Not another memoir of childhood? Well, yes actually. Not another regressive desire to capture a golden werent-wepoor- but-happy age? Well, no. Nor a pursuit of misery and repression either. This is simply a journey into the authors past in the quiet, sleepy midlands village of Ballivor sixty odd years ago.
This book grew out of the radio documentary Goodnight Ballivor, Ill Sleep in Trim. That expression, common to those who grew up in Ballivor, yet shrouded in mystery, was the obvious title to give to a radio memoir.
The wonderful reaction to it surprised the author, but it shouldnt have. It was the old story of the local being universal. Twelve years after the documentary was first broadcast, the author has finally acceded to the many requests to put this rich tapestry of his own memories, and those of his counterparts, into print.
||John Quinn is a former RTÉ radio broadcaster. Previous publications by Veritas include Goodnight Ballivor, I’ll Sleep in Trim, also the subject of a TG4 documentary,Letters to Olive: Sea of Love, Sea of Loss, Seed of Love, Seed of Life and Credo: Personal Testimonies of Faith.
Irish Times Review 17th May 2008
NOT ANOTHER memoir of childhood?" says John Quinn, predicting the public reaction, before going on to explain why he wrote this one: it is "simply a journey into my past in a quiet, sleepy midlands village", 60 years ago.
He agrees with the view of Greek poet Cavafy: "In those fields and streets where you grew up, there you will always live and there you will die." Quinns book is built on an RT?ë documentary of the same name, and at its best it presents its sounds and stories with the vividness of good radio.
Ballivor is a small place in southwest Co Meath, in comparison with which Trim is El Dorado. The books title, a local catchphrase, is thought to have been said originally by a visitor refused accommodation after a nights drinking.
It is in the well-worn use of such phrases, and the names and nicknames of a village, that topography emerges and language turns into memory. The White Walls, a place to stroll out to on Sundays, moves from a mere description to a place name. The priest becomes The Big Man, not alone for his six feet six inches.
Quinn starts at the house where he was born in 1941, now derelict, and takes us on an imaginary tour from room to room. We then move up the village street: the south side, the north side, and around the corner. The smallest details of this geography become set in our minds. We begin to get an idea of the village and the people in it; their faces and voices and their place in the world.
It is a small world, where not much happens, but a world nevertheless. By todays criteria it was a boring life, Quinn admits, "but boring was never in our vocabulary". There were orchards to raid, comics to read, radio programmes to listen to. There was the arrival of the ESB wiremen and the landing of German spy Hermann Goertz. "Where am I?" Goertz is said to have inquired. "Youre in Ballivor, thats where you are," said Kit Reilly.
It is refreshing that the local Garda sergeant (Quinns father) is not the gloomy martinet of other memoirs but a happy man who sings South of the Border while engaged at his part-time farming. He has a picture of Eoin ODuffy on the wall beside the Sacred Heart and believes the Mutt and Jeff cartoon secretly contains a tip for the Grand National.
Equally welcome is a priest whose earthly powers extend mostly to helping ESB canvassers round up the "backsliders" who didnt want to hook up to the power supply in 1954. Not to mention a vet who took the author along on his house calls, or a Bord na Móna driver who would bring him for trips in his lorry to exotic places such as Rhode, Co Offaly, buy him a toffee bar and sing On Top of Old Smoky. "There was no talk of insurance or the dangers of abuse. These were simply adults who had time for children and were friendly, interesting and interested in a childs life," writes Quinn. It is such details, as much as the old-world talk, games and shopping lore, that show how much has changed.
Local ballads and the authors poems abound, and one chapter lists local turns of phrase. "Thats the real asss milk" (the real thing); "ihdin" (inside); "turmits" (turnips); "higgler" (egg-dealer); "frykened" (frightened). And the answer to "Will you be back?" was usually "Isnt it cool?" Indeed.
John S Doyle is a freelance journalist
Not another memoir of childhood? Well, yes actually. Not another regressive desire to capture a golden werent-we-poorbut- happy age? Well, no. Nor a pursuit of dark and misery and repression either. This is simply a journey into my past in a quiet, sleepy midlands village. Of course it bears no relation to the Ballivor of the twenty-first century. How could it? Why should it? This memoir is simply stating that there as another Ballivor. This was how we lived sixty-odd years ago. It neither invites nor suggests comparison with the modern Ballivor. These are my memories and the collective memories of some of my contemporaries. I feel it is important to set them down in print so that my children and future generations will know the world from which they evolved.
This book grew out of the radio documentary Goodnight Ballivor, Ill Sleep in Trim. That expression, common to us in our childhood yet shrouded in mystery, was the obvious title to give to a radio memoir. The wonderful reaction to it surprised me, but it shouldnt have. It was the old story of the local being universal. A number of people suggested I should expand the story and transfer it to print. Twelve years later, I have acceded to their requests.
Writing the story was easy and was done with love and pride , and, yes, not a little nostalgia. The psychologist Marie Murray has written that nostalgia is a much-maligned emotion:
It is not mere regressive reminiscence. It is finely-tuned remembrance of the particular historical time in which a person lived out seminal years of life, time worth recording, events worth remembering, an era within an epoch etched into the annals of memory, the personal narrative rather than the archival records in the local museum. Visiting a place in which one was happy, remembering the details of an earlier time, retracing steps, noting differences wrought by time, imagining ones former self and that of others, yet recognising that this time is over, shows the courage to connect the past and the present and to value them both.
That will do for me. This is my personal narrative of time worth recording. I hope my memory has not skewed the narrative in any way. If there are any misapprehensions or misinterpretations, they are entirely my fault. It is over fifty years since my family left Ballivor, yet I have always cherished it. The Greek poet Cavafy wrote:
In those fields and streets where you grew up, there you will always live and there you will die.
Amen. Marie Murray put it another way:
Home draws us. Didnt Odysseus, despite his voyages, his expeditions, the temptations of immortality, the possibility of having a life of luxury, despite peril and portents and the Sirens call, want to go home? And home he went.
This simple and straightforward story is my odyssey home.
Social history is recorded by each of us as individuals, and collectively in our accounts to each other of our lives and the life of our times. In Goodnight Ballivor, Ill Sleep in Trim, John Quinn returns to his personal past and we accompany him on this special odyssey to a former era in Irish social history. It is a visit from which one emerges with remembrance or understanding of an age that has ended, a way of life that has ceased, roles that are defunct, services that are obsolete, practices that no longer exist and social customs, most of which would be incomprehensible to the current generation.
In the mid-twentieth century, societal structures, educational organisations, social behaviour, civil codes, interpersonal interactions, family size and composition, marital relationships, gender roles, sexual mores, child rearing customs, moral perspectives and religious practice were intimately tied to each other. How one lived ones life was, in many ways, predetermined, predictable and reliable. As this book shows, life was filled with characters, places, activities and consciousness of the seasonality of happiness and sadness, loss and gain, life and death and an overriding belief in living the present and aspiring to eternal reward.
If you recognise this world, if it is within your living memory, then you are of a certain age and likely to be overwhelmed by the storehouse of recollections and resonances this book will evoke, for the story is beautifully told, vividly portrayed and meticulously documented. If this world is new to you, if it is not of your time or place, then it is a special opportunity and personal invitation into understanding a way of life that shaped the Irish psyche today. For Goodnight Ballivor, Ill Sleep in Trim preserves and renders permanent a particular part of our cultures past. It does so in the narrative tradition through which personal histories and cultural identities are formed. To give people back a memory, says French philosopher Paul Ricoeur, is also to give them back a future. This book acknowledges that. It recognises that if we do not know from whence we came, how we got there and where we are going, we cannot understand where we are now, what we are travelling towards and why. By setting down in print this perspective on the past, as the author himself says, future generations will know the world from which they evolved.
This brings us to another important psychological function this book serves. It revisits a time about which the dominant discourse to date has, primarily, been one of oppressive poverty, appalling abuse, obsessive adherence to rules and blatant misuse of privilege and power. Constructed as a time of routine, state-sanctioned physical punishment of children in school and at home, of gross gender inequality with paradoxical idealisation of motherhood, suspicion of spinsterhood and misogynistic fear of the mysteries of womanhood, it was also distinguished by the quiet desperation of many men supporting large families or aging bachelors living alone, eking out an existence on isolated farmsteads.
These dimensions of the past cannot be denied, but there was also another softer, kinder, gentler, parallel world in which people lived out their lives then. There was compassion and humanity, concern for neighbours, respect for age, time to talk, midwives who delivered a village of children, teachers who educated them, parents who begat and did their best for them and a community that reared them.
This is an equally valid world that John Quinn recalls and narrates and one that has often been overlooked. It is a place in which a child was happy, where life was full of activity, yet there was time to amble, observe and mentally mooch, where treats were infrequent but appreciated and life was punctuated by school and home, fair day and threshing day, street games and religious rituals and visits to the cinema. John Quinns world is peopled with characters: the sergeant, the grocer, the tailor and the master. It contains the objects of another time: the tilly lamp, canisters of milk, pictures of the Sacred Heart, bellows and washtubs, wet batteries and seven shillings and sixpence for footing a square of turf. There were activities: opening a furrow, going to the privy, listening to the radio, saying the rosary, visiting the Big Smoke, having a turn at the churn and, most importantly, taking it nice and cushy in a world that made time for people to spend time with each other. There were loving relationships: the longing of a little boy to live forever in the back kitchen with his mother and the aching, unspoken love of a son for a father whose presence and absence remain with him forever.
To revere the past and demonise the present, or to venerate the present and vilify the past does a disservice to both epochs. This book does neither. The story is appealing because it is well told within its own paradoxical coherent stream of consciousness and eidetic style. It is a meander into memories. It is personal and public. It is deceptively simple. Yet it tells of a time that did not know how rapidly change would overtake it, how imminent was its demise and how significant its influence on future generations would be.
Clinical Psychologist and author - MARIE MURRAY is Director of Student Services in UCD and an Irish Times columnist.
There is a place where our vanished days secretly gather and the name of that place is memory
John ODonohue (1956, 2008)
I remember, I remember
The house where I was born
Thats it there , second house on the right as you come in from the Mullingar Road. As I write, it is derelict , windows boarded up, holes in the roof, a For Auction sign posted out front saying the site is for sale. Inevitably it will be demolished and the site will be filled with retail outlets and town houses. Imagine! Town houses in our garden now it is derelict , and it depresses me to see it so. But once it was solid, cosy, intimate. Once it was home , my home.
It is an unpretentious two-storey house, and small. Originally it had only two bedrooms until, following the death of Christy Fleming, the one-up, one-down next door was annexed and we had a little more space. We did not own the house. My father rented it from a Mrs Meehan and every so often my father went to her house on the North Circular Road in Dublin to pay the rent. Imagine owning a house in Ballivor and not wanting to live there
Into the hall. To the right the good room reserved for Christmas and special family occasions. The piano is there, where my siblings Kathleen, Mary and Noel literally suffered for their art under the strict tutelage of Miss Dunne who rapped their knuckles with a ruler when they got their scales wrong Maybe because of that, I was never put forward for piano lessons , something I now regret. The wind-up gramophone is there too , Mario Lanza singing The Loveliest Night of the Year echoes in my memory. Do I hear Souza marches also? A lace tablecloth, the good glasses (reserved for Christmas sherry), the beautiful oil-lamp. A fire was lit here on Christmas Day and my father would cry when he reflected on years past and departed family members.
Across the hall and into the kitchen. The hearth and heart of the home. The range is lit all year round, fuelled by turf hard-won from Coolronan bog , providing heat, cooking energy and hot water. In the evenings Kitty Carey will come up from the Post Office with her little canister for milk. She will sit before the range with my mother and Kattie Brown to exchange the news and gossip of the day. An occasional visitor is Hetty Dunwald , a beautiful post-war German refugee who worked in Master Conways house. At the table I wrestle with my homework, under the stronger light of the tilly lamp.
An old boot tells its story Parse and analyse the
following sentence Find the cost of 5 tons, 3 cwts.,
3 quarters of lime
On the wall there are pictures of the Sacred Heart (with a tiny oil-lamp beneath) and Eoin ODuffy, Commissioner of An Garda S?¡och?ína. There is a cupboard beneath the stairs. For weeks my brother Noel believed there was a pink horse in that cupboard following a dream he had. For weeks I was wary of opening the door to it. There are few books in the house, which would not be unusual at the time. I remember a six-volume encyclopaedia , Cassells New Popular Educator , which my father had bought for his own self-improvement.
Through the doorway and into the back kitchen, the work centre of the house where my mother will prepare food, will wash and scrub clothes, dishes, pots and pans , and children too. As a young boy I wanted to live forever with my mother in the back kitchen. Off the back kitchen is a storeroom. There is a mound of potatoes in the corner. Here I would secrete the four and ninepenny truck which I bought in Leddys shop with stolen money
Acquiring the annex provided us with a sitting room and the luxury of a sofa, armchairs and an open fire. Overhead an extra bedroom, which enabled my mother to keep lodgers when Bord na Móna and the Electricity Supply Board came to town. Back to the front hall, up the squeaking bare stairs. On the left is my parents room where I was conceived and born (I have a fragment of memory of lying in my cot beside their bed). To the right the childrens room , L-shaped, with two beds, where we laughed and cried, slept and dreamed, fought and played. The girls would eventually move away to boarding school in Mountrath, Co. Laois, but I recall an occasion when we were all abed with mumps and to pass the time we composed a song about Gibneys (pub) , Clonard and Killyon. Why we should choose to sing about a pub is a mystery but we had such fun in doing so.
Out the back is the yard , at first a tiny enclosed space , and beyond an open yard from where turkeys and hens wandered free into the long garden beyond. There is a turf shed backing up to the house, packed to the roof with winter fuel. Once I was the hero of the day, when I discovered a smouldering fire caused by a lighted cigarette butt dropped by a careless adult. Disaster averted. Down the yard there is a ramshackle wooden garage, and beyond, the pigsty where we kept a pig or two. And theres the privy , a little wooden cabin to which we traipsed in all weathers and in which we read the Meath Chronicle and the Irish Press, cut up into convenient squares by my father. The yard was also our playground where Noel and I contested hurling and football matches with such ferocity disputes, sulks, walk-offs and disaster when yet another ball was skied over the wall into Mrs Reynolds yard. Goodnight Ballivor Mrs Reynolds never returned a ball.
It was small , barely adequate for our needs , unpretentious and modestly comfortable, but it was home. Secure, nurturing and warm. Our home. My home for the first fourteen years of my life.
THE GIRL FROM TIPPERARY
Bridget Ryan grew up near Killenaule in Co. Tipperary in a strong Catholic faith and was a daily Mass-goer all her life. It was therefore probably more than a quirk of fate that on her way into Mass on a morning in the early 1930s, she dipped her hand in the holy water font just as the tall, young garda sergeant dipped his. Hands touched, lives touched and a year or two later they married in Westland Row Church in Dublin, had their wedding breakfast in the Standard Hotel in Harcourt Street and probably a brief honeymoon in the city before beginning married life in the village of Pallaskenry in Co. Limerick, where the young sergeant was stationed. He was my father, Hugh Quinn, and Bridget Ryan was my mother, the girl from Tipperary, who was always proud of her Killenaule roots.
Ive lived in the valleys of fair Cashmere
Under Himalays snowy ridge;
Then the other impatiently said See here,
Were you ever at Laffans Bridge?
And I wouldnt care much for Sierra Leone
If I hadnt seen Killenaule
And the man that was never in Mullinahone
Shouldnt say he had travelled at all
- The Two Travellers , C.J. Boland
Bridget Ryan was one of eight children born to Patrick Ryan and Mary Roche of Derricknew, Killenaule, Co. Tipperary. Patrick and Mary were in fact second cousins who met at a funeral. Patrick, my grandfather, worked on laying the Clonmel, Thurles railway line which ran by his house. Fifty years later his son Jack worked on removing the same track. I never knew my Tipperary grandparents and only came to know my uncles Mikey, Andy, Tom, Paddy and Jack and my aunt Ellie in their later years. Another aunt, May, died of tuberculosis in her thirties. It was only after my mothers death in 1984 that I first visited the house she was born and reared in. I had to go across the fields, through seven gateways and along the railway line to reach it.
On her deathbed, rambling through her childhood, my mother declared that the Ryans werent rich, but we were honest and respectable I am told that Granny Ryan would dress in her finery and travel in a pony and trap to Killenaule of a Saturday and proceed to Kennedys snug for her glass of sherry. Rambling further, my mother confided in me that during the War of Independence Mikey Ryan told Jim Mockler that it was alright to steal a lamb to feed the lads in the hills
Bridget, or Bridie, Ryan would only have had a primary education and would have worked at home before taking the train from Laffans Bridge in search of employment as a shop assistant. A tall, fair-haired beauty, she loved to go dancing. Whenever the song Charmaine came on the radio, it would trigger memories of the days she danced into the small hours of the morning. She loved life and she loved people. Her brother Mikey told me once how Bridie would go to Sunday Mass and invite a crowd back to their house for a dance that night.
Wed know nothing about it until they all turned up that night. Fellows would come from as far away as Horse and Jockey with fiddles under their arms and wed have a great night. One time when she was away working, she brought home a lovely gramophone with a pile of records , lovely c?®il?¡ music and John McCormack songs. The best of stuff. Twas a wonder In the summertime wed have dances too, down in the Ball Alley. In the wintertime wed go down to Biddy Dwyers house in the bog. Three or four of us would collect sixpence or a shilling from those present and wed buy a quarter cask of stout for ten shillings, put it on the bog barrow and roll it down to Biddys. The women would make tea and wed have white bread and jam to eat and lots of dancing. That would do us for the week. Wed spend the rest of the week talking about it
When working in Athy, Bridie joined the local drama group and recalled playing opposite the well-known actor Denis ODea. She would not have wanted for suitors but that fateful dip of the hand in the holy water font put an end to all that. In 1935 the young couple arrived in Ballivor, Co. Meath in their little Morris Cowley together with their firstborn, Kathleen. Over the next six years three more children would arrive , Mary, Noel and myself. My mother was a very positive person. She loved being with people and this , allied to her strong religious faith , gave her contentment and serenity. Whether it was an evening chatting by the fireside, a Sunday afternoon trip to Kellys in the bog, or a visit to McGonagles in
Trim or Finucanes in Dublin, she was happy being with friends. She did not ask much more from life.
Rearing a young family occupied most of her time but she also found the time and energy to raise turkeys, hens and pigs , out of necessity to supplement the family income. We were not the only children who were fed and clothed by pigs and turkeys. Later, when Bord na Móna and the ESB came to the village, she would take in lodgers. My mothers cooking was legendary. She made her own bread, baked mouth-watering tarts and churned her own butter. Often when we came home from school we would be invited to take a turn at the churn. It seemed to take forever turning the handle of the churn to spin it around until at last the little globules of butter appeared on top of the cream. Eventually my mother would shape them artistically with wooden butter pats until they sat glistening invitingly on the butter dish, waiting to be spread on the oven fresh brown bread.
Life was tough for women in the post-war pre-electricity days. There were no modern conveniences such as a refrigerator, a cooker or a washing machine. There was the all purpose range to provide cooking, hot water and heat. Then there were the washtub, the washboard for scrubbing and the wringer. The same washtub would be used to scrub the children of a Saturday night. As a small boy I, of course, idolised my mother! She was a happy person who would occasionally burst into song (I vaguely remember her playing the melodeon too) and to be with her was to be in a happy place. As my sister Mary picturesquely puts it , she had a great big heart and she would readily take it out and slice it for you. Her love and care for her children were paramount and , like most mothers of her generation , she would put herself last and make whatever sacrifice was necessary for the wellbeing of her family. Her love also extended beyond the front door. She would send steak and kidney down to a neighbouring mother who was rearing a large family, to ensure that they got a nourishing stew regularly.
A day out would be a rarity for my mother. The Christmas outing to Dublin, a day at the seaside in Bettystown, a Sunday with her in-laws in Monaghan , these would be the highlights of her year. Or maybe a trip to Croke Park. I remember her accompanying my father and myself to my first All-Ireland Final , in 1953 when Kerry faced Armagh. Croke Park was packed (no tickets then , you just turned up at the turnstile!) , and huddled under the old Cusack Stand I panicked and began to cry, not for myself but for fear of my mother being hurt. She saw it differently and appealed to the steward to let us out on the
sideline. Thankfully he did and scores of patrons were released. I was then able to watch the match in comfort from behind the goal and had a perfect view of Bill McCorrys missed penalty, which cost Armagh the match.
Once a year, or maybe less frequently, my mother would take off for a trip to her beloved Tipperary. All dressed up in her petrol-blue suit, her flowery hat and her fox fur, she would catch the train at the Hill of Down and by a circuitous route make her way to Laffans Bridge in Tipperary, leaving my father in charge of us children. She would return a week later, full of stories from home and refreshed for the year ahead.
Above all else it was her faith and the consistent practice of it that energised my mother. All would be well and the Lord would provide. Thanks be to God we lived so long and did so little harm, she would say. She died in 1984 and at her funeral her dear friend Mrs Finucane (mother of Marian) said to me , Do you know that your mother said fifteen decades of the rosary every day for you, her children? I felt so grateful and inadequate, but not altogether surprised.