Life on the fringe
In 1945, the war in Europe ended, but its effect on the Irish nation would impact for decades. Many sons and brothers had served in the British army during the war, and because of it, their families were reviled at home. The fierce antagonism to England and anything English generated dislike and insults among Republicans. ‘Traitors’ was shouted aloud wherever crowds gathered; after Mass, at the pub or even in the village on Fridays. Eamon de Valera himself spearheaded anti-English attitudes to a point where the opposition parties insisted that he mute his words in the Dáil. General Sean MacEoin, Fine Gael said, "We will always need the United Kingdom, for trade, for support, for employment”. John talked about “the effects of this war in which our country was not involved”. He resented the time and money devoted by Irish politicians who quarrelled over the division of Anglo-Irish properties, and he loathed their treatment of Catholics like themselves. Although the conflict in Europe had not encroached on Irish soil, it obtruded on the Irish economy, adding to the cankerous growth of poverty already stalking the country. He deemed it a disgrace when Eamon de Valera, Fianna Fáil Taoiseach, led Ireland to a neutral stance on the war. Britain and all of Europe, along with America and Russia allied to fight off the evil of Nazi dictatorship. Ireland along stood on the brink, looking on.
“What would you expect from that traitor?” Patrick said, referring to the leader of Fianna Fáil. “His role in the Civil War lives on and it’s a legacy that will last for a century or so, dividing families throughout the land. Take this parish for example and what his lot have done.”
John’s stance annoyed Brigid, and she had to bite her tongue when the uncles spoke thus. In the wake of the 1937 Treaty by which Ireland, or at least twenty-six counties of it, was recognised as a democracy, a fierce pride in its land, its people and its culture was surfacing. Most of all the Irish wanted freedom of speech, of education, and they sought a living in which they could raise their children with dignity.
“Perhaps this expiates the Commission from blame?” Brigid sought to make the little man see the Nationalist point of view - in one of her braver moments. Almost immediately she regretted her patriotic stance, seeing John Connell’s face reddening before her eyes. He seemed to resent her influence on his nephew, she felt, and jumped at the chance of putting her down.
“Are you actually suggesting that the suffering we endured, our land lying idle because of the impoverished conditions forced upon us, was alright, just because of a new patriotism we should all adhere to?” he thundered.
“Perhaps it gives meaning to it all!” his nephew’s wife suggested, aghast at his raised tone.
“Look, Brigid, you can try being a pacifist but one thing is certain, those who supported that party are being well and truly rewarded with land no matter whose. Branch members of the local Cumanns of the Fianna Fail party are more likely to get a few acres, than the small farmers who support the Fine Gael Party, the only major opposition to the Government. And if Collins had not been exterminated, yes I use that word, by his own fellow countrymen; we would not be in this position today!”
Brigid did not respond, as it would have been pointless but she understood his vehemence. A regrettable and tragic period in Ireland’s past had overshadowed the birth of the Irish nation, when the split occurred.
“I can tell you how we felt at the time, Brigid,” John continued. “It was generally recognised that ‘decent people’ of good farming stock and the Anglo-Irish remnants with big houses, support Fine Gael. On the other hand, the very poor, the back-street dwellers, those who had nothing, the lower strata in society, backed Fianna Fáil. Those who genuinely rejected the English domination understood that it had been the wily expertise of Lloyd George, the English Prime Minister, over the Irish politicians lured to London under false pretences that affected the outcome. They signed a treaty, prematurely, perhaps, in their exigency, which would influence the very core of Irish politics for a century. Consequently most republicans joined the Fianna Fail party.” An anathema to the Connells. Brigid could not fight the unwinnable battle. Better, she knew, to keep quiet, for all their sakes. There was of course a completely different attitude, from her relations, people like the Hearnes.
Once a month, Brian and Gráinne Hearne came to visit the Cowmans, usually on Sundays, after dinner. Both were cousins of Brigid’s on opposite sides, and she appreciated the strong bond with Gráinne, not having a sister of her own. While the women chatted in the kitchen, Tom and Brian liked to discuss the F.C.A (Foras Cosainte) of which both were members. A sort of Territorial Army, it was set up as an auxiliary, which would, they hoped, never have to serve. Brian and Tom gave two weeks a year to the training camp in Finner, a wild, windswept site near Bundoran, Co. Donegal. On one Sunday each month, they trained the local platoon at a firing range in the hills behind the church.
Brian Hearne was a staunch Fianna Fail supporter, careful in his avoidance of confrontational topics in the Cowman household. However, in spite of careful manipulation of topics discussed, the conversation often heated up, particularly in exchanges on WW2, his quiet disposition ruffled in response to Tom’s standpoint. In those times, he relied on prudence, in spite of the conflicting views they could not share.
“Ireland was obedient”, Tom proffered as they walked along the leafy avenue towards the road, “to the leadership of the Catholic Church under Pope Pius XI1 but it was rumoured that he was sympathetic to the Italian leader, Mussolini, and also to the government of Germany under Hitler”.
“That’s not true,” Brian stated. “In fact, the Pope was directly responsible for saving the lives of many Jews in Rome. Obviously, Tom, you have read the anti-church propaganda. It will be many years before the whole truth comes out. It is a complex business and, in retrospect, ignorance deprived us here in Ireland of a true knowledge of the dreadful evil that was being perpetrated in Germany.”
Tom replied. “But the main criterion, for the Irish government, was that Germany was waging war against England and it sort of provided an opportunity to support the oppressor who invaded Ireland in the 1100s, taking their land and titles.”
“Can you blame the government?” Brian retorted. “Don’t forget it was the English who reduced the population of Ireland from eight to four million people during the potato famine, generally recognised as the greatest tragedy to befall Ireland in its history.”
From an Irishman’s perspective, and as a teacher of history, Brian’s republican spirit would never allow the facts to blur.
“Have you read ‘The Great Famine’ Tom?” Brian queried. “I’ll lend it to you. I guarantee, you will learn more from it than all the history books could teach about English monarchs and their treatment of the Irish. The accounts of human deprivation and devastation made me boil with anger and vicious dislike for the English Crown.”
Brian responded with firm insistence: “Those Anglo-Irish landlords, who crushed the Irish over the centuries, are surely in hell’s fire now.”
Tom could only reply, “God alone can judge man and we cannot see into the human heart as He can. It was a dreadful period in our history, Brian,” Tom conceded. “Thing is, as far as our history is concerned, Uncle John says he was happier under English rule. He has his reasons – very good ones. We will have to leave it at that.”
“I realise that your uncles were caught up in a sort of no-man’s land in the English/Irish net but in the past their forbears were ordinary men and women too, who also suffered under the hated British rulers. It’s presently being suggested by international communities that the English nation should apologise to the Irish for the atrocities of the Famine as indeed the German people must, in time to the Jews.” Brian was cautious, pragmatic.
Tom insisted, “Ireland is now a nation in its own right but we are still inextricably linked to the United Kingdom through immigration and the need to survive. Many Irishmen served under the British flag in WW2, and most of the population felt that it was right to do so. After all they were all fighting for universal freedom – from a great evil.”
“We’re not living in England where many young men had to sign up to fight a war against an evil dictator in Germany,” Tom spoke passionately, “but we’re not ignorant either, of the strife and heartbreak endured by families across the Irish Sea. The evacuation of children, for example. Some were treated badly. We read about it in the ‘Independent’ and heard about it on the news bulletins. We knew there were atrocities carried out in Europe but what could anyone do. It’s enough to procure justice and fair play in our own country.”
“Alright, Tom, let’s pray for all those who suffered.” Brian attempted to end the controversial trend of the talk. “As you say, we have to think of our own country now. Isn’t it the reason we serve in the FCA?” Brian relied on tactful characteristics when teaching the future men and women of Crook Hill. It was said they hung on his every word.
Although the two families were united by blood, the paternal backgrounds could not be more different. Brian respected Tom Cowman for the independent zeal he exuded in his fight to restore Lake House to prosperity and its former glory, but he also understood the attitude of the farmers around the estate who were partisans of a new Ireland. The Hearne and Cowman children had inherited vastly different stores of information regarding England’s role in Irish history. No doubt, the Cowman children’s understanding was somewhat divergent from their peers, influenced as they were by the granduncles down the road in Lake House. Brian and Tom would never agree, except on the premise that it was best to keep peace.
At twelve o’clock midday and again at six each evening, the resounding bell of the ‘Angelus’, tolled out from the churches in every parish. Brigid taught her children, “Wherever the faithful are, they stop to recite the lovely prayer to Our Lady. They pray for all the brave soldiers who died in the war and the grieving families left behind.” She sought every opportunity to teach the children about the power of prayer and whenever she heard bad news, she crossed herself. Three times a day activity stopped when the radio was switched on and horrendous details relayed about the notorious concentration camps in Europe. Throughout the length and breadth of the two countries nobody was aware of the full extent of the extermination that had taken place in ‘hell holes’, as one commentator called them.
Each night, as the Cowmans recited the Rosary on ‘bended knees’ (as the song says), in front of the open fire, the universal intention ‘that the world would never again see the power of totalitarianism’ echoed beyond the house, and Ireland, to the heart of Europe itself. “Your generation will learn about the savage effects of the war in Europe.”
Tom explained to his children that power and greed were the root causes that impelled one country to plunder and invade another.” The war in Europe, however, was caused by the insanity of one man: Hitler.”
In later years, when reading Mary Kenny’s book on how far Catholic Ireland has moved from those strong roots of Christian practice, Alma understood what the author meant in using the term ‘solipsistic’; Ireland was inward-looking, not involved with the war. Yet Ireland, with its strong Christian ethos, had always sent missionaries abroad to preach the Word of God. At this time, however, Eire was too small, too insignificant and too far removed from the horror to make any difference to the outcome. Those emigrants who lived and worked in Britain did of course serve gallantly for the Crown and were among the many brave soldiers who died in the face of the battle against totalitarianism. Some of our people frowned on their involvement, as they cast their minds back to the power that Britain had held over us in the past.
As the war took its toll in Europe, little green ration books were distributed to every family because of the Irish dependency on the English economy. ‘A necessary evil’, Brigid called them but she appreciated the supplement to home produce. Needy families, particularly in towns, relied on the regular allocation of rations to fulfil requirements, which they purchased every Friday in local shops. Brigid conscientiously provided her home baking and good solid ordinary food for her two children and hard-working husband, Tom, but the ration books were a mainstay in hard times. She kept them on the top shelf on the dresser and took them down every Friday before going to the village for the weekly shopping.
“It’s nothing to be ashamed about, Tom,” Brigid said one day as he shoved the little grey book far into his trouser pocket. “Everyone else has one, too, and it’s the government who can’t provide for us, not families in poverty. I’m grateful to the neighbours for helping out as much as they can. Paddy Ward is a great man. He dropped in a bag of turnips earlier today and said that he had too many and couldn’t use them all himself now that his brother, Will, is dead. People are good-natured and they look out for the neighbours.”
“Well, particularly in the heart of the country”, Tom replied. “I think it is tougher in the city. They say Limerick is very bad, with people in real poverty and hunger.”
Brigid agreed. “At least we have our own bacon and vegetables and can survive.”
“In England, the towns and cities are well organised,” her husband observed, “They have allotments, green areas in every town where people sow vegetables. I read in the paper last week that the allotments kept the English people from starving during the war.”
Brigid sometimes wondered how Tom could postulate on world affairs when they had so many problems to deal with on their own doorstep. “We have enough to contend with here, besides worrying about Europe,” she cautioned. Inevitably, the government would reach a decision on the land question.
It was in September 1947, two days after her fourth birthday, that Alma commenced her school life. On that first morning, she clung to the little bag Brigid had packed with egg sandwiches, a pencil and an exercise book. The teacher would give them the penny catechism along with the English and Irish ‘readers’; all she would need in ‘infants’. Down the long narrow boreen, Tom rode with his daughter perched on the back of the bike and, as he shoved the briars out of the way, he knew why others talked about getting a new school. He was appalled by the state of the road the children had to travel every day to the remote building. Thorny brambles sprawled across the narrowest parts, while big branches of ancient trees entwined overhead. ‘This is little more than a path,’ he fumed. It’s not good enough. The government is intent on taking land away from some of us and yet they won’t provide better schools and rights of way for the country’s children. He cycled slowly along the last bit of the track up to the quaint old educational establishment. Bridie Maher, the principal of the little school and a former school-friend of Brigid’s, was standing outside the door. She knew Tom was coming. He would stir things up. He was a doer, not a postulator like others!
An ardent teacher, Bridie exuded patriotism, Tom observed, in her desire to acquire better education for the children in the tiny school. She was respected by all the parents for her persistent efforts to obtain adequate funding for a new building. Consequently, she kept up the pressure on a variety of people according to their importance: the parish priest, the County councillors and even the Minister for Education when he came at election times. She wanted a school with better amenities, situated on a more accessible site, for all families in the area. The Parish Priest, as manager of the school, was also doing his best to pressurise the local authorities as he backed Mrs. Maher’s efforts. Bridie smiled at Tom. “Glad to see you, Tom. So this is Alma. Welcome. Come inside.”
The seven year old, copper hair in neat plaits, in a green gingham dress sewn by Brigid, and a woollen cardigan knitted by Brigid, walked before her Daddy into the classroom.
Tom took stock. Just one room for pupils ranging from four to thirteen. Two ladies endeavouring to teach an assortment of would-be scholars, at either end of one little classroom.
“How do you do it, Bridie?” he asked
“It’s not easy, Tom. All the more difficult by hearing each other’s voices, not to mention those of their pupils chanting the tables in unison.”
Tom chatted for a few moments with Mrs Maher, discussing the play and concert planned for Christmas in the hall. His mind was brimming with ideas and yet another goal: how best to approach the TD about this school.
“It’s coming up to election time. We’ll get his attention then,” he promised the teacher. With Tom Cowman on her side, Bridie’s hopes rose, knowing he would pressurise the ‘powers that be’ to procure funding for new premises. Tom would not give up. He said goodbye to his young daughter who was by now in the care of Rena Cone and Dorothy O’Beirne, two of the senior girls in the sixth class, in their role of welcome party to shy beginners. If he had looked back, he would have seen Alma talking to another child, a little dark-haired girl. Marie Coyle lived in a cottage near Lake House.
Cycling more rapidly back out to the main road, he proceeded to Lake House to start the milking of the cows and feeding the calves. Then, an hour later, he and the boys filled the lorry with a load of stones from the big quarry at the bottom of the hill, and he set off for the new hospital building on the outskirts of Roscommon town.
“A great achievement,” he said to the site manager, Owen Derwin. “We’ll soon have a decent hospital, and about time, too. The old infirmary is primitive.”
Then dumping the load of granite, Tom drove out to the main road and, in a moment of inspiration, faced his lorry in the direction of the town. Arriving in the square outside the Harrison, the town’s dance hall, he manoeuvred his vehicle into a parking space, locked it and walked to the nearest bookshop where he proudly purchased a book. To commemorate Alma’s first day in Blunkett Place National school, he wanted to reward his daughter ‘who had just taken her first steps on the road to a fine education’, he boasted to Micksy Farrell, the proprietor, when paying five and sixpence at the counter. “Her imagination will be fired by the wonderful tales of Hans Christian Anderson.”
That evening he presented the book to Alma and said, “When you’ve learned your spellings I’ll read a chapter to you.”
“I’m good at spellings. Mrs. Gilleran said so. Mammy taught me before I went to school” Then
she burst into tears. “They wouldn’t play with me,” she wailed.
Mrs. Maher’s daughters and nieces were pupils in the school, each day arriving in the teacher’s car. They would get out, fix their skirts and walk into the building looking, as Alma described, ‘very important’. She would later recall in an essay on her first experience of National School; A minor dynasty of power and friendship groups was evolving, every child in the school wanting to be in the Maher/Beirne faction at play times.
Josie Coyle had advised, “If they like you, you’re in!”
When the bunch of ‘chosen ones’ ran off at lunchtime to the big wall that bounded Cameron’s orchard, leaving Alma behind, she was scared. Jim Grady, who worked in Lake House, had filled her mind with tales of ghostly figures that haunted the ruins and she was afraid of the old place. It stood eerily, like a spectre, in a wilderness of fallen trees and overgrown brambles behind the school; derelict - another Anglo-Irish estate, whose owners had been driven out when their lands too were divided.
“Oh, don’t be such a baby,” shouted Josie, a wild youngster up for anything, especially if it meant getting her hands on the red apples in the old orchard. Alma was inconsolable as she recounted the details of the lunchtime activities.
“Because you went to school with Mrs. Maher, Mammy, they should make friends with me now. They ran off and left me.” Alma’s fear was tangible.
Bridie Maher and her two sisters, Nora and May, were old school pals of Brigid since childhood and there was a strong bond of friendship between the two families. The younger generation of girls was gifted, pretty, brainy and musically talented. Alma envied them and wanted desperately to sing and dance too. The latter came easily but she had not inherited her father’s sweet voice.
“You can perform . . . recite poetry in the concerts. That will be good for you”, Tom consoled his daughter another evening when she arrived home with another pettish story. “In the meantime, you have to stand up for yourself and mix with everyone.”
Brigid believed that their children must learn to cope with situations that were not always pleasant in life, and however she sought to ameliorate the harsher experiences that Alma, and Patsy later on, would encounter growing up, they would have to go through it themselves and make their own choices. Solid foundations defining loyalty and true companionship should be laid. Brigid did not want Alma’s vulnerable mind to imbibe the idea that the criteria for success were intelligence, looks, a good figure, a singing voice, and being able to act. This latter invaluable asset was clearly a catalytic factor in her young life now, as she sought to imitate the airs, graces, and ‘pretty-pushiness’ the dynasty assumed. Weakness in any form became an anathema to her.
“In fact, she is showing signs of developing some ugly traits of character, Tom.” Brigid observed. In her eagerness to emulate other talented pupils at school, she became petulant and dictatorial in her own little domain, at home.
“Don’t worry about it. Alma’s only trying to shed the initial shyness that holds her back. I had to try harder than most, being a small man.”
He would not tolerate tantrums or be patient with his daughter. Sometimes, he administered a light slap in order to temper the passionate outbursts and demands newly surfacing.
Every Tuesday morning, lessons began with history after the opening prayers in Gaelic,
“In anam on Athair, an Mhic agus an Spiorad Naofa” (In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit). Once when listening intently to Mrs. Gilleran, who taught the infant, first and second classes, Alma couldn’t help picking up Mrs. Maher’s voice at the other end of the room. Her words had a familiar ring, “It is often in the suffering that man is crowned because, by his very nature, he is a fighter, therefore the heavier the oppression, the steadier the desire for freedom,” she proclaimed to her eager learners. Piously.
“I like it.” Brigid affirmed on hearing about the ‘great lesson’ from Alma, “in that little school.
“That was the 6th class lesson, not ours, but I could hear it,” said the child fed on politics from her cot.
Brigid hoped that history lessons would give her children a true picture of the Irish people, not one in which landowners ruled. Her husband’s background might be rooted in political strife, but it would not be healthy for the children to grow up with a one-sided view of society around them.
Every day the lessons included Irish, English, history, geography, and arithmetic. Tom and Brigid struggled to find time in the evenings to help with the homework and worst of all grappling with the vagaries of the language, which was now more of a problem than ever as Alma progressed into first class.
“Let Mrs. Gilleran do it then, It’s her job”, was Tom’s response, flouncing off after a frustrating session trying to help his daughters with homework one evening.
“She’s mad”, piped Patsy.
“Hush”, Brigid warned. “That’s wrong. Your teachers know everything. Respect them.”
She had an inkling that respect was something Mrs. Gilleran found hard to command. In the eyes of little four to nine year-old girls and boys in her classes, the grey-haired lady was like an ancient old woman, with weird habits. Stories recounted innocently, at home, added veracity to the rumours. One evening Alma blurted,
“You wouldn’t believe what the old witch did, Mammy! It was in the middle of our reading. She took her false teeth out of her mouth and put them on the table in front of her during the lesson. Imagine it! She looked so funny, with her gaping, red mouth and I couldn’t help laughing, then Lil Cone started to laugh and everyone in the room laughed. Mrs. Gilleran shouted at us and that made us all laugh even more.”
Brigid was amused but strove to retain equilibrium. Biting her lip, she turned away from the grinning faces of her two not-so-innocent daughters. It was most inappropriate for the teacher to do such a thing and she would get Tom to have a word in Mrs. Maher’s ear. However, the girls must learn to have respect.
“Don’t laugh at the poor woman. How could you call her a witch? That is cruel! Her teeth were probably hurting her mouth. Dentists are not very good with false teeth. Sometimes they make them so badly that they dig into the roof of the mouth." Inwardly, she held a different view. It might be a source of fun for all her pupils but wasn't Mrs. Gilleran asking for trouble? How could a teacher maintain respect if she behaved like that? She urged Tom to speak to the principal. He promised but within a week, matters reached alarming proportions. Brigid’s fears were borne out when the big dentures disappeared from the desk during run-time. Pinched, when 'Mam' wasn’t looking, Peter Coyle who lived over the road gleefully boasted. “A fierce ould wan,” his mother shouted at Mrs. Maher when called in to account for her son’s scandalous behaviour.
“They are quakin’ in fear, if they can’t learn the ‘times’ tables.” Brigid could hardly keep a straight face as the irate woman continued, “I can still see him, defying her as she roared, ‘Peter Coyle, you are a rascal! Put down those teeth this minute or I’ll give you six slaps.’”
The response from Peter was electrifying: flinging the teeth down onto the desk in front of the astounded teacher, he ran as fast as he could, out the door and off down the road, home! Mrs. Maher then had to intervene to save her older but junior member of staff from acute embarrassment. The pupils sat, subdued, listening to a lecture on respect! They sat, hand, fingers crossed behind backs, none giving credence to the Principal’s words. They could not. They would always mimic Mrs. Gilleran; she was a figure of fun for youngsters looking for diversions. Alma liked attention and every now and then, she turned to face the class when the teacher was bent over a drawer, or clearing the blackboard. Pretending to stick out her teeth just like the wizened old woman Alma thrilled to the giggles in response to her misconduct.
“Poor Mrs.Gilleran, trying to talk her way through the day, teaching sums, Irish and English to infants, first and second classes. All in the one space.” Brigid had sympathy for the poor lady and dealt with her daughter with severity on hearing the stories repeated at home.
The teeth never appeared on the desk again!
“Alma has a talent for acting I think, like yourself,” Brigid said, not quite expecting her husband to dwell on the issue. When, a few months later he prepared to introduce his daughter to the stage, Brigid protested in vain, “She is too young, yet. Only four and a half.”
“Never too young”, came the response.
Alongside Mrs. Maher, he was producing a play in which he would also perform a key role. Parents would support the concert and the play; after all, they loved seeing their offspring, dancing and reciting on the stage. Tom delighted in the preparations, which would be the highlight of local family life. During the weeks before the event, Alma learned her lines each night after school. She would perform her first poem, ‘My Doll’ on the stage.
“It will stimulate a taste for public speaking in later life.” Tom was inspired by his own optimism.
Alma would also recite another poem with three girls in her class, a lot to learn off by heart. And in the weeks running up to the concert, she practised repeatedly until she began to dream the words in her sleep. Brigid tried to calm the child. She possessed a deep for poetry herself.
“Be yourself, Alma. Not too much of an accent please”, she advised. Tom’s tutoring bore slight intonations of an American accent and Brigid feared her daughter might suffer as a consequence.
Finally, the day dawned and everyone gathered in the hall amid the buzz of expectant enjoyment. Little girls were running around in their starched dresses and ringleted hair, while the proud Mammies and Daddies sat expectantly in the body of the hall. Alma waited nervously in the wings, repeating the verses of ‘My Doll’, then, on cue, she walked out under the bright lights that Joe Gannon had erected, bowed low and commenced:
“Oh men from the fields come softly within.” Terror struck!” She’d just said the opening line of the second poem, which she would perform with Josie and Betty Coyle, both girls waiting in the wings and dressed in pink frilly dresses with matching ribbons.
Mrs Maher hissed, “Excuse me” repeatedly from the wings until Alma blurted the words out.
There was a buzz of laughter in the audience as she started again. ‘My Doll’ Gaining momentum, she recited the poem right to the last line, and with more than a modicum of grace, bowed to the audience and retreated off stage.
It had gone well, with only one minor fault, but Alma was not to be let off the hook lightly and she cried loudly in school next day, where she was not lauded for her recitation but instead was the butt of everyone’s laughter. “All around the playground I could hear the words, ‘excuse me’. It was awful, Mammy!”
“Well, you didn’t lose your head. Not bad for someone so young. You can be proud of yourself, Alma” Brigid urged her daughter to forget the humiliation.
She was proud that in the rural setting of the parish, creativity was being nurtured and the desire for success a consuming hunger in the girls and boys of school age. Every winter, Tom, along with the Gannons and Scallys, would go on to produce some fine drama in the little hall, “The Playboy Of The Western World”, “Many Young Men Of Twenty” and many, many others, thus breathing inspiration and an outpouring of talent in youngsters. Brigid liked the plays but she disliked the hours Tom spent at night in the hall. Bad enough that he spent large amounts of time down at Lake House, solving their problems, before coming home for his tea and then leaving again for the hall. To compensate she filled her time reading, anything from Dickens, to Brontë to romantic novels. Tom liked to talk when he came in. One night, he arrived home at twelve when Brigid was about to quench the lamp and rake the fire. He was proud.
“Culturally enriching, Father Lohan called it, Brigid” He glowed.
“Good,” his wife replied. “Do you know how late it is?”
He did not and never wore a watch.
“Amazing how time flies when you’re enjoying yourself,” he said, not noticing his wife’s tight-lips and sparse response.
“Bed”, she ordered, grabbing the paper he picked up.
Brigid wondered how he could focus on plays, concerts, and the like with so much pressure on their lives; a home they might lose and land that could almost certainly be taken from them. She concluded that his activities were a welcome break from politics and conflict. A week later, she could see how proud Tom was after the annual schoolchildren’s performance and the adults’ play. A local paper, ‘The Herald’, featured an article on the combined endeavour in the parish.
“Our Irish nation is blooming again, with its Celtic dancing, singing, and plays by Irish playwrights. It is a springboard for the many talented and academic geniuses of the future.
Tom agreed with the article. “We cannot allow our troubles or worries to envelop us to the point where we quench our thirst for culture and learning.”
He and Brigid were in the habit of reading by the fireside during the winter, ensuring that their children followed the good example. The oil lamp perched on the centre of the big wooden table shone like a beacon while the warm glow of the dying embers provided heat and comfort before bedtime. Tom’s determination to build up a store of literature, at Christmas, and every possible opportunity was bearing fruit. Stories by Enid Blyton, Louisa May Alcott, and ‘Girls’ annuals were awakening their interest and imagination.
One cold, frosty Christmas morning in 1948, Alma looked towards the end of the bed and saw the big glossy “Grimm’s Fairytales” and it was if she had been given the whole world, so much did she value the present. ‘My world!’ she recalled later on. Quickly dispensing with the board games and dolls, she immersed herself in a world of fantasy and make-believe, and was quit for the rest of the day. It was Patsy, who pestered her father to play board games, although she too had been given little books and was making excellent progress.
Tom and Brigid believed in teaching their daughters new skills and he was careful to lay aside his own pursuits to play ‘snap’, Ludo or draughts with them. At such times, Brigid, sitting in the old wooden rocking chair by the fireside, was relieved that their father, for a change, was occupying the children. Too often, she passed the time at night sewing their clothes when Tom was out.
She yearned for lasting peace and stability in their lives. That was still being denied them. She encouraged prayer. Praying as a family. She said one evening: “Let’s kneel down and say the rosary”, knowing that if the children grew used to the recitation of the beads, though long and repetitive, the practice would stick. They did not yet understand the power of this precious prayer but as they prayed the Rosary in honour of Our Lady of Lourdes and Fatima, Brigid gave thanks for her blessings. Patsy fidgeted a little, hardly able to grasp the meaning of the ‘mysteries of the rosary’. Alma kept as still as she could, aware that their father, with head bent in prayer, could easily be angered by intermittent giggling. Almost imperceptibly, a depth of knowledge and a real love of God were developing in their hearts - Brigid hoped.
Over the mantelpiece hung a big picture of the Sacred Heart. Brigid said, “He will give you whatever you wish when you ask Him.”
Alma returned quickly, “He was a long time coming to help us all when the snow was bad, Mammy.”
“When prayers seem to go unanswered, it is difficult to see His Will in the outcome. It is the most precious treasure we can pass on to you, children.”
Tom cut in, “We’ve survived until now, haven’t we?” He, too, sought to lay the foundation stone of a faith that should never die and after the rosary each night he would repeat the beautiful invocation:
“O Sacred Heart of Jesus, I place my trust in Thee”
Together they strived to rear the girls well - within the strict beliefs of the Catholic faith that inculcated the most doctrine of loving God and one’s neighbour according to the teaching of the Faith. Daily, she offered up a prayer of thanksgiving for her happy home, in spite of the hard work and Lake House troubles. ‘God only knows how we would manage in this life without the help of the Almighty’, she acknowledged.
“But if we pray, God will help us, you always say, Mammy; only it seems as if he is a bit deaf sometimes,” Patsy had said to Brigid one awful morning when the children’s fingers were frozen, and purple, when they awoke. During the previous winter, the weather was harsh. Each morning when they awoke, the hot-water bottles Brigid had placed in the beds had changed into solid lumps of marble between the blankets. Brigid worked very hard to keep her family warm while Tom struggled with the animals in the sheds at Lake House.
As the freeze continued, some of the animals froze to death in the fields with not enough hay to feed them. The memory of hardship endured in the winter of 1947 would be firmly embedded in the minds of the Irish for a long time. It had been a particularly severe winter. The snow lay on the ground for months and, along with their mother, the two girls daily walked out carefully along the slippery stones of the long avenue, to the main road. They could not cross the marshy bogland, blanketed in snow and treacherous, to get buckets of spring water from the well.
“Nothing like it has been experienced in living memory,” Brigid said.
As the mother and two daughters were crossing the road to the well one day, Alma slipped, and Patsy, who was only two and a half at the time, pulled her older sister by the coat tails, across to safety just in time before an old cattle truck passed.
“You needed to see it yourself to believe it, Tom,” Brigid recounted the event to her astonished husband later that evening.
“To see little Patsy pulling Alma by the end of her coat across the slippery ice was just like something from a slow movie. My mouth was dry with fear.”
Like it or not, they had to put up with the hardship for weeks afterwards, in the worst winter in living memory. Brigid worried about the impact of those events on the children’s lives. They had pulled through it, but telling them that it was a noble thing to bear a cross because Christ had carried his “cross for us”, did not quite seem fair. Water was an essential item Brigid needed for everything: drinking, boiling and even cleaning the chamber pots under the beds, a daily routine that was distasteful but necessary. She always finished the task by scouring with Jeyes fluid. That would kill any germs!
“Oh, why couldn’t life be different?” Alma repeated often, as her mother bowed under the weight of the buckets. In Uncles’ time, servants would have done that and they had fancy pots called commodes, not disgusting, smelly, enamel things that Mammy had to empty.
Eventually spring burst through, daffodils danced in beds of yellow along the roadside and little snowdrops scattered across the lawn in Lake House. Brigid brought her children out to the front of the house to admire the display. “It’s the best time of the year”, she said. “Nature proudly renewing itself after the harshness of winter. New life surging up from within the earth itself.”
Spring meant hard labour for Tom, sowing seeds, and tilling the fields on the high road, while feeding the stock in the lower quarter. Come summer, there would be the cutting of meadows, hiring the thresher for the harvesting in the autumn’ none of which would happen without the groundwork now. If the yield was good, itself dependant on the weather, he would be able to increase the herd of cattle. He worried. Brigid calmed. So much on his shoulders. Every week as he drove to town, to prevail on officious staff in the council for government grants to fund the reclamation of rough headlands and clumpy fields, his heart raced. He was working all the daylight hours at Lake House but often came back upset and angry because things were moving so slowly in the negotiations to prevent the division of Tullaghan. It would be too cruel if this farm were taken now. In his heart of hearts, Tom knew the inevitable division of some of Lake House estate lands would happen but in the meantime, he would ensure that the wheels were kept in motion for the planned improvements. Hence his visits to officialdom. His ability to persuade, to speak effectively and intelligently was an asset, that in honesty he recognised as a gift. An eternal optimist, his maxim, “God looks after His own” buoyed him up; consequently, his enthusiasm affected everyone in the family. Slowly but surely, progress was dawning and Uncles John and Patrick were smiling more.
‘Lake House will prosper again,’ they agreed.
Brigid, too, worked hard, baking, sewing, cleaning and washing the clothes in the big steel basin. She toiled at a steady pace, in order to finish in time, and if Tom could not collect the children, she would set out at two o’clock to bring the children home from school. She looked forward to the afternoon and the break from routine.
On such a day, in the spring of 1949, Brigid placed the big pot of potatoes on the coals to simmer, and then set off on the two-mile journey to Blunkett Place School. The days were beginning to lengthen and she planned to drop in to see Mary Kelly on the way home from school. That would kill an hour before getting back to the chores again.
Mary Kelly was a kind-hearted woman who welcomed the opportunity for a chat, and the farm was a sort of halfway house along the road that broke the long walk home for the Cowman. They lived farther along, up the hill, over the railway bridge, across a style and onto the path that led down to the little house, which was surrounded by big, dark trees. She would leave the bike at Kelly’s and Tom could take it home in the back of the lorry later.
“Sure, you might as well have something to eat, Brigid. There’s lots in the pot,” Mary said on this occasion.
‘Yes, please.’ Alma quickly accepted the offer, even though she knew that Mammy would have their dinner ready at home.
“That one has an awful appetite,” Brigid remarked, a little embarrassed by her daughter’s outspoken comment. Alma proceeded to eat several potatoes and some of the rabbit stew before going out to play in Kelly’s field, at the back of the house. Country folk always had the tea brewing on the hob for anyone who broke their journey, long or short, for a chat and a ‘cuppa’. Life was slow moving and there was never any great hurry, except to get the children to school in the mornings, or to the church on Sundays.
Alma liked talking to Pauline Kelly, who was a year older and more worldly wise. The three girls, playing on the swings under the trees at the back of the comfortable farmhouse, were safe, in full view of the half-door and the kitchen with the big, open-hearth fire where the spuds were boiling slowly for the hens. A rancid smell of cabbage permeated the air from the pot that included turnips, potatoes, and cabbage, “to make them lay plenty of eggs’!
“Your Mam is always cooking and baking,” Alma said to Pauline as they swung up and down on the makeshift swing tied securely with rope around two facing trees in the back garden.
“There are five of us to feed, along with the hens, cats and dogs.” All the same, it seemed to Alma that Mrs. Kelly had an awful lot to do every day. Pauline Kelly was a dark-haired girl with brown eyes and a pretty complexion. She chatted animatedly to Alma, about school, and other things, like boys and always seemed to know more about life than the little girl who was sheltered and protected so much by her parents.
“I do know about boys,” Alma said proudly, wanting to show off to the older girl whom she admired. I read Snow White last week. The prince kissed the princess at the end of the story.”
“Did you see the kissin’ at the back of the school last week?” Pauline inquired, whispering, aware that Patsy could hear and she was far too young to know anything about boys yet. We’ll be at it in a few years.” She informed the younger girl, but Alma wasn’t sure if she wanted all that stuff. In books, the prince fell in love with the princess and they lived happily ever after. That was enough for her – now.
“I think Pauline is filling Alma’s head with all sorts,” Brigid remarked to her husband that night on hearing her daughter’s chatter about ‘kissing’. “Too young they are for that sort of stuff.”
“Then what about the radio, the paper and the magazines you sometimes buy, Brigid?” Tom asked. “We can’t stop our children from growing up, and isn’t it better to warn them about life and its dangers than to stifle them constantly?”
“Not just yet, Tom, if you don’t mind.” Brigid replied, aware her children would need to know things in time but she vowed to keep them innocent for as long as possible. The world was changing and along with it, values, too. She had been unprepared for marriage because no one had told her anything. Her daughters would not follow her example in ignorance of ‘things.’ But there would be time for all of that . . . later.