Raised on Songs and Stories Joe Clarke's story of a Dublin boyhood and the life it led to…

April 28, 2008

Part Two

Filed under: Uncategorized — admin @ 11:58 pm

The one rebel I’ve barely touched on was James Connolly. Born in Edinburgh, a trade unionist all his life, he helped found the I.T.G.W.U. (Irish Transport and General Workers Union) with Jim Larkin.

When talk of home Rule was in the air in Westminster (Houses of Parliament) the Unionist North of Ireland started to form and equip illegal armies to resist any attempt to impose Home Rule on them. All land, property, and business interests in Northern Ireland were held in the hands of a few very powerful people who feared any risk of change. So they played “The Orange Card”- they propagated the view that the South was Catholic, hence ruled by Rome (the Pope being the “Whore of Rome” who would rule Ireland forcing all the Northern Irish Protestants out of their jobs and houses) — a canard that still bedevils Northern Ireland to this day.

The truth was that a movement for workers rights was sweeping through most of England. People like Kier Hardy had helped found the British Labour Party funded by trade union workers throughout Britain and Ireland (a fact that some Labour MPs today forget). The establishment in Northern Ireland were determined to hold fast to what they held.

Connolly and Jim Larkin were both Trade Unionists in Belfast before coming to Dublin. Northern Ireland was heavily industrialized with ship building, rope works, linen manufacturing, and large scale heavy engineering work, so Belfast was the obvious place for pioneering Labouir activists. But the engineering trade unions in Northern Ireland were, to a degree, corrupted. Some of the officials in Belfast and Liverpool were being “well looked after” by the factory owners. Added to this the fact that the use of violence and even assassination were common in Northern Ireland, which was almost a private fiefdom for a privileged few.

So Connolly came to Dublin and, just as illegal private armies were started in Northern Ireland with the authorities looking on and taking no notice, Connolly and Larkin started their own Irish Citizen Army, based at union headquarters, “Liberty Hall”. This was in parallel with the re-emergence of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (later known as the Irish Republican Army, or IRA) headed up by Eoin McNeill and including all of the Irish rebels such as Clarke, Pearce, McDonough, etc. The key difference was that the Irish revolutionary hated English rule and wanted to create a free Gaelic nation where everyone would learn how to say their prayers in Gaelic.

Connolly hated all forms of tyrant and dreamed of a socialist Ireland where a proper distribution of wealth was the first priority, and justice was social justice for all – with decent housing, sanitation, medical care, and education available to all as a basic right.

The foregoing may seem a little simplistic and, some might argue, demeaning to the rebels who gave their lives to the cause of Irish freedom. That is not my desire. I’m simply giving one man’s view and writing about these guys insofar as they impacted on my family and my childhood.

Thomas Clarke, I believe, was consumed with hatred for the “Old Enemy”, while Pearce and others dreamed a dream of a united Gaelic Ireland totally dedicated to a Gaelic culture. This caused Connolly to say such things as: “Won’t it be great when we can starve to death under a Green Flag,” or “When the bailiff comes to evict you, he’ll be wearing a green uniform!

So Connolly dreamed a different dream but still went out to die! On that fateful Easter Monday morning, 1916, he led out his small, ill-equipped band; walked up and down the line, picking out volunteers who were too young and telling them to “go home to their mothers”. When asked by one volunteer “What’s our chance?” he answered “NONE!”

He marched his band to the General Post Office in O’Connell Street, to join with Pearce, Clarke et al. He was wounded in the subsequent fighting and the British Authorities took him from his hospital sick bed and propped him up on a chair in order to execute him by firing squad. An act of monumental stupidity; no single act did more to enrage the people of Ireland than Connolly’s death.

The foregoing might be described as brief, not too accurate, thumbnail sketches of people who helped shaped the Ireland we know today and helped set the background for my young life growing up in Dublin. But there is, I hope, method in my madness, because it’s my hope that others, particularly my grandchildren, on reading this will be inspired to find and read good books that detailed those people and their times. They did more than just free Ireland. They, by their sacrifice, bequeathed a legacy to the whole human race.

For example, both Connolly and Larkin were well known in America and helped to inspire the fledgling American workers’ rights movement. And of Clarke, Pearse, et al, the great 20th Century British historian, A.J.P Taylor, gave the opinion that the Irish insurrection destroyed the British Empire, in that they showed the rest of the Empire that a small nation could succeed against the power and might of the greatest Empire extant at that time.

And finally, before I move off this subject, such diverse leader as Mao Zedong (China), General Grivas (Cyprus), and Jomo Kenyatta (Kenya) were inspired by and quoted Michael Collins in their struggles for National Sovereignty. It’s sad that Collins’ legacy to the world should be a textbook on terrorism, but what were they – a small handful of pitifully armed men – to do in their search for independence and social justice?

I’m straying far afield from my days in Rathoath Road, but I have to go where my pen leads me and I do so want to explain to my children, and their children, the mix of hunger, pride, and determination that drove so many to leave Ireland and seek a better life elsewhere – but always remembering, and cherishing, their Irish roots and culture.

In the depressed 1950’s, so many Irish émigrés sent home money on a weekly or monthly basis to help keep their families alive, that this in itself helped the Irish economy to survive and prosper. So, hopefully, in helping ourselves we indirectly helped Ireland.

But anyway, Charlie (my eldest grandson in Canada), maybe someday when you are an adult and I’m long gone, you might speculate on your background and how you happened to be born a Canadian Citizen. Perhaps you’ll read this and understand something of your roots and culture. And maybe, whilst being proud – damn proud – to be Canadian, you will also feel a little bit of pride in “The Auld Country” and the race of Celts who nurtured your genes all those years ago. That I might pass on a little of the pride and honour in being Irish that my parents instilled in me; that I might pass on some of that to future generations is a dream worth dreaming.

So, back to Cabra West.

At the age of four or five I was transferred with Larry, the brother nearest my age, to the Dominican convent from the school in old Cabra, affectionately referred to as “The Slaughterhouse”.

I remember our very first day: they, the Dominican order I presume, were funding a large new school to accommodate the influx of young children caused by the building of Cabra West. Larry and I started off in the old school in what would originally have been a small rural school room.

I can remember my impressions even to this day: that dark room with scarred old benches and what appeared, to my young senses, to be dozens of religious pictures and statues glowering down on us as if defying us to misbehave at the break time.

Ma had prepared some sandwiches for Larry and I accompanied by an old sauce or medicine bottle filled with milk. Neither Larry nor I could undo the screw top on the bottle and we were too scared to ask. So that was my overall impression: a bottle we couldn’t open. Strange how little things like that can be the key to unlocking lost memories.

I very much enjoyed my time at the convent with Sister Mary Oliver as my teacher. I don’t remember the transfer from the old school to the new bright school, but it happened, I believe, that Larry was put in a different class from me and that Larry left to go to “Big” school before me.

But before that happened Larry, and I were prepared for and received our “First Holy Communion” ceremony at the convent together. Complete with new suits, shirts, ties, socks, and shoes – a tradition that usually forced parents to go into debt so as not to be embarrassed in front of their peers, and not to “let their children down”.

I can still remember and relive the sensation of that day. We had been force for weeks prior to the day to wear a piece of ribbon on our lapel to signify that we were being prepared to receive Jesus and hence were to avoid all occasions of sin. Sin! How the hell did a seven or eight year old commit “sin”?! So we were supposed to avoid older boys who used sinful words like “feck” or “bum”.

Given that I had older brothers, as most kids had in those days, it all seems a bit daft. But somehow I’m glad it happened – it was all part of the ritual of growing up in Catholic Ireland, as it was in those days.

The nuns used to hand out wrapped spills of paper containing ½ ounce of tea and two ounces of sugar. Those were the War years, and tea and sugar were scarce, expensive, and almost out of reach to many families in Cabra West. So my memory of the nuns is mixed but overall happy and benign.

Larry has told me of one of the nuns telling the kids in his class to pray for a German victory. Sounds wrong – was wrong – but those nuns were not too well-educated or too worldly. She’d have being seeking a defeat of the old enemy that had bedeviled Ireland and repressed her beloved Church. It is doubtful if she had any idea of Nazism and the threat to the free world.

I’m wandering again. Who cares. That’s what this is all about and I don’t give a feck. See? I’ve just committed a venial sin. Question: if no one ever reads this, is it still a sin? Guess those nuns left their mark on me after all…

I’ve already said that I enjoyed my stay at the “Cabra Convent,” but it wasn’t all sweetness and light. I had apparently inherited Ma’s singing ability, a fact which the nuns soon discovered and started to give me singing lessons. It was mainly John McCormack stuff: Oft in the Stilly Night, Panis Angelicus, etc. Ma loved it, and whenever a visiting dignitary came to the convent I’d be brought up to the main reception rooms in order to sing for them.

They also identified me as a scholar and gave me intensive Gaelic lessons to prepare me for the “Fáinne”, a national test of proficiency in the use of the Gaelic language. So what’s the matter with that? I hear you ask. Well, when you’re growing up in a large family with older brothers (three), being different is not a good idea. I think that my love of wandering away on my own (I’d often come home from school only when it got dark!) was partly based on a need to get away and perhaps save my sanity. Between my brothers and my peers on Rathoath Road I took many a hard knock. But then, I suppose every kid has to learn to deal with his siblings one way or another.

If you’re wondering what happened to my voice, well — when I was about nine or ten, I contracted Scarlet Fever, as I’ve already mentioned. The doctor and the chest consultant who look after me now believe that there was possibly a touch of pneumonia at the same time, as my X-rays show up signs of some ancient lung damage.

As a boy in Ireland in those days sport was a very big part of life, and I was crap! I got winded too quickly, or could develop a “stitch” in my side. The only game I could handle was Gaelic football – as a defender, where the action tended to come in short bursts. Whether the two are connected or not, I don’t know, but nobody seemed to ask me to sing from that time on, and boy! am I grateful.

I was also lucky in other ways. When I left the convent at the age of eight, the nuns had already organized for me to be entered in the national Feis competition for young Gaelic singers, to be held some months later. I never got there, because a school teachers’ strike in Dublin meant that no teacher was available to escort us kids – so it got cancelled. To me that was a huge relief! The last thing I wanted was to be different; the cost was too high.

One illustration of the problem happened in my last year at the convent. Sister Mary Oliver – who could sometimes surprise us by letting up on the normally strict grind of Religious teaching, Gaelic and numeracy – chose one day to set us an art project to be competed in class. Drawing materials were issued, and we were invited to draw or sketch a scene, using water and boats as a theme.

I loved it. I can still remember sitting there sketching a scene based on something I’d seen previously. A man had fallen into the river Liffey one day when I was in town with Ma. So: men throwing in lifesavers, small boats being launched, etc. Anyway, I happily went at it, giving it “big licks”, then went home and forgot all about it.

Some weeks later I’m coming home from school (late as usual). Ma and a bunch of neighbours are standing at the gate showing some excitement at my approach. I’m wondering what sort of trouble I’m in now. Damn! Sister M had submitted my sketch to a national radio children’s hour show called “Sean Bunny” (Ed. “Art Adventures with Sean Bunny and Marion King“), and: yes, I’d won a bloody prize.

My name and the name and address of the school was read out on national radio, to which most of the neighbours would have been listening. So much talk about “proud day for Cabra West”, the Convent, etc. Ma and Da were very proud. Me, I was scared. Growing up in Cabra West then was tough enough without attracting attention by being “different”.

The whole place swarmed with kids. At a guess, I’d say the average number of kids per household was maybe five or six. Our house had eight, and we were not unusual. One spent a great deal of ones younger days out on the street “playing” with the other kids and “fitting in” was important in order to survive. I shouldn’t, and won’t, dwell too long on that side of things; it smacks a little of self pity. All kids have to experience the darker aspects of growing up. In my case, I believe it had a positive outcome, as it motivated me to spend time in the great outdoors and to develop self reliance.

I don’t believe I have ever known loneliness in my whole life. Whilst being of a gregarious, outgoing nature, like my Ma, I am also happy with my own company and that, in my opinion, is something to cherish. It was probably developed during all those happy hours spent roaming through Phoenix Park (one of the biggest enclosed parks in the world bigger, than New York’s Central Park) and, of course, the Silver Spoon and “The Broomer”.

I have mentioned The Broomer before: Broombridge, which spans the Royal Canal on the outskirts of Cabra West. Dublin was served by two navigation canals: the Grand (south Dublin) and the Royal (north Dublin). That part of the Royal which flows past Ashtown, Cabra West, and Phibsborough, was my playground – though shared with practically every growing boy, and some girls, in Cabra West.

In those days there was still some canal barge traffic, many of them horse-drawn, so we got to know the operation of the lock mechanism pretty well, especially at the Ashtown locks where we were sometimes allowed to assist the bargee in pushing the gates open or closed.

As a young, questioning tyke of a kid, I was fascinated at the ease at which these massive, counter-balanced gates could be moved, once the initial inertia was overcome. Later, as a young man studying engineering in Birmingham, England, I can actually remember finding the explanation, and marveling as my mind carried me back to Ashtown, and thoughts of the people who designed, and the men who constructed and erected these pieces of engineering genius. Ain’t life grand!

Another thought about Ashtown locks; the “lift” was very high; consequently the gates were perhaps twenty feet, or more, in height and the side walls the same. As a young 10 to 13 year old I, with others of Rathoath, mainly Christie Smith (RIP) my best friend, would dive or jump off the gate or side wall into the space between the two sets of gates, and then climb back up the slime-encrusted gates. Well a few years ago, with Kay, I stood at those locks and gazed down into the dark roil and said “No way – it never happened, not possible“. But it was, and it did.

Years later, when our sons were growing up, they had their “hairy moments” in the patch of National Trust land, Hob’s Moat, at the back of our house in Solihull. I often used to chuckle, as I repaired smashed bikes, as to what their mother would have said if only she had known what those guys got up to! More of this later.

One of the growing up rites of passage for us young ‘un’s in that part of Cabra West was “Crossing the Nal”. The canal at Broombridge was very narrow at the point where it entered the bridge, and the ambition of every kid was to prove themselves by swimming the canal at the Broomer. The towpath was quite wide, and you could get a good run up and, with a half-way decent dive, you could cross with two to three strokes of the dog paddle. The problem came on the return where, because of the railway track (which was on a raised embankment), you could not get a run up.

The Broomer was cold and deep, and many a kid chickened and had to suffer the ignominy of scrambling back up across the railways and over the bridge, to the shouts and jeers of their mates. Sadly, the odd kind drowned, we were told, so that the school and our parents warned us against swimming in the Broomer. But the rite of passage went on.

I was so scared that Christy Smith, who was likewise scared, agreed that we should go on our own late one evening. God, we must have been mad. The things kids will do because of perceived peer pressure.

Christy was slightly better at swimming than I, so he went first. Damn it, he made it look so easy. I was too scared not to go for it. So – over to the entrance to “Barney’s Field”, and a long, diagonal run, then: splash! Jesus! it was cold. Surface; and then a quick couple of strokes, and then the blessed bank. Scramble up, scratching your chest against the stones – who cares, I’m up! Exhilarated, but still got to get back. Stand there shivering, until Christy shouts “C’mon!” Don’t think, just gulp and dive. Dammit. I dived so well that when I surfaced all I had to do was reach out a hand and grab the bank, almost. How the heck did that happen? Fear, I guess. But now we’ve done it, who will believe us? No problem we’ll repeat it any time for anybody, ‘cos now we’re “big boys”.

It really did feel that good. Picture it! We’re standing on the bank by the bridge, shivering with the cold. No towels, just shake the water off as well as possible, and then get dressed. No underwear, just short trousers and harsh woolen gansey, but feeling good!

Anybody who knew me as a kid will know how close Christy and I were to each other; but never more so then. We shared so much together – our first dance, first girl, first kiss. I could write reams, but somehow I don’t think I will.

Christy died young, 30ish, after a short career in the RAF, and whilst all the memories are good, they’re also painful to me and I don’t want to be mawkish or overly sentimental. Although, having said that, I quite like sentiment ( I think most Irish do) and it’s me who’s writing this stuff, so I guess I should write what I bloody well like.

But, no: my pen is in charge so I’ll just follow where it leads.

As teenagers, Christy and I discussed many things and one thing, in particular, we agreed on. We did not wish to get married and raise kids in poverty (Christy’s family were less well off than us). So, we concocted a plan to make our way over the border into Northern Ireland, find a recruitment office, and sign up for service with the RAF and thus, hopefully, escape the poverty trap. That was Dublin for so many then.

Well Christy made it to Belfast and signed up, but me? Well I think I’m getting a head of myself, so I’ll come back to this part of my life later. I’m not finished with Cabra West yet. Guess I’ll never be finished. It’s in my blood, and I still think it was a wonderful place to be young in.

Just as an aside; since I started writing this nonsense, and my son Michael stared to post it on his blog site, we’ve had some wonderful responses from the most unexpected places and people. None more unexpected or welcome than one from “Noo Joizey” in the US of A – from a boy, Patrick Solan, who lived in Kilkieran Road and attended St Finbarrs school at the same time as me – even the same class and teacher. Patrick’s family emigrated in the late 1950’s (I think), and Pat served some time with the US military. As a result he was able to avail himself of the Vets’ Bill to go to college, and he’s now a Certified Accountant. Wow!

I always thought that New Jersey was only famous for Frank Sinatra, but now it’s Sinatra, the Sopranos, and Pat Solan. Well done! But it just goes to show what can be achieved if you give an Irishman half a chance.

Pat, who had chanced on Michael’s blog, first communicated with Michael and then, out of the blue, phoned me in England from New Jersey. Even now I find it difficult to express the surprise, shock, and other strong emotions it evinced.

One of the sad aspects of emigration is the loss of ties to school friends, cousins, and various other people who had once been part of your world. When I hear one of my sons (I’ve got four) talk of meeting or e-mailing an old school chum, I always feel a sense of loss. I hadn’t heard of, or from, any school friend other than Christy Smith for 53 years. So to hear Pat’s voice on the phone – to hear him mention other names from that bygone age – was bliss.

And that leads me, quite neatly, to St Finbarr’s School, Cabra West. As I think I’ve already mentioned, Cabra West was a new estate built on what had been farm land. Each of these new estates or “schemes” had to have a whole new infrastructure created, with new schools, clinics, shops, pubs, etc. Cabra, like all these schemes was awash with kids. The Irish birth rate was always very high, but now, with improvements in hygiene, housing, and medicine, the infant mortality rate was dropping so more of us kids survived to become adults.

It’s funny. At the time, the Irish Catholic Church was totally opposed to any form, or even any discussions, of birth control. At the same time, they opposed emigration – claiming that anybody who emigrated was putting their mortal soul in danger by going to live amongst pagans. So if you take my family as typical, my mother and father had six sons – how could any government, be it capitalist or socialist, provide jobs for the next generation at that rate of increases? If you asked a priest, and I did, the answer was “the Lord will provide”. Well he doesn’t seem to be doing so great in Africa and parts of Asia.

Still, I’m getting distracted; back to Cabra and St Finbarr’s. The school was built on the Kilkieran Road, close to the designated site for the new church, currently occupied by the corrugated iron building known affectionately as the ‘Tin Chapel’. Finbarrs was built on a mound, with a series of steps cut into the grassy bank inside the gates and leading to the main entrance. For us who lived on Rathoath Road, the route to school was down Fassaugh Avenue, turn left up the hill that was Dunmanus Road skirting the church grounds.

The Headmaster, a Mr. McCarty, had this wonderful method of welcoming the children to his school each morning. He would stand on the top of the steps with the school bell in his hand, and we sniveling kids making our way up Dunmanus Road well knew our fate! He would look at his watch and then ring his blasted bell and any kid in his range of vision who did not break into a run was singled out for punishment. Every morning he had a line of miserable kids; each one forced to climb those steps and stand behind him awaiting their fate. How he must have loved his moments of power! Puny little ********.

The school building was quite good, with spacious, well-lit school rooms, and an excellent playground, but over crowded. My class consisted of 58 pupils. To digress, for a moment, most often houses were two bedrooms – the rest were two plus a room that was so small it was an insult to call it a bedroom. For a culture that encouraged large families, the lack of sufficient bedrooms to segregate the sexes was surprising, as was the lack of sufficient classrooms and teachers. But I suppose I’m being a bit unfair in that I’m not allowing for the fact that what was built and provided was one hell of a lot better then the tenements and no schools left by our departing colonial masters. That, plus the fact that the Irish economy was still in a precarious state, means that people like me should perhaps be a little more understanding and a little less censorious.

Whatever; the system at our school was that you had the one teacher all day, every day, and he was supposed to divide the day/week up into segments covering all the parts of the National Curriculum in equal amounts. This, of course, meant that your education depended to a large extent on the quality and commitment of your designated teacher. Not all teachers are equal!

I was lucky. In fact, I think I was more than lucky. I was blessed with a teacher who happened to be a super human being. Each teacher was mandated to teach the following subjects:

Religious Knowledge (priority)
Algebra (a separate subject?)

Just how one teacher was supposed to do all that, plus control 58 unruly kids – most of whom did not want to be there! Their parents had no use for education on the basis of “I never had no schooling and what harm did it ever do me?

I believed that a teacher either had to be highly committed and motivated, or they became tyrannical bullies who ruled by the cane. Some of the stories circulating around the school and on the street, where kids swap stories about their teachers, suggest that many chose the cane. Certainly, the Headmaster appeared to typify that type of approach – but thankfully not in my class.

We, I believe, were Mr. McGreal’s first class at Finnbarr’s. I may be wrong in this, but he was certainly young and naïve. Our first full year he damn near caused a riot by handing our six weeks’ worth of maths homework for us to complete over annual summer break. He had established that most of us, the ones from the convent, were well below standard on numeracy. The Nuns tended to concentrate on Gaelic and, of course, Religious Knowledge, so he was naïve enough to think that we kids would use our blessed summer hols to catch up.

Anyway, Mr. McGreal: my hero. I would just love to be able to go back in time to shake that man’s hand. He came, I believe, from Connemara; a wild, rugged and very, very beautiful part of the West coast of Ireland. He was a fluent Gaelic speaker, with a great love for Irish Culture. He was never known to use a cane; a remarkable achievement in a Dublin school at that time with 58 unruly kids. But he managed it. Some might criticize that he did not do a very good job in teaching all the subjects in the curriculum. My guess is that he knew he was facing an impossible task, so he simply ignored some subjects and hammered away at “the three R’s” – reading, writing, and arithmetic.

He was easily diverted. He’d stop what he was supposed to be doing at the drop of a hat, and get carried was telling some tale or other of times gone by. But what he did do, he did so very well. He instilled in every kid the basic foundation of an education and never ceased in his efforts to develop a love of learning. His stories and his reading aloud about old Celtic heroes, plus the fact that the school-issued reading books were the one item he really concentrated on, certainly had its desired effect on me and, I’m sure, many others.

One of his tricks was to position me out in the corridor with that year’s school reading book and one of the “slower” pupils. His instruction to me would be: “don’t come back until so-and-so is up to page X”. So I spent a fair amount of time in that corridor, and I have to say I enjoyed the experience.

I’ve already written about my, fear of, or distaste for, being different, so McGreal’s tactic had that potential to mark me out. But it didn’t happen. In the class, I was never a “lick arse”. In fact, I was more of a smartass questioning type. The others kids seemed to accept this, and some of the toughest, roughest kids – the ones most likely to bully a type like me – actually did the reverse and kind of looked out for me, which was surprising but nice.

I oftimes wonder if any of those kids (if they’re still alive) ever think back to days in McGreal’s class and time spent in the corridor. We were certainly a mixed bunch. Some had parents who actively encouraged truancy, most never had a bath from one week to another, few had changes of clothes – what you wore had to last, and may be handed down to a younger brother. So I think there may have been some interesting ‘aromas’ wafting round the classrooms back then. And that, I think, may have been part of the problem for many teachers. They were the middle class, and we the great unwashed. I’m of the opinion that most of the teachers disliked us and held us in contempt. McGreal didn’t. He had an enthusiasm which carried through each day.

It’s possible that I’m being overly critical. The government of the day did a reasonable job building new housing estates, new schools and the entire infrastructure with limited economic resources. So, yes – the class sizes were too large, and the number of teachers small. But (and it’s a bloody big “but”) if education is, as I hold, the basis for freedom and prosperity, then those guys created something good.

In the early 90’s I was reading in the international press that Ireland was rated as having the highest-educated population in the Western world. WOW! And that this fact, more than any other factor, created the “Celtic Tiger”. Ireland today enjoys a level of economic success and an employment rate that wasn’t even dreamed of in my day. For the very first time in Ireland’s history, she is experiencing reverse emigration – Ireland’s sons and daughters getting to return to their own land and culture.

Enough! I’m wittering again, so back to Cabra West.

I’m sitting here in an apartment in Costa Teguise on the isle of Lanzarote in the Canary Islands, off the coast of Africa. It’s late February and it’s a clear blue sky and 22°C and I’m sitting here remembering winter evenings back then. We, the kids, used to pray for a hard frost.

Somebody would find or have an old sack which they would dip into the nearest ‘shore’ (the cast steel storm gutter set into the road adjacent to the kerb). They would drag the wet, dripping sack repeatedly over the same stretch of pavement, preferably a stretch with a small incline. The water would freeze creating an ice slide, which we would polish with the soles of your shoes.

So now you’ve got all the kids lining up to take their turn on the slide. Unisex! Some of the girls were simply brilliant on the slide! But, God – I still remember the day following your evening of sliding. The muscles of your lower body, particularly in the groin and inner thighs would ache like hell. But how we waited anxiously for school-out time, to get back to the slide.

Most adults were tolerant and simply stepped over what was potentially a dangerous hazard. There was always the odd sourpuss who’d pour ashes over the slide to spoil the fun. Didn’t work – the only thing that stopped us was a thaw, and dammit how we prayed that might not happen just yet! Occasionally, if we were really lucky, the school had to close because of snow or (boiler trouble) and those unexpected holidays were, are, treasured memories.

Wonder if kids in Dublin today still make ice slides? I know that if I lived in Dublin and the local kids made a slide, I’d not throw ashes on it. I’d be up in my bedroom window looking at them with tears of happiness streaming. It’s astonishing how memories of such simple pleasures as an ice slide can be so burned into your consciousness that they still evoke feelings of warmth and happiness across the years.

Because of the damage my lungs sustained when I contracted Scarlet fever, I was crap at sport – but boy could I slide! I literally did go into the church on my way home from school to kneel down and pray for frost. If there was such a thing as a God, he must have chuckled at a little Dublin gurrier with ragged arse praying for frost, when all the adults would of course be wanting the exact opposite.

Those were the days of cold homes: no double glazing, no central heating and, in many houses, not even the money to buy coal! My rose-tinted glasses sometimes get me carried away. I can remember going into other houses on our road in the middle of winter and: no fire. Of course, this also meant no baths, ‘cos the water was heated by a “back boiler” behind the fire grate in the living room.

There was a government relief scheme whereby poor people were given vouchers for free fuel, mainly peat or “turf” as we called it. We did not qualify but I, and some of my brothers, still got to go to the Fuel Depots and collect a little coal and a couple of large sacks of peat. How come? Well, some of the people were so poor, often because the husband drank, that they sold their vouchers to get money to buy food. So people who got vouchers for free blankets, children’s clothes, or fuel would approach my Ma and offer them to her. There was other bastards who would buy at a sharp discount. Ma was the reverse; her motivation was to help.

One of the ploys was for the women to go to the government department or charity where they’d be allocated free shoes (boots), blankets, or woolen ganseys. They’d then go straight away to the pawn shop – strictly illegal, but most turned a blind eye.

They’d pawn for whatever they could obtain, and then they’d have a pawn ticket which was useless to them as there would be little chance of them ever having the wherewithal to redeem their pledge. So they’d then offer the pawn ticket for sale – and they always knew Ma for a soft touch. And once again I’ll say it: “God bless the pawn shops”.

Anyway, as result of the above, we kids at 125 Rathoath usually had a good supply of ganseys, blankets, shoes, etc. So we’d have suffered less from the cold winter then many another. I wonder if my brother Larry remembers those winters when Da was still in work and we, Larry and I, would be sent upstairs in the evening to light the fire in the front bedroom? Luxury! There we learned the art of building a fire. Rolled newspaper, not too tightly rolled, then some kindling wood propped against the paper to form a tent. Then, carefully, apply some lumps of coal.

In Ireland, where coal (imported) was expensive and peat (plentiful) was cheap we tended to use coal to get the fire off to a bright start before heaping on the peat, which was invariably damp. The vendors sold by weight, so I sometimes wonder how much water my parents paid for over the years when they were buying fuel.

Of course, nowadays we have progressed: the water we buy now is in chicken and bacon and other forms of meat. Such is life! I think I’d rather they carried on wetting peat and leave my bloody bacon alone! Think on it: you’re looking forward to a lovely bacon butty, or a full Irish breakfast; you stick the bacon on the pan it starts to splutter and to exude a discussing white scum which sticks to the pan, whilst the bacon shrivels up to less then half its original size! And if you say “why not grill the bacon?” well every eejit knows that an egg fried in the bacon tastes ten times as good! And the slice of bread fried in proper bacon fat – to die for!

So that’s my grouse for today. Let’s move on, or back. I’ve said that schemes (estates) like Cabra West were always packed with kids and, given that the houses were small, and the poor housewife had so very much work to do, it was small wonder that we kids spent so much time out on the streets – playing in all weathers and hating the thought of having to go home and to bed. And so, a Dublin childhood is one of many kids games such as “Ring-A-Roses”, “Relievio”, skipping and “Beds”. Strange that Ring-A-Roses should be a childhood jingle based on an epidemic of plague in the Middle Ages, when one of the first symptoms was the appearance of bright red pustules on the face and torso. Also strange that the game appears to be universal throughout the English-speaking world. I’ve heard of the kids playing the game and singing the jingle in places as diverse as Toronto and New York.

But “the Darling Relievio”, as it has been called, always seemed to be Dublin-based. The game was a form of combat with well-defined rules. As I remember it, two teams were formed – a member of one team was placed in “prison” with the other team acting as the prison/jailers, using a garden wall or hedge as the backdrop. The other team had to try and relieve the captured team member by force or surprise. If one of the attackers could pierce the defendants ring, touch the captive and shout “Relievio” then they had won. So now the teams would switch roles, and so and on.

It really was a lovely game with opportunities for team work, diversionary attacks, feints, individual heroism, leadership, and so forth. And all this from one kids’ game. I must be nuts. What’s the origin of the game? How old is it? Do they still play it? I don’t know but I’d sure like to know. Maybe someday someone will enlighten me.

You know, I think somebody should write a book on the kids games of Dublin and, who knows, maybe someone has. Dublin has no shortage of amateur historians. Guess I’ll have to look it up on the old Internet.

March 17, 2004

Part one

Filed under: Uncategorized — admin @ 2:35 am

My Grandfather, Patrick Clarke, was a sailor and fisherman.

He came from a small village in County Dublin, in a bay somewhere between Skerries and Lusk on the Dublin coast. My Da often spoke of a small rock or islet called St. Patrick’s island, which reputedly had a footprint embedded in the rock, placed there by St. Pat when he returned to Ireland to save us all from our ungodly ways. Apparently, my Grandda learned his skills as a sailor fishing for crabs and lobsters off Pat’s island.

Sometime in the late eighteen hundreds he got married and moved to what was then a small fishing village, just outside Dublin. That village was Ringsend — now part of greater Dublin.

Their tiny cottage was the first in a line of cottages newly built on reclaimed land which formed part of the sea wall where the rivers Dodder and the Liffy flowed in to the Irish Sea. It was called Pigeon House Road and it provided a safe anchorage for the small fleet who plied their trade there, with the added advantage of being close to their main market, Dublin.

This was where the Da grew up, in a hard but happy home enviroment. He was the eldest of six; four boys, two girls.

My Grandfather married a woman named Mary Jane Swain, reputedly the daughter of an English soldier. She was born in India and came to Ireland when her father was transferred to a garrison in Dublin.

It’s curious how things come around. I was thinking the other day of how as a kid I would hear my Da talk of Ringsend, Pigeon House Rd., and the Half Moon Lighthouse where they had a men only swimming club, where the men swam naked.

Part of the area was still being reclaimed from the sea using Dublin City waste, and this area was nicknamed the ‘Sloblands’. All these names seemed so exotic and foreign to me that they excited the imagination of a young 5 to 8 year old. A young lad who already had too high an imagination from having taught himself to read — helped in part by the ‘Ma’ who used to read out the comic strips from the Dublin papers, the ‘Herald’ and ‘Mail’ to Larry and me.

So: ‘Mandrake the Magician’ and ‘Mutt & Jeff’ were my introduction to the magic of words and language. Dear God! I can still see Larry and I at the old kitchen table trying to spell out the words ourselves, before Ma sat down and took us through them.

Anyway, I was saying how Ringsend names seemed exciting. Well, Gerard gave me some super books for Christmas, as he often does. One of these books, published in the early 60’s and called ‘The Great Hunger’, concerns itself with the Irish Famine of 1845-6. It is a scholarly, well-researched tome, which makes the reading all the more harrowing.

In setting the background to the tragedy to come, the author writes of Daniel O’Connell, the ‘Great Emancipator’. O’Connell organised his last great monster rally in 1842 to take place on Clontarf fields, just outside Dublin as it was then. Clontarf was of course the place where our legendary King Brian Boru saw off the Vikings by defeating them in pitched battle. He destroyed their ships; thus ending their days of raiding and pillage, but sadly lost his life doing so.

O’Connell’s rally scared the authorities. That such huge events could be organised peacefully was a threat they could not comprehend. I believe they would have preferred violence — they knew how to deal with that!

The rally was called off at the last minute by O’Connell, who had reason to believe that the establishment was preparing roadblocks and outright provocation. He is reputed to have said: “Human blood is no cement for the temple of liberty”. Not a sentiment I would necessarily share, but one can only admire his courage and remember that it was the emancipation of the Catholic faith he was striving for.

Anyway, the book mentions that the guns at Ringsend Fort were turned round and trained on the fields of Clontarf on that day, so you see they really were exciting places.

My paternal Grandfather, who I do not remember, was, I’m told, a short tight wiry man; light and fast with a quick temper and a fondness for the bottle and any bit of fun that was to be had. He played football for Shamrock Rovers in their formative years. They nicknamed him ‘Eeler’, on account of his speed and agility.

He worked the boats and ships. Three times he served as part of the professional crew on the ‘Shamrock’ series yachts. They were the yachts which Sir Thomas Lipton, an Anglo Irish merchant, had commissioned at great cost to attempt to retrieve the Americas Cup trophy for Britain. He never succeeded, and Da had some stories to tell of the so-called sporting instincts of the American yachting fraternity.

My Grandfather was the official diver for Dublin Corporation. Any problems with underwater cables or whatever and he would don his old heavy diving suit and attend to it. So he must have had a very practical bent to be a Mr. Fixit.

He finished his career as Captain of the River Liffey Dredger, which had the task of keeping the river mouth navigable by a never-ending war on silt build-up. The story goes that he would sail the damn dredger right up to the wall on the Dodder River, just by his house. He would tie up, climb up the wall, and go into his house for lunch. The tub was low and flat and at low tide could not be seen from the road. Having had his lunch, just for a laugh, he would sprint out of the house and leap over the sea wall. Strangers would panic thinking he was committing suicide. A total nut!

His two daughters, Julia and Annie, married two brothers, from Tullow, Co. Carlow, which was then a remote rural village. Apparently, the locals loved him dearly. After a pint or twenty, he would dance a sailor’s hornpipe and finish with a somersault from a standing start. True or false? I don’t know — but I heard my Da tell the story more than once and Ma, who was genuinely very fond of him, well… she believed it.

He is buried in Tullow, which he came to love so much, and on his gravestone they inscribed words borrowed from Robert Louis Stevenson’s epitaph: ‘Home is the hunter home from the hill and the sailor home from the sea’. Wish I’d a knowed you G’da!

My Grandmother, Mary Jane Swain, was the complete opposite. Was this because she had to balance Granddad’s fecklessness, or because she had a hard upbringing, or both? We will never know, but Mary Jane, who I remember well, could be described euphemistically as “frugal”, or as Ma put it “as mean as ditchwater”!

I can remember when she would come to stay with us for a while. She was by now a widow, and had given up her house in Ringsend to her son Joe and his wife, and was living with her daughter Julia, in Tullow.

She drove us mad. I can remember that if there was a postage stamp on the mantelpiece she would sit down and write a letter; if Ma had some Lux soap flakes she would wash her smalls, always saying: “I must pay Bridie for this”. But it was like the national debt: it just kept growing!

She always seemed to cause friction between Ma and Da and I learned later this was true with her other sons and their wives also. Eventually, Phyllis Cullen, Uncle Joe’s wife, refused her entry into what had been her own home! How do I know this? Well apart from it being part of family history, I actually got the blame once!

My sister Julie and I went to Dublin for our Uncle Joe’s funeral. This was after we had emigrated to England, so I’m talking of events ‘back home’. We had a sort of tradition that one or two of Bridie’s kids would attend a funeral or wedding, as a representative of the rest of the family who could not be there — we all had young families of our own then.

Anyway, after the burial we all retired to the local Ringsend pub, as was the custom. Sometime later in the evening, well in our cups, I was accosted by a very old lady who was somewhat confused. She said “Joe Clarke you’re a bastard! What you did to your Mother was a sin”. She said she had met Mary Jane on Capel Street Bridge the day Phyllis had slammed the door in her face and she did not have a bed to sleep in! And I was the one who had allowed this to happen. After the initial shock, I was actually thrilled! To be mistaken for my Uncle Joe was a wonderful honour.

Joe had inherited his Da’s looks and personality. He was handsome with wavy red hair, which would have curled if allowed to grow. He had an infectious laugh and would sing at the drop of a hat. As kids, we all loved his visits. Uncle Joe and Aunt Phyllis with Charlie their son (who at the time was lead singer with ‘The Jolly Beggarmen’) came to Southend for my baby sister Theresa’s wedding to Kevin Quinn in the 60’s. What a wedding! Charlie wowed them in the Plough and Joe was the undisputed star of the show with his hit song: ‘The Red Revolution’. Star after Theresa, the true star that is!

Going back to the funeral, though – the other thing I remember was that Julie and I came back to the pub with people we did not know, so we were on our own for a few minutes whilst everybody else made their way back. The graveyard was God-awful. All funerals seem to take place in January or February, with the East wind coming off the river and out of the Irish Sea beyond.

Graveyards are always exposed, so you stand around whilst the wind cuts through your clothes like a knife. People who leave Dublin tend to forget the East wind; it soon renews acquaintance! Anyway, as soon as I got in to the pub I went to the bar and ordered a large whiskey. I had forgotten the Irish measure was much larger than the English was, and I had what amounted to a triple! I then had a pint of Guinness and sat down whilst the drinking and buying of rounds began.

Uncle Joe’s kids did all the buying. My cousin Charlie, (Joe’s eldest, now dead himself RIP) came to the table and said ‘Joe what’s wrong with the whiskey?’ The barman had told them my drink was a double and a Guinness so every round they were placing them in front of Julie and I, only Julie does not drink!

There were at least 7/8 glasses of whiskey on the table in my name, I was there to represent the Jim and Bridie branch of the family, and I want to record that I did not let the family down, though I have no memory of the rest of the evening. I can only assume that Julie looked after me, she always has.

This stuff is meandering all over the place and I don’t give a damn. My beloved son Michael started this, and he is right: the genie is out of the bottle and won’t be hushed.

There is pain and joy in this in equal measures, but it deserves to be written. I can remember a conversation with Gerard once when he told me of conversations he had had at Oxford and in Chambers. His peers would talk of unhappy childhoods and of specific incidents within those childhoods. Gerard said that he sometimes felt isolated and unique in that all his memories of childhood were joyous.

That about sums up my childhood. My generation possibly suffered more hardship and poverty, but I can never remember feeling poor! We certainly had more illnesses and early deaths then, but overall we were blessed with strong parents. Da’s strength was duty and Ma’s was love. There was then a superb community spirit, helped greatly by Ma’s generous nature, which made us, the Clarke Family, the most popular family in our area.

I grew up with books. I used them first as building blocks to look out of the bedroom window before I started to read! Da had a library built up by frequenting second hand bookshops and stalls over many years and that became my treasure island. Sometimes to Da’s horror, for some of his books might be called ‘grownup’.

But he had a truly eclectic choice of books. I read Victor Hugo’s ‘Les Miserables’ in two volumes when I was nine. Not sure I fully understood it all but I sure understood enough. Da had two big illustrated tomes: ‘Great Short Stories of the World’ and ‘Great Peoples of the World’. The one about people had stunning monochrome photos of races, tribes, and dress customs world-wide. My favourites were a magnificent sheikh with a turban and a coiffured beard, which seemed to grow out in all directions, and an American Indian of possibly the Seminole tribe in full feathered regalia. Far better than any Roy Rogers movie. Each photo or set of photos was accompanied by a description of the country or locale of origin, the religion, dress and customs, etc. Fascinating stuff for a young boy. I hunted buffalo with the Plains Indians, took part in tiger shoots in Bengal, and trod the frozen tundra on snowshoes following a dog sleigh. And this before I read Jack London’s ‘Call of the Wild’!

The other book, ‘Great Short Stories of the World’, was my entry to the whole world. I can remember still one story from Japan called ‘The Forty Ronin’, which impressed me. (Only last year Yukiko, Kieron’s wife, explained that Ronins were Samurai warriors who lacked a clan or clan leader and wandered around looking for paid adventures.) This particular bunch I believe were dead set on avenging their dead warlord. A lesson in loyalty, if somewhat misplaced.

There was also a section on Eastern European Jewish writing where I came across words like ‘pogrom’, ‘shtetl’, and ‘ghetto’. It was here that I started to pick up ideas on human suffering, injustice, and the blind hate that is racism or religious intolerance.

Looking back, I find it a little strange that all Da’s reading never weakened or diminished his love of God and devotion to the Catholic Church. I guess the faith went deeper in his generation. My own view was that I could see the huge potential for good implicit in an organisation which claimed to preach and follow the wisdom of the son of a carpenter, as stated in his parables. But all of this was buried under layers of avarice, egotism and sheer bloody ignorance.

I may well be wrong but my life long observations suggest that, on balance, authoritarian organisations, be they Christian, Muslim, Jewish or Communist, that set out to offer so much, end up being a brake on human progress. As the man said: ‘Revolutions are led by giants, but they are rarely succeeded by giants’.

This is, I accept, a highly subjective view and I must stress that I have no wish to give offence or challenge anyone’s beliefs. I have in my life met some truly good priests and ex-priests, and sadly one or two of the other sort.

But getting back to Dublin ‘in the rare ould times’. (Michael you volunteered to edit this, bet your regretting it now. TS!) …

When Granny Clarke came to visit, Ma seemed to go out a lot. I wonder why? Or am I just imagining this? Did what I’m about to relate happen just once or more often? Bet Larry will know.

Anyway, we would come home from school about 4 to 4.30, and Granny was supposed to ‘look after’ us. When Ma cut a loaf of bread she sliced the lot, with eight kids, what would be the point of stopping! Not the Granny — she sliced thinly She would then dip the knife in the butter and simply wipe it clean on the bread, then she would hand it to you with the dreadful words ‘that is sufficient’. I’ve never been able to tolerate that damned word ever since.

Later, in my late teens, I was to get almost friendly with my Granny. She was then living back in Dublin in upmarket Ballsbridge acting as a paid companion or PA to a lady who was part of the Dublin Senior Civil Service — Under Permanent Secretary, or some such.

How it came about, I don’t remember — but when Kay and I were courting we got invited to tea at the granny flat, which was part of the big house. The hospitality was excellent: sandwiches, scones, cakes, etc. But then I guess she wasn’t paying for it.

She was fashionably dressed, with permed, blue-rinsed hair, and a degree of elegance and sophistication. (Kay reckoned she was not a ‘proper’ granny at all!) I can actually remember sitting having a witty, well-informed conversation with a woman two generations older. As a teenager, I did not understand this. Sitting here now, I’m reflecting that I may have been too harsh in my judgement. She was a creature of her times, and as the times evolved so did she.

So. I’m going to go backwards. I now find I’m dredging up memories of things, stories, episodes that I suppose explain or rationalise or simply say ‘Joe you weren’t there, so don’t judge’.

When Da was a boy, his Dad tended to work the local fishing boats most of the time, when not away on deep-sea fishing or on the yachts. How did Granny receive wages whilst he was away? I don’t know. On to the fishing…

In those days the local boats were sort of jointly owned by a loose knit co-op consortium. Some families or individuals would own shares in the boat, some one else would own the sails, and another would own the nets. The skipper and crew would go to sea and be paid a share of the catch. So if, say, they got caught in a storm and had to jettison the nets, then nobody got to eat or pay rent.

When the catch was good, then shares were apportioned according to who owned or had done what. So the Skipper got X shares and the crew got X minus and so on down to the boy who got a quarter of one share. I know, because my Da was that boy from age twelve to fourteen. He adored it, but imagine what it was like for the women keeping the household going, rearing children and always, always trying to pinch a penny to make it do the work of two.

The boats used to fish around the Isle of Man and Calf of Man, up the top of the Irish Sea, in waters that could turn threatening very quickly. Just ask Julie about our trip to the Isle of Man! They also went as far as Iceland for cod, or various banks around the British Isles for mackerel and herring according to the seasons.

When they got a good catch the job was only half done. They then had to get it to their home port as quickly as possible. One way this was achieved was to sail to the nearest port, load the catch on a train, and telegraph the boat’s principle owner.

The wives (my granny was a fish wife, so there!) would meet the train, gut and clean the fish, and have their own sale on their barrows (usually old prams with a board on the top, which some market dealers still use today in Dublin), all within hours of getting the message.

This meant, of course, that the women handled the money, and many a battle ensued between the husband who wanted the money for drink and the wife who had to pay the rent and feed the family and always try and hide a little for the hungry tomorrow which was sure to come.

No wonder they were tough. Is this why Da wouldn’t drink, did Granny instil a horror of excess in him? I know he was her eldest and dearest and she exerted a strong influence throughout his life. For a woman to rear a family in those circumstances, and still retain personal ambition for herself and her children speaks volumes for inner strength and, dare I say it: love.

Would Da have worked so long and so hard all those years, bringing home his wage packet and giving it to Ma without having been set an example which served to offset the lovely ‘come day go day’ attitude of his Dad and his peers? Lovely, he says, but it did not pay the rent!

I said that Da worked the boats when he was twelve years old, and he sure liked to talk of those days. When they landed mackerel or herring they would feed on them raw, which he asserted was the finest food he had ever eaten. He told of how in time of storms they would have no choice but to run for the nearest safe harbour which might be Douglas in the Isle of Man or Torbay in Devon for example. On that basis, he laid claim to blood relations all around the British Isles, as they could be hove up for days or weeks, so inevitably relationships occurred. It was in this way that Da claimed we were linked to Thomas Clarke, the great Irish revolutionary hero. Tom hailed from the Isle of Wight, and Da believed there was links going back to Lusk and Skerries. I’ve never researched it; maybe someday.

Before I move on, think of the wives left at home whilst the men were sheltering in a foreign port. No money coming in, but they still had to manage. Mary Jane did more than manage; she saved money to invest in her children’s future. So thank you, Mary Jane. Rest well, you’ve earned it.

None of her sons went to sea. Sailing and fishing have always been perilous professions, with losses being an accepted day-to-day event, and that was certainly true in those times with decrepit boats and tackle. So Da was put to a paid apprenticeship, Joe and Paddy to the newly emerging Irish national transport system, CIE, as bus drivers, (over eighty years accident free driving between the two of them!).

I don’t know how Uncle John started off, but he spent many years abroad in the British Army. When he was demobbed back to Dublin he and his family emigrated to London, coming to stay with us in Willesden, as was the way then of share-and-share-alike. The highlight of John’s career was to serve as Lord Mayor of Stevenage and become a personal friend of Shirley Williams, much to the disgust of my brother Peter. I went to my Uncle John’s funeral and subsequently some of his family came to visit Kay and I at our Pub, but we have since lost touch.

Sometimes you have a wish that a loved one could come back for a few minutes just so you could tell them something. Da used to tell of fishing off Iceland in winter when they would stay up all night using axes to chop the ice off the rigging and super structure to prevent the boat becoming top heavy and keeling over. It sounded like something out of Finn McCool to me, so I always took it with a pinch of salt. Then a few years ago I was watching a documentary about modern trawlers fishing off Iceland. They are still chopping off ice!

I’ve tried to picture myself aged twelve hacking away with an axe, literally to save my life! Spending a couple of weeks in Toronto in January kind of helps to visualise the scene and the cold, so I’d like to be able to say “Jasus Da –that was a great programme!” I think I understand why Da loved it so much. It must have been grand, even though it was scary.

Mary Jane took Da away from the sea when he was fourteen. She had scrimped and saved and managed to raise the money to buy him an apprenticeship as a Woodworking Machinist. This was a highly respected trade, tightly regulated, with its own trade organisation. So how did she do it? I know it would have cost a pretty price then, but was entry gained because Ireland and Britain were in a state of flux, with the Great War draining the life blood of both islands whilst fuelling a demand for materials? Perhaps Nobby will know. I know they often discussed the Trade because Nobby in turn became a Woodworking Machinist, to Da’s great pride.

Nobby developed a reputation as one of, if not the best young Tradesman in Dublin, and God did Da walk tall. But I’m getting ahead of myself again, Nobby was and is a lot more than just a ‘good tradesman’, and I hope that later on I might be able to do him full justice.

Da did not particularly love the Wood Trade; his heart was at sea. But he went with it. In those days a tradesman wore a stiff collar and a bowler hat and always well-polished boots. Da, who would have been quite well paid as a young bachelor, held a place in what passed then for Dublin Café Society. He had a circle of friends, many of whom stayed in touch right up to our leaving Dublin in the late fifties. Alas, not all of them survived till then. One friend, Nobby Clarke (same name but no relation) was a poet and artist. By profession, he was a graphic artist who designed and developed posters to hang outside the newly emerging cinemas to publicise forthcoming movies. He and Da were very close; he died, age thirty-two, of TB. He left in Da’s possession a small mauve leather portmanteau containing letters, scribbles, witty jottings etc., and some poetry. Also, some framed charcoal and chalk studies which I greatly loved as a kid.

Before he died he wrote Da a letter from the Hospital. Nobby still has that letter. He sent photostats to all of us a few years ago. I’m going to find it and insert it here. The tone and wording of the letter describes not just the writer, but also the recipient. We are talking here of a Da from a time and era I never knew. But it was so much a part of the man that I do so wish I had listened more, and encouraged him to talk more when, in his later years, he often gave the impression that he wished to reminisce.

A few incidents which help to show some of his hidden strength:

During the early part of World War II, when the German Airforce dominated the skies, Dublin did not escape pilots who had got lost or overshot their target (or got chased?). They would jettison their bomb load to leave enough fuel to hopefully be able to get home. They always claimed to aim for a body of water; the Liffey, or open land; Phoenix Park. However, Dublin took some direct hits in the North Strand area.

But the point is that there was a heightened expectation of bombing. Da and his co-workers were ordered to serve on a night-time fire bomb rota at the Factory. The Boss and Owner stated “You have a duty to guard the Factory”. Da risked his job to stand alone from his fellow workers and answer: “My duty is to protect my wife and family”. I’m not sure if many people today in an age of high employment and Social Security can appreciate the cold courage that took, because the Da was never impulsive or hot-tempered.

A few years later, when we lived in Cabra West, I had a pal named Jackie Farrell, who lived a few doors away. His Dad was a soldier in the Irish Free State Army, who went to work and came home just like any other father, except he wore a uniform. One day Jackie and I had a squabble and I gave him a bloody nose, and Tiny our dog nipped his calf for good measure! That evening Da was sitting by the fire soaking his feet, as was his wont. Came a heavy knocking at the front door. Ma went out and opened the door and after a few words she walked in to the room and gave me a deadly look and simply said “Da someone at the door for you”.

Da went out; it was Farrell breathing fire and brimstone! Da (I’m told) said ‘just a minute’ came back inside, put his boots on, and took Farrell into the front garden, closing the door behind him to shield us. Farrell was doing the big Mohammed Ali psych out, which brought all the neighbours out. Da, I learned the next day, threw one punch, Farrell went down, Da walked back inside, took his boots off and picked up his newspaper. What a man! What did Ma do to me? Mind your own business (but I never hit another kid).

But again I’m getting ahead of myself. Back to the unmarried Da and Ma…

They married late in life for their generation — Ma was twenty-eight and Da was thirty. Da had had a girlfriend for many years and indeed was engaged to be married to her when he met Ma. Who was she, what was her story? We will never know. I can remember being in the city once with Ma and she pointed to a passing woman and told me who she was. I don’t think she ever married. Maybe Nobby or Jim can fill me in on some more details, it’s all part of the picture.

The dates start to get hazy here (I’ll need to confirm with Nobby), Da started his own company in partnership with a fellow named Fennelly, a joinery business manufacturing window frames, door casings, etc. They did very well for a while, and then went bust! Loads of orders but no materials. How did that happen?

Strange; I’ve just finished reading a biography of Eamonn De Valera, the Irish Leader, written by Prof. Dennis Gwynn (another superb book choice from Gerard). It explains how Dev was determined to break not just political but economic links with the ould enemy, Great Britain. He realised that Ireland could never be free until she could stand alone on home produce and home manufacturing with the attendant balance of payments and cash flow from trading with international partners. Never just one larger, so-called partner.

He knew the short-term hardships this policy would cause, but he was a cold, hard bastard who, in my view, probably did more to create the bustling, dynamic green tiger of today than anyone else. All this in spite of the God-awful things he did to the ‘Cause’ and to men like Michael Collins. DEV! What a love-hate relationship even now! I grew up in an era when his very name evoked passion that was profound. Anti-Treaty, Pro-Treaty alike seemed to detest him, but all feared and respected the name. I suspect that only he had the blind arrogance and supreme egotism to guide the infant State through such troubled waters.

Lloyd George famously said “Give the Irish their freedom and let them fight in peace”. Although Dev caused the Civil War he was clever and did not participate, even though he was regarded as the prime rebel and when he deemed the moment right he stopped the war by going back into the Dail and quickly became Taoiscech. Such a coldly ambitious man. (Ref. Prof. Dennis Gwynn’s book ‘De Valera’ JARROLDS LONDON 1933)

Anyway, Ma always did say I had been vaccinated with a gramophone needle! Dev stopped virtually all trade between Ireland and Britain, her only supplier. Ireland’s biggest export then was cattle. BANG he stopped it overnight! He told the farmers to grow grain. All Irish bread and Guinness was being made from Canadian or American grain, shipped in by, and through, Britain. This was true of everything consumed in Ireland, including timber.

So the failure of Da’s business was just a little incident in the long history of repression between our two islands. At least Ireland was heading in the right direction, but that was poor consolation for the Da at the time.

I can remember at the age of sixteen or so a man about Da’s age telling me about his memories of those days. He was a farmer’s son, the second or third, and he had to leave home to try and find work until things turned round and they needed even more labour on the farm, as arable crops tended to be very labour intensive in those days.

He spoke of the huge glut of cattle meat The farmers could not afford the cattle feed, imported, so the herds were being destroyed, not just culled! He said the local Councils were doing a sort of interventionist buying and giving vouchers for free meat to the poor. So this time when the Irish poor had no bread it was not a case of ‘let them eat cake’ but ‘let them eat ——‘

You know I’m sitting here on a sunny balcony in Tenerife in January, I’m sixty-six years of age and yet I can almost taste those days. One of Dickens’ characters in ‘A Christmas Carol’ says ‘Lord keep the memories green’. Yes please, and how!

Da’s memories of those days were not so green: out of work, out of pocket. He went on a Local Government Employment Scheme — ditch digging, similar to Roosevelt’s schemes in America. This was all against the background of the Great Depression, remember, only Ireland suffered twice. Da cried from the pain in his shoulder and arms, and his hands cracked and bled from such unaccustomed labour.

He felt deep shame that a man twice his age, who was working beside him and had been a labourer all his life, had to carry him. This man showed Da how to use a shovel and pace himself, and he would remove three shovel loads for every two of Da’s and so protected the quota of both. May the God of Heaven shine his light on you whoever you were. Thanks.

I said I was getting hazy with dates — was this before Da got moved on or after? I think, I’m sure, after. Why? Because now I’m remembering Da’s pride in telling us of our first home: 32 Offaly Road, Cabra (sometimes called Old Cabra).

The Dublin Corporation of those days was no paragon of virtue. Many, most of the members were slum landlords who enacted local housing legislation in public and ignored it in private. However they were scared shitless by Dev and other revolutionaries like Big Jim Larkin (more of him later) and Thomas Clarke’s widow Kathleen, a true hero.

They started house building schemes all around the perimeter of Dublin. I believe they extended the City limits several times by compulsorily purchasing land. Guess a few pockets got lined on the way. “Bird who feathers his own nest” What the hell book is that a quote from, I wonder! One of Da’s collection, ‘The Black Rose’ set in the Orient? Anybody help me out here?

Anyway, one such scheme, and I think one of the first, was Cabra. They built the houses to a set pattern with a large space for a church and school in the centre. They, and possibly the Church, paid for the school, but the people had to pay for the church — and boy did those priests know how to extract money. The parish churches of those schemes are monuments to… Well, you think what you want to think. It’s a toss up who took more; the publican or the church. At least the church gave some back I suppose.

A proportion of the houses were classified as ‘Purchase Houses’. You paid a modest deposit and signed up for a forty-year mortgage on reasonable terms. Do I detect the hand of Larkin here? Who would possibly be against house purchasing but was pragmatic enough to say ‘If you’re going to do this I’ll make bloody sure you do it right.’ Who knows…

Da bought the house before he got married. Ma, who had been working and boarding in the ‘Salthill Hotel’ in Bray since she was sixteen, moved into the house before the wedding — a scandal in the eyes of some at that time.

Da had commissioned a suite of bedroom furniture from a Jewish cabinetmaking company, Noyek — bed, large wardrobe, dressing table, and chest of drawers. Part of my childhood wonder. Veneered in a beautiful, coloured sapele mahogany cut on the bias and layered in quadrants. Sapele has a very clear grain of strong, well-defined straight lines. So the effect of the quartered panels made it appear as if you were looking down a long corridor in each panel. All this to Da’s own design, and paid for in full before marriage.

Da, who was a truthful man claims to have had £300.00 in savings on his wedding night. This in the late 1920’s! ( I had £270.00 in mine or, more truthfully, a receipt for a honeymoon in Barcelona plus spending money — thanks to Kay who did the saving.) So Da was a man of substance at the time of his wedding to Ma. The loss of his business and pride was, I think, just the first of many blows life was to land on the rock that was my Da.

When I was about four and starting to attend Christ the King School, just across the road from where we lived, Ma had five, maybe six children then: Gerard (Nobby), James (Jim), Laurence Joseph (Larry) Joseph (Me), Julie and probably Paul as an infant. Our house was in big trouble. Turned out there was a small underground river, a tributary of the Liffey, called the Bradoge, which flowed under our part of Cabra.

Da claimed, probably with knowledge, that the original plans showed a wide space, park or playground was designated for the area where our house stood. But what the hell, shove a few more houses in and maximise the divi! The house was damp! In the last few months that we lived there we lived on the first floor. The water was above the floorboards when we had rain. I would like to point out that it does sometimes rain in Ireland. We had green and black fungus growing everywhere. I am almost sure we had mushrooms!

What a horrible experience for Ma and what a blow to Da’s pride. The man who’d owned the first radio in all Cabra. The Dublin Corporation denied all responsibility and refused any assistance, but they didn’t know my Da. He declared war with only one objective; the health of his wife and kids.

You know, later in my life when I was dealing with problems as we all get to do some times — going to work, trying to protect your job, being cheerful and happy with the kids so that they do not sense the inner turmoil, and battling with the tortoise mentality of solicitors and bureaucrats — I would stop and think: it was worse for my Da, and yet he made it.

After exhausting his time and money on solicitors, Da enlisted the help of Big Jim (Larkin) who was Ma’s cousin! As an aside, every time I go to Dublin I make a point of going into the middle of O’Connell Street, to stand and gaze up in awe and reverence at the magnificent statue of Big Jim. One: I’m so proud to have Larkin blood in my veins, and two: I so deeply respect and honour the memory of what he did for my family. I know there are many thousands of Dubs who can speak in similar fashion of that great man, and I know where Ma got her huge heart from. As they say: ‘she didn’t lick it off the stones’. More of that later.

Well I remember the day when Big Jim brought a delegation of officials to survey the problem. See he didn’t just read the reports and then shuffle them all. HE CAME AND LOOKED AT THE PROBLEM. I checked my memory of this with my brother Jim a few years ago. Did I really remember Larkin in our house wearing a snap-brim fedora hat? Jim said yes, it did happen, your memory is OK. So there’s my claim to fame, I met Jim Larkin. I could not invent better.

So, Jim Larkin’s on the case. He arranged for a Corporation lorry to come along and move the family lock, stock, and barrel to a brand new house about a mile away in a completely new scheme of Corporation houses: 125 Ratoath Road, Cabra West. It still rings bells even now, who remembers that lorry with one of the workers sitting on a chair on top of the pile wearing Da’s old silk top hat and doffing it to all and sundry as they drove past!

But the war with the bureaucrats wasn’t over yet. The Corporation took many months to try and dig down and sink pilings, etc., before they could bridge over the stream. Every night they ceased work and when they came in next morning the work would be completely flooded again. They ended up with pumps and pipes spewing out from every angle.

I know because I was still going to Christ the King school for the first couple of months, and after school I would hang around the old house not wanting to go home. The workmen got to know me and would give me bits of sandwiches, etc. This used to drive Ma crazy, it took her many years to accept that part of my makeup. Later in life, she counselled Kay before we got married; she said ‘never worry about Joe, he’ll often be late or missing but he will always find his way home’.

To proceed: the Corporation, who thought they were clever, had this plan that when they completed the work we’d be moved back and the cost would be lumped onto the mortgage. I repeat: they did not know my Da! He decided that we were fine where we were so we were not going back to the old house ever. We would not, I imagine, have had any title to the new house, but he was adamant. And so, about a year later, the final battle began. Letters, threats, on and on, culminating in the visit from the bailiff accompanied by the Sheriff of Dublin.

It must have been very stressful for Ma and Da. What with the police and workmen and of course the neighbours all out watching. But for me, the excitement was intense. I was expecting the Sheriff on a white horse with silver-studded saddle and a bloody big star on his chest. Da saw them all off. How? I don’t know; probably Larkin.

Jim Larkin and Kathleen Clarke served on and off the Dublin Council (Corp.) for many years and along with another dear Dublin character, Alfie Byrne, were a pain in the ass to the old brigade of tenement-owning Anglo Irish so-called Aldermen.
(See Kathleen Clarke ‘The Irish Revolutionary’).

So we became tenants on a council estate and that defined our childhood and youth. Because, of course, babies were still coming so Da was unlikely to scale any more mountains. By the by, any female reading this will know that none of the above could be achieved without the strength of a good woman behind/beside him. Well I know that too! Why do you think I love Kay so deeply and of course shades of Mary Jane. When it hits the fan, just hope that a woman grabs your hand. More, so very much more of that later. I’m dreading the moment when I reach the bit about Ma. How could anybody ever attempt to do full justice to that extraordinary woman? But damn it I’ll try, better my crap attempt than none at all. And besides it might inspire someone else to take up the story and do it better. And while I’m at it, it wasn’t Michael who first started pushing me to write. It was our so-beloved daughter Leona. I don’t know what Kay and I did to get so lucky, but we’re sure glad we did.

Growing up in Cabra West was, for me, pure magic. Picture it – across the road, behind a wall we had farmland belonging to the Deaf and Dumb Society, so from my bedroom window I had the changing seasons, rotating crops and cattle. The summer nights when we couldn’t sleep because of the damned corncrake who seemed to go on all night. To the right we had wasteland, reserved for future development.

If I walked, as I often did, through the wasteland up what was then called the blind lane and became the Nephin Road when it was built up, I was soon in the Phoenix Park. The biggest enclosed green space in Europe, and it was all mine!

If I walked up Ratoath Road, past the Dominican Convent, the road reverted to a gorgeous lane, which took you up to and over the narrow lock and bridge that spanned the Royal Canal. On a bit further and you’re now on the back road to Finglas; then a tiny remote village but now a sprawling suburbia.

But before you hit the back road you had to cross that divine bridge over the Tolka River, I think it was called the Ashtown Bridge. Two, maybe three spans over a slow meandering stream with little shingly beaches left over from the winter overflows. Ma sometimes in summer took us there with a picnic. Do you remember, Julie?

Little did Ma know how well I already knew that haven, but hang on, who’s the idiot here? Who told you that Ma didn’t know, why else did she choose that particular spot for impromptu picnics? Oh, the arrogance of youth; I knew so much that my parents didn’t! In a pig’s ear! I knew jack—!

But again, my pen is running away with me, so I’ll finish the bit about my darling Cabra West and then back to the story. I bet my brothers, if they ever see this, will laugh and say Joe’s finally flipped! Rose coloured glasses, why not?

If I went in a different direction, and along a road called Broombridge Road, I ended up further down the canal at Broombridge itself, now adorned with a plaque (unveiled by Dev) to commemorate some Irish scientist (Ed: most likely refers to William Rowan Hamilton, 1805-1865). He apparently was ambling along the towpath one day, and saw the sun’s rays being diffused under the arch of the bridge and, so the story goes, he suddenly got an inspiration and created the formula he had been seeking re: the refraction of lenses and things, so he stopped and scratched it into the stonework of the bridge. So, there’s a bit of local history thrown in for free. (More of the ‘Broomer’ later).

Over the bridge, down the hill to a sharp right onto a newish section of the road; but not for me! I would climb over the gated fence to the old condemned bridge over the beginning of that section of the Tolka River called the Silver Spoon. The blessed Silver Spoon. The river at the bridge was about six to eight inches deep, fairly wide, and flowed into a lovely suntrap of a valley, widened out into a large pond on one side — hence the name. The Irish have a knack for nicknames; often apt, often poetic. The Silver Spoon lived up to its name.

In later years, as a young man in Birmingham, the Tate and Lyle Sugar Company had a product called Silverspoon. I only had to see a packet and I was away transported back to that idyllic haven where I spent so many childhood hours. Echoes of Goldsmith’s ‘Deserted Village’. If you’ve never read that poem; find it, and you will find part of me (and Da, who introduced me to Goldsmith).

So, back to our early days in Ratoath Road. When Da made the decision to stay he added another mile to his daily travel to work, times two. Why does this matter? Well, originally Da cycled to work on an old ‘sit up and beg’ bicycle, but he got knocked off it by a crazed cow and nearly gored. In those days, cattle were walked down Ratoath Road and on down Manor Street to the big cattle market, so there were always cowpats and the ever-present danger of a poor frightened steer going berserk.

Same thing happened to Kay some years later in Phisborough. Da was a careful man, he’d already had a near miss years earlier. On a motor trip down to Tullow, Da was in the ‘dickey’ seat. They ran off the road down the embankment, with Da trapped in the seat! When he was rescued, the left side of his face was smashed with his eyeball out lying on his cheek! Da bathing his eye with a little blue glass eye bath was a part of my childhood. I realise now that his tear duct was probably destroyed or blocked leading to ‘dry eye’. Not much fun working in a dusty sawmill, with poor or non-existing extraction. He just got on with it.

So, Da started to walk to work. As a kid, I kind of thought he was lazy. He would come home from work, the newspaper was waiting, folded on his chair. His dinner was always ready. If Ma was out, it was plated up and put on a low gas so one of us could serve him. He never asked for his dinner, it was simply there. He would eat his dinner, read his paper, read a book, or more likely listen to his pride and joy, the Wireless! Soak his feet, shave, wash his hair, bathe his eye, put his porridge oats to soak for morning, sometimes clean his boots, and so to bed.

Next morning, he would make his porridge, take a cup of tea up to Ma, with a saucer full for me, or Larry, or whoever was up. Dress for work, in winter he would bind the lower part of his legs with stiff brown paper and twine. His raincoat acted as a funnel to direct the rain down onto the exposed trouser ends otherwise. Then he walked three and a half to four miles to work, stood for ten hours feeding a wood working machine, and then walked home. And I wondered why he had no energy!

You know, I’ve always known the above but it was many years later, when I was working in a foundry, that I made the analysis. But Ma had it sussed; hence the dinner drill and folded newspaper.

You might ask if there was ever friction in those days? Yes. Did Ma ever throw a wobbly? WOW! Did Ma ever go on a nagging jag? Jeez! Am I going to cover up or dwell on any of that? Hell, no. Why? I will tell you why. If I was offered the chance to go back and relive those days, would I? Just try me!

And so it’s time; I can’t hang back any more. Its time for Ma’s story. I’m scared. It’s not going to be a question of where to start or where to finish, it’ll be what to leave out. It would take volumes! If I say that her daughters-in-law loved her; friends, relatives, neighbours and even strangers loved her — does that begin to give a hint about this woman who just happened to be OUR MA.

A little story to help keep me sane. My son Gerard and his lovely wife, Susie, often take Kay and I to the opera. One night, walking from Covent Garden, heading for a fish restaurant (swanky), I was trailing behind, as usual, I saw a beggar up ahead and saw Gerard’s hand go into his pocket and out with a handful of change and my hand was already in my pocket. Gerard never knew that I walked behind with tears streaming; I had just seen my Mother in action! Ma could not pass a beggar or a stray dog. That’s how we acquired Tiny; but more of that later. So it begins…

Ma was a Larkin on her Mother’s side from Newry, North of Ireland, I believe. When she was about four years old the family, being Catholic, were caught up in a pogrom. They were burnt out in the middle of the night and told to sling their hook. All good formative stuff and this in spite of her Father being a professional soldier in the British Army, away on duty at the time.

So Grandma Foster (don’t know her name… any idea Nobby?), helped I’m sure by her eldest daughter, sweet motherly Aunt Nelly, somehow made their way to Dublin. When would that be? I’ll discuss dates with Julie and fill in later.

Paddy Foster was a Sergeant Farrier, whose symbol of office was an axe. Each cavalry horse had a number branded into a hoof and it was the Sergeant’s job to hack off the hoof of each dead horse to show that the horse was clearly dead. This was to stop the squaddie flogging a horse to buy drink or something. His record was, amongst other things, Boer War, Spion Cop, and all that. First World War invalided out due to Mustard Gas. He secured a niche in the Mount Street Officers’ Club, Dublin, looking after their horses, and ended his career as groom to Iris Kellett, world-famous Irish International show jumping star.

I faintly remember Granddad Paddy Foster, a dark, stiff man with a black moustache. When Ma lifted me onto his lap I was too scared to even tremble. I think perhaps that was because all the female members of the family treated him with a respect bordering on awe, and I probably sensed this. He must have been a hard man but not, I think, a harsh man. I only ever heard Ma or Aunt Nelly, his eldest daughter, speak of him with respect. Nobby and Jim’s view on this will be welcome.

I wonder if Larry remembers when Granddad died? He was laid out in his suit, on his bed, on a white counterpane, with the pictures on the walls draped in black crepe, and the mirrors covered so as not to allow the image of his soul to be captured! I remember Larry and I being lifted up to kiss him when they transferred him into his coffin. I had nightmares and disturbed sleep for what seemed like months afterwards.

One of his stepdaughters took charge of Larry and me, and as a treat allowed us to go round the house trimming the wicks on all the oil lamps, there being no electricity supply. I also remember, I think, the communal water tap in the middle of the little mews or close off Baggot Street, where they lived and Ma spent her childhood. The mews was possibly a converted coaching house and stable, maybe owned by the Mount Street Officers’ Club. Such places always wanted their servants and horses close to hand. It is now a luxury apartment block. Kay and I almost rented one, on a short let one Christmas about fifteen years ago. It fell through and we ended up in a house in Glasnevin and had a wonderful Christmas there, but more of that later.

Granddad’s military service and medals did not save him from the ‘Black and Tans’, the dreaded British Government-employed Auxiliaries. One of Ma’s brothers was IRA and was ‘on the run’.

A little aside here: Michael Collins, a guerrilla genius, evolved amongst other things, the concept of ‘on the run’. If you became known to the authorities, you were quickly passed on to safe houses anywhere in Ireland. There you passed on any knowledge you possessed on arms, bomb making, or whatever, and in return got taught whatever they knew. You could take part in an ambush in Tipperary on Monday and sleep in Galway on Tuesday. Brilliant! How do I know this? Therein lies a tale, for some other day maybe.

I was saying: the ‘Black and Tans’ came to the house looking for (Ma’s brother – was it Alex?). Not finding him, they took out their spleen on Granddad. They beat him up and took him for a fun filled ride out to Balbriggan, then a remote village some fifteen to twenty miles outside Dublin. They tossed him out of a ‘Crossley Tender’, travelling at speed! Ma reckoned it took him three days to crawl back to Dublin. Ma also told that the man next door had some guns hidden under the floorboards, so the women of the house tried to slow down the entrance of the B&T’s whilst he made good his escape through the bedroom window. No such luck, they had a guy stationed on the roof. Ma remembers that the neighbour was dead before he hit the ground.

Both houses were turned over; floorboards ripped up, all the mattresses bayoneted, so feathers and horsehair everywhere. This is all part of Ma’s upbringing, and part of mine because Ma used to thrill me with these stories and so many others. Did she tell these tales to the rest of the family? I presume so, but I know I had a huge interest in hearing these stories and encouraged Ma to tell me more. I feel a deep need to relate these stories because they had a profound effect on my life, so surely even more so on hers. The beautiful thing being that Ma had no hate, and would allow none in us.

Staying with Michael Collins — contrary to the movie ‘Michael Collins’ (wonderful film), it was Mount Street Officer’s Club where most of the ‘Cairo Mob’ were billeted. The Cairo Mob was the British Government’s band of professional assassins, nicknamed after their highly successful activities in Egypt. Ma claimed that going to early Mass that Sunday morning, she passed by the Club and saw IRA back up in the trees, and Kay’s Mom was selling apples from a handcart outside Croke Park (the GAA Stadium) that afternoon when the B&T’s staged their ‘Bloody Sunday’ reprisal. Needless to say, she never saw the handcart again, she was out of there double quick!

Years later, when I was sixteen or seventeen, I spent a couple of weeks in the Mater Hospital being treated for cellulitus of the leg. The Ward I was in had, around the top of the wall like a frieze, a line of bullet holes — where those oh-so-nice lads had raked the Hospital windows with machine gun fire.

Nye Bevan once said: ‘When you talk to a Shop Steward, you are talking to his grandfather’.

Ma’s mother died when Ma was seven, leaving Nelly, Maggie, Kitty, Lily, Alex, Paddy and Bridie (Ma), and also, I think, another brother, to whom Ma was greatly attached, but who died in 1932 of tuberculosis. I think this is right, but I’m sure I will be corrected if not. I seem to remember that Ma and Da would talk of him in connection with the Eucharistic Congress, which took place in Dublin in 1932.

I don’t remember the exact order of age, but I do know that Nelly was the eldest daughter. Granddad remarried, as was very much the custom then, to a woman with children of her own. So Ma accrued a Stepmother. Not, I think, the best of arrangements, but no matter. Nelly, who I think was twelve years old, stepped in and became the little mother. This fact was to establish a bond between the sisters that was to remain unbroken until their deaths.

A story: when she married, Nelly lived in Crumlin, South Dublin. We lived in Cabra West, North Dublin. No telephones. Knock on the door; it’s Nelly: “Bridie, what’s up? I dreamed of our Mother last night.” And yes, one of us was ill. Measles, mumps, or whatever. True story? It happened more than once, and Ma too had some psychic ability. Another story: Kay and I moved to England, married, and living in the West Midlands (we had a phone). Each time Kay got pregnant, four times, Ma would go to the local phone box, ring us, and say “Kay, have you got something to tell me?”

I doubt if many will believe the above but I cannot leave these things out just because some people may scoff. Back again, Ma appears to have been a very jolly, up-for-a-laugh type of kid. She developed a beautiful singing voice, winning a talent contest at the Gate Theatre in Dublin. She left home at sixteen — I believe all the family sought to leave home as soon as possible. She went into service, working as a domestic in the Salthill Hotel, Bray; then a small seaside resort on the outside of Dublin.

She used to regale us with silly stories of pranks and japes, which clearly indicated her popularity, a fact that would cause us no surprise. She met Da at a dance, and the way Da told it he was impressed by the girl ‘who could talk and listen’. So, that’s how it started. I don’t know how long they ‘walked out’ together, but there were many references to foursomes, picnics at Castleknock (part of the Phoenix Park), visits to Tullow, where they formed friendships with the Codys and Tobins, amongst others. I have faint memories of visits from some of their friends, when the house would be filled with laughter as they reminisced of their outings.

I want to move on here, but before I do I need to talk for a minute about my Aunt Nelly. This woman had so much tragedy in her life and she acted the mother for all of us, as well as all her other sisters’ and brothers’ children.

Her husband, Richard Healy (of 41 Leighton Road, Crumlin), went through the second World Ward and was wounded. Her eldest son, Dick (Ma’s very great favourite), also served and took a shell fragment in the hip in France in 1944. He remained more or less an invalid until he died, very young, in, I think, the mid-fifties. The British Army Medical Authorities denied the family’s claim that he died from his war wounds. They classified his death as being from kidney stones, although they previously conceded that it was his injury that caused the stones. So they denied Nelly a war pension.

Her two older daughters, Minnie and Lizzie, both died young, of T.B. One of them (not sure which one) married a bastard from Lurgan, Northern Ireland. He was a drunken wife beater. I believe his wife died of a broken heart, no matter what may have been on her death certificate. I know the pain and suffering it caused Nelly, because between Nelly and Bridie ran a two way street, so Ma was there for Nelly. If memory serves, the bastard was almost lynched by their neighbours and hightailed it out of Dublin. I’ll wish him no rest! I remember that Ma helped nurse both girls, as she was to nurse so many others.

Nelly died of cancer, as did Ma, and I believe Ma’s sisters. I don’t think I went to the funeral. I do remember visiting her in a Dublin hospital, but if you were to ask for details — BLANK! My memory seems to be in a fantastic rush to spew out a host of trivia, but on some memories the door is locked shut. I can’t find the key, and maybe it is just as well. I don’t know, looking back now over all those years. I have tears in my eyes as I realise that I adored my Aunt Nelly, and didn’t ever know until this minute.

I’m proud, bloody proud, that I’ve written these few miserable words about this giant of a woman.

Further back, I wrote of Da in connection with Cabra West and the blows that life rained on the Da. There was more and worse to come, but I decided to relate them against the backdrop of Ma’s life.

These blows which I am about to relate damn near finished my Da; I believe he was never the same after. But strong as he tried to be, it was the Ma who had to become the strength of the family. Just as Nelly, and so many women down through history, Ma shouldered the burden.

I don’t know how it is, but I believe it to be a fundamental truth that the women will always find the inner strength to carry on.

In order to talk of Da’s problems, I have to interject a little about myself. I was considered to be very bright at school. So much so that I was advanced a year in curriculum terms.

This meant that I took the primary leaving cert at 13 years, the same year as Larry who was a year older. Unknown to me, Ma and Da called a family council at which it was resolved that on the basis that Nobby, Jim, and Larry were all bringing in some income, the family were going to pay for me to go into further education at Cabra Tech.

But how about the problem of my age? No problem – they signed me up as “Larry Joseph”!

Anyway, there I was enjoying most of it, when guess what? Irish politics vis-à-vis Britain struck again. In 1949 Dev’s party lost the national elections and Dev resigned. The incoming government reversed some of his policies, in particular his support for the British Commonwealth, and decided to withdraw Ireland from membership.

The British government, already very cold to Ireland because of the 1916 Revolution and Ireland’s neutral stand in World War II, struck back with economic and trade sanctions.

The sawmill in which Da worked belonged to a company that manufactured processed foods, with Britain as a main customer. Eventually, in 1952, they closed the sawmill and Da was laid off. No redundancy then, just collect your wages on Friday, and that’s it.

This was a huge blow to Da. He was what was in those days considered middle-aged, with little prospects of finding another job in an Ireland suffering the effects of trade sanctions.

So Da, who had already known the horror of unemployment, now found himself facing the problem again, only now he had eight kids to support. Fortunately, Nobby, Jim, and Larry were bringing in some money. Julie found a job in a creamery, and Ma got a part time job in the local Deaf and Dumb Institute.

And me? Why did I open this story by talking about me? I’ll tell you.

A week or so after Da lost his job, I was down the end of our garden looking for a rabbit. I used to breed rabbits. A girl who lived in one of the houses that backed onto ours approached me, and asked me if I was interested in a job. She worked as staff maid at the prestigious Savoy Theatre and Restaurant. They employed a page boy and, when the current incumbent grew too tall for the uniform, he had to move on.

I jumped at the chance, and the next day I walked into Dublin. I was so young and naïve, I brought the family dog, Tiny, with me. I still wasn’t fourteen, but I had my first job interview with the dog sitting outside the Assistant Manager’s door.

I got the job (our neighbour’s daughter had obviously done her work well); to start the next day, on Thursday.

I ran all the way home in a sense of high excitement. I was going to be playing my part in supporting the family. When I got into the house and burst out with the news to Da, he cried – something I’d never seen before. His big ambition for me: shattered. And not a thing he could do about it.

So in later years, when I went into part time education (three nights a week for seven years) it’s easy to understand part of my motivation. I had something to prove, and something to repay.

So now Da was out of work and reduced to helping out with the house work. He used to get up in the morning to make our breakfast before we went to work. But fate wasn’t finished yet.

And now I come to another sad episode in the family’s history, and one in which I was fated to play a part which has remained with me all my life.

Some years before, when I was about nine or ten, I think, I got Scarlet Fever and was put in quarantine in the front parlour. The house was basically two up and two down. I know now that the quarantine was a bit specious, with Ma coming in and out to feed me, nurse me, etc. Still, I feel guilty to this day.

It was Spring or Summer, and my younger brother Paul, aged seven or eight was playing in the front garden. He had a balloon that he was unable to blow up, so he knocked on the window. I opened the window, took the balloon in, blew it up, and passed it back.

A couple of days later, Paul was down with Scarlet Fever. Whereas I recovered and went back to school, Paul ended up with the valves of his heart severely damaged. So poor Paul spent the rest of his very short life as an invalid.

Earlier, I referred to Da having a suite of furniture made not by a cabinet maker, but by a Jewish cabinet maker. I made that distinction because throughout my life I’ve had the good fortune to meet and interact with Jewish people. They always made a positive impact on my life, and one of them fought hard to make an impact on Paul’s young life.

I think his name was Dr. Gold (?), and he took a major interest in Paul’s case. At a time when Ireland’s National Health Service was poor or non-existent, he championed Paul’s case. He was convinced that an operation was not only possible, but absolutely vital for Paul.

So Paul was referred to one surgeon after another, throughout the many Dublin hospitals. In between, he would have long spells in a convalescent home called “Linden” in County Dublin. The theory was that Paul needed to rest and build up his strength for an operation, and that the surgeon would send for him when they deemed the time to be right.

Somehow, this never seemed to happen. So once again Dr. Gold, in collaboration with Ma and Da (but mainly Ma — helped, I believe, by Nobby), would go into action, and Paul would be referred to another hospital. I think Paul spent time in all the major Dublin hospitals, to no avail. I also believe it to be true that Dr. Gold mainly waived his fees when dealing with Paul’s case.

Back-tracking a little here: some time around 1953 or ’54, Ma was shopping in Dublin when she was approached by an English woman from Birmingham – a Mrs. Bedford. It was Irish International Horse Show week, and all the hotels were fully booked. Mrs. Bedford asked Ma for advice as she needed somewhere to sleep that night. Ma, being Ma, brought her home to stay with us; thus starting a friendship which was to grow and last for many years.

After much frustration and dashed hopes, Dr. Gold secured and appointment for Paul in London with a famous heart surgeon. We, the family, did some fund raising in our own area, and Mrs. Bedford helped out by meeting Ma and Paul in London and acting as their guide.

The consultant (a Mr Cleeland?) expressed shock and surprise that Paul had not been operated on already. His condition was worsening as he grew older. He, the consultant, expressed a willingness to operate. However, he explained that he and his team were currently working on a new technique (a heart/lung machine), which would greatly improve Paul’s chances. He therefore advised that Paul be taken home to wait just a few short months, and then he would send for him.

This is where fate stepped in. The consultant’s last words to Ma were: “Put him back under his current specialist until I send for him.” Ma took Paul home and referred him, through Dr. Gold, to the chest specialist who had last treated Paul. Note: chest specialist, not heart specialist – who prescribed a course of tablets for Paul.

Some weeks later I was at an all night party with Kay on a Saturday night. I came home about 7:00 on Sunday morning. The only ones up were Ma and Paul, getting ready to go to early Mass.

They were having an argument, because Paul, who probably knew more about his condition than any doctor, was refusing to take his tablet, stating that they were “no good”.

I said to Paul, “For Ma’s sake – take the bloody tablet. Please.” He did, and a few minutes later had a massive heart attack – his first.

Somehow he was got to that damned hospital. But he never recovered, and died there shortly afterwards.

Dr. Gold was incensed when he saw the tablets that had been prescribed. They were, he said, far too strong for someone in Paul’s condition and precipitated the attack.

I suppose, today, there would be a malpractice suit; but not then. Indeed, shortly after we received an invoice from the hospital for Paul’s treatment.

The death and burial of Paul is not something I can write about in any rational way, so I guess I’ll simply say that the support and sympathy from friends, neighbours, and family was truly awesome. I also believe that it marked a turning point in the life of my family. Some may disagree, but I feel, looking back, that we were never quite the same family ever again. Indeed the beginning of the family’s mass exodus from Ireland started about this time.

Before I leave this sad episode, I just wish to look back and try to put myself in Ma or Da’s shoes. The years of fighting for Paul to get the treatment he needed, the upsurge of hope followed by the abyss of despair. Ma, with support from Nelly and Nobby, fought to keep the family together and to keep going. Da, I believe, retreated into some private world from which he rarely, if ever, emerged. I don’t think he could take any more pain. His favourite expression became: “A book is a good friend.”

But now that I’ve written about the awful period in the life of “The Clarkes of Rathoath”, and before I move on to our new life in England, I want to go back and write some more of our/my life in Cabra West. And I want to write some more of that wonderful woman, Bridget (Bridie) Foster, our Ma.

I have already mentioned how Ma nursed Nelly’s two daughters as they were dying of TB (consumption). She was to do this on more than one occasion. I think it might be wrong of me to name names. I have no wish to cause distress to anybody who might stumble on this and awaken memories that they would prefer stayed asleep.

Ratoath Road, when we moved in to it, was still partly under construction. If we treat the road as one running east/west, with the beginning at Old Cabra Road being west and the end of the road, where it became the back road to Finglas, being east, then we can describe it thus: the first section from Old Cabra Road to Drumcliff Drive had been built and inhabited for about a year. The next section from Drumcliff to Faushough Avenue was subdivided, with the easterly part being about six months old and then the mid-section where we moved into, and then the western section which was still under construction. Beyond Faushough Ave were some set out foundations, followed by tracts of land zoned for further development.

It is interesting to look back to how the community became stratified according to which section of the Road you lived in. The people in the first section being regarded as old, well-established; which seemed to confer some sort of superiority!

Some of the houses were incomplete when people moved in; a bathroom with no bath! A back boiler hot-water system sans copper water cistern. Every house paid a standard one and four pence a week for a set amount of electricity. If you had a radio on, a light in the kitchen/living room and one elsewhere, say the parlour, that was your limit. If anybody went upstairs and switched on a light the main fuse simply tripped out leaving everybody in the dark!

Sounds like a crazy system but I wonder, in these days of environmental worries perhaps some such controls on fossil fuel consumption might not be worth considering. They had some very innovative ideas then.

I remember reading that Larkin and a few others fought for years to introduce a ‘differential rent system’ into Dublin’s sprawling new Council housing estates. He wanted the rent to be based on one seventh of the family’s total income. When it was finally introduced it was one fifth (20%). It still offered major benefits to the very poor. A widow, for example, or an unemployed family would pay considerably less than their neighbours and a family of means, relatively speaking, would find it cheaper to move out and buy a house, thus releasing a property for some one whose needs were greater. And all this against a background of a predominantly Dev/Fianna Fail Government, which was intrinsically right wing!

It is interesting to consider also the reasons why some of the houses had no bathtub, etc. These were all items manufactured in Ireland. But this was wartime, and Ireland played an important if unrecorded part in helping to keep Britain supplied. All non-essential foundry work was stopped and all or any scrap metal, stocks of ore, etc. was shipped to England.

We even had rationing, including butter and cheese — this in a country, which was mainly dairy-based agricultural. Ireland needed the foreign currency, England needed the supplies; hence the marriage.

The houses in Cabra West and elsewhere had to wait until after the war to be completely fitted out. I know that I’m straying miles from the plot. (There’s a plot!) But what the hell — I’m enjoying what Kay calls my verbal diarrhoea.

Sometime in the early twenties Dev (yes that man again) became involved in international politics. He served as President of the League of Nations, the precursor of our current United Nations. After the ravages of the First World War and the revolution in Russia, Europe was flooded with displaced people. Displaced people after WWI, refugees after WWII, asylum seekers now, nothing changes only the names.

Dev, conscious of Ireland’s need for business and professional expertise, invited a number of Jewish people to come to Ireland. Itzhak Rabin was born and reared in Ireland! Dev’s foresight paid dividends. Da used to tell tales of these first Jews who were penniless but within a few years were running prosperous businesses, to Ireland’s and their mutual benefit. One such, who had changed his name to Robert Briscoe, was to play a very important part.

When war broke out in ’39 Ireland had virtually no shipping: it was all owned and controlled by England. England withdrew all its shipping for its own use, which no doubt it needed. And the fact that Dev declared Ireland neutral and denied Britain the use of Irish ports will not have helped. Briscoe, using his international connections, managed to buy some tramp steamers for Ireland’s use. He had them painted green, white and orange with the word neutral writ large on the side. So Ireland started to get some essential supplies, some of which were sent through England. Two or three steamers were sunk by the German U-boats and the German Government, anxious to keep Ireland neutral, paid handsome compensation, which was used to buy more ships. And so, Irish Shipping was born.

Dublin was to acknowledge Briscoe’s contribution years later when they elected him to be Dublin and Ireland’s first ever Jewish Lord Mayor. This created great international interest, particularly in Jewish circles in the USA.

Anyway, back to Ratoath Road. When we moved in the only place of worship was a corrugated structure called the ‘Tin Chapel’. This Chapel had previously been used in Old Cabra, whilst they were building their new church, and now it was the turn of Cabra West to raise enough money to build their church. Whilst Ma, Da and the family attended Mass on Sunday in the Tin Chapel, Ma used to walk down to Christ The King church in Old Cabra on a Monday night to attend a service called a Novena, usually accompanied by my brother Nobby.

One such night when they left the church to come home they chanced upon a stray puppy, which Nobby was to describe as ‘looking like a drowned rat’. Indeed, it almost had the appearance of a rat. Anyway, Ma decided they would take him home. I remember that Ma tried over the following days to trace his owners, to no avail; it’s almost certain that he was abandoned. So we had us a dog, which someone called ‘Tiny’.

Looking back I find it difficult to believe that Tiny could play such an important part in my life. I always regarded him as my dog but that he was not. If anybody could claim ownership it would have to be the Ma. I spent a great part of my childhood growing up with Tiny but if ever he got into trouble (he was fierce and half wild like most dogs in Dublin at that time), Tiny would go to Ma to have his torn ears dressed and that sort of thing. He was the only dog I knew that would attack a cornered cat, most dogs had more sense — but not Tiny! So he had a lovely set of scarred ears.

There were also for some reason, just a few dogs in the area which he seemed to regard as enemies. I don’t know why. There were always lots of other dogs which he happily tolerated, but given a chance Tiny would seek to attack the few he disliked, not always wisely. It seems crazy to be sitting here writing about a dog that has been dead over forty years, but I can still feel the love across those years.

Jumping ahead, Tiny emigrated to England with us, along with another dog called ‘Woody’ (so called because she was born in the woodyard where Nobby worked and he brought her home as a pup). The family lived first in a large flat in Willesden, London and later a house just a few doors away. Kay had come over from Ireland to join me, and eventually she and I moved to Birmingham, where her family had emigrated.

On our first or second visit back to Willesden, after receiving a hug from Ma, my first question was: where’s Tiny? Ma explained that Tiny, who by this time was very old, half-blind and deaf, and losing the use of his rear legs, would still manage to drag himself out to the garden to relieve himself. A few days previously he had done just that but did not return. When Ma went to seek him he was lying under a tree, in a coma with part chewed leaves in his mouth. When the Vet was summoned and told the details he simply stated “Tiny has had enough and he has decided to go this way”. So no treatment.

I remember this so vividly because that day I sobbed as I’ve never done before or since in my life. I think, looking back, that Tiny’s death broke the links with my childhood, with Cabra West, Ireland, Paul and so much more. It was to be many years before I could revisit these memories; they were just buttoned up tight. It’s nice, and I think good, to talk of them now. Tiny, I’m sure, would be pleased to know I am still walking dogs at 65 years of age.

This is like a seesaw, lacking all sense of direction, but then nobody is going to have to read it. It’s going to be fun to see how Michael goes about editing it [Ed: I’m trying not to!]. This is worse, much worse, than Flann O’Brien’s witherings in the ‘Irish Independent’. But then he was geing paid to write rubbish under the pseudonym ‘Cruiskeen Lawn’ (The Full Jug).

Getting back to Ratoath road and the Ma, our neighbours were a pretty fair cross-section of Dublin working class life. Some families being better off than others and the extremes of poverty still evident in some families. Most had been rehoused from tenement houses and the experience of having their own house produced some surprising results. There were people who sold vegetables or fuel from a horse and cart who would bring the horse in through the house to spend the night in the back garden. We had one family who raised a young pig in their house! Some families kept hens, my brother Jim had a pigeon loft, and I raised rabbits. Feral cats were a perpetual nuisance.

We were lucky to be growing up in the forties and fifties. Back in Ma and Da’s childhood, Dublin shared with Glasgow the distinction of being the worst-housed cities in Europe, with the highest rates of illiteracy and highest death rate from tuberculosis, not to mention those other two killers: pneumonia and rickets. I guess we have a lot to be grateful for to our benign Colonial Masters.

Some of these plagues were still evident in my childhood but thankfully were on the wane. Every school child was supplied with free milk and a sandwich, usually cheese, as a minimum. We had a medical examination once a year and the X-Ray vans became a common sight throughout Ireland. Add to that strong advertising campaigns against spitting, sneezing, or coughing without a handkerchief, and it provides a salutary lesson of what can be achieved in one generation. If only these lessons were being applied throughout Africa today.

It is easy to be sentimental but I believe that anyone who has even a smattering of Ireland’s twentieth century history will feel able to say to Thomas Clarke, James Connolly, Patrick Pearse et al: ‘You were right, and your sacrifice did pave the way and rekindle the flames of Irish liberty and justice from the embers left smouldering by previous generations’. So here’s a small but heartfelt thank you from one Irishman who has been fortunate enough to live to see Ireland ‘Take its place amongst the Nations of the World’, to paraphrase Charles Stuart Parnell.

In writing the above I am not, I hope, ignoring those who did not die in 1916 but like Michael Collins, Kathleen Clarke, Larkin, and yes Dev, and so many more, kept the flame alight throughout the difficult years of the Republic’s infancy.

Back again to Ratoath. There was a family living near us who had two daughters, a few years older than me. The father, a semi invalid, was an old IRA man. Ma went to his funeral and came home to tell me of how his coffin was draped with the tricolour, a detail of Volunteers fired a volley over his grave, and he was interred in the Patriot’s Plot at Glasenevin Cemetery. I wonder if Ma realised the effect she was having on my imagination?

A little aside: in her youth Ma was one of the group of women protesters kneeling on the cold ground outside Mountjoy Prison on the morning poor Kevin Barry, an eighteen year old student/rebel, was executed, in spite of world-wide protests. That’s my Ma!

To continue — one of the daughters contracted TB and died, aged seventeen. Ma took a strong personal interest in the girl and nursed her for the last couple of years of her short life. It became a common sight to see Ma taking fresh milk, cakes etc, to P–. When she died, of a haemorrhage, Ma took the bedclothes into our house to wash. She laid out P on sheets from our house.

This act typifies the kind of acts Ma was capable of throughout her life. Ma acted as the local, unpaid midwife and, if necessary. laid out the dead. More than one child was born on Ratoath Road on sheets borrowed from the Ma. As we were always prosperous, relative to some others, you can be sure there was never any food wasted in our house. It was sneaked out to some other, poorer family. I say sneaked out because all Ma’s acts of kindness were done as discreetly as possible. The worst beating I ever had from Ma came about when I had a verbal squabble with a neighbouring kid and tried to get one up on him by pointing out that they were fed on our leftovers. I didn’t notice Ma come down the front garden and overhear. She gave me a belt around the ear, dragged me into the house and beat me whilst weeping with rage at the indignity I had visited on that family. It taught me a lesson that has stayed with me to this day.

Incidentally, Ma’s beatings were a sight to behold: ‘Full of sound and fury, signifying nothing’. They scared the hell out of you but did little physical damage. She was very protective of Julie, but so was I. If she went to have a go at Julie it became like a Marx Brothers farce. Julie huddled in a corner, me trying to stretch out my body to protect Julie, Ma trying to get at Julie, and Tiny in there trying to protect everybody from everybody. Bloody Pandemonium! I’m pretty sure I’m not making this up, but I seem to remember Ma breaking off engagements to go into another room to stifle her laughter.

Laughter — it would be impossible to talk about ‘Bridie’ without mentioning the happy-go-lucky side of her nature. She loved to laugh and sing and could do both at the drop of a hat. Ma’s singing was an integral part of our growing up in Cabra West, and even later in London and Southend-on-Sea, where the family still live.

Her reputation was such that she was invited to every wake, wedding or hooley in the area and people, mainly other housewives, would drop in at night and encourage Ma to sing. She didn’t need much encouragement. It was also great fun hearing some of the others sing. Everybody had their party piece in those days and I have had the great privilege of hearing many great songs strangled to death by a motley crew of no-hopers, who made up in enthusiasm what they lacked in voice and technique. But that’s just being cruel at their expense. Most of the hooleys were great craic, with some bloody good singers.

I particularly remember one of Nelly’s sons (Patrick?) who seemed to me to be as good as many of the crooners I was to hear in the dance halls of Dublin a few years later. Da had his party pieces: ‘The Whole of His Ass’ and ‘A Smart Little Bit of a Man’. But getting back to Ma, being the huge character she undoubtedly was had its downside. Ma had at least two nervous breakdowns. I know that others will be able to fill in the details better than I.

As a kid, I tended to be a bit of a loner and hence tended to be sometimes oblivious to what was going on around me. I think the first major one happened when Nobby was about eleven or twelve. I remember that Nobby took time off school to a look after Ma. Quite a burden for a young lad but one I think Nobby was able to carry. If memory serves, looking after Ma included taking her for long walks and hiding all knives and scissors.

Looking back, I guess Nobby had to grow up quick. He was Ma’s strong right arm; a role to be filled later on by Jim and of course Julie. Julie not only nursed Ma through her last fatal illness but was both Ma and Da’s faithful friend and companion till the end of their days. Proving, if ever proof were needed, the truth of Ma’s old adage ‘chickens always come home to roost’. Ma was, I believe, amply rewarded in later life for the many many acts of kindness and love she dished out.

My sister in law, Ann, tells a typical story of Ma saying ‘I bought these nylons and they are the wrong colour would you mind having them’. The hand of kindness always concealed behind a jest or a throwaway remark. An interesting note: One of the Celtic origins of the name Clarke (Gaelic: O’Clerig) a sub branch of O’Cleary, O’Connor, was a local Chieftain in Galway, near Oranmore, named Guaire of the Long Arm, meaning a very generous man. Of course, Ma was not a Clarke by birth.

Kay, my wife, had a Grandmother who came from Co. Galway. Her name was Catherine Clarke and she married a man named Deane and so became known as Kate Deane. Her son had a daughter named Catherine Deane, (Kay) who married me and became Catherine Clarke!

I suppose it was ever thus in a small community, as Ireland tended to be then. Damn it, I’m rambling again. Back to Ratoath. A couple of stories: Ma usually got up early on Sunday morning to go to early Mass, and then come home to get us up and out to Mass, and then cooked the wonderful fry up we had on Sundays. She never had to go on her own though! Tiny always went with her and waited in the entrance vestibule. If for any reason Ma missed early Mass, Tiny went on his own. Neighbours would then come knocking on the door to enquire if something was wrong as “we saw Tiny but no Bridie”.

The above is true, I swear, and I reckon that Tiny lived and died a better Catholic than the one who writes of him now.

Next story: Ma was in the habit, as were most Dublin housewives, of getting the bus into Dublin city centre on a Saturday, for the markets and main weekly shop. Tiny followed her one Saturday and she only discovered this when they were already on the bus. In Moore Street, the main fruit and veg. market, they got separated and Ma spent a fruitless hour searching for Tiny. Eventually she had to give up and came home frantic with worry, only to find Tiny sitting on the doorstep waiting for her!

This started a tradition. Tiny would always accompany Ma into Dublin on Saturday and come home on his own when he had had enough. There was then a whole line of bus stops on both sides of O’Connell, only one of which served Cabra and it had three buses: No.12 for Old Cabra, and Nos. 22 and 22A, which subdivided Cabra West. So how the hell did he do it? I wish I knew. By the way, dogs were only allowed to travel upstairs and had to be accompanied by an adult. Now that part would have been easy for Tiny, he’d simply walk up beside an adult and tuck himself in under a seat. I’ve seen him do it when I took him on a bus and wished to avoid paying adult fare. Like the kid who was warned by his mother to tell the conductor, if he asked, that he was only seven. “When will you be eight?” asked the Conductor, and the kid replied: “As soon as I get off this bus”.

Some people reading this will doubt that a kid of seven or eight would be using buses on their own, but those were different days. In my time I went over to Crumlin with messages for Aunt Nelly, for example. I remember Larry and I going to Ringsend on our own (two buses) at night to babysit. And I believe we all took our turn in going to the pawnshop on a Monday morning. I suspect Peter did more than anyone else partly because by then Da was out of work but also, I believe, because Peter struck up a friendship with the pawnbroker which almost certainly meant he got better rates than even Ma could. Peter struck up a friendship! Isn’t that nice. There would have been a considerable age difference and nowadays such a relationship would be viewed with suspicion. How damned sad!

I can remember that the guy, who I never met, would supply Peter with scrapbooks of Irish soccer stars and teams. Much to Da’s delight. Da had in his day been a Committee Member of Shamrock Rovers, and in that capacity had met some of the greats of that age: Stanley Matthews, Raich Carter, and the man Da always called ‘The incomparable Paddy Moore’, who was, it seems, an earlier George Best and sadly shared George’s love of the bottle. I believe Paddy died an alcoholic.

Da travelled with the Irish Team to Germany for a football tournament in the year Jesse Owen blew the shit out of Hitler’s theories of racial supremacy by whipping the best of the Aryan athletes. Da told the tale that the ship had to side-track to Glasgow to pick up Paddy Moore, he played for Celtic then, and when he came on board all he had was his boots wrapped in a newspaper. (Shades of old Alf Tupper, “The Tough of the Track”- Kay’s comment)

Talking of Pawnshops, they were very much a part of Dublin life for the working class. There was a story current in Ireland that the creation of the pawnshop was credited to Pope Gregory, who promoted their establishment as an alternative to rapacious moneylenders. I don’t know if this is true, but whatever or whoever caused them to come into existence did a good deed for the people of Dublin, in my opinion. I have even read that some people when desperate would pawn a brick wrapped in paper and the pawnbroker, who presumably knew them, would advance a shilling or so. I suppose the broker would have built a factor for bad debts into his rates. But I doubt that many people would default, the relationship was symbiotic. And, of course, any pledges that went unclaimed would be sold through the second-hand trade. All towns and cities had big second-hand markets, many still have. I wonder how often it would happen that some one would find themselves buying an item that had been theirs in the first instance.

I’m just wondering; some, perhaps many, of the younger family members reading this may have difficulty with some of my references to Thomas Clarke and Larkin etc., so I’ll spend a few minutes giving a brief snapshot of these guys. I am of course hoping that some of them may be inspired to read up on these heroes who played such decisive roles in Ireland’s recent history and each in their own way had an effect on our family.

Tom Clarke was the first signatory to the Proclamation of Independence, which heralded the start of the Irish Rebellion in 1916, which would eventually lead to the establishment of an Irish Free State in 1921. He was the “old dog” who carried the flame from one generation to the next. He was about fifty-six years of age and had served at least fifteen years in British prisons for Fenian activity. When the IRB (Irish Revolutionary Brigade) was formed, most of the young men and women involved were idealistic dreamers with little or no specific knowledge. Most historians nowadays acknowledge that whilst it was Padraig Pearse who attracted the most attention and glory, it was Clarke who was the true leader of the uprising. The British executed him in 1916. The rest of the leaders, who were also shot, had nominated Clarke to be the President of the first provisional Irish Government. A very great man and looking at the modern Ireland today it’s hard not to look back to those times and say: your sacrifice was not in vain. These leaders who knew they were going to their death, and yet carried on.

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