Writing to Remember Part 1

Childhood holidays often hold a special place in our hearts, perhaps because the world they speak of has disappeared long ago. Margaret Kiernan recalls holidays in the 50s and 60 in County Clare with members of her extended family. In cataloguing the many people, events and objects that fill her reminiscences, she is finally able to identify the specific quality that made those times so magical.

Summers in County Clare

In Ireland children rarely went away on holidays in the 1950s and 60s, not to foreign places or hotels. Holidays meant a break from school. It was the custom that families might send or receive a child on holidays, to stay with relatives.

A time of busy preparation, I remember considering my options of places and people to go to, just as soon as the school summer vacation started. Aunts, Uncles, Grandparents or Cousins?

Letters were written, and answers awaited. Maternal Grandparents, Grand Aunts and Aunts seemed most welcoming. If the household had children, that was a bonus. A ready playmate. In this way, many of my cousins became life-long friends, sharing allegiances and secrets never revealed from then to now.

I had many houses to choose from as a holiday destination. I was rarely lonely and being one of a large family, I relished space away on my own. The decision made, as to where I was going, heralded the business of packing luggage: a task of some weight as there were few electric clothes washers back then. So, it all began with laundry washing and ironing and generally, looking after yourself. The clothes detergent was either “Rinso’’ or “Surf”, with “Palmolive flakes” mixed in water, for shampoo.

I recall one year a holiday trip to an elderly grandaunt. She lived in County Clare. Her name was Bea. She lived in a traditional Irish house with a thatched roof. Bea lived there childless, with her third husband, John. They had a farm of fifty acres, and she did all her cooking on an open fire. A long black crane hung over the burning peat where she used the Bastable oven to bake the bread. Some people called it a Dutch oven.

Their internal night light came from a Tilly oil lamp. It burned oil through a wick. The wick was prepped each time before lighting. Touching the lamp was forbidden. It was considered the most precious object in the house. After you left the kitchen to go to bed, you were in the dark. A time to be delayed for the longest period possible. The room where I slept was whitewashed and held a large bed with a feather mattress. The room also held many luggage trunks. Great Aunt Bea had lived in America for many years. Those trunks were full of linens and treasure, and I was not allowed to touch them. No one was. Independent children are curious, and I was too. I put a great deal of effort to check them out. It wasn’t easy in the dark. A candle was a treat, but I wasn’t always given one. Considered a danger, candles needed to be supervised.

The house was ancient and could withstand gales and storms. Stout walls stood against the west coast winds. Under the thatch roof and beams, you could clearly see the earth sods of the original build; a snug, warm and dry house. Bea made dinner at the end of the day. Vegetables and potatoes featured on the menu as did herrings and a drink of buttermilk or home cured pig and large blue duck eggs. Occasionally, I was sent out to search for eggs through the yard and in the Sally reed beds. Some hens liked to lay “abroad”. Avoiding the overrun channel from the barn was my focus and not get my shoes full of smelly animal waste. Smells were very much part of my memory from the rural farm and simple lifestyle. Still I loved it; I was far from home but not at all unhappy. Hens and ducks and a curiously hostile cockerel roamed the farmyard, and two large black and white sheepdogs that were in the habit of chasing anyone who passed by the gate. Their barking joined with other dogs across the valley and with the braying donkeys formed the background music to my days spent there in summers long gone.

On Thursdays the “travelling shop” arrived at the farmyard. The “van” was talked about for days beforehand. Screeching and rolling over the stony road, it came to a stop at the whitewashed gable wall. Doors of the vehicle were flung open wide and all the contents put on display. Most things that were needed or, should I say necessary, were purchased, and occasionally bartered for with eggs.

Bales of creosote-smelling ropes gave off a pungent odour. I always hoped that it didn’t touch the batch bread which came unwrapped. That white soft loaf was a special treat, after the strong homemade bread of the household. “Bendigo” tobacco for John and maybe a baby “Power” whiskey. This would be fetched from under the driver’s seat, or spare wheel. The list went on and could include all edibles like loose tea leaves and sugar which had to be weighted on a scale, using metal weights to balance. Packets of red jelly were exotic and canned pears were a cupboard staple for unexpected visitors. There was barmbrack, sausages and a flitch of bacon if the household bacon-barrel was empty. Pig-killing tended to happen in Autumn and formed part of the laying down of food for the winter months. The slaughtered pig was cut up into pieces and stored in an oak barrel or hung from the roof rafters.

Occasionally, there was a Post Office telegram to be delivered; the van man brought that too. Or, a large postage parcel that the postman couldn’t fit on his push bike.

Biscuits were sold loosely and were weighed. O’Halloran, the van man, displayed various enticements to the customers, rarely missing a chance to state what event she might need produce for. Raisins and sultanas and “don’t forget the Bex-tartar”. It was his throwaway comment, usually sung. I never heard his first name mentioned.

O’Halloran could say anything, and usually did. Notwithstanding all the banter, at the end of the shopping task, a quick flick of the hand and a stubby pencil was fetched from the back of his ear. All the numbers were written on a brown paper bag. Care was taken to add the sums right and to subtract the value of the egg trade off.

The “messages” were carried inside, and the kettle put on the crane and lowered to the flames to boil. Shopping was hard work. Time for tea and barmbrack. The visit gave Bea and John many things to discuss. All the new angles on news from the van-man. A virtual newspaper.

John had a pastime rarely seen today. He sat on a solid wooden stool facing out the front doorway. Using a sharp penknife, he whittled the ends of hazel rods, deftly using the knife to shape and to cut.

When each one was finished, he threw the stick forward to gather in the pile. His tobacco pipe never left his mouth while he whittled away. Bea would mutter and tut-tut about the dirt and dust shavings on the floor. A great palaver and show of pique about sweeping up went on with her, after these industrious sessions. John never answered her tirade. The rods would be used for thatching the roof of the house or barn later in the season and hold the straw in place, reinforcing the roof against the Atlantic Ocean storms prevailing from the westerly direction.

Over the fields from the house lived a man with three Christian names. No surname was ever used. He walked the roads incessantly, often more than ten miles out and again, returning. He had strange soft skin and hair like duck down. Always wearing a soft peaked cap, he carried one arm behind his back. His condition had no name, or none that I ever heard. Everyone knew his symptoms, but no-one knew his cure.

I was always a little afraid of him, in that way that a child fears something or someone that is different. I saw him at the old unused school on Sundays. That property served as the building for celebrating Mass for the area. The Priest travelled a distance, arriving with a suitcase bearing his vestments and chalice. A wooden table on blocks was arranged as the altar. Everything was rushed and matter of fact, no standing on ceremony. Men, women and children flounced through the door. wearing all types of clothing, mostly dark colours for the locals and a great variety from the visitors, with lots of white. The men removed their caps before coming into the room. Mass was said quickly, and people rushed out the door. Many men lay against the wall outside, eyeing all that came and went. Hasty greetings and home to dinner and the GAA football match on the radio. The weekly relief from toil. There would be homemade currant cake for tea.

And in the first two weeks of August visitors arrived in the locality in large numbers. The Builders holidays brought people calling.  Prior to this time extra goods were purchased from the travelling shop. House cleaning became a big chore.The house and sheds would be whitewashed and the spring- well cleaned up. Tasks of preparation took on a major importance. A great sense of excitement build up over the previous weeks. Bea and John welcomed and thought highly of visits from the “Sassenachs”. Irish people that lived and worked in England.

Days were recalled and events from long past talked about all over again, all re-lived in the telling. Rarely would politics be brought into these conversations.

 “Too delicate”, said Bea.

“The English pay the wages”, said John.

A great sense of mounting excitement over the preceding weeks and everyone had an expectation, Bea and John included.

Great emphasis was placed on who called and who did not. Neighbours were mindful of this and old nuances to the civil war were aired in this discussion in houses, amongst themselves.

Often when the visitors were relatives of the householder, the men went to the pub for drinks and the women stayed home and drank tea, gossiped and played cards. Many households were left financially worse off after the summer influx. A big effort and show cost money. Women generally bore the brunt of this hardship.

After the ship had sailed there was an enormous sense of anti-climax. Summer was over. Soon the autumn leaves would turn to gold and drop.

My Aunt Bea rarely spoke about her years spent living and working in America. It is said that she was a great beauty then, not as tall as her two sisters: they were six-foot-tall in their stockinged feet.

Bea was no one’s fool. She was first widowed quite young. Her second husband died; he was a lot older than her. John was her “later- in- life” husband. She did not have any children. In fact, she did not understand children. The pasture field and meadow field were adjoined, and it was not unusual for her to put a child out to prevent the life-stock from nibbling their way into the meadow; little regard as to the weather conditions for the child. I recall my gentle Aunt Marnie calling to visit during one summer and finding me doing this task in the rain. All hell broke loose, and I was taken home. A very big memory from that year.

Bea had a sister called Mary who returned from America to marry. The match was “made”. It was an arranged marriage. William was a freehold farmer with a house. He was, in physical stature, short and had opinions. They went on to have eight children, four boys and four girls. One daughter was named Catherine and answered to Katie. She was my Mother.

My summer days spent with the old people taught me a great many truths. In Ireland things were changing very quickly, economically and socially. It was the end of things as they had been for hundreds of years. New ways were coming in and in Western Europe more than anywhere else. I would never again meet such resilient and kind people, living a simple and lovely life in harmony with nature. Seasons dividing their chores and beliefs. A time for everything and everything in its own time.

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  1. I am deeply indebted to the Editor of “The Write Life” for publishing my story. Ms Clare Morris. Also, to the Blue Nib Literary magazine. Without journals of this calibre, many writers would be at a great disadvantage. They set the standard and greatly help with the business of developing writers practice and lives.
    I am very grateful to be included, here.

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