3. Radio Days
We lived, my parents, Edmund and I and baby Donal lived in a large rundown house on Bridge Street, owned by the McCartneys, who lived on the ground floor. We occupied the first floor, in what now would be called a flat.
I remember the high sash windows with ornate wooden shutters that folded away into the sides. I remember the oil lamp with its double wick and mirror reflector and the weak warm light it cast. It gave a lovely, feeble, cosy glow that fell warmly on dramatically lighted faces surrounded by mysterious looming shadows. We shared the large bedroom with our parents, they in the double bed in one corner and Edmund and I in a single bed at the window in the opposite corner. From the windows of this room we could see the Newry Basin and its boats, and Drumalane Mill.
Although my father was often unemployed we enjoyed a succession of radios – then the thing in home entertainment. The first, a second-hand set was the as big as a medium-sized suitcase, supposedly a portable. This would whistle a lot but speak little. It would scream with a blood-curdling howl that would shame any wolf-man. This raucous ‘beast’ would be liberated by injudicious use of the ‘reaction’ knob, causing my fumbling father to struggle desperately with the controls.
Mother bore my father’s boyish enthusiasm with quiet resignation. The ‘howler’ proved to be untameable and a disappointment, despite repeated adjustments to the trimmers with a screwdriver. So with the knowledge and keen help of our cousin John (Wee John), the ‘beast’ was sold on to an unsuspecting enthusiast. With John manfully clutching the heavy batteries still attached, my father carried the radio, still playing stoutly, to Pool Lane, to demonstrate it to the prospective buyer.
Then came the excitement of our first new radio, a ‘Murphy’ – a tall rectangular box in polished wood with handsome grain, the front dominated by a circular, fabric-covered loudspeaker. Below it was a tiny semi-circular dial, with a large knob which moved the scale. The numbers on this curved scale marked the stations. Beneath this were two smaller knobs, one that included both on/off and volume control, and the other small knob selected one of the two wavebands.
Of course the new set required a suitable aerial so my father addressed himself to the task with vigour and ingenuity. He ran a long strand of thick copper wire – with porcelain egg-shaped insulators at each end to isolate the aerial – from the set through the window to a nearby tree. I was astonished to see my father, at the advanced age of thirty-three, manfully climb the tall tree to fix the end.
When darkness fell and yellow lamplight fell softly upon our fireside ease, the radio and the shadows imbued our room with magic. I remember still some of the programmes, but most of all, the songs. Those tunes still fill my mind with nostalgia – ‘Red Sails in the Sunset’, ‘Harbour Lights’, ‘Empty Saddles in the Corral’ etc.
Visitors to our house would include my mother’s sisters Kate with her daughter Bridie, Alice and Minny, who would often bring her kids, our cousins; the Kinney girls, Nellie and Anita and the boys Derek, Dermot and Jim. I remember playing ‘Blind Man’s Bluff’ with the girls, to my great delight. In the care of the older boys, Derek, Dermot and Jim, we were allowed to go further afield. Once we went up to the back of the Glen to the ‘Sprickly Begs’ with them and even, with their help, caught some ‘spricks’ (stickle backs).
My father’s formidable aunt Theresa would arrive often. To us she was Aunt Tease. She lived nearby in St Mary’s Street. We waited apprehensively when we spotted her coming down the drive. She had a fractious temperament and rarely approved of anything. She walked with small, jerky, quick strides, leaning forward, pressing on determinedly with head down. Even my father would be in awe of her. Our grandaunt Theresa was an odd-looking little woman with a slightly eccentric appearance. She was a heavy smoker and an avid reader. Intelligent, cynical and bitter, she possessed an encyclopaedic knowledge of the town’s scandals. She could write a commanding letter but was tainted with intellectual snobbery. She liked to shock with the occasional use of coarse language, which was usually followed with a vulgar, derisive laugh – the type of woman who is usually feared, and if possible, avoided. Our Aunt Tease was no exception to this rule.
There was always a slight tension between Aunt Tease and my mother, caused I think, by that mutual disapproval that sometimes exists between women. This alienation can never, ever be reconciled. Despite being very sentimental and naturally sympathetic, my mother possessed a steely resolve. Consequently she never quailed before Theresa’s forceful proposals or veiled criticism, but tolerated the persistent meddling with cool diplomacy. This was necessary because of our straitened circumstances. Theresa would sometimes help father out financially as we scraped along precariously from week to week.
Of course despite even the Depression of the 30’s, some progress still happened, the introduction of radios to working class homes being an example. The programmes entertained, while the instant news brought excitement or apprehension. Now national and even foreign events tempered our parochial perceptions. As our minds filled with bewilderment and wonder, the cosy, domestic nest became disturbed by the outside, exciting but troublesome world.
Another event, though somewhat less portentous, occurred, when we changed our method of illumination from paraffin oil to gas. Billy Bannon, the plumber appeared, and soon due to his ministrations our rooms were suffused with light and exciting new smells. In addition to the flat, rich aroma of linseed oil from the clothes, there was a new, sweet and sharp odour, a fresh, wondrous unknown ambience, exciting and stimulating.”What is that smell, mammy?” I asked.”It is methylated spirits, son,” she replied. So had another new sensation become part to my experience.
The gas lamp was on a hinged arm above the mantle-piece and had to be lighted by a match. First the glass globe had to be removed and one had to be careful not to touch the fragile mantle. It fired with a weak plop and glowed with a ghastly greenish hue. In this light, faces became sickly, eye sockets appeared like dark, cavernous holes, so the faces became skull-like. This grotesque effect was heightened by a persistent but unsteady hiss that never allowed one to forget that gas was flowing. It was coal gas and quite toxic if it escaped unburnt. Its advantages were that it was brighter than the oil lamp with no messy wick to be trimmed and no oil to be constantly refilled.
As our rooms were situated on the first floor, we had good views from the front windows across the lawn and through the trees to Bridge Street. The Cooneys lived there and ran a sort of taxi service from their home. They had the skinny, wobbly cars of those innocent days. Often they could be seen laboriously pushing their unreliable vehicles off the street and up our drive in an effort to bring spluttering life to their reluctant engines. Watching their almost daily struggles led me to conclude that all cars were inherently unreliable – a belief that was to linger for a long time in my mind, and also their cars seemed to have a great thirst for water, much more than any horse would drink.
Our drive ran for about seventy yards to the main gate on Bridge Street. I cannot remember the wrought iron gate, only the gateway. If there was a gate in my time, I cannot remember it ever being closed. Just inside the gateway and dwarfed by tress stood the gate house. It was by then no longer a gate house but was occupied by a middle-aged couple whose name, I believe, was Duffy. The man was a carter and would often bring his horse home at dinner time and release it on the lawn. So liberated from its harness it would frolic on the ground, rolling in the grass on its broad back and kicking its massive, shaggy legs in the air, in its joy at freedom. The carter would watch with pleasure, seeming to enjoy as much as the horse, the obvious delight of his powerful charge.
The little house in which he lived with his wife was appealing to my boyish mind. It had a single room with the bed curtained off in a recess. How cosy, I thought. I remember the coal fire, the strong, plain dining table and chairs and the tall cupboard with drawers at the bottom. To my childish mind it all seemed idyllic. This feeling and thought existed in my mind before the word entered my vocabulary.
From the side windows of our home we looked across a field through which a path ran from Bridge Street to Drumalane Mill. Beyond this in the middle distance lay the Newry Basin with its ships, mostly colliers, its bustling trucks and its rumbling railway wagons. A smoky steam locomotive could often be seen shunting wagons along the tracks beside the ships. Coal would be hoisted in large steel tubs from the ships’ hold, by means of derricks carried on the ships. It would be transferred to tall, noisy, reciprocating screens. These would filter the coal, separating fine from coarse, down into the waiting wagons. Great black, billowing clouds of coal dust would be generated by this activity. As a result the men who worked there, the dockers, had black faces and looked like another race of men altogether.
4. Bananas on the Brain
How exciting it was to see the boats glide majestically up the canal and into the Basin; to hear their loud, mournful horns, accompanied by a plume of steam and the rhythmic thump of their pounding engines as they manoeuvred clumsily to their berths. Some of these ships had ladies’ names such as the “Margaret Lockington” or the “Lady Cavan”. Fisher’s boats usually bore the names of trees, such as “The Oak”, “The Ash” etc. On one tragic occasion when a coal lorry accidentally reversed into the harbour, we watched from our window as a helmeted diver laboriously descended a ladder into the dark water to recover the body of the unfortunate driver.
Of course I remember happier scenes viewed from those windows. Regularly we would watch Aunt Alice walk to the mill with her workmates. Conscious of our attention she would smile up and wave vigorously to us. We would return her salute with enthusiasm, Mammy holding baby Donal in her arms and waving his little arm in reply.
My Aunt Alice was the only one of my mother’s three sisters who was still single. In her absence her sisters often discussed her marriage prospects. By all accounts she was not short of suitors, due presumably to her good looks and warm, affectionate personality. But her intense caution, coupled with her devotion to her aged mother (my grandmother) doomed her to spinsterhood. How sad for, with her selfless love of kids and her generosity and gentle nature, she had so much to offer. But time has no sentimentality and life, blind to injustice, treated her harshly in the end.
The McCartneys who owned the house kept carthorses that could sometimes be seen grazing in the fields. One was a fine big powerful piebald called Jack. This great beast was their pride and joy. Often they would loan their horses for a fee, as part of their business. But loaning a horse is always a risk since a good animal can be destroyed, as much by carelessness as by abuse. They loaned this fine animal to another hauler who, according to Mrs McCartney, either worked the horse too hard or was lax in its care. She believed that this resulted in the death of the horse. The McCartneys were outraged by the alleged treatment and the loss of their most precious possession. Their attempts to gain compensation were in vain, in the more lax dealing of those times. Mrs McCartney often bemoaned this to my mother. Curiously she is the only McCartney family member that I can recall.
I remember woodmen coming and felling some of the mature trees. The smell of sawn wood assists my memory here. I remember them cutting the felled trees into manageable lengths. I recall the resentment I felt over this violation of my little hunting ground. That dark tangle, a jungle to my imagination, was sadly reduced to a few naked white stumps with sawdust strewn through the grass. My jungle was now exposed to the light, revealing its modest dimensions and destroying its mystery. The clearing thus created allowed the local boys of Bridge Street to play football among the few remaining trees. I resented their intrusion. These boys seemed rough and, unlike my brother and I, cursed and used naughty words. On the other hand, their noisy games brought life and some excitement into our quiet life. I do not remember playing with them, as my brother and I were probably too young to be invited to share in their rough games.
Frequently we would visit 69 Queen Street (now Dominic Street) where granny lived with Aunt Alice and cousin John (Wee John). Even then in the mid-thirties, my granny was a very old woman, in her eighties. I remember being taken on her knee. Her white hair was combed back severely to a bun. This made her prominent features even more so. She was almost blind then and would fondle my head and face with her hands, as if trying to determine with the use of her finger-tips just what I looked like. Her eyes, a kind of milky blue, were faded. Like older women of the time, she dressed entirely in black. Her skirt reaching to her ankles was of a finely-woven shiny material. On her feet were fine black leather shoes, with pointed toes. She liked a pinch of snuff. She kept it in a small, neat, metal box whose lid she would tap with a finger before opening it to extract a ‘pinch’. This would be placed on the back of her hand and then sniffed strongly up her nose.
Sometimes she would give my brother and me a sniff. There would be great merriment at our subsequent discomfort and at the paroxysm of sneezes which convulsed us. As a result of this habit, granny always exuded an aroma of snuff. This smell today recalls for me those early days on my maternal grandmother’s knee.
It was in this granny’s that I first experienced a banana sandwich. What a delight! It was made by Aunt Alice who always knew how to please us kids. As I grew up through the long World War that was soon to follow, with its austerity and food rationing, when bananas were but a wistful memory, I often tried – but always unsuccessfully – to recapture that exciting first taste.
Another memory of Queen Street was of the greyhounds that were kept – and raced – by Uncle John. I remember Aunt Alice preparing the food for the dogs. Raw eggs and tripe! I thought the smell of this revolting. However John was lucky with his dogs and won many prizes. He enjoyed much success with his best dog “Big Boy”. The dog soon became valuable and attracted a lot of tempting offers from prospective dog owners. These John resolutely rejected.
Sadly, while coursing the dog one day in a field up the Dublin Road, disaster struck and John’s luck with the dog ran out. The greyhound, chasing a hare, was bounding along with surging, muscular power. In pursuit of its elusive prey, which turned and twisted through the tall bright ragweed, the dog covered the ground with great, elastic strides when suddenly, as the excited greyhound finally closed on its tiring quarry, the hare swerved and dived through the bars of an iron gate. The dog was unable to dodge and crashed into the gate and was killed. A dog of this quality comes along very rarely. Try as he might, John never again acquired a dog as good as “Big Boy”.
At number 67 Dominic Street, next door to my granny’s, lived my Aunt Kate, my mother’s oldest sister. Her husband Joe was a docker and our cousin Bridie, their daughter, a year older than Edmund, made up this family. She was slim with a fresh complexion and she had long shoulder-length ringlets of hair. I thought her very pretty. Bridie was very much indulged by her doting parents and consequently she wanted for nothing. She became involved with an Irish Dancing School run by the McKays, a family who lived nearby. Bridie soon became an excellent dancer, winning many medals at the local feis. Her parents also bought her a second-hand upright piano and paid for music lessons for her. Consequently she soon developed into a talented and very precocious young woman.
Aunt Kate was entirely different from Aunt Alice – as different as could be. Where Alice was easy-going, Kate was firm. Caution in Alice became transmuted into courage and boldness in Kate. Where Alice was compliant, Kate was resolute. Fortunately Kate possessed the same generosity of spirit as her milder sister. Luckily her fiery temperament was mixed with an outrageously unbridled humour which made her lovable though still formidable.
After first visiting granny and Aunt Alice, a visit to Aunt Kate’s, next door, would be expected. Both houses were linked by a gateway through the wall that divided the two backyards and gardens. We would walk through this wall to be welcomed, or warned by Uncle Joe’s noisy fox terriers, usually two. Above these gardens the tall trees of the Glen towered against the sky, causing the back yards to be slightly gloomy. The Glen was a large estate owned by the Barcrofts, an important Quaker family in the area.
In my Aunt Kate’s the aroma of Uncle Joe’s pipe tobacco was always manifest. He had a great variety of pipes: straight ones, curly ones, some with faces on their boles, some with ornate spring-loaded lids. He liked to sample many types of tobacco and would even flavour his tobacco with spirits such as whiskey, brandy or rum. Joe, a tall, lean, raw-boned man with a craggy face, would speak very emphatically, his head thrust forward, his face surrounded in a smoky haze, his blue eyes bright with innocent sincerity. Poking the air with his pipe, he reinforced his statements. He was keen on dogs, especially fox terriers and, as he was an old soldier, he had many tales to tell. To a small boy all this was fascinating.