By Róisín O’Sullivan St Joseph’s Secondary School, Spanish Point
Highly commended, senior Clare Champion Short Story Competition
EVERY year, a boisterous gaggle of grandchildren gather in one place in order to prove their dedication to their grandmother. Many are young, too young to understand that what they will be doing is something that will be forever engraved in their memories. They will learn skills only taught to those worthy of such high regard. Some will falter and give up, yet the majority, goaded on by their proud parents, will master their skills and become true and noble glass collectors.
Each year in July, for the Willie Clancy Week festival, every bar, restaurant and street corner in Miltown Malbay transforms into a bustling atmospheric cauldron of instruments, musicians and nameless voices singing songs of old. The week brings thousands of people of every age to the normally quiet town. It is this week that my grandmother’s pub renews its youth and life is injected into its every corner and crevice. The streets are packed and locals hear traditional Irish music in their sleep. I enjoy the week because the crepe man sets up his stall across the road.
The gathering of glass-collecting grandchildren is not original in its profession. Generations of glass collectors make inheritance of the profession a given for my family. I was born on the twelfth of July, no coincidence It was the Wednesday or Thursday of the Willie Clancy week. I guess you could say I was born for the profession. My transformation into a fully-fledged glass collector was trying to say the least. At eight, I was in my prime. Cute and small, I could easily slip through crowds of musical patrons to collect dozens of precious glasses. My toothless gap and cheeky grin enabled me to pry even half-empty glasses from entranced customers. After, I would merrily skip to deliver my bounty to my delighted aunts and uncles who manned the counter. I told myself things would never change. Playing outside with my fellow glass collectors, sipping Club orange on the stairs and occasionally nipping out my tin whistle to play an over-exaggerated version of ‘Twinkle, twinkle’ to delighted customers. I loved glass-collecting, especially the attention.
Unfortunately, I grew. My young teenage years were cruel to me. No longer cute, I struggled to understand how it all fell apart. The first year of my teenagehood could’ve been described as one of the best years of the festival. The week was warm and hot and people relished in the musical bliss each day. The bar was busier than usual and each day a huge crowd would gather out the back to listen to musicians playing. Nobody noticed the solemn, young teenager wandering around in search of solace. I was annoyed because I felt old in comparison with my younger collectors. Too young for older responsibilities, I felt embarrassed and annoyed.
The same year, Brendan Gleeson was playing the fiddle and sipping Guinness in the middle of a congregation of talented musicians out the back. Rumours of his presence spread like wildfire. Within minutes, each collector knew of his presence. Everybody gathered to discuss the issue. Everybody wanted to collect the glass from the man who played the googly-eyed fella in Harry Potter. The majority only knew him for this role. The younger collectors didn’t even know who he was but each collector argued ferociously for the chance. We all knew the opportunity was once-in-a-lifetime. We each spoke passionately proclaiming our reasons. I spoke poignantly, briefly discussing his other roles, his great acting talent which I highly respected and how I was also the oldest so therefore the worthiest. In the end, my sister won the chance. She won them over by proclaiming her ownership of a Harry Potter box set and promising to bring them all over for crepes later.
We all watched perplexed as she strutted over to the table, promptly picked up the glass, smiled happily at the man himself before he stopped her, thanked her and handed her a fiver. It was a truly stunning performance from an amateur collector. We all stood in awe and jealousy before my grandmother cleared us from the bench and the gaggle of collectors dispersed into different directions. I stood for a while pondering the situation. My grandmother winked and smiled at me before heading back inside. I smiled back before wandering away to collect a fallen Bulmers can.
At 16, I sensed change. I was still an awkward and shy teenager that year but, for some reason, the passion for collecting returned. I began to gradually quicken my pace. I collected hundreds of glasses, chatted, laughed and smiled with people I had never met. I discovered the art of small talk. People were interested in what I had to say. I began to enjoy the atmosphere, the nameless voices singing songs of old. I avoided the unsociable music devotees with their recorders but embraced each Irish song played. I trained in many new collectors, all eager to discover the passion the job entailed. Although the work was tiring, I was simply enjoying being there. I was enjoying being part of the family of glass collectors. I have never been so proud and happy to be collecting glasses.
The following festival, I was asked to move to a different position. Having sensed change, I eagerly left behind glass collecting in favour of a new profession. I soon discovered working behind a busy bar was ferociously scary and different. You are suddenly thrown responsibility and asked to keep it for the week. I found myself washing glasses and eagerly watching for my fellow glass collectors to pass by so I could smile brightly at them. During quiet spells, topics of conversation often arose between my aunts. I was used to discussing beach trips, primary school and funfairs with my younger collectors and felt out of place in-between my aunts, discussing husbands, news topics and foreign holidays. I began wishing my abrupt decision had been properly thought out. I was soon pining to return to my glass-collecting duties.
So, by the end of the week, I began to further extend my short trips out into old territory in search of glasses. At the end of my shift, I would wander around, happy to be free of my other duties. The night collectors would be already roaming for glasses, eager and excited for the night ahead. The younger day collectors would be gathered in their usual spot upstairs. A trail of Tayto crumbs, empty Club orange bottles and stray straws guided you up the stairs to the collectors’ snug. My cousins would be crowded around, occupying every spot available and laughing between themselves. My presence was often welcomed, followed by requests to be brought across the road to the crepe van. Each time I visited, laughter and happiness often enclosed us and was often disturbed only by my grandmother commenting on the mess and insisting we keep quiet. Amongst my former fellow collectors, I felt the love of collecting regain strength and the passion returned.
Each year, I relish this reunion of collectors. It has made me realise that being a professional glass collector is enjoyable but it wouldn’t be half as fun without my cousins, aunts, uncles and, of course, my beloved grandparents. Becoming a professional collector taught me many skills but I’ve realised the majority of what I presumed was training was really only having fun with my cousins.
Next year, I won’t be returning as a glass collector or to man the bar. The journey was long and interesting on my battle to become a professional glass collector. Although I will be around for an evening or two. Somebody needs to bring that gaggle of grandchildren across the road to the crepe van.
More stories to follow.