Wednesday, January 25, 2012

'Tittering Lily', and childhood tales of Ringsend

My mom's favourite stories from her childhood in Ringsend Dublin often include her closest friend, a girl named Lily Cowzer.  One of the most memorable things about Lily was her laugh, a very breathy 'schti sthee sthee'.  If this blog could include sound effects, this story would be accompanied by the laughing sounds my mom makes whenever she shares tales of her adventures with her friend Lily.  Aunt Alice would always know when Lily was in the house, because even if the girls tried to keep Lily quiet, inevitably she would start to laugh.  Aunt Alice would call down from upstairs to say, "Is that tittering Lily Cowzer, I hear?  Tell her to go home."

I've heard Mom's stories many times, and I never tire of hearing them.  They are always funny in some way or other, but more than that, there is a kind of sweetness and sadness to her recollections.  In sharing with you this story from my mother's childhood, I want to take you back in time, so I'm going to use my mother's first name, Mary.

Four little girls and the Grand Canal

On a bright and very warm summer afternoon in Dublin, Mary, her sister Bernadette, and their friends little Lily Cowzer and Martha Doyle had some time on their hands.  Near to their homes in Ringsend is the Grand Canal, a long and very old waterway which winds its way from Dublin all the way to the River Shannon.  Many times the girls had been warned by Aunt Alice not to go near the canal, for fear that they might fall in.  Mary and Bernadette risked a cane beating if Aunt Alice learned they had disobeyed her, but that did not stop them.  As the story goes, it seems that elder sister Bernadette had quite a streak of mischief in her, and she prodded the girls to go, although my guess is Mary, Martha and Lily didn't need much prodding.

Nevertheless, off to the canal they went.  As I mentioned, it was a very warm summer day in Dublin, and some of the boys in the neighbourhood had stripped down to their shorts (actual shorts, not underwear), and were jumping into the canal to cool off.  Mary found the canal water a bit frightening because she thought it was very deep, a belief which was confirmed for her by the blackness of the water.  In Mary's imagination the bones of other disobedient children were laid across the bottom of the canal's distant floor, forever lost, and she didn't want to join their number.

The Grand Canal Locks at Leeson St. Bridge,  Ballsbridge
The four girls quickly, but carefully, scurried across the gates of the canal lock to sit on the side opposite the side from which the boys were jumping into the deep water.  The girls did not want to get splashed, and then have to explain wet clothing to Aunt Alice.  They plunked themselves down where the water was lower, and let their legs dangle over the side of the cool stone wall.

They sat there laughing and talking for quite some time, nudging each other, giggling over the silly boys, and relaxing in the lovely sunshine.  Suddenly, one of the shoes Martha was wearing somehow came undone, and fell off her foot into the water.  The four girls jumped up and began shrieking as though one of them had fallen into the canal.  They laid down on their bellies, and although the distance was impossible for four such little girls, Mary, Martha, Lily, and Bernadette stretched their arms and their legs as far as they could in a desperate attempt to retrieve the lost shoe before it sank, but they could not reach it.  A couple of the boys came over to their side of the lock to help.  Each one jumped in and dove under the water searching as best he could in order to find the errant shoe, but it was all to no avail. Although the shoe was most certainly gone, the girls knew they could not return home without it.

Six o'clock came, and Ringsend Church rang out the bells of the Angelus.  Mary knew her father would be stopped on the bridge near their house, on his way home from work, standing next to his bicycle with his hat over his heart.  He would be whispering the lines of the Angelus prayer to the peal of the bells.  So too, she knew they were now late home.  They would have to go home without the shoe.  Mary and Bernadette would have to tell the the truth about what happened, and they would have to face the wrath of Aunt Alice.

When they arrived at Mary and Bernadette's house, the four girls stood by the front door, breaking their hearts crying. Long gone was Lily's laugh. Martha made her way over the road to her house to tell her mother of the fate of her shoe, and face whatever punishment might come.  Mary said the girls cried, not so much because they were frightened of beatings, but more because they knew their fathers worked so very hard to take care of their families, and shoes cost real money.

Mary and her sister Bernadette didn't receive a beating that day for disobeying Aunt Alice.  That was not Alice's way. Instead she would hold off on delivering the punishment until the children least expected it, believing that they would truly remember the punishment, and learn from it.

Mary vividly recalls the day she received the beating for her part in the loss of that shoe.  At school, weeks after the shoe was lost, Mary had been given the prize of a small picture of Jesus Christ as a reward for perfecting her lessons.  Mary still remembers how happy she felt on the way home from school, excited to show Aunt Alice the prize.  It was then that Alice decided the time was right for the caning, and she was right, Mary never forgot it.

My dear mother Mary will celebrate her 81st birthday in May, and each time she tells me of the punishment she received, there is never a hint of rancour in her tone.  When I am indignant about the cruel way in which she was treated, my mom will say, "that is the way things were done".  She always reminds me that if it were not for Aunt Alice coming to live with the family after the death of their mother, Mom and her siblings may have been taken away from the home into which they were born.


Copyright©irisheyesjg2012.

13 comments:

  1. Your mom may have been right--and it certainly gives a much more peace-filled perspective--but I still feel bad for her that she was deprived of sharing that special moment of recognition for accomplishment of something good.

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    Replies
    1. Hi Jacqi,

      Thanks so much for your comments; they are always appreciated.

      Cheers,
      Jennifer

      Delete
  2. We all want to view events through our contemporary eyes, but as much as kit makes me squirm, I am sure it was common practice at the time. I am constantly reminded of the comparative poverty of my ancestors when it comes to material things and the richness of their lives when it comes to family. I loved the story.

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    Replies
    1. Hi Kathy,

      Thank you so much for your comments. They are always appreciated.

      Cheers,
      Jennifer

      Delete
  3. Your stories are so interesting. I am enjoying reading them! Annie

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Annie,

      Thanks for your comments; I really appreciate hearing from you.

      Cheers to you,

      Jennifer

      Delete
  4. Very nicely told, I think that this may have a different ending if it happened in modern times. Aunt Alice should have shown a little mercy, children are just children.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hello Alice,

      Thank you for your comments; I really appreciate hearing from you. It is true the story might have ended differently, and I often find myself saying the same about Aunt Alice to my mom.

      Cheers,
      Jennifer

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  5. You told this story so well, we could be there with them. When you know how financially difficult times were, it's easy to understand the ramifications of their loss. I can even understand the beating -it was part of life decades ago. What I find saddest is that her aunt chose to spoil a day when she was so proud of her prize...her punishment would still stuck in her mind anyway. I loved the image of her father standing by his bicycle hat over heart saying his Angelus.

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  6. Hello Pauleen,

    Thank you for your comments; I always appreciate them. As Alice mentioned also I find the way in which Aunt Alice meted out punishment to be sad and cruel, but as you say that was part of life then. Whenever my mother mentions her dad standing by his bicycle I feel as though I can picture him exactly as he was.

    Cheers,
    Jennifer

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  7. Hello Everyone,

    Just want to let you know that I will be posting a piece about Aunt Alice in a few days.

    Cheers to each one of you,
    Jennifer

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  8. Oh those poor little girls must have been frantic. As you say, things were different then, but I do feel terribly sorry for the harsh punishment. Jo

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    Replies
    1. Hi Jo,

      Thanks for your comments; it's always lovely to hear from you. Hope all is well with you.

      Cheers,
      Jennifer

      Delete

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