During my early schooldays, some of the happiest times of my life were spent in Cathair Caim in the home of my Uncle Miah (my father’s brother) and his wife, Auntie May. The following are some cherished memories of my time there in the 1950s.
One of my earliest memories is saying the rosary at the Grotto. It was usually dark and often raining. Sheltering from the rain under Auntie May’s coat, I peered out. I could barely see the neighbours, wearing caps and coats with collars turned up against the driving rain. It was amazing to listen to the chant of the Rosary being recited. I particularly loved the prayer, said at the end of the Rosary, called ‘Good Night to Our Blessed Mother’.
In Cathair, spring and summer were never far away, and saving the hay was a wonderful occasion. At midday, Auntie May would arrive with a gallon of sweet tea, lovely buttered home-made brown bread and my favourite – white currant bread. We younger ones used to sit on the cocks of hay, as they were being pulled by Tommy, the horse, through the fields to the hay-shed. How I looked forward to climbing up the ladder in the hayshed to search for hens’ nests and the warm eggs inside!
I loved to watch my cousin, Brendan, shearing the sheep and cutting mangolds for the cows. Then I would wander to the pig-sty to see the squealing pigs and their banbhs. I often watched Auntie May sitting neatly on a low stool milking the cows. The cat would sidle in and wait expectantly for that squirt of warm milk! Some cows were quiet and easily milked, but I also remember being shown the ‘cross cow’ behind the door of the cow-house. I avoided the sudden angry swish of her tail!
I used to wonder about the willow rods on damp ground above the hay-shed. Uncle Miah explained that long ago they were used for weaving baskets, and by keeping them damp, they remained pliable. A demonstration of basket-making proved he had not forgotten the ancient art.
I often went with Auntie May to the well for water, she in her blue cross-over bib, and I in a mini version, which she had made for me. We walked up the hill past Tim Murphy’s house, and there in a field on the left of the road was Tobar Choimín. A little tin saucepan lay beside it, which we used to skim the well before filling our buckets. The taste of that cool, clear, spring water remains with me.
As the nights drew in, the neighbours would gather. My cousin, Connie, used to tell of a local storyteller, who would hold his listeners spellbound with heroic tales and stories of hardship at sea. Then on other occasions the accordion was cue for singing and dancing in the kitchen!
I loved watching local women quilting. The corners of a blanket were tied to the backs of chairs and the various colourful strips of material were hand-stitched on to the blanket over a period of hours. The end result was a wonderful multicoloured patchwork quilt! Another very interesting nocturnal activity was butter making. A wooden hand-churn was used. Then, the adults would take it in turns to turn the handle, and would check on progress by looking through the hatch at the top. The butter, which was soft and mild, was shaped with wooden bats, but not before we had filled our cups with tasty buttermilk! Another nutritious night-time drink was a glass of milk, stout and sugar ‘to build you up’. I loved it and slept like a log afterwards!
A very special place was ‘down-the-room’ – an old world sitting-room with a lovely open fire. I loved to sit there and read the Christmas book about Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer. It was a long poem, beautifully illustrated. The names Prancer and Dancer remain in my memory and still have a magic ring for me. On St. Stephen’s Day, when the wren-boys ruled, the welcome was always warm. From the safety of my cousin Mary’s bedroom window, I dispensed a fistful of coins to the waiting wren-boys on the gravel-path below.
Going to mass in Eyeries in the trap was a special treat. We sat cosily with a plaid rug over our knees.The little door at the back was clicked shut and we were on our way. I loved the rhythmic stride of Tommy the horse, and the gentle sound of the tackle. The horse and trap were tethered near the bridge in Eyeries in what seemed like a never-ending line. These were the early years and that line would soon be just a memory.
Many years later, with my late husband Martin and our daughters, Cáit and Emma, I often visited Cathair Caim at Easter, and experienced at first hand a warm and genuine welcome. Shortly before he died, I dreamt that I arrived in Cathair Caim and Uncle Miah, slightly stooped and older now, smiled his most disarming smile.
“You are most welcome, Emma”, he said.
“I know that, Uncle Miah,” I replied.
After a while, he fell silent – sadly, some months before that, he had lost his beloved May.
Cathair Caim was always a haven of peace, order and quiet, presided over by two of the loveliest, most Christian people I have ever known. Their unforgotten goodness and kindness is their fitting epitaph.
‘Gifts of gold and silver can be repaid,
but we die forever in debt to those who are kind’