Growing Up With Ireland: New book looks back at a different country

In her new book, Valerie Cox meets Ireland’s elder statespeople to see just how far we’ve come as a country

Growing Up With Ireland: New book looks back at a different country

Writing Growing Up with Ireland has been a labour of love, drawing me into the times inhabited by my parents and grandparents and giving me a unique insight into the memories of the men and women born almost 100 years ago.

I travelled around Ireland meeting our nonogenarians, farmers, grandparents, religious sisters, city slickers, civil servants, and returned emigrants. The War of Independence was never far away. Dev or Collins? Siblings Tom and Sr Dympna Stack from Moyvane in Co Kerry tell how their IRA father, James, had to go on the run on his own wedding day. Charlie Fitzmahony remembers watching de Valera as a child when he spoke in the Square in Portarlington in 1932. Nora Ryan’s father built a secret room in their attic that Collins used as a sleepover when he was on the run and Austin Dawe remembers his own father, Felix, the vice-commander of a battalion of the IRA.

But normal life ticked away behind the drama. Rose Smith tells how her mother made beautiful linen sheets from used flour bags, and how she kept a special set for visiting American family and for laying out the dead. Siblings Kevin and Sr Márie Kealy lived in a ‘rambling house’ in Wolf Hill, Co Laois, where the neighbours gathered to tell tall tales around the fire in a world without electricity.

This sense of community, of minding one another, of bringing home the Christmas, watching the blacksmith hammer out horseshoes, and bringing sixpence to school to keep the fire going bathe the past in a certain nostalgia but the grief of those who had to emigrate and the poverty of the times jerk us back to reality.

I hope this book captures the joys and tribulations of ordinary people living through the last century, through a world war, the Black and Tans, the execution of Kevin Barry, the burning of Cork, the Anglo Irish Treaty and the thousand little things that made up their everyday lives as the children of the Free State. I hope readers will enjoy this extract.

Romance at the Crossroads

Tom O’Mahony Born 27 February 1921

When we meet, Tom O’Mahony has just celebrated his 98th birthday with a big family party at his daughter Eileen’s home in Co Wicklow, where he now lives. ‘There were cousins and friends and neighbours,’ he tells me as we leaf through the photos of the event, including one of the magnificent red velvet birthday cake in the shape of Tom’s toolbox.

Tom grew up in Ballylanders, seven miles outside Mitchelstown, Co Cork — over the Limerick border. He was one of four children of Willie and Nellie (née Quinn). Tom’s earliest memories revolve around the family farm in Ballylanders. Children were given responsibilities from a young age so, from about eight, he found himself helping to milk the cows, clean out the sheds and thresh oats in a barrel. ‘It was a very simple life but hard enough.’ Families tried to be self-sufficient and Tom’s family reared their own pigs as well. Tom didn’t like school. ‘It wasn’t a terribly good experience and I left at 13.’ His brother Willie, however, was one of the few at that time who stayed on until Leaving Cert. ‘He used to cycle the 15-mile round trip to the secondary school in Mitchelstown,’ Tom recalls. ‘There were 25 in the class starting off, but only two stayed the course, and Willie was one of them.’

School Days and Boyhood Mischief

‘I went to school in Ballylanders where the community hall now stands,’ Tom tells me. ‘The boys and girls were in separate rooms back then, and there were just two teachers, one taking the lower classes and the other the more senior ones. I remember my school book cost one penny — and in winter we had to bring in sixpence to cover the cost of fuel.’

There were very few cars on the road in those days, and there were no tarred roads. ‘We went to school barefoot in the better weather,’ Tom says. ‘The roads were very rough, with broken, jagged stones, but somehow we didn’t get hurt.’ Tom remembers how they used to play quite a dangerous game on the way home from school. ‘We’d often have a stone-throwing match,’ he says, ‘the old road versus the mountain foot boys. It’s amazing no-one got seriously injured, looking back on it.’

On the northern side of Ballymihane Bridge, Tom tells me, a farmer had hammered a sign to a tree overlooking his entrance gate. ‘These lands are poisoned,’ it read. The sign, however, became a target for the stone- throwing boys. ‘I was sent by the older boys one day to see if the owner was inside the gate as he was often keeping an eye out. “Are you there, sir?” I shouted. At which point the farmer rushed out, and before I could run I got a couple of lashes of his whip.’

The sign wasn’t the only target for the boys. ‘I remember a field of turnips that we raided when we were hungry. We split the turnips on rocks to make them easier to eat.’ They also gorged on wild strawberries, which grew across the road. ‘They were delicious,’ Tom recalls fondly. ‘We surely availed of natural food — good healthy fare.’

When Tom left school at 13 he went to work on the family farm. ‘There was no living to be made there,’ he tells me, ‘so I asked a man, Dinny Dwyer, for a job and he took me on as an apprentice in his garage.’ Tom later moved to the Enniscorthy Motor Company in Wexford, then to Kavanaghs in Fermoy and eventually went back to Ballylanders, where he bought the old barracks in the town for £400.

Romance at the Crossroads

Tom says he literally met his future wife, Alice Martin, at the crossroads. ‘Myself and another fella went to a dance, we got our bicycles and we were on the way home together when we came to the crossroads, where we took separate roads. Alice was also coming from the dance. We got talking and I offered to see her home.

‘The next thing it began pouring rain and we ran for shelter under a tree. So we sat on our bicycles till the rain stopped and then I went along the road with her walking her home.’ But there was a lot of opposition to Tom and Alice getting married. ‘I was advised not to marry her as she’d know nothing about a garage. She’ll break you up, they told me, she won’t be able to sell petrol, she’ll be able to do nothing. But she proved them all wrong, she was able to sell petrol, even bicycles, she could do anything. Luckily, I didn’t listen to any of them. I married her anyway and she opened a lot of their eyes.’ The couple had three children — Maura, Billy, and Eileen — but Tom claims he never changed a nappy. He took the Pledge when he was 21 and is still a Pioneer and proudly wears the Abstinence emblem on his lapel. He has never smoked either.

So what does Tom think of Ireland today? ‘People are all trying to “best” one another. When I was young, my father always told us not to do harm to anyone else and to be nice to people.’ Tom is a practising Catholic and recalls how, when he was young, the entire family went off to Mass on a Sunday morning on a horse and cart and returned home to the farm to face their chores. He believes in an afterlife. ‘There must be some place there, there must be a heaven.’ And as for death, Tom says it shouldn’t bother you ‘as long as you weren’t a blackguard — anyone who is good is okay. I do my best.’ And his advice from his long life? ‘Do what you have to do, go to Mass and say a prayer. And be good to your neighbours.’

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