Saturday, 18 March 2017

Irish childhood

If you ever wanted to see what the world might look like after the apocalypse, you could do worse than see the Burren land of County Clare, Ireland. Other regions of Ireland are as lush and green as the postcards, but the Burren has too little soil for that; instead, its exposed limestone forms a stark moonscape of pale hills. Cows and sheep graze on the plants that peek out of jigsaw patterns in the stone, and the occasional tree does nothing to slow the screaming wind coming in from the nearby sea.  

Living here, you might think, would be like being marooned on an alien planet, and raising children unthinkable. It would not seem very thinkable now, when your house might have central heating and a television set; in the 1930s no one here had electricity or cars, and life was similar to what it had been in the 1830s, or for that matter the 1830s BC. Dersie Leonard, who grew up in the Burren then, later wrote that she and other children walked miles a day in all weathers, to school and church and home, barefoot and wearing clothes made from flour sacks. Modern American kids, dependent on cars and electronic devices to function, would struggle to picture a more depressing existence.

Surprisingly to them, then, Leonard wrote joyfully about her early life, saying she and her friends had “lakes and rivers, good land and bad, bog and rocks, not to mention fairy rings and forts – in fact everything a person could wish for.” They spent their days exploring the countryside, playing games, singing and telling stories, immersed in the adventure of childhood. Here she describes the day when she and her friends accompanied their fathers to the bog to dig turf – compacted peat, dried and burned for fuel:

“As children we loved this day of days. A turf fire was set and lit and a kettle placed over it. The tea always tasted of heather and was slightly smoky. When the tea had been made the fire was put out, because if it spread, hundreds of acres of bog and turf would be in danger. Then we set off to our picnic spot in the nearby forest where we set up a shop under some trees. By this I mean a make-believe shop. We picked wild violets, heather and primroses and sold them for old broken delft which we called “chanies.” To this day I can remember that spot and know exactly where it is, although I haven’t visited it for forty or more years.”

Of course, you might think that Leonard really was miserable at the time, and nostalgia colours even the harshest of memories. Or perhaps she was an unusual case, and few of her peers handled poverty so well. Yet a glance at old school-papers from that era – thousands of them have been saved in national archives – show that most Irish of that generation seem to have been as cheerful then as children as they are now as elders. Nor is Leonard unusual; I’ve heard or read hundreds of interviews of people her age saying the same thing.

“What kind of upbringing did I have?” said Tom Shaw, who was born in a one-room hut in 1935. “Brilliant – you couldn't have wished for better.” Shaw, interviewed by Irish radio, said that he had “no electricity, no running water, no central heating, no indoor toilet,” but that “under any circumstances, it would be a great youth -- we got to spend a lot of time with my mother and father, and they were disciplinarians, yet we had total freedom to run around.”

“We were real happy children, never bored,” said Jenny Buckley, who grew up in County Offaly in the 1930s. She described working hard at farm chores and school, her loved ones pitching in together, so that they were almost entirely self-sufficient.

“Our farm kept us going; we bought nothing but tea, sugar, rice and sultanas,” she said. “Now our pocket money was that we had a hen each and collected her eggs and sold them.”

“...we didn’t walk through fields to school, but travelled the then-rugged and stony way which was up hill and down dales,” remembered Bessie Byrne Sheridan, who grew up in County Wexford in the 30s. “No tarmacadamed (paved) roads in those days of sparse cash but healthy living. Making ourselves happy with very little was the norm for us all. Those times were known as the ‘hungry thirties,’ which I think is a misnomer because there was plenty of home-produced natural food available everywhere,” and if anyone didn’t have enough of something, all the neighbours shared with them.

“…it was much more a children's world, for few people remember anyone who would harm a child, nor were there any media around that could corrupt them,” said Irish radio producer Tommy Ryan about Irish village life. “Children ran everywhere freely and safely. There was less hurry to get out of childhood and into adolescence.”

Most of the children ran barefoot in those days, but that wasn’t the hazard it would be today, for roadways were not lined with auto parts, broken glass or discarded needles. “There a picture somewhere of my last school year, and half of the children were in their bare feet,” said Jack, an elderly man I talked to. “And it was quite usual at that stage that when the summer holidays were coming on, you’d get your shoes or boots taken away, and you trotted down in your bare feet for a few months.”

You might think of such children as deprived, but Jack said that everyone looked forward to the bare-footed seasons. “Shoes were something to get used to, and unwillingly,” and they stretched it out further than they were supposed to, Ryan said. “We took our boots as far as the stile, hid them there, went to school barefooted, and on the way home put them on again. Our parents didn't want us to go barefoot until May, but we had it going from March.”

Many elders emphasize how safe the world was for children then. “Twenty years ago you could leave your bike on the footpath and nobody would touch it,” said Con Moloney, who grew up in County Laois. “Everybody had the time to talk, and you didn’t have to jump out of the way of lunatic drivers behind the wheel of fast cars.”

Village children in those days rarely had to worry about strangers, for they knew everyone around, everyone saw everyone else, and gossip was a powerful tool for keeping people in line; if a stranger came to town, everyone knew. Nor could children get away with much either, not with so many eyes on them, connected to people who talked to their parents every day. Perhaps it’s not a coincidence that crime in rural Ireland was a small fraction of what it is in the USA today, and most doors were open or unlocked all the time. 

“I pity the country children of today,” said Nancy Power of County Kilkenny. “The journeys to and from school were an education as valuable as any we managed to imbibe at school.”


Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Things you only see in Dublin

I don't take many pictures in Dublin -- I just work there, and most of my focus is on the traditional countryside that interests me. Most people who visit Ireland go to Dublin, and some never go anywhere else -- but honestly, most of it is a normal city, and many parts are quite grimy.

Admittedly, though, you can come across sights in Dublin that you can't see anywhere else, and in honour of St. Patrick's Day, I decided to share some.

Walk through the cobblestone alleys near the Guinness brewery, look up, and you see these words fifteen feet above the sidewalk, written in Gaelic and English: STONE UPON STONE UPON FALLEN STONE. I've no idea why it's there; it's just there.

Down the road from there, in the Liberties neighbourhood, a butcher -- as far as I can tell -- advertised his wares this way:

1.) He took three legs off of the pigs he was butchering;
2.) He painted them the colours of the Irish flag;
3.) He hung them in front of his shop;
4.) He took a photo of them; and
5.) He had the photo painted on the wall next to the shop.

I say "he" -- of course, it could be "she," but I suspect not.

When I first happened upon this monument in someone's front yard in Dublin, I thought it said "DEE-ging." It was a while before I realised it said "de-AGING." It reads "MCDERMOTT AND MCGOUGH," and above that, "THE DISCOVERERS OF DEAGING AND LIFE EVERLASTING." You'd think, though, that if such a discovery had been made in a small Dublin home, we would have heard about it.

Linoleum in the UK and Ireland is called "lino" for short. I'm sure this linoleum tiler - or whatever you'd call the job -- was named Richard, and the pun was too good to pass up.

Saturday, 11 March 2017

Changing generations

I also saw another neighbour – we’ll call her Ava -- who rides her bike back and forth to the village, rather than pay for a car. We can see each other’s houses in the distance but our paths only cross every few weeks, so when they do we catch up on our lives and relatives.

“It’s amazing the number of people around here who have died lately,” Ava said. “Mick went into the canal last year, Tommy up the road died of cancer, my cousin across the canal died last month, and his wife died a few weeks later – they’d spent their lives together, and she didn’t want to live without him.”

“I knew your man died,” I said – locals say “your man” to mean “the man.” “I didn’t know he was your cousin – I’m sorry.” It wasn’t that much of a surprise to me, though – everyone here is related.

“You’re seeing the closing days of this area,” she said. “All the people are dying off, and they are the last ones who remember the place as it was.”

It was true – a lot of people had died lately. It reminded me of something Dmitri Orlov had said, that after his country had been through a time of stress he looked at his high school class photo, and realised that many of them were dead. Each death was isolated and natural, and didn’t seem part of a larger pattern. But you look back one day and see that a whole generation was gone.

Of course, in his case, his country had been through a time of collapse, and many of the deaths were from stress, drinking, drugs or other problems. Across my part of the USA, I can see this happening among the class that one writer calls the Unneccessariat, as people are increasingly demoralised. Here, it’s not quite the same – most of our neighbours were elderly, and it was their time. But the death and transformation of a community still creeps up on you.

“Won’t their children or grandchildren move in?” I asked. “That’s what most people here do.” All along the canal, family farms have been broken into lots, with a home for each of the children.

“It won’t be the same with the younger people,” she said. “The whole country’s changed. When I was a child, no one had anything here, and you wouldn’t believe how happy people were. But since the boom, people have actually been poorer than before, and a lot less happy.”

“Most people wouldn’t say they were poorer,” I asked. “Back then they just had a few possessions, and now they have big televisions and video games and such.”

“I think that’s what’s making them unhappy,” she said.