To children, the summer holidays are infinite. Once they begin, their pace of life slows. Mornings no longer involve wolfing down a bowl of cornflakes, followed by frantic searches for hairbrushes and missing parts of school uniforms.
Time takes on a looser form, as the normally sharp distinction between weekdays and weekends suddenly disappears. Soon, they are not sure what day it is, nor what hour of the day it might be – and nor do they care. Watches and clocks become increasingly ornamental as the days roll together into a pleasant blur of late evenings, ice creams, beaches, summer camps and rainy days spent curled up reading.
Ireland might not always have a proper summer, but it at least has proper summer holidays – long enough to forget that school ever existed. We are glad to be switching back to the Irish school year this summer. During the past few years living in England, where summer holidays are as short as five weeks, I pitied the kids each summer.
By the time the English summer holidays begin – at the very end of July – the evenings are already noticeably drawing in. By mid-August, when the kids are just beginning to get into the summer holiday groove – and are beginning to live as free beings, pleasantly lost in time – it is already time to buy new uniforms and to start thinking ahead to the start of a new term, which is just a couple of weeks away.
It seemed unnatural for small children to be constricted by uniforms, and answerable to the dictates of the school bell, in the month of July. In England, families are constrained by strict truancy laws into taking their summer holidays over the same short few weeks, which mean that the motorways grind to a sweaty, frustrated halt all across England, airports have queues out the door and you’d have to take out a small mortgage to rent a mouldy caravan in Bognor for a week.
The M25 becomes a motorway as drawn by Dante: a vision of hell. I recall being trapped on it for hours in 35 degrees heat, in a car with broken air conditioning, and three small kids, en route to Dover. Motorway services stations come to resemble overburdened refugee camps, as immeasurable throngs of people grab the essentials of human survival: food and water.
At least in Ireland, we are never short of water, since it falls so generously from the skies, and nor does it tend to matter much if the air conditioning is broken. There is a calmness even at the most beautiful spots. Those things that the summer holidays should be all about – peace and relaxation – are far more accessible to Irish families, even at the very height of summer. There are thousands of hidden places, known to those who love them. When you arrive at some such pleasant spot, there are not coach-loads of tourists.
In our minds, the summer holidays are akin to Christmas, as a totemic aspect of childhood. We each cling to our own warm sepia-toned memories of our own summers long ago. We try to recreate those aspects we remember nostalgically, for our own kids. It gives me joy to see history repeat itself, when kids read the Beano, or go fishing, or play on the same strands I played on as a boy.
It is beautiful to see them relax to their very core, with no worries, no problems and no homework for many happy, languid weeks. For we adults know all too well that neither summer, nor childhood, nor life itself is infinite. Even an eight-year-old child already has most of their childhood summers behind them. So let them enjoy in deep ease those precious, numbered summers of innocence.