I was the rural 90s Ireland version of Michael Bluth when I was a child. I never uttered his famous words “I’m done with this family” but, during my childhood, I walked out of the homestead with no intention of returning more times than I care to remember.
Kids can be cruel to each other but sibling cruelty transcends to another level. My two older siblings were both born in Spring but I was born in Autumn. I kicked with my left foot. I had an outie bellybutton. When the fourth and fifth children arrived and conformed closer to the first two, the case for me being adopted began to grow legs.
I often threatened to run away, and sometimes I went through with it. This usually entailed walking to the head of the road, by which point the fresh country air and the endless angry mutterings under my breath had cooled me off sufficiently. I’d return to the house ready for a full round of apologies and some special treatment. Mostly no one even realized I was gone.
When I was roughly eight years old, I decided it was time to leave and never come back. If they were going to keep accusing me of being adopted, I was going to adopt a policy of getting the fuck out of there. I’d run away for a few days, weeks at most, before they’d be begging for me to come back, complete with my left foot and outie belly button.
I planned out in my head where I was going to go. It had to be our own land and it had to be far away. It couldn’t be Noone’s because that bordered three other neighbour’s lands and they might spot me. I also didn’t have a line of sight to the house or farm from there, so I settled on the New Line field instead. That was also much closer to school so it would be a handy walk since I didn’t yet possess a car when I was eight.
There were more than enough nuts and berries growing on the hedge down at the New Line for me to survive on. During the few days of the month that the cows were there or my father was spreading fertilizer or fencing, I had the genius idea of hiding on Billy Warde’s side of the hedge. My biggest issue was going to be the rain, but I figured the trees would shelter me pretty well. Note to self: why don’t people just live under trees?
I took off on Saturday evening. I had strongly considered breaking the handle off the brush and tying a little polka-dot handkerchief to the end of it where I would store all of my worldly possessions. I watched a lot of TV with hobo cartoon characters when I was a child.
The first step in my daring escape was getting across our little front garden. Years later we would convert it into a football pitch but now it was a mess of mounds of dirt, swamp water, thistles, nettles and dock leaves. If I knew anything about warfare at the time, it would probably have resembled an abandoned battlefield for really tiny people. Getting from the back door of the house across no-mans-land and out the gate behind the wall was where my plan would live or die. If I couldn’t cross it, I was doomed to spend eternity in that house.
I took off under an imagined hail of enemy fire, careful to avoid the minefield of ankle-breaking craters that were in the way of freedom. My heart raced as I imagined being spotted by someone in the house and my escape ending prematurely. In reality, my mother was probably washing dishes while looking out the dish-washing window and saw the entire thing without giving it much thought. I did this exact thing all the time when going down to the yard or to my granny’s house.
In my recollection, I did this incredible dive through the bars of the rusty gate that hung listlessly from the pillar at the end of the battlefield. This maneuver likely ended in a sick barrel-roll that somehow took me 90 degrees to the left and in behind the wall, avoiding all cow shit and nettles that usually littered this area.
I army-crawled along the base of the wall to the corner. The top of the wall here had been knocked by an overzealous cow who thought herself a horse. It was about eight inches shorter than the rest of the wall – just high enough for me to be able to see over. It also happened to be right beside our bothareen.
Fun fact, that word – bothareen – essentially means a small road, “bothar” meaning road and “-een” meaning small. The word bothar is actually two words, “bo” meaning cow and “thar” meaning way – so bothareen actually means the “small way of the cow”. Most old roads in Ireland follow old cow paths.
I was in the corner with the shortened wall, peeking over to see if my escape had gone totally unnoticed or if the police had already been notified. The 90 seconds I’d been gone already felt like an entire childhood and I was a little disappointed they weren’t already conducting a search of the premises, using the sniffer dogs that I assumed all rural Ireland police forces possessed. After a good 30 or 40 seconds of spying on my own house from 50 yards away, my father approached unseen by my scouts. He nonchalantly asked what I was doing, with his elbows resting on the top of the wall.
“I’m running away from home”, I told him, my plan of absolute secrecy abruptly tossed out the window. “The rest of them are being mean to me and keep saying I’m adopted. I’m going to live on the New Line*.”
My father looked at me with a mix of admiration and second-hand embarrassment. I saw only the admiration. I told him all about the berries and nuts that were growing fat and juicy in a field in Cooloo, and asked if he would wash and replenish my clothing supply from time to time. He very nobly agreed to help me out in any way he could without exposing our secret. With that particular worry crossed off my list and a new ally firmly in my back pocket, I was ready for the next phase of my plan – getting more than 50 yards away from the house.
* The New Line is so called because it was a long, mostly straight new road connecting two other roads. It always bothered me that there was a slight bend in the the middle of it but I am told that’s perfectly normal.
Now that I had let the proverbial cat out of the bag and handed the furry little bastard right over to my father, the rest of the journey was somewhat uneventful. I walked the fields I had walked a hundred times already and crossed the New Line into my new home. I set myself up nicely on the hedge as the first pangs of hunger aggressively announced themselves. I had now been a fugitive for closing in on 45 minutes. I considered climbing up to the lowest branch on the tree that was to be my new home but wanted to save some excitement for the coming weeks. A car passed by on the New Line. I crouched low in the grass so as not to be seen, smiling the entire time. The life of a fugitive was packed full with danger and I lived for it.
Realizing nuts didn’t really grow in Cooloo was the first big blow I encountered. Bigger still was the realization that I didn’t really like berries. Mrs. Mitchell did grow rhubarb but I had also never eaten any of the bags of it she used to gift us. I would just have to go back home the following day and raid my Granny’s orchard to get me through a few days. I would need a knife as I didn’t like eating apples by biting into them. I could probably take a few bits from her kitchen while I was there. Even dock leaves would taste good with a couple teaspoons of wheat germ.
I was pretty proud of myself for overcoming my first crisis as a free man. It was all plain sailing until the heavens opened and raindrops fell like daggers from the sky. Despite my careful plan of hiding under a tree, I was soaked through in minutes. My father always said that there was only one thing worse than getting bet, and that is getting wet and bet. I knew it was time to admit defeat and made the long, lonely trudge home.
The walk home was filled with even worse decisions than I had already made. Rather than waiting for the worst of the belting rain to subside, I took off at the height of it and chose the route that was likely to contain the most muck.
I arrived at the old homestead and entered through the same old back door I had slammed so many times as a mere eight year old. Everything was different now, but somehow still seemed the same. The same old TV played an episode of Superman, which had been my favourite show as a child. It was still my favourite show since I had only been gone for a small portion of an evening and was heavily invested in the story line from the previous Saturday. There was no search party of neighbours frantically serving each other tea and sandwiches and lamenting my disappearance.
I washed and dried myself, and by the time Superman ended, we were on our way to Mass. Life went on as if nothing had happened. Since no one else noticed, at least I could tell Jesus of my escapades. It was another 13 years before I ran away from home again. I went a little further than the New Line and it’s taken a little longer than expected but I think they’re starting to miss me.