Music Hath Charms. Church Street.

I remember, I remember, the house where I was born…

Church Street houses, Room dinner 005

Well, to be truthful, I don’t. I left it when I was about eighteen months old. All I know about our family’s time in Church Street is hearsay and conjecture. I feel that I should have some notion of the house but I have nothing except fragments of anecdotes, told by older siblings in that patronising way…’but you wouldn’t remember that. Ha! you were too young.’ Now the house with its familiar street-scape, is passing into history.

Everything is in a state of flux. They speak about future-shock, the shock we experience when familiar sights and practices are supplanted by new things. That which obtained in our childhood is normal. Everything after that stage is interesting, exciting, a change for the better, unsettling, sad, perturbing, crazy, a disgrace , even an outrage. Select the category that suits your mood at the time. The young will think it’s ‘deadly’. Older people will grow to accept innovation, may even say…’about bloody well time..’ We move on…but inevitably, we look back.

My parents rented that house from Mrs. Behan, a good neighbour, in the red house next door, a handy woman to have around. She helped Dr. Heffernan to bring me into the world, into the light as the Spanish say. I understand that it had indoor plumbing, a big consideration in the cold nineteen forties. It had a long garden leading down to Tennis Court Lane, where many adventures took place…’you couldn’t remember that…  Yeah, yeah. ‘The Pony Daly riding his horse into Kitty Kingston’s shop…but you couldn’t…..’  I know. I know. A neighbour’s child had a devastating answer to that:  ‘Yes I can. I was still up in Heaven and I could see everything.’  His sister replied archly:  ‘That’s a big lie. You were in Mammy’s tummy and you couldn’t see a thing.’  When you come into the light, you have a lot of catching up to do.

Church Street houses, Room dinner 002

My father died thirty six years ago today, more than half of my lifetime ago, yet he remains as vivid as when I was a child. I went to Mass to remember him. I went in by the lane on the South side, because he had taken a scunner against a woman who was in the habit of antagonising Mass-goers passing her house on the other side. Apparently she was good at it. We always went in on the South side. I don’t even know her name but am prepared to take it on trust that she was an old hairpin, a battleaxe, a right shrew, a bit of an old bags.’ (Hearsay, M’lud). The choir sang ‘Morning has broken, like the first morning. Blackbird has spoken…etc.’ I like to think that there were blackbirds in the garden I never knew, when I came into the light.  It was June. They have returned in force to our current garden. Anois teacht an Earraigh… There was a war on. Everything was scarce. There were no lights at night.

My father bought a new hat. It probably cost him a lot of ration coupons. I don’t suppose you remember coupons. I rarely saw him out of doors without his hat, except, one time when he came to call us in from a game of football in Duffs’ field. He went up for a high ball, whipping off his hat and executing a perfect header. We laughed and cheered to think that one so old could be so nonchalant. I took a go on a trampoline in my daughter’s garden. I wasn’t Olympic standard but I wasn’t a disgrace. My grandchildren laughed. One little fellow remarked: ‘He’s just trying to prove that old people aren’t rubbish at doing stuff.’ I did stuff when he was still up in Heaven or in his Mammy’s tummy and couldn’t see a thing..couldn’t possibly remember me doing stuff… Anyway my father’s new hat blew off. He chased it down Church Street, across The Square and on towards Quay Street. I don’t need anyone to tell me that his language was colourful. The hat blew through a gap onto the North Strand. By the dim light of a gibbous moon (writers love gibbous moons) he saw it sailing out to sea, with a fair following wind. When a sharp wind blows down Church Street I doubt if even Jesse Owens could catch it. But it’s an ill wind, as they say and a long road that has no turning. He probably dropped into Glennons to assuage his disappointment, wet his whistle and curse his bad luck.

Church Street houses, Room dinner 004

New Street, once known as Barter Street, runs at right angles to Church Street. Few of the houses had indoor plumbing. A lad who lived in one of the cottages, used to sing, whenever he was in the W.C. in the garden. He sang not for joy, but because there was no catch on the door. Like the blackbird singing to defend his territory he sang to ward off intruders…Are you going to be in there all day?…  ‘Oh Danny Boy, the pipes, the pipes are calling….’ A cry from the heart for indoor plumbing. He had a very good voice…or so I have been told. I couldn’t possibly remember him.  They’ve made a right haimes of the house where I was born and Mrs. Behan’s house and Tommy Dunne’s clay-built cottage, although I couldn’t possibly remember him.

Church Street and house 013

The priest blessed candles and spoke about light. The choir sang and I listened for his familiar cough. I came out into a biting wind and looked down Church Street, half expecting to see him striding along, whistling, flicking his right foot out slightly, the legacy of an old wound, or perhaps raising his hat to a passing lady, (not the old Biddy on the North side). He even raised his hat to his daughters when he met them in the street. I didn’t see him. Maybe he had nipped into Glennons to have a word with Frank. I hope so.

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When the low sun shines after rain, Church Street is paved with gold. It is. It is. I’ve seen it.  ‘You couldn’t possibly have seen that. It’s silver.’

Silver will do.

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Skerries National School about 1947. The wrong end of the stick.

Step together, boldly tread

Firm each footie, wrecked each head.

Let these Cajuns  quick and clear,

Sound like music on the ear.

Steady boys and step together.

Form like deer on mountain heather.

Left, right, left right .

Steady boys and step together.

Left, right. left, right,

Steady boys and step together.national school circa 1947 012

We sang this song while marking time on ‘The Line’, before marching around the yard and back into class. It should have been ‘erect each head’ but that was how I picked it up. ‘Wrecked each head’ makes a kind of sense. There were no Cajuns either. ‘Let each cadence’…whatever that meant. I quite like Cajuns, with their spices and their wild fiddling. A close inspection with a powerful lens, may disclose similarities to the stance of deer on mountain heather.

I recall the day on which this photograph was taken. I can see the photographer setting up his enormous wooden camera. It stood on wooden legs taller than any of us.. The photographer, a small stooped man, stooping being part of the art, went in and out of a black tent, making subtle adjustments. Sometimes he came out front and changed a lens. ‘Don’t move,’ he warned. We froze.It is difficult to hold a pose or an expression. ”Don’t move,’ said the teacher. We trembled. Nobody said ‘Smile,’ on one of the happiest days of our lives. It was an anti-climax, a click and dismissal back to class. ‘Don’t talk,’ said the teacher. We didn’t.

People have remarked on how sad those little boys look. Some are wary, as if anticipating the trials that life was to set them. One or two are almost smiling, ( against regulations.) They are still smiling, cheerful men by nature. I should tag the boys in the picture, by name, but that’s a trick I haven’t learned yet. I will have to ask my grandchildren. So here goes:

Front row, from the left; 1 Gerry Ellis,2 Terry Doyle,3 Don’t know,4 Hugh Canning,5 Eddie Hughes

Second row.  1 George Hand. 2  ? McGealy 3 ? Ellis 4 Paddy Landy 5 Hugh Ryan 6 Jimmy Coleman 7 Harry Loughrey 9 Don’t know

Third row. 1 Paddy Griffin 2 John Grimes 3 Frank Dillon 4 John Tyndall 5 Don’t know 6 Basil Bissett 7 Brian Beggs 8 Johnnie Casey

back row. 1 Denis Ryan 2 Philip Ryan 3 Don’t know 4 Andy Radley

I am open to correction on these names. Put my mistakes down to the passage of time.

The thing is, I do know the boys, whose name have slipped away from me. They were all important people. They brought news every day and arguments. We had fights and hotly contested games of marbles and conkers.  We wore short trousers and shivered when winter came to our badly heated classroom. We wore blue stuff and violet stuff on knees, fingers and toes, for scabs and chilblains. You never see chilblains nowadays. I believe they were the product of inadequate diet. Hugh Canning had a special prayer for success. He said it quietly before a game of marbles. He very generously told it to me, but I had not faith. Deep down I felt that the Lord God of all the Universe, Who daily governs the movements of the heavenly spheres, should have better things to do with His time than weighing in to a game of marbles. Did God really care who had the most mebs, glassiers, taws or steelers? Hugh cleaned me out every time. I wish I could remember that prayer.

Look at the little boy on the left,  in the back row. He was not in our class, but he was let come into the photograph, because he couldn’ t be separated from his older brother. See how he is clutching his brother’s arm.  They lost their father in an air tragedy. They faced a cold and harsh world together. Paddy Landy did not have things easy, but he made a lot of music in his time. I picked spuds with Jimmy (Apple) Coleman. He would always say, ‘That’s a brave day.’ He taught me a lesson. There was a spud fight. Jimmy objected strongly to the waste of food. ‘You’ll folly a crow for a spud some day.’ In later life, Brian Beggs always addressed me as ‘young Ryan.’ I came to appreciate that greatly. Paddy Griffin would drop in over our garden wall, with plans for expeditions to The Cane Wood or the island or for making a soap-box car, or going to the threshing or investigating the Ballast Pit.  Johnnie Casey brought Spanish chestnuts from Argillen. They were green, sour things. I didn’t know that you should roast them. They were exotic, so we ate them anyway.

Yesterday was All Souls’Day. Rain beat upon the window. Dead sycamore leaves whirled about in throngs. They induced melancholy thoughts.  On All Saints’ Day I had attended the funeral of a lady who had devoted her life to God, to the education of deaf children and to music. The church was filled with elderly ladies of a similar vocation. I felt sad for them. In the modern world they see their life’s work denigrated by suspicion and resentment, or mocked  and trivialised by the strident coarseness of the hen-party. I felt winter closing in again. I looked at the photograph. Quite a few of those boys are gone.

Then I remembered the laughs. I heard our voices chanting Tables. Do children today learn tables by heart ? Is it all done by the magic of electronics? I heard the songs we learned from Jack Doyle. Irish songs..Slán go Deo le brón is buairt  Farewell forever to grief and sorrow…..I always wondered who Joe was.  Maidin i mBéara, sung to the tune of Danny Boy. I was prevailed upon to sing an Irish song in a pub full of Welshmen, look you. ‘Sing one of the ones that Jackser taught us.’ I dredged it up from the pit of memory. My voice has cracked. I could never reach that high note near the end. I did my best. The Welshmen smirked. One of them stood up immediately afterwards and sang Danny Boy. He sang it to perfection, in a pure tenor voice, a voice that surely rang through the valleys and in the chapel, see. He hit that high note bang on. He sat down to loud Welsh applause, studiously not looking in my direction. He was very good. Welsh prat.

I remembered the games of Bulls, which entailed chasing and crashing into people and Broken Gates which entailed chasing and crashing into people. I remembered comics, read furtively under the desk and sweets and jokes and all the important things we discussed. Maybe things were not so bad. I taught a good many of their children over the years. I often saw the fathers I had sat beside, in the faces of their sons.

The sun came out. I felt better. I still know my tables. I know a few songs and some shreds of poetry. I’m not great with technology, but there is always someone who can help. My three year old grandson showed me a game on his mother’s i-phone. It was less violent than Bulls.  He knew how to work it. Nobody taught him. ‘I will ring you on Skype’, he said when they were leaving. It’s a brave new world.

A friend took me for a flight in his helicopter. We flew over Wicklow. There they were—deer on mountain heather. They stood tall and proud, just like my classmates in The Nash in 1947.