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Over my shoulder: a memoir

30 November, 1999

Norma MacMaster, now a priest of the Church of Ireland, living in Skerries, describes her growing up as a Presbyterian in Balieborough, Co Cavan, in the 1940s and 50s. At harmony with neighbours, yet holding on to their own way of seeing things, she knew the necessity of going to dances and socials where she would meet Protestant boys so strong were the consequences of the Catholic Ne Temere decree. It is a moving book of unashamed nostalgia for a time now almost forgotten.

160 pp. The Columba Press. To purchase this book on line, go to www.columba.ie.


1. Prelude
2. Pre-School Memories
3. Pater Familias
4. Our Medical Hall
5. Learning Irish and Other Things
6. She
7. Growing Up Presbyterian
8. Learning to be Religious
9. Hard Cash
10. Teenagers
11. Family Wedding
12. The Summer Holidays
13. Orange?
14. The Back Yard
15. Julia
16. Christmas
17. Boarding School
18. Cattie
19. Celebrating the ‘Glorious Twelfth’ in Cavan
20. Home
21. Gallivanting
22. Continuing Education
23. Still More Education
24. Emigrating
25. Lost and Found
26. P.S.
27. The Peak



I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts;
A sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns, And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man.
                                       William Wordsworth





Cavan was my world when I was a child in the ‘forties and yet not Cavan either in its frying-pan shape on the yellowing school map, but a small market-town in East Cavan where, through my child’s eyes, there were just ‘children’ and ‘people’, the latter being a rough-tongued and rough-to-the-touch species in hairy tweed coats. That I loved the place is too much to say for I was not conscious of so much emotion, my feelings tending to run in tangible ways, little jets and upsurges of joy at the smallest of things. There was peace, of course, in my soul, for how else could all those far-off sights and sounds and smells and tastes have found their way into the depths of me, to knit up my being so that forever it is to be counted the heart of a Cavan child born and bred into Presbyterianism, into a large and thrifty, quietly prosperous family. There was room to grow in those days; room for roots to sink down and to send up, eventually, beautiful blooms and worthy fruits with which to nourish and sustain future generations of Cavan children, and children of other counties too.

That small town, Bailieborough, was birthplace of the grandfather of Henry and William James, of Francis Sheehy Skeffington (born in the same house, perhaps in the same room – as I and my brothers and sisters), and it fashioned seanchaíthe who wove their stories out of drumlin and whin, out of ragweed and thistle and the hardy people who lived off those unruly places.

There were ‘seasons’ then too – not as now where the year is snipped up like patchwork with snow in Summer and ice in Spring, a few days of monsoon rains followed by a few days of bitter east wind blowing over October. When I was a child, the seasons were definite, pronounced in their contours. Spring was the time of the hedgerow gradually greening with a thin film at first; the time of gazing from school windows at the tall scotch pines and knowing with sureness that we’d see the crows busily building; and all the sheughs glossy with frogspawn to be taken home in a jar with the hope that, one day, we’d see a frog emerge before our very eyes! Always, Summer brought the sultry heat that quietened the town, the heat being caught among the hills, caught as it were to dry up the sap: then men poked at the hay with their rakes and later brought it ‘home’ in dusty cartloads to be tramped down in lofts to make room for still more; heat made the corner-boys lazy, made them reach for their cigarettes and, with rolled-up sleeves, they lolled and smoked as, leaning against the greasy walls, they talked and talked and talked. Summer days, long and dusty, and the ditches high with cow-parsley; all sense of time lost in the half-asleep haze and then in the dewy dawns, summer dresses, courting couples, a donkey’s bray. After that the Autumn, lovely and crisp and sharp with the first touch of frost; the leaves yellowing around the lakes and the harvest to be gathered home fast before the Winter gripped; a sense of urgency now in the out-lying countryside: the threshing and stooking of sheaves, the decorating of churches for Harvest Festivals followed by welcome Harvest Suppers; this urgency felt too in the town itself for ‘town’ and ‘country’ were not two entities then but one. Most of the ‘small’ shopkeepers owned a field or two and hence were united by this slender thread with the bigger farming community, so that the seasons, in fact, intruded into the lives of banker and doctor, of chemist and priest, of ‘children’ and ‘people’, making them all a grand theophany: for we believed in God and in the gods in those days, singing our wordless praises in workaday harmony.

Winter united us yet further: fields and hills, invariably snow-covered by January; streets and roads a-glitter with ice; rain held off and frost gripped so hard that icicles hung everywhere day and night. Pipes burst when it thawed and houses were flooded; water collected in a basin in the bathroom for a wash, froze overnight and a deep coldness filled us all; biting toes and chilblains were made only worse by holding steaming, wet feet over the smouldering turf fires. Vests in scratchy wool were worn next to the skin; fur boots and gloves by the wealthy. Knitted balaclavas and mittens were owned by almost all and the boys who had to tramp to school wearing only wooden clog were pitied, hatless too, their heads shaved with horse-clippers to save on the barber.

Schools were bitter places: one mud-turf smouldering in the fireplace behind a big, high, black railing and the master warming his backside; sitting on our feet to keep them warm if we could, we rubbed our chilblains till they bled and huddled into our overcoats as we tried to work out sums with freezing fingers. At night, the streets shone with ice and to slide down the centre of the Main Street, feet apart, arms extravagantly splayed, was a glory indeed.

Seasons! The changes that signalled man’s awareness of Time! They would roll upon us forever like waves, each coming at its appointed hour, each carrying its own splendid galaxy of sensations: seasons now gone although we still call them by their names. And, of course, when I remember childhood in that little town, it is these that are the chief instrument of my remembering for every single one of my senses carries with it tokens, real, tangible, lasting, of seasons.

When I write about that place and about my own place in it, I cannot merely record events as though transcribing them from a diary; I must set down ‘atmosphere’ and what is ‘atmosphere’ but that which is found in the accents and voices, the gleam of an eye, the shrug of a shoulder, the curl of a lip all so woven together as to form almost a vapour; for I saw and knew all kinds of people; mixed with them all; knew their voices and their gnarled hands and dirty square nails and quick kindnesses as they’d shove a penny into our own equally dirty hands and urge us to ‘buy shawklet’ (chocolate).

Nature, its trees, fields and mean little hills, I adored; silently and praisefully, I worshipped them without knowing that I worshipped. Is it, I wonder, commonly understood that a child can be so filled with joy, with an almost pantheistic adoration? Did anyone ever know that at times, when I was an insignificant little girl in faded skirts and darned socks, I lay sometimes on the tops of mossy banks and buried my face in the rough, bristly surfaces, desperately trying to absorb the beauty and goodness that lay around me? Certainly I never told anyone; maybe this was something everyone else did too and didn’t talk about it but just in case it wasn’t, I want to put it down as a historical fact that once in 1940 approximately, there lived at least one child, in that very small and most unprepossessing of counties, who silently sang and invisibly danced for sheer gladness, receiving the land as a benison, and all the fields and lakes and acres of ragweed and the little craggy whitethorns where fairies never really dwelt at all, no matter what they told us.

Oh, my little Cavan town and all little market-towns in Ireland, can you still hold fast in spite of a matted, shrunken world that lets its mucky water seep in beneath your door?

But perhaps I get carried away! For there must have been pockets of grief as well but these I truly have to dig for, only to find that they generally concerned things like being left out of a game or being teased about having to wear pin-striped pinafores cunningly manufactured by my mother out of my father’s or brothers’ worn-out trousers. But these were small sorrows indeed. I never knew ‘death’ as a child although I worried about it sometimes; nor did I know anything about adult quarrels which must, of course, have sometimes occurred, but we were protected from secrets when it was felt that these would burden us and I recall how, when the conversation at the table got interesting enough for us to listen to, my mother would make the formal announcement, ‘Little pitchers have ears!’ and my younger sister and I would be despatched from the room.

My mother had been a National School teacher but had to give up that profession when she married. With her customary matter-of-factness, she settled down to bear her own children: a girl, a boy, a girl, a boy after whom, perchance (or so it seemed), she decided to become a pharmacist – just like that! Or perhaps it was that more practical, fiscal reasons connected with the education of these same children drove her again to her scholar’s desk! For my parents possessed a pharmacy but no pharmacist and, although a druggist himself, my father had no authority to dispense doctors’ prescriptions, so with tremendous determination, courage and resourcefulness, my mother took it upon herself to fill the breach.

I can only guess at how difficult this step must have been for both my parents. Geographically it was headache enough since the nearest railway-station (the most convenient mode of travel to Dublin) was seven miles away in Kingscourt. Moreover, from an educational point of view, the project must have seemed daunting indeed: my mother, with only a primary school education followed by teacher-training in the Church of Ireland college in Kildare Place, would have known no more science than needed to teach Nature Study to little ones; and as for Latin, a major language of pharmacy in those times, she’d have had to learn it from scratch. Then, on the other hand, my father had to stay at home alone except for Saturday nights and part of Sunday when he’d be briefly rejoined by his student-wife; and single-handedly he had to oversee the running of the pharmacy, the minding of the children and family affairs in general. To help him, they employed a housemaid to run the house and a nursemaid who virtually reared those first four children who, during this time of her studies, saw my mother just one day a week. Then after four years, her goal successfully accomplished, my mother returned from Dublin for good to don her new white coat and to stand behind the counter proud of her ‘M.P.S.I.’ as well she should. They were a brave and noble pair, my parents.

After her return, they had two more children, myself and my younger sister Lucy, separated by two years. Now the family was complete and intact and, with five years between me and my next brother, Lucy and I were referred to as ‘the babies’ until we were almost twenty years old, a quaint appellation indeed!

We grew up then in that small country town and were reared with a mixture of stern Presbyterian discipline interlaced, almost calculatedly, with good humour and even impishness which somehow combined to give us a sense of both freedom and deep contentment, for contented we were. We had the run of the town with its car-free streets; we had the run of the countryside too as my father owned some small patches of land; we also had the run of our miniature farmyard behind the house and shop where lodged betimes a sow, a donkey, calves, hens, dogs, cats, ducks and sometimes turkeys and geese, with the cows moving daintily in from pasture, morning and evening, through the Main Street, to be milked and then returned to grass.

There wasn’t much money in evidence for when it came to actual notes and coins, my parents were the soul of thrift itself. But it seemed as if no one had any money in those days and to make some, people had to leave the country or take the most menial of work at home. That was one reason why we, like all the other houses in the town, always managed to have a ‘maid’ i.e. a young girl who’d stayed at National School as long as she could and who was then ‘put out to service’ to earn some money for her own hard-pressed family. Since such a girl would be too young to leave for England, her first safe step to independence was to become a ‘maid’, and this was even seen by some as quite a lofty calling depending in turn on the social status of ‘the mistress’. Maids, in fact, worked every hour that God sent and free education for all was many years away.

Having a maid left my mother free to practise her hard-won second profession and then, as perhaps they’d dreamt of, they acquired another pharmacy in Shercock, not, I believe, out of greed but out of an anxiety around the educating of all six of us to the highest level possible for, to them, education was one of the most valuable gifts they could give their children and it was my mother, I think, who was the more far-sighted of the two in this case.
It was my father, however, who used to cycle daily to the second shop seven miles away and it must have been a tough cycle in that hilly country. In winter, I remember him at around 8 am, warming his hand-knitted balaclava and gloves in front of a new little fire of sticks while the maid fried his rasher, and the icicles hung from the gutters. He often sang silly-sounding little songs that I think he invented both for our amusement as well as to keep his own spirits up. In summer, under his cloth, peaked cap, he wore a huge square of muslin which, billowing out over his face and shoulders, acted like a mosquito-net to protect him from the flies that swarmed around the lakes. We’d wave him off around 8.30 and he’d be home again in about twelve hours for his ‘tea’ and always with what he called a ‘long bag’ (sweets) for Lucy and me in his pocket. His dinner would have been sent to him in an enamel bowl in a cardboard box on the Great Southern bus and I’m sure the conductor must often have turned up his nose at the same battered old carton tied with string and smelling invariably of stew!

With my father away in the other shop, my mother oversaw ‘the estate’ at home, and while she could be found baking in the kitchen or at the churn in the yard, she was most usually in her white coat behind the shop-counter. As my father grew older, she herself took turns at going to the other pharmacy (indeed they must have employed another pharmacist as well) though she never cycled: she took the bus instead until the late ‘fifties when we became the proud owners of a car; now she was driven in style by one of my brothers. With her usual aplomb, she did try to learn to drive but never quite succeeded to the point of being able to drive on her own and she certainly got no encouragement from either my father or her disdainful offspring! In truth, we were not a little embarrassed by her efforts: it just wasn’t the done thing for a woman well over fifty to be attempting to drive cars when she should be at home doing her knitting instead of reversing machinery into the grocer’s neat display of buckets on the path outside his door and causing the most horrendous clatter.

Today, writing these words, I feel almost guilty that I have no ghost to lay, no sordid secrets to disclose although perhaps there is a shadow of regret that I didn’t always reflect again to others the love they shone on me.

Socially, we were just a very ordinary family, not posh, hardworking, thrifty almost to the point of self-denial; and happy in our mixed rural community where the population was mostly Roman Catholic after whom, in terms of numbers, came the Presbyterians followed by the Church of Ireland people and a handful of Methodists, and I don’t recall there ever being any animosity based on religion.


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