Tuesday, January 26, 2016

A Blast from the Past

As much through the light of years as through this wet evening
My thoughts of the past seemed to move. (John Mc Gahern)

The present endless cycle of wet weather, the overcast days and the long winter nights can sometimes be too long a sacrifice and make a stone of the heart. By way of antidote the poet Shelly once wrote that ‘if winter comes, can spring be far behind’. So with that happy little thought in mind, I am looking forward to bright blue skies, sylvan walks, leafy glades and an uplifting of the heart. A little theory of my own to help lift the drooping spirit is all about tapping into your reserve of childhood memories, the happy ones that ramble around in the canyons of the mind. We all have a store of them, the joyful occasions and delightful little events that helped make us who and what we are; you then proceed to blot out (in the best way possible) the not so happy ones. A balancing act, one might say, but well worth trying.

For me, one of the first is about a letter I wrote to Santa Claus one Christmas; a must for every child that ever learned to write. I decided to post my letter in the pillar box at The Northern Bank, to Santa in Lapland but got it back by return post the following day. John Mattimoe the popular and well-loved town postman, grandfather and godfather of the Mattimoe postal dynasty and a close friend of my mother, went out of his way to return it to me in person (in our shop) explaining that Santa would be much happier if I left it at the fireplace in the bedroom where he couldn’t miss it. I thanked him, took his advice, placed it in the fireplace and the great man duly arrived with the goods. What innocent and hilarious times we lived in!

The Great Blizzard of February 1947 would be next on my list. The most phenomenal event of my youth, it had within it all the ingredients for a book, maybe even a best seller. Too long to tell it all here!
Another little blast from the past, not quite as newsworthy as the Great Blizzard but still very much a tradition of the time was Mayday. That particular day had great significance for a generation that was deeply religious and conscious of God in their everyday lives; people who clung to an infallible belief in Heaven (and Hell) and the hereafter. Mayflowers scattered on the doorsteps on Mayday morning was a symbol of welcome to Our Lady Queen of the May, a month that is still dedicated to her memory. Little altars were set up on the landing of many a home for the month of May, a now long forgotten practice. The buttercups, daisies and primroses that dotted the countryside in a carpet of colour were literally at one’s fingertips. My own favourite patch to pick a bunch lay between the first and the second gate into Rockingham. Bea Sparkes (a friend of my mother) lived in a little cottage inside the first gate and it was there I went to pick them with a little more than Our Lady’s memory in mind. I had sampled Bea’s apple tart in her kitchen a few times in the past and felt it could just happen again if the conditions were right and if I made myself ‘unashamedly’ conspicuous. Even at the tender age of ten there lies a native cunning! Religion reigned supreme then, Sunday Mass, confessions each week, the monthly Sodality, Lent and Advent, abstinence from meat on a Friday, The Rosary prayed daily, the annual church mission. Religion in Ireland drifted as far back as the arrival of the Celts; ‘twas in the DNA.

Another very special day in a child’s calendar was First Holy Communion Day which included breakfast in The Convent. The Reverend Mother assisted by her team of young nuns, dressed in full length black habits and snow white breastplates, moved about from table to table smiling and chatting with parents and communicants. The great rosary beads that dangled from their dark leather belt swung over and back like chains of a wag-of-the-wall clock that were out of synch. Later that day there was the grand outing to Strandhill in Brian Grehan’s Ford V8 (hackney car). The afternoon was full of excitement. The travelling there, the running on the beach, the paddling in the sea, a picnic in the sand dunes and a visit to The Paragon Stores ice cream shop. I can still visualise my mother in the shelter of a sand dune pumping the primus stove with its little blue flame to boil the kettle to make tea (and sandwiches) while her now ravenous offspring sat around her in a circle like a clutch of chicks waiting to be fed. The old box camera did its work that day, sealing for posterity the special moments that only happen once in a lifetime. Mrs Cullen’s shop (Paragon Stores) was invaded every half hour as we spent our Holy Communion money on the usual paraphernalia; sweets, ice cream and biscuits. Today Strandhill is a very busy resort compared to that of the mid-1940s, and while Mrs Cullen is long dead she must still cast a cold eye on the beach and the canon gun. Today the name of the shop in bold italics reads Mammy Johnston’s, a lady whose origins are in Boyle town. Before we left Strandhill, we paid a visit to Culleenamore Strand to dig for cockles which we had for supper that evening cooked in milk. We shared some with our driver Brian Grehan, the man who had made it all possible, and not forgetting his tenant John McKeon the local dentist whom we knew was addicted to the little saltwater clam. Happy days! With such memories and more flooding the mind, the ripples of depression faded into thin air, lost in a sea of joy.

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