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War of the Wasps

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By John Kelly

Why is it that in retrospect our childhood summers - I mean back in the Sixties and Seventies - seem so much more idyllic than those of today's generation? Recollections of playing with best friends on balmy evenings you never wanted to end, hoping against hope the mammy would forget to call you in for supper. Those are times we recall with great fondness. Life back then was so simple and undemanding - or so it now seems.

Along with the adventures there were of course misadventures, and I vividly recall when one such idyllic evening took a traumatic turn that left me and a pal nursing multiple wasp stings and racing, for a change, to the safety and comfort of home.

Believe me, there are few things more terrifying for a callow urchin than a swarm of angry yellow jackets hot on his heels. But perhaps I should explain the origin of the drama, which broke out next to the site where they were building flats for the old folks behind our modest council estate in Lucan.

Back in those innocent days, there were three of us inseparable. Larry Pierce and Dereck Mahady and myself lived within a few doors of each other in Sarsfield Park, and all the fun and mischief kids get up to we did together.

We raced each other to school in the morning and sprinted home even faster in the afternoon to concentrate on the more important things in life. Play consumed every minute of our free time, and the labyrinth that was the freshly dug foundations of Sarsfield Close proved an irresistible theatre of operations.

It was usually just the three of us masquerading as cowboys or Red Indians or commandos or big-game hunters, but on the hapless evening in question a special request from Mrs McNally of Ballydowd swelled our ranks to four. Ah well, we thought, the more the merrier.

Missus Mac, as she was affectionately known, lived opposite the Hermitage Golf Club with her six children and devoted hubby, Jack. She was setting out on the fateful day to do shopping and other motherly duties, would be absent for several hours, and wanted three reliable lads to keep an eye on her eldest boy, John. Tragically, there was a severe shortage of reliable lads on the estate - and so she asked Dereck, Larry and me.

We weren't mad keen to initiate an interloper into our secret games, but the bribes were too good to refuse - packets of Barney Walsh's best bullseyes - and so the Inseparable Three became the Fragile Four and then the Irreconcilable Four, because we very soon tired of John's annoying antics and began devising stratagems whereby we might lose him in the trenches and later plead innocence to Missus Mac.

In fairness to young John, and despite our special-forces knowledge of the terrain, he proved a difficult trooper to shake off. Making clever use of his steel-rimmed Dispensary glasses and some native faculty of cunning, he tracked us doggedly, frustrating our best efforts to lose him.

Eventually, though, experience told - or so we hoped. We camouflaged ourselves in a stout bush hard by Mr O'Callaghan's back garden, and all went swimmingly until we broke Rule One of the Army Rangers field manual - as the enemy scoped the undergrowth just feet away we burst out laughing.

Not surprisingly, John's pride was hurt, but we were slightly shocked - and seriously impressed - when he more than entered into the spirit of the game by picking up a rock and throwing it at us, shouting, 'Take cover, guys! Incoming missile!'

Thankfully, it missed its intended targets but, unfortunately for us, struck a wasps' nest just above our heads, and what followed was collateral carnage on a grand scale, at least for Larry and myself - because for some reason known only to zoological science the critters decided Dereck wasn't worth stinging.

I knew immediately we were in big trouble, because as I scaled O'Callaghan's back wall dozens of them had infiltrated my trousers and were hammering away mercilessly up my legs. Soon they were in every bodily orifice as well as my hair, my shoes and my socks. I've never been attacked all over by a gang of crazed office stapling machines, so I don't know what it feels like - but it felt just like that. Or like cigarettes being stubbed out on my skin. Even prisoners of war were treated more kindly, I remember thinking.

As I burst through the front door of our house I caught a fleeting glimpse of a deeply distressed Larry thrashing and flailing as he hopped, skipped and sprinted toward the sanctuary of his own home at the bottom of the estate.

As for my poor mum, when I appeared in the kitchen screaming and begging for help she had no idea what was going on. I had shipped more than 40 stings, all of them agonising and none more so than those around my buttocks and groin. Enough said.

Mum sprang to the rescue, stripping me naked and beating the wasps off my body with a damp tea towel, then standing on them until the kitchen floor was littered with casualties. Unlike honeybees, wasps don't die immediately after they sting you; in fact they can sting repeatedly. That is why they can be deadly, especially if you are allergic.

Dad, meanwhile, was on the phone to Dr Devlin, and after picking up Larry in our Opel Commodore (think having a Ferrari in the driveway nowadays) we made crooked for the surgery in Palmerstown.

Dr Devlin's waiting room was a colourful place, generally bubbling - despite the otherwise serious context - with Dublin wit and banter. As soon as our plight was revealed, it started.

One woman with a couple of snotty-nosed kids piped up, 'There aren't many of God's creatures I loathe but I hate wasps. They're just aggressive, nasty, horrible little things and I'd wipe them off the face of the earth if I could.'

A young man sitting next to her was having none of it: 'That's a bit extreme, Missus. They do great work in gardens and orchards, pollinating flowers and fruit and the likes. Anyway, I reckon they'll leave you alone if you leave them alone.'

Another fellow, with the long hair and rufus beard of an idealist or revolutionary, was also siding with the wasps: 'Why do we humans feel the world revolves around us? We're only one very small link in the food chain. Wasps have as much right to be here as we do.'

And so it went. There we were, Larry and myself, in eye-watering pain, and for all we knew hovering between life and death, and these people were having philosophical debates over the inhuman rights of the wasp and mankind's place in the pecking order (or should that be the stinging order?). We were mightily relieved when Dr Devlin appeared at the door.

'I'm sure you good people won't mind if I see these two young gentlemen first,' he told the room as he ushered Larry and myself to the inner sanctum.

Two hours later, after a couple of injections - antihistamines I guess - and covered from head to toe with antibiotic ointment, we were back defending our lines in the trenches of the flats.

And whatever happened to the missile launcher? Well it was another 20 years before Missus Mac found out the real facts about the War of the Wasps and the part played in it by her son John.
The occasion? The marriage of her beautiful daughter Catherine to yours truly!