Tag Archives: History

The Bernie Chairs

 

The pair of Queen Anne peacock covered chairs sat absurdly in a room for years that held no truck with frivolities. It was a spartan room with no embellishments, and the corniced ceiling and large window contributed to the chill that was always present in this mostly unused room in my mother in laws house. The peacock chairs were the most colourful and exotic items in it.

The chairs arrived in Bernie’s house after her sister Mary died. Bernie had enough chairs already, but she had lived through the Second World War. She had learned from an early age the value of everything, and didn’t dispose of things that were useful and functional. Her early life of frugality shaped her into the no nonsense woman that she later became. I loved her dearly.

The chairs had been purchased in Arnott’s department store in Dublin sometime during the 1940’s after Mary had married and moved to Monkstown. Arnott’s was an upmarket store. Their furniture and carpets were expensive and out of the reach of many people, so to say ‘I bought it in Arnott’s’ immediately elevated you into a particular class. It had cachet. This was important to Mary who had married Vernon, a business man with prospects, and who had moved to an affluent area of Dublin, far away from her upbringing in County Limerick. Arnott’s also had a ‘hire/purchase plan’ where you could pay for goods over a period of months or years, with added interest – but the neighbours didn’t need to know that.

The interior of Mary’s house was extravagant, filled with fine furniture and carpets when I visited in the early 1980’s. In contrast, her sister Bernie’s Terenure home was comfortable, but was spartan and frugal. It reflected the simple country woman that she was. She was completely unlike her sister Mary who loved fancy things. Bernie had also quietly bought her carpets in Arnott’s when she moved to Dublin during the late 50’s. She paid cash up front for quality and longevity. She was never interested in the latest fad or fashion. Her husband was a civil servant in the department of justice. Not as exciting or as fancy as a business man. She never compared her life to others and she envied no one.

According to Bernie, her sisters ‘Arnott’s’ chairs were upholstered several times over the years as Mary loved to follow fashion, and by the time they arrived in her house shortly after Mary’s death when her possessions were distributed amongst her family, they were covered in a garish cherry red silk fabric with purple peacocks in the background that was evidently expensive, but in my opinion was seriously vomit inducing.

These chairs sat unsurprisingly unloved in that room in Bernie’s house for a long time. They were never to be thrown out though, despite their overcrowding a room that already held plenty of chairs as they were ‘quality’ and were still functional.

Years later, in my own home I began to feel seriously unwelcome in my living room by my then teen aged children and their never ending stream of pals, who would happily gather on sofas, drop their coats, bags and books all over the room, empty the fridge, and claim ownership over the only TV in our house. In order to avoid conflict, I decided to convert an unused upstairs room and create a den for myself where I could simply escape to.

Junk was cleared out, walls were painted, and new curtains were hung. It was lovely, but the cost of a new sofa was beyond my budget at the time.

One Sunday afternoon while having lunch with Bernie, I mentioned my new escape room plan while lamenting my lack of finance for the desired new sofa. Bernie immediately offered me Mary’s ‘peacock’ chairs deciding that they would be perfect for my new room.

I was horrified, and desperately tried to wriggle out of accepting them. It didn’t work, and a week later the chairs arrived via a laughing brother in law who was openly delighted l that I had inherited the horrible chairs.

Dismayed, I looked at them and wondered how anyone had ever sat on them without feeling nauseous.  I phoned a local upholstery service the day they arrived.

The chairs were removed and the upholsterer later telephoned and told me that they were the oldest chairs that he had ever worked with as they still had actual horse hair in their seat cushions. He offered to buy them from me, as he told me that they were of exceptional quality. I declined his offer as I could never sell the gift that Bernie had so kindly given. The cost of re-covering them was also hugely below the cost of a new sofa.

They arrived back re-upholstered in a lovely cream coloured chenille fabric that complimented their handsome Queen Anne shape, and they subsequently lived a long life in my den. They have moved over the intervening years, and Bernie enjoyed sitting in them in various spots around the house, shouting at Munster rugby matches on TV, having her tea served on a tray, or simply dozing with a blanket over her knees.

She died four years ago in her 94th year.

People who come to visit my home remark on these lovely chairs all the time. They are positioned in a small nook, bathed in natural light that lends itself to reflection or reading. I have had the merriest of day dreams sitting and reading in them. I have cried and laughed in them, and I am so glad that I own these two lovely chairs that are a historic nod to my husband’s past, but are very much part of our present life.

Everyone in my family simply refer to them as ‘The Bernie Chairs’

 

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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.

Closing the door gently behind me…..

Smells are so evocative… They can help us tap into memories in an instant and transport us back to particular times and places. This can be good, but maybe not all of the time. My mother’s house is sold and the contracts are being exchanged this weekend. After that I will no longer be able to let myself into number 33 as there will be new owners living there. I will never again catch that particular smell of hers that I used to get when I walked in through her front door. My brother has been clearing out her things and recently he brought me her furs because he didn’t quite know how to dispose of them.

 
Fur in 2013 is just not fashionable or ethical. It’s all about fake fur these days, but I remember my Mam wearing her furs proudly. They were always kept for special occasions and the one that has survived best is a fur stole that she had made for my wedding a million years ago. I have several photos of her wearing it, and she looked lovely in them. Holding this fur on my knees while traveling from her house to mine this week, I could get her own particular smell from it. Holding it to my face for hours afterwards crying into it and feeling the ache of loss so badly knowing that I will never see her again was particularly emotional and sad.

 
Having had to go back and forward over the past couple of months to sort out the removal of her furniture, the clearing out of her possessions, and the finalisation of her utility bills has allowed me to gradually let go the house that I grew up in. As the fixtures were given away and the cupboards were cleared out, the memories went into skips, other people’s homes, and to charity shops to be recycled into other people’s lives.

 
I went back for the last time on Tuesday night along with my adult children, my husband, my brother and his wife. We were all saying goodbye to a house that contained many personal memories built up over many years. We sat on stools that we had brought with us and told stories of different times there. There were tears and laughter all around as we swapped tales. An old neighbour saw my car and popped in because she wanted to say good bye to us. We recounted hair raising stories of times when we were young kids alongside her children and we chatted about how times had changed but how lovely life in Drimnagh had been and how much she had loved having my mam as a neighbour.

 
Over the fireplace in the now empty room there was a picture hanging. It was an artist’s charcoal impression taken from a photo of my Father that that my brother Phil (who lived in Ibiza at the time) had given as a gift to my mother some years before. I remember him proudly presenting this beautiful framed gift to her and her looking blankly at it asking “who is this”. My brother Phil indignantly responded “it’s Dad of course” to which my mother replied “That’s not your father, it looks like a Spanish man to me”. I think that because it was created in Ibiza, and that the artist had focused on my Dads dark hazel eyes, there was an exotic slant to it. According to my mam at the time, it wasn’t a version of her husband. Her children all disagreed.

 
Time moved on, and she grew to love it and the image of him. This beloved picture has always been subsequently referred to as “The Spanish Man” and there was a poignancy and sadness in the air as we recounted the time when it was originally hung. I was completely heartbroken as it was lifted off her wall, as this was the last of her possessions to be removed. It will be hung in John’s house and will be loved forever by him and his wife, but it was dreadful watching it being taken down. I just couldn’t stop my tears.

 
As we departed the house and walked through the empty rooms, I was so profoundly sad I found it hard to catch my breath. Clichés about houses being all bricks and mortar are easily spoken, but the bricks and mortar contain so many stories and memories like snap shots of lives lived within the walls. They were mostly happy ones, and I will treasure them forever.

 
It’s really difficult to articulate the feelings that I had as I walked out through the hallway. I looked back and gazed up the stairs, and heard so many ghostly echoes of the voices that used to resonate within those walls. I set the alarm code and stepped out for the very last time and gently closed the door behind me as I locked up a lifetime of O’Neill memories in number 33 Mourne Road. We have some ‘things’ like Dad’s picture, but memories, sounds and images are stored in my mind’s eye ready to be taken out and looked it again and again…

 
This is my absolute destiny…

The route home…..

Like a pigeon, despite distance and location I have always found my way back home to where I grew up. I never left the island, indeed I never lived further than thirty five miles away from my family home at any given time.

Growing up and living in Drimnagh on the south side of Dublin, the actual location of a job was a primary factor on whether to accept it or not. Bus routes and distance from home was a major consideration when searching for particular employment opportunities. My first job was in a music shop in North Great Fredrick Street on the North side of the city. I was fifteen years of age when I started.

As a city dweller I was used to public transport and I very quickly worked out several bus routes that would take me to and from my place of work. There was always walking involved, so depending on the weather, I had choices about how long I wanted to spend sitting on a bus, or how long I wanted to spend walking. This varied with the seasons.

On winter nights after work I dashed the short distance to O’Connell Street and hopped on the 22 bus which brought me to the bottom of the long road that led to my home. Facing into the rain without the shelter of an umbrella could be the longest journey and one that I remember well. On summer evenings, I would stroll the length of O’Connell Street and wander across the river Liffey to Fleet Street, where I could pick up one of the 50 A, B or C buses that traveled across the south side of the city. Walking even further before boarding and after disembarking was a pleasure on balmy summer nights and distance wasn’t an issue. Getting home quickly during the summer months never seemed to have the same urgency as it did in the winter.

By the time I was getting married at twenty years of age and ready to leave home I was working in Ringsend. I had worked out several bus routes and times to get me to and from my job in the mornings in all weathers. The number 18 brought me all the way from Drimnagh Road to Ballsbridge, with only a brisk fifteen minute walk to Barrow Street. Or the number 22 would bring me into the city centre where I could then catch a number 3 to ‘Boland’s Bridge’ with a two minute walk to the office. Hangovers and late nights were often deciders on which bus to catch.

My first home when I married was in County Meath, 32.1 miles from my parents’ home in Drimnagh. I worked out every route on how to get there by car in the minimum of time, and became an expert at directing my husband (I didn’t drive) on how to traverse country roads and city dual carriageways enabling us to arrive within an hour of departing our home. This was a major feat initially as neither of us were familiar with the ‘northern’ county that we had moved to, so far removed from the ‘south’ city roads that we were comfortable with. When I learned to drive, I became even more adept at shaving off time to make the journey quicker by traveling more country roads and fewer dual carriageways!

Moving back to Dublin in the 90’s with our children, one of the criteria for our new abode was about the distance between our new house and ‘home’. My husband’s place of work in Blanchardstown Fire Station was a major factor in our decision, but the location of Lucan was also an easy fifteen minutes journey across the new M50 motorway to Drimnagh. Again I worked out the quickest way to make that trip, in rush hour traffic and in quiet times too. I could drive to Killmainham and up through the old brickfields of Galtimore, I could cross the M50 and make my way down the industrial Long Mile Road, or I could continue down the Naas Road to the canal at Blackhorse and continue on up through Kilworth.

The homing instinct has always been there like that of a pigeon who returns to its roost no matter where it has been released from, but life never remains the same and it constantly changes whether we like it or not. Sadly this roost is no longer my home. My mother was the last inhabitant there and now she has gone.

Her house is being sold, along with all the memories of my journeys home. Remembering my youthful bus rides in all weathers, the eventual family car trips from Meath with kids and buggies, communion and confirmation excursions, and Sunday dinners with scowling teenagers who eventually evolved into happy young adults who wanted to be there as much as I did, all remind me that this era is over and that this house is no longer ‘home’.

When meeting the auctioneer recently to sell the property I tried to be detached about the ‘desirable city residence – a short distance from town, with access to bus and tram routes’ but I simply couldn’t be. There is too much history stored in this address.

As I drove down the Naas Road to Blackhorse and up through Kilworth two weeks ago to meet the auctioneer at the house, I wondered if I would continue to feel that homing instinct after it is sold. I don’t think that I will. It wasn’t the house that guided me instinctively to take all those routes back; it was simply because my mother was there and she made it ‘home’.

Destiny can be about acknowledging that with the passing of time and people, home is not necessarily a fixed place, but something that you can carry inside yourself.

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….