Let me attempt to describe the interior of my old home as it was in the 1940’s. We slept in a crib in the bedroom and later on straw mats after the boys were born. Granddad had his own bed. He was a rather tall man with a bushy gray mustache. Peg and I slept with mom and the boys with dad. Our bedroom did have a nice warm fireplace always crackling with burning turf. Of course our beds would not be beds with a trusty porcelain hot water bottle. There was a large wardrobe standing next to an inner wall filled with our clothing and next to it a trunk for storing blankets and quilts made by my mother. I remember the simple joy of looking out our bedroom window to see green fields and rolling braes. We kept an oil lamp on the mantelpiece of the fireplace for nighttime use. I enjoyed watching the flickering lamp reflected on the high-gabled wooden ceiling. Sometimes there was an extra flicker created by my mother or dad striking a match to light up a cigarette. The bedroom walls were painted green, earlier they were yellow, with flowered wallpaper half way down.
Let’s go out the bedroom door to the little hallway with an interior window and enter the kitchen by opening yet another door. You can’t help but see on your left a huge open-hearth fireplace with an iron crook for hanging a pot of spuds or a Dutch oven or a kettle. To the left of the hearth stood a firm table holding three 2-gallon brown crocks, two full of well water, and one full of fresh milk. Sometimes granddad let the milk sour so he could make buttermilk in the churn that was stored behind the kitchen door. He loved his buttermilk because it settled his stomach almost as well as ginger tea. Mom kept a breadbox next to the crocks for storing soda bread made earlier. On the other side of the fireplace hung a small cupboard for storing tea, sugar and fresh-churned butter.
Mother kept her dishes in a cupboard beside the kitchen window. She had six place settings along with a drawer of good silverware and some mother of pearl knives, spoons and forks. She stored jars of homemade gooseberry and damson plum jams on a shelf below the dishes. The bottom of the wooden cupboard contained linens, tablecloths and napkins.
Mother was known throughout the countryside for being a great seamstress. She made various things including bed quilts, sweaters, jumpers and other articles of clothing for her family and for neighbors on commission. She accomplished all this on her fine little black Singer sewing machine with a mechanical foot pedal kept along the kitchen wall across from the dish cupboard.
I feel certain that her handmade quilts would be collectors– items now. She stored her knitting and sewing needles and thread in a dish cupboard drawer. My mother Mary Catherine was two years younger than her sister Bridget (later known as Bea) and eight years older than her sister Margaret whom she more than babysat after her mom died. When my mother was eleven she took her baby sister Margaret on her bike to school and got special permission from the teacher to allow this three-year-old girl to sit in the back of the class and color paper with crayons while her older sister attended sixth grade. But that was way before she got married and had a family of her own. My mother was, suffice it to say, a very caring person.
How well I remember the old kitchen table next to the window surrounded with chairs. On top of its tablecloth sat another oil lamp that, in later years, we used as light for our school studies. Granddad and dad sat at the table many an evening having their tea and soda bread chatting about various things by the light of the oil lamp. Dad had a very quiet voice while granddad did not, but each allowed the other his say. While I remember it here are the ingredients of auld Irish soda bread:
Three cups of white flour
Three teaspoons of baking powder
One teaspoon of salt
Two tablespoons of shortening
Two cups of fresh buttermilk
One handful of black currants
Knead the dough till ready for the baking tray.
Place in a Dutch oven for forty-five minutes.
Let cool covered with a tea towel.
Slice and serve with fresh churned butter.
After my wee dad and tall granddad finished their slices of hot soda bread, they would usually leave the kitchen table to sit on a wooden bench or “firm” as they called it along side the fireplace under the hallway window. Our neighbor Larry Donaghue would always come for a nighttime visit and sit on the bench, smoke his pipe and spit into the fireplace. Usually he wore black Wellington boots over his tattered suit pants, an old shirt and sweater and a tweed jacket. He, dad and granddad talked about crops and politics and what not. All of it was beyond me, of course. Mom usually did the dishes while the men talked. She wore a dark gray apron with a flower print. I remember it well. If the men said something funny, she burst out laughing. She had the heartiest laugh of any person I know. She was fairly tall with big round and very expressive blue eyes.
Let me see if I can remember other things about the kitchen. Oh yes, there was hanging on the wall a Sacred Heart lamp with a burning flame inside a red globe. Near it hung a picture of the Blessed Mother of Prague with all the children’s names (including my brothers Tom and Hugh) written on the bottom. And near that hung a crucifix having in it a kit for the sick and last rites. If I remember correctly, our family prayer book, when not in use, was kept safely on the bedroom mantelpiece.
A few more items that come to mind are egg crates for storing eggs. We gathered eggs from the chicken coop in a bucket and then placed them in these egg crates kept on the kitchen floor under the crock table. And mom stowed her washbasin for doing the dishes under the kitchen window. I remember her reading back issues of Woman’s Day Magazine that she stored inside a cupboard drawer. She probably got some good ideas for sewing out of that magazine. And yes, we used the cool outdoors for storing salted pork in a barrel. Dad kept his anvil outside for repairing shoes–he was really good at that–and our wooden bathing tub was kept outside because it would have taken up too much space.
During the Christmas holidays, mom decorated the home with candles in the windows to welcome the Holy Family. She used to put sprigs of holly on the mantelpiece as well. Later, I heard about an Irish folkloric belief that holly serves as a great hiding place for wee leprechauns. If one furnishes them with holly during Christmas, they may give in return some nice gifts. She also hung mistletoe in the belief that it had special powers to stop any quarreling that might occur. And oh how she cooked some very special Christmas treats! She prepared two special breads that were simply delicious: brack (tea bread) and Christmas pudding. She baked brack in our Dutch oven hanging on a crook in the open-hearth fireplace. Here’s how I remember the recipe:
A freshly kneaded farel of flour dough
A strong pot of very dark tea
A half cup of raisins
A half cup of currants
A thimble of whiskey
She soaked the farel of dough in strong tea overnight and then added the dried fruit and whiskey and mixed them well into the dough before placing it in the Dutch oven for forty-five minutes (I guess that would be around 450 degrees in a modern oven). When she removed the cooked brack bread from the oven, she let it cool down under a tea towel and then served hot slices of it with fresh-churned butter.
I remember taking wee nibbles of mom’s Christmas pudding before she added whiskey to it and let it age a month before Christmas. She mixed a cup of dried fruits into a farel of dough and re-kneeded the bread into a firm ball that she wrapped in tin foil and placed in a boiling pot for a half day. She let it cool, opened up the foil and poured Irish whiskey over it and re-wrapped it and stored it for a month until it became one of the great treasures of the holiday’ Christmas pudding. Years later, I prepared the same Christmas treat for my husband and three children and even neighbors out in Laramie, Wyoming.
When Peg and I became old enough, perhaps at age five, we had chores to do. Many chores, I should say. Whenever my own children used to say to me, “we’re bored,” I’d answer back “Be thankful you have hours to play. When dad gave us an hour away from our chores just to play, play we did! Boredom never entered our minds!” We had to feed the chickens every morning by spreading chicken feed out on the front street. I don’t know about Peg, but I used to talk to the chickens as I fed them. They were my friends. I’d love to hear them cluck and sing to me by raising their pitch like wee opera singers. That chore done, we’d have to gather eggs in a bucket and place them in egg crates in the kitchen. That done and we’d have to sweep the floors of our bedroom and kitchen. Boredom? Forget it. After we swept the house we would then go to the gable field north of the house each with a bucket a piece and gather spuds for the evening dinner, and finally we had to go to the garden to pick heads of cabbage or gather some carrots or turnips. We were still too young to milk the cows and feed them hay–granddad did that. And he also churned the butter until we were tall enough to operate the churning staff. A bit later, when we were still young kids, we were given the chore of smuggling eggs to the North to fetch a better price, but that’s a story for later. Sometimes mom had us take soiled kettles and pots out to a sand heap behind the house where we scrubbed off the soot with handfuls of sand. That was a bit of fun until we’d get into a fight using the pots as weapons.
Well, you might ask, what did we do just for fun as wee little girls? Well, we had to use our imagination. Mom gave us the idea of attaching empty thread spools to the bottom of empty match boxes to make wee cars. We used toothpicks to do it and boy did we have fun driving our little cars over the kitchen floor. After we finished playing, of course we gave our wee brothers a turn. We played games along with our brothers on the front street in our allotted time such as hide and seek and fox and hen. I remember during Easter time Peg and I and our little brothers would go outside and build a little fire to hard boil eggs as a special treat. We might even go out in the fields to look for sweet grass and eat the fleshy bottom of the stems for sweetness much like Arapaho children do with young willow sprigs. Sometimes dad and granny McMahon would bring us a bag of real sweets from Castleblayney including small bits of tasty licorice. I remember once being treated to a grapefruit. We didn’t eat it like Americans, rather we pealed it and ate its sections just like an orange. Sometimes on rare occasions, we’d get a package from America (from either Aunt Bea or Aunt Margaret, my mom’s two sisters) containing articles of clothing and maybe even dolls, though I rarely got first choice.
What did we usually eat for breakfast, lunch and dinner, you might ask? For breakfast we either had a bowl of porridge with a cup of tea and milk or we simply ate a slice of soda bread with damson or blackberry jam. We really didn’t have lunch in the American sense of sandwiches or hamburgers–no, we simply contented ourselves with another slice of soda bread with jam or maybe a slice of cheese and a nice cup of tea. Dinner could be a bit more elaborate. Naturally we ate boiled potatoes with salt and butter or maybe boiled cabbage pan fried with butter and salt and pepper. Perhaps once a week we’d have, along with our potatoes, a rasher of bacon or slices of sausage. On even rarer occasions, dad would take us fishing in the nearby Black River and while we children played in the fields, dad caught a German brown trout or two that we’d have for dinner that night. Maybe for a holiday dinner we’d have baked fresh chicken served with –champ– that is a kind of mashed potato thoroughly mixed with one egg, finely chopped onions, a wee bit of flour and pan fried into cakes. Or mom would make us all some slim bread made with mashed potato, more flour than champ and blackened in a frying pan. Mom, I bet you can tell, was an excellent cook. Suffice it to say, the glad green land of Ireland furnished us with a variety of food, though we were not the Rockefellers by a long shot.
On Sundays we had to go to church in Oram, a three- mile walk from our farm. I don’t remember much about mass before I was five or so, but do remember walking there, evening in a driving rain, every Sunday. It was an obligation we had to fulfill in order to give thanks to the good Lord as my parents would say. Church grew on me, for sure. One day, as we walked back from church, I remember getting badly stung by some nettle, but granddad came to the rescue with a dahkin leaf he quickly picked at the bottom of a hedgerow. He rubbed the sting saying:
“Dahkin in and dahkin out
Rub the sting of the nettle out.”
It worked! Another thing I remember is one time I had a ringing sound in my ears and granddad told me it was the suffering souls in Purgatory who made them ring. Therefore I must pray for them. It, too, worked. By the time I was five, I started remembering the prayers my mom had us say each night: “God bless granddad, God bless mom and dad, God bless Peggy and Maura and Tommy and Hughie, and the wee baby in mommy’s tummy, too.”
One thing I remember very well at or around my fifth year was our pony “Dick”. He was a great workhorse. My dad would harness him to a hand-held plough in the springtime so he could plow the fields in order to set potatoes in the drills. He pulled that plough, with my dad guiding it, up and down the gable field until it was full of furrows or “drills” as we called them. Another job he had to do was haul a cart down the lane to the turf bog about a mile away. Dad or granddad would dig into the soft brown peat with a square spade to gradually fill up the cart with peat or “turf”. “Dick” would haul the cartload of turf back to our house and dad and granddad would unload the turf onto the street across from our front door. We’d place some of it next to the open-hearth fire for drying out and later use as fuel for the fire. That was hard work for Dick and dad and granddad. Peg and I got to feed Dick some hay for his efforts. But what he liked best was stalks of dried oats. Dad and granddad, after bogging was done, liked to sit on the bench by the fireplace and smoke. Dad particularly liked Players cigarettes and granddad liked to smoke his clay pipe, but sometimes he preferred a wooden one. Mom liked Players cigarettes, too. But she didn’t smoke as much as the men, especially after she got sick.
Of course I remember mom’s dog Carla. He was a black and white border collie. Unlike American dogs, he slept outside–even in the rain. Dad made good use of Carla by training him to fetch the cows. He’d simply say “Go fetch the cows from the well field”. He would dash out to where the cows were rain or shine and bark and snap at them until he herded them into the byer for the evening and for milking, then or the next day. Mom wouldn’t let us milk the cows for fear of their kicking us or swatting us hard with their tails. Mom had a great method for milking them. She would tie the tail to the cow’s leg and place her knee against the cow especially when they were sensitive after calving. She was gentle with them and talked to them while she milked. Granddad carried the buckets of milk into the kitchen to pour into the crocks. Sometimes we drank the milk as is or churned it into buttermilk or really churned it hard for an additional half hour or so into butter.
When Peg and I reached the age of five, granddad had us help churn the butter. But he would have to place a stool next to the butter churn for us to stand on since we couldn’t reach the top of the staff otherwise. The churn and staff were made of wood, and the staff had holes in it to allow the milk to circulate through. Peg and I would churn until we got tired and granddad would take over. He usually finished the job, at least until we got older and taller. Granddad removed the fresh butter from the churn and patted it with grooved wooden paddles until it formed into patties that we stored in the little cupboard to the side of the open hearth fireplace. Butter, of course, was a mainstay of our meals. It was used with bread, with potatoes, with champ and slim bread.
About once a week, dad would go fetch the wooden bathtub and bring it into the kitchen. Mom poured cold well water into it and then added some boiling water from the kettle. One by one mom bathed each of us children and scrubbed our hair and skin with soap. It probably took her a full hour by the time she finished bathing Peg, me, Tommy and Hughie. She usually did this the evening before church so that we would be clean and spotless for Jesus. At age five we were still too little to go way down to the well field to fill up buckets with water and carry them up to the kitchen crocks. No, dad or granddad had that job until we got to be six or seven.
What sayings do I remember from those early days before mother died of pneumonia? Well, Aunt Sally Ann (granddad’s sister) used to come for wee visits to help out mom with cooking and other chores. She would watch the potatoes to make sure they had enough water to boil in, but one time they began to burn in the pot and she said to the potatoes, “You’re bornin’ and me hoardin’ ya!” That translates roughly into “Here I am standing and staring at you and what do you do but burn on me!”
When granddad became annoyed at us from time to time he’d say, “Ya scitherin’ ghets, ya!” That is to say we were brats! If granddad asked dad would he not mend a fence or repair an old boot, dad would say “Sure, it will do me day,” meaning “Oh, it’s good enough for my lifetime”. I remember to this day something about a cuckoo bird that I said whenever I’d hear one in the distance:
“Cuckoo where do I go?
April I open my bill
May I sing all day
June I change my tune
July far far I fly.”
I enjoyed watching birds when I was a kid. There were larks, willy wag tails, crows, rooks, sparrows, hawks and evening hooting owls. We’d see them on the way to church and, at age five, when we went to low infant’s school in Oram. We followed the winding little roads past very tall hedgerows that had good things to eat. I liked the wild vetch pods that tasted much like peas. Of course in late summer and early fall there grew in profusion wild strawberries and raspberries and juicy blackberries. We liked fleshy haws seeds to chew on from wild hawthorn trees. And flowers! How the hedgerows had so many flowers. My favorite flower was the pink foxglove or “snapper” as we called them. You could pick one of the narrow vase-shaped foxgloves and push them back and forth until they made a snapping noise.
Dad worked at a scutching mill about two miles away after he had worked for the county council repairing country roads. He took his bike to work each morning and stayed at work till early evening. I never got inside the mill to see what was going on, but my brother Tommy did when he was a teenager. His job was to gather the shoughs (chafe) at the spinning paddles and take it to the furnace to fuel the steam engine. He said it was so dusty inside that you could barely see the man standing next to you. One man lost his hand in a spinning paddle wheel. No one ever wore a face mask! Farmers grew lots of flax plants in our area. Flax is a tall plant with purple flowers. Farmers gather it when it is ripe and place great bunches of it into flax holes, rectangular trenches filled with water. My mother always used to worry about our falling into a flax hole with nobody out there to help us. After the flax has soaked for a number of weeks, it is dried out and brought in stalks to the flax mill or “scutching” (thrashing) mill as we called it. There it was spun on paddles to be chafed of its outer layer. Once it was chafed, a fine white fiber became exposed. They stretched out the fiber and bundled to be shipped off to Northern Ireland to larger mills that manufactured Irish linen. Sometimes we’d use that unmilled fiber to twist together in order to make rope for horse halters and such. Dad developed a cough from all the dust in the mill that eventually developed into emphysema. He worked there placing flax on paddles for twenty years but left before the mill closed down.
Granddad worked as a stone mason before he got old. He certainly was a good mason because, according to Aunt Bea, he stood in high demand in Castleblayney. He built the cow byer next to our house with good luck pennies placed in the mortar between solid stones, so huge, I can’t imagine anyone lifting them up. Granddad was also quite handy around the house and he could mend almost anything that needed fixing. Our dad was great, also, that way, especially mending shoes. Of course, when he wasn’t working at the mill, he farmed our land with crops of potatoes, oats and hay for the pony and cows. As I said, mom was a great seamstress until she got sick with pneumonia. She used to sit at her sewing machine for hours making quilts and tablecloths and clothing. She operated that foot pedal as fast as greased lightning. So we had very good role models for hard and productive work. It wasn’t an easy life, but there were many joys and always the glad green land.
Peg and I had to go to Low Infant’s school in the fall of 1944 when we were four and a half years of age. But on the first day of school I was too sick to go. Mom dressed up Peg and told her to go to school on her own! But Peg cried and cried. She didn’t want to go to school all by herself. Mom told her she must go and she left the house crying her eyes out. She got as far as the crossroads on her way to school, but it was just too much for her. She turned around and came running back home all full of tears and sobs. Mom finally agreed to let her stay home until I got better.
Well, we finally did go a few days later. We walked three miles to Oram School and were greeted by Miss Connelly. We were told to sit in the front of a one-room school that had other boys and girls older than we. As I remember it, we sat next to kindergarteners and behind us sat third and fourth graders and behind them were first and second graders. Miss Connelly taught us all, but sometimes she had two other teachers to help. We were taught phonics and the alphabet and had books for coloring. We were also taught some prayers in English and in Gaelic. Until I came to America, I could say the “Our Father” and “Hail Mary” in Gaelic. No more, though.
The schoolroom had white plaster walls, a little peat-burning stove, slate boards and chalk, little desks with inkwells for the older pupils. According to Hughie, three boys were chosen each morning in the fall and winter to go to a nearby bog and dig some peat for fuel. They hauled it back in a wee cart. Thanks to them, we all kept warm in that otherwise very damp school. Now that I think back on it, what a difficult job Miss Connelly had! She had to have the presence of mind to teach so many different kids and at different levels of learning! Mom always asked us what we learned when we came home in the afternoon. Then she made sure we did some chores that I’ve already described.
When we were in Kindergarten, preparations for the last Christmas my mother was alive were begun in November when my mom, wearing her gray apron with a flower print, started to make Christmas pudding. She carefully mixed a cup of dried fruits into a farel of dough and re-kneaded the bread into a firm ball that she wrapped in tin foil and placed in a boiling pot for a half day. She let it cool, opened the foil and poured Irish whiskey over it and re-wrapped the bread or pudding, as we called it, and stored it for one month to become an eating treasure on Christmas day.
On the afternoon before Christmas, my father and granddad went out in the fields in search of a suitable small evergreen to place in a bucket of stones and decorate with different colored balloons and a wooden angel for the top. They slaughtered and plucked a chicken for the next day. All the while our open-hearth fire crackled with turf or peat that heated up a boiling pot of freshly gathered spuds. My mother remained busy preparing Irish soda bread that we would eat along with the boiled potatoes laced with churned butter. Oh how we loved hot soda bread and spuds! Of course we would drink hot-brewed Irish tea along with our dinner. After dinner mother prepared yet another special treat for breakfast the next day: brack or Irish tea bread. She would soak the farel of dough in strong dark tea overnight and then added on Christmas day the dried fruit and whiskey and mixed them well into the dough before placing it in the Dutch oven. We could not wait until she would serve us fresh hot slices of brack for our Christmas breakfast.
As in the past, mom decorated our humble Irish home with candles in each of the windows to welcome the Holy Family who were in need of a nice warm home. She put sprigs of holly on the mantelpiece and hung mistletoe from the ceiling. How nice our home looked.
With the house prepared for Christmas, my sister Peg and I and our two younger brothers, Tommy and Hugh, all went to bed. We made sure our porcelain hot water bottles were filled and quickly dozed off. The next morning came. Peg and I fed the chickens while granddad milked our two cows. It started to rain and so we all put on our raincoats and walked three miles to Oram for Christmas mass to celebrate the birth of Jesus. We walked home passed rolling green fields as quickly as we could keeping pace with granddad, dad and mom until we opened the door of our decorated home and sat down to a breakfast of a boiled egg, fresh sliced brack bread and tea. We each received our modest presents of clothing our mom had made for us and gave thanks. Dad then began roasting a Christmas chicken over the open-hearth fire. The rain came down hard outside but it didn’t matter; we were all safe and snug in our warm cottage. As we ate our roasted chicken and boiled potatoes, we all looked forward to a special treat–Christmas pudding prepared back in November. Each slice tasted like a little piece of heaven. Dad, granddad and a neighbor all sat around the fire and smoked their pipes and told us stories about leprechauns hiding in Christmas holly. Then our neighbor, Larry Donaghue, gave each of us kids a wee piece of candy that he said he found in the holly branches on our mantelpiece.