A Casual Acquaintance
We can never know the extent of our impact on those we meet who are casual acquaintances. Perhaps this is just as well, for it would be a huge burden to carry if we were to go through life pondering our effect on the thousands of folk with whom we come into contact. Mostly, I suppose, it is unpredictable – some who affected us greatly may have forgotten us completely, others, whom we felt hardly noticed us, may carry our memory for years. It’s part of the unknowable joy of humanity.
These reflections were prompted when I noticed, belatedly, online, an announcement of the death in March of Maureen Haugh of Kilkee, Co Clare, and Chicago and Fort Lauderdale.
I originally met Maureen on my first visit to Kilkee in 1966.
The only child of a widow, I revelled, like so many others, in the freedom that a Kilkee holiday gave me.
On that first day, released from the Hydro Hotel after a huge breakfast, I made my way tentatively along the sea wall at the West End. At Edmond Point, outside Sykes’s, still ignorant of the disaster which gave the spot its name, I scrambled over the rocks, examined the pools and watched the waves surge and retreat. I made my way along the road to Newfoundout and vowed that there would be no way I would ever dive off those boards (a resolve I have kept!) and headed down the slope to the car park at the end of the road.
There was a weather beaten shop there, more of a shed really, with a lopsided caravan behind it. It was placed in front of what looked to me like a miniature golf course.
I knew nothing of Pitch and Putt, but, living less than a mile from the Royal Birkdale Golf Course in northern England, I was interested in golf, though I had never played it. I wondered if this would be a way to try it out.
Even at 14, I was a shy child, especially with adults, and I am still faintly surprised that I summoned up the nerve to enter the shop.
There was little space, filled with a counter, and behind it shelves of sweets and chocolate bars and soft drinks. A rather forbidding elderly man was to one side, (referred to later by locals as “Old man Haugh”!) but it seemed a younger couple were running the place.
I bought a chocolate bar while I formulated my request to play on the course. As she took my money, the woman said: “Do ye fancy a round on the pitch and putt?” and I nodded gratefully. It was a positive first meeting with Maureen Haugh – and it set the trend for the rest of our encounters.
She took my money and, as I walked towards the back door of the shop, handed me two clubs, a ball, a small scorecard, a couple of plastic tees, and a stubby pencil. I must have looked lost, because, as I went through the door, she said: “Bernie will show you the ropes.”
And that was how I met Bernie and Maureen Haugh and played my first ever round of pitch and putt.
I was hooked from the start. God knows how many strokes it took me that first day, but posting a “record” score became an obsession for me and for the rest of that holiday, and for many years to come, it would be an unusual day if I didn’t play at least two rounds.
I suppose it would be a normal occupation for a child who was fairly solitary, though I made many friends each year in Kilkee, most of whom were press ganged into pitch and putt challenges at the West End. I even played a few times on the pitch and putt course at the Golf Club at the East End of the town, but the attraction of the West End was undoubtedly Bernie and Maureen.
Before long, there was a cheery greeting of “Hiya, John! Gonna beat the record today?” Sometimes my mother would come along and chat to the couple while I hacked my way around the 18 holes, constantly distracted by that view up the coast across past Georges Head and as far as the Aran islands on a clear day. The sun, the sea, the coastal air and the personal challenge of the ‘record’, all combined to make it a kind of heaven for that teenager.
There was an attractiveness about the Haughs – an easy going approach which I suspect came from their time in the USA. Kilkee was a very faraway place in those days – the morning papers arrived on the 6pm bus, and fashions were local rather than international. It had a pace of life removed from the mid Sixties hype and hustle – so the modern clothes and slight American twang of Bernie and Maureen made them stand out a little, I suppose.
Even in that first holiday, I became one of the thousands worldwide who fell deeply in love with Kilkee. It was not just about pitch and putt – it was the beauty of the place, the people who were there – visitors and locals, the excitement of a teenage holiday in the sun. I cried when I left that first year, and whenever I return I have the same reaction as I turn away from the Strandline and head up past the Square and out of town.
We summered in Kilkee every year from 66 to 75 and then, as a student, I would visit the town three or more times every year, in all seasons. This continued until the mid 80s when family responsibilities, and others to be considered, reduced the frequency of my visits.
Every year, I would go down to the West End, and Maureen would greet me with: “Hiya, John, nice to see you back – how’s your mother getting on?” Bernie, it seemed, remained working in America for the summer, but Maureen’s welcome never faltered.
The friendly welcome became as important as the pitch and putt, if I’m honest, and, as the years went by, the chat lengthened and the ‘record’ became less important. I was always amazed that she remembered me – out of the thousands of visitors who must have played the course, and I always looked forward to what became my ‘welcome back’ to the town.
When I started visiting ‘out of season’, the pitch and putt would be closed, but, when Maureen knew I was in town, she would leave a couple of clubs and balls in the front porch of “Dunearn” where she lived in the West End, and I would pick them up and drop them off – “no charge”. Sometimes, if she was around, there would be an invite in for a cup of tea and a chat about the passing years.
I last met Maureen in 1991.
Having won a prize at Listowel Writers’ Week, I escaped the festivities for a day and headed for the Killimer ferry and thence to Kilkee. It was my first visit in a while, and I was both excited and nervous. I invest a lot of love in the town, but I am always aware that my version of Kilkee is partly artificial – a construct of memories and favourite spots. Towns – and people – change, and I was not sure what I would find when I turned down the familiar O’Curry St.
There were changes, of course –some I had known about, and others which were a surprise – but Kilkee has always been more than just buildings, and there was a pleasing continuity about the scene.
I parked by the Hydro – now “Old Moore’s Apartments”, and walked along the road towards the West End, shadowing my first ever walk in Kilkee. I took in the various changes – and the parts that had stayed the same, and then, with a little trepidation, turned the corner by ‘The Dickie Harris house” and looked down the hill.
Nothing seemed to have changed – but there was no guarantee that Maureen would still be behind the counter, or, if she was, that she would remember me after all this time. It felt like an important moment – daft as that may sound – and I did consider walking on to the Diamond Rocks without stopping.
However, as brave as I had been at 14, I pushed at the door and entered a shop which was basically unchanged since 1966.
Behind the counter was Maureen. She looked up and said. “Good afternoon!” When I replied, she said, with no surprise at all, “Well, John – we haven’t seen you for a while – how is your mother doing?”
I don’t have the words to describe the reaction that generated. On one hand, it was a retailer recognising a good customer from former years, there may be dozens of people to whom Maureen showed such kindness and attention, on the other hand, it was a link with my childhood in a place which had brought me so much joy.
Before I could get too emotional, she said – and I swear the American accent had become more noticeable – “We had a guy in a couple of weeks ago used to come round here with you and your mother back in the 60s – can’t remember his name….” It was the perfect introduction to a conversation in which we reminisced and she learned about what I had been doing – and the fact that I had a son and wife who had already visited Kilkee.
I bought a bar of chocolate, for old times sake, and headed off to the Diamond Rocks. As I closed the door she said: “See ya!”
Thanks to the internet, it has been possible to keep up to date with at least some Kilkee news without actually visiting. I saw at some point that Maureen seemed to have moved a couple of houses along from “Dunearn” to “Duggerna” and realised, as time passed, it was unlikely that she would still be running the pitch and putt.
I paid a flying visit to the town about four or five years ago. I knew from my online news that the “Diamond Rocks’ Café had been constructed at the West End, as had the statue of Dickie Harris in racquets pose, so I had no false illusions of what I would find as I drove down to the end of the road. A “danger” sign in Polish served to illustrate the changes through the years – but I was glad that Kilkee seems to prosper thanks to the townspeople’s hard work. The café attracts rave reviews and I occasionally treated myself to a look at the view from their webcam – a view that remains familiar.
It seems the business is still in the family – though Kilkee has so many Haughs you would be hard put to work out relationships! I hope so – because it would be a good continuation of the entrepreneurial spirit shown by Bernie and Maureen.
Until I retired a couple of years ago, I was deputy headteacher of a 1200 pupil secondary school just outside of Edinburgh. It was an enjoyable and rewarding job – but it could be stressful. On my office wall I had pinned a large panoramic view of Moore’s Bay, taken from the garden of the old Hydro Hotel. When I needed to be calm and to reflect, I would take a walk round the bay in my head.
I would walk down from George’s Head, past Burns’s Cove and the derelict “Dutch”, along past the Thomond, where Christian Brothers would sit in holiday mode in the glass fronted lounge, past the Strand –where the craic was always good, the spot where Maggie sold winkles from her barrow, the Esplanade with its peculiar shade of green, the back of the Arcadia, the sun lounge of the Marble Bar where Mrs Egan, Johnny and Ray Russell reigned supreme – with Ted Kavanagh playing the Hammond Organ each night in the middle bar, past Wally’s Amusements, the Vic, Murphy’s Café, the West End Stores, the spot on the wall over the racquets courts where I opened the telegram that told me I had gained the exams to get me into university – the smell of the seaweed as strong and as redolent as ever, past the beach shelter where we sang to the guitars of strangers, the croquet lawns of Clar Ellagh, and past Sykes’s and Newfoundout to “The Billows” and down the hill.
It never failed to relax me and lighten my mood, and at the end of the road would always be Maureen Haugh, behind the counter in that cramped little shop, to say “Hiya, John!”
I couldn’t call Maureen a friend. In reality we knew very little about each other – but what a legacy, to be a casual acquaintance and to make such an impact on a stranger’s life; to be a kind of totem for the effect of humanity, kindness, and friendliness. How many more people, I wonder, were affected so positively by that lovely woman in the West End?
Whatever the reality on the road to the Diamond Rocks, I think she will always be there, waiting with that friendly welcome, that recognition which said, somehow, that you mattered.
It would be nice to think that she has encountered my mother in that part of Heaven which isn’t Kilkee, and I hope they are having a good catch up.
And as for that record, Maureen: I never bettered 38, and I guess I never will.
Rest easy, and thank you.