John McCullagh June 19, 2019
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6. Fun of the Fair

How bright the light is near the sea! We look down upon the fishing boats lying askew on the shining mud. Above these, the drunken tangle of wayward masts, around which graceful gulls glide, tirelessly wheeling, their hungry eyes questing, forever complaining as if they felt perpetually victimized.


A cargo boat sits on the wet sand, leaning slightly against the dockside, its rusty hull exposed to the ministrations of two crewmen with long brushes, in a never-ending struggle against the sea’s perpetual corrosion. But above all it is the strong, salty tang of decaying seaweed in the bracing air that proclaims the sea and its wide, bright, alien fascination.

Wooden stalls festooned with coloured balloons catch the eye. There are buckets and spades, lemonade and seaside rock, rubber bathing rings and cardboard telescopes. Toy yachts with white sails dangle by their masts. Gaily coloured windmills spin briskly in the still breeze. Boiled sweets in bottles and kazoos by the score hold one’s dreaming attention. Mouth organs, Jews-harps, tricks and jokes all have their silent appeal, briefly holding the innocent, wandering eye. This was a spectacle as wondrous to a child as Aladdin’s Cave and we longed to stay, just to look and look. Oh to have the money that adults always seemed to have. What a joy it would be, to buy, not one, but many of these fascinating treasures. In the midst of our seduction and its beguiling fantasies we are gently but firmly tugged away. In the centre of this flimsy extravaganza the vendor leans forward on his counter, eyeing the passing trade, his eyes bright with the same keen opportunism as the gliding gulls.

Then past the rifle range to the little swing boats. Here we pause and to our delight, are lifted into a curved wooden boat, the ropes of which are crossed over. We excitedly grasp our own ends and with a push, the craft is on its way. Compared with the jerky hobble of walking, this motion is smooth, like gliding. Faster and faster, we move swiftly in a smooth arc, the wind in our ears, our hair blowing about in wild abandon. Higher and higher still, the top of each exhilarating swing affording a temporary halt and an elevated view of a crazy tilting world. High up over the heads of ordinary people the view is of rooftops, vying with the gulls, almost flying. Alarming yet exciting, anxiety gives way to mounting bravado. Stronger pulls on the rope now send the craft almost skyward. Oh, the sheer joy of it! Could anything possibly be better than this?

Higher and yet higher, we strive manfully, now almost level with the bar, and still we try. Jubilant, we know and sense the feelings of liberated birds: the sweet joy of flight is ours, as we swoop and glide like disembodied souls. The chains of earth have fallen away and the surging freedom is intoxicating. Then all at once, a disappointing retardation coupled with a horrid grating sound, the dry, coarse, depressing rasp of wood dragging on wood. As the weather-beaten spoil-sport in charge of the ride brutally applies the long brake, we are brought back to earth physically and spiritually. Wingless again, our avian experience ends with a jolt. Dismayed we are lifted, still hopefully clutching our ropes, eager to retain our incorporeal experience. But no, back to boring terra firma. Quietly we are ushered away, still glancing backward with futile hope – Warrenpoint, neat and bright before us, and beyond the green magnificence of the Rostrevor Mountains.

Across the choppy waters of the Lough climbs the majestic, rugged splendour of Slieve Foy surmounting the craggy convolutions of the Carlingford range. People enjoying the luxury of leisure, sit along the low, flat seawall. Some are eating ice creams, some are reading, some just lounging, idly watching people like ourselves slowly ambling by. All around, the salty tang and the wide, stimulating brightness of the sea, with its gliding gulls and their persistent, plaintive cries. What an intoxicating panorama, until one’s eyes behold the beach.

 

It is not just dark, but hard and jaggedly dark: not just stony, but ruggedly rocky. It is an untidy rubble of rounded rocks, some the size of footballs but most like cobbles. These are interspersed with broken shells, strewn in profusion, before the cool, bracing sea. Lower down near the water, thick fronds of glistening seaweed, knobbly with little bladders, a child’s delight, float compliantly, making rough dark patches on the smooth, shining water. However the drab, unsightly appearance of the beach, like rotten teeth in a beautiful face, causes the heart to sink somewhat. One thinks, what a pity.

It is a mystery how the shops can sell buckets and spades. It would be impossible for any kid to produce a sandcastle here. Swimmers too have a hard time as they make their painful, penitential way across this cruel barrier. Surely worth a substantial remission of sin, however heavy the guilt. Submerged in water, the stones become even more troublesome. One sees determined bathers cautiously picking their slow way with success until they reach the sea. Here they stumble to their knees in the frigid water, only to arise galvanized. The choice now is to desperately contemplate retreat, or, for appearances of self-respect, to proceed. Most proceed, apparently with robust determination but inwardly quailing at the sea’s outrageous malice. To be a regular swimmer in the sea here is proof, if not of physical heroism, then at least of extreme stoicism. This bleak philosophy is further tested when one emerges dripping wet from the water, with goose pimples bunched tightly against the breeze. Feet softened by immersion, shivering, stumbling, the return via dolorosa is even more painful, having to contemplate staggering across these vicious teeth to one’s clothes. This is a proof of character, or perhaps of something more sinister.

Of course, on this first visit we did not enter the water bodily but were content to merely paddle. My memory here is supported and enhanced by these two old faded photos from that summer of 1935. They depict a summer’s day of indifferent weather, the sky obscured with thick cloud. Except for the photographs, I might have imagined sunshine, painting a joyous, idyllic, sparkling scene, nostalgia being usually romantic.

 

The old photo shows Mrs Frame, in a long, dark, print dress, hand in hand with Freddie and myself. We are all paddling diffidently, ankle-deep in the calm water. Around us stretches the dark, stony, seaweed-strewn beach. Behind us is the baths, a massive concrete wall shaped like a hull, surmounted by a massive wooden superstructure, painted white. The whole, for all the world, looked like a ship pointing out to sea. Beyond again in the near distance is the romantic, bulge of Slieve Martin. The faded monochrome does no justice to the scene or to my memory of it. Who took these photos? Try as I might, I am annoyed that I cannot remember. It was perhaps, and probably, Mr Frame. I seem to remember a picnic, and a flask of tea with sandwiches. We feasted with our backs to the stout sea wall, the tangy smell of seaweed in our nostrils and the wide shining vista of the sea before us. I record this as it was the ritual in those days. I cannot honestly remember it so on this day. As I scrutinize these photos, I notice that we are carrying buckets and spades. Sadly and surprisingly I cannot even remember buying these, although at that time, it must have been a very exciting experience.

Warrenpoint was a must in those days for Newry people wanting a day by the sea. Being only six miles away it was both cheap and convenient, thanks to the rail connection. Trippers from Newry invariably brought their own food, usually a flask of tea, with a bottle of lemonade for the kids, and a generous parcel of sandwiches. If not consumed on the beach, these were eaten in the park, which was always neat and attractive. Being mere day-trippers, there was no necessity to use either restaurants or hotels, or any other commercial convenience. The only things bought would be ice creams and the occasional ride for the kids. The traders of The ‘Point took a dim view of Newry visitors as a consequence. They were regarded as freeloaders and referred to disparagingly as Newry Nucks.
The Newry trippers knew of this and felt the animosity. But the denizens of the Frontier Town also harboured an aversion towards The ‘Point, believing that they were often exploited by its rapacious traders, and calling it a ‘hungry hole’ when they felt that they had been overcharged for something. Thus it came about that both towns entertained a gentle grudge towards one another. Therefore when one of the towns suffered an eclipse or an embarrassment, this would cause some quiet jubilation in the other. Sporting competitions between the towns were always keenly fought and well attended.

7. High Street

Sometime in the late Thirties (perhaps 1937) we moved to High Street in Newry. Dozens of new houses were being built by the Council. No 62, the second in the row, was to be our new home, our heart, the vehicle and the focus of almost all our memories.

At the beginning however, my mother harboured deep prejudices against the area. In her opinion it was a rough area with a wayward reputation, unlike her beloved Ballybot. So as she returned from her mother’s in Queen Street in those early days, pushing the pram across Ballybot Bridge was like crossing her personal Rubicon, entering a wild and desolate place.

The stiff climb up High Street, past the Convent, Spence’s Yard, then McGuire’s was her Via Dolorosa. Of course time would soften her stern, instinctive opposition. But those early days required almost all of her steely resolution. The climb itself was not too taxing for her. Edmund and I would manfully help her push the pram with baby Brian ensconced under the hood, and Donal, substantial even at two, sitting on the apron between the curving shafts, his little legs dangling over the front, being transported backwards up that merciless hill to Number 62.

 In the late thirties High street was still an unfinished building site. Rows of new houses were surrounded by builders’ rubble. Walls did not yet exist to separate the blocks of housing, for the builders still needed access. Narrow gauge rail tracks curved from the front, where heaps of sand, barrels of water and stacks of bagged cement provided the essentials. The acrid smell of cement pervaded everything, even dominating the interior of our new house, with its smooth grey-plastered walls and echoing sounds. These virgin walls needed drying out, so we indulged in roaring fires, which made fascinating shadows flicker on the walls, and somehow, by some primitive, dimly understood magic, helped to make the house our very own.

During this transient period, roaming groups of prospective tenants would peer, faces in cupped hands, through our living-room window as they roved up and down both sides of the row, totally unimpeded by any obstacle. To achieve some privacy our windowpanes were coated in soapy whirls until curtains could be afforded. Outside the clamour and the hoarse shouts of builders was a constant daily din. Exciting to the kids, this was stoically accepted with pained resignation by the adults.

Steel bogies running on rails would be loaded and pushed by workers round the backs of our houses to be tipped where the materials were needed – noisily and bringing much excitement to our boyish sensibilities. When work stopped for the day, these bogies became our playthings. We would push one up to the high ground, all pile aboard, and with a hefty push go rumbling merrily along through the building rubble to much cheering until we ground sadly to a halt.

So it was to the mind of a five year old boy, a wonderful, exciting and new environment. Our old abode in Bridge Street, despite its faded elegance, its mature trees, its cool, mysterious slippery-stoned brook, was soon forgotten in boyhood’s fickle fancies. Nevertheless, deep down beneath the vivid layers of those brash new sensations, its peaceful, dignified presence was always there. There was a quiet resonance, a nostalgia for what had been; an instinctive yearning, a longing for quiet elegance, a harkening back to sylvan privacy, that haven where one felt one really belonged. To the older inhabitants of High Street, the new disorder must have seemed a social outrage. Suddenly they were inundated with great hordes of rowdy kids, noisy, destructive and rebellious. It must have seemed like a bewildering catastrophe.

New houses had to be given, quite rightly, to couples with burgeoning families. The previously quiet area, then composed of middle-aged couples with grown-up families, suddenly became vociferous with the boisterous play of juvenile groups. These older families, the McShanes, O’Rourkes, Fitzpatricks etc. – long used to stability and the respect due to their boundaries – found themselves at war with the new invaders in a vain attempt to preserve their gardens and their peace of mind. And their perpetual complaining and dire threats made them seem old fogies – spoilsports in the extreme – to the tireless, rampaging kids that we were. For our parents too it was a fractious, troublesome time, as two generations of adults encountered each other through necessity and got to know each other.

The little old houses opposite us of the original street, bore, high up on the wall the plaster inscription ‘McKenna’s Place’. The people who owned these properties lived at the bottom of High Street near the Butter Market. In a cul-de-sac called McKenna’s Square, if memory serves me right, was McConville’s Pub which occupied the corner between the two streets. Old Miss McKenna, a crotchety old spinster, dresses from head to toe in black. She would sit regally in a high chair in her doorway, weather permitting, surveying the passing world. One soon learned from experience to avoid her eye contact. The old lady possessed a deadly gimlet eye, like Medusa. Once hooked you would be summoned imperiously to her side. Clutched in her (surprisingly) steely fingers, she hoarsely whispered a message into one’s ear. It always involved an errand to be run, and as one of these soon led to another, a boy soon found himself trapped. To escape that old lady’s web required ruthless determination, a quality rarely found in boys. So the passing, dreamy youth, if caught by her prehensile stare, would be transfixed and sorely exploited by this bitter and ruthless old woman.

 

The Butter Market, a large, single-story triangular building filled the centre of Market Square and from it radiated High Street, Castle Street, North Street and Mill Street. At the Square’s junction with Mill Street stood Convery’s cobblers. Three brothers, all bachelors, worked every night, excepting Sundays, till midnight plying their trade. In those lean times, boots and shoes were repaired repeatedly until repair became futile. I remember those premises well. Often we would sit well into the night on a wooden form, waiting for our boots to be repaired. That was no great chore, as we found the growling machines and the skilful, forceful hammering both entertaining and interesting. In their leather aprons the brothers, one of them bald, worked frenetically. Cutting leather with their fearsomely sharp knives, pounding it into the boots secured on foot-shaped metal lasts, then grinding it into shape on their throbbing, vibrant machines, was a spectacle to us. This latter device was the splendid centrepiece of the whole fascinating theatre. An awesome array of circular brushes and wicked-looking grinders spun at frightening speed with a powerful electric hum. They generated dust that was immediately sucked into a large billowing and bulging bag, trailing like a blimp behind the powerful machine. The cobbler brothers in their leather aprons performed their ritual with dignified command, like a priest before his throbbing altar. Our wondrous eyes watched their every move. Those wicked knives wielded so manfully were suggestive of danger. In the riot of our puerile imagination, a finger might be severed, a limb gashed, spilling blood in the dust. So we were held spellbound. Danger is the sauce of boyhood imagination.

It would usually be dark, and invariably Saturday night, when we made our way home, our boots black and shiny, smelling of heelball, in a brown paper bag. They were needed for Sunday Mass. Everyone dressed in their best for this event.

The area of Market Square in front of Converys was the place where farmhands stood, once a year, seeking employment for months, or the year, from local farmers. Deals would be done between these stoutly-clad weather-beaten men, with much hand-slapping and loud disagreement, standing in little groups in the street. They would usually then retire to a pub to drink on it, and so seal the contract. The nearby Butter Market ceased operating as such at the outbreak of war in 1939. Then it was fortified with gun slats and steel shudders and lots of sandbags. Units of the Home Guard would then man this ‘fortress’ at night in the early war years. Much to the amusement of local people, these would-be soldiers took themselves very seriously indeed. The hazards they encountered however were not of a draconian nature. Boredom and cold feet were their greatest enemies. Never was a shot fired in earnest though rumour of the time abounded of a nocturnal skirmish. The Wermacht – no less- were espied furtively creeping down Convent Hill. They were allegedly fired upon by our vigilant defenders whose gullibility fortunately exceeded their marksmanship. So it was that both goats escaped unbloodied back up the hill, to resume their wild, capricious behaviour with impunity in The Rocks.

Amateur Thespians

My memories of pre-War High street are discontinuous and somewhat vague. I remember the songs of the time, ‘The Girl in the Alice-Blue Gown’, ‘The Donkey’s Serenade’ etc.

Among my female cousins there was much talk of Shirley Temple clothes. In the local sweet shops too some of the confectionary bore the name of the young Hollywood star. The musicals of Janet McDonald and Nelson Eddy were the rage, while the radio reverberated to their songs.

Our house, like all the others, was lighted by coal gas. This was generated locally, at the gasworks, owned by the Council. We paid for the gas by means of a meter located under the stairs. The meter accepted pennies, a penn’orth of gas, not such a modest sum these days, seemed to last quite a long time. A dramatic moment would sometimes arise, often at night, when while listening to the radio, the gas would begin to fail. Being gas, this would be a long-winded process, always the same chain of effects. First a diminution in the intensity of the light, accompanied by a change in colour – from greenish yellow, to yellow, to red, then finally, with the room almost in darkness, to blue. It was my father’s job to feed the meter and so restore the light. Great would be our amusement at the frantic fumbling and futile searching of our clumsy father, at first in his pockets, then in mother’s handbag, as the light faded and the deadly terminal blue began to appear. We would shout feigned encouragement as the darkness began to enfold us and my father’s efforts became more desperate. Once the mantle subsided into its blue phase we would burst into song, ‘Here, here, the blues are here!’ – we would chant with wild glee. The trick for father was to crank a penny into the meter while the mantle still glowed blue. Then light would be restored immediately without the annoyance of having to turn the gas off and strike matches to start the whole process again.

If father accomplished this in the nick of time, and the light flared into its previous yellow brilliance, loud would be our cheers and wild our applause. Father, beaming in triumph, thespian foot forward, would emerge from the kitchen to acknowledge our tribute. My mother too enjoyed this domestic drama. If, as often happened, he failed he would be treated to boos and jeers of derision, which he would accept with feigned malice and a villainous chuckle. Always the actor, the whole thing to him was pure theatre. How he loved an audience, especially one that reacted, whether to applaud or to jeer, catcalls being just as good to him as cheers.

He was a ham actor of the Old School, having had, through his formative years, one Jack Brady as tutor and exemplar. Jack was several years older than father and was a big influence. Between them both, but under the guiding hand of the master, they had organised and produced dramas of theatrical declamation and chuckling villainy that had the punters growling in the stalls. Their productions were small-time so fortunes and reputations remained unmade. This experience proved to be indelible in father’s character. 

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