Mindful of its gloomy history, I have always regarded the quarry with thoughtful apprehension. Despite this, as an older boy I would go fishing for spricks (sticklebacks) in its clouded, enigmatic waters. The spricks were much bigger here and so more desirable.
Later as teenagers, filled with the wild daring of that capricious age, we actually swam there. We would climb down the rocks to a ledge just above water level. The ledge afforded space for our clothes and allowed us to bask when the sun shone. Sheltered as it was by the high surrounding rocks, it then became a sun trap. From this ledge we would manfully plunge into the water, mindless of its awesome depth. We would then splash about with the clamorous exuberance of youth, shouting lustily, amused by the repeating echoes from the rocks around. Yet despite our apparent dare-devil abandonment, the water’s deep menace lurked in our minds like a prowling shark. When a swimmer occasionally felt some unthinkable, aquatic abomination touch his foot, all dare-devil pretence vanished in a frenzied flurry of white water as the would-be Tarzan swam frantically, flailing the water, seeking the safety of the ledge.
There were a half dozen disused granite quarries in this area and we had swum in several. Most, at some time or another had claimed the lives of boys. But my narrative has jumped ahead of its time. In the interests of clarity I will return to the year the war began.
First a word about my brothers and how we related to one another. Edmund was the eldest. He was then about ten years old. He and I had always been coupled, our names linked. Edmund had always had a special relationship with mother, perhaps because he was her first. She spent more time in conversation with him than with any one else. She also demanded more of him, expecting him to shoulder more responsibility. She was always quicker to blame him if anything went wrong with the boys outside. He was responsible, and generous with the rest of us, but could be forceful – not so much with me as with our other brothers.
Donal, two years younger than me, soon outgrew me. He was ebullient and big for his age, but soft. My aunt Alice used to say, ‘He’ll be a big policeman when he grows up.’ Curiously Donal had never become linked with another brother, as Edmund and I, or Gerry, or Brian and Dermot. I guess this was because Brian, his immediate subordinate (age-wise) and natural link was, like Donal himself, extremely independent and single-minded. Therefore the two could never mesh.
Edmund and I used to annoy Donal, who was tall for his age and very thin, as we undressed for bed. Using our fingers and making the appropriate sounds we would pretend to strum his ribs, harp-like. Of course he resented this and would pull away complaining to our mother. She would not allow sibling mockery but would often be too busy to prevent it entirely. Despite – or perhaps because of – the leg-pulling he sometimes suffered, Donal became very resourceful and ambitious and unlike the rest of us, very astute in the commercial sense.
We were all usually put to bed at nine. The younger boys occupied the double bed in the large back room while Edmund and I slept in the small back room. Sometimes just for mischief after we retired, we would decide to frighten the younger lads. One – usually Edmund- would sneak into our parents’ bedroom before they retired. In the wardrobe my mother had an old fur coat which suited our purposes admirably. Shrouded in this frightening bear-like disguise Edmund would creep towards the bedroom door of our innocent, unsuspecting younger brothers. The door would creak as he slowly pushed it open. Then moaning barely audibly he would slowly slither towards the bed. Of course they suspected it was us but boyish imagination often overcomes mere logic and they were also inhibited by the puerile pride that boys have in never showing fear. Imagination aided by the shades of night is fertile ground for fear. Their nerves would finally break, pride would be ripped away by the dark claws of terror, the gloom would be rent with their unnerved, quavering voices crying, ‘Mammy, these fellas are scaring us.’ This would be hilarious to Edmund and me. We could hardly contain our stifled mirth. Hearing the commotion, mother would come to the bottom of the stairs.
Speaking slowly and quietly in a firm voice loaded with threat, she would say, ‘If I have to come up these stairs you will both be sorry. Don’t let me hear another sound.’ At this she would return to the living-room closing the door quietly behind her. We knew that she knew who was at fault and that was enough. We knew she meant every word and we stopped our fooling at once. Lions and tigers are undoubtedly frightening beasts but they are far away. Mother was close and when aroused, every bit as fearsome.
With four energetic and often fractious boys and a young child, mother had her hands full. While father was at work she was busy with the cooking, cleaning and running the home. During the normal day we would all be at home only at meal times. The worst time for mother, her patience would be sorely tested. Sitting around the table waiting, with noisy banter, we wanted to eat to get out again quickly, oblivious of her labours. The older boys were always teasing the younger ones who would complain loudly. That would do it and mother’s reaction was fierce. With one hand on the loaf she would turn, her face like thunder, the bread knife poised in her other hand, and say, ‘If you do not behave yourself, I’ll give you a nick of this knife!’ This had an immediate sobering effect on the miscreant being addressed, and to us all. This small, volatile woman was not to be toyed with. We all knew that she was capable of anything. She might throw the knife, or a spoon, or anything that came to hand. She had done it before. Fortunately like most women she was no good at throwing things, not very accurate, so no one ever got a knife in the chest of in the back as he dived for the door. However it was a realistic hazard, and it concentrated our minds, causing us to moderate our thoughtless behaviour.
Father was usually absent at work, but even when he was there, it was mother who was the disciplinarian. As an indulged only son, father’s own relaxed upbringing ill-prepared him for his role as the head of a large family. He did not understand sibling rivalry or the devious machinations of juvenile politics. He seemed unaware of the acute perceptions of kids in spotting parental weakness and their unflagging persistence. Fuss and clamour overburdened his unworldly mind so that he would part with anything in the interests of peace.
Even as a toddler Edmund perceived dad’s weakness. On one occasion when mother had gone out to the shop and left father in charge, Edmund took advantage of mother’s absence by demanding of father, ‘Daddy, I want that clock!’ as he pointed, to dad’s dismay, to the clock on the mantelpiece.
In the year that the war began Donal was old enough to attend the convent school. As I was still at the same school I offered to take him. As the school was on the same street mother allowed this. Off we went hand in hand. When we reached the school a few minutes later I brought him directly to the babies’ class. It was on the ground floor, in the small enclosed yard beside the fire escape. Opening the classroom door, I pushed him firmly inside and, without a word, closed the door. I then went to my own class. So you see, Donal had been injected into the school rather than introduced. A few days later in the middle of the morning as mother went about her chores, to her surprise Donal came bouncing in unexpectedly from school. His brown eyes were dancing in his head as he exclaimed, ‘Mammy, I’ve bracted out! I’ve bracted out!’
Two years younger than Donal, Brian was then about three years old. Even at this young age his character and temperament could clearly be discerned. He was single-minded and stubborn, but quiet if left alone. If his animosity was aroused he could be quite intractable. Brian did not like fuss of any kind, especially if it was directed at him. If there was a family gathering or party that perhaps entailed taking photographs, Brian could become truculent , especially if he was put under pressure to submit or conform. He would howl belligerently and would not submit. Aunt Theresa often referred to him as the ‘Young Turk’. As a result, in family photos of this era, Brian is often depicted with his knuckles in his eyes, crying.
Because of these traits he was often left to his own devices, which pleased him. Always short on words, he was however very dependable.
Dermot was just a baby at this time. He is the only one whose birth I remember. All the others seemed to have always been there. I remember mother being confined in the house. There was lots of quiet, urgent babble. Then I remember going upstairs to the front room to see the new baby that my mother had received, I believed, from the doctor. She looked tired and wan, but she was there smiling with the baby at her side. Although I understood the baby to be new, it looked old and worn. Apart from curiosity, I cannot remember feeling any great tides of emotion at the time.