It is funny how a smell, a taste, a song, or even a saying, can trigger a childhood memory. Recently I was visiting my family in Dublin and my cousin’s husband greeted me with ‘Hey Culchie’. Well it made me laugh out loud. He asked me what I was laughing about. So I told him I’m called a Culchie now that I live in Wexford, in a town called Gorey and explained to him that as a child visiting Gorey, I was known as the Dub, or the run in, or the wan from the big smoke. All the locals thought we were rich and trendy, coming down from Dún Laoghaire.
We spent all our summers at the Cottage on the Cross, at Annagh Long near Gorey. It was my nana’s sanctuary, her home place, which she had left at the age of fifteen heading to Dublin to work in Dalkey as a children’s nanny for a family called Halfpenny. Those children visited her regularly when they grew up and had families of their own. My nana was called Fanny D’eathe and when she married Thomas Quinn, in 1934 in Dalkey church, the priest asked him was he not afraid to face d’eath and he said ‘No Father I am not’. Frances and Thomas rented a room in 59 Mulgrave Street, Dún Laoghaire.
I can just imagine her devastation when Thomas contracted Meningitis, at the age of twenty-eight, and ended up in St. Michael’s hospital, dying after three days. As Frances was pregnant with her third child, she was not allowed to visit him so she never heard his last words. I can imagine her standing beside that single grave, in St. Mary’s section of Deansgrange cemetery holding her two children, Tony, age two, by the hand and Sadie, ten months, in her arms. Frances had given Tom a good send off, his coffin housed in the glass hearse pulled by two black horses with plumes on their heads. She always talked about how people in Dún Laoghaire stopped and stared, as the bereaved walked from the town to Deansgrange, probably saying ‘Sure they were only three years into their marriage.’
A couple of weeks later, Frances lost her baby due to stress and grief over the love of her life passing. He meant everything to her. After Thomas died, Nana spent all her time working in the Dominican Convent school, bringing up her two children alone. However, her family in Wexford and Carlow were very good and she visited them regularly when the children were small. And then when us grandchildren came along, we spent all our summers with her at Lennon’s Cross in Annagh.
Nana loved coming to Gorey, spending time in her garden at Lennon’s Cross, weeding, weeding, and weeding. Painting gates, whitewashing the cottage inside and out. If you stood still for long, you would be whitewashed! She had a stone embedded into the hedge on the crossroads, which she also whitewashed. People used to say, ‘Oh, we knew Mrs Quinn was down, the stone is whitewashed on Lennon’s Cross.’ It glowed at night, showing drivers where to turn.
The crossroads got its name from the first people to live in the labourer’s cottage in 1880, John and Dorah Lennon and their only son Edward. We always believed that John Lennon was one of the Beatles. It was not until we were older that we realised this was not true, which led us to great disappointment. Nana also came to the cottage just after Christmas and Easter too. Little did the locals know, we did not have a pot to piss in and all our trendy clothes were either made by my mother, the great seamstress, or came from Penney’s shop.
The other day I was driving my car and a song came on the radio, ‘School’s out for summer’ and suddenly, I was back in Dún Laoghaire. All of us were loading up into the open-back Hyno truck. There would be Nana and us five. There were only two passenger seats in the front, which were for Mammy and Majella the baby, so we all had to climb into the back and hang on.
My dad would haul the couch and two armchairs from the sitting room and tie them to each side of the truck with a big thick rope. That would never happen today. The stepladder would be brought out and Nana would be shoved up and into the back of the truck and she would install herself on the couch and she in her late seventies. The stepladder would be thrown into the truck, so we could get her out again. Then we would fling all the black plastic bags in. Some containing pillows, blankets, sheets; another with Nana’s clothes, as she did not possess a suitcase.
Then the boxes of food would be put safely at the back of the couch. Two guitars, the battery radio, a cat called Oscar and then lastly, we would be shoved in. Most times, our friends would come with us, sometimes neighbours, sometimes cousins. Everybody got a holiday in the cottage, at some stage in the year. At that time in the seventies there were no decent roads, so we would have to trundle through Shankill, then stay stuck in the bottleneck at Bray for maybe half an hour or more, until we finally got onto the Wexford Road, where my dad could open up the truck and fly along.
Rathnew was the village where we always stopped for the 99’s which were so tasty. And we all loved the flake, as it was not a sweet we would normally get. Flakes and chocolate were too expensive, we only ever had penny blacks, gobstoppers, aniseed balls or hard-boiled sweets.
That reminds me of every Saturday, when Mammy would take us to the library and we would stop at Miss Parnell’s shop, a menagerie of interesting goods, from the latest magazines, comics, newspapers, to big glass jars, all lined up on the wooden shelves, holding different-coloured sweets. And there would be games and toys, all stuffed in on bulging shelves. Dad would give us a penny each to spend on sweets which came in a newspaper cone; Mam might buy us a comic an odd time, the Jackie, Twinkle, Bunty, or the Beano. It did not matter; we would be delighted with them.
As I pass the bakery in Gorey, heading to do my shopping, I get the smell of cinnamon. It brings me back to Christmas at our house, and I can see my nana in her apron, fighting with the turkey, plucking, chopping off the neck and the legs, then filling it with home-made stuffing, with her secret ingredient. Sometimes she would chase us with the turkey neck, or a leg, that would frighten the life out of you!
Her sister Jane in Carlow would send her up the turkey each year, on the train. First to Heuston Station, then it would be transferred to the Dún Laoghaire train and we would have to go to the station and pick it up. It took two of us to carry it, the weight of it. All this was strange to our neighbours, but normal for us. Jane had been sending turkeys to my nana since her husband died, and kept up the tradition.
As I drive my car out of Gorey, I hear the song, Silver Dream Machine, by David Essex. I loved that song and it reminds me of all those times we walked from Lennon’s Cross up to the pub, Nolans of Annagh; playing that song repeatedly on the juke box, we shot pool badly, played space invaders badly, flirted with the locals, listened to the lads in the snug fighting over cards, using very bad language, but when it was all over, they would walk home arm in arm.
Every Friday night, the Nolan girls would get the big pot out, fill it with lard and put it onto the gas ring out in the shed. We would spend hours peeling and cutting hundreds of potatoes taken fresh from the field. We would make chips to feed the nation. What happy memories that evokes which will live on in me forever.
BERNIE WALSH has been writing since childhood and works as a genealogist. Two of her books have been published by Boland Press: Driftwood, a collection of poetry and short stories, and her new novella Barney takes a Walk. They are available for purchase from Red Books in Wexford town.
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