Tuesday, December 17, 2019

The Christmas Dinner That (Nearly) Never Was…

The Christmas Dinner That (Nearly) Never Was…

It was early 1965 and I had just invested in my first car, a five-year-old black Ford Prefect, DI 6858. It declared its age proudly, sometimes letting out a groan or a rattle. On Christmas morning 1965, my mother, two aunts and myself (the navigator) prepared for our annual visit to Longford, to another member of the family, for the Christmas get together. This was an annual event, a renewal of family bonds, an update on all things small and great.

We took off about noon (after the 11.30 a.m. Mass) in good weather conditions; no snow, no frost, no flooded roads to contend with. As we swung into Abbey Terrace the ‘Old Faithful’ started to splutter and chug a little, slowly grinding to a halt at Abbey Terrace Bridge. Shock and dismay hung heavy in the air; could our Christmas visit to Longford be about to end before it began? 

My knowledge of the workings of a car was extremely limited to say the least, a few basics and that was it. ‘Thinking things that never were and asking why not’…I remembered a friendly little man named Paddy Conroy who lived a short distance away at No. 8, Lower Marian Road. Paddy was the master mechanic in Taylor’s Motor Works (now Corrib), a very popular man respected by all who knew him. With the adrenaline running high I plucked up the courage (it was Christmas Morning after all) and decided to call to his house and hope for the best.

After a gentle, well-nuanced, knock his good wife Mary answered the door. I wished her and the family a very happy Christmas and then with an intake of breath gave her the bad news of my predicament. “Come in Christy, he’s sitting here in the kitchen. You can explain it all to himself,” 
Mary said. 

Things moved quickly from there. Paddy promptly collected his magic kit (the tools of the trade) and led the way. In the midst of all the hype and the hope I couldn’t help but think of a local Medical Doctor of the time, hurrying to give relief to a sick patient somewhere, or perhaps help bring a baby into the world. Paddy was the Doctor that morning and time was of the essence.
He raised the bonnet. Open heart surgery, hopefully not; too much choke, perhaps? Check the plugs! Minutes passed, the bonnet still open, Paddy eliminated a few more possible problems and said: “Try her now Christy…again…again”. At the third time of asking, the engine kicked into action. The sense of relief was so palpable ‘it couldn’t be described’. The Miracle Worker (not quite Anne Bancroft) gave a little smile of satisfaction and simply said: “Keep going and don’t stop till you get to Longford. See you sometime in Boyle!”
Paddy, God rest him, will forever remain in our memory for his wonderful deed of kindness that morning and for making Christmas one of the best we’ve ever had.

Christy Wynne

Sunday, June 24, 2018

The Street Entertainer

The Street Entertainer
As a young lad growing up in Boyle in the 1940s and 50s the arrival in town of the street singer or showman could halt the shopper in his tracks and bring traffic to a halt. It was a treat of sorts when one of these colourful characters dropped in to display his hidden talents or skills to the local community. There was the Ballad Singer, the Whistler, the Preacher, the Strong Man, the Blade Man, the Bargain King, the Huckster, the Three-Card-Trick man, the Man-with-no-Name and others; all part of an old world order and tradition long gone and forgotten.

The first on my prize list would have to be our own ‘singing bird’ and town crier Ned Kelly, who like the perennial wet weather never left us till the Good Lord called him as heaven’s town crier. Ned and his bell were inseparable as he walked the streets of Boyle proclaiming the news of great events about to happen such as a political rally, Duffy’s Circus, McMahon’s Carnival, the Agricultural Show, a football match in the Abbey Park and much more. Ned was also good for a song, and particularly if he felt a thirst coming on. “Thirst can be a terrible thing,” Ned would say “if it’s not quenched”; and he knew that his many friends in Boyle would never allow their town crier to die of thirst. His repertoire amounted to two popular songs of the time, ‘Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer Do’ and ‘A Bunch of Violets’. The voice of any ballad singer can vary in quality and tone and Ned was no exception, at times suffering the ignominy of a drop in pitch or losing key. But that never stopped his many admirers following on with their customary generosity. To the people of Boyle, Ned wasn’t just a town crier; he was the bearer of good news.

Another entertainer who paid seasonal visits to Boyle showed off his style of funnelling his voice to the audience by cupping his hand to his mouth to enhance or strengthen the melody. It was strange to watch, a little funny even, but must have paid dividends as he kept coming back offering more of the same!  Again, there was a strolling player who whistled his way through town with a unique style of whistling or warbling, an early but amateur version of the great Roger Whittaker who graced the world stage decades later with his wonderful rich voice and whistling expertise. This man, with his little canine friend tagging along behind him, reminded me of a 78 record I played regularly as a child at home (on ‘His Masters Voice’). The name of the record was ‘The Whistler and his Dog’ and the reverse side was ‘The Warblers Serenade’, two favourites of mine I’d play again and again. Oh, childhood memories!

Next to take the stage was The Preacher Man or Evangelist who brought the Good News to the very heart of the market place. The Rev. Gentleman stood on a chair to connect better with his congregation and with a great booming voice spoke about God, Heaven and Redemption. The man had little need of a megaphone to make himself heard; his voice filled every nook and cranny of the Crescent like a latter day Billy Graham, the great American Evangelist. Then came the super salesman who set up shop in the shadow of the Market Yard. As kids we nicknamed him ‘Billy Bassett’ of the Liquorice Allsorts fame due to the variety of bric-a-brac he brought with him. One item that captured the young imagination was a pack of Macs/Smile blades that showed on one side of the wrap a guy with a fierce angry look and a dirty grisly beard and on the other side the same guy sporting a beautifully clean face and a charismatic Macs/Smile. The packet of five blades cost the enormous price of a shilling, which in those times could get a young lad into the Abbey Cinema on a Sunday for the Matinee. More happy memories! Among the myriad of items this guy had for sale was a powerful superglue that could stick anything together. Even the fingers on your hand could be in danger. The strange substance had first to be heated over a flame before use and boy could it stick things! This bargain king would give an exhibition of its hidden strength by smashing cups, dinner plates and other items on the ground and sticking them together again. The mysterious substance needed the wearing of gloves when using it and carried a notice to ‘keep out of the hands of children’. History, they say, keeps repeating itself!

There is a particular rambling tradesman I choose to remember as Ozymandias ‘the traveller from an antique land’. He hit town pushing a type of rickshaw fitted with a great circular sharpening stone that looked capable enough to sharpen the sword of Damocles or the French guillotine. The little man, I thought, had a kind of oriental look about him but spoke perfect English and had no problem relating with his customers. He parked his strange machine on wheels (not by accident) in the very shadow of the Shambles Yard which was a daily hive of activity. As news spread that the blade man was in town the customers came running: hoteliers, grocers, butchers, barbers, housewives; all taking their place in a queue with their respective ‘tools of the trade’ to have them restored to their former greatness. At the end of what seemed a massive day’s trading, Ozymandias took to the highways again. The extraordinary little man must literally have clocked up thousands of miles in his lifetime, he and his strange contraption on wheels having made their appearance in town after town in County’s Roscommon, Leitrim and Sligo over the years. 

A unique character again who paid a regular visit to town was a man named ‘Dan the Street Singer’. Dan graced the town dressed in an old shower-proof coat, a battered hat and a belt tied around his waist; all for effect. He could easily have been imitating the lifestyle of the famous Irish writer Padraig O’Connaire, the man who rambled the roads of the West of Ireland writing short stories about life there. ‘Dan the Street Singer’ however had a deep love for the Irish ballad rather than stories, so he was happy to cycle through town after town during the summer singing Irish songs, ‘the songs our fathers sang’. Some may regard the man’s obsession as a form of eccentricity, and if it was then what a wonderful way to share one’s love of music and it worked for Dan with his fine tenor voice reminiscent of a Brendan O’Dowda or a Frank Paterson. An added attraction of his was the quaint little holdall on wheels he had linked up to his bicycle fitted with an acoustic system, and no doubt food and wine to sustain him on his journey through the highways and the byways of the west.

Of all the strolling players and entertainers I recall from childhood, my personal favourite has to be a man who made his entrance to Boyle Town cracking a large whip; boy could he crack that whip! The bad guys that lashed poor Clint Eastwood almost to death in one of his famous western films of the 1970s wouldn’t be in the same class. His noisy arrival could be heard way in the distance long before he was seen in the flesh. From the four corners of the town the young (myself included) came running to the Crescent to see this extraordinary character; ‘The Man with no Name’ we called him.  Seasoned shoppers were known to leave goods behind them in the rush to see this guy and even the dogs on the street raced for cover from the terrifying sound of the whip. The great open space that is the Crescent, with its stately Courthouse and elegant Clock Tower (better known as the Town’s Clock), was the setting for this class operator. For the people of Boyle, the Crescent was the epicentre for all great events like political rallies, carnivals, outdoor entertainments and celebrations of different kinds. It was Boyle’s answer to The Forum in ancient Rome. Imagine the Courthouse as the great centre of power with its impressive array of steps leading up to it and the spacious area in front where the mighty Caesar might sit on his lofty throne to pay homage to his warring generals returning from the wars in Gaul or North Africa; or maybe rub shoulders with the great legal eagles of the day as they made their way to The Senate House, or be seen in the company of the most distinguished eagle of them all Cicero as he strode Toga clad to his Chambers. This was the Crescent in Boyle.

The Man with no Name, having arrived at his place of destiny, stripped to the waist to show off his great brawny arms and muscular chest. He then unfolded a table on which he spread a range of steel implements, the man’s stock in trade. First to hand was a heavy steel poker that he bent in two, almost in slow motion, and with gritted teeth gradually restored to its original shape. This was only a sweetener or a beginning of what was to follow. He followed on by bending not one but several six-inch nails to prove he was genuine. Next he hammered several nails into a length of timber and with clenched teeth and a fiendish expression extracted them one by one. The gathered crowd saw and believed. A glass of water and a short pause followed as he got himself ready for his next act which was even more fascinating. He announced to the crowd that he was going to swallow a length of chain he had spread in front of him. Before commencing he called for a volunteer from the crowd to come forward and grip his bared stomach or solar plexus so the volunteer could actually feel the links of the chain in the pit of his stomach. Having extracted the chain he next pulled a sword from its sheath or scabbard and slowly and cautiously swallowed it out of sight, all eighteen inches of it. Shock appeared on every face in the crowd. The next act was something new again and would require the assistance of a young boy. One promptly stepped forward as cool as you like (how I admired the lad’s courage) in front of the large crowd. A bicycle was wheeled into the arena and the boy was put sitting on the saddle of it and told to hold on tight. The strong man then lifted boy and bicycle above his head balancing both on his chin for a number of minutes having taken away both his hands. The applause afterwards could have made soundwaves among the deceased of Assylinn graveyard. Then followed the final act, the Crème De La Crème; the one that would not easily be forgotten. The act involved the use of a large flat rock heavier and thicker than a flagstone (placed there in advance).

Once again a volunteer was invited from the crowd. The ‘Man with no Name’ let it be known that this volunteer would have to be a brave man, a man of courage, a man who would not cower or pull back at the last moment! After a lengthy pause a man stepped forward. The ‘Man with no Name’ prostrated himself on the ground on his back with the volunteer placing the large rock on his naked chest. He then lifted a sledge hammer above his head and brought it down full force on the flagstone which broke into several pieces. Silence and disbelief showed on the face of the crowd as they wondered and waited to see if the man would rise again!  Seconds passed, silence hung heavy in the air accompanied by numerous intakes of deep breath. Then suddenly, the ‘Man with no Name’ moved, stood up, dusted himself down and smiled at the crowd. The show had come to a happy ending.

Christy Wynne

Monday, October 23, 2017

My Own Place

One morning recently I woke to the sound of a dog barking. Strange I thought to myself, I nearly always wake up to the sound of a heavy truck or lorry rumbling along the street below. I looked out my bedroom window, the same one (I might add) that I looked out as a child 70 years before to catch the first glimpses of the great snow blizzard that hit Boyle on the February 23rd 1947. The street was as usual devoid of a human being except for the never-ending flow of tankers, delivery trucks, juggernauts, land rovers careering through with little or no reason to stop; the street had become a right-of-way to the west, to the midlands and the south. It was a far cry from the street I grew up in; people stopping for a chat, children laughing, dogs barking, the sound of shop doors opening and closing. Charles Lambe, the famous essayist describing a similar scene from his own time, talked about “the sweet security of a street”. If he were to come back today he might form a different opinion! Having got over the commotion of the barking dog I returned to my comfort zone but was unable to get back to sleep. Instead I went on an exciting cruise down memory lane recalling life as I remembered it in Main Street, the home place well over a half century ago.

It was a bustling busy street back then, full of small shops offering a friendly and personal service to all who came through the doors. Many of the same shops have since closed, some have changed hands, others have passed on the baton to a new generation. The closed ones had now a cold lifeless look about them, their windows devoid of goods; empty spaces, graves without a cross! The collapse of the economy a decade earlier had wreaked havoc on the town and many like it around the country. The deadly virus spread like a cancer killing everything in its path, but it wasn’t the whole story. In preparing for this great boom now dead, a raft of new parking regulations and street by-laws were brought in to facilitate the never-ending flow of heavy traffic through Main Street and the town centre. These great new pillars of the economy steamrolled their way through a town that was never designed for such traffic, making it literally impossible for any business to survive. A nail the size of a crowbar was being hammered daily into the backs of the traders. The never-ending stream of dead matter took priority over people and traders alike. Caught in a catch-22 situation, the shops closed by the dozen, never to open again; it was a case of death by a thousand cuts. The same story repeated itself in many towns around the country but little sympathy was ever shown by Governments or local authorities. The state was in the process of reaping a Pyrrhic victory.

Doing an autopsy, my thoughts moved slowly from house to house whence I had a long deep look. The street had at one time been the main driveway or gateway to the King House at one end. The facades of the shops and houses had been designed to face towards the driveway rather than the river running parallel behind it. Towns of more recent vintage with a river running through have the facades of the buildings face on to them, enhanced further by boulevards of trees, shrubs and pathways. Such considerations weren’t in the offing when the Main Street was being planned. The King family had become the new landlords of Moylurg, the ancient name of the area in the early 1700s. Their country residence was in Rockingham, which today is Lough Key Forest Park. That magnificent Georgian Mansion was destroyed in a fire in 1957 and the shell that stood for a further fifteen years was regrettably levelled before An Taisce had time to stop its demolition. The King townhouse on Main Street was in time converted into a Military Barracks and became the home of the Connaught Rangers before, during, and for a time, after the First World War. Later again it housed the 19th Infantry Battalion of the national army during the years of the Second World War, and later a platoon of the F.C.A. continued to have quarters in it until very recently. Bord-na-Mona, another semi-state body, used several of the rooms as offices in the late-40s and 50s, creating a good number of jobs in the process. The great open square used by the soldiers for drill and parading also served as a handball alley which in time became a little bonanza and a playground for the new kids on the block. Around the same time a peculiar twist of history helped restore the prestige of the old building for a short period. A drainage scheme carried out on the shores of nearby Lough Gara caused the levels of the lake to drop considerably, revealing several lakeside dwellings called Crannogs. These wattled huts had been the habitat of our ancient ancestors thousands of years ago. The findings also included shells of old boats, cooking utensils, tools for tilling land and numerous other artifacts. A temporary museum was set up in rooms of the building to store the vast array of items found. Dr. Raftery, then keeper of antiquities at the National Museum, became a frequent figure around the town, smoking his pipe and perusing the landscape. He also gave a series of talks on the archaeology of the area to packed audiences in the great groundfloor hall of the building. The project at the time was regarded as being of such national significance that three extra Gardai were drafted in specifically for the duration of the work. The same three Gardai integrated themselves so well into the community, becoming members of the local GAA, golf and snooker clubs, they were given the distinguished title of ‘The Three Crannogs’ and are remembered by many to this day.

When the Barracks was finally vacated, a syndicate of local businessmen bought it and used the grounds to store large quantities of coal, turf and briquettes for resale and also as a storage depot for dance marquees. The new owners were a breed of young entrepeneurs who saw the potential for renting out marquees for open air dances, agricultural shows and various other kinds of social occasions. Dancing at the crossroads under canvas had become the new craze in the 1950s and continued for decades until the disco hall and the singing lounge brought in a complete new form of entertainment and pleasure. The attraction of the marquee reached a peak when the season of Lent was over and the long spell of abstinance had come to an end. The sight of circus-like tents raising their heads in fields outside every village and town was something to behold, they were the harbingers of the good times ‘a coming’.

With my memories of the King House now drained I turned my attention to my own place Main Street, where I first saw the light of day. There she stood in all her fullness. For a moment I thought of Fra Pandolf the artist praising his masterpiece ‘My Last Duchess’ to a friend. “There she stands,” he said. “I call that piece a wonder now. Will’t please you sit and look at her?”. Newsagents, grocers, drapers, butchers, hairdressers, electrical shops, bicycle shops, hardware shops, a music shop, a sports shop, a pharmacy, a one time R.I.C. Barracks now a restaurant, licensed premises, a merchant tailor, a hotel, a legal practice, an office of the Bank of Ireland and National Bank, two shops with the added attraction of a petrol pump outside; the one next door to the home place a vintage model that required manual operating (i.e. two large bottle-like containers overhead had first to be pumped full of petrol and released back slowly into the car tank; an interesting piece of technology to the eyes of a young street urchin hoping to be asked to give a hand in the operation). What finer variety of shops could a street offer, not to mention the rare and varied selection of sound, music and sometimes fury rising from within and without. There were the voices of happy children playing on the street, dogs barking, loud men laughing, the music shop playing the best of Delia Murphy, Three lovely Lassies from Bannion, The Sally Gardens, The Spinning Wheel, Dan O’Hara, the clarion sound of the bell in the hotel lobby ringing out time for meals, the thud of the butcher’s cleaver carving up a half side of beef. Saturday, the market day, was the big business day of the week. Donkeys and carts laden with our feathered friends lined up along Military Road, better known perhaps as the Fowl Market. Chickens are thoroughly examined and breasts felt with a view to Sunday’s lunch. A buzz of business fills the market place. A customer showing an interest in buying two birds sets off a bout of bargaining reminiscent of buying the turkey at Christmas. The local expert on birds, a man who never misses a market, is tentatively approached to give his valued opinion. His word is sacrosanct, a deal is done, Sunday lunch is guaranteed. Around the corner a donkey (and cart) parked outside a large grocery store has finally run out of patience and neighs its deep displeasure, and sadness almost, at being ignored and forgotten about for hours. The owner appears out of nowhere, produces the magic bag of hay from the back of the cart and spreads it on the ground; all is forgiven, the donkey now happy sounds off and retreats back into himself. The brief spell of silence is shattered minutes later when the local town criers, two mongrel dogs that live opposite one another, start a high-powered barking match in the middle of the street; it goes on and on till one of them eventually runs out of steam. Not quite outside the door of the National Bank, an elegant-looking Victorian-style lady dressed all in black and somewhat eccentric stands grumbling and mumbling about her lost savings; she faces the front of the building demanding her money back now. She stands in the same spot three mornings a week (on my way to school) staking her claim, and for anyone willing to give her an ear she reads out the Bank’s Capital Assets writ large in letters of gold on one of the windows, £7,500,000. On the other side of the street, at the hall door of a long-established premises, a sedate old man reputed to be verging on centenarian status stands Moses-like with a beard stretching down to his breastbone. Local history believes he was an Elder or Bishop of the Plymouth Brethren, a religious sect that once had a place of worship in the town in the late-18th and early-19th century. To the young denizens of the street he is their Noah (from a film), the bearded holy man at the helm of the of The Ark navigating the mountainous waters of The Deluge.

Further on again, a long established trader stands at his door dresswed in his brown shop coat. The  man whose day begins and ends with a cigarette can be heard coughing and choking in what could be his last breath on this earth. Every sinner in the street knows the origin of the sound and the direction it’s coming from. They’ve been listening to it for donkey’s years but no one mentions a word of condemnation; judge not and you shall not be judged. Lady King Harman, severely afflicted by rheumatoid-arthritis, leaves the Beauty Salon complete with hair perm and accompanied by her lady-in-waiting. Outside, her chaffeur stands in readiness dressed in navy blue uniform and high leather boots at the door of the wine-coloured Bentley for Her Ladyship to enter; shades of the grand old ‘Upstairs Downstairs’era. Drawing ever closer to ground zero (the home place), a vision of my neighbour looms large in front of me. The man was one of the great pianists of his day, the Joe (Mr. Piano) Henderson of his time; a person who could beat out the great postwar tunes of the 1950’s. A celebration is taking place in the upstairs sitting room and friends are sitting round having drinks sweetened up with ginger ale or soda water. The occasions are Christmas, Easter and other celebratory times of the year. Other impromptu sessions occur that are even more enjoyable than the organised ones and may last till midnight and beyond; what memories, what a wonderful world!

A lady, a music teacher by profession, living in a flat a few doors away brought the word curry into the little world of Main Street. Born in India, where her father was a British army major during the First World War, the said lady had family connections with Boyle. After her father died in India she came on a holiday, fell in love with the place and never left it. Her oriental cooking became famous in the street and was talked about almost like an eighth wonder of the world. The pungent smell of chicken curry or vindaloo halted people in their tracks as they tried in vain to discover the source and the name of the strange exotic aroma permeating the street round about. A touch of eastern promise and oriental cuisine had come to the home place years before an Indian or oriental restaurant was heard of in Ireland.

A new neighbour has just opened up a strange type of grocery store in the street which boasts being among the first of its kind in the west of Ireland (1960); it’s called a supermarket and it’s doing a roaring trade. A ground-breaking concept, the place is held in awe by all who enter. How a business can survive that has neither a counter nor an assistant (so to speak) simply boggles the mind. It beggars belief, shelves upon shelves of items to pick and choose from and pay at the door on your way out. Old habits die hard, the pass book, the weekly credit, the personal touch, the Christmas Box. Do these grand old trappings of a way of life that has endured for generations go out the window in the name of some alien form of business still wet behind the ears! When God was a child the shops stayed open all hours; the owner could almost choose his own time to open and close. Closing time was usually 8 p.m. on weekdays, 10 p.m. on Saturdays and 1 p.m. on Wednesday (the half day). Sunday, the day of rest, was sacrosanct except for the sinning Newsagent. The barber around the corner held the record for long, stand alone, outrageous hours; he could be found working up till the midnight hour, cut-throat in hand unloading a mountainy man of a week’s growth of beard. His was the last stop saloon. Trade unions were a nasty word in those times, probably a throwback to the great Dublin Lockout. The name was rarely brought into conversation, shunned like the subject of politics or religion in a bar.

At the junction of Main Street, Bridge Street, Patrick Street and Green Street stands the majestic old building of the Northern Bank. Standing in the shelter of the hall door of this impressive building, one has a birds-eye view of  anything and everything happening on three of the four named streets. The shelter surrounding the closed entrance door served as a kind of lookout post for as long as anyone can remember, a place where a restless soul might linger to consider the fragility of life or for the man not quite ready to go home ‘yet’. After leaving the pub or the cinema, a small group would gather around the historic door for a rehash of what had gone on earlier. The pipe would be lit up, cigarettes smoked and the occasional loud laugh told its own story, a good yarn had just been spun. Then came the pauses of deep silence as the group huddled together like ghosts in the shadows using each other as protection from the elements. The spot became the all-seeing eye of Boyle, the local centre of the universe, a kind of early version of CCTV. Other memories to enrapture the mind are the bright lights of the ‘open all hours’ little shops in the long winter evenings, a husband and wife team working together behind the counter with a smile for everyone. They were the halfway houses where a customer hung on late for a chat and a smoke, and could end up sitting at the fire in the kitchen at the back of the shop. It was a familiar culture that died with the demise of the small shop; they were John Nesbitt’s Passing Parade; they were the ‘Lachrymae Rerum’.

As I reach the bottom of my Pandora’s Box, I see the faces of two colourful personalities peering up at me who were born on Main Street. They are Jasper Tully, M.P. at Westminster and founder member of the Roscommon Herald, and Maureen O’Sullivan, the famous Hollywood Actress who acted as Jane – Tarzan’s (Johnny Weissmuller) partner in many a jungle film. They have earned their niche in the street’s little Pantheon of characters. Boyle town has been through the wars; battered, bruised and scarred, but still standing; a born survivor. Within her lies an unconquering hope that will see her overcome every obstacle no matter how great. Lord Tennyson said it once in a few words:
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.


Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Convent of Mercy, Boyle

Convent of Mercy
Lest We Forget

In retirement I have enjoyed putting on record many of the memories I have of growing up in my hometown of Boyle, a town steeped in history; the town I love so well. I have covered events like the Blizzard of 1947, the Cattle Fairs on the streets, Christmas Shopping in Boyle, Showday in Abbey Park, Rockingham (the Forest Park) and many more. With the recent closure of the Convent of Mercy I feel now might be a good time to recall some of the happy memories of my first Alma Mater, the Convent school; appreciated or not! My ramblings come from a different time and place, giving names of nuns that can mean little or nothing to the present generation but nevertheless may convey a picture of what life was like for a child attending Convent School back then, ‘a poor scholar of the ‘40s’ one might say.

To say I remember my very first day in school would be pushing it a little.  However I do remember the class of low infants and my teacher Sister Imelda, a nun with a gentle voice and a friendly face. She radiated a warmth that helped overcome the initial shock of those early days of separation from Mum and home. I remember being given a small black slate with a piece of chalk to scribble with and later a lump of plasticine to make shapes. I can’t ever recall her raising her voice to anyone in the class. A high point of that first year in school was the visit of Santa at Christmas. I never got to know who played Santa but I certainly remember the mayhem he created. Dressed all in red with a great white beard, he exploded into the classroom with a show of exuberance that frightened the life out of us. Pandemonium set in with children climbing over stools and running for cover. It took several minutes for poor Sister Imelda to restore calm and for Santa himself to realise the shock he had created, not to mention being given a chance to dole out the toys he carried in a swagbag on his back. Faith in Santa was gradually restored but God bless him he must have wondered what went wrong or where he lost the plot.

Next came the diminutive Sister Anita in high infants. Equally blessed we were with this little nun’s friendly manner. She had a press full of books and toys she handed out for a while each day, a kind of happy half-hour! My favourite toy was a drum that sounded like a bodhran but I wasn’t always lucky in getting it; the competition was fierce for the same instrument. Sister Anita was nothing short of a miracle worker in that she could find a toy or a book to suit everyone almost.

Then came Sister Francis in first class; she was the nun who prepared us for our First Holy Communion. Starting our third year in school, we were becoming ‘seasoned little annuals’ that could take it on the chin whenever she used the word ‘booby’ for making a mistake or ‘sugar lump’ (that melts in your tea) if your excuse for missing school was ‘a shower of rain’. Notwithstanding all of that we loved her, particularly when she read Pudsy Ryan for us in the Far East magazine or the funny jokes from Our Boys comic. Sister Francis had a thoughtful side to her as well and would often send a pupil who looked pale or sickly across to Annie in the dairy for a glass of milk. Gentle Annie would present the glass of fresh milk and simply say in that memorable soft voice of hers: “Drink that up child and you’ll be big and strong in no time”.

Sister Concilio, who was in charge of second class, was an explosive mix of energy and bombast, a nun you’d hear before you’d see. Along with the normal school subjects she taught us to knit, to sew and to be gentle with our female classmates when playing with them. As boys we weren’t overly enthusiastic about learning to knit but it was included as extramural (subject). Mrs. Logan, the lady with the Donegal accent (the examiner), would call to the class now and again to monitor our progress and of course praise our genius.  Sister Concilio was fond of music and taught us our first religious hymns as well as a number of popular children’s songs.  Could one easily forget Little Toy Soldier, Christopher Robin, Sheep and Lambs, Teddy Bear’s Picnic to name but a few! Then there were the occasions she’d pop out for a minute to Sister Francis’ classroom which was separated by a partition that had a small glass panel inset in it. The door would hardly be closed behind her when all hell would break loose with everyone talking together. Her control button happened to be a silver ring on her finger that she applied hard and heavy on to the same glass panel; silence descended on the class like a bolt of lightning. Sister Concilio’s was the last act in the story of the boys in Convent National School; a new chapter in life would soon begin for them in St. Joseph’s Boys’ School at Mockmoyne.

A nun who taught in one of the higher grades was known for her sarcasm, her sinister wit and a skill to speak daggers but use none. Another again was famous (maybe infamous) for a lack of patience, her tantrums, her fiery temper and the unfortunate student ending up in tears. Sister Columbanus, later known as Mother Colombanus and in time Mother General (the Mercy Order), was the most senior teaching sister in the school and was in charge of sixth grade. It would take a book of its own to cover the life story of this very special nun, not alone as a teacher but for the record she left behind; her name was synonymous with student success. She is remembered by many a mother’s daughter as the driving force behind her winning a position in the Civil Service in Dublin or elsewhere when jobs were like gold dust. She was phenomenal by any standard.

Another nun loved by many students (many of whom have since passed away) was the irrepressible Sister De Sales, the chatty and outspoken nun who taught a sister of mine Maura (also deceased) in the mid-1930s. To digress for a moment, Sister De Sales had a flamboyant personality with a tendency to pinch a pupil’s jaw or jowl in a kind of goodwill gesture. She was a nun who loved to hear news and discuss events going on around the globe; in colloquial terms she would be the present-day newshog! Newspapers and magazines would be taboo in a Convent in those times, hardly recommended reading; a nun’s calling after all was to teach, offer praise to God and pray for peace in the world! Sister De Sales, like any of us, had her little idiosyncrasies and asked my sister Maura to bring her the Irish Press on certain mornings of the week (my mother happened to own a newsagents shop). Her one stipulation was not to bring the paper up to her in the classroom and place it on her desk. That wouldn’t be necessary; she would collect it herself from her schoolbag quietly at lunch time. This would be the little secret between teacher and pupil. Mission accomplished with no fuss!

A nun I can just about remember is Sister Theodosia, said to be the oldest nun in the Convent at the time. She taught my mother in infants class in the early years of the twentieth century and when I asked her about her she said in a few simple words that she loved every single day going to school when Sister Theodosia was her teacher, end of story. Now in her nineties she could be seen on occasions in the company of Sister Elizebeth, Mother Superior still enjoying a short walk in her own ‘Garden of Eden’. 

What child of the time could ever forget grand old Mother Xaviour as she walked the school playground every day at lunch hour like an earthly mother keeping a close watch over her family. She was forever on call offering words of comfort to a child that fell, cut a knee (myself included) or bumped a head; she radiated a warmth that helped ease the pain and put an end to the tears. At one end of the playground where a low wall separated it from the Convent gardens, Sister Mel would regularly be seen walking up and down in quiet meditation. She’d pause sometimes in the course of her meditation to ask one of us our name, if we liked our teacher and what we would like to be when we grew up! The winding lane that she walked, the floral paths, the neatly trimmed hedges, the rockery, the little dairyhouse nestled in a corner and a meandering brook that babbled its way to the Boyle river nearby was a picture of tranquility, a hidden gem! The poet who once wrote that ‘one’s nearer to God in a garden than anywhere else on earth’ must have had such a garden in mind.

Then there was Sister Josepha, the tall thin nun with the horn-rimmed glasses who managed the kitchen; she looked different. Her habit was part white and blue with an outer garment like an apron almost with stripes running through it. The same nun would be seen at times carrying a tray of food towards the hall door of the Convent; a rambler of sorts or a homeless person had arrived at the hall door and was about to be presented with a hearty meal. This was common practice in the Convent for many many years until very recently, an act of charity unseen to the eye and unlikely ever to find its way on to the front page of a newspaper!
The Convent ran its own farm, milk cows and a dairy to produce its own butter; it was self supplied with its own vegetables and had a beautiful flower garden, self-sufficient one might say in every way. Sister Gertrude, the Bursar and keeper of the purse strings, was never much in the public eye like the other nuns; her job was commercial, to balance the books. In the course of time, when the farming ultimately came to an end, she returned to her first love which was teaching. Larry McDermott from Ballinultagh was farm manager and was there for as long as one could remember, the helmsman ably assisted by his two young recruits Mickey McHugh and Eddie Wynne. Larry had the added responsibility of ringing the Convent bell for the Angelus at 12 noon and 6pm in the evening before he cycled home, a job he did unfailingly. When you heard the bell, you stopped in your tracks and prayed ‘The Angelus’ and automatically thought of Larry the bellringer, God’s messenger to the people of Boyle. His brother Tom took over when Larry retired and remained on until its eventual closure. It was in many ways the end of an era. The Nun’s field (as it was always known), where the cows spent their days browsing, became a new state-of-the-art children’s school erected in the shadow of the statue of Christ the King and alongside what was once the nun’s cemetery.

It would be an injustice not to mention the Convent Laundry and the employment it gave to so many young girls from the town for over half a century. Sister Pia, the nun in charge, was assisted by the indomitable Bea McGowan (her second in command) and two other junior lieutenants – Lizzie Cambell and Bridie Tansey. Could one ever forget Bea, the little lady who taught Irish dancing to generations of school children and was loved by everyone for her smile and her good humour. She is fondly remembered by the people of Boyle as the dapper little lady who came to town all dressed in black; beret, blouse, coat, stockings and shoes. Each shoe was adorned with a silver buckle, the symbol of her love for Irish dancing. A regular visitor to town, Bea knew every living soul in it and everyone knew her. Her name is forever associated with Irish dancing and the Convent Laundry. St. Vincent’s employed upwards of thirty people at its peak, all of them from the town. When at full throttle the sound of the washing machines could be heard around the playground as they tumbled up and down, over and back in an endless monotony. Little puffs of steam poured out the open windows in a regularity of their own, measured quantities almost as they rose up from the ironing presses positioned just inside. The laundry was a thriving business then, giving employment to girls in their late-teens and older during the 1930s, 40s, 50s, and 60s. At no time had it ever been a Magdalene Laundry or meant to be, contrary to rumours that it could have been. A particular memory I have of the engine room was that of a noisy place. Eddie McGlynn from Doon, the captain of the ship, kept the furnace stoked and the wheels turning. Knowing Eddie from calling to our shop I would often steal my way towards the engine room after school hoping he’d see me and bring me in to see his powerhouse going full steam ahead. I was lucky sometimes, especially if Sister Pia happened to be in the vicinity and gave Eddie the knowing nod!  Eddie also drove the laundry van, as did his brother Tommy and a number of other drivers who came afterwards: Tommy Lee, Paddy Cryan, Leo Scully, Mickey Fox; all of them playing a part in the life and times of St. Vincent’s Laundry.

Last but not least of the many special memories I have of the Convent was the introduction of  Eucharistic Adoration in the Convent Chapel in the mid-1980s, a practice that continued unbroken for over thirty years. Adoration went on around the clock, twenty-four hours a day, twelve months of the year till the Chapel finally closed its doors in May of this year (2017). The religious establishment that had spanned almost 140 years of teaching etc., had come to an end. The school building that had served generations of students was vacated and demolished when boys and girls came together in the new second level Abbey Community College at Marian Road. The building that was St. Vincent’s Laundry was completely refurbished and is St. Joseph’s Resource Centre today and used regularly by voluntary organisations and groups from the town. The Convent with its beautiful garden, today in full bloom; its rockery, its flower-lined walks, its meandering brook and its redundant little dairy house stand a reminder of life’s earthly cycle from childhood to adulthood to old age and death itself. 

A silent citadel, a preserver of a million memories. 

Christy Wynne

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

The Great Blizzard Revisited

‘Haec Olim Meminisse Iuvabit’ (Virgil)

It began on the evening of Monday 24 February 1947; the greatest snowfall of the 20th century was about to hit my hometown of Boyle. Today, 70 long winters later, the great event is simply remembered as The Blizzard. Casting an eye across such a long period of time I can confidently describe it as the most unforgettable experience of my life. The phenomenon of nature about to unfold was for me all about fun, snow battles, holidays from school and to use a little quote from my friend Wordsworth the poet “Bliss it was in that dawn to be alive and to be young was very heaven.” And that it was. 

During the weeks leading up to the great freeze, an ice cold wind swept over the land like a Biblical Plague leaving everything in its wake rock dry. Going to bed that night my mother hinted the good news: “It’s starting to snow,” she said, adding in a little plea to the man above, “God grant it’ll take the awful cold away!”. Next morning, when I had a peep out, what met my eyes was beyond my wildest dreams; shop windows, doors and their recesses were buried beneath a blanket of snow. The chimney stacks on the roofs opposite, complete with their pot hats, looked like miniature soldiers lined up on a snow covered slope. The morning cackle of birds on the moss-covered slates had fallen silent; there wasn’t a bird to be seen. I missed their presence that morning as I would ‘Fluffy the cat’ rubbing up against my legs looking for attention. Downstairs in the kitchen, the oatmeal porridge cooked from the night before lay ready to be reheated and consumed. Then dressed in my new woollen balaclava, two pairs of socks, a sprinkle of holy water and a hug from my mother I stepped into a mini snow storm like a young Scott of the Antarctic. As I trundled up Saint Patrick Street, I crossed to the middle of the road to walk in a lorry track made earlier that morning; it came to an abrupt halt at the entrance into Candon’s flour yard. My Hansel and Gretel track had just run out of road.  As I gazed about in the deadly silence that accompanies the falling snow I seemed to be the only student finding his way to school that morning. It was then I saw Granny Mitten standing in her doorway with her great mane of snow-white hair reminiscent of the great Albert Einstein blowing in the wind. She beckoned me over to her and like a modern day ‘Oracle of Delphi’ she told me to “go home before someone gets lost in this blizzard”. Then looking to heaven she added in a kind of afterthought: “I haven’t seen the like of it since The Count was elected”. This other Delphic remark meant nothing to me until my mother enlightened me later that day. Granny Mitten was remembering ‘George Noble Count Plunkett’, the first Sinn Fein T.D. elected to the British Parliament for North Roscommon in the by-election of February 1917 exactly thirty years before; the event is remembered in local history as the ‘Election of the Snows’. The snow fell all day Tuesday till midday Wednesday driven by a powerful east wind that built up huge snowdrifts in alleyways, archways and gable walls. The town could have been taken for an isolated outpost in Siberia with no trains or buses getting through for several days and commercial life at a practical standstill. Boyle town was fortunate to have two good bakeries in operation all during the blizzard: Egans, Green Street and Cunnions, Elphin Street. They attempted a delivery each day with a transport to match the weather, the horse and sledge. The names Egan’s Batch and Cunnion’s Wheata became synonymous with the story of the blizzard and were given the grand title of ‘Manna from heaven’. Two big milk suppliers used a similar type of transport to get to their customers but weren’t always one hundred percent successful. There were instances of the occasional breakdown on the way; the mountain had to find its way to Muhammad! There was also the smaller dairy farmer who prized his own precious little customer base. He was like a member of the family, the man who called every day of the year, the man who sat in the kitchen for a chat and brought all the news with him, the man so attuned to nature he could give you the weather forecast better than any modern day meteorologist. Jimmy from ‘Spa’ at the foot of the Curlew Mountains (our supplier) was that kind of man. His transport was of the old traditional style, the pony and cart fitted with rubber tyres. The terminus for Roger the pony was the wooden E.S.B. pole on the corner of Green Street beside Ryan’s Pharmacy. Roger was tethered to the pole and given an early morning lunch in the form of a large bag of hay spread on the ground. A special memory I have of Jimmy’s visit to our kitchen was the little drop of milk he always ‘threw in’ for Fluffy our cat, a gesture a child doesn’t easily forget. Another memory of Jimmy was the din he created on the street from the rattle of the aluminium jugs he had hanging from the spout of the great dairy can he carried with him; the man was giving advance notice to his customers of his coming amongst them. With delivery completed, he made for the window stool in Devine Conlon’s pub (Saint Patrick Street) for his usual two or three bottles of Guinness to re-energise him for his journey back to Spa. The window stool appeared to be Jimmy’s by some sort of squatter’s right; it was his vantage point to keep a watchful eye on Roger across the street while he was enjoying his few glasses of medicine. Leaving his cosy nook on the window stool Jimmy would sometimes say with a smile: “Back to the reservation lads!” 
As the days went by a series of strange stories were beginning to unfold, the first being that of the missing postman. Johnny Gormley set off from the post office in the early hours of Tuesday morning with his bicycle and bag of mail. The countryside he covered was mountainous, rugged and beautiful and included the long meandering Lough Gara, stretched in the valley below. In summer the poet Wordsworth would certainly have described it as ‘the loveliest place on earth’, but in winter it was bleak and unforgiving. Steep hills, narrow winding roads as old as time itself and a valley to cross was the daily challenge for Johnny. The names of the townlands he traversed had a Celtic/Gaelic ring about them: Kiltycreighton, Ballinultagh, Corrnameeltha, Derrynaugheran to name some of them but that didn’t make the job any easier. Near the top of Brislagh Hill, which at its highest point is a little short of a thousand feet, Johnny was forced to abandon his bicycle beside a ditch and continue on foot. Conditions were so bad he was contemplating turning back but then had second thoughts. By late afternoon anxiety was high in the post office when he failed to return, so a small search party set out in a hurry but returned a while later as dusk had set in. Early next morning a search party set out again, this time with food, blankets and medical equipment but failed to locate Johnny. The snow in the fields had reached the level of the surrounding ditches making it impossible almost to recognise known landmarks; the area had become one vast desert of snow, a no-mans land! Thursday and Friday went by. Then on the Saturday morning with hope practically gone a vision in flesh and blood appeared on the Crescent. The missing postman had come back from the dead and was telling the story of his survival to a crowd gathered around him. A farmer from the Cloonloo area searching for sheep found Johnny lying in a hayshed semi-conscious and in a state of hypothermia. He brought him to his home nearby and took care of him till he was well enough to make the journey back to Boyle five days later. The house of the Good Samaritan remains standing today and is often pointed out as the place the postman found refuge during The Blizzard.

Around the same time a similar scene was unfolding on the far side of Boyle town. The Home Assistance Officer for the area left his home in Cortober, near Carrick-on-Shannon, that morning for his office in Boyle. Near Woodbrook House, which is the home of the distinguished Kirkwood family and a place of literary note, Danny got bogged down in a huge snowdrift. He faced a tough choice; should he try to walk to Boyle six miles further down the road or walk the four miles back home? He decided to attempt a short cut across ‘The Plains’ which is a vast area of countryside thinly populated and with few houses. When he reached the humpbacked railway bridge beyond Hollymount School, Danny was in for a second shock. A farmer’s cottage nestled deep in a hollow in the shadow of the bridge appeared to have vanished. A massive snowdrift twenty feet deep had enveloped the cottage on two sides leaving it almost invisible to the naked eye. The Relieving Officer stared in disbelief at what he knew to be the bachelor Luke’s cottage. He called his name several times without a reply and then a muffled voice broke the deadly silence. Luke was alive and well and informed Danny he had enough food on hand to see him through for a week or more. Danny continued his journey across the ‘The Plains’ but like the postman he too succumbed to the Arctic conditions and had to take shelter in a farmer’s cottage for twenty four hours. When he arrived in his dole office in Boyle a day late, but with his ‘Wells Fargo’ intact, he was greeted with smiles all round!   

Of the many events and tales of courage to emanate from out that period, the most memorable for me must be that of the ‘Marathon Man’. Pat Joe told me his story some years before he died and I felt his Sam McGee-like experience deserved to be put on the record and made part of the story of The Blizzard. Pat left home with his bicycle late on the Monday afternoon, the eve of the blizzard, his destination being Collooney railway station fifteen miles away. His intention was to board the train for Enniskillen and from there transfer to another train going to Belfast, a routine journey he did a number times each year as part of his business. Pat was in his late twenties at the time, as tough as nails and possessed of an iron will. The evening he set off on his tour-de-force, the weather was in pre-blizzard state, extremely cold and crisp dry. Around 9pm, it started to snow and gradually got worse with the snow blowing directly into his face. When he reached Ballymote he left his bicycle with a friend and decided to walk the rest of the way to Collooney station. When he eventually got there cold and hungry, he was given the news he least wanted to hear; the railway to Enniskillen was closed and would remain so for an unknown period of time. Pat now faced a dilemma; should he make the effort to return home or simply book into a guesthouse for a number of days! The roads were beyond use and traffic was at a standstill. As he surveyed the landscape round about pondering his plight he became aware in the distance of what he reckoned to be the telegraph poles that run parallel with the railway line. Could there be a solution to his problem here he thought? He started across the fields till he reached what turned out to be the railway embankment and he slid down the snowy slope to the track fifteen feet below. Pat was about to begin his marathon journey home via rail through Collooney, Ballymote, Kilfree junction ending up at a bridge that spans a viaduct at Mullaghroe where he bade farewell to the Permanent Way. He was now back on territory he knew like the back of his hand and got home weary and hungry but very proud of his little achievement. The ‘Marathon Man’ had entered the local hall of fame! 

Back in Boyle town, another strange event was happening that commanded the front page of the Roscommon Herald. An old and well-known resident had died and the usual religious rites would be fulfilled; removal of remains to the church, requiem mass the following day and burial afterwards in Assylinn cemetery. The funeral was unique in that it was ‘a first’ for people to witness a coffin being drawn by horse and sledge to the church and thence to the graveyard. A large crowd of people followed the cortege through the town centre and many more lined the footpaths in a show of respect. A few local residents who happened to own cameras went on to take photographs of the macabre scene being played out on the streets; this was a funeral of a different kind and would have to be recorded for posterity. The steep hill leading to the cemetery had been partially cleared of snow to assist the cortege in getting to its destination and men in groups of six then carried the coffin to the graveside for burial; the blizzard had created another piece of history!
A week later a variation on the same theme featured at the railway station. A man from outside Boyle had died in a hospital in Dublin and the remains were brought home by rail for burial. A brief digression will explain my presence at this other strange event! Being fascinated with steam engines (all my short life) I dreamed one day I would be the driver of one. The day in question I was standing on the cross bridge with my school pal Paddy (the Station Master’s son) eagerly awaiting the arrival of the Iron Maiden as she belched forth great clouds of steam in all directions. As the passengers disembarked, Larry the tall railway checker paraded up and down the platform like a sergeant major calling out the name of Boyle in a commanding voice. At such times I would feel a little surge of pride and wonder could my home town be famous for some event of history that passengers on board should be made aware of! During all this activity the huge engine gorged her belly with countless gallons of water from the old water tower at the end of the platform; then with a shrill whistle and more bursts of steam she shunted her way slowly out of sight. It was then we noticed the group of people on the platform carry a coffin towards the waiting room. We hurried down to see it placed on a wooden catafalque in a corner of the waiting room with Andy the railway porter leading the way. Relatives and friends of the deceased paused for a while in quiet conversation and in prayer, and afterwards the waiting room was closed and locked for the night. Our curiosity was whetted; who was in the coffin, a man or a woman, were they from the town? Good humoured Andy gave nothing away only to say there wouldn’t be any breakfast! 

Over the days and weeks, the blizzard had transformed the town into a winter playground with Green Street Hill and the Crescent transformed into a natural skating rink. With road traffic practically at a standstill there was little problem for the youth to try their skills on these two great slopes. Anything that could move on ice made an appearance. Push cars, buggies, stripped down prams, stools upside down, enamel basins, metal trays, could be seen in motion with the young ones hanging on for dear life. Laughter filled the air and if a collision occurred few tears were shed; aches and pains were glossed over or forgotten about in the heat and enjoyment of the moment. Three popular members of Boles Drapery Store – George, Edwin and Ernie – brought a real snow toboggan (with a steering mechanism) on the scene and it became the star performer on Green Street Hill. The starting point was at Caleb Shera’s dwelling house (Sheridan’s House today). Caleb, an old and respected member of the landed gentry, loved to sit in his doorway wrapped in a rug to watch the sheer excitement on children’s faces as they were given a ride in this modern day Porsche. The joy on their faces could have come straight from Oscar Wilde’s famous story of ‘The Gentle Giant’ as he watched the smiling children playing in his beautiful garden; God was in His heaven, all is right with the world! Back down to earth and the man standing sentry at the bottom of the hill armed with a flag to indicate all was clear! The pilot and his young passenger then took off like a rocket into space racing downhill through the junction at Main Street, across the river bridge by the Royal Hotel and coming to a halt at the entrance to the Rockingham Arms Bar. An experience never to be forgotten! George, Edwin and Ernie and their toboggan had become part of the story of the blizzard. 

Other winter sports found their niche along the way. The grounds of Abbeyview House on the Shilling Hill, that onetime home of the actress Maureen O’Sullivan, was the setting for one of them. The majestic building sits high on a hill with the surrounding terrain dipping sharply towards ground zero. To enjoy a bird’s eye view of snow skiing in action one had simply to sit on the Abbey Park wall on the Sligo Road and watch. It was thrill-a-minute action as the fledgling skier zig-zagged his way down the steep slope towards the boundary wall richly lined with giant beech trees. Skill would be vital in negotiating this short and speedy descent to ground zero. Amateurs most of them, some learned the hard way as they came face to face with the line of beech trees, not to mention the sturdy stone wall beyond that again. Out of sight of the observer, the sound of the crash of ash would rise up from behind the high wall; a little pause of silence would then follow while the learner shook himself down and got ready for a replay on the same grounds. It was front row entertainment and all of it free. The next theatre of sport was the lily pond at The Warren which was part of the ninth hole on the old golf course. Frozen solid for the duration of the blizzard it became a miniature skating rink for the young and not so young. Many members of the golf club took up skating on this half acre of ice, better known to them as the pond of a thousand golf balls. Some didn’t fare too well, ending up with frozen shoulders, sprained ankles, a few cases of concussion but all in all, nothing worse.

The real jewel in the crown, however, for winter sports was the frozen over Lough Key. In the early days of the freeze, the ice was stress tested at different points of the lake and was found to be some six inches thick. Stories have been passed down of Ceilidhe dances on the shoreline at Doon, Tinnerinagh and Corrigeenroe in the glow of bonfires with energetic young dancers waltzing on ice into the daylight hours. The sound of the melodeons and bodhrans echoed across the full length lake and found its way into the very halls of Rockingham House itself eight kilometres away. Dick Clynch, head butler in the Big House, told the story to my mother all those years ago. Even the legendary Una Bhan NicDiarmuida and her lover Thomas Laidir Mac Coisdeallbaigh, who lie side by side on far off Trinity Island, could have been awakened from their centuries old slumber from the sound of the haunting music! It would have been a fitting epilogue to their sad dramatic love affair! The fun and sport peaked on Sunday afternoons with small groups of people daring to tread the frozen lake on foot and visit some of the better known islands near the shore such as Castle, Trinity and Church Islands. The extraordinary sight of seeing small groups of people walk to an island was beyond belief; others again preferred to climb to the top of the ‘Rock of Doon’ to enjoy the panoramic view of Lough Key in all her winter splendour. Stranger than fiction stories tell of a number of young diehards who used the frozen lake as a shortcut home. One daredevil surpassed the rest by cycling across eight kilometres of frozen ice to his home at Knockvicar, the point where Lough Key merges with the River Shannon. Happily he survived it.

In town, the ‘Winter Olympics’ carried on unabated with snow battles played out daily on the streets. When the footpaths were cleared the snow stood six feet high in the channels; gaps were then opened at different points on the streets to help shoppers cross from one side to the other. A man wearing a hat or smoking a pipe was a regular target for the street urchin; the hat was an easy enough object to retrieve but the pipe was a more serious problem; it sank out of sight in the snow. An apology was immediately made to the victim and a search was carried out for the precious pipe. Finding the pipe was a cause for celebration. Tempers did fray at times but usually ended up well. Youth after all was having the time of its life.
The great freeze had now exceeded the biblical forty days and nights and was coming to an end. When it did come, it came with a vengeance. The channels were unable to cope with the massive mounds of melting snow that stood on the streets like megalithic tombs. As the great slabs of ice rumbled from the roofs overhead, they crashed on the streets below like a clap of thunder. Notices were pinned on street corners to warn shoppers to ‘Beware of falling ice’. The people were witnessing the death throes of the Great Blizzard and the finality that accompanied it. The like of it would hardly be seen again in a lifetime. For the young it was generally the best of times, for the old and infirm it was arguably the worst of times, and for animals and birds it must surely have been an endless nightmare. As I look back over seventy winters there are many that stand apart for special reasons. None, however, can ever match the wonder and the ferocity of ‘The Blizzard’ that hit Boyle town on the night of the 24th February 1947. I treasure the memory of it and will always regard it as the most momentous event of my childhood.

Christy Wynne

Thursday, October 20, 2016

MacDara looks for a job

After sitting the Leaving Certificate in the mid-fifties, MacDara decided to seek a job for the summer months. Jobs were in short supply in country towns like Boyle in those days so MacDara set his sights on Dublin city. He drew up a list of well known business houses he knew by name, beginning with Eason’s Booksellers and Independent Newspapers (both of Abbey Street). Having received no joy there he moved on to tobacco manufacturers Player Wills, and then to Cadbury’s and Rowntree’s confectioners, renowned for sweets and chocolate. Failing again he turned his attention to Millard Brothers, O’Neills Sportswear and Elverys (all of them distributers of fishing tackle and sporting goods), and finally Kapp & Peterson Limited (suppliers of pipes, lighters and accessories); all to no avail. High-tech giants like Microsoft and Apple hadn’t yet arrived; they were concepts of the future. 

As MacDara pedalled the streets and cobblestone lanes of North Dublin courtesy of the brother’s bike, and coming near the end of his tether, he suddenly saw the name Lucan Dairies standing out in large letters on a wall in Parkgate Street and remembered the well-known flag with its logo fluttering in the breeze at home and in seaside resorts roundabout like Strandhill, Rosses Point and Enniscrone. He’d give them a lash in a last ditch effort! Lucan Dairies consisted of a huge milk plant on one side of Parkgate Street and their office block on the opposite side. They were among the main distributers of milk around Dublin city and county, the others being Dublin Dairies, Merville and a smaller one with the exotic name Tel-el-Keber. With nothing to lose he marched in bravely and asked if there were any jobs going for the summer. A while later he was ushered into Personnel, where the usual questions were asked about education and background. MacDara had suddenly and unexpectedly found himself a summer job that would continue till early October, which was the end of the ice cream season. Today, and in hindsight, it’s unbelievable to think that ice cream was on sale for just six months of the year, from April to October. Delighted with his new found luck he was informed that he could start work on the following Monday morning. That left him three days to find accommodation. 

MacDara ploughed the north side on his bicycle and eventually found a place beside Arbour Hill Church, with his bedroom window looking on to one of the most hallowed sites in Dublin city or country, the graves of the signatories of the Proclamation. He could walk to work from there in ten minutes and lived on the doorstep of the Phoenix Park, which was home from home on a Sunday morning with groups of lads his own age playing football, hurling and a game called rounders that was hugely popular then. Dublin Zoo, being close by, was another great way of spending a few hours on a Sunday. Begging the liberty of a short digression, MacDara had retired to bed late one Saturday night/Sunday morning when something went boom in the dark. A sound like a bomb going off shattered the peace and tranquillity of Arbour Hill and left him semi shell-shocked in the middle of his bedroom floor and in pitch darkness. Within minutes his good landlady, like a modern day Florence Nightingale, came on the scene torch in hand assuring her five lodgers that the roof was still on the house, that she had no gas leaks and that the loud bang emanated from elsewhere. Happily the electric power came back within an hour. The following morning, after Mass in Arbour Hill Church, all was revealed. The bronze statue of Field Marshall Hugh Gough (1779-1869), sitting on a horse on a plinth just inside the gates of Phoenix Park, had been blown away by the newest breed of the IRA. The noble gentleman’s head had been blown off once before in an earlier campaign in the forties, but was found later in the River Liffey at Islandbridge and soldered back on. 

Getting back to his new found job, Lucan Dairies had a huge milk distribution business throughout Dublin city and county and also had contracts to supply milk to wholesale confectioners around the city. His immediate boss Mr. Samuel was of the austere calibre, a man who rarely if ever smiled at anybody or any thing! His working day seemed to revolve around one principle, ‘reconciling the stocks’. The three words hit the ear drums ten times a day like lines from an old ballad. The equation in simple language amounted to, the volume of milk in stock from yesterday plus the volume of milk received on the current day, minus the amount distributed to customers and wholesalers in the course of the day. It must balance or ‘reconcile’ by the day’s end, and if that didn’t happen then you worked until it did, no questions asked! Yet the most heartbreaking task of the week was yet to come on the Friday afternoon. If ever a job was conceived to destabilise the brain of two eighteen year olds this must surely be it. With Jimmy, the other young recruit taken on for the summer season, the two of them spent the afternoon counting empty bottles till they were blue in the face, thirty-thousand to be precise! There were twenty-four bottles to a crate and the crates were stacked fifteen feet high in a building tall enough to hold a 747 jet aircraft. Bottles were completely made of glass then, and didn’t have any label of identity on them; every last one was similar. MacDara and Jimmy took turns to climb a ladder and count the rows of crates that stretched upwards and outwards in all directions. The mountain of dead colourless matter staring down at them could have been Queen Maeve’s grave on the top of Knocknarea and to further aggravate the situation Mr. Samuels looked in like a Job’s comforter to see how “the long count” was progressing! What a relief it was for the beleaguered two when the clock struck six and the bells of Arran Quay Church up the road rang out the Angelus across the Liffey! The normal functions of the brain found their way back slowly, similar to the deep sea diver coming out of the bends.

One Friday during lunch break, MacDara remarked to a colleague who was many years in the job how he found it hard to live on four pounds a week. He was already paying his landlady three pounds ten shillings full board which left him with ten shillings to survive on. Norman’s advice was to ask Herbie (the boss) for a rise. He’s not such a bad guy when you get to know him he said smiling! The next Monday MacDara plucked up courage and inquired from Personnel if he could see the boss? Like a patient sitting anxiously in a doctor’s surgery he was becoming more nervous by the minute. What followed next came dangerously close to a health check up.  Herbie asked him did he smoke, did he drink, did he gamble, did he go to films, where did he live and how much did he pay for his digs? MacDara wondered what would come next, would he be asked to take a deep breadth or cough a few times! Then came the punch line. How much are you being paid per week young man? Four pounds a week sir. Don’t you get extra for working in the milk office on the second Sunday morning of each month, isn’t that another ten shillings! Yes sir. He rubbed his rich growth of moustache over and back a few times while studying this new employee of his. His façade softened, a hint of a smile appeared and he said he would give the matter further consideration. Thank you very much sir, said MacDara. The following Friday there was an extra ten shillings in his pay packet. Norman (the guy who had talked him into it) could hardly believe it. You’re a plucky young lad he said; I was having you on and didn’t think for a second you’d have the guts! 

Ten shillings increase in wages in the mid-fifties would be regarded as considerable and would open up a few new avenues of enjoyment; an extra film or dance in the city on weekends, a game of billiards in the saloon opposite Wynn’s Hotel in Abbey Street, a swim at the Fortyfoot on a Saturday. He might even invite Joan in the office (whom he fancied) to a film or a dance, all made possible courtesy of Herbie’s increase. A favourite venue was the Theatre Royal to listen to Tommy Dando in his all-white suit blasting out the great music hall hits of the day on an organ that lit up like an exploding star as it appeared from out the bowels of the building. Like a great amphitheatre inside, MacDara picked a seat well up at the back where he could see everything going on even though he seemed a mile away from the stage. On one occasion he was lucky to get in to hear the renowned international speaker Archbishop Fulton Sheen from New York. MacDara had heard the famous man speak once before in the tiny village of Croghan outside Boyle in 1950 when the Archbishop travelled there to bless the newly-reconstructed church where his grandparents had been baptised. He was looking forward to hear him speak again and he wasn’t disappointed! He spoke about his trips to countries around the globe and the mission fields he visited throughout Africa, Southeast Asia and America. In a short digression (and there were more than one) he told a story that brought an explosion of laughter from a thousand throats. The venerable Archbishop had been invited to a christening ceremony in a small isolated village in Nigeria served by an Irish missionary priest he knew personally. The parents of the child had seemingly been well tuned into Ireland’s ancient history and its culture and had chosen a very special name for their new born son; he would be named Brian Boru after one of Ireland’s greatest chieftains. The Archbishop spoke for surely an hour that evening with never a dull moment. 

Back to reality and the various other entertainments on a weekend in Dublin. There was the poky little Grafton Cinema on a wet Saturday afternoon where one could sit back and watch the great cartoons and comedies of the thirties and forties. There was the Carlton Cinema on O’Connell Street that showed western films almost all the time, so much so that normal banter had it that the cast were permanently resident in the Gresham Hotel opposite. A dance in the Metropole Ballroom for two shillings and sixpence brought a new dimension to the Sunday afternoon, while The Yerrawaddies (Engineering students) ran their dances in the Olympic Ballroom on Camden Street on a Saturday night. Ten shillings wouldn’t give access to all of them the same weekend but it allowed one to choose. MacDara met his first girlfriend at one of them and timidly asked if he could meet her the following Sunday afternoon under Nelson’s Pillar, a tradition he was told might bring him good luck! His luck held out just about as long as the job! Herbie his boss was blamed for it all, but in a most congenial way!

Shrill October arrived and so also did the day of reckoning. The ice cream season had come to an end and it was time for the ‘Prodigal Son’ to return home. As he left the city, MacDara brought with him a slice of Old Dublin in the form of 2lbs of Hafner sausages which were regarded at the time as the crème de la crème of the sausage world; the flavour was unique and just could not be equalled. To have to stand in a queue outside Hafner’s shop on Abbey Street, and wait your turn to gain entrance, was a pre-requisite to achieving your goal. As he sat on the train and ruminated over the months gone by he could have been Alice exiting Wonderland. The passengers opposite him must have wondered at the eccentric figure smiling seemingly at nothing; they didn’t know the half of it!      
Christy Wynne.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Fair Day in Boyle

 My memories of the cattle fairs in Boyle of the late 1940s and 1950s are timeless and special. There was one every month, some months had two and among them there were five monster ones: January, March, May, October and November. The big ones meant a day off school and needless to say they are the ones that remain alive and well in the memory. The sound of cattle moving through the streets began around 6am as they were being guided to the Fairgreen in Lowparks. When I think back to those ‘monster fairs’ they trigger in my mind a poem I learned in my schooldays all those years ago called ‘The Drover’ by the poet Padraig Colum. Could one ever forget his haunting description of “the crowds at the fair, the herds loosened and blind, the loud words and dark faces and the wild blood behind”, and then of course the farmer wielding his little cudgel of a stick over the heads of the cattle as he steered them carefully to the Fairgreen. If the morning was frosty, little puffs of hot breath welled up from a thousand nostrils as the cattle found their way in the grey light of early dawn. The same fairs were famous all across the midlands for the quality and the quantity of the cattle for sale.

Being a junior clerk at the railway station in the late-1950s, I remember well the names of the great buyers of the day as they called to the Goods Office to order whatever number of cattle wagons they’d require. They were the Larry Goodman’s of the time, dressed in fine Crombie coats, Donegal tweed caps and brown heavy leather boots; tycoons of the cattle trade from the four provinces. For me, one stood out both in stature and his exotic-sounding home address overlooking Dublin Bay – M.J. Towey, Sorrento Road, Dalkey. He was a big man with a voice that commanded attention, a powerful sense of presence, a rural bearing and a capacity to buy enormous numbers of cattle if the quality was to his liking. Other names still vivid in the memory are the Horgans, the Foleys, the Mullins, the Mollaghans, the Conon Brothers, the Sharkeys, the McGarrigles, the Cosgraves and Clarks; all of them the embodiment and beating heart of the big fair. When deals were done the cattle were herded through the town a second time, some of them to the Crescent to be loaded onto the waiting trucks, others to Military Road opposite the old Military Barracks (the King House today) where more trucks were lined up and the rest, the majority, were herded towards the railway station to be loaded onto wagons for their ultimate destination (i.e. Dublin). On one of those great fair days, thirty or maybe forty wagons could leave Boyle railway station, each one holding an average of ten cattle, amounting to three or four hundred. The train was given the grand title of ‘A Special’ and had clearance from Central Office in Dublin to arrive at a given time at North Wall for export to Great Britain.

The first stop on the return journey from the Fairgreen was Tom Wynne’s pub, the Central Bar at the bottom of Green Street. His was one of three bars to have an early morning license allowing him open at 7am. On a great October fair morning the bar became a hive of activity from the moment it opened its doors. The scent of hot whiskies and rums rose up from every nook and cranny of the bar while bottles of Guinness, Smithick’s Ale (unpasteurised) and Double Diamond lined the counter. Mugs of hot Bovril were in heavy demand and were served up with plates of ham and cheese sandwiches. A new brand of instant soup, with the romantic name of Maggi (Italian), had recently come on the market and was the current craze on a winter’s morning. It lacked the age old basics of onions, celery, barley and Oxo cubes but the fact that it could be served up in minutes transformed it into a miracle soup. Maggi was among the first of the package soups to appear on the shelves of the grocery shops and later when the supermarkets came on stream. The pint of Guinness came into its own in the afternoon and evening when deals were done, money had changed hands and the time had come to sit and relax.

As young lads enjoying a day off school some of us would stand in the vicinity of the Royal Hotel or on the river bridge to get a close-up of the action. Mindboggling could only describe the scene as the big buyer counted out £20, £50 and £100 notes to his farmer friend in payment. The mind of a young lad could easily slip into overdrive as he tried to work out the number of visits he could make to the Abbey Cinema ‘at sixpence a time’ if he owned just one of those colourful notes with Lady Lavery on the front. By mid-afternoon, the Crescent was a sea of cattle waiting to be loaded onto trucks, many of them standing quietly with their backs up against the front of private dwelling houses. This particular aspect of the fair was very contentious and caused many a headache for the residents living there. They had considerable difficulty getting in and out of their homes and there was the added problem of cow dung splattered on the walls and on the pathways outside; if the morning was wet it became a recipe for disaster as tempers reached boiling point, arguments raged and hall doors got slammed with a bang. Tradition spoke of the country town coming into existence wherever cattle fairs and markets were held and for that reason there was no law in place that could change that situation; the tradition of the fair was older than the town itself and therefore was untouchable!  Ironically, its demise happened almost overnight with the arrival of the cattle mart in the early-1960s. The Mart was a new concept in buying and selling cattle (an auction), and the farmer ultimately found it more convenient and was sure to get the best price on the day. The neighbouring towns were quick off the mark in setting up a Mart but Boyle still believed in the fair on the street and ended up with neither. It was stealth almost by night! The residents of the Crescent and its surrounds were more than happy but the shops, bars and restaurants saw it as a nail in the coffin for business. A good day’s trading could pay a half year’s rates on a business premises or some other household expense! A way of life known for centuries died without a whimper and no law could stop it.

The colourful side to the Big Fair

On those unforgettable days there were the street traders who added colour and spectacle. First there was the clothes stall erected on a covered-in trailer parked along the wall of the old hospital (the Plunkett Home today). Suits, coats, corduroy trousers of different colours and sizes hung on a rail the length of the trailer onto which the buyer had to climb by means of three steps to make a purchase. A curtain for privacy at one end didn’t always work and could lead to a character in the crowd calling for a speech or yelling ‘the wife won’t like it’ or ‘Up Dev’; all in a spirit of good humour. Down in the town centre, near the Market Yard, the ‘Bargain King’ from Bundoran had set up his stall. A natural born orator he could be heard above the din of conversation and the lowing of cattle. A crowd of people stood around his stall listening to his catchphrases and sharp wit. One could spend hours listening to this demagogue without ever becoming bored. In later years whenever I passed the statue of ‘Big Jim Larkin’ on his pedestal in Dublin’s O’Connell Street, I would immediately think of the ‘Bargain King’ on his soapbox at the bridge in Boyle, his head erect and his arms raised to heaven extolling the merits of some new kitchen utensil or labour-saving device guaranteed, he would say, to turn a kitchen chore into a moment of pleasure. Thus it was with this unforgettable ‘latter day prophet’.

Paddy McGovern, the market gardener from Drum, ran a vegetable stall on the corner of the river bridge opposite Coleman’s egg shop on a Saturday morning and on big fair days. He carried a range of fresh root vegetables that any modern day supermarket would be proud to carry and his sales motto simply read ‘cut fresh from the soil this morning’, and the clay would still be on many of them to prove it. A stall of particular interest on the big fair day was the one selling Dilisk, Corrigeen Moss, seaweed lettuce and a few other sea-related products. One of its attractions was the unique pungent smell of seaweed that surrounded it, an odour as powerful almost as the incense that surrounds a coffin at a funeral mass. Sometimes the vendor would offer a strip of Dilisk to some inquisitive young onlooker to taste but it rarely worked, the verdict being too salty? Not so for the farmer’s wife! Dilisk or Corrigeen Moss cooked in milk was known as an age-old cure for chest colds and many kinds of lung infections; tradition handed down suggested it could even be a defence against the dreaded Tuberculosis.

Stephen Maughan, the local (and mobile) fishmonger, rarely missed a big fair day. The man didn’t use a stall and nor did he need one. His was a heavy Raleigh bicycle with the rectangular steel framework in front that could carry his boxes of fresh herrings anywhere and it was from it he carried on his business. Stephen never liked anyone handling his fish and would react speedily: “Will you quit handling them ma’am, they’ll not come alive or grow any bigger,” he’d say. His humour was infectious, good-natured and usually brought a titter of laughter both from the accused and the other customers gathered round about. On a Friday, the day of abstinence, Stephen would set off on his bicycle in the early hours of the morning to travel the countryside selling his fresh herrings from door-to-door. He was a lovable character known far and wide for his simple good humour and light banter. To quote my mother-in-law, who was a rural lady, his rare appearance at her door was “like a breath of fresh air”.

Getting back to the fairs, the three-card-trick man had just arrived in town and was about to set up shop near the entrance to Frybrook House. Michael Morris, the well-known local barber who had the lease of the gatehouse as a hairdressing salon, saw in advance the potential danger that lay ahead for the man and ran forward to advise him not to set up shop anywhere near the entrance. Mr. Fry, the owner of the Manor, had been unable to drive his car in or out of his property over several successive fair days and had remained ever since in a state of high dudgeon. A man of volatile nature (if risen) he didn’t suffer fools lightly; there would be an explosion in verbal exchanges, sparks would fly and the three-card-trick man would undoubtedly come out on the wrong side of the law. The little man with the trilby hat got the message, thanked Mick the barber for his timely advice and went in search of another site.

Ned Kelly, the well loved local town crier, had a field day on a fair day. His repertoire consisted of three songs: ‘You are my Sunshine’, ‘A Bunch of Violets’ and ‘Dan O’Hara’. Ned himself flowed gently through the fair dressed in a Bloomsday waistcoat and bowler hat supplied courtesy of his great mentor and facilitator Jim Candon (of James Candon Limited), Ned’s raison d’etre. When he had sung himself dry, he revisited the proprietors of the many shops he had regaled along the way and to a man they showed their appreciation by making a jingle in the famous bowler hat. Many farmers who would have known Ned of old were happy to show their appreciation for a voice that was a base, a baritone and a tenor all rolled into one. Ned had been Boyle’s official town crier for over half a century and was reckoned to be the last surviving member of that august body when he retired. His famous bell made a dramatic appearance at a ‘Back to Boyle’ festival some years back and it was carried in a victory run around the town in memory of a golden era. A well known local councillor at the time proposed that Ned’s famous bell be donated to the National Museum and should be put on display alongside other famous artefacts like the Cross of Cong and the Ardagh Chalice.

The last of the many colourful characters likely to appear on a great fair day was Lucky Cody. The guy wore a sombrero hat, knee-high leather boots and set up shop near the entrance to Hans Lawn which is the riverside walk that leads to St. Patrick’s Well. His few accessories amounted to a fold-up table, a spin-the-wheel with numbers on it and an old Jacob’s biscuit tin filled with cloakroom tickets folded and ready for sale. The tickets cost three pence each and when Cody reckoned he had enough sold for a spin he called for silence. I was lucky once and won what would cover three visits to the Abbey Cinema for the Sunday matinee; unrestrained joy ensued. Another stroke of good fortune might come your way if you happened to be in the right place at the right time. A farmer and a colleague standing on the river bridge might fancy a drink in the Royal Hotel or the Italian Warehouse nearby but would need someone to “keep an eye on the few cattle” for the proverbial five minutes! Destiny had directed you to this spot and now you were employed to keep that watchful eye; you had suddenly become an integral part of the fair! The reward at the end was a sixpenny bit, more unrestrained joy!

A farmer rarely left town on a big fair day without indulging in a meal in a restaurant or what was then known as an eatery or eating house. They were located in different parts of the town to facilitate both the shop assistants round about as well as the many farmers who swarmed into town on that day. The same eateries had a reputation for serving up the best of food and each of them had its own clientele. Sad to say none of them survive today but they remain part of the history and the story of Boyle. There was Lynch’s Hotel (Brady’s Guesthouse) and McNamara’s on Main Street, Mrs. Toolan’s and Ml. Moran (the old Princess Hotel) on Green Street, the Royal Hotel on Bridge Street, Mrs. Divine on the Crescent and Mrs. Spellman in Elphin Street. As the smell of cooking rose up from these well known eateries, it reawakened an appetite that might have been lost or forgotten about in the heat of bargaining. A meal of Irish stew or bacon and cabbage was God’s very own special gift to the Irish nation and took precedence over all others. An ‘a la carte’ menu or wine list (if such existed then) would have been discarded as meaningless or a waste of time; quality and quantity was what mattered. In the homely surroundings of those eateries each farmer knew one another and conversations centred on the price of cattle and the future prospects for the trade.

By 7pm, the fair was well and truly over. The streets had fallen empty and strangely quiet, the last of the trucks had left town, the clothes stalls were folded up and gone, and the ‘Bargain King’ was only a memory. The shops had reaped a harvest and were looking forward to the next big fair. The residents of the Crescent were hosing down their walls and pathways, not bothering to wait for a council worker to carry out the chore the following day; time was of the essence in getting back to normality. The great fairs and the excitement they generated are gone forever as are the loud voices, the dark faces and the wild blood. A way of life known and loved by generations has become part of our history. To quote an old Irish patriot, ‘It’s with O’Leary in the grave’. All in the name of progress they say! Maybe, though one wonders at times?

Christy Wynne