Tag Archives: St Louis Convent Dundalk

Terry Wogan: From an Irish Convent to the IRA Bombings

This morning we heard the sad news of the death of Terry Wogan, an Irish-born broadcaster who for decades had various light entertainment programmes on TV and Radio mostly in the United Kingdom. It is reckoned that he may well have had the largest audiences of any broadcaster in the world. As the BBC compère for the Eurovision Song Contest he brought millions to their TV sets just to hear his witty comments. Even when living in Ireland we preferred to tune in to the BBC just for the fun of listening to him and his wry gentle sense of humour.
I first came across Terry Wogan when as a teenager I was incarcerated in the St. Louis Convent Boarding School in Dundalk, County Louth, hundreds of miles from home. In the rarefied atmosphere of all girls boarding school we were living in such an emotionally deficient bubble that we sometimes ‘fixated’ on people in the public domain. (Most especially male). The marriage of Ringo Starr of Beatles fame for example threw the entire school into disarray and at least one of our number cried for an entire term, such was her upset.
And likewise with the marriage of Terry Wogan to the lovely fashion model,Helen Joyce in 1965. I am not sure that I even knew much about him at that time! Ireland’s television service, just launched in 1961 was still in its infancy, but Terry Wogan had made a mark as a newsreader and announcer, he had been one of the TV commentators covering the 1963 visit of President Kennedy to Ireland. And he was handsome to boot. Yet he caused a stir when it became known that he had married Helen. Helen Joyce was probably as well-known as Terry for she regularly appeared in the Sunday newspaper (Sunday Press or Sunday Independent, I do not recall which). Each Sunday there was a strip of small photos of models modelling coats, or dresses, or hats with the name of the model added alongside.

Wogan Wedding

Terry Wogan marries Helen Joyce in 1965. (Image RTE Archives)

The marriage caused a great sense of disappointment. I clearly recall class mates being incredulous that Terry Wogan had done such a thing. How could he go off and get married! And besides,was she really THAT nice? Even though I was not really sure who he was I was caught up in the clamour of disbelief and the sense that perhaps he was not quite ‘of sound mind’ to have married at all! (These thoughts astonish me even now, but such was the lot of hormonal teenagers!)
Fast forward several years and I am an economic migrant living in London. In the 1970s IRA terrorists began bombing in the UK. It was a tough place to be Irish. Hardly a day passed without some hurtful remark or comment from work colleagues or shop assistants or bus conductors. Terry Wogan was by now presenting a morning radio show on the BBC. He held his head high throughout the atrocities. He never referred to the terror and the killings but remained proudly Irish and set a great example for those of us expats who lived and worked there. We watched footage of the carnage caused by so-called Irish patriots on TV in the evening and went to work listening to the soft Irish tones of Terry Wogan on his breakfast programme. To me personally his gentle quirky humour made it easier to be Irish in those dark times and his great good humour set me up for many a day as I headed to the office.
In the Telegraph Obituary published today John Humphrys of the Today programme ”put his finger on the Irishman’s secret: “It is just that he puts his audience at ease. That’s why they want to listen, because they feel better about themselves after they have listened to him. He has made the nation feel at ease with itself and that’s a great gift and we owe him a lot for that”. He certainly put a lot of expat Irish at ease during those awful times.

He also fronted the BBC presentation of the Annual Eurovision Song Contest which gave joy to millions as he gently berated the goings-on. His Eurovision quips were legendary, some of which can  be seen here .

But there are two quotes from him that I think sum him up:

About his long happy marriage of over 50 years to Helen: “If the present Mrs Wogan has a fault – and I must tread carefully here – this gem in the diadem of womanhood is a hoarder. She never throws anything out. Which may explain the longevity of our marriage.”

When he met the Queen of England (a regular listener to his programme) on a visit to the BBC she asked him how long he had worked at the BBC. He replied  ”Your Majesty, I’ve never worked here.”

Terry Wogan who broke the hearts of schoolgirls in 1965, has broken hearts again. While we rejoice that he has lived and are the better of it, the President of Ireland,The Queen of England, Prime Ministers of both the UK and Ireland, the Children in Need Charity which he started in 1980 and which has so far raised £300 million, his work colleagues in Ireland and London, his listeners and fans everywhere, and most especially his wife, children and grandchildren all mourn his passing on this day, January 31 2016.

Ochón! Ochón!

Terry Wogan after receieving his Knighthood at Buckingham palace in 2005 (Image Wikimedia Commons

Terry Wogan after receiving his Knighthood at Buckingham palace in 2005 (Image Wikimedia Commons)

 

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Filed under Ireland, Irish Diaspora

Where were you when President Kennedy was shot?

November 22 1963 was just another day – except that it was  a Friday. Friday was a  special day in our school. It was bath night and the following day being Saturday, there would be only a half day of classes, and we would have Tuckshop. With 11 weeks of the term already passed, we would  get home in another 4 weeks, so life was GOOD. Such were the thoughts of  a 15-year-old boarder in the St Louis Convent,Dún Lughaidh, Dundalk, Co Louth, Ireland on that day.

Three years earlier in November 1960, I had sat up all night with my father watching the results of the American Presidential Election. In a Donegal village, we sat into the small hours in front of our small black and white television watching what has turned out to be one of the most famous American election nights in history. It was the first presidential election in which Alaska and Hawaii  would participate, having become the 49th and 50th states the previous year. More importantly from our perspective, thousands of miles to the east of the USA, we were wondering if the charismatic, young , handsome Irish catholic could possibly be elected to the most powerful office in the world. It was riveting viewing with Kennedy’s initial commanding lead being hoovered up by Nixon as the hours passed. I will always remember that moment in the small hours when ‘Kennedy Wins’ came up  on the screen and my Dad’s total delight at the outcome. ‘ I don’t believe it ‘  I don’t believe it’  he exclaimed!

When he got over the initial excitement and disbelief, he explained to me how significant an event this was  – to have a Roman Catholic man, a man of Irish descent, elected to such high office was a great triumph for Catholics and for Ireland. That Kennedy’s paternal great grandfather had left Wexford in famine times and his maternal great grandfather had left Limerick in the 1850s, made the success even more significant. The Irish had ‘arrived’ and the sense of pride was palpable.

Jfk_inauguration

Inauguration of President John F Kennedy, January 1961. Image Wikimedia Commons

A few years later, in June 1963 President John F Kennedy made the first visit of an American President to Ireland. Thousands flocked to see him and his every move was televised (apparently at his own request, as later transpired).  His young age and his good looks made him an instant ‘pop star’ in Ireland where our own President was in his 80s and speaking of ‘maidens dancing at the crossroads’. This was the first time that many of us had actually heard and realized, that an Irish person could be proud of their deprived origins and could succeed. As a consequence, and astonishing as this may seem nowadays, pictures of the revered  and very handsome President  John Fitzgerald Kennedy, sometimes with his wife Jacqueline, were placed on walls in Irish homes alongside religious pictures of the Sacred Heart or of  a favoured Pope.

The Snug, Bradley’s, Barrack Street, Cork. Image courtesy Brian Mac Domhnaill

In this image, two  pictures  of  John F Kennedy hang on the walls of  The Snug in Bradley’s Bar, Barrack Street Cork. The ‘snug’ as seen here was once the living room of the Bradley home and has remained unchanged despite the change of use. There was once a Sacred Heart picture in this room but that was removed when it became a pub.

Frank O'Donoghues House (5)Another image from Brian MacDomhnaill, whose interest in photographing abandoned houses led to the discovery of this picture of the Kennedys in an abandoned house in County Carlow. Interestingly, this photograph was taken in the deserted home of a  catholic priest.

Five months after the momentous and triumphant visit to Ireland,, on that ordinary November Friday, we boarders in Dundalk were enjoying our 7 pm supper. Supper was generally considered the most enjoyable meal of the day in our convent school, where we seemed to be in an almost permanent state of hunger. We probably had  a bowl of baked beans and lots of bread and not so much butter, but the beauty of beans lay in the fact that butter was not required. After supper, we followed our daily routine of filing out of the refectory in total silence and making our way to the convent chapel for rosary. Along the ‘route’ prefects stood to ensure that silence was maintained, with the head girl standing by the window at the entrance to the chapel.

As I approached the chapel door, Hanna, the head girl, beckoned me over and whispered to me that President Kennedy had been shot. I was reeling and in disbelief as we filed into our chapel seats but thought it was probably not serious.

At the beginning of prayers, it was announced that President Kennedy had in fact been shot dead. Not only that, but the nun said the consequences were potentially catastrophic with the almost total certainty of World War 3. The inference was that President Kennedy was martyred because he was a Roman Catholic and who but Communists would do such a thing. This, we were told, meant that our brothers and male relations would be called upon to fight the Russians, Catholics against Communists.  The Bay of Pigs missile crisis was still fresh in memory and the Communist threat was never far from our thoughts – didn’t we pray several times a day for the ‘conversion of Russia’?

Our school had 90 boarders aged between 12 and 18 – all of us many miles from home, with the only communication being by letter and a weekly telephone call on the one telephone in the school – a treat for those whose family were fortunate enough to have a telephone at home- many did not. As the Rosary began, someone started to cry. Very quickly, another began sobbing and in a matter of minutes total hysteria had gripped the assembled throng. This was undoubtedly brought about by the shock of the terrible news, but in no small measure by the announcement that  we were at war and all our male relatives – fathers, brothers, uncles, would have to stand up and fight and in all probability be killed. I can still hear the shrieks of one or two girls who were totally traumatized, as we were urged to pray and pray and pray.

My memory of that fateful day is frozen in time in that chapel. It did take several days for us to be reassured that all was well  and that perhaps our male family members were safe. Lee Harvey Oswald was arrested shortly after the shooting and he himself was shot dead on Sunday November 24.  On the following Monday afternoon we  got to watch the funeral on the school black and white television.  Images that stand out from the event are of the elegant veiled figure of Mrs Kennedy, her two small children the other Kennedy brothers, and the black riderless horse, with boots reversed, signifying the fallen leader.

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President Kennedy’s Family. Image Wikimedia Commons

JFKRiderless Horse

The Riderless Horse Image Wikimedia Commons

 A Guard of Honour of Irish Cadets was in attendance from Ireland at the request of Mrs. Kennedy.

Irish Cadets

Irish Cadets form a Guard of Honour at the graveside. Image Irish Examiner

Many years later I stood at the simple grave of President John F Kennedy at Arlington Cemetery, overlooking the vista of  Washington D.C.  

A simple Eternal Flame burns at his final resting place as a lasting memorial.

jfk_grave

By this time  however questions were being posed about the nature of his Presidential Campaign and his personal behaviour. Although  his personality has been diminished and his image no longer graces the walls of Irish homes, the myth lives on, frozen in time by an assassins bullet on that Friday, a half  a century ago in November 1963.

Do you remember where you were when you heard that news?

I am very grateful to Brian Mac Domhnaill for sending me his photographs of  the pictures of the Kennedys that hung in Irish homes.

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Filed under Emigration from Ireland, Ireland, Irish American, Irish Diaspora, Irish History, Irish Traditions, Life in the 1960s, My Oral History, Significant World Events

Meeting Eithne

In June 2011, I put the name ‘Eithne’ and a slightly unusual surname into a search on Facebook. Two pages were returned – one person from Belfast was not who I was looking for, but the second one showed promise. And so I emailed – ”Are you the person who was with me at the St Louis Convent Boarding school in Dundalk, Co Louth, Ireland?” And back came the response –  ”Yes, I am ! ” This was one of the amazing moments I have enjoyed since becoming ‘e-inclusive’ as the EU likes to call it! Imagine! Finding someone who was a very special part of my life almost 5 decades ago!

Eithne hails from County  Monaghan, a county bordering  Northern Ireland to the south,  and I was from County  Donegal,  a county that also borders  Northern Ireland to the  north-west, so  we already had something in common!   We two Ulster women found ourselves deposited as 13 year olds in a convent boarding school run by the St. Louis Sisters in Dundalk Co Louth – many miles from Eithne’s Castleblayney  home and even more  from mine in faraway Carrigart, County Donegal.

school

Some of the dormitories were in the Castle on the left

It was 1961. Boarding school had serious disadvantages –  nights of lonely crying into the pillow as we faced into three terms of endless weeks  missing family and friends and home; months of rising at 7 am; months of cold water for washing ‘everywhere two skins meet’; months of seemingly endless  study; months of endless  praying. Add to the mix:  no boys ; no privacy as only curtains separated our ‘alcove’  sleeping spaces – each containing  a single bed, a chair, a locker with a towel rail  topped by a green plastic basin and beaker,  as well as a single  wardrobe. This was ‘home’ for up to 14 or 16 weeks at a time, three times a year, for 5 long years.

Me: 2nd row from Front, 3rd from right

Me: 2nd row from front, 3rd from right; Eithne: 5th row from front, 3rd from left

School was defined by rules, long silences, prayers, study, long regimented walks, retreats, breaking rules, operas, dance lessons, still no boys, even more study, hours of silence, tuck shop on Saturday with Toffo de Luxe and chocolate; mashed parsnips, and  first Sundays of each month in silence for up to 17 hours!

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School Prospectus

Here we learned life long skills in the art of sharing:  how to divide a three week old  quarter sandwich into five portions with the tail of a steel comb;  how to dissect a small chocolate Turkish delight sweet  into 6 minuscule portions so everyone could share the last remaining morsel of luxury; how to eat a chocolate cake so that only crumbs remained, then pen a letter of complaint to the manufacturer returning the crumbs, stating that  it tasted of petrol. The plan worked sometimes and we got a replacement cake! The demands on teenage hormonal girls were truly extraordinary, and – it has to be said –  were also character forming. There was one huge advantage: friendships that formed in these  adverse conditions ran deep and true.

A couple of St Louis Nuns

A couple of St Louis Nuns – the delightful Sr Colmcille on left.

Eithne and I spent happy summer holidays at each others homes in Donegal and Monaghan. Her home was so exotic –  she lived in a fairly large inland  town compared to my small village, her family had a shop and a pub no less  – and her mother was just the nicest woman ever you met!  There was a very beautiful lake nearby where we talked and we walked, lay in the sun  and eyed up the local talent.  On visits to Donegal, Eithne fitted into our lives  like a hand into a glove, and here too we eyed up the local talent and walked and talked on our big deserted beaches. Sadly Eithne changed schools in 1964 when  she left to go to school elsewhere, while I remained in the Louis for a further 2 years.

Life continued to send us in different directions – in Eithne’s case she emigrated, became a nurse, married and moved between England , Scotland and Holland. In my case I also emigrated to England  and with many changes of address we drifted apart. A lifetime later Eithne, after the Facebook search,  was coming to Ireland for a visit and so we arranged to meet for lunch last summer!

It was with a mixture of excitement and trepidation that I boarded the bus – what would we talk about?  Would we have ANYTHING to talk about? What if lunch  is just too long? As I approached the meeting point I saw her….later I was intrigued that I had recognized her from the back, as she was facing away from me, but there was something so familiar about her standing there, as though I had seen her just a few days before. I called her name and she turned round….

And so it was  – lunch stretched to almost 4 hours of non stop banter and reminiscing. Life stories were recounted  including births marriages and deaths of family members we each knew well. We looked back with a great sense of fun  at the quite severe existence we endured in the Louis, and how we laughed as we recalled the fun we had when rules were being broken.

Life has certainly thrown some challenges to both of us in the intervening 48 years, but we have survived.  I am thrilled to have sent that email, to have rediscovered a friend, to discover that  true friendship is enduring and can pick up where  it left off, no matter how many decades have passed!  I rediscovered a kind, gentle, caring person with a lovely sense of humour – what more could a friend wish for ?

Thanks Eithne, so  glad to be able to call you ‘friend’!

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Filed under Irish History, Life in the 1960s, Living in Ireland, Oral History