*Editor's Note: Previously published in October 2015 by Pithead Chapel Magazine
We were a family of nine. We lived in a tenement house that was crowded and noisy. Wet laundry that otherwise hung for days in our kitchen was stretched on shared rope lines, fastened to the walls of our back yards. Our clothes were dried by the cool, fresh breeze that blew in across Dublin Bay.
We lived on the sixth floor of the tenement, in three rooms. We shared one toilet with three other families, and our apartment was without running water. The water that was available to us was downstairs in the back yard, poured from a communal tap. Each day, our mother made the trip several times, carrying two clanging, empty metal buckets down six flights of stairs, and hauling two full ones back up. The coal for our fire was bought at the local grocery store and carried back to our apartment, in a sack, by either our father or by our mother.
The streets were empty of traffic save for the huge, green double-decker buses and the occasional black Ford. We seldom saw a car; if one appeared on our street, it most certainly was bad news. We walked everywhere; to school, to the downtown area, to the emergency room at the local hospital. If we couldn’t walk, we were carried. Most of our clothes were second-hand, bought at the local street market. Fresh fruit was scarce and expensive; we were each given an apple on Friday afternoon as a treat. If we looked too closely, and for too long, we saw ourselves in the faces of our friends. Our clothes hung from our skinny frames. Gaunt, hollow cheeks and dull eyes were a reminder that food was not always available to us.
Our father had a job; he was the only man in our neighborhood who had full time employment. He worked on the Dublin docks, 10 miles from our home. His job was unloading barrels of oil that arrived on ships from the Gulf of Arabia. It was a rough, difficult, and strenuous job. He cycled to work each day. The winters were brutal. Rain fell constantly – sometimes a drizzle, sometimes torrential, with sheets of water washing across the cobblestones. He worked three shifts in three week cycles: morning, afternoon, and night. Throughout the winter he worked in clothes that were cold and sodden. The smell of oil emanated from his coat that hung on the back of the door.
There weren’t enough blankets to keep us warm. During the damp, cold, winter nights, our mother took her and our grandfather’s coats and placed them on top of our blankets to stop our shivering, and to keep us warm. Each morning, our mother started the coal fire in the main room, using newspaper and sticks. As she held a match to the twists of paper, we huddled around her and watched as the flame caught and the sticks crackled. If we didn’t have enough money for the electric meter to use the toaster, our mother spiked bread on a poker, and held it to the flame to make toast for our breakfast. We walked to school with the taste of burned bread in our mouths.
Our school was located several blocks from our home. It was an ominous, imposing red brick building that was cold, damp, and drafty. Nuns in long black habits, their heads covered in black cloth, walked silently along the hallways. Each wore a long, heavy set of wooden rosary beads that hung around their waists. As they passed us on our way to class, the only sound to be heard was the ticking of the beads and the quiet rustle of the cloth. In class, the nuns made no attempt to cover up their disdain for us dressed in our scruffy clothes, with our uncombed hair and our north Dublin accents. Their mannerisms, their voices, the way in which they addressed each one of us oozed a contempt that was almost tangible. They barely concealed their desire to be anywhere; anywhere but in that building, with us.
There was little to entertain us; we invented, we imagined, and we made do. Each Tuesday, we ran with anticipation to the market which was held in Smithfield; it was a huge square paved with cobblestones where horses and sheep and hay were bought, sold, and traded. Men spit into their hands, and, with a handshake, agreed upon a price. The noise of the animals, the pungent smell of manure, and the sight of the traders from out in the country were exciting and different. We were observing creatures from a different part of the planet. At the end of the day, we slipped and slid our way home through the piles of feces and the puddles of urine left by the animals.
When summer arrived, everything changed. The mornings were warm; the sun shone on our backs, on our arms, and on our legs. Our clothes were dry, finally. We climbed into the old laburnum tree with a rope, and fashioned a swing that would last for the entire summer. Splinters that embedded into our hands and into our knees were of no consequence—the swing was ready; summer was here. The pale ivory blossoms that hung from the branches were soft and fragrant, growing heavy and drooping as summer progressed.
Our friends joined us each morning. The back yard was a confusion of games, and noise, and of grazed knees. Bats smacked against balls; the swish swish swish of the skipping rope helped sustain the rhythm of the game. Daisies were made into chains for our hair; they left yellow powder on our fingertips. We played rounders and soccer, the girls in teams against the boys.
We were poor, but none of it mattered, because we were the children of the ‘first generation’.
We were conceived in the Free State, and born into the new Republic.
We were the descendants of a people who had been colonized, and who had been brutalized by Cromwell.
Our ancestors had survived the Great Famine.
They had refused the ‘coffin ships’.
They had witnessed the Easter Rebellion, and the subsequent executions.
They had endured the Civil War.
We, the ‘first generation’, had moved from that history; we were creating a future for our children, and for our grandchildren.
It was theirs to carry into their future, and beyond.