At some point in my early teens, a copy of my home town’s strategic plan (breezily and optimistically titled something along the lines of “Ennis: A Vision for a Town Striding into the New Millennium”) fell into my hands. Reading the intro to the document’s section dealing with my part of town — the townland of Lifford, which lies north-west of the centre — I was struck by the authors’ description of my neighbourhood; Lifford was “leafy”, her streets were “tree-lined”, the river Fergus which wound through it was “overhung” by willows and alder, its waters “dappled by leafy shade”. The “mature plantings and centennials” along Lifford’s “fine avenues” were an “asset to be maintained and cultivated”, and constituted an “amenity for local and visitor alike”.
I’m sure my teenage self went “Huh?” and cynically sniggered at these out-of-town consultants’ naivety and bent for filling pages with sickly sweet prose (and charging by the word!), but the next time I took a walk through my neighbourhood I lifted my head up, opened wide my eyes, placed my cynicism to one side, and saw Lifford in a new light. She was indeed festooned with trees — wonderful, marvellous, magnificent trees, some hundreds of years old, some mere babies. Exotic trees, native species. The common-or-garden, easily recognisable “county-council” tree. The what-in-under-God-is-this, look-it-up-in-an-encyclopaedia rara avis (or shouldn’t that be rara arbor?). In copses, in rows along riverbank or street, as free-standing specimens. Hoary, wild, spirited trees. Tamed garden varieties, veritable arboreal poodles, pruned to within an inch of their lives. Since then, it is I myself who cannot think of Lifford without thoughts of her trees leaping into my head. This is especially so with the passing of time, and my physical separation from my home.
When I think of my boyhood springtimes, I cannot separate my recollections of those times from memories of our next door neighbours’, the Tobins, cherry blossom. The sun is shining, it is unseasonably warm, and I am running up and down the driveway underneath a tree bursting with beautiful, delicately pink petals, and which spill a sweet, subtle perfume into the air. In late April, after a night of cold, northerly wind, the petals would rain down on to the Tobins’ ever-immaculate lawn, the effect reminding one of a blushing snowfall. The petals would also entangle themselves in your hair as you went out the gate to school or mass, and when you next looked in the mirror it would be you who would be blushing as the penny dropped; all the funny looks that had been cast your way were because of the Mayan princess-like flowered-up state of your bonce! There was Sheils’s monkey puzzle, whose pipe-cleaner boughs greeted you every morning when you pulled your curtains open, and which grew noticeably taller month on month. Looking the other way you’d see Kelly’s majestic ash from which they had hung a swing and under which you and the Kelly children whiled away endless hours.
All up along College Road, as much as households were defined by the children (with whom you may have played [or fought]) spilling out their gates, or by their dogs, who would shuffle up to you for a pat and a tickle, you came to associate families with their trees. The Rushes and their cypresses. The O’Reillys with their furry-barked staghorn. Mrs Houlihan and her incandescent Japanese maple. The Dalys and their acre of parkland with beech, sycamore and elm. And just like a cracked windowpane or peeling fascia boards or a shiny brass front door knocker seemed to say something about the occupants of a house, so too did the types and conditions of trees in their front gardens. There were always rumours on the road about certain families, and I wonder now is it a coincidence that these families’ properties were either treeless or hopelessly overgrown, à la Sleeping Beauty’s castle.
Besides the trees in your own garden, or those of your friends, there were two Meccas in Lifford for the budding steeplejack or aspiring Spiderman: the grounds of the Coláiste, the girls’ secondary school; and the Fair Green/People’s Park. In spite of being in those days a boarding school, the Coláiste’s high walls were something of a semi-permeable barrier. To its hundred or so boarders, egress was barred, but to local children its few acres of pitches and lawns were an open system — as long as you stayed within what the nuns considered the bounds of acceptable behaviour. Along with all the sports you practiced on its pitches and courts (very often determined by what was on TV that week — we were all mad for tennis during the two weeks of Wimbledon, for example), climbing trees and playing hide-and-seek among the tangle of bushes and trees that lined the walls was one of your main interests. The school boasted many venerable trees — silky-barked beeches that seemed to reach to the sky, and dark, glowering elms with decades of lovers’ initials carved into them — but its horse chestnuts were the best for climbing. There were three we used to regularly climb, one of whose trunks was hollowed out towards the crown and almost unnaturally wide and which we considered our tree house. Climbing the trees in the Fair Green was only for the advanced scaler and shinner-upper. Here the trees were ancient and of huge girth, noble oaks and venerable maples, with no branches within the reach of even a child’s mightiest leap. Once you learned to haul yourself up a few feet of bare bark, though, it was plain sailing (or swinging and grappling).
But trees just weren’t for climbing or concealing eager hide-and-seekers on foggy November nights. Most obviously, horse chestnuts yielded conkers in late September-October. Gangs of kids would spend hours clambering along chestnut tree boughs, reaching up, down, left, right, and centre to pluck that spiky prime specimen, putting our lives in danger to collect pounds of conkers for which we had no use and which, forgotten, would shrivel and desiccate in plastic bags in our garages, to be discovered with puzzlement and thrown out years later. Sticks, as we know, are very important to kids. For the imaginary wars we waged, campaigns into enemy territory always demanded bundles of sticks. The ash yielded the straightest, springiest rods — good for rifles, swords and maces — while irregularly shaped branches of cherry and rowan could be put to any number of uses.
As you got older and play was set aside for more adult pursuits, trees lost their functionality. A fifteen year-old boy only climbs a tree to retrieve a football or impress a girl. Hide and seek is for babies, not to mention conkers and cowboys and Indians. But at a certain age, you began to appreciate beauty (and not just of the female variety), and trees, along with skies, the bend of a river, or mountainscapes became objects of your admiration. The line of willows along the Fergus on your route to school, their branches caressing the black water, had a bucolic beauty. Sunset along the Sandfield Road through the towering elms and sycamore could move your heart to music. The spiky toughness of the holm oak near the Coláiste’s chapel was alien and ineffable. You could look at the gnarly chaos of an oak in the People’s Park for hours on end.
On College Road, paralleling their owners’ fate, many of the emblematic trees are no more. The Tobins’ cherry began to rot away, branch by branch, and was cut down. The house now lies abandoned. All of Sheils’s wonderful trees met the axe when, after years of dilapidation, their house was bought, knocked and a new one erected in its place. The Fergus’ drainage scheme has seen the demise of the many of the dreamy willows and alders that shook their branches at me every day as I made my way to school. I discovered with regret at Christmas that the Coláiste’s holm oak was no more. One of the triplet of horse chestnuts that we used to climb has been lopped down, and another is in a bad way, the chainsaw of Damocles hanging over it. But it is not all bad news. Sandfield Road’s skyscrapers are still present and accounted for, combing the clouds and harbouring as they always did innumerable families of raucous rooks. The oaks that I remember being planted along the south wall of the Coláiste as I played basketball in May 1989 are now fine, sturdy trees and soon will tower above the houses on Harmony Road. A stroll through the Fair Green sees it greener and leafier than ever. Lifford is still leafy Lifford, which gladdens my heart. Current and forthcoming generations will use and enjoy the very trees that me, my parents and grandparents swung off, and it appears that whatever oaks and chestnuts that fall are being replaced (and more) by equally stout trees. Long live leafy Lifford!