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Jun 27 2020

“OUR HOUSE IN THE 1950’s..”

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The Coffey’s 1950’s

‘Dinner time or tea time arrangements in our house in the 1950’s was always very much the same, my father and mother sat up at the head of the table, the two youngest children were at the end, there were four of us older ones on each side, and a baby over by the fireplace, a total of eleven children in all. Each of us had a place allocated to us at the table, the golden rule was never to take anyone else’s place or there’d be war. “Ma’, he’s standing in my place”. “No, I’m not, there’s plenty of room anyway”. And all it took to sort things out was that special look the Ma’ had, when you got that eye you knew you were next to getting a clout. The Da’ had his tone of voice, it would go very low and his eyebrows would go into a frown and that’s when we knew to back off.

Now, the way it worked at the table was, the older two sat next to the Ma’ and Da’ and in order of age we all took our places, I was always near the end. Two of my younger sisters sat at the end of the table and when I say sat, I mean that the rest of us had to stand because we didn’t have enough chairs for us all to sit down. Over time a couple of tea chests were introduced along with a small wooden bench the Da’ made but for most of the time we had to stand. The youngest sister, the baby, was in the Moses Basket beside the fireplace and near to the Ma’. Over time of course the dynamics would change around the table in accordance to whoever took the boat and emigrated to England, which was always the older ones. When this would happen there was always a shift up along the table as their place was taken by the next in line. We didn’t have a teapot as such, we had a tea kettle, a great big one and only the older ones were allowed to lift that to pour out our tea.

The Ma’ always got the only cup that didn’t have a crack in it and the Da’ had his oul army mug, as he called it. In later years I had my own cup that I got out of the Pillar Café in O’Connell Street, it was a white Pyrex coffee cup, that was mine and no-one else was allowed to use it. Most of the cutlery we had came out of various hotels, restaurants and cafes from around Dublin and Bray. The Da’ always used the knife and fork that came out of the Gresham Hotel. One of the brothers had a knife, fork and a soup spoon that came from a hotel in Bray where he used to take his Moth dancing. The Ma’ would always stir her tea with a small Apostle spoon from a set she was given as a wedding present all those years ago, she wasn’t too fond of sugar in her tea. Whenever nobody was looking one of us or other would shovel a spoon of sugar into our mouth and run outside in case we were caught. I don’t ever remember us having butter on our bread back then, I think it was always margarine, “the poor man’s butter” the Da’ would call it.

Most evenings for our tea we got a cup of tea and a few slices of bread and margarine, there was never any second helpings. During the week us younger ones got our dinner when we came in from school. That was always gulped down in seconds because we’d be bursting a gut to go out and play with our pals. The Da’ and the older ones that were out working got their dinner when they came home, usually at about six o’clock. Saturday in our house was very laid back. If we came in hungry, we’d usually grab a slice of bread and a drink of water out of the tap at the kitchen sink and we’d be gone out again in next to no time. Dinner was usually mashed potatoes and beans with a sausage stuck in the potatoes. We only ever stayed indoors whenever it was raining and even then, it had to be lashing down out of the heavens.

The poor oul Ma’ was constantly standing over the gas stove cooking and baking to feed a never-ending row of little and big mouths standing around our kitchen table. My two older sisters were very often roped in to help her. After our dinner or tea, we all had to do our bit in the washing up of the delph and cleaning of the table and the sweeping of the floor. The Ma’ would be exhausted at the end of the day, she was on the go around our house twenty-four seven. The Da’ was always out working, he never had just the one job, he had two or three and sometimes a fourth one as well. Most Sundays after dinner we’d be sent to the Picture House and I suppose that was when the Ma’ and Da’ were able to get a breather before we’d come home again. Some Sundays but not every Sunday, the Ma’ would make a couple of apple tarts for our tea and because there were so many of us, we’d only get one slice each.

As we grew up and went out to work there was of course more money coming into the house and I’m sure that relieved some of the worry and pressure on the Ma’ and Da’. The Da’ would spend most Sunday nights writing letters to the older ones that had emigrated to England. Some Friday nights, as arranged with the older sister in England, he’d go to the nearest telephone box and give her a call in the hospital where she was working. She’d bring him up to date on the rest of them living over there and he’d report back to the Ma’ while the rest of us sat around the fire listening to what he had to say.

Once nine o’clock came we were given our marching orders and told to go up to bed. By ten o’clock the Ma’ and Da’ could be heard dragging themselves up the stairs step by step, exhausted and worn out. We were a bit like the Walton’s off the telly, because anyone that was still awake when the Ma’ and Da’ eventually reached the top of the stairs would say “Goodnight Mammy, goodnight Daddy” from one of the sisters or one or two of the brothers would shout out “Good night Ma’. Da’ don’t forget to give us a call for work in the morning”. “Goodnight…” the Ma’ would answer, “…go to sleep now”.

And that’s what made the world go around for us in our house, the daily comings and goings that were not much different to most of our neighbours. The Ma’ and Da’ were like two oul plough horses equally yoked, pulling and sharing the same load week in and week out. God bless them, they were great people…’

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Jun 17 2020

Saint Finbar’s School

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This photograph is possibly from 1943 and marks the official blessing and opening of Saint Finbar’s School. The large gates and railings that are seen at the front of the school today are noticeably absent. The first principal or headmaster was Mister Charlie McCarthy. It was to be an all boys school with male teachers only. Some classrooms had as many as 42 young boys.

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May 12 2020

‘The Ma’…’

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‘The Ma’ worked hard all her life, from the age of 14, when she started off in a Rosary Bead Factory in town, right up to the day she died. It was only in her later years that she had it easier than most of the previous years of her life. In between, I don’t think she ever got a moment to herself, raising fifteen children, looking after the Da’ and keeping the house going. Now, the Da’ too worked hard all his life, starting off at ten years of age selling newspapers around some of the pubs in town. In later years he joined the British Army as a way of keeping out of trouble and to be able to give money to his aunt, May Doyle, who reared him. The Ma’ told me that she had a very happy childhood despite the poverty and squalor of the area where she lived. She didn’t see anything wrong with that because it was the way everyone around her lived and nobody was any different to anyone else.

Like her own mother before her, she always looked for the good in people and had a great respect for her elders. The Ma’ said that back then you were never allowed to give cheek to an adult and if you did, they could give you a box in the ear and if your mother heard about it then you’d get another one off her as well. I know the biggest threat that the Ma’ could make to us if we misbehaved was that she was going to tell the Da’ when he came in from work. We’d be dreading him coming in through the house with his bicycle in case the Ma’ said anything to him but in most cases the threat was enough. After they were married, they lived in many different flats around town, depending on the rent and always hoping to get a tenement room down near the hall door so she wouldn’t have to haul a pram and half a dozen little ones up and down the stairs several times a day. In some of the flats, like the one over the Butcher’s shop in Parnell Street where they lived for three months, they had water inside, whereas in the tenement house she didn’t have water or a toilet indoors. They kept a bucket in the corner of the room with a piece of wood on top of it and then at night it was put out onto the Landing.

She said that when they moved to the two-bedroom house in Cabra West it was like moving into Buckingham Palace with all the room and the indoor toilet and their own water tap. The bath wasn’t installed until much later because of the war and that. Her first child, my sister, was born in our granny’s flat in North Cumberland Street and she was so small that our granny made a bed for her in the dresser drawer in the bedroom. She weighed less than a bag of sugar, or so the Ma’ said. I remember I asked her did her and the Da’ go off on a honeymoon after they got married. Well, she certainly laughed at that. “Will you go away outta that…” she said “…sure we barely had enough money to buy a loaf of bread without wasting money on a day trip to Bray”. And that’s how it was, no fancy wedding dress, no Hen Party in Spain, no Stag Party in Germany, just family and a few friends meeting up in the little side chapel in the Pro Cathedral for the ceremony and then off to work they both went. They met up with some people in the pub after work and then home to the Granny’s flat for bacon and cabbage and a few more bottles. The next morning and it was back to work and life went on.

For most of her married life my mother rarely had any clothes that were new. Like ourselves, nearly everything she wore was second-hand. Sometimes, she might cut up an old dress and make something of it for herself or my older sisters. There were plenty of places back then where she could go for second-hand clothes and shoes for herself and the Da’ or for us. We mainly got our clothes out of the market in Frances Street or down the Hill in Cumberland Street. Now, most of the people who dealt in this second-hand stuff knew the Ma’s situation and always looked after her. She told me that she knew most of them from when they went to Rutland Street school or the Redbrick College as the Da’ used to call it. Some of the dealers would keep a coat by for when they would next see the Ma’ and that, one that was in good condition or a nice pair of trousers that once belonged to some oul fella that had just died, that they thought might fit the Da’. There was no shame in anyone wearing hand-me- downs back then because most everyone did. Sure the only clothes we ever got that were new was our First Holy Communion clothes and our Confirmation outfit and they really belonged to the money lender until the debt was paid off and then they went into the Pawn Shop, if not before. The Ma’ would never say which “Uncle” she gave them to or which of our cousins was going to wear them and sure we hadn’t a clue.

As the older brothers and sister began their working lives things calmed down a bit with the extra money coming in. I remember the Ma’ going into Guiney’s for new Net Curtain material for our parlour window. She’d make them up herself or maybe Granny O’Brien from next door would sew them up for her. You see, having your own parlour and net curtains meant the world to the Ma’ and many other women who had lived in the tenements, it was a little step up the social ladder so to speak. The Ma’s first pair of net curtains were held up with a bit of twine because she had nothing else. And every Saturday we’d all be hauled up like an army of ants to clean the house from top to bottom. The Ma’ had an awful fear of any of us getting sick or getting Polio or that, because a lot of children from where she was born died young from TB. The skirting boards in every room had to be cleaned, the doors had to be scrubber down and the job I always got and hated the most was cleaning the brass door knocker and key hole and there was a little brass wheel in under the weatherboard at the bottom of our hall door that had to be cleaned and polished as well. Now, I used to wonder who would ever see that little wheel, but the Ma’ insisted that it had to be polished.

Most of us older ones left home and went to England to live, some short term and some for a lifetime. And that tended to make things easier all round at home. I remember when the Da’ came home and announced that we were getting two sets of bunk beds delivered in a couple of days, we couldn’t believe it, we were rich at last. I didn’t have to sleep in the same bed with my two brothers now I was seventeen, I was getting a bunk bed all to myself. I remember a couple of years after the 15th baby arrived in our house, the Ma’ wanted to adopt a baby or to even foster one but she was turned down and that broke her heart I can tell you. Gradually and over time things became much more manageable for the Ma’. Then the Da’ retired from his job and the Ma’ decided she was going out to find a job herself, and she did. She loved going out to work and being independent with her own few bob that she earned. She was able to buy herself a new dress and shoes, something that she would never have done years back but now she wanted to reward herself and rightly so.

The Da’ sometimes worked two or three jobs a week for years to make sure there was enough money to pay the rent and put food on the table for all of us fifteen hungry mouths. Then came the time for the Da’ to say his final farewell to us and the Ma’, she was devastated and heartbroken. She managed day by day until her time too came to join him and leave all of us fifteen little chicks to fend for ourselves. I can tell you here and now that there’s never a day goes by but we don’t think of one or both of them and in any conversation I have with any of my sibling we always bring the Ma’ and Da’ into the story…’

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May 04 2020

First Holy Communion Day

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‘This is my older sister, Vera Coffey, making her First Holy Communion in 1945. That table is in nearly every studio photograph I have of my family. I even have one of the Ma’ standing at that very table when she was sixteen years old. Some of you might already know the story behind Vera’s First Holy Communion outfit but for those who mightn’t, I’ll tell it again. With 1945 being the War Years or “The Emergency” as the Da’ called it, there was little or no money to go around and especially when it came to such a very special occasion as a First Holy Communion.

Now, I have to say, that the Ma’ was never one for putting her hand out to “The Vincents” for help, the one time that she did she was turned down, so she said to the Da’ “Never again”. So, when it came to dressing our Vera out for her First Holy Communion the Ma’ was in a quandary.

Our next door neighbour, Granny O’Brien used to work as a seamstress in Arnott’s but had to give it up when she got married but she still had her own Singer sewing machine. Now, she also had a daughter who worked for a place over off Mountjoy Square that made Habits for laying out dead people in and they also made the lining for going inside the coffins.

Granny O’Brien sent in for the Ma’ and told her to bring our Vera with her. Well, in next to no time at all she had sewn up a most beautiful outfit for our Vera out of the material that her daughter had brought home from off the factory floor, the coffin lining. She even made the little handbag out of it as well. The Ma’ made the veil out of some Net Curtain material that she had left over from when they first moved into our house all them years ago. Granny O’Brien made our Vera’s stockings and knickers for her on the sewing machine as well. So, our Granny Burke, the Ma’s mother, bought Vera’s overcoat and shoes because Vera was her first grandchild and was named after the little girl our Granny lost, she was only three years old when she died.

So, there you have it, our Vera and her First Holy Communion outfit story…’

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May 01 2020

“The Da’ Oul Tool Shed…”

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I did a little bit of work on restoring this old Wood Plane that the Da’ used to keep in his shed. It was all rusted and full of oil mixed with sawdust and oul bits of fluff and dirt, not too unlike himself at times. Now I have to tell you that the Da’ loved his oul shed and everything in it. He could walk into that shed in the pitch black of night and without turning on the light he could put his hand on any nail, screw or hammer that he needed. There was a place for everything and everything had its place. If he ever sent me out to the shed for a screwdriver he’d say “And don’t touch anything else because I’ll know if you do”.

Now, originally, some of the tools that the Da’ had he got from his own Da’, so they were antiques, they’d been around since the war, the First World War. The oul Grandad had served as a motor mechanic with the British Army in WWI and so that’s how he got most of his tools. I always remember one thing in particular that was in the shed. It was the bottom part of the Ma’s oul kitchen dresser that they brought with them when they moved out of Town, it was blue and white, the Da’ called it “Legion of Mary” blue. The Da’ used it as a press in the shed and he kept the Shoe Last, that he used for mending our shoes with, in it. It’s where he kept all his important stuff and things no one else was allowed to use, such as his Bit and Brace, that’s a thing for drilling holes in wood and he even kept a little bottle of Holy Water in there too.

I suppose in some way the Da’s shed was a bit like Aladdin’s Cave to us kids because you’d never know what you were going to find. There was always the match box full of Washers or rusty screws and there was always a Sticking Plaster just in case he cut his finger. He had three or four oul Saws that were never of any use because he’d always have to rub Dripping off the frying pan onto them to make them cut. And he had shelves everywhere and all filled with glass jars of things I never knew the names of and a Mustard Tin with metal rivets that he never used but kept them “Just in case”. He had oul bicycle chains hanging up next to a spare bicycle wheel that he found in the local Dump. He had loads of heads off hammers that he was going to fix some day. There were all sorts of bits of timber that he planned on using whenever he got around to building a Hen House.

We had a dinner table in our house and the two ends could pull out to make it longer. One time when the Ma’ was in town we pulled out one of the ends and used the table as a stage coach like in the cowboy pictures. My sisters would sit under the table screaming with fright at the gunfire while the older brothers sat on any chairs we had but the chairs were turned backwards and used like a horse. Meself and the brother were sitting on the piece of the table that was pulled out and one of the older brothers stood up on the saddle of his horse and jumped onto the stagecoach and the next thing was, were heard a groan and a crack as the table piece shattered into bits with the weight of us on it. Now, that’s a story in itself. But this turned out to be another job for the Da’ to fix in his shed. I remember going out to watch him working on it. He had a fag in his mouth with a great big long ash and I just wanted to reach up and knock it off but he wasn’t in the best of form so I kept my hands down by my side. Eventually the Da’ fixed things up but the piece was a good bit shorter than it originally was and some of us had to scrunch up closer together when we’d be having our dinner.

And the Da’ had his oul Norton motorbike in the shed but it was broken, he was going to fix that someday as well and then there was the great big bucket pram that the Ma’ used to send the brothers to the Park with to collect the turf that nobody wanted, or so she told us. There was also rubber tubes out of bicycle wheels that were punctured but never got repaired. He had loads of tins of oul paint that also came from the local Dump and paint brushes that were rock hard. But would we change him? I don’t think so, he is the only Da’ we ever had and he did his best for us all. And if I could have him back for a day I don’t think I’d clean the rust off him or try to restore him like his oul Wood Plane, I think I’d prefer him just as he is, the Da’…

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