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August 3, 2016 / hbrowne4

Heroes and Horticulturists by Joe Murphy

Although we lived in Cabra, a suburb of Dublin, our back garden resembled an allotment. My father was born on the Falls Road, Belfast—not exactly noted for its agricultural output, and my mother was born in Dublin’s North King Street, a location similarly undistinguished in the field of crop-growing.

Notwithstanding these handicaps my parents turned our 60 x 20 feet back garden into a verdant food factory where they planted everything from radishes to rhubarb and carrots to kale.

The garden with its neat rows of vegetables gave the lie to the origins of its carers. Not only did they grow fruit and vegetables, one year with half the garden sectioned-off my father raised three turkeys, keeping the pick of the brood for his own family and selling on the others to acquaintances for much needed Christmas cash.

It being Ireland and we being Irish, every season along with all the other crops, my father planted several drills of potatoes. I watched him one evening after he came in from work, harvesting a galvanised-steel bucket full of the clay-covered nodules and said to myself, I could do that. I was eight years old at the time and possessed all the self-confidence of the partially-informed.

The following morning was bathed in brilliant sunshine as I made my way to our mini nursery directly after breakfast. I headed straight for the shed and picked out a sturdy garden fork. Unlike today’s light-weight steel model, this monstrosity was made of cast iron and weighed half a tonne.  With both hands clasped round the lower shaft and with my eye firmly fixed on the spot I intended to penetrate, I raised my arms as high as they would go and launched the monster earthward.

I was a most enthusiastic gardener. Enthusiastic and a bad shot, unfortunately. I let fly with the outsized utensil, but instead of penetrating the soil at the intended location I skewered my shoe—right where my big toe was. It took a second or two for my brain to register my discomfort before I let out a howl, discarded the offending implement and limped towards the back door, outraged at the injustice of it all.

My mother appeared out of nowhere and removed my shoe to see if my toe was still in one piece. She didn’t remove my blood-soaked sock, either to prevent my passing out or to prevent herself succumbing to a similar fate. ‘Can you move your toe?’ my distraught mother asked. I could, miraculously I’d missed the bone. She then called my older sister, Ann, and gave her instructions to take me to the Mater hospital, a twenty minute bus ride away.

Unlike today, although much poorer monetarily as a society, the interval between registering for treatment at the A and E, or Casualty Department as it was called then, and actually being attended to was a matter of minutes.

My sister and I were ushered into the inner sanctum of the treatment room and after the embarrassment and pain of having a tetanus injection in the backside; I was made to sit with my lower leg resting in a kind of upturned stirrup.

The nurse was gentle and kind with soothing words of praise. The phrase brave soldier was mentioned several times to my great gratification.

She set about cleaning the wound and as she did so, my sister and I, through gaps in the adjacent screen, noticed a man receiving treatment. At one point he slid slowly off his chair onto the floor. Pandemonium ensued for a period till the poor man was revived and restored to his original demeanour of wakefulness.

It turned out that the mere sight of a hypodermic needle was enough to send the unfortunate man into paroxysms of mental trauma resulting in his losing the will to live…or at least the will to look.

After the man had been removed, the nurse with her lovely rural lilt went into overdrive. “Aren’t you the great man altogether. Big brave soldier. That man there fainting at the first sight of the needle, and you not a bother on you. Your mother must be so proud to have a brave man like you about the house. I wish I’d a man at home like you.”

I glowed inside and out. It had all been worth it—the pain, the shame, the embarrassment—all forgotten in the face of such effusive praise. This tragedy-turned-triumph had transformed me from incompetent gardener to giant among men. I felt as proud as Alexander the Great must have felt when he conquered the Persians and I couldn’t wait till we got home where my sister Ann, I knew, would relate my tale of extraordinary bravery while the rest of the family looked on and listened in uncontrolled awe.

Not surprisingly, I came to a life-changing decision that fateful day.  I decided that in future I’d leave the harvesting of potatoes to lesser mortals like my father.  After all, gardening and the like was no fit occupation for a hero soldier.




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