Category Archives: Growing up

The Presidents Daffodils.

My Mother was a ‘townie’ (inner city child) in her day. She spent her early years in Manor Street just off Aaron Quay in Dublin, and she had a pal from school whose mother worked as part of the domestic kitchen staff in Arás an Uachtaráin (house/home of the President of Ireland) which was located, and still is in the Phoenix Park which is one of the largest enclosed parks in Europe.

Kids had wonderful freedom back in those days, and as a youngster my mam cycled everywhere. She told a great story about a day when she cycled up during the holidays to play with her friend in the Arás. These two small girls were in the garden when the President came out to walk. He asked my mother if she liked flowers, and when she replied that she did, he plucked several daffodils which were in bloom and told her to bring them home to her mother and to say that they were a gift from him. My mam popped them into the basket on her bike and headed home. At the gates of the Park, one of the gate keepers stopped her and asked her where she had gotten the flowers. She truthfully answered that the President had given them to her. He didn’t believe her and threatened her with the police for stealing flowers from the park. After lots of tears he finally let her off to cycle home the short distance to Manor Street and to give her mam the flowers. Every Spring when I see daffodils growing in the lands throughout the Phoenix Park I am reminded of my mam and her lovely story. How sweet of the then President, Douglas Hyde to send flowers from his garden to my grandmother.  

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Endings……………..

 

Reaching an end signifies a beginning, and I have witnessed and been present at many wonderful beginnings with people that I have loved.

I reached an ending recently that was more than my words can ever fully express. I went to Ballyheigue in Kerry to lay the ashes of my Dad, my Mam and my sister Annie in a place that is beautiful, and was visited and loved by them when they were alive. I began there as a child where I enjoyed the freedom of explored fields and ditches without parental supervision. We began there as a family on our annual summer holidays. My little sister Annie began to walk there as she enjoyed playing on a sandy clean beach as a toddler. Ballyheigue is real, but it is like a mystical place where I can close my eyes and revisit at any time. It is a place where happy memories flourish.

 
I have no idea why my Dad choose this sleepy sea side village in Kerry to take our annual summer holidays in, but I am so glad that he did. I have nothing but happy recollections of times spent there.

 
We first went there in 1966 or 1967. We roomed in a house on the main street that was owned by the Hartnett family. We brought my grandparents and my grand uncle Leo that first year and we all squashed happily inside the house next door to Willy O Leary’s Butcher shop.
I remember the freedom.

 
In Dublin I had to be home at a particular time and I was closely supervised while outside playing, but in Ballyheigue there were no time constraints and no obvious regulation. This was freedom like I had never known before, but it was also during a time when places were safer and parents didn’t worry as much. I remember introducing myself precociously to local people, and being accepted in a sweet way that was completely different to the city ways that I was more familiar with.

 
I remember the Roche family. Elderly brothers, Timmy, Tommy, Mike and Sonny, and their sister Mary. They lived nearby, and my older sister Bernice and I were always welcome in the house from that very first year. Sonny rambled with us along the beach and climbed the ramparts of the old castle on Kerry Head. He laughed with us, watched over us and spent time us. We felt safe with him, and our parents allowed us to spend time with this family without the fear that is so prevalent today. We wandered in and out of his house and watched Mary baking bread daily. We fed the chickens and the pigs during the day, and we sat up against the range as we piled turf into it during those long summer evenings. The range had to stay hot to keep the kettle boiling for the endless pots of tea that were constantly being brewed and drunk. This simple country family accepted us city children, chatted away with us and never took advantage in any way. I remember the embroidered cushions on the soft chairs in the parlour, and the hard chairs that we sat on in the other small room as we watched TV while the brothers smoked their pipes silently after a long day in the fields. They regularly took us to the local creamery on their donkey and cart with a milk churn of unpasteurised milk. We were witness to the old fashioned traditions of an Ireland that is reminiscent of post cards and storytelling. But I know it and remember it well.

 
Summertime seemed to have a glow about it back then, and Ballyheigue was a place that was always sunny and happy. I am sure that there were rainy days and times of boredom, but I cannot recall them. I remember the annual fancy dress parade that took place, when everyone gathered outside Casey’s Ballroom on the main street. I remember dressing Annie up when she was a toddler and being so thrilled when she won the ‘Bonny Baby’ competition. We led the parade down the main street and I was so proud of her. She was the prettiest baby ever.

 
The Carnival was always present when we arrived on our annual holidays, so as a child I believed that it was permanently there, outside the ‘Castle Gates’. I remember the smell of the dodgems as the cars connected to the electrified grid overhead, and how the sparks spilled out into the darkness on summer evenings. This was a truly magical place where pennies were pushed into slot machines in the hope of winning, and where the dexterity of throwing bamboo hoops over empty jam jars showcased your skills in the rubbishy gee-gaws that were won and proudly brought home night after night. Revisiting again as an adult in later years, I was dismayed to see a vacant space with litter blowing around in the place that had held such a dreamlike quality for me as a child.

 
Looking back on those lovely innocent days and nights I feel so fortunate to have grown up in a time where I was cherished by the lovely people of Kerry who only saw our family for two weeks out of fifty two. I remember feeling jealous when thinking about ‘other’ kids that were holidaying when we were not there, and that the locals might like them more than they did us!

 
Summer days spent on the beach, running into the waves and playing endless games in the sand dunes with my siblings were picture perfect, and nothing can spoil the memories. Aunties and Uncles, cousins and pals came to Kerry with us over the years that we visited to share the magic that we knew was unique.

 
Revisiting Ballyheigue recently was an ending as my family finally let the ashes of our loved ones go. We could think of no better, happier and a more beautiful place to remember them, and the moment that we let them go on the slipway curling into the waves will be etched on my heart and in my mind forever. The ebb and flow of life was momentarily captured in the movement of the ocean as their ashes were gently eased into the water of the outgoing tide….

 
Endings can be heart-breaking, but the beautiful, wonderful, memorable moments between the beginning and the end are what makes life so precious.

 

Destiny can be realising that to love, and to remember that love is simply all that there is…

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.

Happy Fathers Day Dad.

Dear Dad,

The sun is shining and Dublin looks lovely today. I drove down to the Pigeon House at the South Wall, and walked to the lighthouse as we always used to do. Nothing changes here; it is as it always was, breath-taking and beautiful. The day was young so I headed out to our regular swimming spot in Seapoint. I remember striping off my clothes as a child shivering in the cold whilst dashing down the concrete steps with you and plunging into the sea. We would emerge blue and freezing but in your words, “invigorated”. By the time we were dressed, we were already warm and ready to cool down with a Teddy’s Ice cream.

The drive to Dún Laoghaire is minutes away and the ice-cream is still like no other. The regular swimmers were out in Sandycove. I watched them recline in their towels with their backs against the granite wall, sharing together the contents of their flasks and hot toddies. I licked my ice cream as I watched them, staying warm in the car. This community of swimmers is unchanged Dad, people of all ages come and go and the 40 foot swimming area is now populated by women as well as men. I remember as a child when you would not let me advance beyond the entrance to the 40 foot. You were so afraid that I might see a man swimming naked.

Driving along the coast, Dalkey Island Hotel has gone now and apartments face onto the island. Do you remember the hire boats on Sunday afternoons? Happy days. To be able to leave an island and row to another island was a big thing back then wasn’t it? Or it was to you. The road to Killiney is still as beautiful. Having been to Italy I think that our Sorrento drive is equally as stunning. The beach still shelves away steeply and we would be out of our depth in five steps when we swam there.

Skimming stones here reminds me how you thought me how to bend, and lean in close to the water’s edge to make the stones jump’. Five jumps is my record, although yours is seven.

Bray is still heavenly. Dawson’s amusements, although now closed were always open on Sundays. If it was raining and I didn’t want to swim, pushing penny’s in cheap slot machines kept me smiling. The hurdy gurdys and ghost trains were an exotic alternative to sea swimming off the beautiful prom and stony beach.

Greystones was one of our favourite places to swim. It’s still lovely. There were lots of people out there today for a charity swim. I remember that Christmas morning when we went searching for water all along the Dublin coast as the tide was out. We had to go as far as Greystones to get some depth and that newspaper photographer guy caught us on camera. We were in the paper long before it became fashionable to swim on Christmas day. We were the trend setters in my mind, never the trend followers.

The city and coastline were showcased through your eyes as I grew up Dad, and I still celebrate and enjoy its splendour. I am so thankful for the time that you spent showing me how truly beautiful Dublin is, and I wish that you were here again to see the places that make this city so great. If I could only have you again for an hour. We could retrace our steps and take that coastal drive again. You would see places and people that largely remain unchanged despite the passing of 25 years.

I miss getting up early on Sunday mornings not knowing where we would go, or what we would see. I miss our swims. I miss the little journeys that we used to take together. You were the best tour guide ever and you filled a small girl’s world with adventure and fun. I miss you all the time Dad, yet every time I visit these places you are always with me. Dublin city is my home and you are everywhere in it.

Love Valerie

Belonging to a family…

As people we are all born into families. We belong to them and they in turn belong to us. We don’t have a choice about the differences and diversity that marks the particular tribe that we are born into; we just know that they are ours and that we are expected to simply fit.

Growing up in the 70’s I was a female child in a family with four other siblings. I had two brothers and two sisters. I was the 2nd child, the eldest being another female.

My early life was largely defined by the stereotypical behavior of the time. My sister and I did housework chores every Saturday despite our whinging protests, as my brothers did nothing.

On weekdays I whinged as myself and my older sister helped to prepare meals with our mother, setting the table, clearing afterwards, washing dishes and putting them away while my brothers still did nothing. We learned to iron their clothes, dust and vacuum their room, make their beds as they continued to do NOTHING!

Resentment breeds easily when the balance and status quo is unequal, and it was very lopsided in my view when growing up. Acting out and whinging got me absolutely nowhere. My parents were very traditional and were bringing up their children in the same manner that they had been raised. But times were changing in the 1970’s and I had a (whinging) voice. It was unwelcome to my parents and my brothers as I constantly challenged, asking why I should complete household tasks while my brothers got to play, laze around and basically be waited on hand and foot by my older sister and I.

There were constant rows over this issue, yet my brothers were still not expected to participate in the running of the house. This was regarded as women’s work and men basically did not do it. I hugely resented this and muttered under my breath a lot.

I remember disliking them when I was a teenager because of this inequality. I didn’t think that life was fair. I could see that my older sister and I were saddled with the household chores simply because we were girls, while my brothers got away with it simply because they were boys. I didn’t like it. We fought a lot as teenagers my brothers and me.

My opinion never shifted the balance. My mother believed that her sons were not reared to do household chores. These tasks were for the females in the family. My brothers basked while their sisters slaved.

This is a back drop as to how hostility can quietly breed, grow legs, and walk. I am guilty for largely ignoring my brothers growing up as I really resented the way I believed we were treated so unequally.

I left the family home without a backward glance when I married and left them to their own devices, running far far away with my new husband to our first home in County Meath. I visited the homestead regularly but never really got to know my brothers until many years later.

Time changes so many things including perspective. I never really thought about the indifference that I felt towards them when they were younger, until growing older and wiser I realised that the inequality that was rampant in our home wasn’t their fault. We were all products of my parents and their values and ideals of a particular time.

Acknowledging now that the two lovely men who are my brothers and that actually belong to me through kin, is simply great, and I speak of them always with pride, affection and love.

They are two extraordinary sensitive men who have inherited many individual creative talents as part of our family gene pool and I really admire them as people.

My brother Phil is a full time musician who is largely self-taught, but who has an artistic and creative ear for music that has been inherited from my mother’s side. He lives in Tenerife where he earns his living performing. This is central to his life.

My mam’s four brothers were all accomplished musicians. Paul plays classical piano, Leo played drums in a band in London for years, Paddy still plays organ – church & choral music, while Philip plays a haunting yet versatile harmonica. There were so many parties in our house when I was growing up where piano music and singing took center stage. Musical flair and ability runs through my mother’s family and this wonderful creativity lives on in my brothers. My dad was a carpenter and was gifted with his hands, and this has also been passed on to his sons.

While Phil perpetuates the tradition that comes from our mothers side, with his intuition and talent related to music and performance, John has explored creativity in a different fashion. Phil expresses himself musically while John does it with imagery. By John’s own admission he was a late developer. He holds down a full time job and a full time life. He loves music too but its ‘techno’ that does it for him. He likes to mix it up and add ‘stuff’ to the original mix. He is really creative with music, and loves it as a part time DJ, but his enduring passion is photography.

He started out as an amateur, but two years ago he enrolled in college to learn about technique and style. This has changed the way he sees things. His skill is emerging in the way that he views places and spaces, and he is a natural landscape photographer with an impassioned eye that captures the natural and hidden beauty that lies in the everyday. I absolutely love his work and really admire his distinctive style.

As people we are all individual in our own unique way, yet as members of a kin/family we have talents and skills that we have inherited from our descendants that were not obvious when we were children. I think it’s simply wonderful that our ancestors have bestowed these creative gifts to be explored and embraced by our current generation.

While I might jeer my brothers about the easy ride they had growing up, they have developed into independent, creative, sensitive men, who have huge talents and skills that sustain them and bring added joy to our lives. I am so very fortunate in calling them ‘mine’ and my life is all the better for having them in it.

It’s just a pity that they never learned how to wash out a toilet or clean the windows when we were growing up as children, but I blame my parents for that.

Destiny can be bit like a lucky dip……And I am so glad that we all came out in the same handful.

Memories of a Dublin childhood…..

Growing older brings its own rewards. I tell myself this all the time and I truly believe it. It brings wisdom, confidence, and a settling in to one’s self that was largely missing for me in my younger days. Being middle aged doesn’t mean that I am on the scrap heap of life though, I am anchored in life with friends and family and I am fortunate to call Dublin my home.

Home is different to everyone and we all carry our own traditions and histories, but I believe that I am privileged to have grown up at a time in Dublin when communities felt real, and where people mattered to each other.

My childhood neighbourhood in Drimnagh was full of houses that were small and where families were large. My own house had two parents and five children. We were similar to other families that surrounded us, some having more kids, others having less. One house around the corner had seventeen children in a three bedroomed terraced home, plus two parents and a grandmother. They were lovely people, and I often wondered how they happily fitted inside the small rooms that were characteristic of the houses that we all lived in at the time.

My house in my opinion was squashed full of people, and the only places that I could comfortably exist in were my bedroom (shared with two sisters) and the living room (shared with the whole family). The ‘good room/parlour’ was out of bounds and I was only let in there with special permission.

This parlour had an opulent chesterfield suite in it that I was not allowed to sit upon on a daily basis. The room and all its contents were for guests and visitors, and I grew up peeking inside it, wishing that I could relax on the softness of the couch instead of sitting on the floor in the family room, or sharing a fireside chair with one of my siblings watching the TV which was the center point of the room.

My father was a skilled craftsman who could have knocked the wall down to make a bigger family room for us all, but my mother didn’t want that. She liked having a special room for very rare visitors and guests. That was her family tradition.

We had a little fancy telephone table in the hall, and although the telephone was cut off several times during my childhood through non-payment of bills, the ‘dead’ phone was always polished as was the table…. Keeping up appearances was an integral part of living in those days. Lots of our neighbors had ‘dead phones’ too.

As children we were always in and out of each other’s houses. The mammies made jam sandwiches for us when we were hungry, and the daddy’s played with us and taught us how to kick balls and make stuff like bows and arrows out of branches from trees.

They swung us around and praised us and kissed us when we did well. There was a simplicity to living that was innocent and precious, and I have wonderful memories of the kind and loving neighborhood dads that I grew up with.

There was a trust between us as neighbors that was never tarnished, hurt or broken.

The Daddy’s of my pals were all working class men, who loved their children and who made time for them and me after a long hard day’s work. I remember so many of them with extreme fondness and these memories will never fade.

Sadly I now only get to meet my childhood pals at the funerals of our parents and old neighbors, where we hug each other and ask about our own children and how they are doing. We recount our shared memories that we have about the people that we grew up with, and we tell ourselves how lucky we were to live in a time when lives were simpler and people trusted more.

We were lucky. We lived lives where most of us were cherished and beloved.

I realise now that there must have been many difficult domestic issues happening behind closed doors when I was growing up, and most of us were more poor than rich, but I am thankful and forever grateful that my childhood was not scarred by any type of abuse or inappropriate behavior by any of the wonderful men who were the fathers of my childhood pals. We have spoken about this when we meet at funerals and we have recounted how fortunate we were. Everyone that I knew had lovely men as fathers.

Looking back, there is always the possibility that rose tinted glasses are in place to gloss over the grimness of Dublin in the 60’s and 70’s, but as I embrace middle age I can honestly say that those glasses add a shine and luster to my childhood that will forever be pink and pretty, and nothing will ever dull the memories that I share with my childhood friends growing up in Drimnagh. I truly loved most of the fathers of my pals and I remember them with great affection. I realise how lucky I was to have a childhood that was simply about being a child with nothing else to tarnish it.

Destiny can be about looking back and wishing that you were looking forward again…..