Saturday, April 27, 2013

Sepia Saturday: Irish News: Lady Cyclist, Fiery Meteor, & Death from Laughing

For this Sepia Saturday, the inspiration is an image of men reading newspapers which bear a remarkable headline. Written in Dutch, the words 'Dansen Op de Maan', that is, 'Dancing on the Moon', make up the headline used by these papers to announce the 1969 moon landing.

With the advent of the twenty-four hour news cycle, and news available online from every possible outlet, sometimes it is easy to forget that at one time people got their news only from a newspaper made of actual paper, imprinted by the typesetter's hand. Rather than focus on the moon landing, an event which some may have seen as an early mark of a whole new world, I have decided to go another way, and present a few unusual articles from an old Irish newspaper called The Freeman's Journal.

Many of us use newspaper archives when conducting family history research. Within the pages of old newspapers you might find information about family members not only in birth, marriage, and death notices, but also on social pages, and in articles about certain 'incidents'. Generally, I find reading old Irish newspapers very entertaining, particularly The Freeman's Journal, Ireland's oldest national newspaper which was in continuous publication from 1763 until 1924. Sometimes the stories bear archaic words or phrasing no longer familiar to the modern eye, or subject matter is included which you might not see in a newspaper these days.

Here are three stories which caught my eye, including one entitled Knocked Down By A Lady Cyclist, which speaks of a family member on my maternal tree who tangled with a lady and her bicycle, and came away somewhat worse for wear. I've used artistic licence in adding the images, since they did not appear with the original articles, but I think they fit the bill.


Knocked Down By A Lady Cyclist

From The Freeman's Journal, Friday 28 May 1897.


Although the lady pictured is not the cyclist in question, I chose her image because she looks like a surly sort of woman who might mow down a cheeky boy who got in her way. It is interesting to note the news clipping mentions neither the lady's name nor that of the boy who was hit, only that of his father, my great-great-granduncle, Andrew Kettle.

It appears as though the incident may have been a hit and run, since the boy was "found lying on the ground" by a gentleman driving past. I wonder which one of Mr. Kettle's sons it was who had his ankle broken, and was thus "removed...to his father's house". Also, was the lady cyclist a scofflaw, and did she hot-foot it away from the scene?

A Fiery Meteor

From The Freeman's Journal, 9 December 1841.


This story originally appeared in the Whitehaven Herald, and was 'picked up' by The Freeman's Journal. It is interesting to think about how they would have shared stories in 1841, long before the advent of the internet and share buttons. The description of the size of the meteor at "about one foot in breadth" says something about distance and perception, and the explanation given to chronicle its demise —the shape of a serpent, beautiful spiral curves, the letter Z — leaves you wondering about exactly what was seen. Was this in fact a fiery meteor, or was it instead a 19th century encounter with a UFO?

Death from Laughing

From The Freeman's Journal, Tuesday, 7 March 1843.

This article is very curious indeed. In addition to the title, the language of it also caught my eye, with the use of the word se'ennight — a contraction of seven night, which means one week ago — and the use of intemperate to describe the boy's laughter, as though he was simply showing a lack of self-control. Clearly limited was the medical expertise of Mr. Hele or whoever diagnosed this poor lad as "addicted to intemperate laughing". Given the description, and the fact that the disorder was present from infancy, the child may have had something like epilepsy, which can produce uncontrollable laughter. Perhaps he died from a grand mal seizure, rather than from "hysterics, produced by excessive laughing", or his death may have been the result of a cardiac event.  Hmm... Curiouser and curiouser, said Alice.

Copyright©irisheyesjg2013.
Click on images to view larger versions.
Thanks to The Graphics Fairy for the image of the lady with the bicycle.
Reference: The Freeman's Journal, 1763-1924, as sourced via the Newspaper Database, National Library of Ireland.
(Some editions of The Freeman's Journal are available online from the Irish Newspaper Archive, and the British Newspaper Archive.)

Monday, April 22, 2013

Perceptions of Ireland: The rose-coloured glasses girl, the cynical student, & me

The other day, in the midst of my search for 'the perfect suitcase' — FOUND: a compact carry-on bag in which I can now fit everything but the kitchen sink — I had a conversation with the young sales associate at the shop. We were talking about various travel destinations, including Ireland, and Eva told me that she really wants to travel to Ireland because her favourite movie is 'Leap Year'. Truth be told, I cringed a bit. Although I am a fan of Amy Adams, and the movie is meant to be a sweet rom-com, aside from the gorgeous aerial shots of the landscape, it completely misses the mark when it comes to Ireland. However, I really enjoy talking to people, and like to find out why they like the things they like, so I bit my tongue and asked Eva why the movie is her favourite.

'Why?', she said. "Well, because Ireland is a magical place. All the little towns are beautiful, and all the people there are so funny and so nice, even though they all drink a lot." Eva went on to tell me that she finds the backwardness of the place endearing. 'You know', she said, 'like, hardly any trains, and the sweet old drunks in the pub.' Most of all, she'd really like to visit the romantic castle they go to in the movie, and see the old fashioned red phone box in the park.

Oh dear, thought I, she's stuck in MOVIE IRELAND, and I began to tell her Ireland is not actually as it's portrayed in the film, but I could tell by the look on her face that she is married to this fantasy. Not wanting to burst the bubble in her Hibernian dream, I didn't tell her the train system in Ireland is quite modern and relatively efficient, and most pubs (aside from those aimed at college-aged tourists in Temple Bar) are family oriented and without the stage drunks. I didn't mention the fact that the castle in the movie doesn't actually exist, but is a digital enhancement of ruins in Portlaoise, and there is no English-style red phone box anywhere in St. Stephen's Green. Instead I thanked Eva for her help, and said I hoped she would one day take the opportunity to travel to Ireland.

Left: An entrance to St. Stephen's Green featured in the movie 'Leap Year'. No red phone box in sight.
Right: The sort of telephone booths you do see in urban Ireland.
Top: One of several Luas (pronounced Louis) tram lines you will find in the city of Dublin.
Bottom: The Dart commuter train system. This one is stopped at Bray, County Wicklow.
The ancient past and the modern present co-exist.
Top image: The Rock of Cashel as you approach it through the town of Cashel, County Tipperary.
Bottom image: Swords Castle in downtown Swords, County Dublin.
Talking with Eva reminded me of another conversation I had, this one with a Polish student named Pawel, who is now living in Ireland while attending university. We were on the Dublin bus travelling down Stillorgan Road toward the Belfield campus of UCD — me to the archives, him to a campus orientation — and he asked me if we were getting close to the university. Our accents marked our mutual status as outsiders and led to conversation.

Pawel said he had already been living in Dublin for a while, and he bombarded me with exactly what he liked about it and what he didn't. He told me that the Irish are great talkers, but poor listeners, and think they know everything, and think everyone who is not Irish is stupid. He told me he hated all the rainy days, and the homeless people and the drug addicts in the street. His deeply negative attitude made me wonder why he would choose Ireland for study, but Pawel was a great talker and a poor listener, so he didn't answer my question.

Me? My opinion lies somewhere down the middle, between Eva's rose-coloured Ireland and Pawel's deeply cynical one.

It is true, in Ireland there is a serious problem with heroin addiction, and if you travel there, you may come across addicts in certain areas. On a couple of occasions I've 'interacted' with addicts in Dublin, on the quays, and on Marlborough Street near the Pro-Cathedral. This mostly involved refusing to give them money, and being very assertive in telling them to move away from me. Last summer, during a very early morning bike ride on the quays, I fast tracked away from a couple of addicts who were injecting drugs while seated on a bench across from the Custom House. As a historian, I am saddened by the fact that these days the grounds of Croppies Acre in front of Collins Barracks, as well as the grounds of the Golden Bridge cemetery, are locked up to keep the addicts out.

Also, it is true there are Irish who are great talkers and poor listeners, but I believe you will find people like that in every country in the world. It also strikes me that if you treat people the way you want to be treated, then most of them will respond in kind. If you are friendly and open and respectful, then they will be too. I think Pawel has failed to understand that fact.

One thing which seems to surprise some people, like Pawel, is the fact that many Irish are very well read, are engaged and interested in many topics, and have the expectation that others are as well. Personally, I have enjoyed discussions with taxi drivers, wait staff and guests in restaurants, and hotel desk clerks, as well as members of my own Irish family, on a wide range of topics, including Irish history. In my travels I have encountered people from many countries who do not know the history of their own country as well as some Irish know the history of Ireland.

As for Eva's impressions, the landscape of Ireland is absolutely magnificent, and is spotted with many charming towns and handsome cities, as well as beautiful castles and ancient ruins, and in that respect I also feel as though the island is a magical place. However, the mark of recession blots many Irish towns and cities, and there you get a dose of reality when you see shops boarded up, and once thriving businesses that have closed their doors.

Also, there are many nice, welcoming, and funny Irish people to meet in Ireland, but no, not everyone is very welcoming. Just as in other countries, some people are caught up in their own lives and couldn't care less about tourists. If you take a local bus, you will find some operators who will barely acknowledge you, other than to tell you to buy a map, while others will happily help direct you to your destination and beyond. If you venture off the beaten path and go into pubs frequented by locals, in some you will be welcomed with open arms, while in others you may be viewed with suspicion.

In Ireland, when I asked one of my aunts named Kathleen (I have a few) about perceptions of Ireland and the Irish, she told me she believes most Irish are very down to earth and easy going, and in favour of an enjoyable time, and a good laugh. However, she said at times some Irish, including her, look at tourists and just wonder what it is they want from 'us'. Aunt Kathleen put it best when she said,

At times Jenn, it's as if some of them are waiting for us to break into song or recite our party piece. We're not perfect. We're real people with real problems who just happen to live in a beautiful land with a remarkable history. We're not leprechauns or fairies, and we have no magic dust.

Aunt Kathleen paused for a moment, and I could see in her eyes that she didn't want to let me down, and then with a smile she added, 'well maybe just a little magic dust'.

Copyright©irisheyesjg2013.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Sepia Saturday #173: Just plain odd inspiration brings me to 'legs'.

The inspiration for Sepia Saturday #173 was definitely a head scratcher for me. If you take a look at the Sepia Saturday page you will see a young man pictured, proudly showing off birds of some kind, both of which have been plucked and prepped, presumably for consumption. Since I have no family members who ever posed with any beings of the fowl persuasion, at least none within the age of photography, my interpretation of this image fits the inspiration as Alan described it, and is just plain odd.

The theme for my Sepia Saturday is legs, because it is those appendages which first caught my eye in the inspiration image. Be sure to visit Alan and Kat's blog to see how the image of the boy and the birds  has inspired others, and perhaps you will be inspired too.

Legs kitted out in military garb.
For years my mom had this half of an image in a photo album. My mother knew one pair of the legs belonged to one of her brothers. When we were clearing out Mom's home after she died, I discovered the upper half of the image in the bottom of a box. The photo was taken c.1945 in India. The legs on the left belong to my mother's brother Patrick, the ones on the right to a Private S. Lewis. The inscription typed on the back of the whole photo joined together reads:
Pte P.J. Ball 
A.T.T.C. 
Mauripur, India 
Pte S. Lewis

The upper half of the 'legs' photo.
This photograph has taken me on yet another search to uncover the complete history of the service of my Uncle Patrick, and his brother, my Uncle Anthony, in the British Forces. Both men were stationed in India during World War II and afterward. To be Irish and serving with the British Forces in this period was highly controversial, since the government of Ireland did not officially acknowledge World War II as a war, but termed it 'The Emergency', and declared Ireland as officially neutral. Formerly restricted documents which have been released in recent years show that, behind the scenes, Ireland was working with the Allies.

On a much lighter note: My maternal Uncle Gerard on a skiff sailing in Dublin Harbour near Ringsend.
With legs up, he looks as though he's having a lot of fun.
Uncle Gerry was not only a sailing enthusiast, but a very talented boat builder,
who crafted wood yachts with his closest friend Eddie Fitzgerald.
The lightest note of all: Unfortunately a blurry image,
but you can't miss the lovely legs of my maternal Auntie Kay,
photographed at the seaside on Ireland's Eye, Howth, County Dublin.
Copyright©irisheyesjg2013.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Travel Tuesday: Travel back in time with the yacht Asgard

On the grounds of Collins Barracks
the building which houses Asgard.
When I was in Dublin in January I had the opportunity to view the completely restored yacht Asgard, which is housed in its own building at the National Museum of Ireland at Collins Barracks. Originally commissioned as a wedding gift for Erskine Childers and his wife Molly, the yacht Asgard is historically significant because it was used in July of 1914 in an event which is best known as the Howth Gun-running.

In order to begin arming the Irish Volunteers, writer and Sinn Féin activist Darrell Figgis travelled to Belgium to negotiate the purchase of 1,500 Mauser rifles and about 45,000 rounds of ammunition. Once the deal was made, Eskine Childers and Conor O'Brien agreed to divide the arms and transport them back to Ireland onboard their respective yachts. Figgis hired a tug boat and met Childers and O'Brien at a previously arranged point in the North Sea, where the weapons and ammunition were loaded onto the yachts.

With a skeleton crew, which included his wife Molly Childers and their friend the Honorable Mary Spring Rice, Childers sailed the Asgard with 900 rifles and about 30,000 rounds of ammunition onboard, landing at Howth, County Dublin, Ireland on 26 July 1914. Conor O'Brien, who captained the second yacht called Kelpie, took the remaining 600 rifles and about 15,000 rounds of ammunition for transport. His cache of guns and ammunition was ultimately transferred to a third yacht and landed in August at Kilcoole.

With respect to my family history, the yacht Asgard is significant because members of my family were involved in the gun-running at Howth, including my relative Laurence J. Kettle, who was a founding member of the provisional committee which oversaw the Volunteers, and my paternal granduncle Michael Magee, who was one of the young men who carried guns away from Howth on that July day. In his witness statement, Frank Henderson, one of the participants from the Dublin Brigade, said of that day,

We were fairly near the ship, the 'Asgard', when she arrived, about two hundred yards away, I suppose. It was very well timed. Just as the head of the column got to the end of the pier, she sailed into the harbour...The guns were passed out from hand to hand from the ship and we held on to them...I suppose we were about an hour or more on the pier. The idea of the organisers was to get away as soon as possible because we had to march back to Dublin.

Asgard has been beautifully restored with special attention paid to conserve as much as of the original yacht as possible. For a detailed look at the conservation and restoration of this vessel see Conserving Asgard on the Classic Boat website.

In the hall where Asgard rests, the walls are lined with boards on which is detailed
the history of the yacht, and of the gun-running to Howth.
The bow of the Asgard seen from the upper viewing platform.
A close view of the yacht from the upper platform.
A view from the stern. Unfortunately the window glass installed at this end of the platform slightly distorts the image.
The body of the yacht. From this viewpoint you can see how beautifully constructed the yacht is.
The stern with the yacht's name embellished across her.
The Asgard viewed from floor level.
On the left: young men reaching for guns from the yacht Asgard.
On the right: Molly Childers and Mary Spring Rice onboard Asgard,
displaying some of the Mausers they were transporting.
References:

Martin, Francis Xavier, ed. The Irish Volunteers 1913 - 1915, Duffy and Company, Dublin, Ireland, 1963.
Bureau of Military History, Witness Statement #53: Bulmer Hobson.
Bureau of Military History, Witness Statement #249: Frank Henderson.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Lost In Translation: Words & sayings; What did Mammy say to the milkman?

With Dad's help, a very early attempt at
cursive writing to Mammy.
When we were small children, my brother and I called our mother 'Mam' or 'Mammy', as Irish children do, or we referred to her as 'my mam', when speaking about her to someone else. It was the form of address taught to us by our mam, because it was the form of address Mam was taught when she was growing up in Ireland. Birthday cards addressed to my brother or to me were always signed from Mammy and Daddy, and we addressed cards to our Mam and Dad in kind.

The Irish word for mother is Máthair (pronounced MAW her), but usually Irish children call their mothers Mamaí (pronounced Mah-mee). 'Mam' is the shorthand of the word Mamaí, which basically translates to 'Mommy'. It was only when we started elementary school that our use of this word was 'corrected' by the nuns, who failed to recognize it for what it was, and told us it sounded wrong. Therefore, we were to address our mam properly, as they termed it, and call her Mom, Mommy, or Mother, a somewhat benign way of assimilating us into the Canadian classroom.

Thinking about our use of the term Mam reminded me of those words and phrases used by members of my family, some of which have their origins in the Irish language. After my parents and brother immigrated to Canada, they learned very quickly that there are certain words and phrases which do not translate in quite the same way they do in Ireland.

"Will you ring me?":  Translation: "will you phone me?"

"We're going to run out for some messages":  This involves little running and no messages, but instead is what Mom and Dad would say when they were going shopping for groceries.

"Ah, hold your whisht":  My mom used to say this when she doubted the veracity of what she was hearing. Basically it translates to: "Say no more; I've heard enough".

"I'll give you a puck in the gob":  Translation: "a smack in the mouth". This is purely a figure of speech, with no physical manifestation, and is usually expressed to someone who is being annoying.

"I'll break your face":  An Irish friend of my mom's used to say this to her daughters. While she would never physically touch them, sometimes it meant that they were in big trouble, and other times it was just an expression of annoyance.

"He'll leave you in a ha'penny place.": 'Ha'penny' is a contraction of the word half-penny, the smallest denomination of Irish coin when the Irish punt was the currency in use. In this instance ha'penny is used to denote the idea of something which is second rate or makes you worse off.

'Come here to me and I'll fix your quiff': Translation: 'Come here and I'll fix your hair". In both Ireland and the UK, from the 19th century, 'quiff' has meant a curl of hair on the forehead. In Canada 'quiff' is a slang term which has been used since the 1920s to describe a promiscuous woman, and these days the term has yet another offensive meaning. Apparently when my mother travelled on the city bus with my brother when he was a child, there were always raised eyebrows when she referred to his hair in this way. Mom used the term until a Canadian friend told her what quiff meant in Canada; she explained that hair on the forehead should be called 'bangs'.

'What did Mammy say to the milkman?'

The incident which best illustrates the idea of being 'lost in translation' is that of an interaction my mother had with the milkman not long after she immigrated to Canada. When my mother shared it with me, she described it as the time she learned the importance of speaking 'Canadian', so to speak. With the perspective given by time, eventually my mother was able to laugh about this.

 photo a-milkman.jpg
Not a Silverwood milkman, but the same sort.
When my parents first lived in Canada, they had milk delivered to their home. The milkman from Silverwood Dairy would arrive in his truck around 5 a.m., and leave the milk bottles on the veranda (porch) just outside the front door. My mom would leave payment for him in an envelope which she left either in the letter box or tucked into the top of an empty milk bottle. Mom would usually rise at around 6 a.m. to make breakfast for my dad, and see him off to work.

In Ireland, my mom had been accustomed to purchasing groceries from local shops, and also occasionally from 'carters'. A carter is a man or woman who would bring a large horse-drawn or donkey-drawn cart or wagon into the neighbourhood, loaded up with such items as farm-fresh milk and eggs, fresh vegetables, bread, and potatoes, all for sale.

After they were married my parents moved to a home on Belgrave Square in Rathmines, Dublin. The carters would come into the square and set up on the green to sell their wares. In Dublin, from Monday to Saturday you can still see carters bringing their goods to the market stalls in Moore Street.

A carter with milk leaving TradFest 2013, Dublin.
My mother recalled that, when she was a child, quite a number of carters would venture into their neighbourhood of Ringsend very early in the morning. Mom's father Patrick, my grandfather, set off for work on his bicycle between five-thirty and six o'clock in the morning. Since he was on his way so early in the morning, his neighbours would count on him to knock on their doors to ensure they were awake so that they wouldn't miss the carters.

When my mom learned that in Canada she could deal with a version of a 'carter', in the person of the milkman, albeit without the horse-drawn or the donkey-drawn cart, she was very happy. Although he drove a truck, and did not bring farm-fresh milk and eggs, it would be almost like having a little bit of Dublin on this side of the world.

My mother learned from one of her neighbours that the milkman also delivered baked goods. He would bring a large basket filled with fresh baked goods and you could choose whatever appealed to you. One morning she got up extra early in order to speak with him about buying fresh bread and pastries. Since it was the milkman's usual practice to deliver at around five in the morning, Mom was worried that she might miss him when she wanted to buy baked goods, and so she made the following request:

"Can you knock me up in the morning? Me Da' used do it for the neighbours."

Mom found it strange that the milkman's face blushed bright red, and he didn't answer her question. She thought that he might not have understood her, given her Irish accent and tendency to speak very quickly. Perhaps it was that he simply didn't want to be knocking on a customer's door at five in the morning. Later on that day she went to her next door neighbour Louise, and told Louise that she thought the milkman may not have understood her request. Mom told Louise what she had asked for...

And then... Louise explained to my mom what she had actually asked for.

After that day, my dear mother bought her baked goods only from the local grocer or the bakery, never again made eye contact with that milkman, and was very relieved when they moved to new neighbourhood.

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Click on images to view larger versions.
Milkman image from Suzanne57 on PhotoBucket.
Copyright©irisheyesjg2013.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Sepia Saturday #171: Castles, Ruins, and other edifices of antiquity

When I saw the inspirational image for Sepia Saturday #171, I was thrilled. Ever since our father and mother guided my brother and me, as we climbed through our very first Irish ruins, I have been hooked on old castles, as well as all manner of ruins, including churches, abbeys, stone huts and round towers.

There is a tactility with ruins; the stone seems to invite touch. When you graze your hand against the ancient stone out of which these buildings are crafted, it seems as though there is a cosmic connection with those who touched the same stone way back in time.

Over the years I have shot many photographs of castles and ruins in Ireland; here are a dozen of my favourite images. Be sure to stop by Alan and Kat's blog Sepia Saturday, and perhaps you'll be inspired too.

Tintern De Voto Abbey, County Wexford.
Not the Tintern Abbey of Wordsworth's poem, but nonetheless a place where we can
"see into the life of things".
For some inexplicable reason I have always felt a very strong connection to this place.
(Founded in 1200 by William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke, 1st Lord of Leinster).
The Rock of Cashel, County Tipperary.
The round tower is the oldest building on the site, dating to 1100.
Castle Dunguaire, a 16th century 'tower house' on the shores of Galway Bay, County Galway.
I've no idea who the happy couple are.
The 13th century Keep of Geraldine Castle which replaced a castle built by Maurice Fitzgerald in 1176.
The castle was the principal residence of the Kildare branch of the Geraldines, one of whom was
'Silken' Thomas Fitzgerald who fortified the castle against the English in 1534.
The castle was captured and dismantled in 1647.
Maynooth, County Kildare.
Swords Castle is right in the middle of downtown Swords, County Dublin,  and dates to the 13th century.
Gormanston Castle, County Meath
The seat of the Preston family, the Viscount Gormanston, from the 14th century until the late 1940s
when it was sold to the Franciscan Order of Friars.
The current castle was built in the 18th century (1786) on the site of an earlier castle.
It is now a co-ed college run by the Franciscans.
Hoare Abbey, County Tipperary.
Occupied from the 13th century (1270),
it stands just over the wall  from the Rock of Cashel.
The main Keep of Athlone Castle at the very centre of the castle.
Built on the River Shannon in the 13th century (1210), it is officially in Westmeath,
but is on the border between County Westmeath and County Roscommon.
Not exactly a castle I realize, but nonetheless interesting given that it is an Iron Age stone hut
just down the hill from the passage tomb at Newgrange, County Meath.
St. Kevin's Church and Kitchen,
part of the Monastic Settlement at Glendalough, County Wicklow.
The settlement dates to the 6th century. 
St. Reefert's Church, Upper lake, Glendalough, County Wicklow dates to the 11th century.
A last look before departing the 'ruined' neighbourhood of
the Monastic Settlement at Glendalough, County Wicklow.
Click on photographs to view larger version.
All Photographs Copyright©irisheyesjg2008-2013.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

In a silver and white hatbox...

When I was growing up, at times it seemed as though my mom was not particularly sentimental about objects. Although my mother kept birthday and holiday cards, it appeared that when it came to things, which some might save as keepsakes, Mom was more pragmatic. If something was no longer of any use, or in such disrepair that it was beyond redemption, then my mom would do away with it.

When you consider the time and place in which my mother grew up, the home in which she was raised, and the influence of Aunt Alice who principally raised her, it is perhaps easy to understand that my mother may have been like many of her generation, who attach less importance to objects than many people do in this day and age. When the children were given gifts which they might have kept as keepsakes, such as the rosary beads Laurence Kettle brought for them from Rome, my mother's grand-aunt Alice would not allow the children to keep them. Sometimes Alice would give away such items to other people, whom she felt would truly value such gifts or make better use of them; other times, these things simply vanished.

There were some items my mother seemed to treasure, prayer books, rosary beads, and the like. Occasionally Mom would tell me stories which involved special gifts she had received when she was a young woman, and I would ask her if she still had any of them. There were a couple she had kept, but the rest were long gone. At times it appeared as though she did not lament their loss, something which seemed odd to me, given that I viewed keepsakes as treasures because of the memories they hold.

I believed I understood the way in which my mother viewed keepsakes, and then there was a day last summer, a few weeks after my mom died, when we were cleaning out her home. We found things which undid any assumptions I may have held about what Mom kept and what she threw away.

On that day, I found an old silver and white hatbox, tucked away on the top shelf of the cupboard in my parents' bedroom. The silver starbursts festooned across the box have faded to a dull grey and the white has yellowed with time, but within that box is something which had been a treasure to me when I was a child, and which I thought had long ago been given away to another child.

On a warm Thursday morning, I use a small kitchen ladder to reach to the top of the cupboard, to draw down the old box. I unlace the worn white ribbon which holds the box together, and lift the lid. As I draw back the layers of tissue paper, the sight of a small white dress within the folds of the paper catches me completely off guard. It literally takes my breath away, and I begin to cry. It is the dress I wore for my first holy communion.

A little further down inside that old square box, I draw out another piece enveloped in still more layers of delicate paper. It is the silken under-dress of the little outfit. Time has yellowed it, but the lace which edges the hem is still intact, and all of it remains so soft and lovely. Further, I uncover the sheer long chiffon sleeves which buttoned unto the short sleeves of the dress, so that my arms would be covered during the ceremony. The last piece cocooned inside the paper is the veil.

As I unwrap each piece I lay them one beside the other across my mother’s bed. The silver embroidery on the bodice of the dress sparkles in the morning light, as does the silver thread which subtly adorns the chiffon skirt. Each part is deeply wrinkled from years of living inside that box.

Memories come rushing forward so fast as to knock me off my feet, and suddenly I am that little seven year old girl again, marching in procession up the aisle with my mother and my father on either side of me, sitting in the church and noticing how very tall the priest and the altar servers seem to be. Outside of the church after the ceremony an elderly nun leans down to congratulate me. Her old fashioned wimple seems to square her face like a picture frame. I remember proudly showing her the gold and silver communion medal, sent to me from Ireland by my Uncle Gerard.

As I sit there on my mother’s bed, I ask myself why it is that the presence of this little white dress wounds me so deeply? What is it that I have invested in the memories lying here before me? Am I hurt to know that Mom kept the dress hidden from me, or more likely am I weeping because it seems as though my mother treasured something that I once treasured too?

As I was thinking all of these thoughts, it occurred to me that a part of the outfit was missing, the little tiara wrapped in tiny white flowers which held the veil in place. Then, I remembered that I had been allowed to adorn the head of one of my dress up dolls with it, and now it is long gone. Suddenly it occurs to me that my mother did not hide the communion dress from me; she preserved it for me.

This little white dress is something which deeply connects me to my mother. I believe my mom knew I would be the one to find that silver and white hatbox. Now she is gone, so I cannot tell Mom how much it means to me to know she did not give it away, and how very grateful I am that she kept it for me. Still, I feel certain that somehow she knows.

On the day of my first communion, in
the treasured dress, on the steps
of the church.
Copyright©irisheyesjg2013.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Amaneusis Monday: '...tell him he has an uncle on a little island...'

When we think about family members emigrating from their homeland, perhaps never again to set eyes on the parents, siblings, and friends they leave behind, we might often find ourselves focussing solely on the emigrants. We wonder how they were feeling about leaving home for a new world; however, what about the feelings of those who were left behind?

Recently I came across an extraordinary letter which I had never before seen. The letter was in the very bottom of a box of negatives, tucked away within a larger box of photographs. It was written to my mother by her youngest brother, just two hours after he last spoke with her on the day she and my brother emigrated from Ireland to join my father in Canada.

Written by a young man who was barely twenty years old to a sister five years his senior, it is the poignant and sometimes funny prose of a brother who did not know if he would ever again see his sister Mary and his nephew Michael, whom he calls 'Junior' in the letter. It bears all of the words and the feelings that he was perhaps unable to express to her in person.

Dear Mary,

                 This letter will, I expect, arrive just before you do 'Please God', and I hope it finds you well after the journey.

                 The real reason why I am writing, only two hours ago I spoke to you, and I feel terrible guilty for not going as far as 'Liverpool'. I want to say sorry; I could have at least made a better effort to go. I don't want you to understand; 
I should have made a more sincere try at it, only now I realize my mistake.

                 You once said, "Paddy is my favourite brother", and now I want you to know you are and always will be my favourite sister. Let's you and me keep that a little secret.

                 Well Mary, 'Please God' your new surroundings will make you and Michael forever happy. You will I know settle down quickly and use the dollars Canadian style.

                 I hope Junior was okay on the trip, and didn't try to throw the captain into the ocean. Or did you feel that way inclined? When Junior grows up 'Please God' tell him he has an uncle on a little island who one day hopes to see him with his Mum and Dad, brothers and sisters, etc, etc. No limit nowadays , especially with that Canadian Climate. It works wonders. Who knows maybe the 'Irish Climate' will play a few tricks on me...

                 Well Mary I could write a longer letter but perhaps some other time. If you ever have time to kill drop me a line, even if it takes you all of your life to do so. I think my address will always at least be "Ireland".

Lots of Love to Michael and Junior.

                                   Take care Mary and God Bless.

                                   Your Loving Brother,

                                     John

                                     xxx.
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