A Memoir of a Girlhood in Rural Ireland
Mother’s Death and Early Childhood
Mom died of pneumonia when Peg and I were only six years old in 1946. She had given birth to a fifth child, Louise and her strength failed. She no longer sewed. She had difficulty lifting water out of the crocks and even milking the cows. She coughed a lot and needed lots of sleep, something difficult to do with a one-year old baby who preferred sleeping during the day, never at night. I know she was very worried all the time about Peg and me. She worried her heart out over the possibility of our falling into a flax hole. Mom nearly lost her great sense of humor. Before her illness she was a tease according to her younger sister Margaret, and, as I have said, she had the heartiest laugh of anyone I knew. But much of that was gone during her bout with pneumonia.
Dad sent for Doctor Healy from town. He prescribed sulfide tablets for her, but when she got even worse, dad sent for the doctor again. The doctor realized that she had pneumonia and told her she should check into St. Mary’s Hospital in Castleblayney. But she never told her dad (our granddad) what the doctor said to her. She was so worried about our well being that she took a gamble on staying home and caring for us rather than going away to a hospital. Perhaps she would have been given penicillin there and gotten better, but no one shall ever know. When she did die in early June a year after my baby sister was born, we children were simply mortified. When Aunt Sally Ann told us she went to heaven, we asked her when she’ll come back. Then she leveled with us and said, “She’s never coming back.” Those words hit home and we cried and cried. Dad and granddad thought better than having us go to the funeral, so we stayed with granny at Lurganmore as we had done a few times when mom was very sick. But we did see her hearse pass by and we cried our eyes out. Other kids laughed at us, but that didn’t stop us from crying.
It must have been very hard on dad and granddad. Granddad lost his wife a year after Aunt Margaret was born. He left her with neighbors (the Duncans) while he went to work and his older daughters went to school. But the neighbors, who were quite old, tired of taking care of a baby girl and when she was three granddad had to take her back. That’s when my mother stepped forward with her plan of taking Margaret to school as previously described. He knew that his son-in-law would have to face the same thing he did so many years ago–find a foster home for his year-old baby. Four young kids were hard enough to care for let alone a young baby only one year old. Well, a childless couple, Tom and Rose Flannigan, soon tried to help out with baby Louise once they heard about her. Tom was originally from Castleblayney. They took a strong liking to her and hinted at becoming her foster parents. Dad finally agreed but only if she kept her name as McMahon and that they take her back home to Tullyraghan from time to time for visits. They agreed and took her off to Dublin town where “Uncle” Tom worked as a part-time musician (a sax player) and mill worker. “Aunt” Rose was a very sweet lady who truly loved wee Louise as much as my mom would have, I think. Someday I hope Louise will tell her story of growing up. It would be grand to have Peg, Tommy and Hughie do the same. Each of their stories would be unique.
Now that Peg and I were six, dad gave us more chores to do including churning butter all by ourselves, doing the dishes and preparing meals as best we could. We made sure that our granddad had his sup of buttermilk and his ginger tea for his “auld” stomach. We tried our best to prepare potatoes in their jackets with salt and butter so that they were “laughing,” as dad used to say. That is, we served potatoes with their jackets open. We had become “baby” mothers, so-to-speak, taking over many of the jobs mom performed. For months after mom died we still felt a deep sorrow in the pit of our stomachs. I could see why mom got so tense at times with all of us children. Sometimes Tommy or wee Hughie really aggravated me and I remember rough handling (grabbing him by his head of hair) Hughie until he cried. But on top of all this, we still had to go to school. Sometimes, on rare occasion, we had to stay home from school in order to help with the potato planting in the spring and harvest in the fall.
We had Miss Connelly for a main teacher from low infant through the third grade. We studied more Gaelic, English and finally arithmetic. I remember having to memorize all of William Allingham’s poem “Up an Airy Mountain” and having to recite it in front of the class. We had lots of homework to do and used the kitchen table with its oil lamp for study, but with Larry Donaghue there and sometimes other neighbors like mom’s old friends the McGuigans, it was hard to concentrate. Yet, somehow we managed to be reasonably good students and housekeepers and field hands all at once. We had the good fortune of being identical twins and when the teacher asked one of us a question and one of us did not know the answer, the other, who might know the answer, gave the proper response. The teacher would never know the better. We were expected to be smart because granddad McMahon was a schoolmaster and our uncle Pat McMahon was a teacher at Oram. We had him as our teacher in the fourth and fifth grades. He taught us Gaelic, arithmetic, Irish history and English. He was a hard man. If a student could not answer his question, he slapped the boy’s hand with a ruler or even made him stand in a corner. I felt sorry for one boy who, as modern teachers would say, had a learning disability, but he was ridiculed and slapped for not being able to answer. Mind you, uncle Pat never gave us twins a hard time. In fact, he was even encouraging to us. After all, we were his brother’s own children.
After my uncle retired, we went to Drumore School, a one-room schoolhouse a bit farther out in the countryside. What a grand view of the misty braes and higher hills that our new schoolyard had! Mrs. Cole was our sixth-grade teacher and her boss was Master MacDonnell. She was a strict teacher who continued us with Gaelic, math, history and English, but she added elocution, spelling and religion. She had us do tricky math problems up on the board involving the monetary system of pence, shillings and pounds. Sometimes we had to add up ha’pennies and shillings on the chalkboard in front of other children. That made us a bit nervous. During lunch we played soccer and a different student each week had to keep the slate board well supplied with chalk. Anyone who failed in this responsibility felt the back of Mrs. Cole’s hand on his head.
While school could be fun and the subjects taught were interesting, it could be a trying experience to say the least. So when dad had us work in the fields on occasion, it really was a bit of a relief. But sure, we didn’t wish to be caught by truant officers!
One time, I remember, we needed new shoes for school. Dad did not have the money to go buy four children pairs of shoes. So he said that we should pick buckets full of blackberries one September Saturday. Peg and I picked and picked all day long to fill up four buckets of fresh blackberries which dad took to the market in Castleblayney. He got enough money for us to buy new shoes. It was nice to think that those blackberries went to a jam factory up in Northern Ireland and eventually got sold on provisioners’ shelves. I always like to tell my own children the story of picking blackberries for shoes when they said they needed new shoes in Laramie. And one time we even picked chokecherries up Rogers Canyon to make Shoshone-style syrup, but not for money as we did back in Ireland.
Another thing Peg and I had to do on weekends was to gather eggs from our chicken coop in the byer and carry two dozen eggs a piece to the border of Northern Ireland. Then we had to somehow smuggle them into the north to fetch a better price for them than we would in the south. In order to do this, we had to cross the border on an “unapproved” road, or a road without a custom hut. Dad explained to us that sometimes a customs officer might search unapproved roads for smugglers’ not only of eggs but also of guns. If we were to see the custom man coming, we were supposed to jump quickly into a ditch and hide. Indeed, we had to hide in a furzy ditch a number of times. We had to remind ourselves that this wasn’t a game we used to play with the boys after school of smuggling–the boys being customs officers and we being the smugglers. No this was the real thing. Once all was clear, we’d peek out and slowly climb out of the ditch and proceed on to the first town in Northern Ireland, Crossmaglen–about three miles from our home. There we would mingle among the people and go to the market house and sell our Irish Republic eggs at a nice price. Sometimes we’d buy a few Northern Irish goods–like blackberry jam– and carry them back home in our buckets. Dad would ask us how much did we get? We’d show him the British paper money and coins and he’d congratulate us on a task well accomplished. Years later, while I worked at Princeton University Library, I remember a Princeton student who was reading Joyce’s Dubliners ask me about the story “The Smugglers.” I had a few vivid details to share, for sure.
To reward us, dad would again take us fishing, though we really didn’t fish, just played, and dad always caught a few nice trout and we’d clean them and cook fresh fish with boiled spuds for dinner. Granddad greatly enjoyed those infrequent fish dinners. He also liked a slice of soda bread covered with blackberry jam, but so, too, did we, including Tommy and Hughie. It’s nice to know that Hughie and his wife are now living in our childhood home (expanded and modernized though it is). Hughie still fishes the river and just the other day caught a sixteen-inch brown trout! One thing I must say is that our little far, as humble as it may have been, provided us with nourishment for the body and soul. It wasn’t at all like living in the back alleys of Limerick.
One time on a Sunday, Tom and Rose Flannigan drove up into our street and wee Louise dashed out of the car to come play with us. Our hearts flew out to her. She was so cute with her very dark hair and bright blue eyes. She reminded me a little of mom in miniature version. While we all played with her out in the fields–she must have been about three and we were eight–Tom and Rose visited with dad and granddad. They would never stay for dinner but would have only a boiled egg, soda bread and tea. Before they left, dad would always give his wee Louise a great big hug and kiss. You could tell he really missed her, but he knew she was in good hands. We would all shed a tear when she left with her foster parents back to Dublin town. But sometimes, during the summer, we got to go back to Dublin with Louise and we’d stay there for almost a week and be driven back home. It was fun to ride the double-decker bus through the streets of Dublin and along the River Liffey. Aunt Rose was truly kind to us by taking us shopping while Tom worked. They even took us one weekend to Skerries, a seaside resort and treated us to a meal of fish and chips. I loved to watch all the fluttering sea gulls.
When the boys got a bit older and stronger they helped dad a good bit out in the fields turning hay, planting potatoes, oats and barley. They really began to take over the field chores from Peg and me. Tommy always remained a quiet one with not much to say. Hughie was more outgoing and became quite handy with things mechanical. I guess he took after granddad that way. He learned how to repair broken chains on bicycles, repair flat tires and eventually, when he was old enough, how to repair car engines and walls that needed plastering.
Ireland, as we all know, is rich in folklore. I had the good fortune of listening to it first hand and actually experiencing it. During cold winter evenings while we sat around the fire, granddad and dad would tell spooky stories. They were stories that take place within three miles of our home! Granddad told one story about a nighttime funeral procession that crossed the fields at the Bogstown Road. If a person tried to go fast and get passed the place where the funeral procession crossed the road, he might risk disrupting the procession. If that happened Lord help him! So best, of course, to let the procession takes its sweet time crossing the road and no matter how long, for heaven’s sake.
Well, one time when I was riding my bike home from work when I was a young teenager, I came to the very spot on the Bogstown Road where that constant funeral procession takes place. I could see the people clearly and noticed that not a word was said–just a solemn procession of people dressed in black. I dared not try to get ahead of them for fear of something horrible. I witnessed this procession not once, but several times.
Granddad told another story of a wee elf of a man who rode a tricycle across the road to get on his swing and swing back and forth under a tree. When I saw him once approaching the road and pedaled with all my might to get past him before he crossed the road on his tricycle. I can still hear the creaking of his swing and can see him clearly as if he were a live human being. Folklore was more than folklore for me; it was real.
Our hearthside was a grand storytelling place. We listened attentively with a cup of tea and slice of soda bread. Dad also told us about a haunted house just down the road. On one occasion and young man, who didn’t believe in such stories, was told to go into this haunted house and drive a nail into the seventh step to prove he was really there the previous night. Well, the scared young man entered the old house with a hammer and rusty nail and climbed to the seventh step and drove a nail into the step. But unfortunately he drove it through his own raincoat and when he got up to leave, he thought a ghost pulled on his raincoat and he fainted right there to be found there the next morning.