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Wars, hardship, and religious zeal shaped the generation born into the new Irish Free State. ‘Growing Up With Ireland’ gives us an insight of the era from the people who lived through it, writes Majella Flynn
HE stories and memories of 26 men and women, captured in a new book by journalist Valerie Cox, provide a comprehensive and evocative insight into a century of Irish life.
In Growing Up with Ireland, the interviewees, born in the 1920s as Ireland became a Free State, provide first-hand accounts of the struggles and joys of everyday life and give the reader an understanding of the broader political, social, cultural, and economic developments of the past 100 years.
Many of the nonagenarians’ early lives were touched by turbulent politics and war. Patrick Melinn recounts his uncle Joe’s involvement in Roger Casement’s 1916 gunrunning effort and Joe’s consequent deportation to Frongoch Internment Camp in Wales. Meanwhile, Nora Ryan’s father aided an on-the-run Michael Collins by hiding him in the attic of their home.
On the eve of the second world war, Dorothy Talbot was staying in the home of a student in Germany as part of an exchange programme and recalls: “And every night I could hear the German soldiers goose-stepping up the street. And every night her father disappeared, and I remember saying something to her about where he went. ‘Oh, he’s working for Germany,’ she told me.”
Sabina Tierney has memories of conditions in Ireland during the war years, noting that tea, sugar, and flour were rationed. The brown flour, she says, “was like pig food but people had to make do with it”. The sweeter things in life are fondly remembered by Eithne Lee and Maree O’Leary — liquorice pipes, Peggy’s leg, Honeybees, aniseed balls, and lemonade.
Cox also hears stories about life as a civil servant. Denis O’Callaghan, who was Charles Haughey’s private secretary in the 1960s, says of his boss: “He wanted to be all things to all people, he wanted to be the greatest. If there was going to be a king of Ireland it was going to be him.”
Michael O’Connell also joined the civil service: “I was appointed to Castlebar. And for a Cork City young fella, being appointed to Castlebar in 1945, it was like being sent to America.”
Social, cultural, and economic realities are also recalled. Martin Keaveny provides an evocative description of the fair in Glenamaddy: “There was much amusement after the cattle were sold and paid for. Ballad singers sang songs and sold bundles of ballads after performing. There were matchmakers, cheap-jacks (salesmen) and delph men.”
Others talk of the poverty and difficult economic conditions. John Flanagan remembers “going to fairs and we couldn’t sell the cattle... Britain wouldn’t take anything from us. This started in 1932 [Economic War]”, while Tom O’Mahony casts his mind back to “a field of turnips that we raided when we were hungry. We split the turnips on rocks to make them easier to eat”.
Emigration affected many families. At the age of 17, James Mullin went to England and then applied for work in Australia. The journey by boat, costing £10, took five weeks and three days, he recalls.
There is mention also of the returning emigrant. Rose Smith says that pure linen sheets, made from flour bags, would be used when her uncle came home from America. The sheets had other uses too: “Whenever a neighbour died, my mother would take those sheets and lay them out for the neighbour. So those sheets laid out half the country round our place.”
The theme of happiness despite the difficult economic conditions is threaded through the recollections. Tom Stack says “there was a lot of poverty, there were no rich people, but there was a great spirit of generosity”, while Kevin Kealy recalls that “ours was a rambling house. People dropped in every night of the week, there would be someone sitting around the fire, drinking tea, telling stories. You have to remember in those days there was no telephone, no radios, no telly. No nothing, as they used to say, but we were as happy as Larry.”
The memories of Kevin’s sister, Sr Máire
Kealy, give an insight into the role played by religion. Máire, like several in her school year, joined religious orders. “You couldn’t get home… you entered and you entered for life.” Sr Cosmas Cullen concurs, saying that missionaries didn’t come home even when a parent died. Meanwhile, Sr Dympna Stack had to adjust to a different culture and language at a novitiate in France.
Cyril Galbraith became a church bell-ringer in Limerick. “In between the wars, there was really nothing to do… someone suggested that we go down to St Mary’s Cathedral and ask them would they train us how to ring the bells, and that’s how it started.”
For Charlie Fitzmahony, getting a First Communion suit from an aunt in America was a treasured memory. “God bless America for the clothes parcels... I made my First Communion in a suit that came from America. It had a lovely jacket with frills at the back of it. And knickerbockers. All the fashion in America at the time, although my mother got a local seamstress to take the frills off the jacket before I wore it.”
The 1932 Eucharistic Congress was an exciting event for then seven-year-old Marie Elliott. “My father and mother went twice because they wanted to hear John McCormack sing… It was so exciting, I couldn’t sleep for weeks leading up to it and for weeks after it, thinking about it... people came from all over the world.”
Of course, love was in the air too. Anne Kennedy tells Cox about the great romance of her life, Frank. Anne says that as she cycled to and from work, Frank, who was a bus driver, “would throw a rose at me from the cab window and I would get off the bike and pick it up. That’s how it all started”.
Anne Blake says of her war-time marriage to Vincent: “There were very few weddings back then… We didn’t go on honeymoon, just back to work the next day, it was tough.”
Cox tells of how Austin Dawe met his wife Charlotte. “Austin and Charlotte made an ‘appointment’ for the following Saturday night to go to the Redemptorist Novena in St Patrick’s.” Austin explains: “It was the thing to do at the time. We were more religious and innocent, you know.”
Childbirth is discussed by a number of the interviewees. Pauline Hilliard says: “In those days, the mum never got out of bed for nine days after the birth, with the result that I was never at any of my children’s christenings.” Cox asks her interviewees whether they believe in an afterlife, and the responses are mixed. Bridget Josephine Maguire says: “With the way people talk in this present day, they’re beginning to put me off that there’s an afterlife. But I hope there is. To think I’ve spent all this life being good and there’s nothing at the end. I do believe in God but, as Gay Byrne says, who is He?”
In gathering and contextualising such stories and memories, Cox captures the multi-layered experiences of growing up in an independent Ireland. This book is a valuable record of everyday life and reveals how the country has been transformed over the past 100 years. The first-hand accounts will resonate with older readers and should be eye-opening for younger readers growing up in a very different Ireland.