Memories Of My Irish Home
Memories of my Irish Home by Mary Ann Millar née Laverty.
Chapter 1 “Dear Granma.”
After fifty years of city life with my own family reared, and now a Granma to lots of grandchildren, I feel in my old heart a yearning to be back home. They say your heart always longs for your own native soil before you die, and that’s just how I feel tonight; as I sit alone and try to relive my childhood days in my beloved Antrim where I was born ‘neath the shadows of the beautiful 'Slemish Mountains', where every inch of our land was consecrated, and the very air was pure to breathe. Where the very beasts of the field were raised in the name of 'Jesus and Mary' and our holy faith implanted in my young heart and mind to be a consolation and guidance ready to be imparted with increased piety through all the years of responsible motherhood.
Yes, they say there is joy in reliving the past, and I am going to go back now to partake of some of those joys and perhaps others who may read this will also find much pleasure and happiness.
When I think of my own dear Granma with her big, old fashioned Rosary, calling us children to say the Rosary every May evening at the big stone in her garden. A relic of the Penal days, she said it was, it was shaped like a holy water font; summer and winter there was holy water in it and it was never known to dry up. She would make us gather May-flowers and help us to decorate it like an altar, and at a certain time every evening the voices of old and young could be heard telling their beads. It was the simple faith in our daily lives that still holds a charm for me. Our land was tilled, our produce sold, our wool spun, our meal ground, our cattle raised, our work on the land and in our home all done with the 'Sign of the Cross'.
I can see my dear mother walking up and down the land saying her Rosary when she was looking after the fowl especially the turkeys that she reared herself for the Christmas markets. The beasts of the fields loved her, and no wonder, for she nursed them like human beings when they were sick. There was one cow in particular that was mother’s favourite, 'Big Flecky', with the sad human eyes. She always had to milk her as no dared to go near her. And such milk! It was pure cream, not like the watery stuff you get in the city. I can see the beautiful butter sitting in their wee firkins, and dream about the lovely prints floating in the big wooden bowls filled with the clear spring water that cast a spell over you as you looked down at the different designs. It was like a wee fairy pond with the swans, the birds, the lilies, the thistle and the rose, and our beloved shamrock, each waiting their turn to go to market. I could make a wee swan print myself and many a time I stood up on a wee creepy to learn to bake bread. I just loved to see my mother bruising a big pot of potatoes to make ‘Fadge’ bread, and it was some work baking for a crowd of hungry men out from the ‘skriech’ of day along with extra workers for the harvest. When I think of the work that had to be done in a big farm, and in our home, even with the help of servants, it was work, work, from early morning till sunset, day after day.
But it was interesting work and with willing hands and plenty of roughness and the grace of God, everything seemed to run smoothly. Of course we had our bad times too. We can’t expect all sunshine and no rain. Sometimes the cattle would get sick and someone had to sit up with them, or perhaps it was the pigs, or perhaps it was us twins, my sister and I, that got sick, and oh dear, everyone was upset. We seemed to be more important than the whole farm.
My dear Granma loved us. She was a charming old woman and before we were able to walk at all, mother often told us, we used to creep over to her house, as her farm was practically adjoining, and she would get the fright of her life when she saw us. What the one did the other followed and did the same. But the years fly fast and off to school we had to go.
We had to wear a different colour of ribbon in our hair to tell which was Mary or Rose. I was named after Granma and Rose was named after our dear mother. The neighbours used to come down to the road side to see us going to school as we had a beautiful wealth of hair down to the hem of our dresses. I was Mary and my hair was brown and I chose red ribbon, and Rose chose green as her hair was black.
I can remember the lovely white linen pinnies tied in big bows at the back, washed and starched like a dress shirt; We had so many changes of dresses, for my mother was a dressmaker and made all our clothes, and indeed I needn’t tell you we had a change for every day in the week. We were called the O’Hara twins, and everyone knew us by that name. We were never spoiled or petted but we did get the best of everything.
Of course that wasn’t our real name. It was Granma’s name but as we practically lived in her house and she was always with us it was easily explained. I can see her sitting in her big farm kitchen at the window, it was a low wide window with a wide ledge inside where she kept her prayer book, her sewing basket, embroidery hoops and a pile of books, for she was a great reader and no matter who the visitors were that came to see her they always brought her a book for they knew her taste so well.
She could converse with anyone on any subject. Poor Granda said he was lost for someone to talk to, as Granma didn’t even know he existed when she was reading. She told him if he read more he would be able to discuss things with her and he said 'if you were as tired as I am after a hard day’s work in the fields, you would want a sleep'.
Of course Granda was of a different nature. He was very easy going and a very heavy sleeper, in fact he could sleep on his feet and when he got washed up after tea in the evening he just sat and dozed with his head on his hand on the top of his old stick. He never lay back on his chair but sat straight up, and Granma had to watch him in case he would fall into the fire.
When she saw his stick swaying she knew he was in dreamland. But when he got a good sleep he was fresh as daisy and would bring out his knitting and knit from that to bedtime. This was his hobby, an unusual one for a man surely, but a useful one, as he knit the socks and stockings for his own house and for my home also. The wool was the wool from our own sheep and was pure white when it came back from the mill. It was soft as swansdown and was lovely to look at. He could knit a pair of socks in a night with the speed of a machine and an eye as accurate as the sun on a sundial. He never rested until he got the wool all knitted up and it was a familiar sound to hear the click clack of the needles night after night and to see piles of stockings.
The amazing thing was how he kept them so clean. You know how easily white wool is soiled well, when Granda had finished with each article you would think it had never been touched by a human hand, they were spotless and beautiful to look at. Then they would be tied in bundles and put into a big oak chest to await everyone’s need.
Then, some nights Granma would spin a good length of linen. As she only did a little bit now and then it took her a good while to do it, but there was always work on the looms as there was a lot of linen needed for the two houses. Besides, she made her caps of the pure linen and embroidered them. She made them with lovely wee frills around her face and scalloped the edges so finely and between each scallop she 'sprigged' a lovely wee spray.
She did the same with the round piece for the crown then the straight piece was closely gathered or sheered into the crown under the scalloped edges. It’s hard to describe such beautiful work in any other words only as real craftsmanship. Then when they were washed and starched she would ‘tally’ the frills.
She had her own wee ‘tallying’ iron and we would stand and watch her crimping the frills and how quickly she could do them! She tallied the frills of the pillowcases the same way and they were lovely to look at. It was wonderful the change it made on the appearance of them, instead of just smoothing them the ordinary way with the frill falling into any old shape you had the properly finished article, and you felt in your heart it was a pity to lie on them and crush them. I said that to Granma one time and she said it was worth the trouble. When mother made our linen pinnies we took them over to her to tally the frills. She made them different styles, some were made straight widths front and back and sheered closely into a shaped band at the neck and then gathered into the waist with a deep band of the linen left loose to tie in a big bow at the back. Others were made with a deep shoulder piece back and front with the skirt sheered full into it and left hanging loose. Then there was a frill right around the whole way hanging gracefully over the shoulder. This was called the ‘Liberty Style’.
But one sad day our home was plunged into sorrow for my sister Rose got sick and died after a short illness. Mother blamed it on a wetting we got going to school as the servants were so busy with the harvest they hadn’t time to take us in the car. Of course Rose was always very fragile looking and mother often said I had the best share of the health for I never seemed to get sick and was really a tomboy, while Rose was of a quiet unassuming nature and was the sort easily upset. So in spite of everything that could be done, poor Rose died.
My dear mother never was the same. She pined and fretted all the time and so I lost my loved companion and like my mother, fretted for a good while. I seemed to be so lonely now. Everything seemed to be changed. Day followed day uneventfully but the sorrow was always there.
I always remembered that sad event because it was the last Easter my sister and I ‘trundled’ our eggs on the big hill behind our house. The memory really starts from the beginning of Lent, six long weeks of fasting and praying.
I can remember mother covering the mirrors with linen cloths that meant you weren’t allowed to look in them till Lent was over. But, I used to lift the covers and peek in, for I had a weakness for trying on things such as mother’s bonnet, her lace fichu and long dresses or her jewellery. I used to clip her earrings into my hair at the back of my ears and pretend they were in my ears. Sometimes I tried father’s waistcoats on, as they were beautifully coloured with a splash of red, and that appealed to me very much.
I have never seen such nice waistcoats in all my life. They were so cleverly knitted with the oddest sort of stitch like an old world sampler, with beautiful designs. Anyone looking at them would think they were machine knitted. But indeed they were not for Granma knit them with her own capable hands, she was taught all this lovely work while she was at school in the French Convent, and such lovely buttons they had, some had horses heads on them and others were painted on different coloured glass like barley sugar. My sister Rose was very pious and obedient and said she would tell mother if I looked into the mirror again. She said that when you know a thing is wrong you shouldn’t do it. I was sorry for father for he had to shave in a bucket of water, the reflection was quite good, for I remember going for a pail of spring water for mother when she was churning and I have often seen my face in the beautiful clearness of the water, just as good as any mirror and more honest than some of them. So it wasn’t too hard penance after all for father. It’s amazing how you can do without a mirror if you have to. I got so used to doing without one in my childhood days that till this very day I can dress and put on my hat and be ready in no time without even a glance in a mirror, and believe me, I looked better than if I had spent time admiring myself.
Dear Granma was very particular about carrying out the rules of the church during Lent, and on certain days didn’t break her fast until after twelve o'clock in the day and then only black tea and dry bread. I used to stand beside her and watch her break the bread into her cup and sup it out with a teaspoon. Sometimes she gave me some and I can remember how bitter it was, I used to ask her to put sugar in it but she said “tut-tut, child” and that was enough for we knew not to insist anymore.
But, oh, how I remember the excitement and joy it gave dear Rose and me to see mother dyeing our eggs for Eastertide. Of course Granma had to help as it was she who gathered the different flowers and made the dyes. We used to gather around the fire on our hands and knees and watch the eggs boiling slowly. Granma would sit beside us and tell us when they were ready. We thought it was the most wonderful sight to see the white eggs taking on a new dress, they were just like gaily coloured flowers in a green field with a brilliant sunset.
Dear Granma entered into the spirit of everything that was an enjoyment to us children and mother said she had us spoiled, but she didn’t think so and said it was good innocent amusement and time well spent. Besides, it gave Granma endless pleasure for she loved children and had a way of her own with them that worked like a fairy charm. She was never known to raise her voice in anger to any of us, not even to any of her own children.
Somehow, I seemed to grow up all at once, and had to start school again. My mother used to cry every morning when she left me down the road a bit. There were no different colours of ribbon for the hair now so people would know which was Rose and which was Mary. All that was gone and my dear mother didn’t seem to care any more. But time is a great healer, and the young forget easily and it wasn’t very long till I was asking when my city cousins would be coming to visit us.
You see, they always came every year for their school vacation and it was a great time for us all while they were here and we had great fun. There was Anna and Maggie and James. The girls were educated in a French Convent and James was a Law student. Anna was always very studious, but Maggie was a tomboy and James was simply wild. He would gather all the boys together and play red Indians and get two old rusty knives in his belt and chase us girls through the fields. Poor Granma was scared to death in case we would be hurt and would shout after him to be careful.
But we all enjoyed it so much. Everything was so interesting to them and they were delighted to get a ride on the hay cart or to help give the churn a wee ‘brattle’ or to make a wee print of butter and go out to the nest for the eggs for their breakfast. It was all so different from the city life. I can remember one day we all got a ride in the dirty old lint cart and we got our clothes so wet and soiled with the green slime that we looked terrible and were scared in case we would be seen.
But only for Granma we would have been punished and put to bed. She said if we promise not to go near the lint cart again she would tell us some fairy stories. So we all sat around dear Granma with the lovely rustling silk dress, yards and yards wide it was, with rows of black velvet ribbon around the bottom. I can just see now every row of stitching on it and the lovely lace at her neck with a beautiful big cameo all carved with figures; it was just the size of a small tea plate and I used to think it was heavy to wear, but it took it to fasten all the lace and the silk shawl at her throat.
Then she wore two caps, one of fine white net and the top one was black lace with wide ribbon strings to it, and the white net ruchings of the under-cap just making a sort of wreath around her charming old face. I have often thought since she would make a perfect model for a painter. She loved us children and taught us our prayers in Irish, our lessons and good manners, and everything that was good and pious, not forgetting a good wee bit of superstition. She came through the fields with us to gather May flowers and she could tell us the name of every blossom that grew and the different medicines they made and the certain diseases they cured. She even put some oatmeal on our heads on May Eve in case the fairies would take us away and we helped her to gather the yarrow to hang around the door so that no ill luck would enter. She would tell us never to lift the griddle off empty but to always leave a scone on it so that you would keep your luck and have plenty more to bake, and never to leave the kettle or vessels empty at night – it wasn’t lucky.
I really think this was the most sensible one as I have found out during my life in the city for instance, if the pipes got frozen or burst you were always sure of your morning cup of tea.
Some of these superstitions may sound silly, but I believed in them because my Granma, my dear mother and grandparents before me did. There was no harm in them, they were only the customs of simple life and a loving people for their Irish soil and their holy hearths. Yes, the ‘Good People’ as they called the fairies lived side by side with them and were part of them.
All this innocent life and fun is imprinted in my heart and memory as the holiest and happiest of my whole life. But all good things come to an end and my cousins had to go home as their mother had written to say that their vacation would soon be up, and would mother pack them off in good time to get back to school. I can remember so well dear Anna writing back to say 'the weather was so fine and the people so kind she couldn’t think of leaving'. Yes, dear Ethna Carbery, everything she said or wrote was in poetry.
Little did we think in later years she was to be a poetess and novelist. Her stories of Donegal and poems of her beloved Antrim will live in the history of Ireland and in the memory of all who knew her. I feel so proud to have in my possession her book of poems called “The Four Winds of Erin”, given to me by her father, Robert Johnston, a veteran Fenian, and which I religiously keep in memory of her beautiful soul. God called her away at an early age; it was a tragic blow to her parents and to all her friends, but God’s Holy Will be done in all things. May she rest in peace and happiness.
CHAPTER 2 “Tailor John.”
The summer was nearing an end and the evenings, hour by hour, were getting shorter. You could see all around the fast approaching Autumn and feel the chilly air. Here and there the leaves were falling, some of them had their Autumn tint, others looked so fresh and green and seemed to say “I really am not old”, just like youth wishing to enjoy every minute of this romantic old world of ours.
I can see the men coming back from the fields earlier because of the shorter day and the turf being stacked in the stackyard, as they unloaded their carts from the bogs, and then filling the big creels with last season’s turf to bring into the house. It was so well winned that it burned with a supernatural flame, and sent out a smell like altar incense. I can see the huge kettle hanging on its lowest creek, just near enough to boil in time for tea; the big pot of oatmeal porridge on the top creek to be ready for supper; the big brown earthenware teapot filled with boiling water leaning against the turf at the side of the blazing fire just ready to wet the tea; the twilight is creeping slowly in and the big farm kitchen is lighted up with the brilliance of the turf fire. I can see the reflection in the rows of lustre jugs that hang on the old oak dresser; I can see the lovely wee quaint figures of a shepherd and his sheep on each jug, dancing in an out like a fairy reel and lower down on the shelves are rows of shiny delph and old fashioned mugs that would soon be lifted down for the tea, while my dear mother busies herself laying the table for the hungry men who would soon be in with appetites like horses. No wonder it took her to bake so often; and she fed them well indeed. There was always plenty of roughness – oatmeal, bannocks, soda-bread, yellow meal bread and piles of ‘fadge’ with lashings of butter and cream and homemade jam, a meal fit for a king it was, with all the nourishment the human body needed, and all the produce of our own land, not this fancy stuff you get in tins now, called vitamins.
Oh, dear, no, it was good plain holy food from Irish soil with Irish hands and the blessings of Jesus and Mary. Mother hears the dog barking and she knows the men are near so she starts to wet the tea. She was very particular about making it and when she poured the boiling water on top of the leaves she would quickly pull a piece of turf from beside the big fire and lay the teapot on it. she called this the “Hot Greesich”. She always got me to watch it carefully till the leaves came to the top, then she would lift it away quickly and pour it out. She would tell me and teach me everything proper and say “never let the tea sit after the leaves come up.” And oh, such lovely tea with the lovely thick cream that made it golden, just like the Autumn sunset that we could see as we sat at our tea and looked across at the quiet peaceful country. The servant men would tell all the news they heard, and the hired men seemed to know more about the place than the people themselves, and poor tired Father would give the orders for the next day, or give some of the men a good talking to for something they did that didn’t please him. He was a great expert farmer and was hard to please. Sometimes the men told him he was too particular, as they hadn’t the same patience as he had and would rush the work, but he could always tell and would say that when a thing is done right it always repays the trouble, and so it did for our farm was the envy for miles around. I heard my father say it was the best land ever was tilled, it was good high, dry land, well drained and had a sandhole, which was the reason it was so dry. My Father made good money from it and had contracts for the sand. He had horses and carts on the road so you have an idea of our busy, prosperous life. Besides we were blessed with the best servant men that ever served a master. They loved my dear Mother and respected her, she cared for them the same as her own family and the would help her in their spare time to do any jobs around the house. They were decent, well reared poor men and they knew when they had a good home. They got suits from the wool from our sheep and got them made when the tailor came to make all our clothes. It took him months to get all the suits and topcoats made and I needn’t tell you there was some fun while he was with us. He was a small dwarfish man with quick, alert, humorous eyes and a wealth of black curly hair, a sweet nature and an intense love of children.
He had a voice like an Italian opera singer and sang all the time he worked, his nimble fingers plying the needle and thread and keeping time just like an orchestra conductor. When the neighbours heard he was at the Big House - that’s what they called my home - they came from far and near, night after night, to hear him sing and tell the host of stories and jokes he gathered up around the country as he travelled from house to house. He was a born storyteller. In fact he was an artist of rare talent and one of many of our loved Irish geniuses. My Father was a bit of a musician and could play the violin, but the tin-whistle was his favourite, he could play all the beautiful reels and hornpipes and unless you were a cripple you couldn’t resist dancing. Then he would play some traditional Irish airs and a wee slip jig to finish, but Tailor John wouldn’t let him stop for he was beginning to get warmed up. He would make father give him his starting note and then off he would go with “She is Far from the Land”, “My Dark Rosaleen”, “Believe me if all those Endearing Young Charms”, and some beautiful old Irish airs that I have never heard since. I have often wished since that I had been older, to have written down all his songs and stories, they would have been good material for several books. So the happy days went on till he had all the clothes made for the family, and such lovely Irish homespun suits that would wear while there was a bit of them together. Of course there was a big party and Ceilidhe for Tailor John’s departure, and I needn’t tell you it was a night of nights. It was with regret that he left us for he loved our old home that was so generous and kind to him. So he packed up his pressing board and “Duck” as he called his iron and all his odds and ends and with a friendly goodbye and sincere thanks, he left our home for another journey.
CHAPTER 3 “Harvest”
The harvest was fast approaching and now we must start to get some real work done. The whole countryside was just buzzing with excitement and as you know, every farmer that has extensive land has to engage lots of extra hands besides his own staff, so as to get the harvest in in good time. You have an idea the extra work that had to get done in our home, all those extra hands had to be fed, day after day, until the work was finished, and then, of course there was a Ceilidh to finish up. Such a night is not easily forgotten.
I can see the lovely young boys and girls with their beautiful bronzed faces and sparkling Irish eyes, dancing with each other and I just love to watch the grace and rhythm of their feet as they danced the Fairy Reels and Hornpipes and Slip Jigs to the music of the fiddle, melodeon and tin whistle, which was my Father’s favourite instrument, as I have told you, and I needn’t tell you he fairly showed off how he could play – after a few helpings of the Good Old Mountain Dew – which was well in evidence this night above all. Many a romance was sealed and signed for the big day with congratulations for another wee treat for the happiness of the parties; and when they were tired dancing, someone would call for a song to keep the party alive till the last minute.
Willie Loughlin, that was the fiddler’s name, shouted “What’ll it be, boys?” and some of the local wits would say to him “sure you don’t know any songs.” Now Willie looked very indignant, although he was blind, and he would say, “There’s not an Irish song I don’t know backwards,” and someone else would shout “Did you bring your music with you?” Of course, this was all fun on their part and I suppose Willie knew this, for he said again “What’ll it be, boys? Anything you like,” and Joe Mallon got up and says he “Do you know ‘The Lark in the Clear Air’?” “Do I what,” says Willie. “Sure I knew it before you were born” and then he started to tune his old fiddle again and played that loveliest of Irish airs, his lips moving as if he was singing the words to himself.
"Dear thoughts are in my mind as my soul soars enchanting” so Joe Mallon sang the whole song through with as beautiful a voice as you’d wish to hear. Oh what memories that song held for my dear Mother as she listened quietly to each word, and, strange to relate, they hold the same for me. Then, of course, another encore came with the “Coulin” in all its traditional splendour and moving words.
Then some of the older people would sing “ Bold Phelim Brady”, and “Down by the Old Mill Stream”. So with helping hands the tea was made and drinks served again, there was kegs of it and everybody got as much as they wanted.
There was a lot of storytelling and hair-raising ghost stories about haunted houses and places, and about one old man that lived by himself and ate meat on Fridays and when he awoke one morning his hair was lying on the pillow beside him and no matter what goose grease he put on his head it never grew again and he was so ashamed of it he had to wear his grandfather’s cap with “huggards” on it – you know the sort that came down over your ears and tied under your chin – and they say he wore that till he died and it was buried with him. No wonder the children were scared to death in case they met him!
Then there was the old man that lived in a wee cotters house, his chimney wouldn’t draw, so a lot of boys gathered together and just reached up to the roof of the wee house and pushed a lot of ducks down. Old Dan was sitting there and down came the ducks on top of him, he ran out screaming and the boys hid and to this day he never knew who did it but he kept the ducks and said that Providence always provided for him.
Then there was Cricket John who lost his cricket, and he travelled all around the country looking for it. The neighbours would ask him “How would you know your cricket? Sure we all have them.” “Well now” says he, “ I would know mine anyplace for it has a wee white bonnet on it.” So the joke got around “Did you see Oul’ John’s cricket with the wee white bonnet?”
Then there was the story about the night they went to a Ceilidhe and the old fiddler tramped his feet so much to beat time, so the boys tied his feet to the chair and he never know they had done it till he started to play again and wasn’t there a laugh when he couldn’t move! He sort of suspected who it was, for this gang of boys would stop at nothing.
Then there was the half-witted crathur that said he had a bap if he could get something to wash it down with, and someone gave him coppers to get a grain of tea, so he bought the tea, but instead of making it, he just spread the dry tea on top of the bap and seemed to enjoy it!
But the most interesting story of the night was about Big Hughie’s daughter Rosie, an old woman now, but a beautiful girl in her young days.
Her father was a horse breeder and had a huge place called The White Farm, buyers came from all over the world to Big Hughie’s for the finest horses that ever was bred in Ireland. So, the story goes about the lovely young Belgian fellow who came over to buy horses and, of course, fell in love with Rosie. She was a great girl for the horses herself and the two of them were seen constantly out riding together. Right enough, they were a lovely pair and looked just made for each other.
He was supposed to have royal blood in his veins and looked it for he was grand and handsome and wealthy, not that Rosie needed any wealth for she was the richest girl in the country. So they got engaged and there was a big party up at the White Farm, and only the rich people were invited to it. They came from far and near and it was the talk of the whole country for long and “dreigth” the great night it was.
Well now, he went away to arrange things, and to come back and marry Rosie, and as you would expect she had all arranged for the wedding. But the Bold Boy never returned as they say “once away, still away” they made all sorts of inquiries about him but never could hear anything more about him. So poor Rosie had been jilted. She pined away to a shadow for years and never came out of the house, and never was seen on horseback again.
Her father and mother died, she had one brother that looked after the place, but he started to gamble and go away for weeks at a time enjoying himself till the place got neglected and he sported away all his own fortune and poor Rosie’s too. Sorrow seemed to follow her all her years till now she just went around the country from house to house.
She was never known to ask for help, she was too proud, but the neighbours were very kind to her and she never wanted. She could read the fire, and tell your fortune, and many a true one she told. She was very particular about the fire when she was going to read it. It had to be just a certain way, just like a tired man after a hard day’s work, settling down to relax quietly and not wishing to be disturbed.
I remember the night she read the poor Widow’s fortune, who had a son, it seems he quarrelled with the father and left the house and went to America. He promised his mother he would write, but he never did, and now it was nearly twenty years and she said he was dead. She came down from her wee cabin every day at a certain time to watch for the postman and there she would sit, hail, rain or shine, but no letter. So one night Rosie called at this house and the Widow Neary was there, so she told her fortune from the fire, and, says she, your son isn’t dead at all, nor never was, he has had it brave and hard since he left and wouldn’t let you know. But now he has made good and will be home to you very soon, about three weeks or maybe in three days, for he is very near at this minute. But, says she, you are going to be very upset at seeing him, and take my advice and don’t get fussed or you'll go and get yourself sick. Just take him cool for he has left you long enough in sorrow, and there is no man worth it, and she spat out as she always did at the very mention of a man’s name.
So what do you think, the news flew around the country like March dust and everybody watched for Paddy Neary’s return, and right enough, Paddy came home a real Yank and a handsome looking man with a great air about him, for he had made plenty of money.
But what do you think, when his poor old mother saw him didn’t she just sit down and die. Her poor old heart was so full it just couldn’t stand it no more. And there, after waiting all those years to see him and expecting a wee bit of comfort with him, she just looked at him and died.
So that was sorrow and joy all in a flash. The neighbours said God was hard not to spare her, but God’s ways are shrouded and sometimes it is for the best, for some crafty widow got her clutches on Paddy and never let him go till he married her. She gave him such a hard time that he went away again for good this time, never more to return. So you see Rosie was right and whatever she read out of the fire always came true.
Of course there would have to be ghost stories, but I can only remember one of them, about Tom Adair who was often seen walking about the graveyard. They say his old wicked soul would never rest for he was a hard man and was the Bailiff and many a sore heart he gave the poor people when he turned them out on the roadside.
The people cursed him and told him to his very face that his bad wicked spirit would never rest, and neither it did. Then there was the big simple lad, Pether, who told everyone he had a nun sewn on his waistcoat, he meant, of course, an Angus Dei that the visiting sisters gave him when they came around the country. Some of the old people would have more serious things to tell, such as the happenings of the night of the Big Wind and bring back memories of neighbours that once sat among them, of the havoc that was wrought to the country for miles around, stripping roofs and thatches off houses, and taking in its fury out on house and barns and sweeping down the swollen rivers the fowls and other livestock, and leaving the land like unlaboured fields.
Some of the wee cotter’s houses were levelled to the ground and others disappeared as if by magic. Poor old Ellen Hasson and her niece were found dead in their bed with the beam from the roof of their house lying across them. There was many a sad story told that night. The people prayed and recited the rosary till they were exhausted. The men lit their lamps and made vain attempts to venture out to try and save some of their stock. But the wrath of God was hard to appease, and at times they thought it was the end of the world for them all. The old people would watch the Blessed Candle for signs only known to themselves, and at last the storm spent itself and ceased as if it was turned with by a wee fairy wand.
There was many a headache for long and dreight and the neighbours would call into Granma’s to get their heads measured. She kept a strip of old linen for this purpose, then she would gently close your head. First from the front, then to the temples, and back again to the front, three times in honour of the Holy Trinity.
It was a lovely feeling to get your brains pushed back into their wee packet again, and to know that the sounds and anxiousness of the previous terrible night was gradually being shut out, it was like the soothing effect of a drug only it wasn’t out of a bottle it was only the sonsie gentle hands of an intelligent old woman that knew all about your head and how many parts it had and how many ounces it weighed. She said a woman’s head was lighter and weaker than a man’s but the brains were superior.
The people seemed to be so strong and healthy and never was heard to complain much. Of course, there were always confinements, for the women then had all big families, but in such a quiet, reserved way that no one ever knew they were pregnant till it was all over they were so modest, and had a particular way of turning up their skirts and folding them around their haunches and fastening them at the back with a strong safety pin, which in itself was bulky, and hid any changes in their figure. As there was no doctor around for miles, the women looked after each other, or if you could afford it you engaged a woman and she stayed with you until it was all over. I remember Mother saying there was a standing joke among the women about a creathure that took bad through the night and she asked her man to go for help, and he said, "woman dear, could you not hold out till morning,” in other words, don’t disturb me.
Sometimes Granma attended to some of the poor creatures, and we used to wonder what was wrong when we saw Granma taking them for a wee walk up the hill. Little did we know then that she was helping Old Mother Nature in her battle for life under the special protection of Jesus and Mary. Yes, it was a sublime calling to follow in the way of Holy Maternity.
It was rare indeed to hear of a death even in the wee cotter houses there was never a mishap or an infection of any sort and if there was any unusual haemorrhage there was always the homely cobweb to be found in most country houses and it was applied in a knowing way and would act like magic. Granma had great faith in her old pieces of linen that she kept handy for this event, all traces of starch had to washed out leaving it, as she called it, 'rag washed’. She had rolls of it, and pieces of all sizes to be used as binders both for mother and child, and which remain on for nine days. It was put on with the Sign of the Cross and taken off the same way.
Yes, the Holy Trinity is evident in all God’s creation, in man himself and in the daily lives of the people, down to the beasts of the fields and to our beloved soil.
“Oh, Blessed Life.”
I could go on for ever with the stories and happenings that I heard, but my memory gets sorta tired.
So the party came to a close and everybody was well fed and was loud in their praises of the kindness of my parents, and so ended another Harvest. As ye sow, so shall ye reap, and indeed ours was the most fruitful and bountiful work of a Blessed Year.
Chapter 4 “The Quilting.”
The harvest is over, the workers are gone, and the house returns to its usual routine. Now we can look forward to the long winter nights, for the quilting must start so as to get finished in time to have the Quilting Party.
Dear Granma is the safe custodian of the quilting frame. It is her own heirloom, handed down from mother to daughter, and prized and cared for like a relic. I can remember my Mother explaining to us children how the frame was assembled for use.
It was like a ritual to see the servant-men carrying the quilting frame over from Granma’s house and she walking behind it, giving instructions right and left as to its care, with us children and some of the quilters who were to help bringing up the rear in procession form. And my dear Mother standing at the door to welcome us, and a chorus of voices saying “God save all here,” and Mother with the rest of the company answering “God bless the work.”
By this time our faithful Bridget is piling on the turf and the flames are leaping with joy to heaven. Then she arranges the chairs and wee creepies around the fire so as to leave the right space for the quilting frame to be placed. We all stand around until the men have the frame put together then dear Granma leads the Rosary to bring a blessing to the work. The company get a treat to warm them up and the men go back with Granma to her house and the women are left to their work.
I can remember the quilting frame as four long pieces of wood like a wide moulding with some sort of screws at each corner that could be adjusted to extend to the size of your quilt. Then the quilt was inserted or fastened to the frame and the quilters (as they were called) who were all expert needlewomen sat at each corner. The frame had to be made of wood that wouldn’t warp. I think Mother told me it was made of Ash. I can remember how strong and heavy it looked though it was light in weight and I can feel even now the silky evenness of the beautiful wood as I slid my hand up and down the frame, I thought it was like velvet. And after all these years it was straight as a rush with no sign whatever of warping.
It was a perfect scene for an artist to paint, and such a picture I could visualise in my mind – the gallery of faces, some old, some young. The old, with that sweet placid look of wisdom, giving friendly counsel to those who had troubled hearts, and gentle admonition to the young.
The Quilters sat at each corner of the frame, each with their own tools – shears, needles and the good old fashioned steel thimble, while mother provided the thread and other necessary items. The thread was in hanks just like our wool today and was made up in cuts or skeins, as it is commonly called in Ulster. The thread was cut in certain lengths and hung around the neck, the same as for flowering or embroidering. Each length of thread, believe it or not, lasted the length of the pattern without a break. This was to prevent any knots or fastening in the line of stitching. I often wondered how they managed to cut just the proper length to reach across, but the quilters’ eyes were expert eyes, and we children stood in awe watching the needles zig-zagging up and down, and out and in and around corners, with beautiful fine stitching and the speed of a hare. No machine could have done it so perfectly (a machine was unheard of then). I can see those rows and rows of exquisite stitching running for miles as even as train tracks then narrow-gauging down to its destination to finish off the pattern.
Some of the quilts were made of cotton for summer use, and they were quilted with thread, wool quilts were quilted with wool. I love the summer quilts made with red and white linen squares – perhaps because it was my favourite colour. It was lovely to look at the white squares quilted with red thread and the red squares quilted with white thread. The wool quilts were usually made in a variety of patterns, some crazy patchwork, some squares, some oblong, some diamond shaped. But no matter what the design they all looked the work of perfect craftsmanship.
I have the remains of two quilts now in my own home made when I was a girl. One is made from pieces of homespun material that tailor Johnston had left from the suits and top coats he made for my family and pieces of dress material from our dresses. It is heavy, one person can scarcely lift it. It was made to fit the big old fashioned canopy bed which my parents slept in. The other is made of white linen and backed with lovely red paisley cotton. It is interlined with flour bags, washed and bleached, to make it strong and durable, and durable it was to have stood the test of time. Yes, as I fold them carefully away my whole life is folded within them. I am back in my childhood days, the happiest time of my life, little thinking of the responsibilities of life till we shoulder them ourselves. And as the evening comes creeping around me like my thoughts, I am back in my old home again, looking through the big kitchen window at our holy land and my beloved Slemish mountain where the faith of Patrick grows in every blade of grass, and the boundless love of Jesus and Mary enfolds us in their hearts. And dear Granma with her apron full of autumn leaves to make marks for her beloved books, and saying her beads with the faith and fervour of an Irish heart.
It was the custom then that the quilters went from house to house, that is, to houses where they were needed. Mostly it was the better off people who could afford to have any surplus quilts, the poorer class had only what did their needs. So it was that the quilters had their hands full and were booked out for the winter nights. Then as they finished for the night a party was given in gratitude for their work.
These quilting parties were eagerly looked forward to, for they were indeed nights never to be forgotten. In my home there were great preparations. Dear Granma baked the cakes in her house for she had more time than mother. This was the fancy bread, as the neighbours called it, and fancy it was with such rich ingredients so plentiful, and so generously used. The fancy bread included Maderia cake, fruit cake, seed cake, all baked in big oven pots with the hand and eye of an expert. The caraway seed grew in Granma’s garden. She had big jars of it kept airtight which lasted the whole season until the next lot was ready. I can remember her stripping the seeds so carefully from each slender stalk into clean cans. It was a lovely little tree just laden with seeds and its fragile stems swaying in the gentle breeze. The seeds were so like lavender seeds that once when I was helping her I gathered the lavender seeds and ran with enthusiasm to let her smell the beautiful perfume.
“Granma,” I said, “you can have a nice scenty cake.”
She just smiled, did not scold, but explained to me the difference, and bid me run into the house with the seeds and leave them in her bedroom. I then had to wash my hands carefully to get rid of the scenty smell before I could help her again to finish the picking of the caraway seeds. I can remember so well the lovely fragrance of the seed as I watched Grandma spreading it on sheets of paper to be dried and seasoned in a warm atmosphere. Then after a certain time she put them into a linen bag which she kept for that purpose and which she hung up in the rafters of the kitchen for another length of time. Then when they were ready she poured the seeds into big airtight jars for our daily use.
But to go back to the cakes. The seed cake was a great favourite with the old people, they said it was good for the wind. But we children loved it too with a good helping of butter to increase its richness. The fruit cake was very rich, with big luscious raisins, currents, spices, butter, eggs and brown sugar. Although Granma didn’t approve of our behaviour we scraped out the baking bowls after she had finished with them. We praised her cooking and said the cake was nicer without being baked, and so it was for us children as we licked the bowls clean out of its sweet confection. Then she baked a sort of barmbrack and put a ring in it. This was called the Quilter’s cake as only they were allowed to eat it. Each quilter had to close her eyes while a slice was cut and passed around the table to each of them. The fun and excitement can be imagined as they ate their slices to see who got the ring and who would be married first before the year was out.
I remember an old spinster, Aile Lalor, getting it one year – and she nearly sixty. It caused endless merriment and poor Aile had to put up with a lot of rich banter from the young people. But she took it in good part and said “You never know where a spark would light.” But it really happened that someone did get married before the year was out and so that custom was looked upon with firm belief.
Mother had her share of the cooking too. She boiled a beautiful ham, the smell of it cooking would bring you back to life if you were dead, that’s what Brigid said. Then she made a special brawn for the occasion with different kinds of meat and pork. This was put on early in the morning and let simmer very slowly until the meat was jellied and the liquid reduced to proper quantity. It was strained into a big dish, then flavoured with spice, salt and pepper, then set aside in the cool pantry overnight. In the morning you could have sliced it as thin as a wafer. No gelatine was needed to set this tasty dish fit to please the palate of an epicure.
Then came the apple dumpling made with the lovely cooking apples from our orchard. The paste was made with minced suet, eggs, salt, bread soda and sugar. It was made into a stiff dough and rolled out the size of the table, a big basin of peeled apples white as the driven snow was thrown into the centre of the dough with sugar and a clove stuck here and there into the apples. Then it was parcelled up, the edges closed with fingers, wrapped in a floured pudding cloth and tied well with cord. A large plate was put into the bottom of the pot and the pudding was dropped into the huge pot of boiling water. Oh, my dear, I can hear it bubbling as it swung from the big cleek, like a babbling brook. Such nourishing food is not easily forgotten and it was enjoyed to the full by healthy people of a healthy race.
Now the plain bread has to be baked. That meant soda bannocks, wheaten, yellow-meal, white Indian meal, fadge, and oatcake. Mother is done out for it is a tiring job standing from early morning. But Bridget helps her and does all the washing up. She makes the usual wee cups of tea in between and reads Mother’s cup. Then helps her to tie the piles of bread into clean linen cloths, and tilt the oatcake around the turf fire, to “harn” it and finish off its crispness.
Last, but not least, there were drinks to suit all tastes in plentiful supply.
When the night of the party draws near Bridget helps Mother to lay the table in the big room and everything is ready for tonight’s feast.
After the meal the kitchen is used for dancing and singing and the usual merriment, including the telling of “oul’ yarns”, as they called them and praising my mother for her lovely baked bread.
One of the old men told a yarn about the Minister who visited a wee cotter house. He asked the children what they got for breakfast, and they told him they got stirabout and oaten fadge. He asked them if they never got loaf bread and one of the children said “Listen to the idiot, he thinks it’s Christmas.”
The fun lasted till the small hours. Then they leave to go to their homes, each with a sense of friendship, and a liking for each other, and a sincere appreciation to my parents for their kindness in bringing into their hearts the little pleasures of life they will never forget.
Chapter 5 “Autumn.”
And so the Autumn drew near and so, too, did the family draw near to the fire. As each evening came you could see the departing Autumn sunset going earlier to bed and leaving us with that heavenly twilight as we sat around the leaping logs of turf to while away a well earned relaxation until it was time for the lamps to be lighted for there was lots of work to be done before supper time. The twilit hour was a mystical hour with us for the Rosary was recited before the neighbours dropped in to ceilidh and you felt in your heart the sanctity of your holy hearth and home and the companionship of your loved parents.
From our big uncurtained kitchen window we could see dear Granma taking her last look at a perfect day for she was slow to light the lamps in her kitchen until the twilight has said goodnight. Out she would go to ramble up and down the land to the end of the field where the fairy rath was. Up and down she ambled the well worn path where generations had trod before her and kept the Faith alive, where the children listened with rapt ears to the fairies playing sweet music and dancing fairy reels, out watching for our Daddy coming out of the rath after playing his tin whistle to help the fairies to dance and sing. Or, further along, where rows of beautiful trees lined our land like statues in a cathedral. Yes, dear Granma treading through the carpet of fallen leaves from her beloved trees, and enjoying every minute of it. It was a familiar sight to see her with her apron full of autumn leaves to make book marks. She loved the trees as she loved children, and could name every tree that grew. Then a last goodnight to the little twinkling stars, and thanksgiving to the Creator of all beautiful nature which He so bountifully gave for which she sincerely returned thanks with the Rosary which hung by her side. And with the swallows darting like arrows over her dear head, then diving down to kiss the kindly soil, then shooting up again through the trees, as if playing hide and seek with her, she smiles, and as the last of her beads slips through her old fingers, she ambles home with that sense of inexpressible beauty which only Nature can convey.
Chapter 6 “All Saints and All Soul’s Days.”
All Saints day and All Souls day were held with the deepest reverence and respect in my old home. Of course, All Saints Day was really a holiday for the people as it was a custom for everyone of the name of Bridget or Patrick to visit Slemish Mountain, and to make a wish on St. Patrick’s chair which was a huge stone shaped like a chair, where St. Patrick was said to have rested.
It was a great day for the country people, especially the young folk that were called after Patrick and Bridget. Father used to say you never knew there were so many people in the country till this day came round; in fact there was a population in itself alone with the Patricks and Bridgets. However, the custom was to sit on the chair and take a wish. If you were young, well, it was easy to see what the wish would be with so many strapping Pats and so many lovely Bridgets and right enough there was some grand romances as a result of the wish. It was indeed a happy chair.
Of course the older people who had passed the sentimental stage would wish for some more material things, for the success of their crops, for good weather, and good health, and for all their spiritual needs. My father used to take me in the car every year and carry me up the mountain on his back. It was a big climb and he used to be very tired when he got to the top. We had to wait our turn to get sitting on the chair. Father had his wish to make and mother gave him one, and Granma gave him so many he said he could only remember one of them, but he didn’t tell her that. Of course I had to make one too and I can remember when I sat down on the chair I couldn’t think of any wish, my mind was so blank, I could only see the crowds before me and I sat so long that Father got impatient and said “dammit, child, hurry up”, so I made a hurried wish that my cousins in Belfast would ask me to visit them, and that Father would buy me a nice wee pony for myself. So we got back home again in time for tea with a car load that we had given lifts to along the road.
Then the sorrowful day, All Souls day, came. It was indeed a special call to prayer. I can see dear Granma sitting in her big kitchen at the window reading her Prayer Book and saying Rosary after Rosary, no one dare disturb her. Granda used to say to her “Mary, are you never finished praying yet?” He wanted to ask her something all day and he knew he daren’t disturb her, even her precious embroidery lay in meditation. Such were the sincere prayers that were said day after day during the Holy Souls’ month. Mother always left a good fire on at night and made Bridget sweep the kitchen clean, for it was the belief that our loved ones came back to do their penance by the fire, or even by the roadside at night.
I can remember a story one of the neighbours told one night about the Parish Priest in her time was called out to a sick call at night. He always made the caller wait for him and they would ride to the house together; that was in the November month of the dead as he said he couldn’t get his horse to go with the poor Holy Souls on the road doing their penance. But when he had someone with him they didn’t appear to him. He said that when he was alone and carrying the Blessed Sacrament he couldn’t get through at all. He had his rosary beads strung across the horse’s head and prayed till he got to the sick bed. It was such an ordeal that the perspiration was falling off him like rain of a tree. He was a good and saintly man, and a Godly Priest of the soil. Have pity on me at least you my friends, for the Hand of the Lord hath touched me.
So we leave the pleading cries of our loved ones knowing in our hearts that all our prayers and Masses and stations of the cross will solace and lessen the pain of purification. May they Rest in Peace.
Chapter 7 “December Stillness…”
“December stillness teach me through your trees, speak your Autumn scenes.”
Mother used to say these lines. I can’t remember who wrote them but I always knew it was the most important time of the year when Mother got into this frame of mind. Although it was just the beginning of the month in another sense of the word it meant Christmas, and oh, such cherished memories that word had for my beloved home.
I can remember one Christmas as being the most exciting, the most happy, and the moist eventful time for me, in fact more so, for my parents. After a lapse of nearly twenty years my father received a letter from the States from his brother, Father John, to say he was on his way home for Christmas.
I can hardly describe the shock and joy it was especially to my father. “Well, well,” he said, “after all these years I am to see my only brother. The two of us are the last of our family. Isn’t it a pity,” he said to my Mother, “that he wasn’t here to see my uncle before he died. Dear old Monsignor O’Laverty of Holywood the great historian. How he loved us boys; and the Parish Priest that was at college with him how he will enjoy seeing him again. Do you remember Mary, when my dear mother died, how all the clergy from his college came to her funeral and the old Canon said if it was the last thing he did, he must go to grandma O’Laverty’s funeral. He was so old and frail he had to be carried out of bed into a waiting car. It was the largest funeral ever seen in the country.”
I can just hear my Father going over all these happenings that were passed years ago but with the shock and excitement of the letter from his brother it had brought everything back to him which was of course, a natural reaction.
You see, Father John was ordained in Rome, and after a short visit home was sent out to the States and he had never been home since. There were so many questions asked about him, what was he like, is he like you, father, and is he our uncle too, and would he bring us presents? We had him pestered all that day, but nothing would have angered him these days and he was counting the days to Christmas.
Mother started giving her orders, and you know what that meant. The whole house was agog with excitement, we must get this done, and that done, and turning to my father she said “James, do remember to put the order in your pocket that I have just written down for you, it would be just like you to go and forget it and then I'd have to go into town myself”. “Then why don’t you come along with me?” said he. “Ach, sure I’d love to”, said mother, “but James, look at all the cooking I have to do, and you know how I want to have everything nice for your brother’s homecoming. No one ever left this house hungry.” “Well”, said father, “tell me something I don’t know for a change, you women are all alike, you fuss and fuss and talk about what you have to do. Why don’t you do things my way and leave everything to the last minute and you will find you will just get through better than starting to prepare for Christmas and the month only in. Sure it’s madness”.
Mother looked at him, her lovely black eyes filling with tears. She knew in her heart that was his one great weakness, and many a sore heart she got through it. But for all that, he was a good husband and father, and Mother knew and understood him. Besides, she said there are none of us perfect, but she thought in her heart that he might not have said that just now. Father wondered she didn’t answer back, and to ease matters he said, “Mary, won’t you come into town, sure you can leave something for the servants to do while you are away, and the race will do you good, and you can get your order all back with you.” Mother said “James, I’d love to go but Bridget has enough to do getting the house ready, besides she wouldn’t do any cooking unless I was beside her, so run on yourself and don’t forget my order for I can’t start to bake my plum cakes and puddings till I get it, and I’d like them made as soon as I can now.” “Oh well,” said Father, “you can’t say I didn’t ask you. You’ll have your own way no matter what I say. Of course, Mary, you are nearly always right, and that’s where you will always come out on top.” Mother smiled at him as he said goodbye.
Chapter 8 “Father in trouble.”
So Father promised faithfully in his own mind that he would get Mother’s messages before he did any business, for well he knew when he met his friends he would forget all about it and especially when he had a lot of business to transact, and then there would be treats going around.
So he got her order and left it in with Old Matt, as he was called, till he would be going home. You see, Old Matt had a halfway house where the men came from all over the country. It was really the meeting place after they had their business done for the day, besides, they put their horses and carts up in the yard as there was plenty of room at the back of the Inn, and on a busy day there wasn’t an inch of space to be seen. Old Matt could put you up for the night and feed you well if you were unable to get home after having made a big deal, if you know what I mean. In fact, it was sort of a Post Office, for the Postman left letters with him for all the country folk and if there happened to be a foreign one, as he called it, the Nosy Parkers never rested till they heard all about it.
Yes, I often heard my father relating all the news of the day to my dear Mother. She loved to wait for him coming home and sometimes I would stay up with her to keep her company, and I’d get so sleepy she would send me off to bed. She had so many little jobs to do, sewing, darning and knitting that the time passed very quickly. But one night I can remember so well Mother was terribly angry as Father was so late getting back from Town. It appears he did great business that day and got too many treats, and it was near the morning when he got home. Mother says in all her years of married life she never saw him so drunk. He could pass himself with anyone but always kept just right. But this night she knew there was something wrong, he never was so late before.
“I hope,” she said to herself, “nothing has happened to him.” And with that she could hear the sound of the horse and cart in the still of the morning, and him singing at the top of his voice The Blue Hills of Antrim I See In My Dreams. It was awful to hear him singing like that and letting all the neighbours hear him. Why if he was drunk couldn’t he come home quietly. So Mother waited patiently till the horse came in sight and then slowly came up to the rear of the house. She ran out to quieten him and get him in, but she couldn’t see him at all. He was lying in the well of the cart, dead to the world, and the poor old horse had brought him the whole way home. Some of the servant men had heard him and got up out of bed and helped mother to get him in and fixed the horse up for the night .
Mother was very annoyed as this was the only occasion he ever came home like this, and it was the last, for he felt so ashamed of himself at the servants seeing him, and Mother exaggerated about the noise he made coming home, that he never forgot it, and he never would go into Town again unless someone was with him.
But it’s the joke I want to tell you about when father got sobered a bit. He said “Where is Big Andy? Bring him in, for he is a very decent man. Mary,” says he, “it’s not like you to leave him lying out in the cart.” “James,” said my Mother, “whatever are you talking about? I didn’t see Andy in the cart.” “I tell you, Mary, I brought him home in the cart.” “James”, said my Mother, “whatever are you talking about, I didn't see Andy in the cart.” “I tell you, Mary, I brought him home in my cart”. “Well”, said Mother, “I know you're drunk alright, but I didn’t know you were crazy.” “Well I am neither drunk nor crazy,” said my father, “and you can’t keep the poor old soul lying out there, and you boasting that no one ever left this house without food or shelter.” “I tell you, James, once and for all, there wasn’t any other man in the cart, only yourself. If you could call yourself a man. Only you had the poor, old wise horse to bring you home you wouldn’t be in the cart either.” “I know you don’t tell lies, Mary, but this time I’ll have to see for myself.” “But James,” said Mother, “you’re not in a fit condition to go out.” But out he would go and Mother did her best to keep him on his feet, so luckily the men came back from the stable after making the horse right, and they told him there was no one in the cart, he could look as the cart was turned up there. Father got mad and started to shout “My Christ, where the hell did he go. I tell you, Mary, before God this night, I brought Big Andy home in my cart for the night.” “And what were you bringing him home for?” asked Mother. “Well, it was this way. The two of us started out for home when the wheel of Andy’s cart came off and we had to go back and leave it in Matt’s yard. I told him to come on home with me and he could get an early start in the morning to get it fixed. I know he was in the cart, for I helped him up, and then the two of us got singing and after that I know nothing more.” “Well,” said Mother, “seeing the state the pair of you were in, I wouldn’t be surprised at anything. But it’s a strange thing if you bring a man home in your cart and you go to bring him in and he isn’t there. I can’t understand it at all. It’s just like the fairy story you used to tell the children about the fairies spiriting away people that did them harm. I’m afraid, James, that the fairies have got Big Andy and it will take all the blarney you have got to get him back, so hurry to bed for I am very tired. We have a busy day ahead of us tomorrow, with God’s help.”
Now, the next day the whole household was laughing about Big Andy being lost and of course we all came to the conclusion that Father only dreamt it, or had a nightmare. But after tea that evening one of the servant men came in and said a man had been found lying in a ditch. Some men going to work had found him and took him home and it appears that it was Andy and that he fell out of the cart alright. He remembered my father helping him into the cart, but he must have forgotten to fasten up the back, so Andy just nicely slid out with the jolting of the cart on the bumpy roads. So Mother told Father the news when he came down late that night the news she had heard. He got very annoyed and asked was he hurt, but Mother said the man didn’t hear. “Now James”, she said, “let that be a lesson to you. It’s a miracle Andy wasn’t killed for you would have been held responsible for his death.” And right enough, it really did give him a scare and made him more careful in the future.
When the excitement was over about Andy, Mother said, “James, what about my messages? You remember the order I gave you.” “Sure I do, but I gave them to you. I know I got them the minute I went to Town.” “Now, James, don’t tell me they are in the cart like Big Andy.” “Well, that’s where I put them”, said Father. “There weren’t any parcels in the cart, I can assure you, only yourself, but maybe they are lying in the ditch too. James, I’ll never depend on you again, for you are a fool if there ever was one.” “Mary, I don’t like you to say that. You know I’m no fool. In fact I am considered the best-brained man around these parts and don’t you worry, I’ll see about your order.”
I think when father got his head shired, and it took a few days to do that, he must have remembered what he did with it, for at the end of the week the parcel was sent out from old Matt’s. I suppose he sent word to send it on.
Chapter 9 “Cooking for Christmas.”
Mother was glad to see it, for now she could get on with her cooking as the time was slipping in and she must have everything done in good time for this great event at Christmas. I loved to see her preparing all the things and leaving everything at her hand so she could get on with her baking quickly. The big, shining crocks that she baked her plum cakes in, the great oven pots that she cooked them in, the big dish of fresh-laid eggs, the heaps of currents and raisins and peel and spice, the wee firkins of butter all there full and plenty ready to make with skilled hands the Christmas cakes fit for a king.
It was a tedious job cleaning and stemming the fruit and cutting the peel so fine you would think it was minced, and all the many things that go to make the old fashioned plum cake, not forgetting the Brandy, both inside and out. When at last it was mixed in the crock it was left over for so many hours, covered with a clean cloth before it was baked.
The smell of it was something I could never describe, but now when I think back and look at the massive pile of beautiful concoction and smell the air laden with it, I can only compare it with the rich offerings of the Wise Men to honour the birth of the Saviour of the world, and really that’s what my dear mother was doing now, and would be doing for all the weeks that lay ahead; preparing for the Holy Feast and doing all to honour and keep his Holy Presence in our home, to make everyone happy, and to thank Him for His bountiful blessings and for our holy land.
So the cakes were baked and stored away. The plum puddings were hung up in the linen bags they were boiled in, to hang for weeks and weeks. Mother said the longer they are left the richer they'll be. Then there were pickles, preserves, chutney, lovely candies and fudge, not forgetting the most important thing, brandy, whiskey, port, stout, sherry and everything to suit the different tastes.
It was lovely to look into the big pantries with their rows of shining dishes and spotless shelves, full of everything needed for Christmas fare.
But the cooking didn’t end there, for there were hams to boil, turkeys to roast, meat and tongue to be corned, hams and bacon to be hung, all from our own clean, well fed animals and all the little hundred and one things that couldn’t be done till the last day or two.
Then there was the house to get ready, but Bridget saw to that. Still, Mother had to help there too, and she was beginning to get tired, but she had a lot of willing hands to help her, and, as the saying goes, “many hands make light work.”
Chapter 10 “Tinsel.”
Everything was beginning to look very Christmassy looking. Of course the men put up the holly and mistletoe, and I helped Mother to hang up the decorations. They were as good as ever although they were used for years and put past in an old hat box. Some of the coloured glass ornaments with the silver tinsel covering them, just like wee fairy lamps, got smashed, and you could see the space in the chain where they had been but with so much sparkling tinsel it was easy to cover up the space.
I loved that box of Christmas tinsel. It was so fragile looking and yet so strong to handle. I used to think when I grow up and be taken out to dances that I’d love a whole evening dress made of tinsel, just shining all over. I wouldn’t need to wear any of Mother’s jewellery - with that dress it wouldn’t need it. Of course I could always wear it with other frocks I had in mind. I simply adored jewellery, it was my great weakness, but it must be good, but what better could I get than dear Granma’s big Cameo with the wide gold frame and little chaste designs all woven around the very edges like a wee crochet edging around a cake doiley. The earrings were to match but I forgot I hadn’t my ears pierced yet, but Mother could do that. She can do anything, “it won’t hurt”, she said to me when I was holding up the earrings to my ear to see how they would look. “You’ll have to wait a while yet, my dear; your ears are too small yet to hold the weight of them. Besides you are too young to be thinking of such things”. But no matter what Mother said, I still had my dreams, and fresh ones would come into my mind every time I looked at the silver tinsel. It is the way with youth, always wanting to be grown up, and then wishing we were young again.
I always thought December month was much too short and said so to Mother. She looked at me wisely and lovingly and said “why should you think it short?” “Oh,” I said, “I have so much to do; it takes a lot of time to buy presents and Christmas cards and to pick the special ones you want for special people, and to help you. Just look at the way I have helped you to do all the things for Christmas. I don’t seem to have any time left to myself at all.”
“Well now, my dear, when you are complaining so much about time being short, what more is there for me to say besides what you mean by time being short wouldn’t be the same thing for me that has grown to know what time really means and, speaking about time, you are right for Christmas will soon be upon us and Oh Dear, how anxious I am to get everything done, and how excited I feel having dear Father John for Christmas. He is very dear to me, for he married us after he was ordained.
“But, did you ever feel deep down in your own heart you would love to see someone belonging to your own self, some of your own family, someone you helped to rear, but, there, I am getting sad again, and I can’t help it. Christmas always did make me sad, even if I have my own loved family around me and all that I need, there is always an empty space deep down in my heart that can never be filled.”
I remember looking up at Mother and saying, “What do you mean?” “Oh, never mind, my dear. You are too young to understand, but when you grow up and get married and have a home of your own, then you’ll understand. You know the old saying ‘Blood is thicker than water’.”
“But i am never going to get married,” I said. “I am going to be a nun like Aunt Sarah, and when I go back to school again, I don’t think I’ll come home again. You know, mother, when you are boarding in from one term to another, you don’t miss me very much, and besides, I love convent life.”
“Well, I’m not blaming you, for you have it in your blood. All belonging to you, on both sides, are either in Religion or Professional, but, I thought you said the other day that you would love an Evening Dress of tinsel when someone would be taking you out to dances?”
“Well, “I said, “Sure there is no harm in thinking and dreaming all those things.”
“Oh,” said Mother, “then it was only day dreaming you were. Well, there is no harm in that either. Sometimes it’s the happiest time in your life, till you come to your senses again and feel yourself back on this old earth of ours with its trials and troubles, its joys and sorrows, its fun and laughter, its youth and old age, all served up to each and every one of us in a different sort of dish. Yes, God knows where we all live, and He fits the back for the burden in His own merciful way, and we have to carry on and make the most of the holy life that He has created us for.
“You know the little poem, ‘What is this life if full of care, We have no time to stand and stare.’
So, I think it’s time for bed. We certainly didn’t stand and stare today, we haven’t lost a minute. I think I’ll take a good strong cup of tea for my supper. Tell Bridget to make it. What will you take, Mary?” “Oh, I’ll just take milk tonight.”
Funny how I can remember and cherish everything my dear Mother said, her words, her actions, her sayings, her looks, her sadness and her dying smile that haunts me all through life, in fact her very presence has been my only solace and consolation all through my own troubled life. I do not think of her lying in her beloved soil in Antrim, but still with us in my old home, with her willing hands and superior mind, and wise counsel for us all, and with Father’s easy-going banter to her, “Have it your way, Mary, you are nearly always right,” and, Mother smiling back at him eternally.
“I’ll not say any prayers to-night, Mother. I’m so tired.”
“You can say them in bed,” she said. “God hears them anywhere.”
“Oh, I know that,” I said, “but he won’t hear mine tonight. I haven’t missed saying them this good while, and one night can’t matter much.” I was soon fast asleep, but I wasn’t too tired to think about my tinsel Evening Dress, and who was going to take me to my first dance.
Oh, if I only knew. Yes, if only we could only foresee the future, would it bring us any more happiness? That is one of the mysteries of Life and it’s better that way.
Chapter 11 “Collecting the Visitors.”
Everything was in readiness for Christmas, and Father was like a child counting the days till he would see his brother, when to his surprise, a telegram arrived to say he was bringing a friend with him that he met on the ship, and would father meet them at the Station.
I can remember the day so well that Mother and Father left for the town to meet them with the car. The news had spread around the country about the American friends coming to our house, and the people gathered down to the crossroads to see them off.
Sure they said there was never a sight like that to be forgotten in their turn out, with the shining harness on the lovely body of the big bay, like a jewel in the crown of a king. Father was driving in his full rig-out, with half tall hat and gloves, and Mother in her heavy silken dress and beautiful embroidered shawl and black bonnet with little twists of salmon pink around the front, just resting on her black hair, with wide moiré ribbon that tied under her chin in a huge bow. They were a lovely pair, and as they passed the people had a kind word for them, for they were the good friends to the poor.
It was a lovely journey into town, and they had time for a little refreshment before the train came in. Father was so excited at the thought of seeing his brother after all these years that Mother could hardly keep him from taking a drink too many. “You know, James, if you take any more you’ll not be able to drive us home, and with the friend your brother is bringing, you’ll better keep just right. Take a good glass now, and order me some wine. We need it after that drive.”
So Father did as Mother said and when they had finished and felt rested they started off for the station. Father was so nervous he kept tugging at the reins till he had the horse as bad as himself. People were in groups, all watching for their own kith and kin, and Mother got sad again deep down in her heart she kept thinking how Father must feel to see someone he hadn’t seen in years. She felt terribly alone in the world even with her husband sitting beside her, and kept wondering what could have happened to her brother James, who went away after he was qualified to be a ship’s doctor.
“I felt sort of angry with him especially at Christmas time when your own loved ones gather together, that he didn’t write to me and keep in touch with his old home. After all he was the only one I had in the world. I didn’t like to think he was dead, so I just said he was married and that explained everything. But oh,” she said, “ “how I would love to see him again.”
Just now the train steamed into the station and everybody rushed to get a glimpse of their own friends. Mother and Father just stood still as if they were rooted to the spot. Although it was more years that she cared to remember, Mother couldn’t mistake that figure, even now in his fifties. They kept looking at all the faces to make sure they wouldn’t miss us, but we saw them first, and Father knew the tall, lanky figure of his brother, but he wasn’t sure of the stranger.
“James,” said Mother, “that’s like my brother. Strange how I should be thinking of him tonight.” “I don’t think so,” said Father, “I can’t say it’s like him, but the years make changes and maybe you are right.”
So when they got nearer she couldn’t speak. Her throat got dry and she couldn’t swallow. She was filled to the brim with deep emotion, the tears began to swim in her eyes as he came forward and clasped her in his arms. She was surprised he knew her at all. “Gee, Mary,” he said, “I’d know your skin on a bush. You were just my own dear Mother looking at me. I have her picture in my pocket-book and you are her double, only just no so beautiful, she shared a wee bit of it with me, you know.” “So I can see,” said mother. “Just the same handsome face and placid smile, only tired looking and lined with the passing of the years.” But his eyes were as bright and piercing as ever.
Father John was so pleased with himself at the surprise he had given Mother that he forgot to shake hands with her. As a matter of fact, she was ashamed to admit she hadn’t given him the welcome he deserved. “You’ll have to forgive me, Father John, it was a pleasant surprise you gave me and good Christmas Box, but I have got such a shock I don’t feel steady yet.”
“Well, “said Father, “What are we waiting for. Come and we will have something to steady our nerves and prepare us for our journey home.” So they got into the car. The luggage was so heavy they couldn’t take it with them and only took a small case each, so the rest was left to be called for. So they drove around to the hotel and had drinks and high tea and Father had to smoke a big cigar. “It’s the first I have ever smoked in my life,” he said, “and by Jove, they are good.” “Well, it’s not the last, for I have plenty back with me,” said Father John, “yeah, good old Yankee cigars: there is nothing like them.”
So, after they had enquired about everyone living and dead, they related the story about the way they made their acquaintance on the ship. Somehow, if anyone heard you mentioning Ireland they would hang around and make friends, thinking to hear something of the loved ones they hadn’t seen for years. Father John seemed to have made many friends, and the majority of them, like himself, hadn’t been home since they were boys.
Some of them emigrated and were rich businessmen, they played cards practically all the time. One of the men said to Father John one day, “There’s another one of Ireland’s sons,” as he pointed out Dr. James when he was walking along the deck with a distinguished looking German surgeon. “Yes, I heard him saying he was going to the Old Country to see his only sister. He didn’t know if she was still alive and he didn’t send word, he was only going on spec. He said he hadn’t been home for near 25 years and he didn’t expect to find things just as he left.” Father John said, “Now I wonder who he could be? If I could only find out his name maybe I might know him.”
The days passed very quickly for they were a jolly crowd with happy hearts and big bank-books. Some of the men were married and had their wives with them - it was the first time they had crossed the Big Pond, as they called it, and they were “guessing” and “reckoning” and talking from morning to night about all the places they must see and things they wanted to bring back with them. They had gifts for everyone that their husbands said were relations. Beautiful things that the country people would look at with amazement.
Then Father John went on to say there were a few bachelors, “including your brother here,” giving Mother a mischievous wink, “and of course it was a standing joke that I would have to find them good wives, and I told them just to leave it to me and I would have them fixed up in no time. So, as I said, time passed quickly and it was only a few days before we landed that I got a chance to speak to Dr James. Imagine my surprise”, he said to Mother, “ when I heard he was coming to the very house I was going to, it’s nothing short of a miracle I tell you. “Well now,” said I, “have you sent any word yet,” and of course he said he hadn’t, that he hadn’t written for years and didn’t expect to find his sister, but he said “when I get there I can start making enquires. You see”, said he, “ I have been around the world more times than I can count, and was never much on land for any length of time. You get to love the sea and to feel the freedom of its greatness and to make it your home. I guess its just something you can’t explain, it’s the peace and contentment of mind that you get away from the hustle and bustle of this busy world, only to see it once a year, maybe twice. Gee, how I’d love and long to be back as soon as the cargo was unloaded.” “Ah, sure,” said Father John, “the time must have hung heavily on you with your feet never touching land much.” “Well,” said James, “I reckoned you would say that, and you’d be surprised to know I hadn’t enough time some days to do all I had to do. You see, Father John, I had the crew to look after and keep them in good health and do any immediate operations. I had to order supplies and keep a list of everything I needed, surgical instruments, drugs and dressings, make reports of all my work and any special cases, particularly infectious cases. Sometimes I had special diet charts to write out, weights and measures, loss and gain, all to be recorded, and a hundred and one things to keep me busy from morning till night. Then when day was done I did the work that was nearest my heart.” “And what might that be?” I said. “writing books,” said James. “Yes, I have written a good many now, medical of course, but I have one nearly finished about my travels, and which I hope to finish when I get home to my native land. I need a wee touch of the Antrim Hills to give it just the right colour. Yes, my pen has kept time, night after night, with the movement of the ship; it seemed to give me all the inspiration I needed and I would go on writing till my eyes would close with pure fatigue. Still I was happy with my books, and the picture of my beloved mother always on my desk. So you see, Father John, I have led a very busy life.”
“You are not married by any chance?” said I. “No, I am not and never will be. You know the old saying, ‘a rolling stone gathers no moss’.” “Ah well, don’t be too sure,” said I, as he smiled at my mother. “You know you are going to Ireland and there is no knowing when a spark might fly, they say there is no one safe from the colleens’ charm. And that,” said Father John, “Is how we made our acquaintance, and I think I have told you word for word”.
Mother said it was really providential. “Yes”, said her brother, “I guess thats what it was, Mary, providential”. So with happy hearts they started on their journey. Father didn’t get a chance to speak with the long story his brother had to tell, he was content to sit and listen with mother to the sound of their voices that had filled the air with a mystical familiarity.
Chapter 12 “Birth and Death.”
It was a lovely December day clear and nippy with frost in the air as they took their seats in the car for the journey home. They wanted to see as much of the country as possible before dusk would fall. Father pointed out the places they used to know and the people that lived there, but some had passed away since. They were delighted to be back in the Old Country again and to breathe their own native air that swept down from the Holy Slemish mountains. All around them they could see the prosperous country and were proud to know that the farms had all been kept in the family some for generations and still bore the good old names.
So the faster the horse trotted, the faster they talked, and I think there wasn’t a house in the whole country that they didn’t mention that night. They turned off the main road to the short stretch of road that led up to the house, and father slowed the horse down for the last lap, and they all admitted they were tired.
When suddenly Mother said she heard a tiny cry, and she said to the men, “did you hear anything just now?” Father said “Oh now, I was wondering if the day would go over without Mary hearing something or seeing signs. She is never happy unless she is saying ‘I told you so’.”
“Well James,” she said, “this is another time when I can say it again, for I hear the weak cry of an infant.”
The men said it was some of the beasts of the field, but she said it was a human cry. She made Father pull the cart into the side of the road and they all got out to investigate. As they got nearer the sound Dr. James said, “Mary, you’re right, that’s an infant’s cry.” It just came in little bursts and then stopped, and began again, but getting more feeble every time.
Mother was getting very excited and nervous. She began to think maybe a murder had been committed and that they would all be involved in it. The sound had ceased and they stopped again to listen. Father said again, “didn’t I tell you that’s Mary all over. She’s always hearing things.”
But her brother said, “She is right, for it was certainly a human cry. We will wait for a few minutes,” he said, “and if we don’t hear it again, we will go on.” He had scarcely finished speaking when the little feeble cry came again. He said, “Mary, come quickly. We must have passed it for it sounds farther away.” So they turned around and went back to the roadside where the car was sitting, and there under a big old tree with its branches bent till they touched the ground was a poor woman lying who had given birth to a baby.
She was moaning and practically unconscious, but the poor wee mite was dead. It was just crying its last wee wail when they were looking around for it. The withered leaves of the tree had fallen on its little body and the drops of rain from a previous shower were now beginning to freeze all over it and stiffen its wee limbs to the frozen earth below.
Dr James rushed to the poor woman and did what he could to relieve her and with the help of mother, got her fixed up. Luckily he had a brandy flask and put it to her lips. She tried to swallow it but hadn’t the strength, as it trickled down her face and dropped on her old, worn coat.
Mother made the sign of the cross on her lips,“try it again,” she said to her brother, so he held the flask gently to her lips and eased her head up with the other hand. She did better this time and must have swallowed some of it for her limbs began to move. Dr James felt her heart, she was alive alright, but not for long unless they got her quick attention. Father John wanted to anoint her but didn’t know if she was of our faith. Mother hadn’t seen anything about her that could tell her, so she told my father to bring the car into the field to lift the cushions and make a bed in the centre of the car, and with the help of us all we can lift her up, and get her quickly to the house.
So this was done, and they covered the poor creature over with the rugs, then mother got another rug and