My father’s first car was Sligo-registered EI-5165, a Singer open-top convertible with red leather upholstery. It had running boards along the sides, a walnut dashboard, doors that opened to the front and he often had to use a starting handle to get the engine going.
We four children had a real squash to fit onto the back seat. One would have to sit with legs stretched sideways along the top of the seat and the other three would then sit across the legs. Our longest ever journey was the dreaded monthly visit to our country cousins in Castlebaldwin fifteen miles distant near the foot of the Curlew Mountains, an expedition we suffered, and not always in silence.
My parents however, had undertaken a much longer journey in the stylish Singer – all the way from Sligo to Rome for the Holy Year celebrations there in 1951 when I was aged just three. They camped all the way, in a canvas tent made by my ambidextrous mother Mae, an accomplished dressmaker, in a rather lurid shade of lime green, the tent that is.
The tent and all the camping accoutrements were stored in our garage in a black box specially made by my newspaper Editor father, Tom, to fit the Singer’s large boot for their extended motoring adventure. In time, it become known as ‘the Rome box’, a repository for all sorts of bits and pieces with potential for future use. These included scraps of light-weight metal my uncle Liam had retrieved from the wreckage of an aeroplane which crashed onto the top of Benbulben mountain during or soon after World War II. Liam built and raced motor cycles as a hobby. Much later he was to manage the VW Garage when it was located on the Quays here in Waterford.
My Aunt Mary minded the four of us while our adventurous parents undertook their 1951 European saga. They took photographs everywhere with a Brownie box camera – all in black and white of course – and on their return, these were stored in a shoe box and often taken out for review on important family occasions.
Two photographs stick out in my mind particularly. One was the Singer swinging precariously at the end of a crane hoist as it was being stowed onto a ship at Larne for the sea crossing to Scotland. Of course, this was an era long before the drive-on/drive-off ferries of today’s international travel.
The other snapshot was that of my mother setting out a picnic on a grassy slope with the iconic Tower of Pisa leaning to the left in the background. Back in those childhood days, I had often tried to figure out if it was the angle of the camera that had disfigured the shot, thus throwing the tower out of vertical alignment.
In 1958 came the dramatic family announcement that a camping tour of France was to be undertaken. The ultimate destination would be Lourdes, for the 50th anniversary ceremonies marking the Marian apparitions there. I well remember the planning meetings at home when large maps of Britain and France were spread out across the kitchen table and various routes and detours discussed long into the night. These included visits to the tombs of St Therese in Lisieux, of St Bernadette of Lourdes we were while in Paris, and to the great French pilgrim sites of Rocamadour and Le Puy du Dome, where, when we visited subsequently, my father told me the colossal statue of the black virgin was cast from the melted armaments of WW1.