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Childhood Memories of Strokestown by Brigid Kavanagh

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Brigid Kavanagh

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By way of introduction, I was the first surviving of my siblings to be born into independent (26 Counties) Ireland – at a good time – when the War for Independence and the Civil War were over. My parents’ stories of the Black and Tan reign of terror were such that I thought I’d experienced it myself, until I realised when older that it happened years before my time.

One of my earliest childhood memories was of ‘wren boys’ on St Stephen’s Day whose disguise had frightened my tender years. That year (1929) also saw the birth of the Shannon Hydro-electric scheme at Ardnacrusha which brought about the transformation of Irish life. It would be 1954 before rural electrification workers erected poles in our Gort Mór, literally ‘big field’. I was sorry to have left home by then, missing the excitement that brought to the quiet countryside when the power was switched on in 1955.

One light bulb was installed in each room and the only socket in each household was fitted in the kitchen. That was for an electric kettle – a boost indeed when compared to the heavy iron one which took so long to boil, depending on whether the turf was wet or dry, or the cipíní (kippings) seasoned or green.

The electric iron, without controls, was even more welcome, being so clean compared to the flat iron which had to be heated in the fire and to which ashes clung. It would be many years before the greatest invention of all for women, the washing machine, became part of kitchen equipment. Paraffin lamps and candles, except for the red Christmas candle, disappeared from rural homes. To this day I fail to see the attraction of (soft) candle-lit dinners though the ‘sweet music’ part appeals to me!

Farmhouses of ordinary people were lucky to have bare cement floors in the kitchen – some still had earthen ones – during that period. Bedrooms and parlour floors were of bare wood. It was many decades later when people ‘went up in the world’, first to linoleum followed by loose carpets. Wall-to-wall carpets in the 1970s became a real status symbol – but sure there’s no accounting for taste! Before we knew where we were, having carpets was not fashionable anymore and bare wooden floors became all the rage again. I can hardly be blamed for associating bare floors and candles with hard times, and so those are fashions I won’t be following.

Drawing water from the well went on for decades after my birth, a heavier chore for wash days especially when summer droughts dried up wells nearer home, and bucketfuls had to be carried from further away. Only those who have experienced the hardship of the tub and washboard can appreciate what washing machines mean to our lives.

Water had to be drawn, sometimes on carts, to fill tubs with drinking water for cattle. We had a Kerry (black) cow, the only native breed, around that time. They were known to be easily fed, good cows of high output but not for quality beef. Around that period also the farmers’ livelihood was under constant threat from infectious diseases for which there were no cures or vaccines. Those were the days of cold schoolrooms when fathers, including mine, brought a cartload of turf each autumn to heat the classrooms of their offspring for winter. Town children paid 6d, 1s, half a crown (6d = 2.5 pence or 3 cents), or whatever they could afford. With our cuts of soda bread and butter we brought glass bottles of milk which our nun teacher kept warm by the fire until lunchtime. It was a long day until we walked the two miles home by four o’clock to have a meal.

Cumann na nGaedhal (later Fine Gael) and the newly emerging Fianna Fáil parties campaigned vigorously in that election year (1932) from makeshift platforms in the towns. Campaigns were then conducted in ringing (not ring) tones by ‘honest to God’ rhetoric unlike present-day ‘sophisticates’, the products of multiple spin-doctors at enormous expense to the taxpayers. Their oratory was often challenged by hecklers and a barrage of rotten eggs, those secreted by hens laying out (away from the hen house). People were so appreciative of their right to vote that neither weather nor distance daunted them. I heard of one man killing another during an argument about politics.

I had very little connection with Roscommon town. I have certain memories of the few occasions I visited there in my youth. The journey was made on a single-speed bicycle, the only kind available then. Because Strokestown is in a hollow and Roscommon on a height, I must say that the struggle uphill was immense – I walked much more than cycled those twelve miles. The reward lay in freewheeling home.

I didn’t have to cycle there in 1939 – hackney cars were hired – when I had a tonsillectomy in the County Hospital. Up to then I had hardly any occasion to consult a doctor, except for the compulsory vaccination against smallpox. I was very much in awe of all the hospital personnel, even addressing the porter, Tom Hoare, as ‘doctor’ as I arrived at the lodge. Staff nurse Rafferty put the heart crosswise in me altogether because she thought I was stupid not to know what she meant when she sent me to the stores to get her a mackintosh (rubber sheet) for another patient’s bed.

There was no dance hall in the town in my childhood until the Magnet Ballroom was built in 1936. House dances, held in private houses, provided the entertainment during winter months. Most of these were informal and free of charge except for the ‘joined or joint’ (a combination of dances and gambling for a turkey) to which there was a small charge for the card-playing men, but entrance was free for the girls. These were held only before Christmas and all were given a sit-down supper. There was no shortage of music from melodeon to fiddle to tambourine playing neighbours. There had been a hall in the town (Brennan’s) but it was burned down before my memory range.

When a newcomer (Billy Chapman) opened up a cinema in 1940 there was great excitement. People who had never seen a film show before crowded to the ‘picture house’. Usually it was a ‘cowboy’ film. Two films were shown a week, on four nights. Holy wells were visited on ‘Pattern’ days. I remember being brought to Tobar Mhuire Murray somewhere down the Elphin road by horse and cart on Lady Day (August 15th) which was then a day of great devotion, and no manual work was allowed. Hay and turf, whatever the urgency, were left undisturbed that day.

One sight which has almost disappeared is the whitewashed house and surrounding walls which adorned the countryside. Lawe’s quarry, down the Elphin road, from where the limestone was drawn, lies idle. There were no hairdressers in the town. Women dressed their hair in plaits wound around their ears or in a ‘cul chingon’. Girls who had straight hair used curling tongs to curl, more likely singe, their hair for big occasions. Whatever the occasion or emergency, the Rosary was never neglected at bedtime in the home of my childhood and youth.

(c) Brigid Kavanagh

About In My Mind’s Eye: Walking Amongst Ghosts

This wonderful book by Brigid Kavanagh, is 95 stories and poems about growing up in rural Roscommon, working in London towards the end of World War II, and married life in Dublin

“In fancy I hear ‘God bless the work’ as they passed the fields together where we saved the hay – Frank’s happy laughter ringing out, and Maggie’s ‘Indeed then’ as she bustled past us. I can still see them in my mind’s eye, driving their cows back from milking, their dog barking excitedly, through the boreen to the fields, one in front, the other behind the cattle, and I feel that I’m walking amongst ghosts.”

Copies available to order here and here.

About the author

Brigid Kavanagh, née Shiel, was born on February 17th, 1926, in the townland of Bunnamuca, near Strokestown in Co Roscommon. She was reared on a small farm by her parents, John Shiel, a carpenter, and Mai (Gilleran), a housewife and farmer. She was one of ten surviving children. She left home for England in late 1944 where she commenced nursing training in St Albans, London. It was there that she met her husband, Michael Kavanagh, a Galway native. They married on July 30th, 1947 and returned home in December, 1948, settling in Dublin. They lived in Baggot St for four years before buying a house in Ranelagh in 1953. Twenty years later they moved house to Windy Arbour, Dundrum, where Brigid still lives today. They had six children and after fifty six years of marriage, Michael passed away in 2003.

It was in the early 1990s that she submitted insightful recollections of her rural childhood to the Ireland’s Eye magazine. This was followed by contributions to Ireland’s Own and many of her stories have since been published in both magazines. These stories form the basis of this book, intermingled with biographical and historical accounts of people and events mainly connected to her native Roscommon. She has also written some fiction, both serious and humorous, and her poems are usually linked to a story in each of the book’s nineteen segments.

Brigid is a long-time member of the Roscommon Association in Dublin and had her first article published in the Roscommon Association Yearbook of 1993. She has made regular contributions to this and to its successor, Roscommon Life. Several of her short stories and poems appeared in Writing from Roscommon in the late 1990s. As recently as 2018, one of her stories was included in New Roscommon Writings.

Through her membership of the Dundrum based Fountain Writers Group she has written for its various publications including The Fountain, The Slow Lane, In the House of Long Life, Deep and Flowing, Eyes Right, Cascade and Light and Shade, since 1990.

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