Thursday, October 20, 2016

MacDara looks for a job

After sitting the Leaving Certificate in the mid-fifties, MacDara decided to seek a job for the summer months. Jobs were in short supply in country towns like Boyle in those days so MacDara set his sights on Dublin city. He drew up a list of well known business houses he knew by name, beginning with Eason’s Booksellers and Independent Newspapers (both of Abbey Street). Having received no joy there he moved on to tobacco manufacturers Player Wills, and then to Cadbury’s and Rowntree’s confectioners, renowned for sweets and chocolate. Failing again he turned his attention to Millard Brothers, O’Neills Sportswear and Elverys (all of them distributers of fishing tackle and sporting goods), and finally Kapp & Peterson Limited (suppliers of pipes, lighters and accessories); all to no avail. High-tech giants like Microsoft and Apple hadn’t yet arrived; they were concepts of the future. 

As MacDara pedalled the streets and cobblestone lanes of North Dublin courtesy of the brother’s bike, and coming near the end of his tether, he suddenly saw the name Lucan Dairies standing out in large letters on a wall in Parkgate Street and remembered the well-known flag with its logo fluttering in the breeze at home and in seaside resorts roundabout like Strandhill, Rosses Point and Enniscrone. He’d give them a lash in a last ditch effort! Lucan Dairies consisted of a huge milk plant on one side of Parkgate Street and their office block on the opposite side. They were among the main distributers of milk around Dublin city and county, the others being Dublin Dairies, Merville and a smaller one with the exotic name Tel-el-Keber. With nothing to lose he marched in bravely and asked if there were any jobs going for the summer. A while later he was ushered into Personnel, where the usual questions were asked about education and background. MacDara had suddenly and unexpectedly found himself a summer job that would continue till early October, which was the end of the ice cream season. Today, and in hindsight, it’s unbelievable to think that ice cream was on sale for just six months of the year, from April to October. Delighted with his new found luck he was informed that he could start work on the following Monday morning. That left him three days to find accommodation. 

MacDara ploughed the north side on his bicycle and eventually found a place beside Arbour Hill Church, with his bedroom window looking on to one of the most hallowed sites in Dublin city or country, the graves of the signatories of the Proclamation. He could walk to work from there in ten minutes and lived on the doorstep of the Phoenix Park, which was home from home on a Sunday morning with groups of lads his own age playing football, hurling and a game called rounders that was hugely popular then. Dublin Zoo, being close by, was another great way of spending a few hours on a Sunday. Begging the liberty of a short digression, MacDara had retired to bed late one Saturday night/Sunday morning when something went boom in the dark. A sound like a bomb going off shattered the peace and tranquillity of Arbour Hill and left him semi shell-shocked in the middle of his bedroom floor and in pitch darkness. Within minutes his good landlady, like a modern day Florence Nightingale, came on the scene torch in hand assuring her five lodgers that the roof was still on the house, that she had no gas leaks and that the loud bang emanated from elsewhere. Happily the electric power came back within an hour. The following morning, after Mass in Arbour Hill Church, all was revealed. The bronze statue of Field Marshall Hugh Gough (1779-1869), sitting on a horse on a plinth just inside the gates of Phoenix Park, had been blown away by the newest breed of the IRA. The noble gentleman’s head had been blown off once before in an earlier campaign in the forties, but was found later in the River Liffey at Islandbridge and soldered back on. 

Getting back to his new found job, Lucan Dairies had a huge milk distribution business throughout Dublin city and county and also had contracts to supply milk to wholesale confectioners around the city. His immediate boss Mr. Samuel was of the austere calibre, a man who rarely if ever smiled at anybody or any thing! His working day seemed to revolve around one principle, ‘reconciling the stocks’. The three words hit the ear drums ten times a day like lines from an old ballad. The equation in simple language amounted to, the volume of milk in stock from yesterday plus the volume of milk received on the current day, minus the amount distributed to customers and wholesalers in the course of the day. It must balance or ‘reconcile’ by the day’s end, and if that didn’t happen then you worked until it did, no questions asked! Yet the most heartbreaking task of the week was yet to come on the Friday afternoon. If ever a job was conceived to destabilise the brain of two eighteen year olds this must surely be it. With Jimmy, the other young recruit taken on for the summer season, the two of them spent the afternoon counting empty bottles till they were blue in the face, thirty-thousand to be precise! There were twenty-four bottles to a crate and the crates were stacked fifteen feet high in a building tall enough to hold a 747 jet aircraft. Bottles were completely made of glass then, and didn’t have any label of identity on them; every last one was similar. MacDara and Jimmy took turns to climb a ladder and count the rows of crates that stretched upwards and outwards in all directions. The mountain of dead colourless matter staring down at them could have been Queen Maeve’s grave on the top of Knocknarea and to further aggravate the situation Mr. Samuels looked in like a Job’s comforter to see how “the long count” was progressing! What a relief it was for the beleaguered two when the clock struck six and the bells of Arran Quay Church up the road rang out the Angelus across the Liffey! The normal functions of the brain found their way back slowly, similar to the deep sea diver coming out of the bends.

One Friday during lunch break, MacDara remarked to a colleague who was many years in the job how he found it hard to live on four pounds a week. He was already paying his landlady three pounds ten shillings full board which left him with ten shillings to survive on. Norman’s advice was to ask Herbie (the boss) for a rise. He’s not such a bad guy when you get to know him he said smiling! The next Monday MacDara plucked up courage and inquired from Personnel if he could see the boss? Like a patient sitting anxiously in a doctor’s surgery he was becoming more nervous by the minute. What followed next came dangerously close to a health check up.  Herbie asked him did he smoke, did he drink, did he gamble, did he go to films, where did he live and how much did he pay for his digs? MacDara wondered what would come next, would he be asked to take a deep breadth or cough a few times! Then came the punch line. How much are you being paid per week young man? Four pounds a week sir. Don’t you get extra for working in the milk office on the second Sunday morning of each month, isn’t that another ten shillings! Yes sir. He rubbed his rich growth of moustache over and back a few times while studying this new employee of his. His façade softened, a hint of a smile appeared and he said he would give the matter further consideration. Thank you very much sir, said MacDara. The following Friday there was an extra ten shillings in his pay packet. Norman (the guy who had talked him into it) could hardly believe it. You’re a plucky young lad he said; I was having you on and didn’t think for a second you’d have the guts! 

Ten shillings increase in wages in the mid-fifties would be regarded as considerable and would open up a few new avenues of enjoyment; an extra film or dance in the city on weekends, a game of billiards in the saloon opposite Wynn’s Hotel in Abbey Street, a swim at the Fortyfoot on a Saturday. He might even invite Joan in the office (whom he fancied) to a film or a dance, all made possible courtesy of Herbie’s increase. A favourite venue was the Theatre Royal to listen to Tommy Dando in his all-white suit blasting out the great music hall hits of the day on an organ that lit up like an exploding star as it appeared from out the bowels of the building. Like a great amphitheatre inside, MacDara picked a seat well up at the back where he could see everything going on even though he seemed a mile away from the stage. On one occasion he was lucky to get in to hear the renowned international speaker Archbishop Fulton Sheen from New York. MacDara had heard the famous man speak once before in the tiny village of Croghan outside Boyle in 1950 when the Archbishop travelled there to bless the newly-reconstructed church where his grandparents had been baptised. He was looking forward to hear him speak again and he wasn’t disappointed! He spoke about his trips to countries around the globe and the mission fields he visited throughout Africa, Southeast Asia and America. In a short digression (and there were more than one) he told a story that brought an explosion of laughter from a thousand throats. The venerable Archbishop had been invited to a christening ceremony in a small isolated village in Nigeria served by an Irish missionary priest he knew personally. The parents of the child had seemingly been well tuned into Ireland’s ancient history and its culture and had chosen a very special name for their new born son; he would be named Brian Boru after one of Ireland’s greatest chieftains. The Archbishop spoke for surely an hour that evening with never a dull moment. 

Back to reality and the various other entertainments on a weekend in Dublin. There was the poky little Grafton Cinema on a wet Saturday afternoon where one could sit back and watch the great cartoons and comedies of the thirties and forties. There was the Carlton Cinema on O’Connell Street that showed western films almost all the time, so much so that normal banter had it that the cast were permanently resident in the Gresham Hotel opposite. A dance in the Metropole Ballroom for two shillings and sixpence brought a new dimension to the Sunday afternoon, while The Yerrawaddies (Engineering students) ran their dances in the Olympic Ballroom on Camden Street on a Saturday night. Ten shillings wouldn’t give access to all of them the same weekend but it allowed one to choose. MacDara met his first girlfriend at one of them and timidly asked if he could meet her the following Sunday afternoon under Nelson’s Pillar, a tradition he was told might bring him good luck! His luck held out just about as long as the job! Herbie his boss was blamed for it all, but in a most congenial way!

Shrill October arrived and so also did the day of reckoning. The ice cream season had come to an end and it was time for the ‘Prodigal Son’ to return home. As he left the city, MacDara brought with him a slice of Old Dublin in the form of 2lbs of Hafner sausages which were regarded at the time as the crème de la crème of the sausage world; the flavour was unique and just could not be equalled. To have to stand in a queue outside Hafner’s shop on Abbey Street, and wait your turn to gain entrance, was a pre-requisite to achieving your goal. As he sat on the train and ruminated over the months gone by he could have been Alice exiting Wonderland. The passengers opposite him must have wondered at the eccentric figure smiling seemingly at nothing; they didn’t know the half of it!      
Christy Wynne.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Fair Day in Boyle

 My memories of the cattle fairs in Boyle of the late 1940s and 1950s are timeless and special. There was one every month, some months had two and among them there were five monster ones: January, March, May, October and November. The big ones meant a day off school and needless to say they are the ones that remain alive and well in the memory. The sound of cattle moving through the streets began around 6am as they were being guided to the Fairgreen in Lowparks. When I think back to those ‘monster fairs’ they trigger in my mind a poem I learned in my schooldays all those years ago called ‘The Drover’ by the poet Padraig Colum. Could one ever forget his haunting description of “the crowds at the fair, the herds loosened and blind, the loud words and dark faces and the wild blood behind”, and then of course the farmer wielding his little cudgel of a stick over the heads of the cattle as he steered them carefully to the Fairgreen. If the morning was frosty, little puffs of hot breath welled up from a thousand nostrils as the cattle found their way in the grey light of early dawn. The same fairs were famous all across the midlands for the quality and the quantity of the cattle for sale.

Being a junior clerk at the railway station in the late-1950s, I remember well the names of the great buyers of the day as they called to the Goods Office to order whatever number of cattle wagons they’d require. They were the Larry Goodman’s of the time, dressed in fine Crombie coats, Donegal tweed caps and brown heavy leather boots; tycoons of the cattle trade from the four provinces. For me, one stood out both in stature and his exotic-sounding home address overlooking Dublin Bay – M.J. Towey, Sorrento Road, Dalkey. He was a big man with a voice that commanded attention, a powerful sense of presence, a rural bearing and a capacity to buy enormous numbers of cattle if the quality was to his liking. Other names still vivid in the memory are the Horgans, the Foleys, the Mullins, the Mollaghans, the Conon Brothers, the Sharkeys, the McGarrigles, the Cosgraves and Clarks; all of them the embodiment and beating heart of the big fair. When deals were done the cattle were herded through the town a second time, some of them to the Crescent to be loaded onto the waiting trucks, others to Military Road opposite the old Military Barracks (the King House today) where more trucks were lined up and the rest, the majority, were herded towards the railway station to be loaded onto wagons for their ultimate destination (i.e. Dublin). On one of those great fair days, thirty or maybe forty wagons could leave Boyle railway station, each one holding an average of ten cattle, amounting to three or four hundred. The train was given the grand title of ‘A Special’ and had clearance from Central Office in Dublin to arrive at a given time at North Wall for export to Great Britain.

The first stop on the return journey from the Fairgreen was Tom Wynne’s pub, the Central Bar at the bottom of Green Street. His was one of three bars to have an early morning license allowing him open at 7am. On a great October fair morning the bar became a hive of activity from the moment it opened its doors. The scent of hot whiskies and rums rose up from every nook and cranny of the bar while bottles of Guinness, Smithick’s Ale (unpasteurised) and Double Diamond lined the counter. Mugs of hot Bovril were in heavy demand and were served up with plates of ham and cheese sandwiches. A new brand of instant soup, with the romantic name of Maggi (Italian), had recently come on the market and was the current craze on a winter’s morning. It lacked the age old basics of onions, celery, barley and Oxo cubes but the fact that it could be served up in minutes transformed it into a miracle soup. Maggi was among the first of the package soups to appear on the shelves of the grocery shops and later when the supermarkets came on stream. The pint of Guinness came into its own in the afternoon and evening when deals were done, money had changed hands and the time had come to sit and relax.

As young lads enjoying a day off school some of us would stand in the vicinity of the Royal Hotel or on the river bridge to get a close-up of the action. Mindboggling could only describe the scene as the big buyer counted out £20, £50 and £100 notes to his farmer friend in payment. The mind of a young lad could easily slip into overdrive as he tried to work out the number of visits he could make to the Abbey Cinema ‘at sixpence a time’ if he owned just one of those colourful notes with Lady Lavery on the front. By mid-afternoon, the Crescent was a sea of cattle waiting to be loaded onto trucks, many of them standing quietly with their backs up against the front of private dwelling houses. This particular aspect of the fair was very contentious and caused many a headache for the residents living there. They had considerable difficulty getting in and out of their homes and there was the added problem of cow dung splattered on the walls and on the pathways outside; if the morning was wet it became a recipe for disaster as tempers reached boiling point, arguments raged and hall doors got slammed with a bang. Tradition spoke of the country town coming into existence wherever cattle fairs and markets were held and for that reason there was no law in place that could change that situation; the tradition of the fair was older than the town itself and therefore was untouchable!  Ironically, its demise happened almost overnight with the arrival of the cattle mart in the early-1960s. The Mart was a new concept in buying and selling cattle (an auction), and the farmer ultimately found it more convenient and was sure to get the best price on the day. The neighbouring towns were quick off the mark in setting up a Mart but Boyle still believed in the fair on the street and ended up with neither. It was stealth almost by night! The residents of the Crescent and its surrounds were more than happy but the shops, bars and restaurants saw it as a nail in the coffin for business. A good day’s trading could pay a half year’s rates on a business premises or some other household expense! A way of life known for centuries died without a whimper and no law could stop it.

The colourful side to the Big Fair

On those unforgettable days there were the street traders who added colour and spectacle. First there was the clothes stall erected on a covered-in trailer parked along the wall of the old hospital (the Plunkett Home today). Suits, coats, corduroy trousers of different colours and sizes hung on a rail the length of the trailer onto which the buyer had to climb by means of three steps to make a purchase. A curtain for privacy at one end didn’t always work and could lead to a character in the crowd calling for a speech or yelling ‘the wife won’t like it’ or ‘Up Dev’; all in a spirit of good humour. Down in the town centre, near the Market Yard, the ‘Bargain King’ from Bundoran had set up his stall. A natural born orator he could be heard above the din of conversation and the lowing of cattle. A crowd of people stood around his stall listening to his catchphrases and sharp wit. One could spend hours listening to this demagogue without ever becoming bored. In later years whenever I passed the statue of ‘Big Jim Larkin’ on his pedestal in Dublin’s O’Connell Street, I would immediately think of the ‘Bargain King’ on his soapbox at the bridge in Boyle, his head erect and his arms raised to heaven extolling the merits of some new kitchen utensil or labour-saving device guaranteed, he would say, to turn a kitchen chore into a moment of pleasure. Thus it was with this unforgettable ‘latter day prophet’.

Paddy McGovern, the market gardener from Drum, ran a vegetable stall on the corner of the river bridge opposite Coleman’s egg shop on a Saturday morning and on big fair days. He carried a range of fresh root vegetables that any modern day supermarket would be proud to carry and his sales motto simply read ‘cut fresh from the soil this morning’, and the clay would still be on many of them to prove it. A stall of particular interest on the big fair day was the one selling Dilisk, Corrigeen Moss, seaweed lettuce and a few other sea-related products. One of its attractions was the unique pungent smell of seaweed that surrounded it, an odour as powerful almost as the incense that surrounds a coffin at a funeral mass. Sometimes the vendor would offer a strip of Dilisk to some inquisitive young onlooker to taste but it rarely worked, the verdict being too salty? Not so for the farmer’s wife! Dilisk or Corrigeen Moss cooked in milk was known as an age-old cure for chest colds and many kinds of lung infections; tradition handed down suggested it could even be a defence against the dreaded Tuberculosis.

Stephen Maughan, the local (and mobile) fishmonger, rarely missed a big fair day. The man didn’t use a stall and nor did he need one. His was a heavy Raleigh bicycle with the rectangular steel framework in front that could carry his boxes of fresh herrings anywhere and it was from it he carried on his business. Stephen never liked anyone handling his fish and would react speedily: “Will you quit handling them ma’am, they’ll not come alive or grow any bigger,” he’d say. His humour was infectious, good-natured and usually brought a titter of laughter both from the accused and the other customers gathered round about. On a Friday, the day of abstinence, Stephen would set off on his bicycle in the early hours of the morning to travel the countryside selling his fresh herrings from door-to-door. He was a lovable character known far and wide for his simple good humour and light banter. To quote my mother-in-law, who was a rural lady, his rare appearance at her door was “like a breath of fresh air”.

Getting back to the fairs, the three-card-trick man had just arrived in town and was about to set up shop near the entrance to Frybrook House. Michael Morris, the well-known local barber who had the lease of the gatehouse as a hairdressing salon, saw in advance the potential danger that lay ahead for the man and ran forward to advise him not to set up shop anywhere near the entrance. Mr. Fry, the owner of the Manor, had been unable to drive his car in or out of his property over several successive fair days and had remained ever since in a state of high dudgeon. A man of volatile nature (if risen) he didn’t suffer fools lightly; there would be an explosion in verbal exchanges, sparks would fly and the three-card-trick man would undoubtedly come out on the wrong side of the law. The little man with the trilby hat got the message, thanked Mick the barber for his timely advice and went in search of another site.

Ned Kelly, the well loved local town crier, had a field day on a fair day. His repertoire consisted of three songs: ‘You are my Sunshine’, ‘A Bunch of Violets’ and ‘Dan O’Hara’. Ned himself flowed gently through the fair dressed in a Bloomsday waistcoat and bowler hat supplied courtesy of his great mentor and facilitator Jim Candon (of James Candon Limited), Ned’s raison d’etre. When he had sung himself dry, he revisited the proprietors of the many shops he had regaled along the way and to a man they showed their appreciation by making a jingle in the famous bowler hat. Many farmers who would have known Ned of old were happy to show their appreciation for a voice that was a base, a baritone and a tenor all rolled into one. Ned had been Boyle’s official town crier for over half a century and was reckoned to be the last surviving member of that august body when he retired. His famous bell made a dramatic appearance at a ‘Back to Boyle’ festival some years back and it was carried in a victory run around the town in memory of a golden era. A well known local councillor at the time proposed that Ned’s famous bell be donated to the National Museum and should be put on display alongside other famous artefacts like the Cross of Cong and the Ardagh Chalice.

The last of the many colourful characters likely to appear on a great fair day was Lucky Cody. The guy wore a sombrero hat, knee-high leather boots and set up shop near the entrance to Hans Lawn which is the riverside walk that leads to St. Patrick’s Well. His few accessories amounted to a fold-up table, a spin-the-wheel with numbers on it and an old Jacob’s biscuit tin filled with cloakroom tickets folded and ready for sale. The tickets cost three pence each and when Cody reckoned he had enough sold for a spin he called for silence. I was lucky once and won what would cover three visits to the Abbey Cinema for the Sunday matinee; unrestrained joy ensued. Another stroke of good fortune might come your way if you happened to be in the right place at the right time. A farmer and a colleague standing on the river bridge might fancy a drink in the Royal Hotel or the Italian Warehouse nearby but would need someone to “keep an eye on the few cattle” for the proverbial five minutes! Destiny had directed you to this spot and now you were employed to keep that watchful eye; you had suddenly become an integral part of the fair! The reward at the end was a sixpenny bit, more unrestrained joy!

A farmer rarely left town on a big fair day without indulging in a meal in a restaurant or what was then known as an eatery or eating house. They were located in different parts of the town to facilitate both the shop assistants round about as well as the many farmers who swarmed into town on that day. The same eateries had a reputation for serving up the best of food and each of them had its own clientele. Sad to say none of them survive today but they remain part of the history and the story of Boyle. There was Lynch’s Hotel (Brady’s Guesthouse) and McNamara’s on Main Street, Mrs. Toolan’s and Ml. Moran (the old Princess Hotel) on Green Street, the Royal Hotel on Bridge Street, Mrs. Divine on the Crescent and Mrs. Spellman in Elphin Street. As the smell of cooking rose up from these well known eateries, it reawakened an appetite that might have been lost or forgotten about in the heat of bargaining. A meal of Irish stew or bacon and cabbage was God’s very own special gift to the Irish nation and took precedence over all others. An ‘a la carte’ menu or wine list (if such existed then) would have been discarded as meaningless or a waste of time; quality and quantity was what mattered. In the homely surroundings of those eateries each farmer knew one another and conversations centred on the price of cattle and the future prospects for the trade.

By 7pm, the fair was well and truly over. The streets had fallen empty and strangely quiet, the last of the trucks had left town, the clothes stalls were folded up and gone, and the ‘Bargain King’ was only a memory. The shops had reaped a harvest and were looking forward to the next big fair. The residents of the Crescent were hosing down their walls and pathways, not bothering to wait for a council worker to carry out the chore the following day; time was of the essence in getting back to normality. The great fairs and the excitement they generated are gone forever as are the loud voices, the dark faces and the wild blood. A way of life known and loved by generations has become part of our history. To quote an old Irish patriot, ‘It’s with O’Leary in the grave’. All in the name of progress they say! Maybe, though one wonders at times?

Christy Wynne

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Rockingham A Maiden Voyage

My first close-up of Rockingham House came from the saddle of a bicycle one Sunday morning many years ago. The year was1950 and school holidays were about to begin. David, a friend of mine from England, had arrived on his annual visit to his grandparents Elizabeth and Paddy Moraghan in Rockingham. Paddy and his son Frank ran the stud farm which was situated in the stable yard in the heart of the estate. There, the young purebreds and yearlings were reared, groomed and got ready for the annual blood stock sales in Doncaster in England. The Moraghan home was on one side of the great archway into the yard which in more recent years became the offices of Coillte. On a wall in Paddy’s living room there was a range of photos of race horses that had begun life in his charge, some of which had won success on the race tracks of Great Britain. A place of honour was given to ‘Careless Nora’, a young mare that had realised a huge price at the bloodstock sales in the late-1940s and had helped put the small Rockingham stud farm (and Paddy) on the map. Paddy was a regular caller to our shop for the Irish Press and an ounce of his favourite tobacco, ‘Erinmore Flake’. For three weeks in summer when David arrived I became a visitor to Moraghan’s home in the heart of Rockingham.

That Sunday morning as I set out on my voyage of discovery I felt like a young Christopher Columbus sailing to a new world. It would be the first of many visits I made to Rockingham before the great mansion was gutted by fire in September 1957. David had arranged to meet me at The Gothic Gate which was the official entrance into the estate. Mick Carroll, the well-known ‘Keeper of the gate’, had a puzzled look on his face till he saw David standing by and seconds later we were pedalling the mile-long beech walk I had heard so much about. The towering beech trees, heavy with foliage lining either side of the majestic driveway, left us in a twilight zone or as John Milton might say: “in darkness visible”. I imagined it as the nave of an old gothic cathedral, pillars awash in deep green letting in narrow shafts of light through tiny windows high in the roof. The chanting of a thousand birds, invisible to the eye, sounded like the dawn chorus arriving late, while carpets of bluebells, primroses and rhododendron led us along the way. As we exited this beautiful jungle of green we emerged into a vast area of open space extending almost as far as the eye could see. The only interruptions on the landscape were the small derelict Church on a far off hill that had once been the place of worship for the King Harman’s, the family’s own private chapel and beside it the cobbled stable yards that had living accommodation within for the families of the men who worked there. The entrance to this lonely looking outpost was through a great archway that boasted a comfortable home on each side; David’s grandparents in one and Dick Clynch, the Head Butler and Chief of Staff (in the Mansion), in the other. Next into my ken was Rockingham House sitting majestically on a hill overlooking the lake, no doubt the penultimate view of Lough Key with its 32 islands! 

In a short digression, my grandmother who had been a schoolteacher in her younger days in the convent school told me many stories of old Boyle, the rich history attached to it, the way of life of the people and a few little insights into the story of Rockingham. She had even found time to teach me the Latin responses to serve Mass as an altar boy in the days of the old vernacular. Describing the mansion she said it contained a window for every day of the year; true or false I confess I never got round to counting them. She was one of a group who attended the Great Ball and Open House in the year 1912 on the coming of age of the young heir Edward Stafford King Harman. Being the unique occasion that it was, the estate opened its doors to the residents of Boyle town many of whom were still paying rent to Rockingham in those early years of the last century. The rent office then was situated at Military Road, which today is the Family Life Centre, and the sealed-up door still visible on the left of the building was the entry door the tenants used to go in to pay the rent. She described more than once to me the scene in Rockingham as she remembered it; people standing in small groups on the great lawn in front of the house, tables erected and dressed with food, sandwiches and fruit from the Rockingham gardens. Music and song that welled up from inside the mansion filled the great lawn outside with a wonderful air of festivity. Young Edward could be seen dancing with some fine elegant young ladies, some of whom hailed from the town. It was a great occasion of celebration for the King Harman family but sadly it was short lived. A few years later, in 1914, Edward was killed in action at the Battle of Ypres in the early days of the First World War and denied the joy of ever seeing his yet unborn child. He would have been the inheritor of the estate rather than Sir Cecil his younger brother who ended up as the last member of the King Harman family to live in Rockingham. The dynasty that had spanned a period of 350 years was about to enter its final stages.

Getting back to my itinerary, Rockingham of the 1950s was in its heyday with an estate close on 5000 acres which included 2000 acres of quality grazing land, vast tracts of dense forest, a private residence for The Agent or overall manager, four gate lodges, two hunting lodges, a small stud farm, a ten-acre walled garden with a large orchard, two artificial canals (one connected to the small harbour convenient to the mansion) and last but not least Lough Key itself, the most beautiful lake in Ireland. 

When we arrived at the Moraghan home that morning I was given a real warm welcome by David’s granny and soon afterwards he brought me on a ‘grand tour’ of the estate. It began with a trek through the tunnel used by the staff to enter the kitchen and the house generally. Built in a curve that ran for two or three hundred yards in semi-darkness I might have cursed the said darkness but for a few lights fixed high on the walls. Rockingham House had its own electricity supply and didn’t have to depend on the local power station, John Stewart Electric Ltd., in Boyle. A gentle tap on the kitchen door was answered by Maura Taheny, a lady I knew from town. Una Leydon from Drum was giving a hand to Mrs. Hogan, the Head Cook (Master Chef), to lift a large tray of cakes from the oven of the huge Aga Cooker. A few minutes later we were sitting in a corner of the huge kitchen sampling a slice with a dash of fresh cream; not a bad start, I thought, for my first visit to Rockingham House! 

As we were about to leave the kitchen Miss Mackie, Governess to the King Harman family, peeped in. A petite lady with snow white hair and wearing an air of importance, I thought for a moment I was looking into the face of Miss Marple the well-known detective or sleuth from the Agatha Christie films; they could have passed for twins. On our way out David added a little postscript to her C.V.; Miss Mackie loved to cycle to Boyle on her day off and to meet up with a close circle of literary friends in The Royal Hotel and enjoy a glass of Winters Tale Sherry. Quite a revelation! 

After the kitchen experience we found our way to the icehouse, a room below ground level that was used to maintain foods at a cool temperature. With winding stone steps leading down to it, it had shades of the medieval dungeon about it. Next stop was the Fishing Temple or Pavilion built on a pier extending on to the lake. A quaint fairylike building, hexagonal in shape, it had small gothic windows and a miniature folly as part of the roof. The jury was out on its use or function; it could have been a kind of summer playhouse for the King Harman children when they came on holidays! After dinner I was brought down The Drummans and was quietly informed (only when we got there) that it was haunted. David’s Grandad had told him about the strange man who wandered about the woods occasionally dressed in gamekeeper’s attire and carrying a shotgun; he never spoke but just stared ominously at the person he confronted. It was said he was the ghost of a long dead gamekeeper who liked to visit his old stomping grounds and to ‘frighten the daylights’ out of a potential poacher. Fairytale or not, I was happy to exit this dense part of the forest and to see the Fairy Bridges up ahead of me and heavenly daylight breaking through. 

Arriving back at his home, he said: “Let’s give the Clynch’s a call. Mrs. Clynch is a very nice lady!”. Dick, her husband, was Head Butler and Chief of Staff in the mansion and little happened without his imprimatur. Orders for the day emanated from him and were taken on board. His wife was seamstress and personal assistant to Lady King Harman, a position that carried its own prestige and an authority of its own. Anyone who ever watched the 1960s television series ‘Upstairs Downstairs’ could have been watching a day in the life of Rockingham House. The daily routine had a close similarity about it. In the morning the dark green coloured Bentley was driven from its underground garage, spotless and looking as if it had come off the assembly line that morning. Christy Dolan the chauffeur, dressed in navy blue uniform, peaked cap and polished knee-high leather boots, drove Sir Cecil or Lady King Harman to Boyle whenever required. That Sunday morning we sat and watched from a distance as the Bentley emerged from the darkness of the underground garage into the sunlight and drove up the winding driveway to the main entrance to collect Sir Cecil and Lady King Harman for Church Service in Ardcarne Church.

My final visit on that memorable Sunday was to Rockingham Gardens. I hadn’t been brought there just to admire the ten-acre spread of trees, gardens and glasshouses; David had a built-in plot of his own. There were glasshouses bulging with fruits of every kind. James Kelly, the head gardener, and his family lived within the grounds and had three or four learner gardeners to help him run the show. Mick Bellew, his second in command whom I knew well calling into our shop, had spent the best part of his life in Rockingham; the man’s name was synonymous with Rockingham gardens. David lingered and browsed close to a particular glasshouse, one rich with raspberries and strawberries. As we dallied and pondered, a smile appeared on the face of Mick Bellew. “You’re standing very close to that glasshouse lads,” he commented. “Mind you don’t crack it!” We said nothing. “A dish of strawberries with fresh cream in Moraghan’s kitchen would be a fair old ending to a day in Rockingham, would it not,” said Mick. We smiled and gave a nod of agreement. My first visit to Rockingham was an unforgettable one.      

                                            Christy Wynne                  

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Tribute to an Old Friend - Paschal Mullaney

Tribute to an Old Friend

“Fear no more the heat of the sun, nor the furious winter’s rages
Thou thy worldly task hast done, Home art gone and taken thy wages”
William Shakespeare

Following a protracted illness Paschal Mullany, a very special friend, passed away quietly and peacefully, the last of the proverbial bunch one could say. Our friendship touched on the seven ages of man as conceived by The Bard himself. His death brought to mind a poem close to my heart by Charles Lamb, ‘The Old Familiar Faces’, which I hope to quote later.

Paschal and his wife Moya ran a highly successful grocery and bar trade on Bridge Street, Boyle for three generations, a business where they gave loyal and dedicated service to their many customers. Moya’s endless hours behind the cash register will be long remembered notwithstanding the dedicated care she gave Paschal in his sickness and the unbearable crosses she carried nobly and quietly, and may I say with a deep faith.

Going back to Paschal’s younger athletic days, the man was a top rank tennis player of Connacht Cup status and had won many trophies along the way; the game of tennis was his tour-de-force. Inter-club matches were held regularly over the summer months and Paschal invariably was the Number One seed. Back in 1960, for a young guy to own his own car was quite rare. ‘DI 7604’ was used primarily for shop deliveries, but it had other purposes as well. ‘Ballrooms of Romance’ were sprouting up in towns and villages all around the west and come Sunday night, if one was lucky to have a car, the world became your oyster. Meticulously, Paschal would take note of the bands playing the dancehalls on the night; the best of the bunch was then chosen and a few of his ‘cronies’ were invited along in the bandwagon. The names Silver Slipper, Cloudland, Fairyland, Roseland all come to mind, not forgetting Tooreen Parish Hall (in the heart of the country) that was part of the fiefdom of the late great Canon Horan, the man who always seemed to have a smile on his face. Distance wasn’t ever a problem for Paschal; like a youthful Caesar, at the end of the night he would simply say ‘Veni, Vidi, Vici’.

Another of his interests extended to the County and Provincial Fleadhs which invariably led to an All-Ireland Fleadh in some far-flung field. After the hype of the All-Ireland Fleadh in Boyle in 1960, the appetite had been whetted for more of the same; fast-forward Swinford, Clones and Mullingar. One of our most unforgettable expeditions was to the marble city of Kilkenny in 1960 for the 250th anniversary celebrations of the founding of the famous Smithwick’s Brewery. Many a post-mortem ran late in a smoke-filled lounge as we reminisced on that long day’s journey into night. We often wondered in hindsight if the same festival might have been the precursor of the great music festivals of today that are held annually around Ireland and the U.K.!

After his marriage to Moya (and what a day that was in the Hodson Bay Hotel), the family arrived and in the course of time the growing boys drew him more and more into football, handball, rugby, swimming and of course tennis. The Roscommon county team playing at home or away could never be missed. Lorna, the apple of his eye, was happy to hold the fort at home with Moya on a Sunday afternoon as the rest cheered the county to victory. Then followed the dark night of sickness that seemed to run forever; a mountain nigh impossible to climb. The last of the stages of man, age Number Seven, had arrived. Conversation was a struggle, concentration diminished, and memories were dimmed. The face I had known so well wasn’t there anymore.

My heartfelt sympathy is with Moya, Charles and Lorna today.

Christy Wynne

The Old Familiar Faces

I have had playmates, I have had companions,
In my days of childhood, in my joyful school-days,
All, all are gone, the old familiar faces.

I have been laughing, I have been carousing,
Drinking late, sitting late, with my bosom cronies,
All, all are gone, the old familiar faces.

Ghost-like I paced round the haunts of my childhood,
Earth seem'd a desert I was bound to traverse,
Seeking to find the old familiar faces.

Friend of my bosom, thou more than a brother,
Why wert not thou born in my father's dwelling?
So might we talk of the old familiar faces –

How some they have died, and some they have left me,
And some are taken from me; all are departed –  
All, all are gone, the old familiar faces.

Apologies to Charles Lamb for a tiny spot of editing

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

A Blast from the Past

As much through the light of years as through this wet evening
My thoughts of the past seemed to move. (John Mc Gahern)

The present endless cycle of wet weather, the overcast days and the long winter nights can sometimes be too long a sacrifice and make a stone of the heart. By way of antidote the poet Shelly once wrote that ‘if winter comes, can spring be far behind’. So with that happy little thought in mind, I am looking forward to bright blue skies, sylvan walks, leafy glades and an uplifting of the heart. A little theory of my own to help lift the drooping spirit is all about tapping into your reserve of childhood memories, the happy ones that ramble around in the canyons of the mind. We all have a store of them, the joyful occasions and delightful little events that helped make us who and what we are; you then proceed to blot out (in the best way possible) the not so happy ones. A balancing act, one might say, but well worth trying.

For me, one of the first is about a letter I wrote to Santa Claus one Christmas; a must for every child that ever learned to write. I decided to post my letter in the pillar box at The Northern Bank, to Santa in Lapland but got it back by return post the following day. John Mattimoe the popular and well-loved town postman, grandfather and godfather of the Mattimoe postal dynasty and a close friend of my mother, went out of his way to return it to me in person (in our shop) explaining that Santa would be much happier if I left it at the fireplace in the bedroom where he couldn’t miss it. I thanked him, took his advice, placed it in the fireplace and the great man duly arrived with the goods. What innocent and hilarious times we lived in!

The Great Blizzard of February 1947 would be next on my list. The most phenomenal event of my youth, it had within it all the ingredients for a book, maybe even a best seller. Too long to tell it all here!
Another little blast from the past, not quite as newsworthy as the Great Blizzard but still very much a tradition of the time was Mayday. That particular day had great significance for a generation that was deeply religious and conscious of God in their everyday lives; people who clung to an infallible belief in Heaven (and Hell) and the hereafter. Mayflowers scattered on the doorsteps on Mayday morning was a symbol of welcome to Our Lady Queen of the May, a month that is still dedicated to her memory. Little altars were set up on the landing of many a home for the month of May, a now long forgotten practice. The buttercups, daisies and primroses that dotted the countryside in a carpet of colour were literally at one’s fingertips. My own favourite patch to pick a bunch lay between the first and the second gate into Rockingham. Bea Sparkes (a friend of my mother) lived in a little cottage inside the first gate and it was there I went to pick them with a little more than Our Lady’s memory in mind. I had sampled Bea’s apple tart in her kitchen a few times in the past and felt it could just happen again if the conditions were right and if I made myself ‘unashamedly’ conspicuous. Even at the tender age of ten there lies a native cunning! Religion reigned supreme then, Sunday Mass, confessions each week, the monthly Sodality, Lent and Advent, abstinence from meat on a Friday, The Rosary prayed daily, the annual church mission. Religion in Ireland drifted as far back as the arrival of the Celts; ‘twas in the DNA.

Another very special day in a child’s calendar was First Holy Communion Day which included breakfast in The Convent. The Reverend Mother assisted by her team of young nuns, dressed in full length black habits and snow white breastplates, moved about from table to table smiling and chatting with parents and communicants. The great rosary beads that dangled from their dark leather belt swung over and back like chains of a wag-of-the-wall clock that were out of synch. Later that day there was the grand outing to Strandhill in Brian Grehan’s Ford V8 (hackney car). The afternoon was full of excitement. The travelling there, the running on the beach, the paddling in the sea, a picnic in the sand dunes and a visit to The Paragon Stores ice cream shop. I can still visualise my mother in the shelter of a sand dune pumping the primus stove with its little blue flame to boil the kettle to make tea (and sandwiches) while her now ravenous offspring sat around her in a circle like a clutch of chicks waiting to be fed. The old box camera did its work that day, sealing for posterity the special moments that only happen once in a lifetime. Mrs Cullen’s shop (Paragon Stores) was invaded every half hour as we spent our Holy Communion money on the usual paraphernalia; sweets, ice cream and biscuits. Today Strandhill is a very busy resort compared to that of the mid-1940s, and while Mrs Cullen is long dead she must still cast a cold eye on the beach and the canon gun. Today the name of the shop in bold italics reads Mammy Johnston’s, a lady whose origins are in Boyle town. Before we left Strandhill, we paid a visit to Culleenamore Strand to dig for cockles which we had for supper that evening cooked in milk. We shared some with our driver Brian Grehan, the man who had made it all possible, and not forgetting his tenant John McKeon the local dentist whom we knew was addicted to the little saltwater clam. Happy days! With such memories and more flooding the mind, the ripples of depression faded into thin air, lost in a sea of joy.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

The Year of the Big Snow 1947

The greatest snowfall of the century

It began on the night of Monday 24 February 1947. The greatest snowfall of the century was on its way. Today it is simply remembered as, ”The Blizzard. As I look back to those far off days when I was a young ten year old, I recall in a special way the words of the poet William Wordsworth when he wrote, “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but to be young was very heaven,” and so it was.

For weeks before, an arctic wind had been blowing across the land and snow was the topic on everyone’s lips. As I went to bed on that Monday night dreaming dreams, the first flakes were beginning to fall. The next morning when I woke up and looked out on the street below I could barely recognise it. Shop fronts, shop windows, hall doors, had literally disappeared under a huge blanket of snow, and the roof tops opposite looked strangely different with their snow capped chimneys standing out stark and weird against a snow filled sky.

The birds that chattered in the morning on the moss covered slates and perched along the telegraph wires were nowhere to be seen. I wondered had some natural instinct told them that a blizzard was on the way and so had taken flight in a hurry to a warmer country. That morning I didn’t dally over the breakfast as time was very much of the essence. Dressed in Wellington boots, balaclava on my head and schoolbag on my back, I set off for school fully prepared for anything the elements could throw at me.

I paraded up St. Patrick St, in a track that had been made in the middle of the road earlier that morning and which came to an abrupt halt at the gateway to Candon’s flour yard. Suddenly I began to feel panicky as the snow was almost up to my waist and the readymade path had run out. An eerie silence hung everywhere and there wasn’t a human being in sight. Just then an old lady whom I met regularly on my way to school appeared in her doorway. Better known to all of us as Mrs Mitten the widow, she was small in stature, and her great mane of white hair reminiscent of the illustrious Albert Einstein was blowing wildly in the wind. Somewhat eccentric in her ways she had a habit of greeting the morning with a rendering of her one and only song “Sweet Genivieve” as she carried her jug of milk to a friend a short distance down the road.

That morning she wasn’t singing when she beckoned me over to her, but like the wise old oracle advised me to go home before I got lost, assuring me there would be no school that day or for many a day. Then, as if looking up to heaven, she said ‘I haven’t seen anything like it since “The Count” was elected’.

It was many years later before I understood who she was talking about .“The Noble Count Plunkett” had been elected as the first Sinn Fein Ireland for North Roscommon during a similar blizzard in February 1917, and she was apparently reliving the memory of that historic event some thirty years later. Many of her generation would have remembered it as the ‘Election of the snows.’ That morning I didn’t hesitate in taking her advice, and turned for home hoping and praying that her forebodings would come to pass.

1947 down to Bridge Street 1947 down to Bridge Street The scene that was now unfolding by the hour was to last for a month. It snowed all that day and night until midday on Wednesday, accompanied by an arctic wind that left a trail of snowdrifts in its wake. Gable walls, alleyways and archways took the brunt of the storm with drifts fifteen feet high piled up against them. The town began to look like a lost village in Siberia with its commercial life slowly grinding to a halt, and public transport failing to get in or out for several days.

People were beginning to panic buy. The town was fortunate in those days to have two thriving bakeries, Thomas Egan, Green Street, and Danny Cunnion, Elphin Street. They did a bread delivery almost every day with their own improvised mode of transport the “horse and sleigh” and this relieved the situation considerably. “Egans Batch” and “Cunnions Wheata” became household names and was the proverbial” Manna from Heaven.” Milk was also a big worry at the time as there was no such thing as being able to buy it in the shops. Sonny Gannon from Greatmeadow had a large milk delivery which covered a wide area and he overcame the problem by using the same mode of transport to get to all his customers. It was hailed as a great success. James Hennigan, another supplier from “Spa” at the foot of the Curlew mountains had a more humble form again. With his small donkey and cart he plodded his way to the outskirts of the town near Easkey and Lowparks, and from there he continued his delivery on foot. He supplied many homes in the town centre including our own home during those hard wintry days never failing to turn up with his priceless commodity. It was often said in fun at the time that Jimmy would be heard coming, long before he was seen, from the rattle of the aluminium jugs hanging from the spout of his dairy can.

As the days went by, strange events began to make the news, the first being that of the missing postman. Johnny Gormley left the Post Office in the early hours of the Tuesday morning with his bicycle and bag of mail to carry out his usual delivery. The countryside he served was mountainous, rugged and beautiful. In summertime our friend “Wordsworth “ would have described it as “the loveliest place on earth”, but in winter it was bleak and unforgiving. Steep hills, winding narrow roads half as old as time, and a valley to cross made it daunting terrain. The names of the townlands he served sounded equally beautiful.; Kiltycreighton, Townanaden, Corrnameeltha, Derrynaugheran to name but a few of them, but that didn’t make the job any easier for Johnny. At Brislagh hill he was forced to abandon his bicycle behind a ditch and continue his journey on foot. As the weather conditions were getting worse by the minute he wondered should he continue or turn back. In the Post Office, anxiety was mounting when he failed to return by late afternoon, so a search party set out but had to return within a short time as dusk had already fallen. Early the following morning a full search party set off with food, blankets, medical equipment and lanterns, but again returned that evening without success.

Huge snowdrifts had obliterated many of the familiar landmarks, making any further search impossible. The area had been transformed into a no mans land. Thursday and Friday passed with the same result, and now with hopes fading fast of finding him alive his family and friends had begun to fear the worst. Saturday morning dawned and people continued to hope and pray that the friendly postman would be found alive, and then,”

Miracle of miracles “, a vision in flesh and blood appeared on the ‘Crescent.’The postman presumed dead was telling the story of his ”deliverance” to a hushed crowd. Johnny had struggled his way across the valley through the townland of Taverane and on towards Cloonloo where he collapsed, suffering from fatigue and hypothermia. A farmer out searching for his sheep found him in a semi- conscious state and brought him back to his home where he took care of him until he felt strong enough to attempt the journey back to Boyle town. It was a story with a fairytale ending and a cause for celebration for the rest of the day. The house of the ‘Good Samaritan’, can still be seen today ,and whenever a heavy snowfall occurs the story of Johnny’s survival comes to life again and is retold in many a bar and lounge.

Around the same time a similar scene was unfolding on the other side of town. Danny Kelly the Home Assistance Officer for the area left his home at Cortober, Ck-on-Shannon, to travel to his office in Boyle. Near Ardcarne,about five miles from the town, his car got stuck in a large snowdrift, so he abandoned it and decided to take a shortcut across ‘The Plains’via ‘Eastersnow. It was an area of the countryside he knew like the back of his hand.

When he passed Hollymount school and came to the small hump backed bridge over the railway line,Danny was in for a shock. A farmer's cottage situated in a hollow in the shadow of the bridge appeared to have vanished. A massive snowdrift nearly twenty feet high had enveloped it completely on two sides leaving it almost invisible to the naked eye. Danny, who knew the farmer very well was in disbelief, as he stared at what used to be Luke’s cottage. He shouted out his name several times in desperation but failed to get any response. Then after what seemed an age, Luke’s muffled voice broke the silence. He was alive and well and in good spirits, and said he had plenty of food, fuel and good neighbours to see him through the immediate crisis. Having got over his initial shock, Danny, whose ordeal was still far from over, continued his hazardous journey across ”The Plains“. However, like Johnny the postman he too became a casualty of the fierce weather and was forced to take shelter in a farmer’s cottage until the following morning. That afternoon, there was unbridled joy in the town when Danny the social welfare officer arrived safely in his dole office with his ‘Wells Fargo’ intact. It was another cause for celebration.

Of the many stories of courage and endurance to come out of that period one of the most memorable must be that of ‘The Marathon Man’. Patrick told me his story some months before he died and it is surely one for the record books. He left his home in “Duballa” a few miles outside the town late on the Monday evening of the Blizzard with his bicycle. His destination was Collooney railway station where he was to board the train for Enniskillen and thence to Belfast.

It was a journey he had made many times before and thought little of it. When he set out that evening the weather was extremely cold and dry, and some time later it started to snow. Conditions were getting worse by the minute, and the blinding snow was making it almost impossible for him to cycle. When he eventually arrived in Ballymote ten miles on, he left his bicycle at the railway station in the safe hands of the Station Master. He continued his journey on foot to Collooney which was another ten miles ,and eventually got there feeling cold, weary, and more than disappointed. All transport had been cancelled due to the catastrophic weather conditions, so his marathon journey had all been in vain. But he now faced a new and tougher challenge as he had to find his way back home on foot which was twenty miles away. The snow on the roads had by now reached the same level as the tops of the ditches, blotting out practically every landmark that he was familiar with. A sea of white stretched to the horizon on all sides .

For Pat the situation was looking very grim. 1947 clearing the Rails in Boyle
1947 clearing the Rails in Boyle

Suddenly, the proverbial “spark from heaven” came to his aid. Across the fields in the distance he recognised the stretch of telegraph poles that run parallel with the railway track. Slowly and doggedly he struggled across the frozen landscape till he reached the embankment and found his way on to the railway line. From there he continued his marathon journey along the track through Ballymote station, Kilfree Junction and Mullaghroe. Knowing he was in home territory at Mullaghroe bridge, he left the railway track and completed the last few miles of his extraordinary journey by road. The ‘Marathon Man’ had made his way home safely and his story is now part of history.

Back in Boyle town an event was taking place that made the front pages of the Roscommon Herald. An old resident had died and his burial was in Assylinn cemetery which is situated on a steep hill a mile outside the town. The man’s funeral was unique in that it was the first time for people to witness remains being carried through the town centre on a horse drawn sleigh. As it wound its way from St.Joseph’s Church through the streets, a large crowd of mourners walked behind, while many more lined the sidewalks. Photographs were taken of the funeral cortege at various points along the route with the old Box camera in evidence. It brought a touch of the macabre to the whole scene. When it mounted the steep hill close to the cemetery, an area had been cleared in the snow to park the horse and sleigh. Groups of pallbearers then took it in turn to carry the coffin into the graveyard for burial. It was a slow tortuous journey of a kind not seen before, and for many, hopefully would not be seen again in a lifetime.

Some days later a variation on the theme took place at the railway station. As a young lad I was fascinated with steam engines and spent many an hour watching them rumbling in and out of the station. That particular day I was high up on the cross bridge looking down on the old steel giant grinding to a halt and belching out great clouds of steam in all directions.

1947 Steam engine coming into Boyle Station

Passengers boarding and disembarking, scurried out of the line of fire while the railway checker rushed up and down the platform loudly calling out the name of “Boyle“.

As a young lad for some unknown reason I used to feel a tinge of pride when I heard its name ringing out loud and clear. During the excitement of it all the engine filled her huge belly with water from an old water tower at the end of the platform .and with a shrill whistle and more clouds of steam the old warhorse shunted her way slowly out of the station and out of sight. It was then I noticed a group of people dressed in dark suits carrying a coffin along the platform and into the waiting room. I hurried down to see them placing it on a readymade catafalque situated in one corner.

Andy the porter, whom I knew well seemed to be directing operations. Curiosity getting the better of me, I asked him who was in the coffin. Andy, known for his wit and good humour left me little the wiser except to say in a whisper, ‘He’s resting peacefully here tonight and he wont be needing any breakfast. That put an end to my curiosity. Some prayers were said quietly around the coffin before the small group of mourners drifted away in silence. I never found out the name of the deceased or what form of transport ferried him to his final resting place.

As the days passed, the frozen snow had turned the town into a winter playground, with” Green Street“ hill and “The Crescent “transformed into skating rinks. Lorries and cars were in short supply in those days, so there was little problem for the youth to try out their skills. Anything that could move on ice made its appearance; Push cars, broken-down prams, enamel basins, aluminium trays, stools on their end could be seen racing helter skelter down the hill with children hanging on for dear life.

The sound of laughter was everywhere, and if and when the odd minor collision did occur, few tears were shed. Everything was forgotten in the sheer joy of the moment. A few members of staff of “Boles of Boyle” drapery store rigged up a real snow toboggan, and it became the star performer on the ”Green Hill.” As children we would line up at what was then Sheras house at the top of the hill and eagerly await our turn to be called. A colleague at the bottom of the hill gave the all clear signal and the pilot and his young passenger shot like a bolt of lightning through the junction, at Main St | St. Patrick St, careered up Bridge St, past “The Royal Hotel” and finally came to a halt outside “The Rockingham Arms“. It was the thrill of a lifetime .and an experience you would never forget.

The pilots, George, Bill and Ernie divided up their leisure time to try to give everyone a chance, but it was like fighting back the tide. The queue of young recruits eagerly waiting their turn was endless, and the pilots themselves had only so much of their leisure time to give. For those of us who can remember back to those days, it used to be said in fun that George, Bill and Ernie deserved the purple heart for bravery. As the day progressed we turned our attention to another type of live entertainment. The scene was “Abbeyview Hill “at Knocknashee., and the setting was readymade for the would be skier. For a birds eye view we would sit on top of the Abbey Park wall which was directly opposite and watch the impending action. The skiers raced down the slope zig zagging their way to the boundary wall that was lined with beech trees. Sometimes their landing came a cropper and a sound like the crash of ash could be heard rising from behind the wall. However after a brief pause and a spell of silence the aspiring skiers would be seen to struggle back up the hill for more of the same, looking a little humbled but unbowed. It was entertainment at its best, and the seats were free. Our next stop was Conroy’s pond on the old golf course at Warren. Frozen solid, it too became a skating rink both for the young and not so young. We tried our best to play football on it, but spent more time on our backside than on our feet. Some members of the then club tried their skills at ice skating but fared rather badly. Sadly a number of them ended up with sprained ankles and frozen shoulders. They would have been much more at home wielding a driver or a nine iron on the nearby green.

During all this period Lough Key was also frozen over and it too became a winter playground. Stories survive of Ceilidhe dances being held along the lake shore at Smutternagh, with bonfires alight and the sound of accordions and bodhrans echoing across the frozen waste as the dancing continued into the early hours. Una Bhan and her lover Thomas Costello would have loved it all, as they listened from their quiet graves on far off  Trinity Island.

1947 frozen Lough Key

The fun and sport came to a peak on Sundays when many took to skating on the frozen lake. A vantage point on top of the ‘Rock of Doon’ gave one a panoramic view. It was a beginners paradise, with, the young and old indulging in a sport that was unlikely ever to be seen again on Lough Key. It was to remain a dream and a memory. The lake remained frozen over for several weeks and this tempted a few brave hearts to use it as a shortcut home on many occasions, The bicycle was the most common mode of transport then, and some of these daredevils peddled their way across five kilometres of ice without considering the cost. A story is told of a man who cycled the full length of the lake to Knockvicar Bridge, a distance of ten kilometres for the “Craic“. He would have needed nerves of steel to make such a crossing as the lake is noted for its countless fresh water springs.

Back in the town the ‘Winter Olympics’ continued unabated, and snow battles were played out daily on the streets. When the paths were cleared to allow people to shop in relative comfort, the snow lay six feet deep in the channels. Openings were made at various points along the street to allow shoppers to cross from one side to the other.; The setting was readymade for the hit and run battle. Youthful enthusiasm and boundless energy were in plentiful supply meaning the harassed shopper had to run the gauntlet each day. Many a farmers hat bit the dust with his bulldog pipe still lit lying beside it,. Tempers became frayed at times but were rarely lost. Youth was having the time of its life and apparently could do no wrong.

Finally, after the biblical forty days and nights, the great thaw had set in and was at its height. As the ice melted on the roofs, huge slabs crashed down on the streets below with a sound like thunder. Any person unlucky enough to be caught under one of them would hardly rise again. It was the endgame and there was a terrible finality about it. The great blizzard was coming to an end and we were watching it in its death throes. It was unlikely we would ever see anything like it again in our lifetime. For the young it was ‘the best of times’, for the old and infirm it was “the worst of times “, and for the birds of the air and the animals of the fields it was surely a nightmare. As I look back over a period of sixty winters, many of them stand out for various reasons. None however will ever match the ferocity of the blizzard that hit the country on the night of the 24 February 1947.

Deep down I have a joy and satisfaction in being able to recall what was the most momentous event of my childhood and to be able to say that I was part of it.

Christy Wynne 2007

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

The Story of Doon Shore


The Story of Doon Shore
A happy hunting ground it could be described for a generation that grew up in the 1950s. The Doon Shore (once upon a time Leyland’s Shore) became the power point on the Lough Key shoreline that zigzags along for miles. The name has its origins in a rocky plateau stretching above it aptly named the Rock of Doon. Finding one’s way to this little haven under the hill required a mixture of stamina and youthful exuberance.
It started with a three-mile walk from the heart of Boyle town to the heart of Doon country, climb a gate, walk four fields and a narrow lane laden with blackthorn bushes ‘forever in bloom’. The camaraderie on the way was an important part of the expedition and could be likened to the foreword of a book. The only hint of civilisation having ever touched it was a rickety old stone pier protruding into the lakeand a fairytale cottage hidden behind a hedgerow of trees which was the summer retreat of the local doctor. Dr. Leyland was one of nature’s gentlemen, rotund, wellspoken with a rich crop of grey wavy hair. His trip to the Doon Shore would never entail a journey of three miles on foot, climb a gate, walk four fields of meadow and navigate a laneway that was overgrown almost with blackthorn; on the contrary the good Doctor had his own transport by ferry from the Wooden Bridge and a ferryman to bring him safely to his retreat, his own Paradise on earth. In the early 1960s the area took a dramatic change for the better.
A new road was built all the way to the shore that included a car park for fifty or more cars. A spread of sand to give the place a sense or feel of the sea was put down, lacking of course the sound of the ebb and flow of a tide or the pungent smell of seaweed. New toilets were built as were three new piers for boats, and a diving board in the shape of a platform that stood five feet high on beams embedded in the lake floor.
This was Boyle town’s new water world. Families flocked to it during the summer to bathe and to picnic and many a young mother spent hours stretched on technology’s newest creation, the sun bed,
longing for that envious tan beloved of all young women. The angler pulled in to show off his catch of perch and pike while the occasional cabin cruiser (with continental crew) stopped by for a break and to indulge in a barbeque on deck. The ‘Hoi Polloi’ of the day sat up and looked on inquisitively as the pungent smell of roast chicken doused with oriental spices permeated the nostrils.
Windsurfing had just become the new sport on the bloc, particularly for an age group in their twenties and thirties. Many of this jet set spent their Sundays and summer evenings riding the surf,

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‘Blown to the winds ’ on occasions and suffering the odd topple only to climb back up again and continue on doggedly. The surfboard on the roof of the car in a hurry to Doon Shore was a common sight, a symbol of youth, a reflection of the good life, La Dolce Vita. The lake also turned into a playground for speed boats and jet-skis which abounded and tended to monopolise and ‘exceed their mandate’. A day of reckoning however crept upon them unexpectedly like a terminal illness. The noise and the never-ending cycle of mini-tsunamis they created all round was an unmitigated disaster for other water sports. The quiet inoffensive angler trolling along seeking the elusive trout was demoralised as the fish fled in terror from their traditional feeding grounds; there was no safe haven, no resting place. Other water lovers longing for a spell of peace and quiet saw this new flamboyant sport as overpowering, loud and brazen.
Signs appeared on lake shores roundabout screaming ‘Speedboats not welcome’; the writing was on the wall for the speed hogs and no excess of tears were shed. The sight of one today on Lough Key is about as rare as a Red Indian on the shores of Manhattan.
The swimming gala was another event to come on the scene in the 1970s; its forerunner was held at one time on the Boyle River at Assylinn. To relive that historic event one would have to go back to the 1940s to recall the enjoyment it created for so many families on a memorable Sunday in August every year.
A brief digression might be worthwhile? The event in those times didn’t involve competing against teams from other swimming clubs. This was pure untouched fun, a variety of races across the river and back for the different age groups, swim the width of the river underwater at its widest point, the length of time one could remain submerged under water, walk the greasy pole (without falling off) and finally a diving competition. The closing event was ‘the spectacular’, a one-off where a well-known character performed a high dive from the handlebars of a bicycle secured on a wooden scaffold fifteen feet above river. As part of this final act, the same character delivered an ‘Oscar-winning’ display of how to save a drowning person who had just suffered severe stomach cramp; the sound effects rising from the drowning victim in the throes of death was chilling as “The Mighty Mouse” brought him safely to shore. The crowd rose to their feet in a spontaneous gesture to give them both a standing ovation. The day and the event overall would be talked about for months afterwards. Over a generation later the revived gala being held at Doon Shore attracted swimming clubs from Galway, Tuam and Sligo, and smaller ones from Carrick-on-Shannon, Castlerea and Roscommon. Among the many events there was 3 the mile swim to Church Island which attracted top swimmers from around the province and which was the highlight of the afternoon. Trophies and medals were presented at the conclusion and teas, sandwiches and soft drinks were served free gratis. One of the most colourful events to burst on the scene around that time was the Shannon Boat Rally which culminated on Lough Key. Cruisers were dotted around the lake from Tinnerinagh to Rockingham to Doon Shore making the weekend one of camaraderie and music that ran into the daylight hours. Cocktail sausages, an innovation at the time, were passed around at a bonfire near the old harbour in Rockingham and the revellers washed them down with the newest ale on the market, aptly named ‘Time’. What a name for a bottle of ale! The connotations attached to it gave a new meaning and interpretation to that most precious of gifts, Time, and how we use it. Lough Key was about to come of age and was doing it in royal style. As an aside, this writer clearly remembers the first colour picture postcards of Lough Key to come on the market simply read ‘Co. Roscommon’, no mention of Boyle. A poor sales bet it would seem to suggest. Today Boyle is known the world over and The Celt is still to be found on its shores.


Who remembers the Boatman of Lough Key?

The story of Doon Shore would be incomplete without mention of the boatman of Lough Key. Jim Flynn became as much a part of the Lough Key story as the sum of the islands that makes it up. A rickety old pier standing today was the man’s original halting site, a bus stop then without a customer. Like the old man of the sea Jimmy was weather-beaten, wore a Commodore’s cap complete with anchor badge and the corn cob pipe firmly held between his teeth; the man was the living image of Popeye the Sailor. Jimmy’s natural home was Flynn’s thatched cottage on Ballindoon Shore, a name synonymous with everything pertaining to mayfly fishing on Lough Arrow and indeed Irish traditional music. Flynn’s cottage was a kind of gateway to Lough Arrow and was known to seasoned anglers from all over, including a gentleman by the name of Jackie Charlton. Early on, Jim’s entrepreneurial eye saw the potential for boat trips on Lough Key which was just down the road from his own home. He decided to set up his stall at Doon and began by giving trips at sixpence a time which was reckoned good value, particularly when he dropped his young customers off on one of the islands and collected them later on a return journey. It gave the new kids on the block the opportunity to explore the island like a latter day Robinson Crusoe, light a fire perhaps and sit around like a band of boy scouts. People on holidays who had emigrated years before made their way to the Doon Shore for a jaunt down memory lane with Jimmy the ferryman. Castle and Church Island were popular stops on his itinerary and Rockingham itself was no longer the ‘Hi-Brasil’ to be viewed from a distance. The Shannon boat rally then arrived on the scene and put Lough Key permanently on the map. Rockingham was attracting holidaymakers in their hundreds and the focus began to switch gradually from the Doon Shore to Rockingham or the ‘Forest Park’. There was a top class restaurant and shop, a swimming area for kids, underground tunnels leading all the way to the grounds of the old mansion and a scout den with acres of open ground, all-in-all an adventure playground. Jimmy’s days as the ferryman were slowly grinding to a halt. His own little Celtic Tiger suffered a slow demise while a new monster was rising on the other side of the bay. He departed the stage quietly and unsung but he still remains a part of the history and folklore of Doon Shore. The annual swimming gala also died a painless death, swallowed up in the bigger scheme of things. The Forest Park had become the new jewel in the crown, known today nationally and internationally.

A trip to the Doon Shore in the 1950s

There was transport, and there were modes of transport to get to the Haven under the hill in the 1950s. Nature’s way was on foot or Shank’s mare. There was the bicycle, but how many young folk owned a bicycle back then? Then there was the donkey cart and driver together winding their way to town on a Friday, the pension day, and Saturday, the market day. Finally there was the car or van, in short supply on the Doon highway in those days. The shuttle service to the Forest Park today would be a concept for the future back then, although McKenna’s Volkswagen minibus was just beginning its long arduous journey across The Milky Way. The trip via donkey and cart was a revelation; a bag of hay in one corner, the week’s groceries in the other and the helmsman in the middle puffing on a bulldog pipe and sending smoke signals skywards that read like Bendigo Coil tobacco. The view of the world from this humble little cockpit was quite a thrill for a townie and was eagerly sought after; the small farmers from the townlands of Doon, Tintagh, Corrigeenroe or Corrnacartha were in heavy demand those days as we courted their favour. If we met Pat Joe Casey, the sweet merchant, driving cautiously along in his small van we dared stand in the middle of the road like a Garda on duty to hail him down. Pat ran a wholesale business of his own and was on the road six days a week calling to small shops in and around the area. A man of considerable height and girth he didn’t have a great deal of space to offer in the van or indeed of himself, but whatever he had he shared it out the best way he could like the Good Samaritan.
If our journey was on foot we called to Mrs Casey’s (Pat’s mother) small country shop at Tawnytaskin for lemonade and biscuits; a shilling went a long way then. Her brother Peter Gray was part of the landscape as he sat outside on his cushioned armchair (weather permitting) smoking a Peterson’s pipe with the bent shank. In the advertising world of the time, obsessed with the pleasures of smoking, Peter would have won an Oscar for his depiction of ‘The Thinking Man smokes a Peterson’s Pipe’. Miss Keenaghan, or Tess as she was known to all her neighbours, lived in a fairytale cottage just a stone’s throw from Mrs Casey’s shop. Sitting at the front gate of her cosy cottage in the shelter of two little trees interlocked above her head, she was the epitome of happiness notwithstanding her deteriorating eyesight. As always she was anxious to hear the latest news from town which she relished and took in very carefully; bush telegraph afforded her the undiluted facts without any embellishments.
Our one remaining hope for a lift rested with a coal merchant from the village of Ballyfarnon. Johnny Keaveney drove his small two-ton truck to Boyle twice a day loaded up with bags of coal for his customers. The man never failed to pull up irrespective of the gang he saw lined up ahead; another man might have been intimidated but not Johnny. He looked at us and paused for about thirty seconds; Dr. Einstein was doing his homework. How many angels could he fit on the head of a pin? As he dropped us at the foot of Doon Hill we were already looking ahead; will you be around again tomorrow Johnny?