Cormac MacConnell: Unlikely birth of a career in journalism

Water issues have saturated the headlines for so long this year, and drenched the corridors of power above in Dublin and beyond.
Cormac MacConnell: Unlikely birth of a career in journalism

The land is bone-dry from lack of sufficient rain this month, and the pavements are ringing with the footfall of protesters against water charges — all combining to direct my memories down a watery road.

No comment whatever here on the rights and wrongs of the ongoing national water dispute. I am simply recalling childhood and boyhood recollections of my first contacts with water, in the rural reaches of the Ulster of the 1950s, when the world was very different to now.

Before my memories begin, of course, I know I would have been bathed in the same zinc tub, as an infant, which was still in service on Saturday nights years later, when we were all scrubbed clean for the Sunday morning trips to Mass.

We were like the other townland families back then, in the decade before electricity and water supplies arrived on the scene. We, however, were disadvantaged, in that we were a quarter-mile away from the nearest spring well, in Cornyn’s Field, down the back road.

On the other hand, we were privileged to have the only privy in the townland.

This arose because, not being a farm family, we did not have the byres and barns which served as toilets for our neighbours.

So we had an outside privy, with a warm wooden seat.

It was a dry facility, naturally, with a metal bucket serving as the bowl and, discreetly, we will return to the disposal system a little later.

It was a kinda rite of passage at the age of ten, to be strong and trusted enough to walk to the well and bring home a bucket of clear spring water.

There was always a big green fat frog in the bottom of that well, so the girls were afraid to go there.

You learned the hard way not to fill your bucket too full for the walk home because, if you did, it was not alone too heavy, but the water slopped down your short-trousered legs into your wellingtons.

That water was for the tea and the cooking.

The other water came from the rainwater butt below the spout at the back of the house.

The only tap in the townland was that attached to the tank of paraffin oil which my shopkeeper father sold to the neighbours for their oil lamps.

Hidden under the hedges by day were the big, invariably chipped, white chamber pots which reposed under every bed every night.

Toilet paper was unheard of then, in our world.

Instead, there were scissored squares of newspapers on a nail in our locally unique privy.

I think I was led into journalism later, by reading the fine stories in those squares of newsprint.

I have never had such reading enjoyment ever since, for sure.

Sadly, however, it was another reality that there were no rubber gloves back in the 1950s for the once weekly very necessary burial of the contents of the bucket, in a hole dug at the bottom of the garden, near the apple trees. That was another boyhood rite of passage for me, from about the age of 12 onwards.

The pay was a bar of chocolate from the shop, after you had scrubbed up with lots of warmed rainwater and Lifebuoy soap.

And that is the odouriferous truth.

Dreadfully seared across my memory to this day is the consequence of my once skimping significantly on the depth of the hole I dug for the disposal exercise.

And, even more dreadfully, what happened two days later, when our huge parish priest, Canon Donnelly, walked down the garden to converse with my father.

He was said to be the tallest PP in Ireland at the time but, dammit, he stood in the wrong spot, and suddenly he was nearly two feet smaller, and destroyed up to the knees, and stinking to high Heaven.

My angry father said I was likely to be excommunicated for my crime, and the next Confession, to the same clergyman, was not an easy ordeal at all.

Even now, I do not want to talk about that incident.

Yes, it is a changed world today, at every level.

We turn on taps and flush cisterns and switch on lights, and those big chamber pots that used be modestly hidden under the national beds are now only to be found in folk museums.

And we have reams of scented toilet paper, and the rubber gloves, maybe one of the most welcome innovations of all for those of my generation who remember different times...

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