Learning Points: Delve into family history for magical stories

I was 10 years old the first time I visited a hospital.
Learning Points: Delve into family history for magical stories

I was 10 years old the first time I visited a hospital.

The white tiles, the smell of dinners and lodoform and squeaking of rubber souls consumed my young mind. I knew I didn’t like it.

I kept pleading with my mother to take me home; ‘I’m grand’ I kept telling her. For weeks my grandmother had told my parents that I needed to see a doctor because my back was ‘stooped’, that was how she described it.

I grew up in an estate called Grange Erin in Douglas, Cork. My grandmother came to live with us when she was 74 after her twin sister died.

My father famously offered her a few good years and my grandmother being a self-confessed slow learner and militantly obtuse lived with us for over 20 years. Twenty great years.

She added so much to the house in her own simple kind of way. Cooking brown bread, feeding the birds and telling stories about Ireland during the war.

I think it was here that my love of hearing stories was born. I’ve always loved chatting with older people and hearing their life stories.

Hearing the moments when their life changed, and hearing all the different challenges that faced them on their sinuous journey through life. I think she gave me that gift.

My grandmother used to tell me about how she met my grandfather. I’d sit in her little room, eyes wide as she described her friend calling for her and asking her to go to the Hunt Ball.

Dances sounded so exotic to me, a child of the 80s, Paul Jones and Mick Delahunty’s band was a different world, a world I felt I would have enjoyed.

She’d always tell the same story, ‘we flicked a coin: heads I’d go out, tails I’d stay in, none of you would be here now boyeen (that was what she called me) if it comes up tails’.

I’d ruminate on that story for many years not least because my life depended on the flick of a coin but because she’d always end the story with ‘my true love was the hurler, Mick O Connell’. My young mind couldn’t comprehend that my grandfather wasn’t her true love.

I remember her scowling at the dishwasher when it arrived. She refused to engage with it. ‘Stupid bloody thing’ she’d mutter to herself washing the cutlery by hand.

She was a great friend.

I could always go into her ‘shack’ that was her name for her room and sit with her for hours and just chat about everything.

And when I met a girl I knew was special I brought her to meet my grandmother and she whispered into her ear ‘you’ll get married’. She was right about that and my back. too. It was stooped.

When I was brought before the orthopaedic specialist, he ran his hand along my spine, I collapsed when he got to the point where I had broken a vertebrae.

Of course, vertebrae was a new word in my lexicon, a word I could have done without hearing as it meant I would have to spend the next number of weeks in hospital on traction and worse than all of this, school would have to continue.

I felt cheated. Not only would I have a bad back for the rest of my life but I had to do homework too.

A couple of weeks earlier, I was standing on a garage roof looking down surveying the garden for the soft spot to land. I was in the middle of a height-jumping competition. I have always been competitive. And I wasn’t about to be dethroned from my prestigious title, ‘Grange Erin roof champion’ for anyone.

As I launched out, I must have miscalculated my weight or a breeze might have suddenly picked up but I landed on the drive.

Hearing the moments when their life changed, and hearing all the different challenges that faced them on their sinuous journey through life. I think she gave me that gift.

‘I’m fine’ I said to the few spectators who had gathered. But I felt something in my back, I just brushed it off as nothing and went about my day as normal, skate boarding through fire, WWF training, playing run away knock, and rehearsing in our rock band.

An average Saturday in 80’s Cork. We had to make our play with what we had around us. We had to invent our fun. And if it meant a few neighbours were tormented in the process, so be it!

I was the ‘run away knock’ champion for two years in a row 86-88, until the neighbour joined a running club.

He must have been waiting there all evening, but no sooner had my finger pressed the white cycloptic eye of the bell, the door flung open.

And that was it; my run was literally, over. The Grange Erin triathlon was something I couldn’t get good at; it was the fake swimming in the grass that killed me.

And when Bob Geldof was organising ‘Live Aid’ we were doing our bit in Grange Erin, we held a skipathon, and wrote our own song, raising over 2 pounds 60p.

"When I tell my daughters about my childhood I see them get lost in the same way I used to when my grandmother talked to me about Whitechurch. That is the beauty of stories; they transport us from the present."

I hope this story took your mind off everything going on around you.

Tonight, maybe, turn off the TV and share a story.

We need it more than ever.

  • ■ Richard Hogan is clinical director of therapyinstitute.ie, a school teacher, systemic family psychotherapist, and father of three. If you have a question, contact info@richardhogan.ie

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