Category Archives: Dancing

The Irish Gaeltacht – Triple Bunk Beds and Fridge Freezers…..

“Going to the Gaeltacht” is a great Irish tradition. It is the first rite of passage for many teenagers in Ireland and it has been happily in existence since the early 1970’s. Leaving your parents for a month to go away as a boarding student to “Irish College” in the West of Ireland in the middle of the summer holidays in order to encourage a fluency of the Irish language is how the deal is sold….How it is perceived by the students who go there is entirely another matter. I was that teenager back in 1970 something, and the idea of getting away to a remote rural location, far away from my parents for a whole month was better than winning the modern day lottery. I think that I would have willingly taken on Japanese lessons if it meant that I could get away, unshackled from home for a four week period.

My older sister Bernice and I were willingly dispatched to County Cork during the summer of 1972. She was 14 years of age and I was 12. Already an experienced veteran, (as she had been there the summer before and loved it) the pair of us were packed off to Ballingeary, County Cork for the month of June. Although we were staying with a host family, and we attended Irish language classes during the day, there was a huge amount of independence and autonomy where adults were not looking over and monitoring us and our time. We were allowed to make our own choices about what to do and where to go.

This was rural Ireland back in a particular time, and to be honest there really was very little to do. We were in a village with a couple of shops, a river, and lots of fields. But freedom from parental shackles, and making decisions about how to spend ones time was a heady combination that made this experience very special. I remember the Céilís (Irish dances) with great affection. These gatherings took place every night in the local school and every student was obliged to go. Being an urban city child, this was my first ‘live’ interactive experience with traditional Irish music, where local people came to play their instruments and enjoy communal dancing with no fee expected. I absolutely loved it.

Part of the nightly experience was losing the teenaged self-consciousness that hung around me like a boulder, and (eventually) learning to abandon myself to the joy of the music and dance every night. There were set Irish dances, for two people, for four, and for more. We learned them and practiced during the days, so that we would be better again the following evening. There was an element of competition about it all, so it wasn’t unusual to see gangs of teenagers ‘dancing’ inanely together during the days on the local tennis courts and on the small roads of the village.

There were no mobile phones back in those days, and the house that my sister and I were staying in had no land line telephone either. We used to queue to phone home every Friday night from the local phone box on the street and assure our parents that we were well and happy (as we undeniably were). Our spending money was restricted, so we received “tuck boxes” and letters from home during our time there. The excitement of receiving a registered parcel from the postman, filled with goodies to be shared, ensured that you were the most popular person in your house that day…

Our “houses” were gendered back in those days. There were “girl” houses and “boy” houses and they were separated by geographical distance. The organisers obviously knew a thing or two about raging teenage hormones and kept a strict segregation rule. This may also have had something to do with the Catholic religious ethos that was a predominant feature in Ireland at the time.

I happily look back on that halcyon summer remembering it with vividness and colour. Nothing bad happened to me, although I experimented with cigarette smoking, seances and ouija boards in my naïve attempts to raise the spirits of the dead. I survived (with the subsequent occasional nightmare about dead people crawling all over me in the dark) and the end of the month came all too soon.

Returning home to Dublin via train I remember looking forward to seeing my family as I had missed them more than I thought I would. My dad had written to tell me of the changes that had occurred at home while I was away. There were a couple of new additions. A new fridge freezer had been installed as had new bunk beds for myself and my two sisters.

We were collected from the train station by a neighbour whose daughter was also with us in Cork and we all fell out of their car excitedly and into our respective houses. My mam opened the door to greet us, and my older sisters first words out of her mouth were to ‘snitch’ on me for smoking while we were away… Never mind that she had also smoked, I got a slap before I had time to defend myself. When I replied that “She had been smoking too” I got another slap and was told “not to tell lies about your sister” as she smugly stood by knowing that as the oldest and most precious child she would be believed regardless of what I said about her. Grrrrrrrr…….I never won that that war, and many years later my Mam still didn’t believe me when I told her that Bernice stitched me up as she was smoking too.

We eventually got into the kitchen and admired the brand new Fridge Freezer…. This was such a rare commodity that it still had a wonderful “exotic” feel to it. We opened and closed the door watching the internal light go on and off and felt the wonderfully cold milk bottles, and wondered at the frozen ice cubes in the freezer section. Our milk bottles had previously been stored on the “cold shelf” over the stone sink in the kitchen and frequently went sour in the summer heat.

My dad then excitedly carried our cases up the stairs to our bedroom so that we could view his newly built wooden bunk beds for his three daughters. Unlike traditional bunks, instead of two beds, this set had three. One box unit was at floor level for my two year old sister Annie, who up to then had been sleeping in a cot in my parent’s room. Another was in the middle about chest high for me, and the highest was at forehead height for my older sister Bernice.

I had never had a “WOW” moment like it before in my life. They were the most ‘avant-garde’ beds that I had ever seen, and I was so proud that my Dad had made them. (They were the talking point in our neighbourhood for years). I tumbled into my new bed that night and thought about how lucky I was to have been away having had the holiday of a lifetime, coming back to all these wonderful new changes. A new bed AND a new Fridge Freezer. Crikey – but I was easily pleased.

I remember many nights whispering to both Annie and Bernice as we lay in those triple bunks. We had great fun sharing as sisters although the room was cramped. I left that bunk bed eight short years later as I married and moved out, and Annie who was 10 at the time, moved into my bed. Bernice also left her top bunk to marry shortly afterwards.

Dad later carved them up and left the middle one (my one) as a single bed that Annie slept in until she too left number 33 to move to Mullingar with her husband Mark….

I was reminded of the bunks tonight by Joanne, Annie’s childhood pal as she posted on Facebook her memories of times past remembering the triple beds as being ‘soooo cool’. They were crafted by my dad in order to give his girl’s individual space to sleep and grow. As an experiment it worked, yet I have never seen triple bunks since. They may be gone, but they are certainly not forgotten. Memories of that particular summer include- Irish language, dancing, and music, being away from home, the wonder of refrigeration and three new beds for three sisters.

Destiny is shaped by experience, but it can also be complimented by outside influences and talents that make our lives better. Thanks Dad.

What a difference a year makes……..

It is a year (approx.) since my two adult children left home.
One year- 12 months- 52 weeks- 365 days- 8,670 hours – 525,600 minutes.

Time has unglued us from being one complete unit into becoming separate people living apart. This has led to many changes in our individual lives.

Learning to live without the constant ebb and flow of my children coming and going has been difficult. It has brought a new quieter rhythm to the house and one that has not always been welcome. I miss the noise although I appreciate the quiet. I miss the mess although I love the tidiness. I miss the gangs of pals although I relish the choice of seats in the sitting room in the evenings. I miss their late nights out although I realise that I can relax and sleep soundly and not have to wait to hear a key in the door. I miss waking up during the night although I don’t worry now if the house is in darkness as I realise that I turned the last light out and there is no one else coming home.

This is the melancholy side of things….
On the flip side there is a whole new order.

Being able to come and go without having to be there for formal meals is a huge freedom. Our family tradition had us all at the dinner table every night at a particular time having dinner and discussing the daily national and political news. While I always loved that part of the day, it is far less interesting when there are only two voices in the foray. It can descend into a major disagreement in no time.

My dinner time routine has changed.

Sometimes my hubby and I don’t even have dinner! We have the freedom to up and go to mountains, lakes and seaside destinations and we do so regularly. We go to restaurants, pack picnics and are generally less rigid in our evening routine than we have been in the past. We absolutely love this new independence although I am usually the driver of moving beyond the kitchen table.

I particularly love weekends. I am a volunteer with a national charity and my chosen slot is an early shift in Dublin City Centre on Sunday mornings. I finish around midday and my hubby usually collects me afterwards and we take this opportunity to make the most of the day and to enjoy the freedom of not having to be home for dinner. We go wherever the fancy takes us, and we stay out as late as we like. We have no one to please except each other and this adds a fun element and unpredictability to our lives. We are learning how to be a couple again after being parents for such a long time.

Our children still live close by and are welcome visitors all the time. They pop in unexpectedly for chats and impromptu meals that are conjured up in minutes by their Dad. They also come by for more formal ‘invited‘ dinners where the traditions are observed and the topical arguments continue. These dinners are special and very precious. Time tick tocks in the background as our lives move on independently but with habits and rhythms that bind us to each other.

I arranged to meet my daughter today and we spent two leisurely hours bantering and chatting over a delicious lunch in a local restaurant. If she was still living at home I don’t think that this coming together would have held the anticipation and ultimate pleasure of her company that I enjoyed for that short space of time.

Who knew what changes a year would bring.

Destiny can be about rearranging the jigsaw of life and seeing a different picture.

Matriarchs.

Mam & Dad circa 1955

Most Irish people in the past 50 years have grown up in households where the matriarchal figure was the most powerful force in their lives.

“Irish mothers”. They are legendary, and many stories, plays and movies have been written about the archetypical version that so many of us are familiar with.

My mother didn’t fit into that category. She had a different outlook on life and one that was at odds with most of the other “mammies” that I was surrounded by as a small child growing up in the suburban streets of Dublin.

My father was a lovely man but he was also a man of his time who believed that he was entitled to nights out with boozy pals while my mam cared for myself and my other siblings at home. This was a ‘normal’ landscape for many couples in Ireland during the 1950’s/60’s.

Unlike the mothers of my friends that I was familiar with, my Mam simply believed that she was born to dance. She practiced it with vigour alongside her sisters as they were all growing up, and she was a regular “girl about town” in her day before she met my Dad. During their days of courtship they danced in every dance hall and every ballroom in Dublin. When she could, she would dance five or six nights a week.

My mother’s looks were stunning. She looked like a movie star. A “Maureen O’Hara look alike” she was. She had beautiful red curling hair and a figure that was “Pure Hollywood”. She was a great dancer too, so she was popular and was never a wallflower. She had many a suitor but was never inclined to ‘go out with’ anyone who couldn’t dance.

This is what defined my mother as a young woman in the post war years of Dublin. She lived her days working in a local factory making cigarettes, and when her beauty was noticed by a senior manager she was plucked from the obscurity of the factory floor to become a guide, taking tours of visitors around the production area explaining the process involved in the manufacturing of cigarettes. By day she conducted endless tours of the factory earning her wages, but by night she donned her sparkly shoes and clothes and  danced until the early hours of the morning when my Dad would walk her home, or give her a cross bar on his bicycle when her feet were too tired after a nights dancing.These are her stories relayed down through the years.

When she married, the law in Ireland of the time meant that she had to give up her job.

The reality of being stuck at home after a honeymoon baby must have been a culture shock for her, and I have often wondered at how different her life was as a young married woman compared to her previous carefree existence as a single girl.

My early life is full of images of her getting ready to go out. I remember sitting on her bed as a child watching her getting dressed in beautiful clothes with sparkling jewelled accessories. I realise that there were days when she was washing clothes and ironing to beat the band, but my most vivid memories are the ones where she was fussing and excited, and these were all associated with dancing and going out with my father.

She was animated on those nights and made sure that dinner was over early and that the baby sitter was organised. I believe that because of her beauty she got a lot of attention in social settings and when she went out she was able to revert to being that young and carefree girl and dance the night away with my father, leaving behind her life as a wife and mother.

These days were the days that my mother loved. In reminiscing and talking about times past she would speak of how people loved what she was wearing and about how exciting the Dublin social scene was. It was all about the clothes, the jewellery, the dancing and the attention from my father. Looking back at old photographs I know that she was telling the truth, and there are so many captured images of her looking vivacious and happy, surrounded by laughing people who never looked quite as beautiful as she did.

Times change and the ballroom scene in Dublin changed during the 1960’s. The music changed too. The great show bands of that era were replaced by a new pop culture and I remember her hating the Beatles and all the new groups that were emerging during those times. The music that they produced was not music that she could dance to, and she yearned for the halcyon days of her youth and the crooners like Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Ella Fitzgerald.

As her family grew larger, her nights out became rarer and eventually they stopped altogether. By the time my younger sister was a teenager my mother and father no longer danced together.

Raising a family of five children meant that a lot of her days were filled with washing, cooking, cleaning and other mundane chores that were hallmarks of life during the 60’s and 70’s. By the time my Dad died when she was a young woman in her early fifties, she was still rearing teenagers and worrying about future finances as my father had left no pension or nest egg to make life comfortable for her.

She was the most terrible cook !

Her philosophy of food was that “she ate to live -unlike most people who she believed lived to eat”! She dieted constantly and maintained her pre marriage weight through discipline and denial and “kept her figure” throughout her whole life. As children, we suffered burnt, horrible and unsavory meals and we were encouraged to” eat bananas” if we didn’t like what was on offer. She still considers banana sandwiches to be a “meal”, and despite her loss of appetite recently she still gets through at least one a day !

Her determination and vitality were instrumental in her going back to work full time after my Dad died and she continued working until she was into her mid seventies long after all my siblings had left home and built their own lives.

She has enjoyed wonderful holidays to many countries with close friends, and her two dear sisters who remain a huge part of her life. She has travelled the world visiting relatives and has clocked up more air miles than I have. She has kept a loyal circle of old school pals close to her heart throughout her life, and has had to deal with heart-breaking loss as three of them have died in recent times.

At eighty two years of age she still enjoys watching dancing programmes on TV and it’s still all about the dresses and the jewellery.

She is a punchy little woman who is much admired for her indomitable spirit and unflagging energy. Her recent terminal illness has made many people realise how old she actually is and how her life landscape has changed so radically.

She has had a good life filled with music, dance and love, although her time is now taken up with hospital visits and treatments in the hope of gaining some extra time. She has a large extended family of siblings, children, grandchildren great grandchildren, nieces, nephews and cousins. She is loved and respected and is a true Matriarch although she never quite fitted into the archetypical role of the “Irish Mammy”.

Now is a time to celebrate her life and to look back at all it was. A life filled with dancing, beauty, fun, love and laughter. She possesses a determination, energy, stubbornness and an incredible quick wit that is unique to her. She has suffered the unbearable pain of losing her husband and her youngest daughter to untimely deaths, and yet she still has the strength and resilience to get up each day and live.

I may not say it often and sometimes it’s hard to recognise something special when it’s up so close to you, but I love her- and I fervently wish that she had more time to do more things, to go on more holidays, to laugh more and to live more.

“Stay with us as long as you can Mam- because no one will fill the hole that you will eventually leave behind”.

Is this feeling of living loss part of my Destiny?