I lived with my grandparents until I was six, when I had to go home to start school. Still living with my grandparents at that time were two unmarried aunts, one adult uncle who would one day inherit the farm and my grandparent’s youngest child, fourteen-year-old John. I was a young child in a household of adults.
Was I lonely and upset at leaving my parents and siblings and living with strangers? I have no recollection of being lonely. I know I loved living there, even though I had no playmates. I was free to wander through the fields, wherever I wanted to go. The only taboo was the very deep well not far from the front door. Everyone became paranoid if I went near it, even thought it was covered with a heavy lid. My grandparents had twelve children and lost their third and fourth children when they were toddlers. I now suspect that one of them may have drowned in that well.
A stream at the far end of one field was an attraction, but I seldom went there. The gaggle of geese had ownership of that area and the gander didn’t take kindly to intruders, especially me. Leaving his harem, he would stretch his long neck and, with his head down, chase me. I didn’t like that gander.
There were two fields between the house and the road. In the field closest to the road, there were poles with either electricity or telephone wires. Neither my grandparents nor any of their neighbours had electricity or telephones, so they were probably servicing the police station further up the road. Even though I was young, and telephones were a rarity, I must have known about them, because when I felt the need to hear from my parents, I would sit at the base of the pole. I could hear a hum and I thought it was my mother and father talking to me. It didn’t make me sad. It satisfied my need to keep in touch.
My youngest uncle was more like a big brother. We had many spats but when he acquired a crystal wireless, he let me listen to it. I was amazed hearing a man talking through the apparatus. My memories of that time are all happy. Helping my grandmother churn butter or going into town in the pony and trap. Playing on the huge rock in the side field was a regular pastime. It was high. I would climb up, sit on the top of it, and imagine I was in an airplane. Again, I wonder how I had a concept of airplanes. Apart from the RAF in England there would have been no planes in Ireland, and we were mostly isolated from news of what was happening in Europe. I believe young children know more of what is happening around them than adults realise. I also think they are mentally flexible and can cope with difficult situations.
One of my aunts was getting married and the reception was in her home. Neighbours brought over tables, chairs, dishes, tablecloths, and food. It was a community effort. My aunts were always complaining of not having nylon stockings, so I decided to buy my aunt a pair as a wedding present.
I asked my grandfather for money, and he gave me half a crown. Of course, because of the war, it was impossible to buy nylons, but my grandmother let me try. When I couldn’t get any, I insisted on leaving the coin on the table with the presents. I kept watch to make sure no one removed it.
In the evening all the guests went to the groom’s house for dancing. Later that night young men clad in straw (called strawboys) joined the fun. They were not invited guests but were very welcome because it was thought they would bring good luck to the newly married couple.
I have wonderful memories of that time. The war and rationing had no impact on me. Our meals were basic but plentiful. For dinner there was usually bacon, cabbage, and potatoes with lashings of butter and buttermilk to drink. We had porridge (called stirabout) for breakfast. Only Grandad had tea, very strong, in a big blue striped mug. Granny made “praty cakes” on the griddle. There were always three sacks containing white flour, wholemeal flour, and flake meal on a bench in the kitchen outside my grandparent’s bedroom door. Grandad kept their money in a locked box under his bed. I saw a red ten-shilling note sticking out once and tried to retrieve it, without success.
The annual trashing was another neighbourhood event. It meant lots of hard work, laughter, camaraderie, and food provided by the host family. I remember an old man called Jack McCann helping at my grandparents trashing. My aunts had made currant bread for afternoon tea. Jack took one look at it and said, “I won’t eat them little buggers”. I was shocked that he called currants “buggers”. That was 78 years ago.
Serious discussions and storytelling took place around the fire at night. I could never tell what was true and what was fantasy. I remember one morning my Uncle Pakie saying he heard the banshee the night before and he supposed one of the Merrigans (neighbours) was going to die, and yes, a Merrigan died. The banshee is supposed to be heard when members of certain families are about to die. For that reason, I was always glad that we were not related to the Merrigans. That was until a few months ago while researching my maternal ancestors I discovered my GG grandmother was a Merrigan from that family.
My grandparent’s house was thatched. The walls were thick and whitewashed with small windows. The windows had boxes of red geraniums and the front door (there was only a front door) was painted green. There was the half door in front of the full door.
My bed had a feather mattress and frequently in the morning when I awoke, the mattress and I would be on the floor, having slipped off during the night.
On one occasion during the three years I lived with my grandparents, my mother came to visit. I was told she was my mother, but I wouldn’t go near her. To me she was a stranger. I thought she was very pretty. I can still remember what she was wearing. Years later I would think how devastating it must have been for her to be rejected by her little daughter.
When it came time for me to return home, I didn’t want to leave. I grew to love my parents and siblings, but I never liked where we lived. My heart was in Clonark, where my grandparents lived.