May 12 2020

‘The Ma’…’

Published by at 10:42 am under News

‘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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