John McCullagh November 21, 2004
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‘To everything, there is a season
And a time to every purpose under heaven.’

 

The words are from the New Testament but we recall Bob Dylan’s lyrics to The Bryds sixties song.  As children and youths, we had our own ‘seasons’.
 
When the sun began to retreat below the Equator, auguring shorter days and longer nights, we put away the games and tools of our Summer pastimes – the bows and arrows, marlies, caddies, ‘javelins’ and other ‘field’ sports accessories – and turned to amusements more appropriate to nature’s autumn munificence.  Top of the list, of course, was the most rewarding pastime of ‘haking orchards’. 
 
I don’t believe we ever once considered the morality of our actions then.  The fear of being caught and punished was more an attraction than a deterrent.  It made no sense to confess this as a sin, for at least until the trees were bare, there was never any real intention to desist!  Reflecting on all of this now, there is a twang of guilt but it is assuaged by the observation that now the fruit will rot on the branches (or beneath, as a ‘windfall’) before today’s children could be bothered to consume them!  I note this increasingly too in Mediterranean climes – in relation especially to grapes, oranges and lemons – when we holiday.  Perhaps we hungry children of the forties, fifties and sixties should be remembered as primary consumers saving these treasures from the worms!
 
At winter’s approach we had to find a use for whatever non-consumable berries and other free gifts of nature remained.  Blackberries were eatable of course, but only in tiny amounts.  It was much more rewarding to collect them in tins and cans and sell them to Gavigans beside the railway crossing in Francis Street.  They presumably re-sold them to Jam-making factory owners.  (Our own ‘Jam Factory’, I am assured on good authority, never made jam).  The tiny seeds in blackberry jam deter our educated palates today but then that would not have been a consideration.  Now we strain the boiled fruit and sugar to produce delicious blackberry jelly.
 
It is ironic that the native bushes that grow wild can only be found in protected areas today, such as the Slieve Gullion walk (a paradise for blackberry-seekers!).  In my youth they were everywhere!  Our favourite treks included the full length of the disused tram-line, everywhere in and above Derrybeg, the Nursery, the railway line, the Fathom Line, Benson’s Glen… oh, too numerous to name.
 

When finally we arrived exhausted, cut, scratched and bruised in Gavigans’ shop, our cans naturally increased somewhat in weight (we were paid by weight) by the simple expedient of steeping the fruit for some time in water, we waited in line while our rivals from Dromalane, the Barracks and other parts of town had their fruit processed.  The air was filled with the most delicious smell.  We were more conscious of the indelible red/black stains on our clothes that would raise our mothers’ fury and also spark her curiosity and a demand of a share in the spoils!

 
Then the ruse – we were all at it, but furious that the others had ‘copied’ from us – would be detected in the queue up ahead!  Someone had mixed grit as well as water to further embellish the weight!  Mr Gavigan lost his cool!  No more fruit would be accepted for that or the next few days.  Our bonanza would by then have rotted in their containers!  We were undone!
 
When, despite our strong protests of innocence, we were dumped unceremoniously onto the street, we turned our fury on the guilty parties.  They were roundly cursed and pelted back to their own area with the only weapons available, the now-useless blackberries!  The streets of Newry were stained red for days!

Conker season ? …

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