The House Remembers

AS IT WAS IN THE BEGINNING

Running scared from the hissing gander as he stretched out his long white neck . . . Listening, cosy and safe to the rain drumming down on the galvanised roof of the car-house; the bedraggled hens running in for shelter as they tried to fluff up their feathers.

We were all born in the parlour of our old thatched farmhouse in the fertile valley between the Galty and Knockmealdown mountains in Co. Tipperary. The house had shelter on all sides, my father being a great man for setting groves of trees.

There was a nice glass porch in front, outside which our childhood photographs were taken. There’s one old black and white picture of me, on my first Communion Day, squinting up at the sun in my white dress and veil. Since we were situated two fields in from the road, over a little bridge that crossed the Sheep river you could say that we were rather isolated. Americans would call it charming and secluded. To us it was just home and it was years before we would learn to appreciate its scenic appeal.

I imagine my mother picked the parlour for her confinements because it was a large airy room and presentable enough for the district nurse. With the reserve and stoicism of her generation, the birthing process was never discussed. At least not with us!! At any rate, the district nurse duly arrived with her black bag and all the small knitted baby clothes were put airing to the fire on the back of the sugán chair. My brother, John and two older sisters, Kathleen and Eileen, were convinced that she brought the baby in the bag. After being closeted in the parlour with my mother and the boiled water for a period of time, the nurse emerged triumphantly with the roaring new addition.

I was born on the eve of my sister Eileen’s fourth birthday and when my mother gave her a choice between the new baby and an orange, she immediately decided in favour of the fruit! By all accounts, I was stubborn and self-willed. I would knock on the porch door to get in, when I was too small to open the door myself, and if anybody, other than my mother, came I would bang the door shut again shouting ‘Mam ope!’

One time, Mother spent hours making a beautiful dress for my doll, complete with the latest fashionable puffed sleeves. I got a notion that I didn’t like the sleeves and when her back was turned I threw the lovely dress into the fire. Imagine her disappointment after the hours she’d worked on it! She later made us a big doll out of an old shirt of my father’s. We christened her Mary Alice! Stuffed with straw, she had a wild stare in her knitted eyes and a crooked grinning mouth, but we loved her anyway and had her as a baby in our cabby-houses for a while. She came to a bad end when we forgot to take her in out of the wet!

Another day in Mitchelstown, my mother asked me to hold her handbag for a second and I’m told that I boldly threw it down the street after her. I must have been a little horror!

Even though we were not near the road or other houses, our yard, orchard, garden and fields were lively places and I never felt lonely. Ducks, geese, hens, dogs, cats and magpies vied for space and food in the yard in front of the house. I often spent hours out there eating my bread and jam and watching their antics. The chopping block was there also, where my father cut the bushes and sticks for the fire. Occasionally, my mother would use it to chop the head off a young cock for the Sunday dinner. The pig’s day of reckoning would come too!

The first shoes and socks that were bought for me must have coincided with my early attempts at talking because I would perform my party piece for visitors, which went: ‘I got shoes for two and a levvy and socks for dillon!’ (This translates as shoes for 2/11 and socks for a shilling.)

Being the youngest, I probably got away with stuff the others didn’t. But I had to make up for that by trying to be funny – singing, dancing and being generally outrageous. This irresponsible image backfired of course. It would be years before anybody took me seriously or listened to anything I had to say!

John, my older brother, who was just developing an interest in writing, recorded the baby’s amusing sayings. You could say I was his first inspiration! It was called ‘The funny sayings and doings of little Ann’! When my parents would return from town all the messages were laid out on the big kitchen table. I was too small to see over the top, so I would crane my neck to look for brown paper bags that might have sweets.

When our father was in Clogheen hospital after breaking his leg, I was brought to visit him and asked to dance for the nuns. After a few evenings of this I got fed up, and said I had a sore leg. The nun said to me, ‘Show us how you could dance before you hurt your leg, Ann’. And of course I got caught out! Mother would lift me up at night, in front of the Sacred Heart picture, and we’d pray for Dad in hospital. The prayer went: ‘Baby Jesus make Daddy’s leg all right so he can do his work for little Ann.’

My grandfather was living in the house with us when I was little and when rosary time came I would pay a visit to his room to escape the boring prayers in the kitchen. These were all pre-school days, so my memories of him aren’t as clear as those of my older sisters and brother, to whom he spoke Irish. When he died, he was waked in the parlour, so once again this room served its noble purpose. I remember how the big field around our house was thronged with ponies, traps, bicycles and people. It was very exciting and I wasn’t sad at all.

I climbed the ladder to my bed in the loft each night and there was no fear of me causing any trouble or falling out, as I had a sister at each side to literally keep me in my place. We were lulled to sleep by the rustling of mice or wind in the thatch, and the comforting murmur of our parents’ voices as they sat by the fire going over the day’s events. One night I threatened to tell on my sister who woke up thirsty and drank the holy water from the font in the room. It would have been a great tale for mother’s ears but I couldn’t chance taking the risk!

Small children weren’t taken out very much that time. It wasn’t until I was going to school that I saw the big world beyond our road gate. My sister, Kathleen, wondered why my mother didn’t take the pram to town when I was small, so that I could be paraded up and down the street like a town baby. I think Mother had probably quite enough to do, driving the pony and trap the long eight miles to Mitchelstown, without taking our pram. It had probably seen better days anyway, after three other children!

The house, yard, orchard and fields were my world at that time and I knew every nook, cranny and hiding hole intimately. I was on first name terms with the cows, horses and donkey. I had a cabby, or play-house with the dog, cat and dolls as my children. The most important piece of equipment was a big stick to keep them all in order. They got their dinner served on bits of ‘chainies’ ( pieces of old broken crockery). The dolls were no bother but the cat and dog had a tendency to wander off!

We practised our plays in the pig shed. John drew pictures of Wolfe Tone and Robert Emmett on the whitewashed cow house. We enjoyed listening to my mother singing as she coaxed a white stream of milk from Judy, the placid red cow. Mooey, the black Friesian was another matter, and had to be spancelled as she often sent the bucket and its contents flying.

I visited the henhouse regularly to collect the eggs and inspect the hatching hen, sitting importantly in a hay-lined black pot, hatching eggs. Mam said that they were excellent mothers. A hen would have to be lifted every day from the nest to do her business and be fed. She would rather die than leave those eggs unattended. Any time I went near her she would fix me with her beady eye, making warning, clucking noises. How I willed her to hurry up! There was nothing as exciting as a fluffy chicken. Except perhaps, a baby gosling . . .

Neighbours would ask me, ‘What will you do when you’re big?’ I hadn’t given this much thought. Then one day, I decided I wanted to be a shop-keeper And I knew what I wanted to do with my money. I wanted to buy a pair of glasses, a good sleeping doll and a corset!

I didn’t know very many small children, except for occasional visits from cousins. And then we were too shy to interact! I would peep shyly from behind my mother’s skirt, longing to ask them to come out to play with the new pups but always leaving it too late. A baby was an even greater novelty to me. Being the youngest, I lost count of the prayers I offered up each night that God would send us a new baby. But he never did! Not being familiar with the facts of life, I didn’t realise that the fact that my mother was well over forty by then narrowed the chances quite considerably!

Now that I had familiarised myself with my immediate environment, I was ready to take on the next, very important stage of life. I was ready for school!