond the Ballydine house that became Tosty’s lodgings during his time as foreman of the Clonmel/Kilsheelan forestries are the villages of Ballypatrick and Kilcash, on Slievenamon’s southern slope.
The latter of course was made famous in song – ‘Cad a dhéanfaimid feasta gan adhmad?’ a tune which laments the destruction of the area’s famed woodlands.
The profession of forestry, as Tosty notes in ‘The Road to Avondale’, didn’t always get good PR from those on the outside looking in.
And while the skills he learned at Avondale Forestry School didn’t lead to the penning of any laments, it indirectly led to a particularly heated discussion with a Portlaw woman one night in Carrick-on-Suir.
After Eamon de Valera’s visage flashed onto the screen during a Pathé Newsreel at the Castle Cinema, Nora O’Hickey, a native of the nearby village on the Clodiagh, declared: “Up Dev, Up Dev.”
Tosty recalls what happened next. “I had lost faith in de Valera partly because of the Economic War. I should have said nothing. Instead I found myself saying: ‘It’s time to kick him out.’”
With wonderful clarity, considering almost 70 years have passed since that ‘political incident’, the author recalls what happened next as if it were yesterday.
“This young woman and I were shouting at one another. The lights came on and the manager arrived. We were both pushed out into Castle Street where we continued shouting at one another. A crowd gathered. It was then we realised how foolish it all was.”
Tosty and Nora went their separate ways – but not for long. By chance, they met each other on the other side of the New Bridge in Carrickbeg.
Having exchanged apologies, Nora invited Tosty back to a friend’s house for a cup of tea and all appeared to be going well.
Then Tosty mentioned that he was a forester. “Forestry was in (Nora’s) bad books because of all the beautiful rhododendrons which had been cut down in the forests above her native town of Portlaw,” he writes before quoting Nora.
“Are you one of those fellows going around planting trees,” she questioned. “Don’t you understand that our farmers need help and our roads mending?”
Within a few minutes, Tosty was on his bike having made a hasty escape and the memories of the evening dissipated within a couple of weeks.
But the fickle finger of fate had clearly intended Tosty and Nora’s paths to cross once more.
A Local Defence Force (LDF) called to Tosty (a good public speaker) one night and asked would he accompany him to Portlaw where he was presenting first aid certificates.
With a dance concluding as they arrived at the hall, Tosty made for the rostrum and was requested to thank the local artist whose work had adorned the certificates. He was also asked to present her with flowers.
Imagine his surprise when the artist in question turned out to be no-one other than Nora!
By 1943, Tosty and Nora were husband and wife, their ‘tete a tete’ on Castle Street by then a humourous anecdote to share with family and friends.
“Nora is gone these past nine years,” Tosty adds, of his much-missed wife of 57 years.
“Now on a summer’s evening when I sit out for a spell in my garden in my garden in North Crehanagh, near Carrickbeg, I can see Slievenamon across the River Suir in County Tipperary where I was first forester-in-charge almost seventy years ago.”
There’s little doubt that Nora would be proud of Thomas’s remarkable literary achievement, the first volume of a life magnificently lived.
‘The Road to Avondale’ (€20) is available in The Book Centre, Waterford, Clery’s newsagent, Main Street, Carrick-on-Suir, and Easons, Clonmel or via Email order to joanbriodymurphy@gmail.com