On a hot August evening in 1974, I hauled my case up a cobbled street of uneven red brick in Pittsburgh, USA. Exhausted after my trip by greyhound bus from New York via Philadelphia, it was a relief to finally reach the neat three-storey house with its covered porch and white rocking chair on the veranda. I still remember the look on the woman’s face at the door: an open-eyed, slightly startled gaze, a hazy faraway look that I came to learn was her normal expression. My aunt and I hadn’t met before and there was lots to talk about.
That 1974 summer was packed with new experiences as I visited the US for the first time armed with my J1 visa and a student loan of £100. The country I left was scarred and scared by the deaths of 33 people in the Dublin and Monaghan bombings in May, the largest number of causalities in a single day since the start of The Troubles. We were glad to get away. A crowd of us students piled into an apartment in Manhattan for a few days before word reached us that there was work to be had at Mullins’ Resort at East Durham in the Catskills, upstate New York. There we headed and soon I was doing the chamber maid rounds of bed-making and cleaning for the droves of Irish and Irish-Americans who swayed to traditional music into the early hours in the resort pub. The tips were good and with the favourable exchange rate we returned home with enough savings to cover our expenses well into the following year.
Maria ran her house like clockwork, trained in the grind of years of service in the homes of the Pittsburgh wealthy. Her hot press was packed with starched table cloths and neatly folded bed linen; the silver cutlery gleamed on the dinner table. Both of us understood that this was a far cry from the place she had left over half a century earlier – the thatched house that was home to her parents and seven children in the village of Gurteen, outside Ballyhaunis in east Mayo. She was born in 1904 and her life would span almost the entire twentieth-century. She left the country in 1922 in what should have been a new beginning of hope and promise with the signing of the Anglo Irish Treaty. Instead, the country started to tear itself apart through the Irish Civil War. Her clearest memory of leaving was of bending down to kiss the sleeping form of her baby sister, seventeen years her junior.
She spoke about President Nixon in a thick Irish accent. A couple of weeks earlier I had stood in front of a TV screen in upstate New York and listened as Richard Nixon announced, ‘I shall resign the Presidency effective at noon to-morrow.’ Brought down by Watergate. The images were dramatic and tragic as he and his wife boarded a helicopter on the south side of the White House, waved goodbye and then disappeared into the summer skies. Aunt Maria had little time for Nixon, her hero still the late President John F Kennedy, her sorrow still palpable a decade after his assassination. She basked in the glow of the glamour of the emigrant son who made it to the very top echelons of American life from ancestor beginnings similar to her own. President Kennedy’s picture adorned the walls of her Pittsburgh home.
We talked about Gurteen, the townland of her birth. Yes, I said, the old house was demolished but her only brother, John, had preserved one gable wall as requested by his sisters. What did she miss most? It was the surrounding fields, the hilly ones like a necklace of small drumlins. These were the places where they ran and played as children and jumped the streams, laughing as they crossed to the other side. She would like to walk those fields again. It might soothe her soul, for she had known tragedy having lost her husband and one of two sons in recent years. She appeared worn down by loss and loneliness.
We looked together at the old sepia photo, the only one she had of her entire Irish family taken in the early 1920s before she left for America. Parents, six daughters and one son, the baby Lizzie in her mother’s arms. Big ribbons tied the hair of the older girls at odd angles. ‘It was hard, never seeing my mother and father and the younger ones again,’ she said. ‘Mother died so young, she was only in her 50’s. She used to go to Enniscrone, you know, to the sea baths looking for a cure for her ailments. But it didn’t work.’
‘You must come back,’ I said.
She did return to a few years later. I drove out from my home in Limerick to collect her at Shannon Airport and then traveled via Gort and Galway to the places of her childhood. My mother welcomed her and, for the first time in half a century, the flesh of the sisters touched. They all gathered, and talked, and reminisced. Maria stood by her parents’ graves and wept. Her brother took her out to the hilly fields, where they slowly walked. My memory of that visit is of her slightly startled and dazed expression which I first observed in the Pittsburgh doorway.
When I left her out to Shannon Airport to catch her flight back to the US, I turned away, unable to watch an old woman move slowly through the airport departures lounge. By then, Richard Nixon was in quiet, reclusive retirement.
It is a century since my mother’s birth – she would have been as old as the nation. Over the decade since her death, I have jotted down these vignettes / memories of a life well lived.
She cycled into the village in 1947 with her new husband by the light of a flash-lamp in the darkness of a September night. They left behind the wedding celebrations, the barrels of stout and the wild dancing three miles away in the townland of her birth. For the next 60 years, this village would be her place, centred on the soon- to-be constructed yellow pebble-dashed bungalow. She came to know every inch of the village road: walking with a basket of eggs to the local shop; cycling in the opposite direction to Mass and sodality in the parish of Bekan; waiting for the bus to take her and her neighbours on their weekly Bingo outings; watching out for cars to come into view around the corner; seeing grandchildren tumble indoors for treats of floury chips and apple tart. My mother would be in her 100th year if she still lived. In the final months of her life, she retreated little by little indoors, her only movements outside to place food morsels for the birds on the feeder at the front window. I stayed with her the night before she died. Drinking strong tea and eating brown bread, I looked out into the night and watched the lights in the village extinguish one by one. In a few days, we walked behind the hearse carrying her coffin, over the village road, around the corner until the yellow house was lost to view. She took her leave of the village.
There were seven of them – six girls and one boy – in my mother’s family. The 1922 sepia photo the only one we have of them all together. Lizzie, the baby of eighteen months, in her mother’s in America. Big ribbons tying back their hair at odd angles. 1922. Ireland, a new nation. A new beginning for the country. A new beginning for Maria, the eldest of the clan, about to set out for the States. A half-century later, in 1974, while working on a J1 visa in the US, I visited my aunt. I remember hauling my case up Pittsburgh’s Bessemer Street, a cobbled street of uneven red brick. A covered porch, white rocking chair on the veranda. The woman in the doorway wore an open-eyed, slightly startled gaze, a hazy impression of trauma in the features that I came to learn was her normal appearance. She ran her home like clockwork, trained in the grind of years of service in the homes of the Pittsburgh wealthy. A hot press packed with starched table cloths and impeccably folded bed linen. ‘You must come back’, I said, ‘to see them all.’ She did return, just once, in her 80th year. I collected her at the airport and drove west. Was I imagining it or did her expression relax as we neared our destination? My mother waited in the doorway. For the first time in 60 years, the flesh of sisters touched.
I cannot resist a cookery book. I have rows of them, seldom opened these days as, more often than not, I grab menu suggestions from the internet on my iPad. Now, a lifetime of my mother’s recipes rest on my kitchen table, gathered inside a sheet of folded cardboard held together by a thick elastic band. Her finger prints on every page. Selotaped notes on the cardboard covers. Odd pieces of paper hold jotted down recipes. A used Christmas card has instructions for beetroot with apple and red jelly. The back of a bank letter gives step-by-step instructions for a lemon cheesecake. A note on vivid green paper suggests adding pineapple juice when making marmalade. Then there are the cookery leaflets she collected over the years: Woman’s Own Guide to Success with Cakes and Pastries; Supervalu’s Pancake Sensations; McDonnell’s Good Food leaflet, I bake it better with Stork. Jam-making took my mother’s fancy and I thumb through advice for folding bramble apple, blackberry, gooseberry and a medley of autumn fruit into sweet delicious sustenance. Then I find what I am looking for. The hand-written notes for Nine Flighty Butterflies from One Easy Recipe. I am back in the kitchen of the yellow bungalow. Slicing the tops off buns freshly baked in the Stanley range. Spooning thick cream whipped from separated milk taken from our cows that morning. Licking fingers. Cutting pieces of sponge and placing them on top of the syrupy cream. Watching, open-mouthed, as butterflies spread their wings, ready for flight.
My latest notebook, a gift, is fancy. It has a green ribbon page-marker and a document pocket tucked snugly inside the back cover. I love the pristine feel of its fresh clean pages. It joins my numerous notebooks and journals on the shelf: strong, indestructible spiral-bound ones; another with a stylish Orla Kiely design; an elegant, china-blue notebook with leather covers made in Italy. Then there’s my collection of tiny pocket moleskins in vivid hues – cerise, navy blue, turquoise – that hold my travel jottings from journeys to Cape Cod, Camino de Santiago, Tehran, Berlin and Achill Island. But the book I now hold is tattered and discoloured, the black leather cover rumpled into grey streaks. The diary cover, dated 1950, is embossed with the name of an insurance company from Clinton Street, New Jersey. There was once a blank cream page to be filled in for each day of that year. For my mother, however, this would have been an entirely wasteful use of paper. And so, in sparse, precise language, she packed that diary year after year for over half a century with the ritual details of a rural life in an east Mayo village. Notes of crops sown and harvested; calves born, cattle sold at market; turf saved; village births and deaths. No inner musings. No stream of consciousness meanderings. No statements of emotion. I look for her words on the death of her husband of 55 years – my father. She wrote, unusually in red biro: ‘Pake died 8th November, a Saturday. Buried on the 11th.’
Oranges and chocolate were exotic extravagances in my childhood; pointers to a future when these would become normal daily purchases and not occasional luminous luxuries. In our 1950s childhood home in East Mayo, an orange was a sporadic treat; the fruit was carefully peeled, divided in four, the white pith discarded and each succulent segment lustily relished by us four siblings. As for the bar of Cadbury’s Dairy Milk in its wild-Atlantic blue wrapper, this was one of my mother’s few indulgences. When my father returned from an outing to the nearby Ballyhaunis, there were no surprises. Each time he opened his coat pockets, lifting out the treats: a brown paper bag of sticky sweets for us children, a bar of Cadbury’s Dairy Milk for our mother.
On Wednesday afternoon of Easter week, 1916, just a month before my mother’s birth, a young couple sat on grass at Killiney Hill, Dublin, looking out on a peaceful panorama of water and sand. The artist Cesca Trench and her friend Diarmuid Coffey, an Irish Volunteer, were enjoying their picnic treat of oranges and chocolate purchased in Dun Laoghaire. It was a tranquil scene, almost like summer, with the blue misty water of the bay curling around the sand. It seemed impossible that there was a revolution going on in Dublin at those very moments. Diarmuid looked white and tired. Cesca was worried. The atmosphere was tense at home in Temple Hill, Terenure, she told him. She felt pulled apart; her mother needed her and was worried that her daughter could be arrested at any moment.
Cesca Trench was an unlikely nationalist. Born into a leading Anglo-Irish Protestant family, she was reared in a vicarage in Kent. Her three brothers had joined the British army on the outbreak of war two years earlier.
Cesca’s interest in Irish nationalism blossomed on Achill Island, west of my Mayo birth place, when she attended Scoil Acla gatherings in 1912 and 1913. In Achill, she sketched endlessly, walked the strand at Keel Bay, took Irish lessons, and exulted in ceili dancing and pipe music in the evenings. It was in Achill that she first met the tall, gangly Diarmuid Coffey who relentlessly wooed the reluctant young artist. Soon, she was deeply involved with Cumann na mBan.
Cesca was incredulous when, on Easter Monday, she heard that the Sinn Feiners had risen up and taken all the main bridges in Dublin. The action seemed to her totally mad. But she woke on Tuesday morning full of determination. She tore cloth into strips for bandages, bought needles, iodine and lint in Terenure, and headed out on her bicycle. She cycled down Grafton Street, round by Henry Street, leaving her bicycle at No 91 for fear of getting a puncture in the broken glass. She walked boldly to the GPO door and gained entry. That evening she wrote in a notebook with a cherry-brown cover: ‘..I saw things I shall never forget, a row of young fellows kneeling and saying their prayers and two priests came in while I was there, and began to hear confessions kneeling by the side of them; at a little distance a Proclamation to the people of Ireland – of the Irish Republic…’.
On Killiney Hill next day, she asked Diarmuid if she could call on him as a witness if arrested. He reassured her. ‘There’s nothing so calming to the mind as a beautiful view,’ he said. He was still hopeful that she would agree to marry him; he wouldn’t give up. He had recently written proclaiming his love yet again: ‘I know I don’t always think you right and often think I wish you didn’t do some things, but I love you desperately all the time…’
The Rising was quickly over. Cesca was not arrested. She remained busy with her art work and her Cumann na mBan meetings and a year later, in March 1917, finally agreed to marry Diarmuid.
The wedding took place in April 1918, just days after the death of Cesca’s beloved brother Reggie at the western front. Six months into the marriage, Cesca fell victim to the flu epidemic sweeping Europe and died on 30th October 1918. The last entry in her diary was for a Cumann na mBan meeting which she never attended.
Surely, in the years and decades that followed, in the years when my parents grew to adulthood in an independent Ireland, surely Diarmuid Coffey would have recalled an idyllic afternoon savouring oranges and chocolate with Cesca on a grassy hill in Dublin as revolution surged through the capital.
Reading Mary Lavin’s story ‘In the Middle of the Fields’ in the recent anthology of Irish Women Writers The Long Gaze Back, I was reminded of a visit to East Walpole on the outskirts of Boston several years ago. I had travelled along Washington Street which seemed to extend forever in straight lines south-east of the city. I remember the harsh-sweet smell of hot asphalt when I reached the sleepy town.
It was here that Mary Lavin, the only child of Irish parents, was born in 1912 and passed the first nine years of her life. At the brow of a hill on the town’s edge, I entered the Francis William Bird Park which slopes down to the Neponsett River across which was the mill where Tom Lavin worked. Here the the small black-haired child was thrilled by parkland, flowers and water, imaging that she flew over the place like a bird. In October 1921, Mary Lavin left East Walpole and crossed the Atlantic to Ireland with her mother for a new life.
The shadows were lengthening when I departed William Bird Park to a chorus of bird song, soon facing the long stretch of Washington Street back to Boston. Next day I crossed the Atlantic through turbulent skies.
Concord, Massachusetts, the birth place of Henry David Thoreau, is a very civilised place these days. When I travelled there from Boston, I had to go to the nearby Walden Pond, the place Thoreau made famous and where he lived the simple life in a cabin for two years. His essay, Walking (1862), is one of the books that faces outward on my book shelf to remind me to delve into the richness of its pages. He comes closest to answering for me the question ‘what is it about walking?’ And he is no champion of civilisation. Rather, he speaks for ‘absolute freedom and wildness’ and not for the merely civil.
Walking, for Thoreau, is above all about entering a wildness where he can recreate himself. It is the wildness of the savage he strives to rediscover. Nature is this vast, savage, howling mother of ours. In this he reminds me of the Irish writer John Millington Synge and his tramples through Wicklow and North Mayo and the Aran Islands.
The most alive is the wildest.
Now for the walking boots.
Anna Browne is 97 years old. She was one of the compilers of the Cathal Brugha Street publication All In The Cooking for the college’s Domestic Science students almost 70 years ago. Anna writes the Foreword to the delightful reissue of the book by O’Brien Press. Could this be Ireland’s very first cookery book? And not a glossy photo in sight!
Some weeks ago, before the most recent heartbreak for the Mayo football team, I reminisced on Jones’ Road, Drumcondra.
As I crossed Binn’s Bridge, Brendan Behan was leaning towards me on the metal bench, seemingly watching my every movement. But it was the blackbird perched beside him on the Royal Canal seat that engaged his attention – the pair seemingly enthralled with each other’s company. The bronze sculpture a signal that I was entering Drumcondra which was an oasis of quiet that Sunday morning. Walkers with ruck sacks headed westward along the canal bank footpath; landscape contractors sprayed the hanging flower baskets on Clonliffe Road; rays of morning sun highlighted the red of rose and rhododendron in neat gardens. Soon I was on Jones’ Road bordering the west boundary of Croke Park, walking up the incline between the stadium’s railway and canal ends. Memories of other Sundays in that place, on that road, inundated me.
I have a love/hate relationship with Jones’ Road and with Drumcondra. Walking towards Croke Park on the third Sunday in September, when Mayo once again contest the All-Ireland Football Final, I have an impression of a place always sunlit, of excited voices, sharp banter, wrangles about ticket,; the scene a mish-mash of green and red mingled with the opposition colours – more often than not the green and gold of Kerry.
Then, the gloomy return journey several hours later. An autumn chill, it seemed, in the evening air. Green and red flags drooping. But what I remember most was the quietness among the Mayo supporters walking, heads bent, braced for the long journey west. Few words. What was there to say at the hurt of another defeat?
Too young to remember, I was just a toddler in a Mayo village close to the pilgrim road from Ballyhaunis into Knock, when Sean Flanagan – the Mayo Captain from nearby Ballaghaderreen – lifted the Sam Maguire cup sixty-four years ago when Mayo last won the All-Ireland football trophy. Too young to remember, but soon old enough to hear the talk year after year of the homecoming bonfires that lit the autumn skies across east Mayo – in Ballyhaunis, Bohola, Crossmolina and Kiltimagh – to greet the victorious team that September.
It was 38 years before Mayo returned to an All-Ireland Final against Cork in Croke Park. That year, 1989, we had reason to hope, so often enthralled by the sublime feats of Willie Joe Padden as he soared to fetch the ball and it seemed as if he must pierce the clouds with his astonishing leaps. I was then married to a north Dublin man whose memories of lower Drumcondra are saturated with the boyhood smells of stale milk from the family van on its milk rounds through Drumcondra streets like Whitworth Road and Fitzroy Avenue. By then I was mother to two small sons who were absorbing the city passion for Munster rugby in our Limerick home. The three of them would learn to live with my peculiar addiction to the wearying cause of Mayo football.
In 1996, even if we were missing the blond, tattooed Ciaran McDonald – absent for the summer in America – we converged on Jones’ Road in hope. If only that game with Meath was won on the first outing when the sun still radiated the heat of summer. For the replay, two weeks later, the summer was well and truly over, the days had shortened and we were chilled to the core. The banter with Meath supporters who spoke of their ancestors trading small farms in Mayo for the rich pastures of the Royal County did little to lessen the disappointment. And pain continued to be heaped upon pain for Mayo football supporters into the new millennium.
Surely, if the Mayo team were to win the All Ireland, the spirits of the living and the ghosts of the dead of the County would exult with ecstasy from Swinford to Sydney, from Belmullet to Boston, from Louisburg to London.
Crossing the Royal Canal after such a victory, Brendan Behan would totally ignore the victorious Mayo supporters and continue to chat to his blackbird. It would make no difference to him at all.