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.


Watch with melting clocks image on face

My wife of 45 years, Anne, died a few weeks ago. To say I am heartbroken would be a massive understatement. I am lost. I am at a loss. When someone has been so central to your life for so long, how can you go on? However, many good memories have come back to me spontaneously, and friends and relatives have reminded me of incidents and occasions that I had either forgotten, or had not brought to mind for ages. In recent years Anne and I had spoken of writing down some memories for our grandchildren. We didn’t make much progress on that project, but now seems as good a time as any to make a start. I do this as much to deal with my loss as to recall memories for my grandchildren.

Last year Anne and I had our final holiday together at Banyuls-sur-mer in the South of France. One day we made an excursion into Spain to visit the Dali Museum in Figueres. It was a fun experience. We happened to visit on the day that France was playing in the World Cup Final. Accordingly, visitor numbers were low and we were able to enjoy the museum in some comfort. Though Anne was tired, she was able to sit down frequently throughout the visit. While going through stuff in the past few days I came across a bag from the gift shop in Figueres containing some items we had purchased, including a watch Anne had bought for herself with Dali’s famous melting clocks image on the face, The Persistence of Memory. Anne had a poster of this image on the wall of her flat many years ago when I first met her. Thus I find I have a title for this blog which has multiple resonances.