Saturday, 26 December 2009

The little house in Dublin

In the Catholic tradition in Ireland, most weeks were given over to Novenas, which could take place at any of the local churches. The children were all expected to attend. We never questioned why we had to attend these Novenas; but at least we gained comradeship from our social group.

I had a regular duty on a Friday, that was to travel to Santry and baby-sit for Aunty Kathleen’s baby, whose name was Paul. He was only a few weeks old and this enabled her to go into the City to do her weekly shop. Friday was a half-day at school, so I would walk the five-mile distance and arrive there just in time for her to catch the bus into the city. Aunty Kathleen was another of my father’s sisters. She and her husband Tommy Duignam lived in a small cottage, comprising one living room, one bedroom, but with no kitchen. They cooked on an open range fire, set within an inglenook fireplace. There was no running water; this was collected from a hand-pump that stood in the lane, which was shared by their few neighbours.

Every Friday, I remember a woman coming along Walsh Road selling her fresh fish from a perambulator; I don’t believe her name was Molly Malone, but the fish she sold were always herrings. Aunty Mammie would often buy fish from her. Mammie did all the cooking and housekeeping for the family. We would all come home from school at lunchtime to find a cooked dinner awaiting us on the table. As one might imagine it was a proper wholesome dinner, consisting of meat and vegetables. A lovely head of cabbage was often part of the menu.

I can remember Aunty Lily and her friend May Walsh taking me down to O’Connell Street on a regular outing. We would listen to a political speaker talking about freedom and the Irish Free State. Obviously my Aunties thought I would benefit from some political education; often the eulogy would last about two hours, although standing there it did seem more like twelve. The attendance was rewarded, because after the crowd dispersed we would proceed to the nearest American Soda Bar. O’Connell Street had many such bars and there I would be treated to an enormous ice cream sundae. I might add that none of my other cousins were ever subjected to this treat.

Apart from the size of the house, the Lawlor family in Dublin had by this time become reasonably comfortable in their living conditions and most things seemed to be plentiful. Of course, they had not experienced the shortages felt in England during the war years. I had long outgrown my clothes brought from England and needed a school uniform. This could not have been easy for them, as there were six cousins other than myself to be provided for. As I have written, my parents could not afford to send any money over towards my keep and the Lawlors were always very thoughtful and generous. For many years later, Aunty Lily would send a goose over to England at Christmas time; it would be wrapped in a sacking material. In later years I have since heard from other Irish ex-pats, it was the accepted way to despatch a bird in the post. Because Aunty Lily worked in Rowntree’s Chocolate Factory, she was able to send a lovely selection of chocolates.

49 Bolton Street, Dublin

Every Sunday after attending mass, I was always sent down to Bolton Street in Dublin City, in order to visit my mother’s mother and also other members of the Whelan clan. As explained earlier, they were all financially well off, as they owned a large store, a retail clothing business, located in a district called Ringsend. The business provided most of that family with a very comfortable living. Often my visits to Bolton Street made the Lawlor family quite cross; I can still remember those at 92 saying. “They could not even spare a pair of knickers to give her from the shop”.

Despite this, it was still made plain to me that it was my duty to visit Granny Whelan every Sunday. Granny Whelan’s house stood at No 49 Bolton Street. It was a large tenement property, with a Georgian fa├žade, four stories high. There was nothing grand about the house; I suppose it must have been imposing in its time. The staircase ascended to four separate landings and on every landing stood a large religious statue, of the size one would normally expect to see in a church. The property had a large number of rooms, with high windows, which extended from floor to ceiling. Every window was fitted with internal heavy wooden shutters. I remember one day Granny Whelan taking me aside and showing me bullet holes in the woodwork of the shutters. I was told that the holes dated back to the time when the Black and Tans were patrolling the city and the people were fighting for their independence.

Every Sunday after mass all my mother’s family, brothers, sisters and all their children would congregate in the drawing room at Granny’s house. That room had some very imposing furniture, including a huge dining table. At these get-togethers I got to know all of my cousins very well; although so many years have passed since that time, I have completely lost contact with the Whelan family. My time in Dublin was a wonderful experience, compared with life in the back streets of Birmingham. When news came that my father was coming to collect me, it broke my heart. I cannot express the depth of feelings I had at the thought of returning to the conditions in England. How I cried as we walked down the hill, away from those kind people and my home at 92. It would be many years later, before I returned to the little house in Dublin.

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