Tag Archives: Genes

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.

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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.

Gazing back and looking forward…..

After the recent death of my mother and the subsequent preparation for the sale of her house, there have been many photographs unearthed in her belongings that have never been viewed before. Looking back over a history of so many moments/instants captured and preserved on paper has been quite emotional.

On one hand it is poignant and sad looking at images of people who are no longer present in my life, yet on another, it is simply wonderful to gaze at them and reflect and dream about how each image was caught and preserved during a particular time.

We currently dwell in a modern age where digital images saturate and bombard us every day. Street surveillance, mobile phone technology and digital cameras capture us instantly as we go about our daily lives, and we have come to accept this as being normal as we view ourselves constantly on social media networks and various other online platforms. We can change our captured images to reflect how we are feeling at any particular moment on any particular day. We have the capacity, the skill and the ability to do this. In monetary terms, there is little cost. We can be who we want to be at any given moment and we can reveal ourselves in many guises.

This is contrary to the way that images were captured in our recent past. The photographs that I have been looking at were mostly ‘group’ shots, where people who were together for special occasions  posed for a ‘snap’, and this unique moment was then captured by someone who was fortunate to have a camera, could afford film, and who took the trouble to have it processed afterwards. This resulted in the myriad of black and white photos that have recently been discovered amongst my mother’s things.

There is something visceral about looking at these snapshots that tugs at my heart in a way that modern images fail to do so.

I found myself gazing at unknown faces, looking at particular features and wondering if I somehow ‘belong’ to them, and if my own genetic makeup was inherited from them. Some of the photos have names and places written in faded ink on the back of them identifying faces and places, others are blank. These are the ones that are the most intriguing. I don’t know who these people are, and if they are connected to me somehow down through time and history.

It has been a journey of discovery as I attempt to identify a whole generation of people that I never knew, yet that I can somehow recognise in particular features that live on in me and my family.

I have a marked crooked little finger on my right hand that is a throwback to my mother’s family. Growing up, she had two sets of twin siblings, and one of each twin was marked by this mutant crookedness. One of each set has a crooked little finger or a crooked little toe. This was a means of identity when they were very small, or so my mother said when I questioned my own ’disfigurement’. My maternal Grandmother told me that this crookedness was present in her own family too, and that instead of being embarrassed about it, I should embrace the fact that my descendants had passed this unique feature onto me. (She was probably fibbing, but as a small child I believed her and grew to like my alleged ancestral difference.)

I will treasure these recently found photos that were discovered amongst my mother’s possessions, and although my own adult children have grown up in an age of disposable digital images, I will encourage them to appreciate this photographic hoard as being precious and part of their own family history, albeit without the mutant crookedness so far…..

Destiny can be about gazing backwards and using history to help us move forward….