Angela MacNamara made her name writing as an agony aunt in The Sunday Press during the 1950s and 1960s. She also responded personally to about fifty letters a week as well as those that were published. She was then recruited to talk in schools with teenagers struggling to become adults. Here she writes a warm-hearted memoir that describes Irish social change through the decades
140 pp. Veritas Publications. To purchase this book online, go to www.veritas.ie
- My kind of childhood
- A light goes on and off
- No words for it
- James announces war
- Collapse and insecurity
- Whirlwind years
- Follow your bliss
- Creation and buzz
- The time of the singing birds
- Women and boys
- If the shoe fits …
- ‘Please, Bishop, help!’
- Highs and lows
- A day of reflection
- The queen bee
- A curtain is drawn
- Survive and move on
MY KIND OF CHILDHOOD
My kind of early childhood will never be seen again. So let me share with you something of its antique flavour.
I arrived into the world at a most inopportune time. It was 16 October 1931. My parents, George Little and Alice Mulhern-Little, were moving house on that day. Their move was later than planned and my birth was earlier.
Our house was a large, double-fronted Victorian house on Rathgar Road in Dublin. Wide granite steps led to the hall door. A slope for the pram and some steps led to the side entrance. The No. 15 trams rattled up and down the road travelling from the terminus in Terenure to Nelson’s Pillar in the city centre. Beyond Terenure the countryside began. Indeed, in later years we went for picnics by the fields, streams and woods of Tallaght.
But on that October day in 1931, while the removal men were heaving the furniture into our new house my mother was labouring in the nursing home. My father raced between both. Friends helped. I arrived safely and soundly, as did the furniture. But there were many things stacked away in drawers and presses which my mother took a long time to discover. In later years I remember her saying `I still don’t know what’s buried in those top presses in the pantry, maybe the yellow jug or the jelly mould are there?’ We children occasionally climbed up on chairs in the cool, flagged pantry and poked in the back of the presses. A sturdy fridge was bought so that the milk would be kept fresh for me and my sister Mary, who was two and a half years older. Mother got `Grade A milk, which was rich and creamy. Indeed, ‘top of the bottle’ was used as cream to pour on porridge and desserts. For many years I thought the milk had the unattractive name of ‘Grey Day’. Yet those were bright, carefree days remembered for innocent events like a large glass of cold, creamy milk enjoyed under the trees on a warm summer’s day, or hot chocolate by the nursery fire in winter.
For an imaginative little girl as I was there were fears as well as high delights.The story was told at home that Mary and I went with our parents to the play of Peter Pan. I must have been about four as I sat or knelt on Daddy’s knee for a good part of the play. It seems that I looked over his shoulder towards the back of the auditorium for quite some time during the performance. Daddy whispered ‘Look this way, see the pirates coming to find Peter Pan.’ But I continued to look in the opposite direction. When Daddy asked me why I was looking in that direction, I whispered, `Because they might come up from behind us.’
The Eucharistic Congress, led by a Papal Cardinal Legate brought great celebration, ceremony and devotion to Dublin when I was one year old. The country was en fête. I have seen the photographs of our house bedecked with flags. It was a huge event, since the vast majority of Irish people were ardent Catholics in those years. Flags fluttered and bunting danced in all the little roads and streets of the city.
Daddy had his thriving medical practice at home. He was also a keen historian and writer. So we had to be quiet and unobtrusive. But we had a large, bright nursery where we played on bad weather days. A coal fire burned there in winter with a sturdy, black iron fire-guard. Daddy had a bath installed in the corner of the nursery. It had a hinged lid, which closed down providing us with a play-counter when bath-time was over and we had been dried before the fire.
We never played in front of the house, but we had a grand back garden. The house had been a private school before my parents bought it, so there was a hedge-surrounded tennis court. This doubled as a croquet lawn at times. At the far end there was a pavilion, which had been erected for the schoolchildren’s indoor recreation and gym. It was a lovely garden playroom for us, even having a fireplace for chilly days. Table tennis was installed there as we grew older. Outside the pavilion Daddy got a play area made with a swing, seesaw and trapeze. That area was surrounded by fruit trees, which I remember being magical in early summer with their pink and white blossom. High granite walls with creepers, occasional shrubs and flowers surrounded the garden. We never saw our adult neighbours from garden level.
There was also an adults’ area in the garden. It had a teahouse facing a lawn of rosebeds. This little area was known as ‘Daddy’s Grass’. There was no messing around there as he prized his lovely roses. Summer lunch and tea were often in the teahouse, which I remember as smelling of warm wood and wicker chairs. It had in it a bell connected with the kitchen so that the maid could be called if anything was needed for the meal.
Those were the post-Victorian years when domestic help was still easily available. Our home was something of a hang-over from the upstairs / downstairs homes of the previous generation. Indeed, later as a schoolgirl, I thought that our household was old-fashioned and it made me uneasy about bringing friends in. Our drawing-room seemed to me to be like a museum because it had so many objets d’art collected by Daddy over the years. It was a fine room stretching from the front to the back of the house. At the garden end there were French doors leading to a wrought-iron platform and steps to the garden. No one played running or jumping games in the drawing-room; it was for gracious living.
Our paternal grandfather, Papa, lived with us from the early years when his wife died. Daddy ruled the roost with kind but no-nonsense strictness and discipline. My quiet and gentle mother bowed to his authority. She had her role as mistress of the house and mother, but was without power in the wider decision-making. She oversaw the kitchen staff, which consisted in my childhood of a nanny, a cook, a houseman and – on Mondays – Elsie who came in to do the huge wash. We chatted with Elsie as she carried large baskets of newly-washed clothes to hang out in the yard at the bottom of the garden. She was a smiling woman in a navy flowered crossover overall, pink cheeks and red hands from constant contact with the wash-board and hot, soapy water. The gardener was overseen by ‘the doctor’. We liked all the staff and they seemed to like us. The maids were happy. Gusts of laughter could be heard from the kitchen at times. We were fond of them and sorry when they left after many years of service. Daddy also had a secretary, a lovely young woman whom I greatly admired as she took enthusiastic interest in little school events that I shared with her from time to time later on. Over a few years, domestic help became harder to get and, rightly, more expensive.
Mary and I didn’t go to primary school. We had a governess, Miss O’Riordan, who came to teach us at home. In summer we had classes with her in the pavilion. The table was beside one of the rose-surrounded windows overlooking the ‘children’s garden.’ It was quiet and warm, flies and an occasional bee buzzed in the raftered ceiling and birds twittered in the trees and shrubs outside. Miss O’Riordan was a kind, gentle, arthritic lady. Sometimes we hid from her as she came out to the garden to collect us for classes. We climbed trees and looked down at her as she called ‘Máire! Aingeal!’ She taught us through Irish. I was about three when I started classes, but Mary had been taught for a year before I started.
Sometimes I escaped from lessons at about 11 a.m. when I knew that Papa would be home from Mass and at his breakfast. I knew that he would give me fingers of toast and marmalade. He called me ‘Skinny-bones’. Even though he was strict, he and I had a soft spot for one another. Nanny would wash my sticky fingers and I would run back through the garden to class. In the afternoons Nanny (Lily) brought us for a regular walk and home to tea in the nursery. We often had a couple of pennies for a treat in The Rathgar Sweeteries. The lady there had a trayful of penny specials. We were not indulged; when a treat was over, that was the end.
By the age of five I was ready for first First Holy Communion and my mother brought me into Mother St Barbara in the convent of Marie Reparatrice, Merrion Square, who prepared me for this great occasion. Mary had been with her the previous year. I was then able to read my little prayer book. Mary’s dress was altered for me. My mother didn’t believe in emphasising the dress aspect. There was no question of our being given money by relations or friends. Mum gave me a lovely, comforting and serene outlook on Holy Communion. I still remember that day as having a quality of happiness about it that was never repeated. In the afternoon we visited the Carmelite Monastery in Delgany where Mum had a nun friend. I remember going to Fr Hurley in Rathgar for my First Confession and telling him my worst sin: I had stolen grapes from Papa’s room. Fr Hurley was really kind. I loved confession and the feeling of saying ‘Sorry’ to God, His wiping the slate clean and starting anew. We had slates in the nursery, so I understood that idea well.
It seems that when I was about three Fr Hurley was visiting our home shortly before my birthday. He asked me what present I would like and I replied, ‘A corset’. The adults were mightily surprised. It seems that Lily, our nanny, who slept with us in the nursery, made a jingling sort of noise when she was dressing in the dim morning light. I had asked her later what the noise was. She told me that it was her corset. I wore nothing that made a jingly noise, so that decided me.
Mary and I played together during those early years. We seldom had other children in to play. Only now and again did we join our cousins for parties. Rathgar Road was a busy road and the neighbours next door were older people. There were no children in adjacent houses. We played house and hospital, mummies and babies, shop and dressing-up. We climbed the apple trees and jumped from the upper branches, did acrobatics on the swing, rode our bicycles and enjoyed all the creative games happily We didn’t miss other children since we had never experienced play in larger groups.
I remember one day when Mummy got us ready for a party. We wore organdie dresses, puff-sleeved and hand-painted around the hems, which an old family friend had made for us. White socks and shoes were part of the outfits, little gold bracelets on brown arms. We were waiting in the garden for Mummy to call us when she was ready. We had wandered to the yard where there was a rain-water barrel beside the greenhouse. We got two sticks and began to ‘fish’ bringing up all sorts of weed and soggy leaves from the depths of the barrel. Can you imagine what those organdie dresses were like when, in a matter of minutes, Mummy called us?
In that same yard, at an older age, we collected red, juicy apples from a neighbour’s tree that leaned into our garden. Daddy had made it clear that we could only have the apples from branches that reached into our garden. I remember sitting high up on the wall measuring the branches with a ruler to be sure that the apples were really ours. Those apples always seemed to be more interesting than our own! In the Ireland I grew up in we learned a lot about conscience and sin, but Mummy softened any harsh-seeming message by telling us of the love of God which was the motivating force in her life. ‘You are so special to God’, she used to reassure me. So she made that truth the mainstay of my life as well as of hers.