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A Southside Childhood – Isobel Smyth

Writing.ie | Magazine | Mining Memories

Isobel Smyth

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Growing up around the Pimlico area of Dublin’s Liberties in the late 1950’s was a memorable experience.  It’s an old part of Dublin steeped in history and stories of rebellion, secret meetings, plots and desperate escapes through narrow cobbled laneways found around the Marrowbone Lane/Meath Street area.  Our cottages on South Summer Street, off Marrowbone Lane were an oasis of calm in the hustle and bustle of city life.  Although, just a short walk from Thomas Street it might as well have been in the countryside. My granny lived next door, her red half-door surrounded by fragrant geraniums. A large horse trough stood outside where, in bygone days, my grandfather’s horse would drink from it and then saunter over and head-butt the half-door to be rewarded with an apple.

In front of the cottages was a big yard with huge iron gates that led into the ‘other yard’ as we called it. That was our playground. Long summer days were spent swinging on those gates, chasing fluttering butterflies through the long grass, catching bumble bees in jam jars and gathering dock leaves to sooth nettle stings. Cowboys and Indians was a favourite game but I was always captured quickly by my older brother and left tied to those big gates waiting to be rescued!

We reached most places on foot and often encountered ‘Bang Bang’ (Thomas Dudley) on our travels. He was an auld Dublin character who staged mock shoot-outs with the passing public. His ‘45’ was a long church key worn thin and shiny which he aimed at people who, in general, participated in his good natured antics by returning fire with their finger, taking cover in doorways, even clutching their chest and falling down ‘dead’ on the city streets.

St. Catherine’s Bakery was a short walk past the tenement buildings on Marrowbone Lane towards Thomas Street. The smell of freshly baked bread wafted over the cobblestones as we hurried to the shop before queues formed outside for the mouth watering turnovers. Back home, the still warm bread would be cut into thick wedges, smeared liberally with butter and jam and washed down with a cup of creamy milk.

A trip to Thomas Street library was a welcome weekly event for us children. We climbed up the big stone steps of the library and into a world of make-believe where we lost ourselves among the Famous Five’s adventures or Biggles wartime heroics with the 633 Squadron. Books by writers Enid Blyton, Capt. W. E. Johns, Joan G. Robinson and Beatrix Potter were firm favourites of ours on a rainy afternoon among the tall, book laden shelves.

Friday morning was Thomas Street, Meath Street and Iveagh Market day. Being the youngest and not yet school going, I trotted happily alongside my mother and granny as they walked slowly, gingerly picking their way across the cobblestones, my granny leaning heavily on my mother’s arm. The length of time spent making the journey varied, depending on how many stops were made along the way to enquire about the health of Mrs N’s elderly mother or Mrs T’s gall stone torment. When the subject resulted in hushed voices and vigorous hand signals, I would be shooed away to stare in a shop window while matters not suitable for young ears were discussed in depth.

Thomas Street was a hive of activity with street traders doing brisk business on their colourful fruit and veg stalls. A right turn brought us onto Meath Street where I was sure to be rewarded by my granny with a Fizz Bag or stick of liquorice to keep me quiet while they lit candles at the back of St. Catherine’s Church. Back onto Thomas Street I held my nose as we passed the stalls laden with staring fish while ruddy faced women in blood stained aprons loudly shouted prices to attract customers.

Another right turn brought us onto Francis Street and the lively Iveagh Market where traders sold everything from second-hand clothes to antiques. The market was full of colourful characters, wonderful sights and smells but was more enjoyable during school holidays when my mother loosened her grip on my hand and I was free to wander around the stalls with my brother.
Over the years the streets and places of my youth have changed a lot, some gone forever like the cottages on South Summer Street, cobblestones and the delicious smell of St. Catherine’s Bakery bread. But a stroll around the Liberties at dusk can still conjure up images of cloaked men disappearing into the shadows of dark alleyways in a desperate bid to avoid capture.

About the author

(c) Isobel Smyth August 2011

Isobel Smyth although born on the southside of Dublin crossed the Liffey when she married a North County Dublin man and has lived by the sea for over 30 years.  She has always been an avid reader and dabbled in writing for pleasure. Participation in a Creative Writing Course some years ago awakened an interest in short story writing and she has had some success with stories submitted to magazines and local competitions.

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