When I was in Ireland this time I found myself wanting to 'find' my mother Mary, to perhaps better understand what life may have been like for her when she was a child and young woman. To try and glean a glimpse of insight into her life, I walked along the streets my mother once travelled, stood by the seaside my Mom loved, and sat in the church where she once prayed, all in the hope of finding Mary.
The Dublin my mother once knew still exists in many ways, but outside in the light of day, at first it seemed as though it is barely there. Parts of the neighbourhood in which she lived are now so built up that the traffic betrays what were once quiet streets on which children could run and play. Still, in the very centre of the neighbourhood, within the labyrinth of streets which comprise Ringsend, the feeling of the past is there if you stand quiet and listen for it. The train which travels to the seaside she loved still rumbles on the tracks in the same way it once did, and the waves on the beach still crash up on the shore in a rhythm which affirms life. Some things do not change.
The morning of my search for the life my mother once knew began with a walk across the green known as St. Stephen's. Autumn has begun its slow creep into the place, and the bite of chill is in the air. The flowers of summer now quickly fade, and the gardeners dig them up, leaving fallow ground for winter's frost.
The first bus for my trip waits for me at the light, and so I scurry across the street clutching a royal blue and teal scarf around my neck. Of all the scarves in my cupboard, this was my mother's favourite, and so I wear it for her. I tell the bus driver where I am going, pay my fare, and climb the stairs to the upper deck of the bus. The driver calls me to alight at Townsend Street, and I smile. It seems so often there are family connections in this city no matter where I go. It is on Townsend, at number 180, that my maternal grandmother lived as a girl with her family in 1911, after they returned to Ireland from Liverpool. That front door is just a few paces away from the bus stop. I will cycle to it later in the week.
It is not long before the #1 bus 'Towards Sandymount' arrives at the stop. The route is very familiar to me, but this time I pay attention along the way. Looking out the window along Pearse street, I wonder, am I looking at sights Mom once observed, as she travelled from the city centre to her home on Gordon Street? Would the things which catch my eye have appealed to her?
|St. Patrick's Church, Ringsend|
At Bridge street, over the River Dodder, and just past the church in which my parents were married, I disembark from the bus. As I try to travel back in time, I feel a little unsteady, but make my way over the road, through the gate and into St. Patrick's Church.
The church is small and beautiful, and seems so much unchanged from the images in my parents' wedding album. I feel as though I have stepped inside one of the photographs, and I sit down in the last pew to take it all in. There is a small army of women cleaning every square inch of the church. As I stand up to look around, I feel compelled to ask one of them if it is alright for me to do so. "Of course", she replies, "why wouldn't it be?" She notices the camera bag slung across my hip and tells me I can take photographs too, and I tell her about my mom and dad and their connection to this church. She encourages me to step up onto the main altar and write their names in the book, so they will be remembered in prayers said each day. I write down their names, and the name of my brother's closest friend too.
I wander around the church, gazing at every statue in its respective nook, every image on the walls, and try to imagine my mother in this space. I picture her seated with her father listening to morning mass, or bent in prayer on the eve of a holy day. To the left of the main altar stands an old statue of St. Anthony, the saint to whom my mother always prayed, and I wonder if this is the first place in which she beseeched him.
I run my fingers along the wood of the narrow pews, glancing the small brass plaques which adorn every one, plaques which bear the names of members lost to other families. I sit for another moment in the church and notice the beautiful wood ceiling, every slat perfectly in place, all finely crafted to resemble the body of a great ship, a tribute to the long history of boat building in this community.
Turning back for one last look, I leave the church behind and make my way up the steep incline of the bridge over the River Dodder. The sight of swans quietly sailing along the water makes me take pause for a few minutes. Did my mother ever stand here watching swans in their gentle glide, or turn to see them take flight toward the Dublin mountains?
|Swans on the River Dodder, just behind the church in Ringsend.|
|Swans taking flight in the direction of the Dublin Mountains.|
Stopping at South Lotts Road, I wait for the light to signal my journey across Ringsend Road, and look over toward the home to which my mother, as a young teenager, was sent to live in order to care for her grand-aunt Alice, when the old woman could no longer care for herself. My mother did not want to go, but she was given no choice. Her obedience to family duty called her to leave the only home she had ever known, to care for the woman who had once cared for her and her siblings.
As I proceed up the street everything to my right is unchanged, but on my left a new world of business buildings and condominiums has grown up. It is as though I am balanced between the past and the present. It is along this street, my aunt has told me, that my mother always seemed to have a great fear of walking close to the road, so her younger sister would walk with her, keeping pace beside the road. As I travel down the footpath, I imagine them arm in arm, as they ventured out together.
I walk down toward Somerset Street, pause to photograph the converted old gasworks, and somehow lose my bearings. A bewildered look must mark my face, because a young woman approaching asks me if I'm lost. She confirms that 'yes, Gordon street is just there', and again I recognize where I am. As she turns away from me to cross the road, I notice her shoulder length hair has the same chestnut tone and lovely wave to it that my mother's hair had when she was a young woman.
|Looking toward Gordon Street. The Gasworks Apartments is the round building in the background.|
As I reach Gordon Street, it is very quiet. Where the streets intersect there is a stillness of which no map will ever tell. I wander up the middle of the roadway and imagine children who once lived here, laughing and playing in the street. I spy the front door of my mother's family home, and the Doyle house, and the Murphy family's cottage. There is something reassuring about seeing all of them here. Most of the people from my mother's time are gone from here now, but the brick and stucco houses remain virtually unchanged in this ever changing place. I pause for a moment to think about all that took place in the life of the home that was a part of my family: the births, the marriages, sons going to war and returning home again, the deaths of the matriarch and the patriarch, and my Uncle Gerard, the last brother to live within its walls.
Moving away from the house, I travel toward Barrow Street and notice the names of the streets which intersect from the right, names I have never before noted, 'Joy Street', 'Hope Street'. Seeing those names, suddenly it occurs to me that despite all the hardship and loss Mom knew as she was growing up, my mother was happy here. With that thought I feel as though I have caught a glimpse of my mother, as I walked along the footpaths she once knew best. I make my way out to the main road, pass the old Boland's Flour Mills, and walk back toward Dublin city centre with a lighter heart.
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