Saturday, May 28, 2016

Joy in the miserable Irish Catholic childhood

"When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I survived at all. It was, of course, a miserable childhood: the happy childhood is hardly worth your while. Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood."
                               
                                                                                                        ― Frank McCourt, Angela's Ashes

Magee, Geraghty, Dunne and Maher family members on holiday at Rush.
Standing: left to right: Mary 'Mollie' Magee Halpin, a Magee child, Francis 'Frank' Magee;
Seated: left to right: Anne Maher Magee with two of her children, Mary Dunne Magee, my father's maternal grandmother;
Seated on ground: left to right: Patrick Geraghty, Rita Magee, Michael Geraghty (my father).
Dad's grandfather Patrick Magee took the photograph.
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When I recollect the reception Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes received in my family, when we read it shortly after its publication, I recall my father and mother had distinctly different responses to McCourt's memoir. My mother Mary found the story incredibly sad, while my father Michael laughed out loud at times, when he read parts of the memoir to which he could relate. One of my father's sisters hated the book because of the reaction it elicited in her work place. Kathleen had emigrated away from Ireland, settling in the UK, and was working in a prestigious position in the British Home Office in London at the time of the memoir's release. She felt as though she was held up as the archetype of the miserable Irish Catholic childhood, with her colleagues apparently assuming her early life had been exactly like that of the McCourt children. Kathleen recounted with disdain the number of times she was asked if her family had picked up bits of coal in the street.

Frank McCourt characterises the Irish Catholic childhood as a miserable one, the worst kind of childhood, but I would argue there is joy to be found in it. It might be said my father and his siblings endured a 'miserable Irish Catholic childhood', growing up in a home of strife and violence, with an alcoholic father who was possibly mentally ill, and whose working life was less than ideal. Despite the difficulties in their family life, my father found joy. This speaks to the remarkable resilience of children who often find happiness in the most simple pleasures.

My father held precious memories of holiday times beginning in the mid 1930s, when he was about six years of age. Dad and his elder brother Patrick travelled with their maternal grandparents, Patrick and Mary Magee, their aunts and uncles — Mary 'Mollie' Magee Halpin, William 'Willie' Halpin, Anne Maher Magee, Francis 'Frank' Magee — and Magee cousins away from the troubled Geraghty home to holiday at Rush, a lovely sea-side town in Fingal, North County Dublin. At Rush, with his extended family, there were delightful memories created, some to last a lifetime.

There was a lightness to these sojourns. The simplicity of the tin 'cottages', with their single windows and tiny doors was all they needed. The soft talc-like sand pushed a path through the fescue grasses on its way to the sea, and the salt air brushed across them in an embrace. The buoyancy of his Uncle Willie's mood, so different from that of his father John, together with joyous shouts of laughter at being tossed into the ice cold sea, was a hitch knot in memory, never to be loosened. Uncle Frank, poised on the crescent beach, a child balanced on one hip and a cigarette on his lips, knew little what it meant for a small lad to hear praise, or have his hair gently tousled, for skimming flat stones just right across the waves. These vestiges of happiness left an imprint on the mind of a tiny boy who grew up and away from Ireland, but never forgot these times.

This post is dedicated with love to the descendants of those in the photographs, to my Irish, English, Australian and American cousins.






©irisheyesjgg2016.

Friday, May 13, 2016

On the 85th anniversary of her birth...

Today, on what would have been her 85th birthday, with love we remember our beautiful mother. The collage I've inserted features some of my favourite photos of my mom as she travelled through life, both in Ireland and on her journeys beyond its shores, images which speak to Jonathan Swift's adage, 'May you live every day of your life'.

Our mother was born in Holles Street Hospital in Dublin, Ireland, on Friday the 13th, 1931 — always a lucky day — and passed away in 2012, one day after her 81st birthday. We very much miss her 'joie de vivre', and live our lives out loud in honour of our mamma.


Mamma, Happy Birthday in Heaven! 


Click on collage to view larger version.
©irisheyesjgg 2016.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Letters my mother never wrote to me...

Those of us who no longer have our mothers might sometimes daydream about conversations that can never take place and letters our mothers will never write to us. In the lead up to Mothers' Day I begin to feel jealous of those friends who still have their mothers, who can still talk to them about life, seek advice from them, and engage with them on any subject, even those matters of seemingly little consequence.

Like many others, I wish I had asked my mother more questions about family history, and indeed about her own history. Near the end of her life I did pose questions on topics about which I had not previously asked. The answers came at a time when it seemed as though almost nothing was off limits, but still there was some reticence. I have thought about a number of those answers and fashioned them into these letters my mother never wrote, a journey through some of her family history as my mother knew it.

*******************************************************************

Dear Jenn,

I'll call you Jenn only because some of your friends do, though I've always favoured Jennifer since it was the name I chose for you. You were always a very inquisitive child, annoying at times, especially over things we'd rather not talk about. My life was so very different from yours and I've often wondered if you understood that fact. 

You know your granny, my mother, died when I was five, but do you know how much I remember about her? I remember the softness of her cheek when she would embrace me in her arms, her gentle gaze, the wiry curl of her hair, the fragrance of her apron after she'd been peeling potatoes, and the laces of her black shoes. I remember the way her fingers would roll through the dough as she was kneading bread. I remember helping her in the days just before she died, petting her hand when she seemed so very tired, and saying 'I'll do that for you Mammy', as I wiped down the table. I remember the mark on her face, the thin purple line bruised with blue and yellow. It was there because her blood was poisoned. 

That mark was still there on Mammy's face when Mrs Doyle and the other ladies of Gordon Street came to our house to wash Mammy and dress her in her white burial clothes. Aunt Alice hung black crepe over every mirror in the house. We weren't allowed to gaze at ourselves in the looking glass because the devil might look back. Mammy was laid on her bed, a set of Alice's rosary beads was knitted around her hands, and we weren't allowed to touch her, but I did. Her skin was still soft but ever so cold and she did not look at me. Daddy was beside himself with grief, heavily sighing and very quiet. 

The curtains on the front window were drawn closed until Mammy was taken from our house. I looked for her later that day, and didn't understand why she was no longer in her bedroom. Instead she was inside a long box the men had carried outside. You know the rest of the story. Bernadette, Kathleen and I were allowed to look out the window when they placed that box inside a beautiful black carriage, what I now know to be a funeral cortège. It had glass windows lined with flowers and was pulled by horses, four I think, but maybe only two, beautiful black horses crowned with plumes of black feathers. There was steam coming from their noses, and their hooves made a thick clicking sound as they struck the cobbled pavement. We stood on tip-toes looking out the window each time the funeral cortege passed our house, as it circled the block once, twice, three times, and then it was gone and we never saw Mammy again.

Mary Fitzpatrick Ball, my maternal grandmother,
she of the soft cheek, the gentle gaze and the wiry curl to her hair.
1894 - 1936.
****************

Dear Jennifer,

You’ve asked me about my grandparents, so I’ll share what I can remember of them, which isn’t much I must admit. My paternal grandparents died long before I was born so I didn’t know them, and my father did not talk about them, except to say that I was given my grandmother Jane Early’s name as my middle name, so I was christened Mary Jane Teresa Ball. The only other thing my father ever told me about Jane was that she was a gentle woman with a shock of long silver hair she always rolled up and wore close to her head. I  used to imagine her unfastening her hair and brushing it out long with a silver boar-bristle brush while seated in front of a dressing table — a fantasy I know, but that’s the way I liked to imagine her.

The only grandparents I knew were my mother’s parents, Thomas and Mary Fitzpatrick. To me they were grandmama and grandpapa, though I don’t recall ever addressing them by name. There are only a couple of things I recollect about interacting with my grandparents. My grandfather did not speak — at least I don’t recall hearing him utter a word — but I do remember he had a lovely welcoming face and a little tiny smile tucked in under his white and grey moustache. Sitting in the front room with us, he would cast his eyes toward the floor and smile that tiny smile. 

In a way I remember my grandmother much better, well not really her, but her boots. Our father told us that we were not to look grandmama in the eyes — she forbade it — so on those occasions when she visited I used to look at her boots, fearing that if I did otherwise I might meet her gaze. Once, I was scolded for looking too long at those boots, but I couldn’t help it. They were marvellous, mid-calf black leather, with hooks and laces like an old fashioned corset. I used to wonder how she managed to fasten them up.

Mary Hynes Fitzpatrick, the woman with the marvellous boots,
whose gaze the children were forbidden to engage.
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Dear Jenn,

You have asked me about our famous family members and my recollections of them. To us they were not famous, they were family. We knew of our being descended from the Kettle family, and our connection to grandpapa's first cousin Thomas Michael Kettle. We always thought it was odd, and even a little embarrassing, that we had a relation with a bust on a plinth in St. Stephen’s Green. When we were children we knew Aunt Alice thought of the Kettles as the very successful branch of the family, unlike our family unit, the Ball family. Alice shared this in her own special way by treating our father with contempt and saying, ‘No Ball will ever set the Liffey on fire’. 

We knew Thomas Kettle’s brother Laurence Kettle was a very important man, Chief Electrical Engineer for Dublin City. When we were children we thought the best part of that was when he came to visit us and all the neighbourhood was aflutter over the fancy motor car and the chauffeur who waited on Laurence Kettle as he visited with our grandaunt Alice and our father.

We knew him as ‘Larrie’ Kettle, not Laurence. He was a generous, though somewhat intimidating, man who brought us gifts from his travels to the continent, boxes of Belgian chocolate, marzipan from France and rosary beads from Rome. We knew when he was to visit because Aunt Alice would keep one of us back from school to serve afternoon tea. Sometimes he would ask the child kept home a question or two about school, and then Alice would send that child away so only the adults were in the parlour for tea. 

So too, Alice was very particular about the way we were dressed when Larrie or another Kettle would come to visit. She would spend more than she should to make sure we were well fitted out, saying, 'I'll not have the likes of them see us looking poorly.' I was never certain how Alice felt about her cousin Larrie, but I believe he must have cared for her. In the end he paid for her to be taken into the care of the nuns at Roebuck Castle, and there she remained until her death in 1952.

Left: Alice Fitzpatrick Ward, circa 1945.
Right: Laurence Joseph Kettle, circa 1913.
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Dear Jennifer,

In this last letter I will repeat what I said at the outset of the first letter, you and I had very different lives. I was raised to be a wife and a mother, and taught that education was not for girls. It was not until long after you graduated from university, once I had a career of my own, that I came to understand why you had wanted an education and held it in such high regard. 

You used to tell me I had a beautiful singing voice and when I was a young girl I had aspired to be an opera singer, but I knew that was never to be the path for me. Back then such aspirations were set aside in favour of learning to cook, to clean and to sew, to be a homemaker. Once, at school I was given a prize for being the best student at kneading bread. I remember hurrying home to tell Alice. It was one of the only times I can recall when I felt as though I had pleased her.

When I was a child I used to sit at the foot of my father’s work bench when he was carving wood, shaping a cabinet door or box lid. As he worked, the curled shavings from the wood rained down onto me. I would pick them up and pin them into my hair like ringlets, imagining my hair styled for a fancy dress dance with a handsome beau. I imagined marrying a man just like my father, a man who worked hard, as my father did. These were the dreams that filled my childhood, imagining a life to come, following a path which had been strictly laid out for me, a path that lead me to life with your father, and your brother and you. 


Mary Jane Teresa Ball Geraghty,
my mom at the age of 16, 1947.
©irisheyesjgg2016.
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