That Was Then – Oisín McGann

We were on a four-week road trip across Europe. At nine years old, I was the eldest of four children. Starting at Dun Laoghaire, we set out in our old Volvo by ferry to Holyhead, through Wales, England, over to Holland, Germany, Denmark, Sweden and all the way back again.

In this world of SUVs, people carriers, and booster seats, it’s hard to imagine squeezing four kids (one in a bulky baby-seat) into the back of a saloon car for that amount of time. Cries of ‘Are we nearly there?’; ‘He started it!’; ‘It’s my turn to sit by the door!’ and ‘Who’s kicking the back of my seat!’ carried across the roads of Europe.

Our in-car entertainment was limited to a radio and tape deck. There was little agreement over music, so our only other option was a choice of three story tapes, played ad nauseam over those long, long drives. There was The Incredible Journey, Rupert Bear and, of course, Flash Gordon, narrated in an American accent, which our dad mocked mercilessly.

Before reaching Stockholm, our final destination, we stopped for a few days in Ronneby. Staying in a red, wooden-walled house with low doorways, there wasn’t a lot to keep a bunch of active kids stimulated. We’d peaked in Denmark, with its fantastic adventure playgrounds (still sorely needed in Ireland) and now, in a small house outside town, we had to improvise.

In the evenings, when we’d calmed down a bit, we played gin rummy. Or we read. That’s when this picture was taken. I’m at the back with my knees up. Next to me is my sister, Kunak, then Mum, reading to Marek, who’s staring warily into Dad’s camera. My youngest sister, Erika, was probably asleep and my youngest brother, Darius, had yet to grace us with his presence.

This being one of our father’s pictures, it’s remarkable that not one of us is eating. It seemed to be an obsession of his to catch us with food in our mouths. I remember that after being stuck without munchies for several days, we resorted to secretly putting sugar on Rivita. Those little holes filled up nicely. He never got a picture of that.

The book I’m reading in this photo is entitled More Adventure Stories: Daredevil Tales From Around The World. It was one of many hardback collections of short stories I read at that age. This one was filled with action-packed tales of soldiers, secret agents and private detectives. Most were excerpts from classic novels, and they were a rollicking good read. It’s still on a shelf in my mother’s house today.

I don’t know how we managed to get a month’s worth of books into that overcrowded car, but we did. This October I’ll be on the road once more, travelling around Ireland for Children’s Book Festival. I still like to take some rollicking good reads along with me.

But now I get to sit in the front