Category Archives: Oral History

Before and After ‘The Post’

Memories almost overwhelmed me in the cinema during the opening moments of the Stephen Spielberg film ‘The Post’, starring Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep. The sound of Huey helicopters is synonymous with the Vietnam War, a helicopter war that ‘wop-wop-wop-wopped’ from our television screens in the 1960s. The ‘wop-wop-wop-wop’ was the background music to the images of young men pouring out of these choppers being ‘inserted’ into fields in Vietnam. The ‘wop-wop-wop-wop’ was the background music to young men now with old faces, haunted expressions and staring eyes climbing back into them to be evacuated to safety. It was the relentless background sound effect to the crouching running stretcher bearers loading up casualties. It was the dirge to which thousands of bloodied and broken dead bodies of young men, in the hitherto  unheard of ‘bodybags’, were loaded from battlefields and whisked away to be shipped home in boxes. ‘Wop-wop-wop-wop’.

And so the film began with the Hueys. ‘The Post’ tells the story of the publication of the Pentagon Papers, secret United States government reports of the political and military involvement in Vietnam that had gone on from 1945 to 1967. Daniel Ellsberg, a former Marine, who had worked on the reports, decided that the public needed to know that the government had been misleading and lying to them for decades about the reality of the war. It was a war that they could not win, yet it was peddled as ‘holding back the tide of Communism’. In reality, tens of thousands of lives were lost or destroyed because the United States needed to ‘save face’. Ellsberg copied the secret report and gave it to the newspapers- The New York Times initially,  and when that newspaper was gagged by the Courts, the Washington Post continued the exposé. It is a fascinating story and well worth seeing.

It occurred to me that many of those viewing this film would not have any clue as to the extent of negative feeling about this conflict in far-off Asia. As I sat there I was reminded of those days and how I became involved in the world-wide protests and demonstrations of the 1960s and 1970s.

Roll back the clock a few years, to 1963. In August of that year I vividly recall walking into our kitchen at home and being rooted to the spot as Martin Luther King delivered his inspirational ‘I have a dream’ speech on TV. It was at this exact point in time that I became aware of what was not right with the world. In modern parlance we would say that I was ‘radicalized’. This was a time when African Americans were struggling for equal rights with their fellow white countrymen. News programmes were dominated by race riots and protests, with students and young people taking to the streets for a fairer society, often risking imprisonment or even serious injury.

It was difficult to avoid being ‘political’ in those days where everything was changing. Music had changed with the arrival of ‘pop’, The Beatles and the Rolling Stones, and of course Bob Dylan. Fashion had changed with the arrival of Mary Quant, mini skirts and Carnaby Street and there was now a television set in most homes adding a new dimension to world events.

As 16 year old pre-leaving certificate year students in an Irish convent school in 1965 we were allowed access to newspapers in order to prepare for our examinations. Every day there was coverage of the Vietnam War. I remember well seeing a headline along the lines of ‘Vietnam War Escalates’. Visuals and sounds were added by the news on the TV. It was shocking to see these young lads a few years older than ourselves being shipped out, and to see what could happen to them. I was always eager for the news the following day to see what was happening and followed all events closely. I was of course delighted that the Vietnam War came up on the English examination paper in 1966!

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Helping a wounded soldier to the medical facility. (Image Creative Commons)

I emigrated to England in 1966. My new work colleagues in the medical research laboratory were of a similar age and a political view was as important as being up to date with fashion and music. So we talked a lot about political and social issues, and of course the war in Vietnam.

Meanwhile, in 1967 Che Guevara, a young Argentinian revolutionary was executed by the United States in Bolivia. A major figure of the Cuban Revolution, his stylized image become a symbol of rebellion. With his image sellotaped to walls in millions of bedrooms, he inspired our generation. In 1968 Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, both iconic figures, were assassinated. There was a growing sense of social unrest as protests, mainly by students and young people spread across the globe. By this time there were a half million Americans in south east Asia.

Jim Fitzpatrick’s iconic image of Che Guevara. (Image Wikipedia)

Street demonstrations had a variety of themes, such as disapproval of nuclear weapons, Ban the Bomb marches, and the racism of Enoch Powell, but the hottest issue of the time was without doubt, the Vietnam War and specifically America’s involvement in it. All across the world protests were taking place – Italy, France, USA, Germany – in all  there were anti war demonstrations in 56 countries. The daily statistics at the time were astonishing as the death toll kept rising…American soldiers deaths shot up as the war intensified.

1964 216
1965 1,928
1966 6,350
1967 11,363
1968 16,899

I made my placard recording the number of dead young men – I think it was around the 12,000 mark – and headed off to my first demonstration at Trafalgar Square on St Patrick’s Day in 1968.  We were a happy group of young people – at 19, I was one of the youngest in our group of friends – delighted to be adding our voices to the outrage, and feeling very strongly that we were a force for good and that we could change things. After speeches we headed off chanting and marching to Grosvenor Square, where the United States Embassy was located. The police had placed a cordon around the building and prevented the crowd getting too near. Being towards the back of the crowd, we did not experience the violence that ensued with baton charges and mounted police charging into the crowd. Hundreds were arrested and many people were injured. The noise was incredible!  Martin Luther King was assassinated just weeks later in April, and in June of that year Robert Kennedy was also murdered.

In October 1968 the number of protesters on our demo had swelled to tens and tens of thousands – possibly 100,000 – and again we descended on Grosvenor Square. There were police everywhere, but the mood among the marchers was good as we chanted and sang our way along the streets.  We again stayed at the back, but the pushing and shoving was frightening, yet we chanted away adding to the noise, and looked out for one another. It was a most exhilarating experience to know that similar protests were taking place across the world.

While the reasons for being there were varied, and many groups were represented, our protests at the time were very much focused on the soldiers of our own age whose lives were laid waste and on the huge number of  innocent men women and children who were being killed and horribly maimed. Had we known at the time about the Pentagon Papers I wonder if we may have been out demonstrating more often and more forcefully?

The war raged on and although the number of casualties became fewer, more shocking images would stun us. Not least that of the little girl, 9 year old Kim Phúc,running screaming down a road having been set alight by a napalm bomb- a gel like substance that sticks to flesh and burns for at leasts 10 minutes.

Protests continued on campuses and cities across the world until finally the United States pulled out in 1975. And what if the reports in the Pentagon Papers had been known years earlier?  How many lives would not have been lost in vain? While the leaking of the papers had a huge impact on the relationship between the U.S. Government and the people of that country, the war rumbled on for more years afterwards. The contents were ‘declassified’ in 2011.

The statistics of the conflict (war was never declared) are horrible and will never be really known. It is estimated that between 1 million and 3 million Vietnamese died in the conflict, together with a further 400,000 Cambodians and Laotians. Hundreds of thousands were wounded.

the wall.JPGMany years later I stood at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington D.C. It is an astonishing sight.  Two 75 metre lengths of black marble are engraved with  58,318 names of the men who lost their lives in a war to uphold the ‘honour’ of a country. The average age of those whose names are here is 23.1 years.

And what if the reports in the Pentagon Papers had been known years earlier?  How many lives would not have been lost in vain? While the leaking of the papers had a huge impact on the relationship between the U.S. Government and the people of that country, the war rumbled on for more years afterwards. The contents were ‘declassified’ in 2011.

Vietnamese women and children in Mỹ Lai before being killed in the massacre, March 16, 1968.[62] They were killed seconds after the photo was taken.[63] Photo by Ronald L. Haeberlen (Wikipedia)

I look at these images of the wall with all those names and the faces of these lovely people about to die, and can’t help but wonder could they have been saved if we had protested earlier and more loudly.

The Pity of War.

References

The table of casualties is taken from the US National Archives at https://www.archives.gov/research/military/vietnam-war/casualty-statistics

http://www.e-ir.info/2011/07/02/was-the-european-student-movement-of-the-1960s-a-global-phenomenon/

Statistics – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vietnam_War_casualties

 

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Filed under Ireland, Oral History

Remembering our mother on the centenary of her birth

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Maud Clinton on the wall at Newtownforbes Station c. late 1930s

100 years ago, on Saturday January 19th 1918, in Kishawanny, Co Kildare, our grandparents, Christopher Robert Clinton and Jane Williams welcomed their first child into the world. She was our mother and was christened Sibyl Maud at Holy Trinity  Church in Derrinturn on January 27th with William Clery and Bridget Clery as godparents.

IMG_3054As was common practice – certainly in the early 20th Century – she was known by her second name, Maud, a name that recurs time and again in her paternal grandmother’s family, right down to this day.

She was the eldest of 5 children, two girls and three boys. At the time of her birth, her father was a foreman at Carbury Station, where his father was Stationmaster. It was possibly at the home of her grandmother in the townland of Kishawanny that she was born, but they may also have lived nearby. Her brother was also born in Kishawanny in 1920.

The probable site of  the home  of our mother’s grandparents in Kishavanna, Co Kildare.

Kishawanny, usually called Kishavanna by locals, has a small number of houses. According to Griffiths Valuation, the site of this house is on the same plot as the home of  Jane’s grandparents, our mother’s great grandparents.

As an employee of the Midland Great Western Railway, her father had to relocate and we next find the family living at Railway Cottage, Mullingar, where, three more siblings were born. Family lore has it that they also lived in Goresbridge Co. Kilkenny. This photograph was in our mother’s collection, marked ‘Goresbridge, Co Kilkenny’. It is possibly where the family lived.

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Goresbridge Co Kilkenny. Was this the family home?

The family moved to Newtownforbes Co. Longford, when their father was appointed Stationmaster here. We know they lived there in the late 1930s as an entry in the Schools Collection from Duchas.ie has a contribution from one of our mother’s brothers.  It was here too that our mother received music lessons at the local Convent of Mercy. She was an accomplished pianist and had a wonderful ear and could play anything after hearing it just once. Two of her sons are dedicated musicians.

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Station House Newtownforbes, Co Longford. Date possibly 1930s

Our mother did not often talk about her relatives, but her Granny Williams was an exception. Her maternal grandmother, who lived at Kishavanna, was an important figure in her life. She spent summer holidays with her, and often spoke about ‘living ‘ with her. Perhaps her grandmother lived alone and there was an element of caring for her. In any event Granny (Kate) Williams died on November 22 1933, at the age of 68. Our mother would have been just 15 years old.

Her father was a wonderful gardener as can be seen from the photos above. He was usually to be found in his vegetable garden tending to his vegetables. He won awards for his beautiful flower beds and our mother inherited her green fingers from him. I can still hear her saying ‘Daddy loved Alyssum’ or ‘Daddy wouldn’t have Red Hot Pokers about the place’. He was the guru when it came to growing and she quoted him on a regular basis!

She embarked on a career as a telegraphist. As the eldest she was expected to send money home to help with the younger children. There would not have been much left after paying rent. Unfortunately we do not know much about where she did her training or where she worked. She may well have worked in Longford town initially, but she  was in Dundalk during World War 2 as she spoke of fear of bombs and she spoke of running for shelter. A bomb was dropped on Dundalk in July 1941, but we don’t know if she was living there then. As a wireless telegraphist she used Morse Code.

Sligo was the next posting for her and she had fond memories of living and working there as a telegraphist.

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Photo we believe taken in Sligo early 1940s

She was then posted to Letterkenny and it was here that she made contact with our father who was appointed postmaster in Carrigart following the sudden death of his father in 1944.

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1944 at  Port na Blagh Co Donegal

In January 1946 they were married in St Andrews Church Westand Row. See post here.

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Number 1 son arrived arrived 13 months later and this we believe is a photo taken with him in 1947. (If it is not him, then it must be me!)

After 10 years of marriage there were six of us. Our mother knitted all our jumpers and cardigans, she sewed dresses and trousers. She made rugs from old sacks with rags stitched on, she made curtains, she covered chairs, she baked bread and cakes, she made pancakes, she crocheted and did artwork on mirrors. And she permed my hair (to my horror). She knitted and darned and sewed in every spare minute and played the piano. And always there were flowers inside and outside the house.

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She also had time for fun–this photo was taken at an annual dinner dance at the Port na Blagh Hotel. I  remember this dress so well – it was a beautiful soft pink with a huge wide skirt that went on forever! For the following year’s dance, it was dyed black and looked fabulous.

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The Annual Dinner Dance at Port na Blagh Hotel c. 1956. From left to right Johnny Sweeney, Mary Josie Sweeney, Mum and Dad.

Mum was very friendly with Agnes McFadden (Aggie Big Pat) who would come to our  house every Thursday when they would exchange English Sunday newspapers and eat sandwiches and drink tea. Lena McGinley was another good friend and laughter was a huge part of these two friendships.

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Mum and Dad with two of the younger children – numbers 4, and 5 . c 1959-60

All of this came to a grinding halt when her youngest child, our brother, was killed just after 3 pm on Tuesday June 30 1959. He was 15 months old. It is unimaginable for any mother to have to pick up her dead baby off the road with a horrific head injury. See post here .

1959 still had not finished with her. Less than 6 months later and just before Christmas her beloved father, who she absolutely idolized, died suddenly. See post here.

These events were to have a terrible impact on her, and some years later having moved to England they carved out a new life with a new love –  her Cocker Spaniel, Kerry, who she adored and who was her faithful companion for over a decade.

Our parents, Berard and Maude Gallagher holidaying in the Dingle Peninsula c 1980s with their cocker spaniel Kerry

Mum, Dad and the faithful Kerry on tour. c.1980s

After they returned to Ireland on retirement, more hounds were added and beautiful gardens evolved yet again. I have never seen such a wonderful collection of Fuchsias which she loved. Bird tables and feeders abounded, roses scented the air, Clematis twined, flowers made a stunning display, and Dad kept horses in his field.  Grandchildren came and went in droves, as did her good friend Ethna who was always a special guest who they loved to see coming!

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Family reunion at Carrigart c. 1986

Although she had some health issues later in her life, our mother was very resilient and continued with her gardening, bird feeding, seed ordering, piano playing and reading. So many books!

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Visit from USA by Dad’s brother Séan and wife Mary in 1998 – the last photograph

August 1998 brought the death of her last remaining sibling, her sister Eva and it distressed her greatly. I can still her her crying out in grief –  ‘They are all gone, they are all gone’. As the eldest of the siblings she had not expected to be the last one. At Christmas 1998 she was in good form but only days into the new year she began to show signs of  confusion and restlessness. Some weeks later she was transferred to hospital on a Sunday evening. She became very lucid and kept addressing Granny Williams for a couple of days. The doctor thought she might last 24 hours and suggested the family be called urgently.  As our sister, her youngest child, was in New Zealand there was no way she could get home in 24 hours. But she left New Zealand anyhow and headed to Shannon Airport, a journey of two days. The palliative staff said they had seen patients defy the odds to ‘wait’ for someone.  Eva arrived in to Shannon Airport at 1 pm on Wednesday and she and I stayed on the night watch  while the others went home to bed. She died at 6.10  am on Thursday  morning, 25 March 1999 as a blackbird sang his heart out just outside her room window.

Our mother was born 100 years ago today, 19 January 2018.

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Filed under Family History, Ireland, Oral History

Games children played

Hurley burley trumpa trush
The cows are in the market place
Míle muc, Mála muc
How many horns stand up?

For decades I have been trying to trace the origins of this rhyme recited by our father to his small children and grandchildren. Perched on his knee he would drum out the rhythm on their backs; he would raise a  number of fingers behind their back and they had to guess the number. If they guessed incorrectly, he would say ‘five (or whatever number) you said, but three it was’ and off he would go again. If they guessed correctly the game was ended with ‘Two (or whatever number) you said, and two it was’. How the children loved it, even though neither they nor our father really understood what they were saying!! I asked him once what it meant and where he got it and he said he thought it came from Fanad, in County Donegal where he and his siblings spent much time visiting Aunts and cousins during their childhood. He never knew the meaning of it and he may well have been reciting it phonetically. There was always a plentiful supply of children about so perhaps he picked the verse up by watching adults acting it out with smaller children. Whatever the origins, I remember him playing this game with younger siblings and later with my own children and their cousins, his grandchildren. Interesting too to see that the next generation has continued the tradition! My own daughter set me straight on the wording as she remembers it, and she in turn has played it with her own children.

Maurice Leyden's Book 'Boys and Girls Come out to Play'

Maurice Leyden’s Book ‘Boys and Girls Come out to Play’ (Image thesilvervoice)

It was very exciting to find reference to a similar rhyme in a book I recently discovered called ‘Boys and Girls Come Out To Play. A collection of Irish Singing Games’ by Maurice Leyden. This book traces the origin of the rhyme to the 1790s. It was associated with an outdoor  game for several children. One is blindfolded while another ‘thumps’ out the rhyme on his back while reciting
“Hurly burly Trump the trace
The cows ran through the market place
Simon alley hunt the buck
How many horns stand up?”
The ‘thumper’ then holds up several fingers while the blindfolded child has to guess the number. A correct guess means the blindfolded child becomes the thumper, while an incorrect guess means that another child continues the thumping. All of this sounds potentially violent, but the version used by our father was gentle and fun for the child who insisted on having more!

I got to thinking about children’s singing games generally and wonder how long they have been in use and how they are faring in the 21st century electronic world. We did not learn these from books, this was oral tradition that had in the main, been passed down from older children to younger children, often over hundreds of years. Rhyming and singing games were and are an important part of childhood. Nursery rhymes remain popular but I wonder if the ‘playing’ element surv?

Most parents would probably still play singing  games with small babies. I remember our mother bouncing babies while reciting:

Gun Jack, Gun Jack
Who’ll buy fish?
Out with the money
In the wee wooden dish.
At which point the child,facing the mother and being securely held by the hands, is dropped through the mother’s knees! The resulting giggles were a thing to behold! I have not been able to find reference to this game anywhere and would be interested if any readers have heard of it?

After our ‘knee bouncing ‘ days we went on to use rhymes for our everyday street and schoolyard games. Everyone knows of ‘Ring a ring a roses’ recited by a group of children in a circle holding hands. For a number of decades we were led to believe that it was a shout back to the days of the plague when a rosey rash appeared on the face and by ‘ all falling down’ was meant all dead! (This theory is nowadays contested by folklorists)

Ring-a-ring o’ roses,
A pocket full of posies,
A-tishoo! A-tishoo!
We all fall down.

This game can be dated back to the 1790s and was extensively recorded in the mid 19th century so it has been passed on by word of mouth for a long time.

We enjoyed singing games in large groups such as ‘Nuts in May’ and ‘The farmer’s in his den’.  Both these games  required an outer moving ring of children holding hands,and someone in the middle of the circle who selects another person to join them in the centre, while the circle sang and danced around.

Nuts in May

Here we go gathering nuts in May,
Nuts in May, nuts in May,
Here we go gathering nuts in May,
On a cold and frosty morning.

Who will we have for nuts in May,
Nuts in May, nuts in May,
Who will we have for nuts in May,
On a cold and frosty morning.

We’ll have [name] for nuts in May,
Nuts in May, nuts in May,
We’ll have [name] for nuts in May,
On a cold and frosty morning.

Who will we have to take her/him away,
Take him/her away, take him/her away,
Who will we have to take him/her away,
On a cold and frosty morning.

We’ll have [name] to take him/her away,
Take him/her away, take him/her away,
We’ll have [name] to take him/her away,
On a cold and frosty morning.

This rhyme was first recorded by Alice Gomme in The Traditional Games of England, Scotland and Ireland (1894-8). It is a variant of “Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush”, with which it shares a tune and closing line. (Wikipedia)

The ‘Farmer’s in his den’ was similar in format.

The farmer’s in his Den, the farmer’s in his Den,

Heigh ho, the derry-o, the farmer’s in his Den.

The farmer wants a wife; the farmer wants a wife,
Heigh ho, the derry-o, the farmer wants a wife
(The ‘farmer’ picks a girl who joins him in the circle). The game goes on with
The wife wants a child; the wife wants a child,
Heigh ho, the derry-o the wife wants a child

(The wife chooses a child to join them inside the circle) The game continues

The child wants a nurse, the child wants a nurse

Heigh ho, the derry-o the child wants a nurse

( A nurse is chosen and goes into the centre group). The game continues with the nurse choosing a dog, and the dog choosing a bone. At the end everyone sings

We all pat the bone, we all pat the bone

Heigh ho, the derry-o, we all pat the bone

while patting the ‘bone’ on the back, (hopefully as gently as possible) and the bone then becomes the farmer and the game begins over again. Interestingly Leyden suggest that this rhyming game is of much more recent origin dating probably from the beginning of the 20th Century.

We also had chants – our sister believes solely for mocking people, such as

Skinny Malink Malodoen,
Big Banana Feet
Went to the pictures and couldn’t find a seat
When he found a seat, he soon began to eat
Skinny Malink Malodeon
Big Banana Feet!

Name-calling at its worst!

When we children’s were not at school we were  OUT, meaning we were away playing. In our case this could  mean that we were riding a bike or tricycle on the street, playing cowboys and Indians in the planting, away in a field hiding in corn, down by the shore looking for Fluke (a flat fish), playing shop in someone’s shed with old empty bean and pea tins, chasing Mrs Duffy’s hens; or playing marbles or horseshoes in the back lane.

Playing marbles

Playing Marbles. All we needed was a bag of marbles and a hole in the ground!  (Image: Manchester Daily Express)

Burling hoops, was another favourite. For this we had to commandeer an old bicycle wheel and a stick to have hours of fun and exercise trying to keep the wheel upright.

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Playing Hoops. Image Wikipedia

Often we would find a plank of wood and throw it across an old barrel or a stone and we had an instant see saw, with no thought of health or safety!

children playing seesaw

An improvised see saw (Image Wikipedia)

See-saw, Margery Daw,
Johnny shall have a new master,
He shall have but a penny a day,
Because he won’t work any faster.

This rhyme is said to date from the 1700s and is thought have origins in sawyers cutting wood and using the verse to keep a rhythm.The ryhme and the game have survived as children enjoy modern see saws in playgrounds and backyards.

Boys tended to play football while girls would play hopscotch, skipping or ball games. My favourite ball game required a smooth gable end and a small ball. Every time the ball was thrown against the wall an activity had to be performed before it was caught again.

To the best of my recollection (and happy to be corrected) it went something like this:

Plainey- ball thrown against wall and caught again

Clappy- clap hands before catching ball

Roley – Roll hands and arms forward before catching ball

Poley- Roll hands and arms backwards before catching ball

Backey – Hands are clapped behind the back before catching ball

Right Hand – Ball caught in right hand

Left Hand – Ball caught in left hand

Sugar Bowl- catch returning ball in open hands with fingers entwined

Basket – Catch the ball with fingers locked together and hands facing oncoming ball

Under the arch – the ball is thrown under the right leg

Round the back – the ball is thrown from behind the back

Tip the ground- the ground is touched before catching the ball

Burley round – the player spins around in a circle before catching the ball.

My grandchildren are not familiar with this simple and interesting game, so my next project is to show them how it goes and I am sure they will have lots of fun perfecting their skills!

How magical to think that these small girls have benefited from the ‘Hurly Burly Trumpa Trish’ Oral tradition that has spanned centuries and the miles from Fanad to Australia!  I like to think that they will check back with their Mother when they try to recall our father’s special bouncing game to share with their own children! What a fascinating link back to their past.

Do you have any favourite street singing games? I would be very interested to hear from anyone who has special recollections of them, so do please get in touch!

References

Boys and Girls Come out to Play.  A collection of Irish Singing Games. Maurice Leyden Appletree Press. 1993

Wikipedia.org

In researching this post I discovered a great website that deserves a look!

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Filed under Ireland, Irish Culture, Irish Heritage, Irish Traditions, My Oral History, Oral History

Home thoughts at Midsummer 2015

Many decades have passed since I was last able to call Donegal ‘home’ in the physical sense, of having a house and an address and family and siblings there. Since those distant days in the 1950s and 1960s I have lived in various places, all of them a long way from Donegal. Yet when people ask,’Where are you from’? I reply without hesitation ‘Donegal’ even though I spent less than one-third my life there.
But this is where I grew up, where I walked to National School, where I progressed through the then important life’s rights of passage, such as communion and confirmation. This is where I learned to read, learned to play, learned to ride a bike, went to collect the milk in a can from Wee Rodgers in Tirlaugan or from McKemeys out the road. This is where I was terrified of Mary Tammy’s geese who chased me, and where Charlie Ward’s donkey once bolted down Figart with myself and my older  brother on board.

Carrigart in the 1960s. (Image Wikimedia Commons)

Carrigart in the 1960s. (Image Wikimedia Commons)

This is where my younger brother’s dog was killed one Sunday morning by a car speeding to get to Mass on time. This too is where I collected water from the well out at the back of Figart or from the ‘spoot’ (spout) in later years. This is where Patrick McElwee dropped dead one summer evening when bringing his cow down from Figart to be milked. This is where I went to see him slumped against the rectory wall.

This is where my friend Norah and I, each armed with ninepence on a Friday night,went to the visiting cinema or what we then called ‘the pictures’. This is where we sat patiently on hard benches waiting for Keeney to load up the reels – and sometimes a reel ran out and the next one had to be rewound before the show could continue. This is where I first saw Laurel and Hardy,The Three Stooges, lots of Westerns and and my first 3D film.

This is where I learned to polish brass, loving  Mrs Duffy’s beautiful brass kettle; learned to knit at Mary Mandy’s fireside as she made very exotic and delicious vegetable marrow jam; this is where I learned to churn butter out at Shelia McBride’s in a big old wooden churn. This is where my baby brother died on a warm June afternoon. This is where I bought my first pop record, had my hair back-combed by Meta and went to dances in the North Star Ballroom, with a gold waspie belt and my dress resting  on stiff petticoats. This is where I first fell in love and bought my very first pop record.  This above all is where I learned to love nature, the sky and the stars, the pounding Atlantic Ocean, fabulous scenery.

It is Midsummer and invariably thoughts turn to Donegal and those long, long summer evenings when we stayed up late. Days of 17 and a quarter hours were for living and playing. The sun will stand still at the summer solstice this year at 16. 38 pm. UTC on Sunday June 21st. But this year we have an extra treat to mark Midsummer, in the form of an unusual Planet Dance. Tonight, June  20th just after sunset the dazzling Venus will form a triangle with Jupiter and the crescent Moon in the western sky, I like to think, to help us celebrate Midsummer!

In Donegal sixty years ago, our midsummer celebration was held on the 23rd of June, St John’s Eve. This is a post from my archive in 2011, about what happened in our village then, in those long, happy hazy crazy days of summer!

June 23rd: Midsummer Irish Style

This post is one of a series looking at ancient traditions in Ireland.

Midsummer, or St. John’s Eve (Oiche Fheile Eoin) was traditionally celebrated in Ireland by the lighting of bonfires. (The word ‘bonfire’, according to my Etymology dictionary is a word from the 1550s meaning a fire in the open air in which bones were burned). This custom is rooted in ancient history when the Celts lit fires in honour of the Celtic goddess Queen of Munster Áine. Festivals in her honour took place in the village of Knockainey, County Limerick (Cnoc Aine = Hill of Aine ). Áine was the Celtic equivalent of Aphrodite and Venus and as is often the case, the festival was ‘christianised’ and continued to be celebrated down the ages. It was the custom for the cinders from the fires to be thrown on fields as an ‘offering’ to protect the crops.

Midsummer bonfires are also a tradition across Europe. In Latvia, for example, the celebration is called Jāņi (Jānis is Latvian for John); in Norway they celebrate ‘Sankthansaften’.

Growing up in the northern part of Donegal in the 1950s, Bonfire night was surely the highlight of our year! To us, it was Bone- fire night. For days we piled our fire high down on the shore, with every bit of flotsam, jetsam, old timber and rubbish we could find. We did actually use a lot of bones on our fire as on the verge of the shore was a slaughter-house (an abattoir in more genteel circles) so naturally there were many cattle bones lying about… from horned cows heads to bits of legs and hip bones etc. They made welcome fuel for our great pyre!

Midsummer in Donegal was wonderful with the sun not setting until very late at about 10.15 pm.  We were allowed to stay up late, waiting for the sun to set so that we could enjoy the lit fire. An adult would light it at the proper time, as dusk was setting in, and we were thrilled by the intense heat and the crackling sound of the splitting timber as the flames leapt joyfully high into the still balmy air.

In Thomas Flanagan’s book, ‘The Year of The French‘, set in 1798, mention is made of the midsummer bonfire:

”Soon it would be Saint John’s Eve. Wood for the bonfire had already been piled high upon Steeple Hill, and when the night came there would be bonfires on every hill from there to Downpatrick Head. There would be dancing and games in the open air, and young men would try their bravery leaping through the flames. There would even be young girls leaping through, for it was helpful in the search of a husband to leap through a Saint John’s Eve fire, the fires of midsummer. The sun was at its highest then, and the fires spoke to it, calling it down upon the crops. It was the turning point of the year, and the air was vibrant with spirits.’

In Ireland, Bonfire night is still celebrated to an extent in Cork and in counties west of the Shannon as well as in northern counties. Cork city council has stepped in, in recent years to provide a safe environment for children and families and this year is organizing 15 events across the city. Ráth Carn in the Meath Irish-speaking district (Gaeltacht) also celebrates Bonfire night with a huge fire, feasting, music and dancing.

The old traditional Midsummer bonfires  seem however, to be a thing of the past now in Ireland. If you have any recollections at all of having attended one, or you know of someone who has attended one, please do let me know – I would love to hear from you!

References

Flanagan, Thomas 1979. The Year of the French

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Filed under Ireland, Ireland Seasons, Irish Culture, Irish Heritage, Irish Traditions, Life in the 1960s, Living in Ireland, Oral History, Social History Ireland

To tell of times that were..

Forget-me-not. (Image Wikimedia Commons)

Forget-me-not. (Image Wikimedia Commons)

Recently  I had news of the death of a lady  from my home village in County Donegal. Having moved away many years ago, I had met her on perhaps two or three occasions in the past decade or so. Yet the news of her death made me feel particularly sorrowful. As the days passed and memories flooded back, I came to realize that the reason for my sadness was that her passing more or less closes the curtain on the memory of our late father’s fun-filled younger days over 70 years ago in that relatively isolated Donegal village.

Dad was born in 1921, the third of 5 children, each separated in age by 2 years. As electrification had not yet arrived, candles,oil filled Tilley lamps and blazing turf fires lit the long winter evenings of their youth. Cars too were scarce and bicycles – often the ‘high Nelly’ type were the preferred mode of transport. In a small community young folk made their own  entertainment. There were three Gallagher families in particular that forged deep and life long relationships, (although our family was not related to the other two). With others in the village they played badminton in the local hall, played golf on Logue’s 9 hole golf course, attended horse racing on the strand, played cards, kicked football on the Lee, told stories by the fireside, went out on the Mummers at Christmas and enjoyed the annual arrival of Duffy’s Circus. Touring repertory and variety players would arrive from time to time and put on shows that would be remembered for months afterwards.

Poetry was a big part of their lives and they tried to outdo one another with great recitations! Poetry came easily to them as they had to learn it by rote at school from the age of about 7 or  8, in much the same way as we learned our times tables in later years.The poems our father recited and quoted on a regular basis included

There’s a one-eyed yellow idol to the north of Kathmandu,

There’s a little marble cross below the town;

There’s a broken-hearted woman tends the grave of Mad Carew,

And the Yellow God forever gazes down.

(The Green Eye of the Little Yellow God , by J Milton Hayes)

And..

No stir in the air, no stir in the sea,

The Ship was still as she could be;

Her sails from heaven received no motion,

Her keel was steady in the ocean.

Without either sign or sound of their shock,

The waves flow’d over the Inchcape Rock;

So little they rose, so little they fell,

They did not move the Inchcape Bell.

(Inchcape Rock by Robert Southey )

And, from  Tennyson’s ”Charge of the Light Brigade”:

Half a league, half a league,
Half a league onward,
All in the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
(My father was still reciting this poem to my son, almost 80 years after he learned it).

In the 1920s and 1930s these young folk had a small band that played at dances in the local hall. Much of their musical  inspiration came from a crackly valve wireless that was run off a wet battery,like the one that filled the deep sill of our kitchen window.

I recall my father telling me how good a badminton player Annie was, but it was her reputation as a pianist that was second to none. He often spoke of their great music sessions. He played drums that were still in our house decades later. He had the full kit – snare drum, cymbals, drumsticks, drum brushes, the wooden block and the big base drum with pedals that operated the wooly beater. ”Top of the Pops” was different back then  –  if they heard a song or tune on the wireless that they liked, they sent away to McCullough Pigot in Dublin for the sheet music.

Wind up gramophone

Wind up gramophone (Image Wikimedia commons)

Shellac gramophone records were ordered to play on their wind up gramophone players so they all learned the melody and the lyrics. Dad was a good singer and he sang away to himself for all of his life! One of his favourite songs  was Abdul Abulbul Amir. We children were totally mesmerized by the exotic sounding names and the incomprehensible words, – such as Mameluke, skibouk, and truculent sneers, but that only added to our glee on hearing him sing! Written in 1877 by Percy French, one of Ireland’s most prolific songwriters, what appeared to be a light-hearted ditty was in fact a skit on the war between the Russian Empire and the Ottoman Empire and was a deadly serious tale! The great thing about Abdul Abulbul Amir was that  it sounded equally impressive whether spoken or sung,  and we delighted in either!

On his last visit to his home village in 2005, just eight months before he died, Dad and I  called to see his long time friend Annie. To the best of my recollection her piano had pride of place in her home, but the abiding memory of the day was how they both laughed and laughed as they remembered singing and playing Abdul Abulbul Amir. And so, the reason for my sadness is the evocation of beautiful memories that I saw a decade ago, remembering times stretching  back into the mists of time some 70 years before.

Annie’s love of music was honoured at her funeral with the singing of her favourite song from way back then – not the skittish Abdul Abulbul Amir, but the more appropriate and beautiful Tennessee Waltz that she loved.

Our father had several phrases that he repeated very often.When thinking back on events in his life and on those who were no longer with us, he would say – ”Ah! To tell of times that were…God rest them all.”

God rest them all indeed.

Listen here to ABDUL ABULBUL AMIR sung by Frank Crumit in 1927

Abdul Abulbul Amir Lyrics

The sons of the Prophet are brave men and bold
And quite unaccustomed to fear,
But the bravest by far in the ranks of the Shah,
Was Abdul Abulbul Amir.

Now the heroes were plenty and well known to fame
In the troops that were led by the Czar,
And the bravest of these was a man by the name
Of Ivan Skavinsky Skavar

One day this bold Russian, he shouldered his gun
And donned his most truculent sneer,
Downtown he did go where he trod on the toe
Of Abdul Abulbul Amir.

Young man, quote Abdul, has life grown so dull
That you wish to end your career?
Vile infidel know, you have trod on the toe
Of Abdul Abulbul Amir.

Quoth Ivan, “My friend, your remarks, in the end,
Will avail you but little, I fear,
For you ne’er will survive to repeat them alive,
Mr. Abdul Abulbul Amir!”

So take your last look at the sunshine and brook
And send your regrets to the Czar
For by this I imply, you are going to die,
Count Ivan Skavinsky Skavar.

Then this bold Mameluke drew his trusty skibouk,
With a cry of ‘Allah Akbar!’
And with murderous intent he ferociously went
For Ivan Skavinsky Skavar.

They fought all that night ‘neath the pale yellow moon;
The din, it was heard from afar,
And huge multitudes came, so great was the fame,
Of Abdul and Ivan Skavar.

As Abdul’s long knife was extracting the life,
In fact he was shouting, “Huzzah!”
He felt himself struck by that wily Calmuck,
Count Ivan Skavinsky Skavar.

The Sultan drove by in his red-breasted fly,
Expecting the victor to cheer,
But he only drew nigh to hear the last sigh,
Of Abdul Abulbul Amir.

Czar Petrovich, too, in his spectacles blue
Rode up in his new crested car.
He arrived just in time to exchange a last line
With Ivan Skavinsky Skivar.

There’s a tomb rises up where the Blue Danube rolls,
And graved there in characters clear,
Is, “Stranger, when passing, oh pray for the soul
Of Abdul Abulbul Amir.”

A Muscovite maiden her lone vigil keeps,
“Neath the light of the pale polar star;
And the name that she murmurs as oft as she weeps
Is Ivan Skavinsky Skivar.

(many more verses are sometimes quoted)

 

 

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Filed under Family History, Home, Ireland, Irish Culture, Irish Heritage, Living in Ireland, My Oral History, Older Generation, Oral History, Social History Ireland

God, she struck me till she tired of it

“God, she struck me till she tired of it”  These were the words of Hannah Herrity, describing one of the many beatings administered by her father’s second wife.

The story of Hannah Herrity, produced by Dunfanaghy Workhouse

The story of Hannah Herrity, produced by Dunfanaghy Workhouse

Hannah Herrity lived through the hunger and deprivations of the Famine in Ireland. She told  her life story to a Mrs Law who befriended her and who wrote her story exactly as Hannah recounted it. These oral history manuscripts recording  the life of  “Wee” Hannah as she is known, now form the basis of a  permanent exhibition in the Dunfanaghy Heritage Centre, located in the old Dunfanaghy Workhouse, County Donegal.

Dunfanaghy Workhouse, Co. Donegal

Dunfanaghy Workhouse, Co. Donegal

Hannah Herrity was born in Derryreel, just outside Falcarragh, County Donegal, Ireland in 1835 or 1836. She was the eldest child of a local travelling tailorman and his wife Susy. In the early years of the Famine (probably 1847 or 1848) Susy died in childbirth with her 5th child. Hannah describes how her poor mother suffered and tells of her being laid out with the newborn baby beside her and how she felt her father’s tears of sorrow falling on her hair and face…Hannah would have been about 9 or 10  years of age.

Hannah’s father married a neighbour girl to care for the four surviving children, but as Wee Hannah recounted,”God help us, it was the black day for us he took her”. She was subjected to many beatings – neighbours would rescue her and allow her to stay at their home, safe from the enraged stepmother.

The soup pot at Dunfanaghy Workhouse

The soup pot at Dunfanaghy Workhouse

At the height of the Famine, Hannah sometimes had  to go to get the ‘broth’ in the village, each family having a ticket depending on the number in the household. She staggered and crawled home with it, too weak with hunger to walk properly, and so ravenous that she was tempted to help herself to the contents.  There were four houses that had land to grow oats in Hannah’s locality, otherwise people like the Herrity’s went hungry. Hannah did not seem to get her fair share of rations at home and often the neighbours would give her food, knowing that she was being starved by her stepmother. Two of her younger brothers died during this time.

Following a particularly severe beating and fearful that she might be killed while he was away, Hannah’s father arranged for her to go into service with a kind old lady in Doe who fed her and kept her happily for three years. After the old lady passed away, Hannah went to work for an unkind man who paid her badly and worked her hard and did not give her sufficient food and here her health began to fail. Eventually poor Hannah had to leave employment and had to walk over 60 miles (100km) to the hospital in Lifford where she remained for a year, and where, even though she was sick, she had to work.

Eventually Hannah ended up in Dunfanaghy Workhouse. She  described the horrors of life there with a particularly cruel matron ..”well there’d be maybe seven or eight dead in the morning..And god help us, she would strip the bed clothes down off them, and they’d be pulled out on the floor..the weemen said you’d hear the head of the corpse cracking down the steps till it was put in the dead house below”

A Seven Body Coffin as used at the Workhouse. The bottom slid open so it could be reused

A Seven Body Coffin as used at the Workhouse. The bottom slid open so it could be reused

Hannah survived the awful experience and spent many years afterwards travelling about from farm to farm taking work where she could get it,wandering the roads around Sheephaven Bay,finding kindness in some houses, and none in others. Eventually she could no longer work and took to begging.

Engraved glass on the door to the Dunfanaghy Workhouse Heritage Centre

Engraved glass on the door to the Dunfanaghy Workhouse Heritage Centre

She came to the attention of  Mrs  Law, wife of the local member of Parliament, who arranged for a one- room cottage to be built for Wee Hannah in Parkmore, and here she lived out the remainder of her life in relative comfort. The neighbours were good to her and saw that she did not want for anything. Mrs Law  interviewed Hannah and recorded the story of her eventful life exactly as Hannah told it.

Hannah (Heraghty) Herrity appears on the 1911 census, as the head of her little household in Parkmore. Here we can see where she applied her mark to the census record as she was unable to read or write. She died in 1926 at about 90 years of age. Thanks to Mrs Law, Wee Hannah’s story  is heard by hundreds of visitors to the Dunfanaghy Workhouse, a real reminder of the brutality of life for  the poor in 19th Century Ireland.

Sheephaven Bay and Dunfanaghy from Horn Head. Image Wikimedia Commons

Sheephaven Bay and Dunfanaghy from Horn Head. Image Wikimedia Commons

Outside Dunfanaghy there are three graveyards – the Catholic one and the Protestant one and  between the two is the Paupers Graveyard where victims of the Famine are buried.  Wee Hannah Herrity lies beside her friend Mrs Law in the Catholic part.

 

I am truly grateful to Dungfanaghy Workhouse for sending me the beautiful image below of the marker in the Famine Graveyard. It is a very fitting tribute to those who are interred here in a ‘no-man’s land’ between the two other graveyards. Basic, stark and rugged – such was their lives and deaths.

imageWee Hannah’s story played out in the general area where I grew up. I lived  some 14 miles from her home and at one time my great uncle was a catholic priest in Falcarragh and my grandmother was his housekeeper. I wonder did they know her?  Hannah worked out at Horn Head at one time, a beautiful headland that I saw every day from my bedroom window. At one point she told of being out in the snow and falling into a drain in my own Rosguill area. Growing up, we never heard of a person like  Hannah, making her way alone through life in such deprivation and hardship.

On the day of our visit to Dunfanaghy Workhouse last year torrential rain made photography difficult.  A future project will be to take photographs of Hannah’s Places for this blog.

Dunfanaghy Workhouse is well worth a visit. Here you will hear Hannah’s story in her own words. The exceptionally friendly and helpful staff are very knowledgeable about the area and they have an excellent coffee shop!  ‘The story of Wee Hannah as told to Mrs Law’ is available in their shop. Visit their website at http://www.dunfanaghyworkhouse.ie

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Filed under Ireland, Irish Heritage, Irish History, Oral History, Social History Ireland

Easters of dancing suns and coloured eggs

Easter was an exciting time for us children growing up in a Donegal home in the 1950s.  Having survived standing for the long gospels of Passion Sunday and Palm Sunday, Holy Week arrived, with  Spy Wednesday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and the Easter Vigil,   each having its own unique catholic rituals. We were shooed off to the chapel for these  ceremonies, and even though we had better things to be doing like playing cowboys and indians, we knew that it meant that dreary Lent was coming to an end. There was a definite sombre air about the place on Good Friday in particular, but once we passed 3 pm things lightened up a little and there was serious work to be done!

We were  dispatched to the hedges to find a nice branch – a nice elegant one  with no leaves was the ideal. For weeks, my mother had collected eggshells after cooking and baking. The broken shells were carefully washed and left on a big tray to dry off. On Good Friday evening, we were allowed to begin painting them. Using standard children’s paint boxes, we painted them pink and blue and red and yellow and green and they were again left to dry. The branch was then painted white and left overnight.

On Saturday my mother threaded a big needle and very carefully pushed it into the end of the painted shells and back out again, making a very neat little hanger. The shells were then hung on the tree and it looked just fabulous when the decoration was completed!  She anchored the branch in a large vase and placed it on our very deep kitchen windowsill. The Easter tree tradition is kept up in my family, but the real broken egg shells have been replaced by more sophisticated ornaments!  Time perhaps to revert to the traditional way of making the decorations!

 

 

photo (6)

A modern Easter Tree in my sister’s house

Our Easter Vigil church services began at about 9 pm and went on for several hours and it was not unusual for small children to sleep through the entire proceedings! My mother told us  that if we were up at sunrise we would see the sun dancing in the sky in celebration of  Easter, but of course none of us managed to be out of bed by 6 am to check this out.  On Easter Sunday morning we did however have boiled eggs for breakfast. A big pot of them was put on to boil  – some were eaten and others when cold were painted. These were then used for ‘egg rolling’. My father used tell us that when he was a boy they had very serious egg-rolling contests down grassy slopes, with everyone in the village taking part.  There was nothing formal about our egg rolling, and the fun was between we siblings to see how far our eggs would travel.

Chocolate Easter Eggs arrived later and replaced the egg decorating traditions that had been handed down for generations. The chocolate manufacturers mastered the technique of mass producing hollow chocolate eggs in the early part of the 20th Century. World War 2 brought rationing, so the Chocolate Easter Egg only became the norm for children after the 1950s. They didn’t reach our village until towards the end of that decade. Prior to this chocolate eggs were handmade and beautifully  decorated by hand – works of art – as can be seen in the photograph below.

 

A VERY HAPPY EASTER TO YOU ALL !

Early Cadbury Easter Eggs. Hand decorated, luxury items for adults.

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Filed under Celebrations in Ireland, Ireland, Irish Traditions, Living in Ireland, Oral History