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.”



Donna OShaughnessy said...

Brian, what a wonderful post! I too love the Burren and most of all the area about the Burren Perfumery, their gardens and tea room. Reading all those quotes was so heartening, a great reminder of my great grandfather's outlook (according to my father) that was always positive even though he came from great poverty.

Brian Kaller said...

Donna, thank you! Yes, people seemed to have a very different outlook, which helped them through life better than ours does. I'm learning a lot from them.