Standing in the wooden porch I bask in the trapped heat of the midday sun. The rays are shining through the lead panes of glass causing the mica flecks in the granite steps to sparkle like silver. I wonder how many people have walked over these steps to cause the sloped indent? The old gate lodge was once a Post Office and for sure lots of people have walked across this threshold. The slow pace of life allowed for greeting and catch up, as locals meandered in and out, some of them with penny stamp savings books and the familiar blue and red edged air mail envelopes. We are now living in a hyper-connected yet disconnected society. Words are typed and deleted at breakneck speed.
In rural Ireland, when very few people had telephones, those who frequented the Post Office would have taken down an inkwell from a high shelf, out of the reach of children and made sure the nib of the pen was not crooked or the split would cause double writing. Every word that made its way onto the page, unblotted and neatly scribed, was a gift to be given to the reader. It was an art form and it was very rare for words to be written down without being given some thought, even if it was only a grocer’s list. The letters from sons and daughters abroad were reread over and over and the love letters made their way to treasure boxes lined with satin and smelling of lavender water. In villages the only telephone was in the Post Office, doctors’ surgery or at the vets. The overheard phone calls provided the gossip for the squinting- window brigade. The rural Post Office was as essential to community life as it is to this present day. They provided a keystone to connection for many a lonely person. If the post mistress noticed that Harry McGarry’s old sheepdog was just about to make his way to God’s waiting kennel, she would put a word in the ear of Matty Bourke whose Sheepdog bitch was just about to deliver a litter of pups.
Maybe this Post Office provided the first soundbite, with the telegram being a means of sending urgent messages. There would have been a necessity for sparsity when each word written on the telegram was charged for. Some of these telegrams would have given Ernest Hemingway’s ‘One Line Story’ a run for his money. One local young widow and mother to several children, was summoned by an austere uncle to attend a distant relative’s funeral in Monaghan and she a grieving widow, struggling to cope with her young family. She replied with a telegram ‘Too busy minding the living’.
The Post Office also had many parcels arrive from America containing funny clothing with the exotic smells of American soap Powder. Another woman, who was as uptight as her perm and only wore skirts with block colours of brown or black, provided dynamite to the tongue-waggers. She was seen sauntering around Hollyfort village wearing trousers sent to her from an aunt in Ohio. One old bachelor swapped his ancient cap with its nondescript, oily lining, for a baseball cap with stars and stripes.
At Christmas time turkeys were sent to people in the post and God only knows what they thought in the sorting office up in Dublin; turkeys arriving feathers and all wrapped in newspapers and twine. All this to-ing and fro-ing into Mount Nebo Post Office would explain how the granite steps are so worn. A few years back, I wrote a letter to the Museum and Heritage Section of the GPO., Dublin seeking to find out some more detail. I am fascinated by the past. Anyway, this house has history enough to keep me busy. Although the gate lodge was built in 1880, the first record of it being a Post Office is 8th July 1914. Bridget Behan was appointed Postmistress in 1914 and Mrs Phyllis Bolger on 1st November 1936. When we first bought the gate lodge in November 1997, there were wooden shutters on the windows. The front set of shutters had a rectangular cut-out for Post Office use.
On numerous occasions visitors have spoken of seeing a ghost in one of the upstairs rooms. My son- in- law refused to sleep in that particular room and likewise my sister and her husband. I have no reservations about a ghost, as I fear the living not the dead. Sometimes the lights dim and a knocking sound can be heard at the door with nobody about.
Roughly ten years back I spoke to Mary Teresa Bolger. Her sister Annie was born in 1936 three days after her parents moved into the house. Her Mother Phyllis was the post mistress. They had very fond memories of living in the old house; lighting tilly lamps and fetching water from an adjacent spring. The homely smell of bacon and cabbage, mutton stews and fresh soda bread, would waft into the Post Office and mingle with the individual and seasonal smells of country life.
Mrs Bolger was a dab hand at counting the ten-shilling and one-pound notes and watching Lady Lavery flickering past as she dipped her finger into the small circular wet sponge. The shiny farthings, pennies, threepenny bits, sixpenny bits, Shillings, two-shilling piece and half-crowns all had to be counted too. Mount St Benedict was the main house, which was a Benedictine school run by Father John Sweetman. He appears to be quite a controversial figure of a man. He grew tobacco and had his own brand of cigarettes called Kerry Blue named after his beloved canine companion. He held regular dances for the locals in the large ballroom. The children of the post mistress would listen to the music as it drifted down through the fields and straight in the open windows, on a warm summer’s evening.
When it came to dancing, there were lots of rules and regulations that had to be adhered to in the 1940’s. One urban council had amongst their list of rules, that ‘indelicacy of dress on the part of women dancers to be instantly reproved by the person in charge’ and that jazz and what is known as ‘slow motion’ dances should be taboo in the hall. Fr Sweetman was the overseer of any misconduct in the ballroom of romance at Mount St. Benedict.
John Francis Sweetman (1872 -1953) born in Clohamon, Ferns, Co. Wexford founded the Benedictine school in Mount Nebo. He was educated in Bath and at the age of twenty-eight, went to South Africa as a catholic chaplain to the British forces. In later years he had a complete turnabout, becoming very much aligned with the Irish Cause. One pupil who attended Mount St Benedict was Seán, the son of Major John McBride. Major McBride led the Irish Brigade who were fighting against the British forces during the Boer War. In later years, this could have influenced the Benedictine Monk Fr. Sweetman with his strong anti-treaty stance. Indeed, when Major John McBride was executed in 1916, Maud Gonne – John’s divorced wife – took her twelve-year-old son, Seán McBride, home from France to be educated in Mount St Benedict.
Seán McBride was a member of Sinn Féin (1918-1931) and chief of staff of the IRA from 1936 to 1937. In the years that followed, he participated in many international organisations including the United Nations and Amnesty International. He received the Nobel Peace Prize for the year 1975-1976. During the time Séan attended Mount St Benedict, he would have known Stanislaus Markievicz, the stepson of Countess Markievicz. She was one of the leaders in the 1916 Irish Easter Rebellion. Stanislaus entered the school in 1907. Seán would have walked down to the Post Office with Fr. Sweetman’s little Kerry blue, barking and running alongside him. He would collect his mail from France and translate it to Irish for the others to read.
I can only speculate that both Máire Comerford and Aileen Keogh, who were two very radical republicans and members of Cumann na mBan would have frequented the Post Office. Aileen Keogh was a matron in Mount St Benedict School and Máire Comerford her friend and assistant.
During the war of independence (1919-1921) Aileen Keogh was charged in court with having seditious documents and ammunition and was sentenced to two years imprisonment. She escaped from Mountjoy Gaol in1921, along with Linda Kearns, May Burke and Eithne Coyle. They used a stolen key and climbed the prison wall with the aid of a rope ladder. Aileen made her way to Duckett’s Grove (Carlow) IRA training camp and stayed there until December 1921, subsequently made her way back to her comrades Fr. Sweetman and Máire Comerford. Aileen Keogh died in 1952 and Fr Sweetman in 1953. Twenty-nine years later in 1982, as the rifles fired their honorary shots over the graves, Máire Comerford finally joined her two friends. The three of them are now laid to rest in a low, wall enclosed graveyard in the grounds of Mount St Benedict. These three lone graves in the middle of a field appear incongruous with the cattle grazing, oblivious to their guests who lie in the shadow of the large oaks.
As the sun sets and the coolness of night descends, I stand up from the granite steps and think of Saint Brigid’s ‘Threshold Rite’. After hanging a cross made of rush, we knock on the door three times to acknowledge her. This threshold, a liminal space, has stories etched into every bit of granite and just like mica some of them shine brighter and need to be told.
LUCINDA NOLAN lives in Hollyfort where she is a member of the book club and the Writers’ Group. She enjoys walking in Mount Nebo and on the wonderful beaches of Wexford. Lucinda has two grown-up children and a grandchild who helps her to be creative.
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