Archive | March 2019

The circus comes to town

A couple of times a year, the circus came to town. The announcement would appear in multicoloured posters pasted to telephone poles all over town, with the names of the acts and the show times. The circus would usually spend just one night in Drogheda, arriving early in the morning, putting on a show in the afternoon and another that night, and they would have moved on the following morning to the next town.

Word would spread like wildfire on the morning the circus arrived and we children would all head over to the circus field in the Crosslanes, to help with assembling the big top. We would crowd around the circus hands asking how we could help, and they might get us to pull on a rope to raise one of the poles or help to roll out a canvas. When the tent was up they would hand out a number of free passes to those who had helped the most. I’m sure I wasn’t much help and I never got a free pass, but it was all very exciting. In the afternoon we would go back to find the whole field was transformed. One truck formed the colourful entrance and ticket office. You went up a small stair to buy your tickets, or show your free pass if you had one. You then went through a curtain and down more steps on the other side and into the circus tent. The sunlight shining through the colourful big top combined with the smell of the grass made it all so exotic and exciting. You knew you were in for a treat.

Some kids would try to get in for free by crawling under the sides of the tent. The circus people guarded the sides to try to prevent this, but there were always some who were successful. If lucky they would find themselves under the seats, which were just wooden planks on a frame. If you were already inside you might find another boy under you asking you to move over so that he could hoist himself up and squeeze in beside you. The most expensive seats were the ringside chairs, and there were always some children sitting there, usually accompanied by older adults, probably their grandparents.

The ringmaster would announce each act in turn in a booming voice. A favourite act was the trained ponies which would perform various tricks for the ringmaster, running first one direction, then the other around the ring and posing in various formations. Then a person would stand on a pony’s back while the pony ran around the ring, and they would skip rope while doing so, or take another person on their shoulders. The trapeze act was particularly exciting. A safety net would be strung out across the ring and the performers would climb up a rope ladder nearly to the very top of the tent and perform on a swing, or they would fly between two swings in the bigger circuses. The ringmaster would hype up acts with references to death-defying tricks never before attempted. Some performers used the safety net as their way down from the trapeze, launching themselves from the swing into the air to then land gracefully on their backs onto the net, and tumble off onto the ground to bow to the audience and to receive their applause. The tight rope was another staple and occasionally there was the even more exciting slack wire, which swung wildly while a performer crossed and recrossed it, performing various tricks while doing so. There were some innovative acts, such as a trick motorcycle act I remember once in which bike and rider sped around the ring then shot up a wire to the top of the tent so that they were riding around way above our heads. It seemed impossible and we were left gasping.

The clowns came out for various turns throughout each show, but the highlight so far as the clowns were concerned was the clowns’ car, which would move when no one was in it and stop moving when the clowns got in, and then suddenly start moving again and finally fall apart as the clowns rode around in it. The clowns were funny, but also a bit scary and you would not want them to catch you when they ran around jumping up on the edge of the ring and advancing into the audience.

The circus band performed from a bandstand on top of the truck which formed the entrance arch, and the band personnel kept changing throughout the show as most performers doubled up as musicians. After the show some circuses had a zoo which you could visit on payment of a small additional charge. You would access it through the performers’ curtain at the back of the ring, which added to the mystique. Here you’d find a few cages and pens containing various animals, such as ponies from the pony act, and some small monkeys. I remember once there was the most amazing sight, a five-legged calf with an extra leg jutting out behind him. Most regular circuses I went to didn’t have exotic animals like lions or tigers, but occasionally larger circuses came to town, such as Chipperfields and the Bertram Mills circus.

A Galway Girl

Anne was heavily pregnant in 1976. We had a number of visitors in the house. Fran and Pauline had got married and moved in with us for a while, and Jane was just visiting. I cannot remember who else was there. Anne had gone upstairs to bed as she was tired. After a while she came to the top of the stairs and I remember Jane looking up at her and asking was she okay. Her waters had just broken and the panic began. Fran had a green second-hand Renault 4 that had previously been a post office van. He offered to drive us to the hospital so Anne and I quickly gathered the hospital bag and we were off. Fran’s eyes were fixed on the road, but I didn’t realise how panicked he was until he drove through a red light at the Claddagh Palace. Luckily, it was late in the evening and there was no other traffic. We continued up to the hospital.

Unlike with Andrew, I was allowed into the delivery room in Galway. I think this is because things were a little more haphazard in the Regional than they had been in Hollis Street, rather than that they had a more accommodating policy in relation to fathers. I stood at Anne’s side saying soothing things and not really knowing what I was doing, except being there. Sometime after two in the morning Heather came out in one smooth movement. I remember seeing here purple crumpled body before I heard her cry. Afterwards I skipped all the way home, delirious, and was nearly back at the house before I noticed I was still wearing the surgical mask from the delivery room. I wrote a poem about it later.

Anne was determined to feed Heather as soon as possible, to avoid any of the problems she had with Andrew. You weren’t allowed to breastfeed in the ward in case you offended the other mothers or their husbands or other visitors, which meant she had to haul her worn out and bloodied body to the special feeding room a few times a day. Meanwhile visitors gathered in the ward admiring the little babies, new to the world, while chain smoking over them. Different times, different priorities. 

A road trip to Florida

Work trips with Digital provided much excitement for the family, as often I was able to bring them along . When I was sent to Massachusetts for a few months in the late ‘80s to prepare for the introduction of the VAX 9000, Anne and the kids came over for a few weeks in the middle. To makethe most of this we decided to embark on an epic family road trip to Disneyworld in Florida. I had been working twelve hour shifts for half a week at a time, which meant that when I finished one shift I was able to arrange a full one-week break before starting the next. I figured that we could make the 1,300 mile journey to Orlando in just two days, then take two days to visit Disneyworld, and another two days to get back. We had use of a rental Dodge Caravan, a decent people carrier, to make the journey.

We headed off in the early morning the day after my shift finished and I was keen to make as much progress as possible before we stopped. Once I am driving I can continue for hours without either food or toilet stops, and this was the regime I envisaged as we headed off. But of course, Anne and the children had other ideas. “Can we stop now?” “Just a few more miles.” “We’re hungry.” “Just a few more miles.” “We need to go to the toilet.” Just a few more miles!” We made the necessary stops, but always with me fretting about time lost at each stop!
At one stage on the journey, Heather said something that sounded like “Love you”. Anne responded, “I love you too”. A few minutes later Heather said, more insistently, “Love you” and again Anne responded, “I love you too”. This was repeated a few times before Heather said, more insistent still, “No, not ‘love you’, I’m saying ‘Low Fuel’.” She had noticed an alert light flashing the words on the dashboard; Anne and I had completely missed it. Luckily, we still had time to find a gas station and fill up. A few hours into the journey we were driving through New York City, with me awestruck by the sheer volume of traffic on the multilane roads and Anne worrying that if we broke down we would be attacked by gangs and our murdered bodies left at the side of the highway. We crossed the Hudson and soon joined the New Jersey Turnpike, where Anne and I regaled the children with a ropey rendition of Simon and Garfunkel’s “America”.

We stayed in Charlotte NC the first night and eventually made it to our Comfort Inn in Orlando at the end of a second long day of driving. We bought discounted tickets for Disneyworld at the hotel, then worried all night that they were fake. But they did the job and gained us admission the next morning. In the giant parking lot stewards directed us to park in a grass section, shouting repeatedly the name “Goofy Grass” as we exited, so we’d remember where we had parked.

I suppose like most people who have ever visited Disneyworld, we were totally bowled over and charmed to an extent that surprised us. Though it was early in the year, the weather was warm and the sun shone all day. We had a busy day of flashy parades and well-designed rides, with Disney characters turning up unexpectedly to greet the children and sign autographs! We were there from early morning and we stayed until the park closed in the evening, finishing with another parade where they handed out glowing necklaces to the children. We stopped at KFC and bought a family bucket of chicken and potato to bring back to the hotel.

The following day we visited Universal Studios, in some ways an even better experience. I remember the children reaching to try to catch butterflies in the 3D cinema, and a replica movie set that showed how special effects are created. Next day we started the long ride home. I don’t remember where we overnighted on our way back, but the receptionist was not quite unflappable when I rang ahead to book the hotel just before leaving Orlando. When I said where we were coming from she replied, “and you expect to get here this evening!” We made it, and continued our journey the following day, when we encountered the heaviest fog I have ever driven through. We made Massachusetts by nightfall, everyone safe, sound and sleepy.

A yocky house with a yocky chimney

Gerard (left) and me (right), probably taken just before I got lost

In this post I write about the earliest clear memory that I can date.  I was about two and a half years old, in the late Summer of 1954. We had just arrived in Bettystown on our holidays. Mammy would have been pregnant with Eric at the time, though of course I knew nothing of that. Mammy and daddy were preparing the house while Gerard and I were playing together in the sand close to the house. I said to Gerard that I was going to go for a walk. He said not to, that mammy had told us not to move from where we were. I remember feeling confident, grown up, as I replied “I’m only going for a walk.” Knowing now how a two-year-old speaks, I’m sure I can’t have been quite so clear!

I walked down the beach in the direction of Laytown. Soon two nuns from the Sisters of Mercy found me and decided that I was lost. I guess I was lost, because a two-and-a-half-year-old should not be walking by himself on a beach. However, instead of walking me back up the strand to look for my mother, which I now think would be the obvious thing to do, they brought me into the order’s summer house/convent, which opened onto the strand. I remember going in a narrow metal gate between concrete posts, up some steps and along a path to the house. They were very kind to me.

Inside they gave me milk and biscuits and all the nuns gathered round to ask me about myself – who I was, where I was from, and so on. Some of them thought they recognised me from my mother, who had attended the Sacred Heart school in Drogheda, but this didn’t help. They tried various ways to get me to say my mother’s first name or surname, but these all failed. They asked what my mother’s name was, I said “mammy”; they asked what my father called my mother, I said “mammy”; they asked what he called her when he was talking to other people, I said “mammy”. I don’t know if I knew my own surname at the time, but I certainly didn’t know my mother’s maiden name, Murray, which is the name that they would have known her by.

I told the nuns that I used to live in a nice house with a nice chimney but that we had moved to a yocky house with a yocky chimney. The house was in a little lane on the Laytown side of the main entrance to Bettystown beach. Eventually a woman who worked as the nuns’ housekeeper came in and told them that people in the village were looking for me. This woman took me off on her bicycle back towards Bettystown. Mammy was out on the road looking for me and she saw me coming. She grabbed me from the woman and was very upset, though I didn’t understand why. I had had a great time and really enjoyed all the attention.

Baby is born

In April 1975 Anne was on maternity leave from the Tax Office. I was working in ICM, a small electronics firm in Tallaght that manufactured video tennis machines similar to Pong. We were living in a bedsitter in Rathmines and I would read baby books – Dr Jolly and Childcare Made Simple – as I travelled to and from work on the bus every day. Anne’s sister-in-law Deirdre was visiting with her own baby when Anne started having contractions.  Anne didn’t immediately realise that she was in labour, but Deirdre recognised the signs and urged her to contact me in work.

I was called into the office and told that my wife had called to say she was in labour.  I left work  immediately. I knew there were no buses at that time of day, so I sort of trotted and walked all the way back to Rathmines. Google maps tells me that journey should have taken me nearly two hours, but I don’t think it took me quite that long. When I arrived the contractions were regular and we knew we would have to go to the hospital. We hailed a taxi on Rathmines road and told the driver to bring us to Hollis Street. He asked if Anne was expecting. When he heard that her contractions were every few minutes he stepped on the accelerator and took every short cut possible to get us to the hospital on time. I’m sure he was terrified that the baby would be born in his taxi.

In Hollis Street they examined Anne and decided to admit her. I went with her as she was wheeled down a corridor towards a double door. At the doors I was told firmly that I could go no further. Anne said that she wanted me , but the nurses were adamant that fathers were not allowed. I was told to leave and that there would be no news for several hours. We were bemused the following year to read in the paper that Hollis Street was leading the country in encouraging fathers to attend the birth of their babies. The article was written in such a way as to suggest that the barrier was the attitude of the fathers, rather than the firm ‘no’ at the double doors!

Reluctantly I left the hospital and just walked around the city, up and down Grafton Street and around St. Stephen’s Green, wondering when it would be okay for me to go back to the hospital. On Grafton Street I met Áine O’Connor who had taught me drama in Drogheda a few years previously. She asked what I was up to and was taken aback when I said I was married and that my wife was in hospital having our baby. She said I must go straight back to the hospital. Just then I met our friend Pauline and she came with me. Andrew was born at 6:30 pm and a while later I was finally allowed in to see Anne. She had black eyes and looked like she had done a really hard day’s work. But she was glowing – our new baby boy was with her and we were both ecstatic.

A few days later we brought the baby home to the bedsitter and a few weeks later ICM went into receivership. This meant the two of us were able to spend endless time with our new baby all that summer, though it also meant that money was tight.

Top of the hill

Anne was the fourth child of her family, born in July 1952. The family lived in the farm at The Top of the Hill. There were a few houses there at the time occupied by members of the extended family. The houses had no electricity or running water. Any water needed for cooking, for bathing or for washing dishes or clothes, had to be drawn by hand in a galvanised bucket from the well which was about a quarter mile from the house. Water also was needed to scald the milk churns to ensure hygienic storage for the milk which was sent to the creamery each day. This all necessitated several trips to the well every day.

On this day Anne’s mother, Annie, was on such a trip to the well when she went into labour. She was carrying two buckets of water, and she had her then toddler Michael by her side, when her waters broke. She went to the nearest house to a relative, Pidge, who sat her down and gave her a glass of brandy. (Annie never drank alcohol!) Under Pidge’s care, the wheels were set in mothion. Anne’s father, John Francis, was at working a bog belonging to Annie’s uncle Pattie Brown in Tullig, about six miles from the top of the hill. He had travelled there by donkey and cart earlier in the day. A neighbour was dispatched to the bog by bicycle to tell John Francis. When he got there he took the reins of the donkey and cart and he gave John Francis the bicycle. John Francis cycled as fast as he could back to Glandore. His neighbour from the local hotel owned a car and this man drove John Francis and Annie to Skibbereen Hospital where Anne was born later that day. The baby was quickly christened and Annie returned home to the farm to resume her duties, with the addition of a new baby girl.

Just married

We were living in a bedsitter in Rathmines in August 1974 when we suspected that Anne was pregnant. Anne’s doctor was a German woman on the top of Rathmines. We went in together for the results and we smiled deliberately when it was confirmed, though we were in shock. We went into Slattery’s and bought two brandies and a packet of cigarettes. We had just given up cigarettes a few months back, and neither of us drank brandy, but this was a bombshell and we were giddy with disbelief. We moved on quickly, though, and soon were planning a wedding, which we set for six weeks hence. There was no pressure on us – nobody knew Anne was pregnant. By the time I went home to Drogheda a few days later we had contacted the priest and arranged the date. When I told my family we were getting married the reaction wasn’t very positive at first, but they came round. It was the same story with Anne’s parents.

Although Anne and I were living together, I felt that propriety demanded that I should stay elsewhere on the night before the wedding. I stayed in Tom McPhail’s flat and the next morning I showered and dressed in my wedding suit, brown pinstripe with bell-bottom trousers, and I walked with Mick McArdle down the road to Rathmines Church. I waited for Anne at the top of the church with my best man, my brother Eric, beside me. Anne was late and I was extremely nervous. I stared straight ahead as she walked down the aisle, too nervous to turn and look. Anne wore a beautiful calico dress she had bought in the Dandelion Market the previous week. We asked Fran to sing for the wedding, and my father also asked the group from the folk mass in Drogheda to do some songs. The folk group sang Peter Paul and Mary’s “Wedding Song” as well as the various liturgical songs, and Fran sang a stunning version of “The Quiet Joys of Brotherhood.” My sister Carmel was with the folk group and she sang Bette Midler’s “The Rose”, which she also sang 45 years later at Anne’s funeral service.

When we went to the sacristy to sign the register, Mick came in to take a photo, but he had drink taken. He struggled with the camera and used some choice language as he tried to fix it, to the obvious disapproval of the priest. Actually, we have some lovely candid photos from the wedding, but the photos of the whole group has them standing behind a car in the foreground. Confetti was thrown and we headed off to a reception in Anne’s brother’s house in Bray, with both families and a few close friends. Late in the evening Anne and I returned to our flat in Rathmines on the last bus. When the conductor came to collect our fares we proudly declared that we were just married.

Across a crowded room

Anne moved to Dublin after school to work in the Civil Service, first in the CSO and then in the Tax Office. There she befriended Mary, a friend of mine from Drogheda. In May 1973 Mary brought Anne home to Drogheda for the weekend. At this time I used to organise folk sessions in the White Horse Hotel on Saturday nights, where friends would play their guitars and sing songs from popular artists of time, such as Leonard Cohen, Neil Young or Joni Mitchell. Mary brought Anne along to the folk session and afterwards some of us went back to another friend’s house on the Marsh Road to stretch out the evening with tea and conversation. It was here that I took notice of Anne, this visitor from Dublin, as she was sitting directly across from me in the living room. I thought she looked exotic and mysterious with her long bushy hair; I really wanted to get to know her better.

I met her again a couple of times at various events over the next few weeks , so that by the time of her 21st birthday in July that year, I decided to ring her up at work to wish her a happy birthday. However, I lost my nerve when I got through to the office and I asked to speak with Mary instead. With a few deep breaths I managed to ask Mary to put me onto Anne, and this was a major, if embarrassingly awkward, step towards getting to know her.

Anne and I finally “clicked” a week later at a barbecue camp-out in Mornington attended by the whole gang from the folk sessions. Staying out all night at a mixed camp was a bit taboo and some of the girls had to concoct cover stories in order to make it. My sister Carmel was there too, as she played music with some of the others, particularly at the folk masses in the Augustinian church. She was just sixteen at the time, but she was allowed to attend as I would be there to chaperone her for the evening. I’m ashamed to say I quickly abandoned Carmel to be with Anne. The things we do for love! Anne and I spent most of the evening just wandering the dunes together, chatting about everything, and ending up with a bit of snogging when we shared a sleeping bag. Eventually, reader, I married her.

The start of the road

Anne was born and reared near Glandore in West Cork. Her rich memory of her childhood surfaced in stories she told over the years of people, places and events. Every turn and feature on the road had a story. She wrote of the day they moved into the house:

“We moved house at Easter time before my second birthday, my father leaving behind his beloved family farm, his birthright, my mother with joy leaving her mother-in-law’s home for a new future in romantic ‘Wood View’. She told me how they came down from ‘The Top of the Hill’, through fields whose names are now lost but which each had its own name and story, all the way down to the bridge with me in my pram.”

Anne told of an insight she had when she was still a toddler, something that intrigued and thrilled her. Across from her house was an inlet from the sea. Just up the road from the house there was a small pier with a lane beside it going right down to the water. She already knew at this age that the world was large, with vast seas and with many roads going all over the place. How marvellous and unlikely it was, she thought, that she happened to lived in this place which was both the end of the road and the start of the sea, or the start of the road and the end of the sea.