My childhood in Ireland

by Esther Oakley, 1907-2001

[Originally a letter sent to great-granddaughter Fiona McQuaid, c. 1992].

You will be growing up in a very different world to the one I grew up in. As there was no electricity when I was a child, we had to fill lamps with paraffin oil to give us light. The wicks had to be carefully trimmed so that they did not have points to flare and of course we also had to take care that we did not fill the bowl of the lamp too full or the oil would overflow. We children took it in turns to do this chore. Gas lamps were used to give light on the town streets. The lamplighter would be round each evening with his ladder lighting each lamp. There were no electric cookers or washing machines, or dishwashers. I expect that there were gas cookers, but we did not have one. We lived either in a village or in the country. The cooking in our house was done on a large grate. We called the oven a baker. Coals were put under the baker and on top of the lid. Bread was baked every day in our house. I think I was about ten when I could make brown and white soda bread, but I never made the yeast bread which my mother made when we had no buttermilk. The yeast dough would be in a crock left beside the fire to rise. The fire would have an iron bar across the chimney with big hooks to hang pots and kettles. My mother was a good cook, but that method of cooking needed practise. Nowadays I think one would find it difficult. My mother used to say that she spent a good part of her life up the chimney.

You may think that we had a dull life, with no radio or television, but we did not think so. If anyone told us that we would be able to touch a switch and get a picture from London, I do not think that we could have believed them. Our lives were occupied after we moved to the small farm my father had inherited [a 30 acre farm at Ballynaguilsha, near Birr]. We went to the Model school [in Birr] about five miles away. My father had bought a donkey and a brown and white pony called Nancy and a trap and a cart. The donkey and the trap would take us to school. Our school day started with polishing our boots or shoes and getting dressed and washed. We did not have a bathroom, using a basin of water out of a barrel to wash instead. Breakfast was porridge and bread and butter. Cornflakes or package cereals did not yet exist. After a quick breakfast we would pull the trap out of the shed, catch the donkey and harness him. We would then get the trap cushions from the barn with the rug and our school bags. When we got to town we put the donkey and trap in the yard of a pub called the “Cherry Tree”. We took most of the harness off the donkey and gave him hay to eat in a stable, and walked down a street called Pound Street to the Model school. We arrived there about 9 a.m.We had a half hour for lunch. It was quite a large school. I did not mind or object to school and managed to progress through each class without too much effort. But your schools now are much more interesting and I wish ours had been like that. I had some nice school friends. My best friend was Noelle Dunne, and we kept in touch until she died in 1984. We got home about five o’clock, had a hot dinner, did our homework, and in the summer if there was enough daylight left, went outdoors to play. We spent a lot of time outside. The bats bothered us: as soon as it became dusk, they glided very low. We had been told that if a bat got into our hair we would never be able to untangle it. This is not true, but we believed it just the same.

On account of the “troubles” in Ireland at that time, my father did not live with us. My brother Harry had left school early to work in Galway as a partner with Brian Williamson in a timber mill. My brother Jimmy did not like the farm. He was doing exams. My eldest sister Ida was away on business and so a lot of farm jobs fell to Elsie and myself. Here are some of the chores that we had to do:

We had to fetch drinking water from a pump about fifteen minutes walk away. We had to go to the end of the lane, along a country road, to climb over a wall and then walk across a field with cattle. We found a thick curved stick, and carried the bucket on that between us. With a can each to carry as well it was an effort to not spill anything.  The barrels supplied enough water for washing.

We helped to sow the drills of potatoes, and when they were ready Elsie and I had to dig enough for dinner as well as feeding the hens. I used to think that it would be great to be able to go into a shop and just ask for potatoes. One job we did not like at all was weeding the vegetable garden. We had to be careful not to pull up the little carrots and parsnips with the weeds.

Our two cows were kept in the two lower fields and had to be fetched for milking. Sometimes Jimmy did that, but very often it was Elsie, myself, or both of us. It was about a mile away, along narrow lanes. Jack the Irish Terrier was a great help if it was dark. He knew that we were a bit scared and would stay close, pushing  his nose against our legs as if to say, “It’s alright, I’ll look after you.” The milk was kept in big flat pans: we skimmed the cream off the top and put it in a crock. Churning was not a job we liked, especially if it took a long time in the winter. We argued about whose turn it was. We turned the handle with one hand and had a book in the other. If Harry churned he would sing at the top of his voice, so it was easier on the nerves for Elsie and I or mother to do it. We did not have a dairy, so the churning was done in the kitchen. I do not remember Jimmy ever doing it, but perhaps he did. Making the butter was quite nice. It was skimmed off the churn and put into a wooden keeler, where it was washed many times and then salted and made into pats and rolls.

The country roads were a bit dangerous at that time with the “Black and Tans” flying around in their big Crossley tenders. We were not allowed to have the pony, as the donkey was supposed to be safer. I think that that was a mistake. The donkey just did as he pleased, and if he wanted to stay on the wrong side of the road or the middle, he just did. We really hated it when we had to take the cart to town instead of the trap, such as when we needed a bag of flour, or feeding stuff for the animals. For one thing, the donkey did not want to go to town and crawled all the way with his head nearly touching the ground. We were very ashamed of him and of ourselves for having to sit on a cart. The donkey did not come out of his sulk until we were on the way home again. It was as bad if we had to go for turf from the bog. He hated that too, but at least it was nearer, and at least we were not degraded in front of the townspeople.

We played a lot out of doors and rambled through the fields. We had plenty of space. The animals were free to roam. Bulls were big and cross and we used to ensure that we had no red showing, believing that this colour antagonised the bulls. The worst thing we experienced was being chased by a gander with a flock of geese. They can run fast with their necks stretched out, but we could run fast too, and we did. Our farm birds roamed freely also. If the hens laid in nests in the hedge, and we did not find the the nests, the eggs were allowed to hatch there. We would search around to find the chicks, which we would bring into the kitchen to feed. The mother came with them and she would show them how to pick up grains. When they were in the yard we had to watch out for the hawk. It was easy to tell the hawk from other birds – it would seem to stand in the air high up and then make a scoop straight for a chick. We took turns to shut the hens in the henhouse for the night. It was not a big job because they went in of their own accord, hopping on to their perch. It was just that we had to remember to go out in the dark to do it. If the door was not shut a fox or even a stray dog could get at them. The hens were very clever at spotting the hawk even though it was high up in the sky. They would set up a cackle. None of us were any good at killing them, and once Harry left home they only ever died from accident or old age.

Phases of the moon were important to us. If there was a party, such as the church Christmas Tree one [at Ballyboy], we would hope for a full moon - otherwise mother considered the country roads too dangerous at night, even though we had a lantern in the trap with a candle in it. The Christmas Tree party was held at a different parish from the school. We were very keen to go, as apart from the school we did not get a chance to meet other children. We were very interested in games and learning the names of other children, especially the girls. Cherry Hardy, Olive Tong and Carrie Thomson I remember particularly, even though I only met them twice a year.

We looked forward with great pleasure to Christmas. We were great window shoppers and knew just about everything there was in Sheppards, the toy shop, or Davis’, the grocers. There were no supermarkets then. Shops sold one line of goods. It would have been considered very wrong for a vegetable shop to sell groceries, or for a grocery shop to sell books or toys. But at Christmas the stationers could sell toys and of course the Annuals such as Chatterbox, Children’s Friend, Boy’s Own and Tiny Tots. We liked our books, whether they were for boys or girls. We did not have many presents for Christmas, but it was a lovely, happy, magic time. We decorated the pictures with holly (paper decorations were not used then). On Christmas morning we woke up to our Santa’s presents. Once, my sister and I got dolls but on other Christmases it was an Annual each, three picture handkerchiefs, hair ribbons, some sweets and perhaps a puzzle. We went to church, walking the two and a half miles, and usually had something new to wear. We always wore hats to church with elastic under the chin (straw hats in the summer; felt or beaver hats in the winter). Winter stockings were always black ribbed wool. We ate goose for Christmas dinner, with plum pudding afterwards. There were no pudding bowls. The puddings were made in a cloth – they were delicious. We got a bottle of lemonade each. This was the only time that we had lemonade in a bottle. It was very fizzy. We loved it, and made it last as long as possible. After that we pulled the sofa and the big armchair in front of the sitting room fire and looked at our books and played card games. We were sad when the magic day was over. When we lived in Ballingarry the Wren Boys would put on a great entertainment on Boxing Day, but our house in the country was too isolated for that. Usually the whole family were home for Christmas day, although sometimes my father could only come for a few hours. If he could, he would teach us card games. My sister Ida was eight years older than I and I thought her very elegant. She would tell us stories about the dances she went to, attended by soldiers, and the different kind of dances she could do. She smelled so nice of Californian poppy perfume. She wore a velvet band around her hair with what she called “jiggers” at the sides – they were little fuzzy bits. I thought that it was a lovely way to do hair. She was a good singer and she would sing all the latest songs for us. These were mostly wartime ones like “Pack up your troubles in your old kit bag”, “Over the top”, “The Best of Luck”, “Tipperary”, “We don’t want to lose you” and “Goodbye Dolly”. She did however have more cheerful ones like “Alexander’s Ragtime Band”. I suppose that Ragtime was the beginning of the present-day type of music.

We were too young for the 1914-1918 war to have much effect on us. Ida made us do without sugar in our tea, and I have never taken it since. A great many Irish soldiers were killed in that war. There was hardly a house in Birr that did not get an envelope after such battles as the Somme, Mons or the Dardanelles. However, I expect that it was due to the war that certain changes took place. Women had done a lot of the war work: driving trucks, nursing and working in the munitions factories and land armies. Some were even cutting their hair short and wearing trousers. Before this change, when girls reached 16-18 they had to wear skirts which reached to their ankles, to put up their hair with hairpins into a bun or roll and to generally become very “ladylike”. I was very pleased that times had changed. I determined to get my hair “bobbed” as it was called then. My mother would not do it. She said that it would not suit me. So one day when my father was home I got the scissors and went out to the field where he was working and asked him to cut my hair. He liked us to be clean and tidy and thought that short hair was a good idea. He would have cut all of it off (he used to run the clippers over the boys’ hair – mother said that they looked like convicts). I told him that I just wanted it cut level with my ears and he did just that.

We roamed the fields a great deal and had our favourite walks. In early spring the search was on to find the first flowers: star of Bethlehem, mountain everlasting, orchids - the plain and the bee ones, wood sorrell, primroses and violets in plenty and the fields full of cowslips we made into “dodgy balls”. In spring too the skipping ropes came out, and the different kinds of tops and hoops. There were no other children living near, so we made do with our own company. We made our “tennis court” and football pitch had competitions for running and jumping. When the boys were home we had to pace and time them for running and for boxing. I often had boxing gloves on (reluctantly) to help them practise. Only once was I knocked down. I pulled a table with milk vessels and a few pots with me, making a big clatter.

All of us girls learned piano music, but all I ever could play was a few hymns. Elsie was better, although she said that she did not like it. Doris and Phyllis were good at passing the exams, but I think that the really musical one was my mother. On winter evenings she would play all the old tunes for us and make up the story, but even now if I hear one of the old tunes I put my mother’s story to it. She loved that old piano, and we liked to listen. My mother liked amusement, but needless to say, it was not convenient to go into town. A troupe called “Dobells” would come once a year. It was run by Agnew McMaster and once mother, Harry, Elsie and I set off to walk the five miles to see them. It was winter and dark but I enjoyed every minute of that night. With the bright lights and glamour of it all, the walk home was no trouble.

Spring was bog time, and we liked the bog. When we got home from school we would find the house empty and a note to say to come to the bog. We went as quickly as we could, across two fields and along a country road to Paddy Watkins’ bog, where we cut our turf. It was cut with a slane, the light brown turf first and then the good hard black turf until they got very deep and the water started seeping in. Mother had a meal ready for us: bread and butter and hard-boiled eggs and rhubarb and apple cakes and tea made over a fire into a big can and poured into mugs. We were able to help especially if it was not a school day and we could start early. The turf had to be spread out to dry, then “footed”: that is, made into little heaps to make it dry some more, and then into large clamps. The bog was the only place that we were allowed to go barefoot. The turf was soft and spongy. We would run races and play houses and give ourselves other names. I remember that I was Lillian Silk and Lace and Elsie was Winnifred Caterson.

Books were very important to us. There was no children’s library in the town. There were a few books in the school press, but they were not story books and we soon had read them. The only one I remember by name was “The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire”. There was a series of paperback books, published by the “Religious Tract Society”. They were only about sixpence each. Some of the stories were sad and all of them had a moral, but we read them all. A story was a story whether it made us weep or not. Fairy tales were our great love. We hovered around Taits and Nolans and Sheppards in search of new ones (these were the paper shops). Whoever found a new fairy tale could read it first. Our R.T.S. and S.P.C.K. (Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge) books were brought by a Mr. O’Hara, who came on a bicycle with the books in a case on the back carrier with a waterproof cover over them. We played a lot on our hill field and when we saw Mr. O’Hara approaching we would race into the house in great excitement. Mother would give him tea. Although we wanted that waterproof cover off and the case opened and those books revealed, we were required to stay quiet in the background. My mother liked reading also. There was an adult library in Sheppards from which we brought her books. She would tell us the authors to look for. This was not however a free library as now.  After more than sixty years I can still remember her number: 168, and the authors she liked, or at least some of them. We were not at all interested in mother’s books. She had a neighbour, Mary Kate Fletcher, who also liked to read. She lived about two miles away along the lane. Sometimes we were sent with a book to her. The thing that we did not like was that Mary Kate gave us a mug of tea with goat’s milk, and we would be considered ill-mannered not to drink it. We also got a hunk of bread. Mary Kate had two little adopted boys whose mother had died. They returned from school one day when I was there. A pot of potatoes, their dinner, was emptied on to a clear scrubbed table with a little heap of salt at each place and a mug of buttermilk.

A lot of country people at that time could not read. Mary Kate’s brother, Don Poland, was a failed priest and in the evening the local men would gather in Rick Lees’ house where Don Poland would read a newspaper to them and they would chat and smoke their clay pipes. Pitch and Toss was a favourite outside game. It was played with stones and pennies. My brother Jimmy used to sneak off to play it, although my mother did not approve. Jimmy liked a gamble, and company. He also went round to the wakes (we did not dare). If we ever met Mary Kate in town she would treat us to a glass of port wine in a pub. This was the only time that we ever got port. We also got a two-penny packet of biscuits to eat with it. It was nice and warm on a cold day.

We went to Eglish church. Elsie, Doris and I went early to Sunday school. There were only a few children: I think just Harriet and Sarah Parsons as well as us three. The teacher, Mrs. Smith, was a widow who was also sexton of the church. She was a person of good family who had fallen on hard times. A small house went with the job, which was useful for her. The snag was heating the church in winter. There was a furnace under the aisle, but the fire would never light for Mrs. Smith. Her attempts would fill the room with smoke, but once the smoke was gone, so was the fire. She used to get Elsie to ring the bell while she struggled with the fire. It was a good thing that people were not used to central heating and did not take too much notice of the cold. Mrs. Smith was quite a character. She visited all the houses in the area and always stayed for a meal. She had a good appetite and if there was a nice cake made, she would eat it all. In later years she bought a baby Austin, but never really learned to drive. One day she drove the car into the town but forgot how to stop it and drove round and round Cumberland Square until Harry Dooley managed to get on the running board. Cars were a great novelty then and only a few people owned them. I think that ordinary folk were a bit suspicious, and did not understand how they worked. The old big model “T” made cars popular in the country. They were not as comfortable as today’s cars, being cold and draughty. They had to be cranked to start the engine and very often would stop in the road. All on board were then needed to get them started again. A drive in a car was quite an adventure. We often walked home from school, though would sometimes get a lift with someone with a horse and trap. I only remember once getting a lift with a motor car: a Mr. Drought. That was a real treat.

The hill field, which was our best playground as it was neither tilled nor used as meadow, now has a huge sand pit and the entrance to our lane is fenced off with barbed wire. I find that sad, of course, but I expect that it is to keep out tinkers and gypsies. We often had them parking in a grassy place halfway up the lane. They mostly just had tents then: now they have nice caravans. They would mend pots, cans and buckets very well. They were no bother, only they did come for food, potatoes, milk for the baby, sugar or clothes, of course: they were grateful for any old clothes. Mother was sorry for them, especially on a wet night under canvas. She would never be cross at them, and would always give them something. The “travelling folk” are better off now. They get money from the state, but people say that they are a menace and do all sorts of damage. I have to say that our tinkers never did us any harm. They had hound dogs, sometimes a goat, and always donkeys, and maybe a mule. We treated all strange animals with slight suspicion, but were not afraid of either the tinker people or their animals. Although we lived in an isolated place, with only mother and children in the house, they never did us any harm.

Whenever he had eight hours leave, my father would come over on his bicycle to visit us. One day he announced that he had bought us a ladies bicycle. Elsie and I were delighted. It was full-sized and at first too high for me to reach the saddle. I had quite a job learning to ride it. I could go down a hill, but would fall off when I tried to pedal. That bicycle was very useful, especially in the holidays. With a basket in front and a carrier on the back we could do the shopping without having to disturb either of the animals. We tried to teach mother to ride it, but as soon as she was on the saddle, she would scream to be let down. She never learned to ride. Bicycles have improved a great deal since then.

I mentioned our Irish Terrier, Jack. We had him for many years. He was one of the family and we all loved him. One day he bit the postman, who we thought had been kicking him as the bite was on the front of the man’s leg. It was not a bad bite, and mother put disinfectant on it, but the man made a fuss of it. A policeman arrived one day to tell us that we had to have our wicked dog destroyed. It was funny, because Jack loved policemen and used to go on patrols with them when we lived in Ballinderry. The policeman came in with this friendly dog, making a great fuss of him, and asked where this wicked dog was kept. He suggested that we give Jack away out of our district instead of destroying him. We asked him if he would contact our father in Annagh barracks and next day father arrived on his bicycle and Jack followed him back, trotting behind and getting little lifts on the bar of the bicycle. The police were delighted with him and he got better food than he would have had with us. Jack stuck it for a couple of days, but on the third day we found him that morning lying at the door exhausted, covered in mud, twigs and bog mould. He had covered the eight miles across fields on his own. We tried the same thing a few more times, and father locked Jack in, but as soon as the door was opened, Jack would streak for home. Eventually we gave up, and Jack was with us until he died years later. He never bit anyone again and was in any case never a vicious dog. When I see notices in the newspaper offering rewards for lost dogs, I think of Jack, who was much too responsible to allow himself to get lost.

There we quite a lot of dos and don’ts for children. Good manners were very important. You did not want people to say that your parents had brought you up badly. I only know about the country version of good manners in Ireland. Boys had to touch their caps when greeting a lady they knew. Children had never to interrupt an adult. When you entered a neighbour’s house, you had to say, “God save all here,” to which they would answer, “And you too.” If you passed someone working in a field or milking a cow, you said, “God bless the work.” If you admired anything, you had to remember to say, “God bless it/them” afterwards. You never took money if you did an errand, but you had to take food or drink if they were offered and gulp it down somehow. You were not to remark on anything in a house you visited, even to admire a picture. Once when I visited the Williamsons, Elsie admired Eileen Williamson’s nice dressing table set of brushes and combs (we had none) and mother was very humiliated. It took Elsie a while to live that mistake down. You never called an adult by their Christian name. It was manners to say Sir, Ma’am or Miss. If you were sitting in a nice comfortable seat at the fire on a cold night and a neighbour came in, you had to get up and make yourself scarce without waiting to be asked. I am sure that there were a lot more rules, if I could remember them.

My mother did not often get the chance of a day out, but once a month she would go with Mrs. Williamson to Borrisokane. Mrs. Williamson drove a “back to back” trap with a very large horse called Dick. Dick was quiet enough, but he had a very bad habit. He was “balky” for no known reason, and in the most awkward places he would stop dead and refuse to budge. This particular day he “balked” right in the middle of Borrisokane Street. Men had to come to the assistance of the two ladies, but it was a good hour before anyone could get Dick to move. He was a big, strong horse and beating him never did any good. What shocked mother was that Mrs. Williamson, who was such a nice refined lady (she was English and came from Densberry in Yorkshire) could use such bad language. I could not imagine my mother ever saying any kind of bad word, even the mildest of swear words. Mrs. Williamson went down in her estimation after the episode of balky Dick. The Williamsons were well-off people and doing well in the timber business during the 1914-1918 war. My mother was easygoing, but there were some things that she was strict about. She liked people to speak grammatically. She probably took after her father who used to do recitations on stage. He used to do “penny readings” and in those far off days people would come from miles to listen.

When my father retired, my parents lived on the farm at Ballinaguilsha for a short while before moving north to Warrenpoint. My mother had had enough of living in that lonely place and I believe that my father was also pleased to move. We had all left home by then, except Phyllis and Doris, who suffered from asthma: the sea air would be good for her. Father and mother were happy in Warrenpoint. Mother kept summer visitors for a while and my father did a lot of voluntary work in the church and local government, for which he got an M.B.E. Father, mother and my sister Ida are buried in Clonallan cemetery in Warrenpoint. Ida died from T.B. when she was thirty.

Before we lived on the farm, I remember being lifted down from a sidecar by a policeman. It was pouring rain and we had arrived in Ballinderry, a pretty little village in Country Tipperary. We lived there for about five years, my father being a sergeant of the R.I.C. The Irish “troubles” had not started yet and everyone was very friendly. The parish priest and the sergeant kept law and order. There were four policemen in the barracks besides my father. We lived in the barracks, with a large garden and a small field at the back with a river running through it. There were five of us children, Doris and Phyllis not yet being born. We were in a privileged position. When the circus came to the village we could play with the circus children. I remember two little girls, Lulu and Laura, which I thought very pretty names. We could get on the swing boat and hobby horses for free. This was great for us – our pay was one penny each month. I started school in Terryglass, about three miles away. A good many children were from Ballinderry. We walked as there was no other means of getting there. It was a bog road. Having two older brothers and sisters, I was alright. About the only thing I remember about the first day at school was that I wore my red velvet bonnet, which was normally reserved for Sunday.

When we lived in the barracks, we spent a lot of time in the Day Room with the police constables. They would play games with us: Ludo, Snakes and Ladders, Draughts, or play tunes on the mouth organ, fiddle or Jew’s harp. Some disabled British soldiers would ramble in also and tell us stories of their travels with the army in India, Burma or other places. The “lock up” was through our kitchen and often we had a prisoner there, usually just to cool off for the night after fighting. If my father was not there, we would keep him company and my brother Harry would show him Magic Lantern slides as the room being dark was a good place for this. I do not remember my mother objecting.

I played mostly with Frank, Jim and Josie Hough, the barrack woman’s children. Frank and Jim never wore boots or shoes, even in winter. They could run over corn stubble even in their bare feet. They were given boots and stockings off a Christmas Tree and were crying because they were hurting their feet and mother would not allow them to take them off. Norah Hough, their mother, had a large family (twelve, I think): Elsie, Mikey, Mary Ann, Cis, Paddy, Tom, Frank, Kathleen, Bess, Jim and Josie. She was a small neat woman who did the washing and cooking for the four constables. She was as I remember always cheerful: singing sad songs in a cheerful voice. Houghs lived in a small cottage and I loved being there. There were always a lot of people and music was always playing: fiddle, melodeon and concertina.

One day Elsie was sent to Houghs to bring me back for tea. Their house was so noisy, with big men standing outside, that she was afraid to go in. She went home, saying that I was not there. All the police were out searching the river and village for me, until one of them met Norah. Norah always called me “Asthore” which is Irish for “my treasure”. Considering that she had twelve treasures of her own, I think that she must have been a marvel.

We had two dogs. Our dog was an Irish terrier called Jack. Pansy was a wire-haired fox terrier. She really belonged to Constable Buckley. We all loved Jack and he certainly loved us. Mother said that if she let us in the yard with a piece of bread when we were little, she would tell Jack to mind us and he would not let the hens or Pansy take the bread from us. He had one big fault – he loved a fight. One day the District Inspector arrived with his big dog. Jack was not having this and a fierce fight ensued. They carried on fighting even when the police threw both dogs in the river. I do not suppose that my father got a good report that time. The police told us proudly that Jack was winning, even though he was only half the size of the other dog.

Sometimes the men would have a social night in their big kitchen and everyone would perform their party piece, singing or reciting, finishing up with a dance. That was a very exciting night for us and we were allowed to stay up. Comic songs were what we liked best. Constable Doyle was good at that.

I started going to church in Terryglass when I was very young. My father kept a tight arm around me for the sermon and I envied the others being free to wiggle around. The only thing I had to amuse me was tracing the three gold stripes on his arm with my finger. I can still remember that. I also remember sometime later the church congregation singing the hymn “Nearer my God to thee” for the loss of The Titanic.

The little field behind the barracks was a good place to play. Mother was scared of the river. If one of us was missing she always ran first to the river. There was a deep mill stream in the next field and the boys made swimming sheaves out of rushes to teach themselves to swim. There were no rubber rings then, and no-one owned a bathing suit.

After Ballinderry we moved to Ballingarry, but after about a year and a half the police sergeant families were moved out of barracks as it was supposed to be too dangerous with Sinn Fein starting trouble. That was when we moved to the small farm father had inherited in Ballinaguilsha. Ballingarry was not such a pretty place. Water was scarce – we got it from a pump and a draw well. School was nearer – only about a mile in “The Pike”. I was told that my grandmother, Mary Nolan, had been a teacher there once, but had died before I was born. About the only interesting thing that happened while we were in Ballingarry was that we went for a holiday with my grandparents in Dublin. This was very exciting. Trains in those days were run on steam and were much noisier than Diesel engines. I do not think that there were suitcases then, just carpet bags and trunks. I remember there being just one big trunk for us. There were lots of porters to carry things. When we arrived in Dublin, we got a horse-drawn cab.

My grandma was a small woman with black hair that did not go grey. Although I was called Esther after her (she had been Esther Hamilton) I do not think that I liked her much. She was a bit sharp and I was a bit afraid of her. I did like grandfather, though. He was fun and took us around the art galleries, the zoo, and places like that, explaining things to us. We went to lovely musicals like Peggy O’Neill and other shows. We saw moving pictures in the cinema for the first time, and he let us go upstairs on the trams. We went to Dollymount beach, but were only allowed to paddle at the edge of the water. Mother was nervous of us in the city, and we would have liked to explore, but were only allowed out if grandfather or she were there with us. I expect that she thought that we were country children and would get lost. She had lived in Dublin and had been a nurse in Dr. Steeven’s hospital before she got married. She was useful to grandma while we were there, because she was clever at sewing: making blouses and altering grandfather’s suits, and things like that. My father could not come with us, and when we returned said that he was glad to see us back.

I remember one funny little episode from Ballingarry. A neighbour called Mr. Kearnon had two little girls called Nancy and Kitty who were real pests. They did all kinds of mischief and their mother never corrected them. Mrs. Kearnon spent most of her days in our house. One day she came and stayed and stayed and mother got a big bath in front of the kitchen fire and filled it with water to bathe Doris and Phyllis. Nancy and Kitty started a game running around the bath. Their mother as usual said no word to stop them, and just laughed at them. Suddenly Nancy pushed Kitty, and she tumbled into the water with such force that they both went in. Mrs. Kearnon and Nancy and Kitty had to go home early that night. We had a good laugh: we did not feel a bit sorry for them.

I expect that I have told you enough about life when I was a child, or at any rate of my life. In spite of the fact that we did not have all the modern conveniences, I feel that my childhood days were happy ones. My mother was easy to live with. We more or less made our own rules, so long as the jobs were done. We went to bed and got up without being shouted at. I can remember every lump and hollow of that farm. None of us knew anything about farming, but none of the cows or calves ever died with us. Times in Ireland were troubled, but I expect that occasionally mother gave a meal to one of the lads “on the run”. No-one ever bothered us and it would not have mattered if we locked the door or left it open all night. It seems strange to think that a motor car never passed our house while we were there: only horses and traps, or donkeys and carts. People had a board across the cart and sat on the board. It was the way that poor people travelled to market or to mass. I think now that travelling that way must have been very uncomfortable. Now I am rambling on and becoming ever more boring, so I had better stop.