Authors: Alice Taylor
For the old people of Innishannon,
from whom I learned so much;
and especially for Billy of the forge,
who died as the book was going to press.
HIS IS THE
story of life in a village; it is the story, too, of a small shop and post office. There in the early sixties an old world was slipping out the back door while a new way of life marched in the front. Crossing the threshold of the village shop to begin my married life I witnessed the arrival of the new, and saw the last of the old world disappear.
Behind the post office a row of little houses clung together on a steep hill; in them lived old people, quite a few of whom were unmarried. Down on the main street, darned between family homes, a number of large houses were occupied by single elderly women. As one genteel old lady delicately informed me, “The best china is never taken off the shelf.” Some of the old people had lived here since childhood and had worked long, hard hours during their lifetime. Most of their entertainment was homespun. They knew each other very well, as only people whose families have lived side by side for generations can know each other. Change had come in their lifetimes but, because they had lived so long with the old way, they held onto it and took it with them when they died.
Coming as a bride to their village shop I was kindly received. A farmer’s wife who had herself come to the parish many years previously brought me one of her free-range chickens and a pot plant that was a cascade of pink flowers. An old man patted me on the head and said, “Good Lord! The children are getting
married now!” Another viewed me appreciatively and smilingly informed me, “I’d live on one meal a day if I was married to you.” But one old lady, after sizing me up from every conceivable angle, declared, “You are very thin and delicate looking. I don’t know will you do at all.”
It was a period when career women had not yet established themselves and most women gave up their jobs to become full-time wives and mothers. Becoming one of these wives, I sailed into motherhood in the baby boom decade of the sixties when family planning had not yet become a reality. So this is also the story of an ordinary young wife and mother who was sometimes bored by the monotonous everyday routine of housework and children, and who in an effort to make life more interesting became part of the changing village scene.
O LONG HOURS
of soul-searching went into my choice of job. Career guidance was not then considered necessary and during our Leaving Certificate year my classmates and I did entrance examinations to various banks, the civil service, county councils and other venerable institutions guaranteed to keep the wolf from the door. I was called to the civil service and instructed to go to Killarney to train as a telephonist.
At that time telephones were not part of the furnishings deemed necessary in Irish farmhouses, so up until then I had only ever been within waving distance of one. The priest, the doctor, the local creamery and garda barracks were all linked into the world of telecommunications, which was controlled by Jim on an old switchboard in the local post office. I went there to view this new dimension to my life. Jim sat me down at the switchboard, which had rows of small black doors that fell forward when a subscriber rang. He put a pair of earphones on my head and plugged me into this strange little dark mahogany bench which looked like a miniature piano. It felt as if a door had been opened into my head.
I left home in October dressed up in a pair of black suede high-heeled shoes belonging to one sister, a straight black skirt belonging to another, a short white wool coat which belonged to a third and a pink jumper of my own. Having four sisters all
about the same size gave each of us an extended wardrobe and it took a combined effort of sisters to render me presentable for my first job. My mother hired the local hackney-car to escort her youngest daughter on her maiden voyage into the outside world. When we arrived in Killarney she contacted a neighbour who was working in the town, and she directed us to the home of a lady in St Anne’s Road for accommodation.
Behind a creaking black gate three steps led up to a concrete path which made a straight line for more steps climbing up to a white front door. On our left was a thick sheltering hedge and to our right a small green lawn. The woman who answered the sound of the black iron knocker was warm and welcoming and assured us that though she did not keep full-time guests permanently, I could stay until I got alternative accommodation. She invited my mother in for tea and as they chatted together I knew that Molly was a woman to whom my mother felt she could safely entrust her flighty daughter, confident that she would apply the brakes whenever she felt it was necessary.
On the left side of the narrow hallway a staircase led up to three bedrooms and a bathroom and two doors on the right-hand side of the hall opened into a sitting-room and kitchen. It was a warm, comfortable house and Molly whizzed around it full of good humour. It was almost as if I had never left home. We got on so well together that I stayed with her until I was transferred from Killarney.
Molly lived alone and catered for the overflow of overnight guests from a local hotel. If the guests were too many for Molly’s bedroom accommodation she and I slept on foldaway beds in the sitting-room. On Saturday mornings we went down town to do the weekly shopping. The grocery shops were large and airy with fine white sawdust on some of the floors. Molly knew everybody both inside and outside the counter so they all stopped to exchange local news and I got to know the people
through her. As it was winter time the tourists were gone home and it was possible to get to know the real Killarney. The people were jovial and friendly and as one man pointed out to me, “They are all the same height in Kerry.”
Every Saturday evening Molly’s two bachelor brothers from the home farm outside Killarney came into town to do their shopping and afterwards came up to Molly for their tea. They were smiling, rosy-faced men wearing tweed caps and belted gabardine overcoats and were full of good health and well-being. It was interesting to hear them report to Molly the week’s activities on the farm. They were very shy but after the first few weeks they became accustomed to seeing me in their sister’s kitchen. I looked forward to their weekly visits because as well as their friendly, wholesome presence they brought the feel of the farm into the house.
Shortly after my arrival Molly had an unexpected visit from her Uncle Mikey who had lived all his life in Australia. He was an elderly, slightly stooped figure who wore a grey hat which he never removed. He felt the cold intensely and crept around in a frozen crouch, or sat by the big black range in the kitchen which he kept packed to capacity with coal and logs. He opened all the dampers to the full so the fire roared up the chimney, turning the kitchen into a boiler-room and the rest of the house into a sub-tropical zone. Molly lived in constant fear of his burning the place down. This was a distinct possibility as Mikey was vague and absent-minded. He confused amongst other things the use of gas and electrical appliances.
Molly had a gas cooker in the corner of the kitchen and one day I came in to find that Uncle Mikey had the electric kettle plugged in and placed on top of the cooker with the gas-jet lighting under it. He was relaxing in a comfortable armchair before the red-hot range, wearing his wide-rimmed hat and puffing his big turned-down pipe. The kitchen was full of heat
and steam. Uncle Mikey sat like a grey ghost shrouded in clouds of pipe smoke, totally oblivious to the conditions around him. It was difficult to know whether he would have been gassed or electrocuted, but he was certainly not going to be cold.
At that time the Killarney water supply was always giving trouble, a fact that never penetrated through to Uncle Mikey. One fine day he wrapped himself up well and went out for a short walk. When he came home he said to me, with a puzzled look on his face, “These Kerry women discuss their health problems very openly. I was coming up the street just now and one of them shouted across the road to her neighbour: ‘How’s your water today, Maggie?’”
Molly was a very religious person who went to 7.30 Mass in the cathedral every morning. She instructed me to go to 8 a.m. Mass in the friary, and as she would not be back in time to call me she always put the alarm clock beside my pillow before she went out. Though I protested about the early call and was reluctant to drag myself out of bed, I enjoyed the walk down Lewis Road. The early morning turf fires sent smoke curling upwards through the trees and filled the air with its peaty essence, while the mature gardens of the old houses provided interesting scenes inside each gate. The restful atmosphere and the smell of waxed wood in the friary chapel, where the long brown-robed friars glided around the altar in soundless serenity, gave a soothing start to the day.
Now for the first time in my life I had my own money in my pocket, though admittedly not very much. My pay was £4 15s and my digs cost £2 10s, so my balance of payments left me with £2 5s. I broke even most weeks and sometimes even had a slight surplus, and this I spared to buy a pair of shoes, but because they were cheap and hard they nearly crippled me. I was at the age when appearance mattered more than comfort. My biggest expense was going dancing and to the cinema. I
soon discovered that although boyfriends cut down expenses they also limited freedom, whereas I enjoyed going places on my own with no strings attached. On one occasion my strings got knotted and the result caused complications.
I arrived back after the Christmas break on St Stephen’s night to be met at the door by a flustered Molly. “Had you a date tonight?” she demanded.
“No,” I answered in surprise.
“Well you have now then,” she said emphatically. “Two of them. One is in the kitchen and the other is in the sitting-room, and neither knows that the other is here.”
“Oh God!” I gasped, “how did this happen?”
“Well maybe,” she admitted, “I might be responsible for Sean because I met him down town and told him you were due back tonight, though he said nothing about calling up. But I am not answerable for Pat.”
“Well, we’ll dispose of the one in the sitting-room first,” I decided, “and when he’s gone we’ll send off the other.” Molly agreed but before we could do anything the door-bell rang. She looked at me accusingly. “It just couldn’t be,” I said. But it was. When Molly came back from answering the door she said to me: “I said you weren’t back, so go upstairs now and lock yourself in the bathroom and I’ll tell two more lies for you.” When the coast was clear I came down.
Molly decided that the only honourable course of action in the circumstances was not to go out that night, so instead of the gala time I had anticipated I had to accept early retirement. The following morning she issued a proclamation that it was to be one boyfriend or none from now on. I settled for a quiet young man who had an interesting mind and of whom she thoroughly approved. He took me to my first formal dance at which I wore a long white dress borrowed from a more sophisticated sister. Soon afterwards my escort was transferred to Dublin, so I was
back to square one.
I was the junior in the office. Many of the other girls had permanent boyfriends and took me with them to dances in the towns around Killarney. Usually another girl or two kept me company in the back of the car, though sometimes I would be on my own. One night there was a quiet, red-haired lad sitting beside me. I found it impossible to make conversation with him, so after a few gallant efforts I gave up and chatted instead with the two in the front. In the dance-hall I met several people I knew from Killarney and had a very enjoyable time. After the dance I met my friends at the car and we set out for home with the red-haired silent one back in his corner. Kicking off my shoes I cuddled up in the opposite corner and dozed off. A few miles out the road I shot into wakefulness to find two arms pinned around me and beery breath wafting up my nose. A sharp slap across the face and a tug of his red hair did nothing to dispel his enthusiasm. I reached down quietly for my high-heeled, stiletto shoe and brought the steel tip down on top of his kneecap with a hard, well-aimed crack. His reflexes were perfect: he reacted instantly, folding up in his corner in agony. We travelled the rest of the journey back to Killarney, he on his side of the seat and I guarding my virtue with my high-heeled shoe on the other.
After a six-month training period on the post office switchboard I was tested by a lady known as a “travelling supervisor” whose face seemed seldom to have worn a smile. She declared me qualified and ready to take up a permanent position.
Pleased to have passed the test, I was nevertheless sorry to be leaving Killarney, where Molly’s house had become a second home and the post office staff had been so good-humoured and friendly.