Down By the River

When I was growing up on our County Roscommon farm, a half-mile stretch of river formed
the mearing between our land and the adjacent townland. We called it, simply, The River,
and the section from The Bridge to The Bottoms was a regular haunt for us.
The river bed was deep and for most of the year the water was quite high. Sedge, briars,
bushes and the odd small willow tree grew along its banks. In rainy times the water eddied
and whirled hurriedly over stones and pebbles, in under the embankments and in and out
through uncovered roots, or past loosened, overhanging fencing that was dipping low. At
other times, the water was still and dark. We knew how easily the spongy ground at the edge
could shift under us and drag us down towards danger, but we still leaned over to better see
the tapioca-like mass of frog spawn centred around cress or weeds in the water, or to poke
with a stick at the leebeens that darted about in the depths between shadows and sunlight. The
Bottoms stretched into the far Kesh Field. This was flat, soggy land over which the river
flooded each winter and onto which the cows were let every summer to graze what they
could. It was drained ineffectively by a network of grass-covered, mucky channels that
turned into streams in the winter. In later years, a land improvement project uncovered the
nineteenth-century stone drains put in by the previous landowner that had probably once
served their purpose but had long been closed over by feet of soil and grass.
In dry summers, the River was the only source of water for the animals and it was our job to
drive the cows from the fields further away to a watering hole at the corner where the Well
Field and the River met. We skirted thick clumps of rushes and stalked through patches of
wild iris flaggers, following the cows until they reached the gently sloping bank at the end of
the field and entered the cool water. Then we sat on hillocks close by, beating the
surrounding growth in boredom with our cow sticks or swatting at any horseflies that thought
to come near us. At this remove from the shade along the river, the day’s heat was heavy on
us. The cows jostled each other as they drank. Moving about, their hooves and feet made
sucking sounds in the mud of the river bed. They shook their heads and flicked their tails in
annoyance at the flies that hummed about them. When they came up out of the river bed and
started to retrace their path, we knew they had drunk their fill and it was time to head back.
Our daily route to school took us by the Bridge where we often stopped, leaning over its wide
wall to throw stones into the water or to see what curiosities had got snagged on a
protruding root or low branch. In winters when the river froze up, we tied a rope to an old
Austin Maxi bonnet, our own unique snow sled, and towed it en groupe up the hill to the top
of our neighbour Tommie Joe’s field near the Bridge. Two of us, joined by Trixie our dog, sat
in to it and the others pushed off the sled for its run. It gathered speed as it went along, rose
over the hump of the bank and then disappeared. A few moments later, gloved hands grabbed
hold of the edge and the laughing, cheering figures in woolly hats, winter coats and wellies
emerged out of the river bed in a flurry of snow and Trixie’s excited yelps. Then they
climbed the hill again, sled in tow, for another go.