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An Irish Country Childhood
We Were So Young Back then and Every Day was a Wonderful New Adventure
By Marrie Walsh
John Blake Publishing LtdCopyright © 2004 Marie Walsh
All rights reserved.
In 1868, when my grandfather decided to build his house of local stone and mortar with a roof of thatch, he first of all sent for the parish priest, as was the custom, to bless the site and advise on where the dwelling was to be constructed.
A site had already been chosen by the family on the opposite side of the road, which was then a pathway. The priest forbade my grandfather, Shaun, from building his home on this proposed site, giving no explanation, save to add that on no account was he ever to house either man, beast or fowl beyond the pathway, The priest then pointed out a suitable location and duly blessed the piece of ground and the chosen builders.
Then began the process of digging out the foundations, removing tons of earth and rock as the chosen site happened to be a hillock. However, when the house was finished, the surrounding ground levelled and stone walls built to shore up the loose soil, it fitted snugly into the remainder of the hillock, protected from the inclement weather and the chilling high winds which were prevalent in winter in our part of the country.
This house my mother eventually inherited with a few acres of land, and this was where I was born, the ninth child in a family of fourteen.
The windows were situated at the south side of the house, and looking out of any of them you were at eye level with a field which was called Garrai Ban or White Garden. Lifting the eyes to the distance, you beheld the hills known locally as Cnoc-na-Suile (Hill of the Eyes), as the two bumps gave the impression of two eyes peering down on the village. Standing at the front door and looking right, about half a mile as the crow flies, lay the Trassey Hills, where the gentle breezes flitted along the hillside, caressing the wild grass and heather, throwing up shadows that moved like waves on a seashore, and changing colour as they sailed along before being lost in the distance.
To the back of those hills stretched the majestic range of the Ox Mountains, like a nursemaid protecting her charges. The unusual colour of this quartz formation seemed to be navy blue, but the weather was constantly playing games, mixing the colours according to its mood.
This was the glorious sight I first saw from the safety of my mother's arms and which is imprinted on my memory. They were our roots, always there, always reliable, almost an extension of the family. As a child, I would sit on the stone wall as if hypnotised, imagining that the world ended where the mountains and the sky met and wishing I could stand at the top and touch the heavens.
In the opposite direction, away in the distance, could be seen Nephin Beog and Nephin Mor (Big and Small), or the Bean and the Babog (Woman and Child) as they were affectionately called. These acted as weather barometers, as the first snows were visible on the Bean days before they fell to the ground. When the clouds covered the top of the peak, then rain could be expected. There were streams and rivers galore for us to play and splash in, with plenty of lakes where otters and water hens abounded.
As we were a large family and were not the possessors of a big farm, it was essential to cultivate every bit of arable land possible. We were surrounded by acres of common land and shroicks or rough land, where heather and wild grass and rushes grew in abundance. Certain families had a share in this so-called no-man's-land with only a bog-hole or stream to mark its boundaries. So when cattle were put to graze on these strips of land, they had to be constantly watched to keep them confined to their own piece of grazing.
It was a monotonous chore for us children so it was up to ourselves to find a way of relieving the boredom. There were plenty of bog-holes to jump, and also flax holes. These were relics of bygone times, when flax was grown locally and had to be seasoned in deep holes in the marshes. They were now death traps, rumoured to be bottomless, and we were forever being warned against playing near these swally-holes, as they were called. We were also told that a monster called the alpluchor lived in those holes and that he was always waiting for man or beast to drop in so he could feast on their hearts, his favourite food. We listened, but we did not always obey.
The hot summer sun baked the crust that formed on the green, spongy, bubbling mass of fungi in the holes. It was like a witch's cauldron, and my brothers and I would take a running jump, landing in the middle of this crust. It would sink with the weight of our bodies, and up again it would pop, propelling us to the other side. We had found a perfect trampoline, and as we were out of sight of our homes, our parents were not aware of the danger we courted.
When the small rivers ran shallow in hot weather, we would build a courigh, or barrier, with stones and clauber – damp pieces of grassy earth from the river bank – to stay the flow of water. We would put lime into a sack, then secure the sack between the stones with the bag mouth opening into the flow of water. When the water volume built up, fish unwittingly became trapped in the bag. The lime stunned them and we would take the trout home to be fried in home-made butter.
The countryside offered us all kinds of delicacies: blackberries, bilberries, nuts, wild raspberries, sloes and haws. On a Sunday morning after early mass, men and youths would meet and go hunting across the moors and bogs, not for sport but for the pot. There were grouse, partridge, pheasant, rabbits and hares; also wild duck and geese, and woe betide anyone who killed out of season. There was a strict country code which, in latter years, as tourists came, was ignored. No longer would the pheasants' call be heard as they squabbled among themselves. Farmers eventually forbade all trespassing on their property in order to protect the wild life.
We would fish the rivers and lakes with home-made fishing rods and live bait. We would use heather to make besoms for sweeping the house floors and barns. Rushes would be used as bedding for the animals. At a certain time of year, when the hens were about to moult, we hastened this procedure by keeping them in darkness and feeding them on boiled nettles. We would then cut ling heather and carry great big bundles on our backs from the bogs. This would be used for bedding and the hens would gorge themselves, thus speeding up the process of growing new feathers.
We made use of most things that grew wild around our area, and learned from older people about country lore. A massive sycamore tree grew in the field above the house and one of my brothers would climb into its tall branches and put a rope over the stoutest limb. We would then secure a piece of suitable wood to the ends of the rope and up and away we would go on the swing, into the air and over the rooftop of our house, back and forth, until our heads got dizzy, with everyone awaiting their turn and screaming in anticipation of the thrill of sailing over the chimneys. Mothers in the village would warn their children about accepting the challenge of a ride on our swing, but they still sneaked in for the forbidden treat.
Although our main source of heat was turf, sometimes we supplemented this by using logs. We never cut down trees indiscriminately, as they were essential as protectors against the elements. Sometimes an old neighbour would want a tree felled and would offer my father the wood on condition that he would cut the tree and take it away. He would get his cross-cut and saw and hatchet. He would put the hams and bridle on the horse and with several of us children in tow, carrying ropes and chains, we would set off.
First of all, we would tell the tree the reason for cutting it down. Then we would run around to the other trees and tell them not to cry. My father and brothers would mark the first cut with the hatchet, then rub soap on the cross-cut blade and start sawing. We would watch from a distance to see which way the tree would fall. As it creaked and crashed to the ground, the animals nearby would run in panic from the strange noise. The chains and rope would be secured to the tree and fastened to the horse's tacklings and off we would set on the homeward journey.
Some of us perched in the branches, swaying hither and thither as we tried to balance on this unusual conveyance. The road would be swept clean and all loose stones and pebbles dragged along against their will by this monstrous sweeper. Cattle would stop grazing and look in awe at the green giant, wondering if man had taken leave of his senses, as by this time we would have collected several children from houses along the way, all wanting a ride on our tree.
The tree would be deposited in a suitable place near the house and left all winter for the sap to dry out before it was fit for firewood. Some of it would be used as stakes for fencing. Then the fun would really begin. After school, and when all our chores were done, we would practically live in the tree. We climbed its branches, playing hide and seek and tig. We would tie a rope around the topmost strongest branch, pull it to the ground, then try to entice or dare someone to consent to be catapulted upwards. As we released the rope, the branch would leap back to its rightful position like a shot from a gun, sending this by now terrified creature, by nature earthbound, into kingdom come. But the thrill exceeded the fear and we all savoured the delight of going into orbit around our farm. No bones were ever broken, but we would be black and blue all over.
Months later, when the tree had seasoned, it would be chopped for various uses. If the trunk was a certain circumference, my father would make a creepy (a stool), which, when planed and smoothed and a cushion placed on top, made a very comfortable seat. Finally, when the once noble tree was denuded of all its vesture, we would gather all the debris, especially the cipins or small sticks, and we would be allowed to make a fire in the old, disused lime-kiln, although it was a little worse for wear and overgrown with briars and weeds. We would spring-clean it and light our fire and once again the old kiln would come alive to the crackling noise of the sticks burning brightly, fanned by the mountain breezes, the scent of smoke reaching into its old heart, sending the warmth through its old stones and chasing the field mice. At last, the fire would die out and we would be called for bed, weary but happy.CHAPTER 2
Our national school was an impressive-looking building high above the road, with iron gates and wide steps each side of the dividing wall leading into the playground: boys to the left, girls to the right. In my school-days, we were severely reprimanded if Bearla – English – was heard spoken in the playground, but when the school was built in 1879, our oppressors' laws forbade the teaching of our native language. However, children learned to speak Irish in their homes although they were unable to write it. The school was sheltered by the church, which blocked the view of the hills lying immediately to the east side and against which the church nestled.
Through the west windows could be seen the priest's house, a two-storey building with several entrances. To us it looked like a mansion with its carefully landscaped gardens and orchard, the white, iron gates opening on to a wide drive which led to the hall door. The reverend father was a youngish man, sharp-featured, tall and lean. He always wore a black trilby hat. He rarely smiled and was not as highly respected as his predecessor. He could not communicate on a personal level with his parishioners and people thought he was unapproachable, so did not bother him except in dire need. From our classroom we would watch him read his breviary at the same time every day, slowly pacing from the hall door to the iron gates and back. At intervals he would partake of some substance from a small flask which he took from an inside pocket. In my innocence I thought then that it was holy water, but years later I realized it was good old Jamiesons. The house was always under surveillance with several pairs of eyes focused on its door. Nothing ever went unnoticed.
Our school was not big enough for the number of scholars it contained so we had to take it in turns with lessons. We would spend one hour sitting doing written work and one hour standing reading or around the blackboard or the hanging maps, which always intrigued us. We would pull the maps down to the utmost then let them snap back at breakneck speed. The cord would be lost and it would take the teacher hours to dismantle the map and put it right, while our knuckles smarted from the cane.
When the priest decided to pay us a visit, our teachers were promptly informed by the spies – the taller children who could see through the window facing the priest's house and kept watch for his appearance – so that everything was in order on his arrival. He would ask questions and many times would pull down one of the wall maps, get the pointer and we would have an impromptu geography lesson. We would be shivering in our skins in case we gave the wrong answer. The cane was often used after his departure if our performance was not up to the teacher's required standards.
The priest was also the school manager and selected the teachers, usually from his own part of the country as parishes seldom got a local pastor. He also dispatched them if they were not of the right calibre.
Bridget, the priest's housekeeper, was a kindly woman of middle age with a weight problem and an impediment in her walk. Her only excursions into the outside world were Sunday mass and an odd trip to town, when she was chaperoned by the hired hand. She suffered from sore eyes due to the constant smoke billowing down from the chimney, as her only means of cooking was the open hearth. The story goes that when the house was under construction at the beginning of the century, the lady who looked after the needs of the then parish priest refused the builders a cup of tea so they had their revenge by making sure that the chimney never functioned properly. Many times I heard Bridget call 'Bad cess' to her predecessor for her meanness in not being more liberal with her teapot.
A brook flowed through the grounds of the priest's house into the river close by and then into the lake. From this brook water was drawn every day to swill the old wooden-box toilets at the back of the school. This was done in chain-gang style.
Each morning there was an inspection of scholars. To the unfortunate child who had to be sent to the brook with carbolic soap and a scrubbing brush it was the greatest humiliation. Added to this was a further punishment when the parents heard the woeful tale through the usual channels of gossip.
The rule of the girls' school was hair length just to ear level, supposedly for hygienic reasons. How I envied the few girls whose mothers ignored the rule. As soon as they were outside the school gates they would loosen their plaits and let their flowing tresses blow free in the wind knowing they were admired by all their shorn friends.
The turf fires had to be lit by the older children, who took turns in coming extra early to school so the fires would be kindled when the teachers arrived. Each family had to donate a cartload of turf to both boys' and girls' school. On delivery, a class would be delegated the task of bringing the turf from the road to the shed. It was a welcome break from the daily routine. A teacher would supervise and would also comment on the quality of the turf and inform the donor's children, much to their embarrassment, if the standard was not up to requirements.
Excerpted from An Irish Country Childhood by Marrie Walsh. Copyright © 2004 Marie Walsh. Excerpted by permission of John Blake Publishing Ltd.
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