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)
Gaelic
English
Maths
Algebra (a separate subject?)
History
Geography

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.

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