Red Rover, Red Rover!

“England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Inside, Outside, Donkeys’ Tails!” Kunak McGann, author of Red Rover, Red Rover! Games From an Irish Childhood, shares her memories of playing games as a child with her family and neighbours!

The idea for a book of childhood games has been percolating in my mind for years. Every time I had one of those ‘Remember when…?’ conversations with friends or family, I thought to myself, I really must get a move on. So it was with much excitement and no small relief that Red Rover, Red Rover – Games from an Irish Childhood has become a reality.

I grew up in Drogheda, on an estate of about forty houses, and with families of four or five children not uncommon back in the heady days of the 1980s, playmates were never in short supply. I was lucky enough to have four of the best in the form of brothers and a sister. One thing you need to know about my family is that, like most 80s kids, we were particularly snappy dressers and had fabulous haircuts (with the photographic evidence to prove it). The other is that we were nearly always up for a game of something or other.

One of our favourites was Kerbs – there was a period of a few years where the irregular thump of the ball off a kerb was to be heard most days, up and down our road. I was never really gifted with the skill set required for that game, but that never stopped me. My brothers proved more skilful, although I did eventually make up for my lack of natural ability with sheer volume of practice. My abiding memories of Kerbs, though, will always be either waiting patiently as my opponent hit kerb after kerb after kerb (how long could they keep going??), or the sheer joy on my younger brother’s face when he tried the high-scoring backward, over-the-head throw yet again and actually managed to hit the kerb. I’m pretty sure that he would have consistently scored higher if he just threw normally each time, but I was always delighted with his high-stakes gambling approach to the game.

Another surefire favourite was Elastics. Like skipping, while definitely more favoured by the girls on the street than the boys, it was by no means a unisex game. All it took was a good length of elastic, some accurate jumping, and knowledge of an appropriate song – our go-to was ‘England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Inside, Outside, Donkeys’ Tails’. We started with the elastics at ankle height, then up to knees, then thighs, bums – and on to waists, under-arms and necks for when we were feeling particularly dare-devilish. It was often easier jumping in stocking feet (without buckles or laces to catch on the elastic), and my mother will happily remind me that I ruined many a pair of socks that way. And back then, socks and sandals was a perfectly acceptable look (I swear) – so holey socks really were a problem.

And then there was that day when everyone seemed to be out on the street at the same time, kicking around and looking for something to do, and someone suggested Red Rover or Bulldog, or Rounders or a mammoth game of Forty Forty (Tip the Can). And it didn’t matter that some kids were thirteen years old and others were only five or six – hordes of us would spend the afternoon tearing about the place breaking chains, or getting home runs, or tipping the can and saving all. And when we all started getting called in for dinner, despite the hunger we went back home reluctantly, knowing that there wouldn’t be another day quite like this. Not for a while at least.

For me, Red Rover, Red Rover is a salute to those rose-tinted days, a reminder of simpler times. And it’s a thank you to all of those playmates – whether they were fellow Relievo team members, or What Time Is It, Mr Wolf? competitors, or companion Hopscotchers. I hope that they can look back and say ‘Hey, my fashion sense may have been an assault on the eyes, but at least I know for sure that we had the best fun’. I know I can, and I know my brothers and sister can. On both counts.

Kunak McGann, October 2017

Red Rover, Red Rover! is available here and in all good bookshops!