Just recently, a New York museum opened an exhibition showcasing the work of various American artists, who had submitted works portraying their childhoods. This got me thinking about my own weird, wacky and wonderful memories of growing up in County Kerry – the result was… traumatic.
My earliest childhood memory is hard to pinpoint. I know for a fact I can’t remember my birth – but if I could, judging by my baby photos, I would probably recall midwives, doctors, nurses, relatives and my parents (they were there too – or so they say) recoiling with horror at the ugly baby before them. Not unlike the work of Picasso I went through several distinct phases of childhood. For the first eight years of my life I was an only child; I can only assume my parents’ reluctance to have another was based on the fear that the second might turn out like me. I could certainly understand their trepidation.
Being an only child, my imagination was exploited to the maximum. Much like Prince Charles, I enjoyed talking to plants: I can distinctly remember having compelling, enthralling and stimulating conversations with the weeds on an old wall at the bottom of my garden. My parents, having read about the ill-effects of a dependency on weed, eliminated them with weed-killer. Alas, I continued speaking to the dead and rotting plants; my mother, terrified I was speaking to the dead, made my father knock the wall.
I think my parents may have regretted this. No longer needing to discuss the world’s problems with the plants outdoors, I developed a keen interest in television. I remember my parents allowing me to watch Jaws with them; by the end I was in tears. My sympathies, however, were not for the victims of the bloodthirsty beast. I, unlike everyone else, cried when those evil fishermen eventually, without a shred of remorse, killed the shark.
If I was able to make a connection with a vicious shark, learning to love a friendly purple dinosaur was not going to be a problem. My first encounter with Barney is something I have always remembered. It was a sunny midweek afternoon, I had arrived home from play-school and my mother turned on the television for me. Although the Celtic Tiger had arrived, we still had not embraced digital TV and had only two channels, whose programming at the time consisted of Glenroe, Bosco and the News. You can imagine our surprise when we turned on The Den and saw an eight-foot purple dinosaur surrounded by children in a schoolyard singing “I love you.” Obviously we had only caught the end of the programme, and when it had finished my mother asked cluelessly: “What was that?” Today I can understand my mother’s initial shock: she grew up in America in the 60s and 70s, and I can only presume that her Barney experience resembled almost exactly an hallucination she experienced while high at a Rolling Stones concert.
Of course, the perennial question – “Where do babies come from?” – still confused me. Obviously not wanting to tell her five-year-old about the Birds and the Bees whenever I asked, she told me that a woman would have to go visit a priest and pray “really hard”, whereafter the priest would get God to put the baby in the “lady’s belly” (let’s just hope the priest wasn’t Bishop Casey). I can, however, remember the moment I realised the lie: a British sitcom called Teachers was on TV, and a character in the show made it perfectly clear that a girl became pregnant “because she had sex”. I didn’t know what ‘sex’ was but it didn’t sound like a prayer, and at that very moment I began to doubt the legitimacy of other aspects of life which I was suspicious – namely the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny and Santa Claus – suspicions which may have never developed if only my parents had allowed me to keep talking to plants in the back garden.