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Niamh

One of my first real loves, A poor Irish girl ...

 

Do you see the street… the place over there with the two brown doors? That’s where my mother lives still… she’s a good old walker… she goes up to the church for Mass two or three times a week… walks and does her shopping… go up the steps and over the water bridge… we walked the river from the top down to the end… they said there was a boat went to Tralee, but I never saw it… I won’t tell you no lie, I never went on the boat… but I went on the river… no shoes… no socks… barefooted… the shop… I’ll go in and buy a loaf of bread… I’ll say, “This is my friend from London.” You don’t mind me meeting you? Ask for Murphy, my mother’s people… in the Free State… oh, is Aidan here? You can come and stay in our house… I’m so worried that I don’t know where I live… I can’t find my own way home… get my Aidan… I live on the right-hand side where the footpath is… the place we were living in… I was in the Caul down from Maiden Street… you walk right up to where you sit… everyone would say hello… did they say it to you, “Hello, how are you?” Little Niamh they called me… Little Niamh and my mother was Big Niamh… I used to go, “Oh please, not Little Niamh!” Aidan was my brother… am I going too fast? My son… my brother was a boxer… not such a big Papal thing… there was a fella boxing… two perfect boxers… do you know Aidan was the best man on the street? My Aidan done the horses on the forge with all his aprons… are you looking for my brother? Is that my brother outside? Will you take me to him? He has the rail ticket in his hand so I can get home… that boy was teaching boxing in a room, and he took Aidan into the ring with the special shoes... they got him down nicely off the horse… is that my Aidan? I was in all the plays up there… in the library, I did all the stupid plays… I was good because I only said yes or no… they had blue shirts… red shirts… and the blue shirts were very good… and I had a white shirt… three plays they made… that’s in all the years I was there… one of them religious with the baby Jesus… I was the one coming picking up the baby… one of the kings… I had a thing on my head… my son… I’ll ask him if we can have it… the picture… it’s a good laugh… you were out of the way back then, I didn’t seem to see you so much… my mother didn’t like the plays… you should have seen the dresses they made us wear, the clothes didn’t come beyond my knee… my mother said it had to come down to my ankle… my clothes might be three sizes too big or four sizes too small… look at this now… she couldn’t do it… oh you’d be ashamed to go out in it… she had no fingers… I’ll show you where I lived… we had three rooms, darling… and a big kitchen… this man owned it… we paid it … you brushed the floor… brushed the mud… off the top of it… are you enjoying my story? We used to fool them… this door is for the women… we wouldn’t come out this way out of the church… our mothers would see us… so we used to go out the door for the men… I’ll show you all the places when we go back… one entrance for the men and one for the women… we weren’t even let out after six o’clock… not until we were 13 going on 14… if we were seen up in Knockane or Bothar Bui… that’s where the boys would be out playing and doing… the fun would be at the corner… I was never allowed to talk to any of the boys… at the corner where Roachs lived… that’s where we’d go to talk to the boys…  oh, they all had nicknames, should I tell you? Fat Belly, that was a man that done a bit of business in his shop… Gay Halfpenny, the man who sold the halfpenny fags… truly the shop got the halfpenny… Aidan would tap me on the head and say, “Home, Little Niamh!” I did everything I had to… I never did a thing wrong… the house wasn’t good enough… but spotless… all the time cleaning… washing the footpath… we used to go in the church with our mothers… Rosary beads all in a line… you could look over to the corner where you would meet all the fellows that had no jobs, there was hardly no work… you could see it, if you dare, I’ll take you round… there’s the forge at the other side… you’ll have to come one day… you wouldn’t like to live there though… we walked to the place beyond it for a dance… I liked a dance… the waltz… I won a cup… it wasn’t so nice… it wasn’t silver or anything like that… mock silver… there was six… three women and three men… and when we were dancing, they couldn’t get us off the floor… I learned myself… in my own house… I was able to do the old Irish bit…. from a record… I had a sister was a bit slow, she couldn’t lift her leg and she was seven years older than me… my mother would really still call her ‘the child’ but she was seven years older than me… a child still… we’d have a dance back there in what they called the ‘office’… the whatever… the Town Hall… I was never sitting down… I was as good as what was there… plenty of dancing… I’ll bring my daughter up to see you at Christmas, she does all the Irish dancing… the best boys used to come in for the dance… come in from the country… they were all coming from everywhere… they all dance with me… my sister… she was six years older… I tried and begged her… when I’d be going home, my mother would be asking me all the questions… do you want some of my childhood? I go to bed sometimes and think on it… it was a long, long time ago… sometimes I sit indoors, and I might be reading a stupid old book, and I think of where we were going to Mass… I could write a book… there was the pictures… you could go up to the pictures Friday, and the following day, for fourpence, and after that it was sevenpence… often we were short of the half penny… they wouldn’t let you in if you were half a penny short… I’ll tell you no lie… we had to go to Mass… sometimes my mother went to Mass every morning… did you see her today? Did you see the forge where they done the horses? The horseshoes… my son… my brother… he used to mend the shoes… oh, and when they put it onto their feet… the smell and the smoke… ‘sssss’… I used to say to Aidan… that’s my brother… oh God! Red hot… oh you missed it all… am I talking too much? There was a forge… the church was there… when the men with the horses used to come to town, t’would be packed… so you couldn’t walk across the bridge, “Excuse me madam, excuse me madam!” Honest to God! “Excuse me,” to every man in the town… my son was one of the forgemen… ‘sssss’… I used to hate that… and riding… I rode the horses until I was sick… these were farmers’ horses they’d brought in to be shoed… when I go back, I’ll keep in touch with you… you can tell me the day and night you want to come, and I’ll look after you… and don’t bring money for food, my mother will have it for you… she makes her own bread… and I make mine… shall I make you a loaf of bread? My mother makes all the bread… two cakes on a Friday… I’d go to the creamery for my mother… the day before… for a gallon… a pennyworth… sour milk… a round cake… white and brown mixed… leave the milk over one night untouched… what you call, turned a bit… you put it up in the kitchen in the hottest place… that’s the only thing that’ll make the bread for you… and soda… and most of the people sprinkle a bit of salt… my grandmother taught me… Mary… that’s her name… do you know where the church is? Behind the church, there’s a walk from the Town Hall… they call it the Hill… they call it Knockcane… at the top there’s the school and you can go into the church but they wouldn’t let us go… you had to go on the footpath… over the iron bridge… can you see the river below? Granny lived further on… into the church on the knees… Aidan O’Connell… owned the forge… then you go round and round and you’d be in the gardens… and I had the other son that was small…  Michael… he was a cook… over in [spits on the floor] the church… that boy… he was always cutting heads off fish… and bringing them home… my mother would cook it and I’d eat them… very poor we were… the five of us… a house all cement inside… we had a table and a dresser and a cupboard to pull a bed out for the boys. Michael O’Connell… he owned it all… the forge… the brook… where my son used to work… putting the shoes on the donkey… horrible… my son would be doing the shoes… ‘sssss’… oh God, is that them coming now? I must put my jacket on… it’s a long time being back… is it a time back? I forget it all now… my mother gave me a hammering once or twice… everywhere I went, my brothers would be there with me… Aidan or Michael… Aidan did the boxing… anyone would raise it, and Aidan would go and box… I saw it… he was a very good-looking bloke… black curly hair… he’s married now, I think… they could all work and I couldn’t… I got pushing babies out over Nash’s Bridge… there was a cottage across the road… I used to get five pound, and four pound, and three pound according to how long I had them in the prams… I think they’ll be coming for me now… I married a Cork man… he was good for nothing… couldn’t even comb his hair right… couldn’t dance… we used to pay sixpence and eightpence to the library on a Saturday night… oh, I loved dancing… I’d dance with myself with the brush... I’ll go anywhere dancing... not one of my brothers and sisters can so much as move a leg… I can do the hornpipe but not so much… the right leg, where I fell… I fell again on it… my mother said don’t do it… my mother never smoked… she took snuff… very posh… beautiful little home she had for it… a little place… all you do is press a button, the door flips open and you take the snuff… if I find it, I’ll get it for you… not for me… I’ll give you one piece out of it… a small piece… a snuff box with a little window… I can’t think… very light stuff inside… it’s brought me back to a very, very bad time… Aidan… my son, Aidan! Oh, but I had a son seven-foot-something… my brother… God rest his soul… one of the tallest men… not in the world… the tallest, strongest man in Newcastle West… he was a smith putting horseshoes on… when Duffy’s Circus used to come into town, he used to bring a load of horses… thank you very much for helping me remember… if you ever get talking to one of those men that’s a bit older than me… then you will always say to him, “Do you remember Aidan Coffee, the Blacksmith?” I can remember my shoes… the shoes on the street as I was walking… it’s no good… Aidan was seven-foot-something… my mother did her best with the needle and thread taking down the hem… he was a giant… a blacksmith, and a painter, and he painted all the caravans for Duffy’s Circus… am I talking? Shall we go together when I go back? Duffy’s Circus used to come… oh God! It was like going to America… they’d all come down for the horses… training and jumping… Saturday was a half-day for the children… they could go cheap… a halfpenny… they could go in and see the horses jumping… and my mother used to do all the cleaning… they’d have shirts, and they’d bring their washing up to my mother… and Lizzie O’Donnell… and they’d wash their washing for a halfpenny. Duffy’s used to come into that field… clout up there for the night… oh God! He died… my father died… got a cold or something… then she died, and I was bringing the five up on my own… some of the memories… oh, a lot of them I can… some of them I can’t… I can’t remember my grandmother… my mother’s mother, she died when I was only a child… God rest their soul… I remember a donkey… do you know what a donkey is, darling? I remember a donkey with the bags of washing from Duffy’s Circus.