Vol. 6 No. 3 - 1993
History is after all an account of the past. We make it in the present and as W B Yeats wrote, "When you are old and grey and full of sleep' , the past becomes clearer than the present. Now that I fulfil the conditions I can say with Rupert Brooke "these I have loved".
They are the sounds, the smells, the food, the pleasures of a distant childhood. They were the good old days, no electricity but the soft golden light of an oil lamp. When the wick was too high it smoked and the lamp chimney was black with soot but that was a minor inconvenience when compared with an electricity "cut".
There was snow and ice in winter then. There were skaters on Lurgan lake but no one had heard of an indoor ice rink.
We wore combinations, liberty bodices, long gaiters over hand knitted stockings and buttoned boots. We were warm.
There were no letters to Father Christmas, no asking for expensive presents. We hung up our black stockings for the apple, the orange and whatever small gifts our parents could afford to give us. There was as much pleasure from a game of Ludo as from a mountain bicycle.
When the turkey was delivered it was half plucked and the last rites were performed on newspaper on the kitchen table while the younger members of the family watched the appearance of every organ - a first lesson in anatomy. Long ago a turkey was eaten once a year, not once a month, and that annual feast is still a Christmas memory.
The best days of my life - not then but now when I remember so clearly being a senior infant. We played with long cocktail sticks, folded coloured paper into hats, filled pages with strokes and curls and then came the magic of real letters. There were three classes in my first school room. Junior and Senior infants and First class. Half sat in desks and the rest stood round a chalked line on the floor with school bags at our feet. I can see and hear it all. "The cat sat on the mat" and my first poem.
"I had a dog
His name was Dot
And by my side
He used to trot".
There was one teacher in that room and we loved her. We sat up straight, we folded our arms and we stayed in school until two o'clock. There were no complaints.
My memories grow clearer as I write. Seventh class and then work, but we left knowing every town, river, mountain and county in Ireland. I had a knowledge of Arithmetic sufficient for First Year Mathematics at the University, and it's too late to say thank you to those who taught me.
The fire was the centre of the home and if the fuel was turf it scented the house. "Cordon Bleu" was an unknown description but how many mothers and grand-mothers deserved that award. Potato bread with melted butter dripping down one's chin, farls of soda bread hot from the griddle, apple bread oozing juice and the butter-milk cake-out of the Dutch oven - these I remember.
I can hear the click of the lid on the tin can when it was the weekly walk to collect the fresh buttermilk from the farm and a pound of country butter stamped with a clover design on its rounded top. We went in a group and on the way home stopped for a drink. It may not have been hygienic but we survived. We drank from the lid of the buttermilk can and it was like nectar to thirsty children.
One smell I did not love - the revolting smell of rotting flax. There were flax holes dug in drains and the flax was thrown in to rot and when it came out that disgusting odour travelled for miles. That was not the only hate. We had pig killing day, that was a black day for me. In the early morning the squeals of the pigs were frightening and the ominous silence more so. When we came home from school clean pink bodies hung from the trees. I can see them still and I always thought they looked like people.
In every house in the village where I lived there was a hand loom and from morning until night there was the clickety clack of the loom. The "shop" where the loom was placed had an earthen floor and often a "clockin" hen sat in a hollow and hatched her brood.
In most outhouses the potatoes were stored for the winter and the earthly smell combined with the "clarendo" for the hens, the apples in the potato boxes and the pin head for the chickens. I long for a whiff of that barn. It was always perfume to me.
I do not agree with Robert Browning who wrote:
"Grow old along with me the best is yet to be".
but I do admit that age has its compensations. We have lived and enjoyed a life that has gone forever. We travelled in steam trains, in trams in Belfast. We walked barefoot to school, wandered the roads and lanes in safety and shared our memories, and the past is our present, so we can call ourselves historians.