|John Sinnott||Born: 1950-01-01|
|Father: Peter Sinnott||Mother: Maggie Gleeson|
|Siblings: Kitty Sinnott, Mikey Sinnott, Nicky Sinnott|
John Sinnott was born in Wexford around 1950.
|Michael Kehoe||Born: 1916-05-08||Died: 2008-09-23|
|Father: Unspecified||Mother: Unspecified|
Michael Kehoe was born in Wexford on 8th May 1916. He married Bridget Sinnott in July 1949. The family moved to Shirebrook, Derbyshire in 1959.
|Bridget Kehoe (nee Sinnott 1930 – 1958)||Born: 1930-02-14||Died: 1988-05-24|
|Father: Nicholas Sinnott||Mother: Mary Stafford|
|Siblings: Jimmy Sinnott, Willie Sinnott, Kitty Sinnott, Peggy Sinnott, Nellie Sinnott, John Sinnott, Peter Sinnott, Mary Sinnott, Watty Sinnott|
Bridget Kehoe (nee Sinnott) was born on Valentine’s Day, 14 Februaryin 1930. It was an appropriate date as she had an infinite capacity for love, both for her family and others.
She was the youngest child of Nicholas and Mary Ellen Sinnott.
She married Michael Kehoe in 1949. They have five children together.
Ann Harling (nee Kehoe) m Jimmy Harling
Nicholas Kehoe m Margaret Moore
Kevin Kehoe m Rosanna
Sean Kehoe m Francesca Naughton
Pauline Spence (nee Kehoe) m Trevor Spence
Bridget also became mother to Michael’s two children by his previous marriage, Peter and Mary Ellen. The family moved to Shirebrook, Derbyshire in 1959 where Michael worked in the coal mining pits.
Bridget’s father died when she was only five years old. Without the earning capacity of a father, life was particularly tough for her and her 10 siblings in the Ireland of the 1930s and 1940s. Work and therefore money was in short supply and she and the rest of the family endured constant hardship and regular hunger.
She worked as a maid for various families in Wexford and Cork in her teens to send a little money back to her mother and family. At one point she worked for the TD and former IRA man Dan Breen, one of the two men reported to have started the War of Independence.
He was one of Michael Collins’ key hit men and one of the men most wanted by the British, who put a reward on his head. Despite his fearsome reputation, Bridget found him charming and generous.
Bridget’s life story in detail, as told to her son Kevin Kehoe
The following information comes from the recollections of Bridget Kehoe herself and her husband Michael Kehoe (1916 – 2008).
Their recollections were collated by their son, Kevin Kehoe, and written up as below. Much thanks to Kev for his skill and great energy in writing all this down.
Bridget was born in Ballinruane in Co Wexford. The townland has Ballycullane to the west, Taylorstown to the east and Boley to the north.
The little cottage she was born in had no running water supply, no electricity, no material comforts that we would recognise today. More importantly, there was very little food to be had.
Malnourishment, to some degree, was the norm in rural Ireland for everyone other than the farmers and the well-off.
Disease was also an unwelcome but persistent visitor to most homes. TB visited people indiscriminately, including more than one of Bridget’s brothers and sisters.
At Nicholas’ Wake
Bridget’s earliest memory was at the wake of her father, Nicholas Sinnott. She was only five and a half years old, but she remembered him laid out on the bed.
In her child’s mind’s eye, he wasn’t dead in any real or permanent sense at all. He was merely sleeping. Merely resting in his bed, as she’d seen him do so many times before. It was only when she saw him carried out of the house that the sheer enormity of the event started to register with her.
Bridget’s mother, Mary Ellen, penniless and inconsolable, had had to borrow the white linen waking sheets that covered her dead husband. By now well familiar with the practice of laying out the dead (Click for Mary Ellen Stafford page) in preparation for the wake, she slowly and diligently and with loving due respect, went through the necessary procedures to get her dead husband ready for his wake. She had washed the body, shaved his face, dressed him in his habit and placed a crucifix over his breast. He was now beautifully laid out and ready to receive the long line of guests at his wake.
While both familiar and unfamiliar faces came and went through the house and sat by the foot of the bed where Bridget’s father was laid out, she watched with that kind of innocent intensity that only a child can manage. So many people coming and going, and all for what? And so many who paused as they passed her to kiss her and hug her tightly.
Poor little mite. God save us and bless us.
What was the sense of it? Something wasn’t right. While exciting to be at the centre of such attention, Bridget knew that it was at the cost of something. And she was becoming ever wearily and forebodingly aware, that that something lay sleeping in the bed behind her.
The constant stream of people coming and going throughout the day and night quickly became the norm and she even began to tire of it, and turn her thoughts to more important things like why her brother Willy was so sad looking and so frightened. She gave it very little more thought, that is, until the door opened and a very unexpected face came into the room.
Mrs Rashford. The school mistress. How? Why? What on earth is happening? Mrs Rashford was not the kind of person she would ever expect to see in her home. Nor was she the kind of person Bridget wanted to see, now or any other time. She was an ogre. And yet, here she was. Coming to, Pay my respect
And her voice. No longer cruel, but still distorted. She was speaking in the most awful unctuous tones. Was this the same woman that she cowered from when passing her in the school yard? Fifty years later, Bridget described Mrs Rashford to me as, A right old Rip.
The old Rip, knelt to formally hug Bridget, who instinctively cowered as she did so. The unfamiliar smell of scented soap burned in her nostrils and made the hairs on the back of her neck bristle. It had only a matter of a few days earlier, just a day or two before her father died, that Mrs Rashford had beaten her two brothers, Jimmy and Willy, for the heinous crime of not being able to successfully recite the, Buzz Buzz Bee rhyme.
Jimmy, being the eldest, got the worst of the beating, but Willy who she loved like no other, was also reduced to tears after being boxed around his ears. Bridget cried sharper tears still as she watched Mrs Rashford beat her brother Jimmy about the head, and watched the terror on Willy’s face knowing he was next.
And now, less than week later, here she was stood before her, the old Rip herself, talking so gently with her mother and making herself at home. The very idea of it was absurd, the School Mistress in her mother’s cottage, and acting so differently, speaking so softly. And then the most amazing thing of all. She came not only with and kind words, and tender hugs, and dainty kisses, but with huge basket laden with hard boiled sweets. What was all of this? How on earth do you make sense of any of this?
Bridget’s father, Nicholas Sinnott, was taken from the cottage and buried in Newbawn cemetery, just a short distance away from Ballinruane. Forty years later, his wife Mary Ellen, was buried in the same grave alongside him.
A Lucky Escape
A few months after burying her husband, Mary Ellen received a letter from her brother Peter who had settled in Australia. He was now married with his own family, and had a daughter and two sons. Peter desperately wanted another girl in his family to be a companion for his own daughter who he doted on.
His exact thoughts and reasoning for this are unknown. We no longer have a copy of the letter he wrote to his mother Mary Ellen. Even so, Peter’s basic idea was that his five-year-old niece, Bridget, who was about the same age as his daughter, should be sent over to Australia to live with him, be a companion to his daughter and be brought up as an Australian just as his daughter would be.
Mary Ellen, although she could hardly afford to put food in her daughter’s mouth, could not bring herself to let her go. With her husband Nicholas now dead, Mary Ellen was in a daily struggle to feed her eleven children and put clothes on their back. She was quite literally on the verge of destitution but even so, she would not give away one of her children.
The Lady And The ‘Latchico’
About six months after her father died, Bridget almost lost another member of her family. She saw her brother Jimmy almost killed in what could easily have been an horrific accident. She was with her two brothers Jimmy and Willy in Ballinabola, where they’d been sent by their mother to buy bread.
Bridget was still only six. Willy was two years older and Jimmy was about nine. Jimmy, being the eldest, had the money for the bread. He stepped up onto ramp by the Bread Van, parked outside Sweetman’s shop to hand over his money. When he jumped back down again into the road, he nonchalantly jumped into the path of a car which promptly ran him over. For an eternal moment, time stood still, and it was that screaming image of her brother, Jimmy, disappearing under the wheels of the car that stayed with Bridget for the rest of her life.
When time started ticking once again, it seemed like the whole of Ballinabola had circled the car and had come to the aid of Jimmy, who was underneath it. The driver of the car, who was unhurt, frantically stepped out and put her hands to her face. She was in an awful state. The second she stepped out of the car, however, the crowd took one step back. She was a Lady.
The distraught looking woman pushed her way through to the front of the car, wailing and waving and convinced she’d killed the little mite who’d jumped down into her path. She was probably in her mid-thirties and was dressed every bit the Lady in fine, elegant clothes. Just how gentrified she was we don’t know, but she was probably no more than the wife of a doctor or bank manager or something socially equivalent. Even so, the Lady behind the wheel of the car took Bridget’s breath away, as well as very nearly the life of her brother.
By the time the fine Lady had got to the front of the car, and to her to her relief, the young mite she was sure she’d killed, was already scrambling out from underneath, and looking back up at the Lady with a look of absolute fear on his grimy face.
For a moment, Jimmy contemplated running away from the scene of the crime, but he figured he’d be caught soon enough if he did. There was already a gaggle of folk gathering around and bending their necks over protruding shoulders to gander. The young villain had no option other than to stay and face the music.
By this time, the look on the fine Lady’s face was already melting from one of sheer horror to one of sympathy and heart-felt thanks that no bones were broken, and nor would any hearts be broken.
Holy Mary Mother of God, I thought I’d destroyed the little mite.
There was such a deference to the wealthy at that time, that the crowd blamed Jimmy for being so ‘impudent’ as to be run over and so inconveniencing the Lady.
All the good folk standing around were already showering her with words of sympathy.
Don’t you fret one little bit Madam. There’s not a scratch on him the eye can see. Look at the little pup.
Seeing his chance to make amends here, the young villain hastily moved to confirm the crowd’s diagnosis.
I’m fine Madam. Sorry Madam.
The fine Lady bent down to speak to Jimmy and she cupped his face in her two hands. People in the crowd were concerned about the lining of her dress brushing against the dusty road, and they tut tutted their concerns to one another.
What’s your name, little man?
Jimmy hesitated before he answered. Fearful still.
Thanks be to God. You’re not hurt one little bit, are you? God save us and bless us.
She spoke to Jimmy for a moment or two more, and then asked him the names of his mother and father and also his address. Jimmy gave her all the information she asked for and then she drove off.
Jimmy, Bridget and Willy left too, but not before the crowd, dispersing by now, chastised the three little brats for creating a scene and upsetting the fine Lady, and for delaying her from getting to wherever she was going. Jimmy and his two crestfallen accomplices, listened without answering back and then once they’d successfully managed a few steps back, ran with the wind at their backs and words of admonishment still ringing in in their ears.
The very next day, the very same car stopped outside the house in Taylorstown, and the very same fine Lady stepped out and came up to the house. Mary Ellen, opened the door to her, and they spoke for a moment or two about the terrible incident from yesterday. The fine Lady Apologis ed profusely and gave thanks once again that Jimmy was unhurt. Mary Ellen assured her that there was no harm done and that he was running round without so much as a scratch on him. And then the fine Lady handed over a basket full of sweets for Mary Ellen to give to Jimmy.
Mary Ellen took hold of the basket with one hand while using the other to push away all the grubby little faces peering into the basket and already drooling over its sticky treasures. She thanked the kind Lady and then invited her to come into the house and drink some tea. The kettle was already over the fire and wouldn’t take more than a moment.
The fine Lady said she could not, and that she had a prior engagement. And with that she bid them farewell, and was gone. The motor car sped off down the road, never to be seen again. Everyone watched her as she sped away, out of sight now and already back in her own world.
The basket was placed on the table, and people gathered round it, with hands laid gently on the edge of the table, as if at a séance. Sweet aromas rose up and filled the air all around. These were not only boiled sweets, like the old Rip had brought to her father’s wake. There was a mixture of the most wonderful colours and smells and shapes and sizes. Sticky black liquorish all sorts jostled with paper wrapped toffees, gum drops and peppermints. And all of them rested on a bed of glistening boiled sweets.
Within minutes every child in the area was meandering outside the door, as if they just couldn’t manage to find a way past the house either in one direction or the other. Either that or they figured that there might just be a chance they might be invited in. Some were, of course, but when a fine Lady visits your house bearing gifts, one must be just a little more selective about prospective invitees than one might otherwise be. Jimmy invited his friends in first, of course, and plenty of others too. Plenty more still were summarily dismissed with a Feck off.
Smokes, thieves and Leaves
Two or three years after this event, Bridget found herself in trouble again, but this time with her other close brother, Willy. Willy was two years older than Bridget, so he was about nine or ten at that time.
He was, however, already an experienced smoker, and was routinely complimented and highly admired for the fine quality of the cigarettes he could roll. Bridget used to watch her elder brother as he did this and she was enamored by his artistry and dexterity. He was almost nonchalant about his craft and would often use just one hand to roll the paper and tobacco, while doing something else with his other hand. It was very impressive.
Once he’d rolled the cigarette, he’d then light it up and sit down for a cool smoke. Bridget used to pester him to let her strike the match for him, and as often as not he’d let her. She also used to have a few puffs on the cigarette, but more often than not, Willy would scold her for wasting his tobacco when she did this, and for coughing and spluttering all over him. Still, she liked to stay with him while he smoked and to talk. Willy was her favorite brother, and closer to her than anyone else in her life. She loved him greatly.
Tobacco, of course, cost money and that was one of the many things Willy and Bridget had none of, nor much hope of ever getting any. It was a conundrum, and one which they faced day in day out, and day in day out failed to resolve. Ultimately, the only real, practical and remotely possible solution, was to steal it. And this is exactly what Willy did one day when he saw his mother leave a tanner on the table for her to buy bread with in Mrs Cahill’s’s shop that afternoon.
Should I, shouldn’t I? Will I, won’t I? Willy eyed up the gains and the consequences. With his mother’s back turned and with her sufficiently occupied so as to not be turning back again in a hurry, he made a grab for the tanner and then slinked out through the door. He looked more and more guilty the more he tried to waltz out the house as if he didn’t have a care in the world. But he did it. He was out and it was done. There was no going back now, and no point in dwelling on the inevitable consequences.
Think of the gains.
He made a bee-line for Mrs Cahill’s shop while the going was still good, and bought himself some tobacco. Failing to have been completely successful in dismissing all thought of the consequences, and feeling the need to share the blame as much as possible, he invited friends and even one or two enemies, to sit with him and have a smoke. Within no time at all, word got back to him and his wheezy gang that his mother was looking for him. It was said that she was red with rage and ready to kill, and more than ready to hang for it. One by one and then in twos and threes, he found himself being slowly abandoned by his friends. All of a sudden, everyone had something to do, and everyone wished him well and everyone commiserated with him. And no one stayed with him.
The hours passed and as they did the sky opened up with perfect timing, and the filthy rain poured down from buckets of misery. His sister, Bridget, back at home pleaded his case but Mary Ellen wasn’t listening.
He’ll pay for this, the little brat. By God, he’ll pay. I’ll see to that. Mark my words. I’ll see to that.
Bridget’s heart bled for her brother, and when she looked out at the rain, the filthy driving rain, she feared for him. She pleaded with her mother to let her go to look for him, and to bring him home. Mary Ellen, after a moment’s hesitation, and torn between tears of rage and tears of anguish, agreed.
Bridget had told her mother she would go and look for her brother, but in truth, she knew exactly where he’d be. It was where she’d be if she were in his position. It is where they often went to play and to be alone together. She went there directly. Running across fields, and soaking wet herself now, she arrived within fifteen minutes or so at a little hollow in a ditch where she found Willy curled up with his head resting on his knees and the look of pointless regret on his face.
Sat in a puddle now, and one getting deeper, he was soaked to the skin. Sodden hearted, he sat there blubbering like a damp squib. Even his tobacco was reduced to a squelchy ball of pulp in his pocket. All was lost. And for what?
Bridget tried her best to disguise her sympathy for him.
Why did you do that, you eejit?
There was no answer to that, and Willy didn’t offer one. Bridget pushed back the sodden clots of hair hanging down over his eyes and wiped the rain and tears from his face. She was mothering him even now at the age of seven or eight, and she never stopped doing so for the rest of her life. Mothering was all she ever wanted to do. She assured Willy that their mother was already over the worst of her anger and that if he came back now he’d probably be spared a beating, or spared a particularly fierce one at the very least.
Willy’s resolve, what little he had, was weakening fast. And look at him anyway. If he stayed where he was for much longer, he’d die of pneumonia before the night was over. He looked up at his sister with blurry eyes.
That’s the truth Biddy? She’s not angry anymore?
Bridget paused, thought of telling the truth, and then thought better of it. There’s a place and time for everything.
No. Not anymore. Let’s go.
Willy paused too, and thought for a moment. Against his better judgement he decided to believe her. The two of them trudged back home, over the fields and along country lanes. Little was said and much was feared, but in the end, his sister’s words proved true, and against both their better judgements.
Indeed, though Mary Ellen satisfied her dying rage with the obligatory clip around the ear and a few ear shattering blasts from her searing vocal chords, she didn’t have the heart to take it any further.
She got Willy dry, gave him a change of clothes and then gave up on the whole outrageous affair. She had been born poor, raised poor and lived poor. Tanner or no tanner, she’d still be poor. And that was the way of it. Even so, she made sure to speak with Mrs Cahill and tell her not to sell anything at all to Willy ever again.
Shopping sprees, were the stuff of dreams, daft dreams. Until, that is, about six or seven months later when manna from heaven rained down in the form of a bright and shiny half-crown coin that had lopped itself down in the dust of the road. God knows how long it had laid there. Minutes, and hour, two or three, perhaps, certainly not days. But there it sat right now, waiting for someone to come along and pick it up. That someone was Willy, and as luck would have it, Bridget was with him when he found it. Possession might be nine tenths of the law, but it is equally the case that the witness to the crime is guaranteed a share of the spoils.
The coin was sitting in the dust right outside Maggie Murphy’s shop so it didn’t take long to work out that its owner might be inside right now and about to rush out in a fit of panic, and looking for his or her lost treasure. In one faultless and elegant move Willy swooped down at the coin like a bird of prey and had it in his pocket in an instance. As an encore, and cool as you like, he took Bridget by the arm and guided her back in an arc like movement so that they were now walking back on their tracks and away from the shop.
At a safe distance they sat themselves down and had an urgent discussion as to how, when and where they could safely exchange the useless bit of mettle for something good. To go into Maggie Murphy’s shop was risky, but to go to Mrs Cahill’s shop was impossible. Or was it? She’d have forgotten what their mother, Mary Ellen had told her by now. Maybe not though.
They could come clean and tell their mother that they’d found the treasure. This thought was instantly dismissed. Mary Ellen would have confiscated the half-crown before they’d even finished telling the story of how it was found. They knew this well from experience. When their mother’s brother, William Stafford, used to visit, he used to give Bridget and Willy a sixpence to share between the two of them. Once he’d left, Mary Ellen would take it off them and keep it to buy food for the family.
They didn’t blame her for it. They didn’t expect anything different. It was the way of the world, but there was no need to voluntarily give up your treasure when no one would be any the wiser so long as you kept your gob shut and your hands firmly clasped and deep in your pockets.
In the end, and after at least a full minute and a half of agonizing deliberation, they decided that the smart thing to do would be to go to Mrs Cahill’s shop and to spend the fortune in one go, one mad sugar rush. Very cleverly, Willy decided that it would be Bridget rather than him who would go in and do the buying. If it’s too dangerous to stick your own head up above the parapet, then fine someone else’s head to do the work.
Willy gave Bridget careful instructions as to what she needed to buy with his fortune. He took the trouble to explain again that it was he who’d found the fortune, and that he’d done so unaided, and that he’d very graciously agreed to share it with his sister, even though by rights she deserved none of it and had a right to none of it, and that she was obliged to do exactly what he told her to do and buy exactly what he told her to buy. Bridget listened carefully without hearing a word of it, and then took the sweaty coin and entered the shop.
Willy waited and waited. After a moment or two he took a few steps back and then, aware of the pointlessness of doing this, returned to his place by the side of the shop. What was Bridget doing? He’d told her what to do. He had explained it so well even an ass would understand. It was simple: two packets of fags, and with the money left over as many toffees as possible.
The door opened and Bridget stepped out. Willy beckoned her to walk on and he followed behind. At a safe distance down the road they stopped and Willy grabbed the bag of loot from his Bridget’s hands. He stuck his nose deep inside and let out a roar. He was outraged. She’d only bought one packet of cigarettes, and she hadn’t bought toffees as he’d asked her to, but hard boiled sweets instead. Bridget defended herself.
They’re cheaper Willy. Toffee’s too much. And one packet of fags is plenty. And look at all the sweets we have. Want one?
It was pointless to continue the argument any longer. The damage was done. Bridget took two sweets from the bag and passed one to her brother. He accepted it as ungraciously as he could manage, but enjoyed it tremendously none the less. He took the packet of cigarettes and took one out for himself.
Don’t you be thinking any of these are for you Biddy. And don’t be asking me for a drag on this one either.
Bridget shrugged her shoulders dismissively and rolled the hard boiled sweet around her mouth with even greater relish.
See if I care.
She then took the bag of sweets back from her brother and the two of them walked down the dusty road, and neither one of them with so much as a care in the world.
School 1. Cushinstown.
The first school that Bridget ever went to was Cushinstown School. This was the nearest national School to Ballinruane. This is the school where Mrs Rushford made so much trouble for her brother Jimmy and Willy, and where they got boxed around the ears. Bridget passed her time here relatively unscathed but she was never especially happy at school. She was never beaten in the way her brothers were, but she always feared she might be and worked tirelessly to be as invisible as was humanly possible.
Ordinarily, of course, she and her school friends would walk to and from school. But on days when it was raining, and whenever he was free and able, her brother John would cycle down to the school at the end of the day and give her and Willy a lift back on his bike. John, of course, was eighteen years older than Bridget and like his brother Watty, was more of a father to her than a brother.
Bridget would balance herself on the handlebars and Willy would climb up on the back of John’s bike, and off they would go. The two of them would be full of joy to be done with school for the day and hitching a ride off their brother while everyone else had to walk. All the days of her life, she never forgot the thrill of being escorted back home from school by her big brother John, while the other kids looked on with squelching boots and heavy hearts. Her friend Maureen Welch would always try to hitch a ride too, but she never succeeded.
Surprisingly, there were things about school that were more scary still than actually being there, and within striking reach of the teachers. The thing that terrified her most about school was actually going there and coming back. A “Quare Ol’ Fellow” called Jack Burke, used to always seem to be passing by at some time or other and it always seemed to be when you least expected it.
The first thing about him that set the pulse racing was his appearance. He was so disheveled that he made their brother Watty look like a city gent. He was permanently unshaven, but much worse than Watty. Unlike Watty, Jack Burke’s beard was alive and crawling. People used to say you could see the flees jump from one cheek to the other and use his nose as a stepping stone.
The scariest thing of all about the Quare Ol’ Fellow though, was his nasty habit of quickening his step as he approached you and baring his teeth as he passed you by. His teeth were brown and full of gaps.
In truth, Jack Burke was to some extent, mentally unstable, not that these things were ever diagnosed or had names at that time. Anyone who acted differently or didn’t keep the given social norms, got labeled as the “Quare Fellow”.
Like other misfits of one kind or another, and there were plenty, Jack Burke worked on and off for local farmers in exchange for his food and temporary shelter in the winter months. At other times, he resorted to simply begging.
Whenever he approached children, he loved to play games with them that would make him roar with laughter, while the children quivered with fear. Few people fully appreciated the Quare Ol’Fellow’s sense of humour. One thing he liked to do was to stop dead in his tracks as if he’d seen a ghost or something even worse. He also took great delight in scaring the younger children like Bridget witless by saying something menacing or threatening or even downright sinister. One of his favourite lines that he liked to roar out at the top of his lungs was,
Shall I eat you right now, or save you for tomorrow?
No one ever hung around long enough to find out what his decision might be.
Yellow Pap And Sticky Sweets
It was at about this time when Bridget was about seven or so that she and Willy found themselves at home alone one afternoon. Being home alone in the 1930’s could hardly compare with the excitement of being home alone today for school children. The Spartan lifestyle they endured, hardly afforded them any opportunities to do anything good, bad or otherwise. Even so, never underestimate the power of a child’s imagination when adults aren’t around to stifle it.
They’d come back home because the weather had turned bad and was now raining hard and set to remain so for the rest of the day. They had not, however, expected to find themselves completely alone. After checking they really were home alone, and their elder siblings were out at work, they set about seeing what things they could get up to. The one thing that was always on their mind, was their bellies.
Being famished, (they were always famished), and being home alone, they decided to take advantage of the situation and make some yellow pap, which is a kind of porridge made from corn. It was throwing it down with rain outside and they knew they had to move fast or they’d be caught in the act by someone coming in for shelter.
Sure enough, no sooner had they made the pap and had poured it from the pot into a dish, than the sound of a loud and persistent knocking was heard at the door. They immediately thought it was their brother John who they adored. Given he was also effectively a father figure to them, they also feared him greatly. They knew they’d be in trouble if John saw what they’d been up to so Willy got his sister Bridget to hide the pap under the bed while he went to let John in.
When he asked who it was at the door, Willy found out that it wasn’t John after all, but rather Larry Brien. Larry was a kind of half travelling man, half tramp, and he was widely known by everyone in the area. Though not dangerous, people would still be wary of him, especially children who were home alone.
Let me in out of this cursed rain.
Willy refused, and immediately made tracks to take back his pap from under the bed. Bridget took pity on Larry and scolded Willy for being mean. Willy remained unimpressed and was adamant that Larry could not come in. The half tramp outside the door was equally half drowned by now and he heard the two children squabbling. Quick as a flash, he saw his chance and acted on it.
I’ve a bag of sweets right here in my coat pocket.
No sooner had he said it than the pap was left abandoned on the floor and the door opened wide. Larry spilled in through the door and took of his heavy coat and hung it on a nail in the wall. No sooner had he done so than a puddle started to form on the dirt floor below it. The driving rain outside was set for the remainder of the afternoon and he wasn’t going anywhere soon.
Have you not even a fire lit for me to get dry?
Willy wasn’t even listening but eying up his great coat for the promised bag of sweets. Larry could see and he dutifully obliged. The three of them sat down on the dry floor and while Larry finished off the cooling pap, Willy and Bridget did their best to suck and slobber over the hard boiled sweets while they rolled them around their jowls with their sharpened tongues.
They talked and talked, in so far as you can say anything at all with your tongue working overtime on a hard boiled sweet in your mouth. Larry in truth, was something of child himself, or a bit of a simpleton as people locally called him. In his youth he had been a good Gaelic footballer.
The problem was that he often took his natural childish enthusiasm for the game and put it to use even in situations totally inappropriate.
Willy reminded Larry about the time when he was showing local woman called Mrs Colfer how he’d once scored a great goal, and was demonstrating to her just what a fine goal it was. This was a story that had happened long before Willy and Bridget were born, but it was one of those great stories that are loved by all and kept alive in their oft repeating.
To allow Mrs Colfer the best opportunity to see just how good Larry’s goal had been, Larry went to the trouble of actually recreating the whole event on the road outside her house. He carefully positioned Mrs Colfer between two rocks on the road which he explained were the goal posts, and that she was now standing in the exact spot the goal keeper had stood at the time he’d scored.
Larry then took the ball and stepped back about five paces to be able to shoot from exactly the same position as when he performed the original wonder shot just a few days earlier.
Now you’re the man in the goal, Mrs Colfer. OK? You’re right there. That’s you, right there and here’s me, right here. This is me, right? I receive the ball right here, right? And then I run like so before shooting the ball, right? Just like so ………
Mrs Colfer did considerably better than the man who’d been in goal a few days earlier. She took the full weight of the ball on her chin and without even attempting to use her hands, she saved the wonder shot and Larry was denied his goal on the second attempt. Undeterred, he then managed to charge right into her, after being unable to halt his run on goal and flattened her face down in the dust of the road under his feet.
Mrs Colfer was out cold for over an hour and she wasn’t back on her feet for a week. Larry made his excuses, mumbled his apologies, and took his leave and his ball while Mr Colfer pondered over how, or whether, to administer the kiss of life.
A few months after the home alone feast of yellow pap and sweets, Bridget and Willy were given a brightly multi-coloured yoyo by a neighbour, Alice McCarthy. It was a prized possession, and at the time was the only recognisable toy that they had between the two of them—the only one we today would recognise as a toy, anyway. The yoyo, after dolls, is actually the oldest toy in history, but its modern renaissance came only in the early 1930’s so to have one then was a great novelty and unbelievably exciting.
It had been given to Bridget initially, but Willy soon made his presence felt and in time it became a shared toy. They loved the yoyo and it brought them endless hours of fun. The thing that attracted Bridget to it most of all was its hypnotic effect as it spun up and down with its colourful markings gyrating in and out and pulsating back and forth. Very quickly, they invented new games when playing with it, such as passing it back and forth from one to the other while it was still in motion.
Mary Ellen moved to Taylorstown in 1940. After years of abject poverty and communal hardship, things where finally getting a little better (apart from World War 2 breaking out) and Mary Ellen was able to move out of Ballinruane and into a significantly bigger house in Taylorstown. The cottage she moved her family into was also effectively brand new, as it was but two years old.
New House, New Friends
Bridget was ten years old at the time that the family moved, and she remembered the event as the most exciting day of her young life so far, far superseding even the day the fine Lady appeared at the door with a basket of sweets. From an old cottage with one bedroom, and no kitchen, they were moving into a new cottage with three bedrooms and a kitchen. It was nothing less than a mansion, and this was instantly confirmed by the look of envy in people’s eyes.
Bridget along with all the other children ran back and forth from room to room, and the amazing thing was that you actually could run. And rather than cold clay under their feet, they could feel the hard, waxy texture of the wood beneath their feet. Every room had a big window to let in the light, and light flooded in.
The rent for all of this was twelve and a half pence a week. Half a crown. It was money that had to be found and the family, including Bridget, was sent out every day to find it, whether it be by pulling beat or back breaking work in the fields.
Bridget, being a bright and outgoing young ten-year-old, quickly made new friends in her new neighbourhood. The first friend that she made, rather conveniently as it turned out, lived next door. Her name was Joan Kane. Shortly after this, Bridget very quickly became friends with many others, including Babs Kane and Mary Keaton.
School 2 Gusserane
For a brief time Bridget went to Gusserane school where she was taught by Miss O’Donnell. Miss O’Donnell was quite kind, relatively speaking anyway. For the most part, it was only the boys who suffered actual physical abuse at the hands of the teachers.
The second teacher in the school was Miss Hogan and both lived in the school house, even though they were from New Ross. Neither of the two woman ever married and they continued living in the same house for many years to come.
The person Bridget really admired while at Gusserane was Father Doyle. Different people have different perceptions, of course, and Michael Kehoe found Father Doyle a particularly disagreeable individual, not that he mentioned this to the priest. He described Father Doyle as,
A cross little man.
Bridget, however, saw another side of him and was greatly impressed. In truth, this probably had more than a little to do with the fact that Father Doyle was known for handing out the occasional sixpence or even a whole shilling on a special occasion, to the younger children.
It’s likely that Michael Kehoe’s dislike came from Father Doyle’s very effective and very intrusive name and shame method of collecting donations. As a rule, in church he would read out from what he called his “Pius list” of parishioners who had made generous donations to him or the church.
It wasn’t unheard of for big farmers to give incredible sums of money, even as much as five pounds.
Their names, of course, would then be read out first and deemed rightly deserving of special mention and singled out for special thanks, and the absolute assurance that their generosity would follow them right up to the gates of heaven. Mary Ellen, when able to give anything at all would give a shilling perhaps. Her name never made the Pius list. But even so, at least her daughter Bridget received the occasional sixpence. The money, was for the up-keep of the church, and Father Doyle was accountable for every penny received. Even so, he was never refused permission by the Bishop to put enough of it to one side for his annual holiday in England.
Father Doyle was actually a farmer as well as a priest, and he came from a farming family in North Wexford. He kept a small farm a short distance from the church and, in addition to their financial contributions, the local farmers were obliged to provide him with sufficient hay to feed his horse and enough men to tend to his farm.
All of this was indeed carried out and, strange as it may seem to us today, no one seemed to ever resent having to do it. But then, life is all about give and take, and Father Doyle gave back plenty.
This was especially true of his time. He was famous for being able to say Mass in under twenty minutes. In fact, though Mass was supposed to start at eight o’clock prompt, more often than not he’d start early so by the time you’d blessed yourself and knelt down, the Mass was already half over.
For obvious reasons, father Doyle’s masses were highly favoured by the parishioners. On many an occasion, Bridget felt she might faint when at one of Father Doyle’s Masses because the church would be full to the rafters and people stood heel to heel and jowl to jowl. But it was worth it. Even his preaching was delivered at break neck speed. He had a knack of being able to cut a long story short by saying,
And don’t you know that anyway?
At times he liked to deliver the same point with a more nuanced message, so he’d say,
Sure haven’t I told you all this a hundred and one times before? And who’s listening anyway?
Sadly, Bridget was to enjoy father Doyle’s time for only a couple more years. In 1944, and after being parish Priest at Gusserane for thirty years, he was then moved on to become the parish priest at Boldwinstown. He was replaced by Father Williams, who was just the opposite. Rather than any risk of fainting with the heat at any Mass said by Father Williams, you’d need to bring a great coat with you to guard against the cold.
It’s not known where or when father Doyle ended his days, but perhaps he was reincarnated many years later as Father Jack.
School 3 St. Leonard’s
After moving to Taylorstown, Bridget went to school at St. Leonard’s. The school was up on a hill so from the playground she would have had a lovely view out over Bannow Bay. She was a student here for three years, from the age of ten until the age of thirteen. Her teacher was Mrs Power, and Bridget was delighted with this as she was very nice and kind.
The other teacher in the school, who taught the younger children, was Miss Murphy, and she was just the opposite. Miss Murphy never thought twice about delivering a good beating as and when she saw fit, which was on most days. She was, however, fair in her method of selection, in that she was pretty much indiscriminate. In Miss Murphy’s class, anyone and everyone was up for a beating, whether you were the son of a common farm labourer or the son of a farmer.
The Joy Of Walking Slowly To School
The best thing that ever happened to her at St. Leonard’s was when she was assigned the task of escorting Teresa Clancy to and from school. Teresa was a young girl of about seven or eight. She was extremely fragile and delicate, due to a medical condition, and found it very difficult to walk any distance without help.
Her condition meant that she needed constant supervision in case she were to fall or have a serious “turn”, brought on by her condition. Teresa, just happened to be the daughter of the local Guard and as such was held in extremely high regard by the school’s headmaster.
To be given this job to do was to be put in an enviable position. Indeed, it was a gift that just kept giving. Being delicate, Teresa could only walk at a slow pace and so, as her companion, Bridget was allowed to waltz into school half an hour or more late every morning.
She was also allowed to leave at two o’clock in the afternoon because Teresa was in the infants’ section of the school. Happy days.
These slow walks to and from school were a joyful experience for Bridget. She adored Teresa and she adored the slow walks to school too. As they walked, the two girls chatted freely and Bridget would love to listen to Teresa’s stories about the important people who came to her house, or the things that her father said about so and so or about something that had happened in such a place.
Despite now living in her new big three-bedroom house in Taylorstown, the gulf between Teresa’s world and Bridget’s world was enormous, and the life that Teresa went home to each day seemed so fascinating.
One other huge benefit of taking these long slow walks every day, was that Bridget was guaranteed never to be pestered by boys, bullied, teased or harassed in any way what so ever while in the company of Teresa. It would only take one word in her father’s ear for the sky above your head to come crashing down around you.
In the 1940’s in rural Ireland, the social position of a Guarda was on a par with the Parish Priest and his word was enough to undo you if you were ever unlucky enough to come under his scrutiny.
Children learnt this from an early age from their parents, if they were lucky. If not, they learned it from the Guards themselves.
Mad Bad Kate White
There was, however, one very important exception to zero harassment policy. Her name was Kate White. Kate’s house, was close by to the school and on the road that Bridget had to take to escort Teresa back home. There was no alternative route. The gate to her house had to be passed, like the gate to hell on the road to paradise.
Kate White was a young woman in her twenties and she lived with her brother on his farm. The White family, though comfortably well off, were highly unconventional. They had a farm of at least one hundred acres and had cattle, but they lived like paupers. They didn’t care in the least what their neighbours thought of them.
Kate was actually mentally unstable. Were it not for the fact that her brother was willing and able to look after her, she would most certainly have been committed to the Sanatorium. Her brother, Robert White, was a good deal older than her, and was effectively a father figure, or her guardian. The two of them lived alone, which was odd enough in itself, given that most of his neighbouring farmers lived with families of ten or more.
Robert White wasn’t exactly disliked by people, but people were certainly very suspicious of him and wary of what he might do or say if he were ever to be crossed by someone. The likelihood of such an event ever happening was barely non-existent because for the most part, and wherever possible, Robert simply had nothing to do with his neighbours. People assumed he was very aloof and for the most part, they obligingly kept their distance. When the occasion necessitated, he would converse, but otherwise he wouldn’t even bid you good day as he passed you on the road.
Though reluctant to talk to his neighbours, he seemed to be very comfortable talking to himself.
People would hear him saying this and saying that, and with no one within ear shot of him. Near the gate to the farm was an old outhouse that was no longer used. It had long been known, and it was a ‘long-established fact, witnessed, verified and corroborated,’ that the outhouse was haunted.
The speculation was that Robert was actually talking to the ghost that occupied the outhouse. Others said that he was actually taking to his sister Kate who was hiding in the long grass or hiding up in one of the tall trees that surrounding the entrance to the farm.
The other thing about Robert White and his sister Kate, and this was particularly scary, was that they were openly irreligious. If they’d ever been to Mass, there was no one who knew anyone who’d witnessed it. That was bad, but not exactly unknown. A whole host of odd balls and mal-contents boycotted mass on a Sunday morning, and even flaunted the fact. But they could easily be dismissed as attention seekers, layabouts and simpletons. But not Robert White. He didn’t fit into any of these categories.
He didn’t go to Mass because he wasn’t bothered.
People did understand his sister, Kate, though. She was easy to categorize
Mad, bad Kate White come out to fight.
This is what the rough boys would shout as they passed by her gate, and then take to their heels as they scarpered out of sight and harm’s way, screeching with laughter and blissful ignorance.
Had she been left in peace and not subjected to constant torment, Kate would no doubt have kept to herself and avoided contact with the stream of people who passed by her house and peered in over the gate at the end of her garden. But she was not, and had never been left in peace.
When “riled” Kate was quite dangerous. She would, and one many an occasion did, lash out at whichever poor unfortunate person happened to be left behind after the boys had had their fun goading her and climbing up on her gate, as if she were a gated bull. On occasions like this, she would fight back and had on many occasions hurt someone.
This someone, more often than not, would be a young girl who was unable to keep up with the chaps as they gallivanted down the road, roaring their heads off with delight.
Within a few days or a week or so of her starting school at St Leonard’s, Bridget was walking home alone and entertaining herself by humming a tune that they’d sung that very day in class. As she passed by Kate White’s house, she was blissfully unaware and so never quickened her pace, as she would have done ordinarily. Without warning, and as if from nowhere Kate jumped out on Bridget, and she was snarling like an angry dog. She raised her arms, as if to pounce, but Bridget had already taken flight and was out of Kate’s reach.
The problem was that she had pulled back on herself and had run back in the direction of the school.
Terrified to pass the gate of mad Kate again, she approached the Parish Priest at St. Leonard’s directly and told him her story. Nothing but abject fear would have given her the courage to approach the priest like this and trouble him so. Happily the priest was sympathetic and he sent his “man” with her to accompany her past the gate of Mad Kate’s house so that she could get home safely and in one piece.
The next day she made sure to pass by Mad Kate’s gate in the same way as everyone else, a group.
But now that she had the job of escorting Teresa back home, she could no longer pass by with the safety of numbers. From now on it was her responsibility alone to protect her charge from the claws of Mad Kate.
Maybe a year or so earlier, Bridget had been out with a whole bunch of other children. They had been playing sports and were now on their way back home. Once they were about to pass by Kate White’s gate, the more boisterous among them started their usual clowning around and banging on the gate while calling out for Kate.
Mad, bad Kate White come out to fight.
Two of the older boys there, Nick early??? and Nick Roach, took things a step further. They took hold of Bridget and lift her up and over the gate. They then struck up an almighty racket and called out for Kate again. Every time Bridget tried to climb back up the gate, they pushed her back down, collapsing with laughter and the great sport of it all. Bridget was scared witless, but no one came to her aid. The two Nicks were a good deal older than the rest, and so no one dared.
And then when Kate did appear, she did so as if she’d dropped down from a hole in the sky. She didn’t say a word. She didn’t have to. Nothing could be heard except the intake of breath and the scrambling of feet as the whole lot of them got to their feet and ran for their lives. Bridget was left like discarded bait to fend for herself.
Instinctively, she turned to face the Devil’s own daughter, but saw only Kate. The two of them stood still, as if both were fearful of initiating their next move, but for different reasons. Kate looked as if she might kill but still she didn’t move. Her hair hung long and loose around her shoulders, but knotted and matted. Her face was dirty and her forehead had marks from where she’d wiped away the sweat from her brow. She stood before the terrified Bridget, motionless. Was she even alive at all? Only her eyes flickered with malcontent.
Bridget took one step back and let go her hands from her face. Kate still didn’t move, but her eyes now were now elsewhere. And looking at what? What could she see? Slowly, and then slower still, Bridget felt behind her for the bars of the gate and pushed her back up against it. Kate showed no interest. The noise and the confusion seemed far away now. And yet she could hear something. She would tilt her head just a fraction, as toward something, someone. What was she listening to? Who was there?
Bar by bar, Bridget hauled herself up to the top of the gate and then leapt to the road on the other side. And now? Should she run? Had she good reason to so? What would Kate think if she did run? Would it even matter? Did Kate even know she was there?
Bridget turned her back on Kate, and walked calmly away. When she’d walked for a few moments, she turned back again, perhaps to wave. But Kate was gone.
Bridget quickened her pace and then when she saw the two oafs and the rest of the children ahead, she quickened her pace to a run, as if the terror she’d felt when she first saw Kate, was still in her heart. It wasn’t, but she had to lie. There was nothing else she could have said that they would have believed.
The Germans Are Coming
About a year after this, in 1942, and when Bridget had just turned twelve, a German plane crash landed in a field only a few yards short of the school. Despite the fact that Bridget and all of her class mates were in the school at the time of the crash, the first reaction from the children was to curse the fact that the idiotic pilot had managed to miss the school altogether and crash in an old field where no meaningful damage could possibly be done.
Not all was lost though. The school day was immediately brought to an end and children, teachers and just about everyone else raced across the field to see the burnt-out wreck. People were there to loot more than anything else, but there was nothing really to be had.
The two German soldiers lay in the field just a few yards from the wreck. They were already dead. Father Doyle was called to see to them. When he arrived, he gave absolution to the two Germans and then ordered the crowd to disperse. The Guards then arrived sometime after this, but long after the children had been sent home.
When Bridget got home news had already arrived about the air crash and the dead Germans. People were very excited and many were claiming that there were more of them hiding out in the fields.
People said that, despite Ireland’s neutrality, this was an invasion and that they were all in peril.
Bridget’s brother, Jimmy Sinnott, was already in a state of agitation. He had been recruited into the Local Defence Force, just a year or so earlier, and as a consequence he had been provided with a gun which he had permission to keep and to use at any such time that the local community were under threat from any kind from external or alien forces.
Times such as this, perhaps. Jimmy was excitable by nature, and he didn’t seem in the least bit interested in the fact that the two soldiers were already dead.
There could be more. What do any of you know?
It was a fair point. But people were still not comfortable with Jimmy pacing up and down the floor and waiving a loaded gun to and fro. As a member of the Ballycullane Local Defence Force, he had been issued with a uniform when he did his training at the Curragh. He wanted to put it on right now and then go out to meet up with the other members of the Defence Force.
Eventually, and it took a lot of persuasion, Mary Ellen managed to persuade him to put down his gun and leave his uniform hung up on the wall and wait for further instructions from whoever and whenever and to forget about the whole thing until such a time as then. Reluctantly, Jimmy acquiesced.
As it turned out, Jimmy was not called upon and no other Germans were ever spotted hiding in the hedge bottom or anywhere else, and Ireland was not being invaded. The two German soldiers who were killed in the crash, were later buried in Crosstown cemetery, nearby. The soldiers were given a Catholic burial because of the medals of Our Lady that each one wore around his neck.
Run, Run, Run Away
From the age of about eleven and a half until thirteen, Bridget did not live at home with her mother at all. She lived with the family of a man called Walter Fitzgerald. Walter, just like others before him, had wanted Bridget to be a companion for his daughter, who was about six or seven years of age. His wife had died just a few years earlier and he felt his daughter needed another female presence in the house, both as a companion and as a helper about the house.
Her mother Mary Ellen, of course, had been through all of this before when her brother Peter, had asked for her to be sent to live with him in Australia, and be a companion for his daughter. At that time, and with Bridget being so young, and Australia so far away, Mary Ellen had been unable bring herself to let Bridget go. But this was a very different proposition altogether.
The same difficulty Mary Ellen had faced then in finding food to put in Bridget’s mouth, along with all her other brothers and sisters, was as much an issue now as it had been then, but the answer to the quandary had now become far easier to stomach. Walter Fitzgerald lived no more than an hour’s journey from Taylorstown. His cottage was virtually home from home.
Even so, Mary Ellen still hesitated, but Bridget’s eldest brother Watty Sinnott, had already made his mind up on the matter. There was little discussion to have. Watty saw to it that no one could or would argue against it. Watty, of course, was now the de facto head of the house, and had been since his father died. There was precious little to be said other than ……… one less mouth to feed.
Anyway, no commitments needed to be made just yet. Both sides could try it for a while and see how things worked out for everyone concerned. Walter’s little girl needed a companion and Bridget would be a perfect match. And in return, she’d be fed, clothes and looked after. Where’s the harm in that? It would all work out fine and if not, after a week or so, she could come back. It would be like she’d never left.
And besides, she’d still be going to the same school at St. Leonard’s and she’d still be with her friends, and she’d still be able to come see her mother, and she’d hardly know the difference. Most importantly of all, she’d be fed and clothed and looked after.
Bridget packed her small bag with the few possessions that were truly hers, and waited for Walter Fitzgerald to come and collect her. Very little fuss was made by her mother or brothers and sisters. She’d be back in a week. Or if not a week, no more than a month, or a couple of months. Not long anyway.
It was 18 long months before she could get back home. Eighteen long, homesick moths and it took three attempts before she succeeded. Bridget liked the Fitzgerald family and it wasn’t an ordeal being a companion to Walter’s daughter, but it wasn’t her home and she missed her family terribly. She missed her friends just as much, if not more so.
Though she could very easily have made the walk back to Taylorstown to see her friends Joan Kane and Babs Kane and Mary Keaton, she was unable to do so because the whole point of her living with Watty Fitzgerald was to be a companion to his daughter. Watty Fitzgerald’s idea of a companion was something akin to having a limpet attached to your hip twenty four seven. It was not that the two girls did not get on, because they did. The problem was that, so long as Walter was watching, neither could get away from each other.
Bridget was hoping that the trial would prove unsuccessful and that she’d be sent home.
Unfortunately, she unwittingly conspired against herself to this end. Ultimately, she was let down by her own success at her job. Walter’s daughter loved her new big sister and, as far as Walter was concerned, that was that. Trapped by her own success and fundamentally unable to act mean, Bridget was slowly coming to realize that this arrangement was growing into something far more permanent than the week or so that was originally talked about.
Her new life was slowly but surely closing in and setting like concrete all about her. It was just the way of it. Though deeply sad and terribly homesick, she was powerless to do anything about it.
And then, in a flash, and in a moment of that came out of nothing, she did do something. And she did it for the most part without thinking. She just went home. After two or three months, she simply left the house, and left Walter Fitzgerald and left his daughter, and walked home to Taylorstown.
Scared though she was of the likely consequences, she walked home pleased as punch with herself for having the courage to act.
Mary Ellen, once over the shock of seeing an unexpected face, held out her hands and hugged her with joy. And then she sat down to think. What had Bridget done? Had she upset anyone? What had she said? Had she made trouble? Why was she here? Bridget tried as best to explain that nothing was wrong and that she’d done nothing except to simply come home.
Shortly after this, and with Mary Ellen still trying to understand what had happened, Watty came home and went into a rage. He insisted that she must go back and Mary Ellen took his side. They decided on a story they could feed to Walter Fitzgerald to placate him, and within a day or so everything would be just fine, and as if nothing had ever happened. Watty would take her back and he would do all the explaining.
And so he did. Watty took his sister back to Walter Fitzgerald’s house that evening and explained the whole thing. He talked about how she just got to be feeling a little sad, a little down and to be missing her friends.
Bridget was beside herself with grief and embarrassment and full of remorse for all the trouble she’d caused. And would Mr Fitzgerald have her back?
Mr Fitzgerald did have her back, and Bridget resumed her role and carried out her duties just as well as she had before she ran away, but her heart still ached to be back at home in her mother’s house in Taylorstown, with her family and with her friends and surrounded by all the familiar things that she could see every time she closed her eyes.
Six or seven months later, she did the same and just as before she was delivered back to the Fitzgerald home like a lost pup being returned to its owners. Just as before excuses were made and explanations were offered and apologies were mouthed and life went on and on and on.
And then a few months on from that Bridget ran away for a third and last time. On seeing her daughter coming home this last time, her mother stepped in between her eldest son and her youngest child and sided with Bridget. Watty admitted defeat. She was back home and back to stay and that was that.
It was now the summer of 1943. Bridget was home, back home and back where she belonged. She was back with Willy, back with her family, back with her friends, Joan, Babs and Mary. She was thirteen now and bursting with energy to live, live, live. All that energy needed an outlet, a place to go and Bridget new exactly where that place was. The Dance Hall.
A few months earlier on St. Patrick’s Day, Dev had made his “comely maidens” speech at a Ceili in Dublin Castle, where he sketched out his dream of an Ireland where Colleens danced at the Crossroads. The age-old Crossroads. This was the same place her mother and her Aunt Kate had sneaked out of the back window in her grandfather’s cottage in order to go to and dance under the yellow moonlight.
Bridget dreamed of dancing too, but not at the Crossroads. Despite Dev’s best efforts, times had moved on and Ireland was moving with it. The new place to go was the Dance Hall.
The Dance Hall
Bridget dreamed of the Dance Hall. And she dreamed of dancing not the Half Step, though she could and did, but of dancing the Waltz and the Fox Trot.
She was thirteen years old now, a young woman as far as she was concerned, and she was determined that things were going to be different from here on. She had already worked enough in her short life and now it was time to live a little while she still had the chance and before her days would be stolen away from her yet again.
For years now Bridget had looked on with envy and an aching heart as she watched the older girls go off to one of the dances that were held in Duncannon, Clongeen and Clonmines. The girls would mostly go there together in small groups, or if alone, chaperoned by an older brother or fiancé.
She loved the very sight of them as they went off together into the night and a world of romance and excitement. They would be dressed up in in their finest clothes and somehow and by some means, be it beg, steal or borrow, they would always manage to find fine skirts and blouses and shoes to wear.
They looked so lovely, and where they were going, so enticing and all of it agonizingly out of reach.
And off they would go and Bridget would be left behind on the side of the road tormented with envy and beside herself with the desire to go with them. Despite all the begging to be allowed to go, and despite her mother having been a lover of dances when she was a girl, Bridget’s pleas had always fallen on deaf ears. Mary Ellen always refused to let her go, just as she and her sister Kate had been refused by their father John Stafford all those years ago.
Mary Ellen had refused so far partly because of Bridget’s age, but for the most part it was because of the associated costs of going to the dance. The admission charge alone was difficult to find. And then in addition to that was the cost of the clothes and everything else that went with it. It was just better to smother the idea under heel and to starve it of any further oxygen for as long as was humanly possible.
Of course, there is a time and season for everything, and once Bridget reached the age of fourteen it became pretty much impossible to say no anymore. Finally, her mother begrudgingly relented.
Bridget could go but only on the condition she was accompanied by one of her brothers. Jimmy took on this role for the most part. He also paid for her entrance fee whenever he could. If he couldn’t, her brother Willy, who was now working with one of the local farmers, would help her out with a few bob.
So, she now had the permission, after waiting for so long to get it, and she had the money, just. She also had the steps and knew them off by heart, after hours of practising them in the playground at school, and on the road outside the house. She had everything you could think of, but still she could not go.
No girl would be seen alive at a dance without appropriate and suitably fine clothes to wear. And Bridget had none. Whatever work she had done so far, she’d done for payment in kind. She had worked for her food and no more. Her mother, of course, had less and less money to get by on with each year that passed. Buying new clothes, or at least fine clothes, or even any kind of clothes for the dance was out of the question.
But where there’s a will, there’s a skirt and blouse, and perhaps even a pair of shoes. Her best friend at this time was Biddy Fitzgerald. Biddy was the niece of Walter Fitzgerald. The Fitzgeralds, though poor like everyone else of course, were not “poor” poor, like the Sinnotts of Tailorstown. In fact, Biddy Fitzgerald was so rich she had not one but two blouses fit to wear to the grandest of dances, and was glad to lend one of them to Bridget.
Bridget now had permission to go the Dance Hall, the money to get in, the clothes to wear, and she knew she knew the steps and the moves by heart. All she needed now was a Prince and silver carriage to take her to the Ball.
On A Bicycle Made For Two
Her brother Jimmy could supply both. Jimmy was a great dancer. He had natural ability, great enthusiasm and he hardly ever missed a dance. More importantly, he also had a bicycle. The final piece of the jigsaw was in place and everything was set for first night of nights at the Ballroom of romance. In addition to teaching her, paying for her and agreeing to escort her, Jimmy also very gallantly carried her to the dance hall on his bike and carried her back home again in the small hours of the morning. Very often, these dances went on until five in the morning and never closed before three.
It is very interesting that it was perhaps the humble bike, more than anything else, which helped establish the Dance Hall culture in rural Ireland at that time and promoted its development throughout rural Ireland in the 1940’s and into the 1950’s.
This is what Patrick Kavanagh had to say about it.
Inniskeen Road: July Evening
The bicycles go by in twos and threes –
There’s a dance in Billy Brennan’s barn tonight,
And there’s the half-talk code of mysteries
And the wink-and-elbow language of delight.
Half-past eight and there is not a spot
Upon a mile of road, no shadow thrown
That might turn out a man or woman, not
A footfall tapping secrecies of stone.
The dances now, of course, were all held in big halls rather than the traditional Crossroads. Moreover, the dances that took place were waltzes, fox trots half sets. Bridget already knew all the steps as she’d been dancing them for as long as she could remember, but to be dancing them now on the wooden dance floor and with people swirling all around her and the spot light picking out couples on the floor, was thrilling.
For Bridget the best Dance Hall of all was Camross Hall.
Camross Hall was built in the mid 1920’s as an all-purpose hall for theatre, GAA meetings and other events. It only came into its own though, after the introduction of the Public Dance Hall Act of 1935, which effectively outlawed house dances. In doing so, this Act created a new role for places like Camross Hall all over Ireland.
It was thought by Dev’s ultra conservative Free State government that folk at these House Dances were getting just a little too amorous and that what went on there was not always in keeping with the letter of the law as laid down by the new glorious and green Free State. Dev decided that enough was enough, and that it was about time that something was done about it, such as banning house dances altogether.
The Government’s intention in passing the Act was to push people into arms of the Church by caroling them in the parochial halls up and down the country where any shenanigans could be stamped on by the boot of the ever present and parish priest. Of course, the people of Ireland, failing to live up to Dev’s expectations of them, had other ideas, and many a local entrepreneur saw great prospects in using venues like Camross Hall or building new ones to provide a service to local people and meet a need, by which people could meet, dance and go a courting far from the menacing gaze of the beady eyed parish priest.
The parochial halls held ceilis and the GAA used them systematically to promote Irish traditional culture in the form of dance and sport. Ironically, Dev’s whole plan horribly backfired because multitudes of people, Bridget included, boycotted the parochial halls in favour of the new Dance Halls.
One sad consequence of this was that traditional Irish dancing in the form of Step Dancing, declined somewhat after this Act because it was not promoted in the new Dance Halls.
Below is listed a couple of the listings for 1945 in Camross Hall. There were none for 1943 that I could find on line, but they would be effectively the same. Notice the reference to the professional band booked to provide the music. Reference is also made to there being a separate place for eating. The catering would have been supplied by professional outlets from Wexford.
Grand Dance on Easter Sunday Night in Camross Hall. Dancing from 9 – 4. Music : Doyle’s Accordion Band. Adm. 3/6 [inc. tax]. Catering extra by Mrs Bradley.
Taghmon Notes : Camross Hall was packed on Patrick’s Night for the mumming competition. Unfortunately, only two sets turned up.
Grand Dance in Camross Hall Sunday May the sixth. Music : The Midnight Serenaders. Dancing 10 – 5. Adm. 3s [inc. tax]. Catering extra by Mrs Bradley.
Spot Prize. Punctured Bicycle
On one Saturday night in 1944, the Mission came to St. Leonard’s and Bridget went to the dance at Camross Hall. As usual she was accompanied by Jimmy and rode with him on his bike. In situations like this, the boy would be seated on the saddle and do the actual peddle pushing, and the girl would be perched precariously on the handle bars.
It was far from comfortable, and by the time they had got to Camross, Bridget would have to spend five or ten minutes trying to revive her legs which had been starved of oxygen for the last half an hour or so. It was a miracle that she could dance at all.
Jimmy was a great dancer himself, but on this night it was Bridget who shone and outperformed him.
Her partner was Johnny Duffy and together they won the “spot prize”, for being judged the best dancers that night. Bridget was given a box of chocolates for her prize and Johnny won a packet of fags. The thrill was like nothing she’d ever experienced before. Her head was spinning even more than her feet, and she didn’t want the night to ever stop or slow down.
It did stop but not until 3:00 am. As people poured out of the Hall they bid each other good night and exchanged jokes. The girls complemented each other on how well they’d done and how good they’d looked as they glided across the dance floor. The scent of the summer blossom lay heavy in the night air and Bridget was so light headed with the scent of it that she feared she might lose her balance and fall off the handle bars of Jimmy’s bike.
She did have to climb down from the handle bars, but not because of the heady night air. Before they were even half back home, Jimmy’s bike got a puncture and they were stranded in the middle of nowhere. There was nothing to be done but walk the remainder of the way and hope to get back before dawn for fear of making scandal. As it turned out, they got back just as people back at home were about to leave for mass. In the same clothes they’d been dancing in all night, they turned on their heels and went to Mass.
Off to a convent
All of this came to an end when the music stopped in the autumn of 1944 and Bridget entered a convent. Still not fifteen and yet the dance was already over. Doyle’s accordion band was to be replaced by the bells of a nunnery, and the long intoxicating nights in Camross Hall were replaced by long regimented days from dawn to dusk, and a life of hard labour working in a laundry.
She didn’t enter as a novice, of course, but as a student in the school run by the nuns. Here, at least in theory, she was to be taught by the Sisters how to be a maid in the houses of her betters and to cater for their needs and to be appreciative of their sensitivities. She was to be trained to be a domestic servant.
She was to be sent to what was known as a Training Institute, which was run by the Mercy Sisters. The only other nuns in Wexford at that time was the Sisters of Charity, and people used to say that the Mercy Sisters had no charity and the Sisters of charity had no mercy.
The Training Institute was, at least to some extent, a proper school and the young girls, some as young as seven or eight, were to be taught the basic things they needed to know and the many skills they needed to master to find work. In practice, however, the Training Institute was a commercial laundry. Indeed, it has been described as little more than a workhouse, supplied by cheap child labour and run with military discipline.
I say this not to be critical of the nuns themselves, who were as much trapped within the culture of the times, as anyone else in 1940’s Ireland. Below, we will look at some of the things the nuns have subsequently said, and said very effectively, in their own defence. First, though, we will look at the Training Institute as it was then and as it was experienced by Bridget and the many other young girls who passed through its doors.
The Training Institute was known locally as Summerhill, and it was situated next to St. Peter’s College and close to the GAA Park. The name itself, “Summerhill”, is common in Ireland and was originally used to name a dirt road which was so muddy and treacherous that it was effectively only passable in the summer months. Figuratively speaking, at least, once a girl was inside its gates, there was no way out until the next summer brought relief.
The Mercy Sisters who ran Summerhill had been in Wexford providing care and education for the poor since the days that followed the Rebellion in 1798. The Convent itself was established in 1840 when Father Lucey provided four nuns from Carlow with a house in Summerhill, and this is where they based themselves and where they are still based to this day.
Above: A photograph of the bottom of Summerhill Road. This was taken in January of 2015. On Ordnance Survey maps from the 1800s, you can see that this particular location (the roundabout at the end of Summerhill) was called “Summerhill Cross Roads”.
In 1842, the Sisters took over The Redmond Talbot Orphanage in Summerhill and renamed it the Sisters of Mercy Training Institute. This is the name it had when Bridget entered in 1944 and it kept the same until it closed.
In recent years it, and the Mercy Sisters, have attracted unwanted attention and scathing criticism because of its close similarities to the Magdalene Laundries, and all the stories of abuse that went on in these institutions. It would seem to me, based on listening to my mother’s memories of the time she spent there, that this is an unfair comparison, but we will look at this closer below.
Many of the girls who went to the Magdalene laundries, were poor unfortunate girls who had got into trouble through one way or another such as pre-marital pregnancy or petty crime of kind or another. Many others had been abandoned by their families. This was not the case with Summerhill. Of the girls who went to the Summerhill Training Institute, most of them either volunteered to go or were sent by their own families.
Bridget, as with all the other girls, had been sent there to be trained in the necessary skills to get a job. Due to emigration, and Irish woman signing up to work in the British armed forces during the War, there was a shortage of trained domestic servants in Ireland at this time. To be trained by the Sisters in the Convent of Mercy would be her passport into a field of work that were actively looking for young girls to fill the vacant roles.
Going to Summerhill was certainly not Bridget’s idea, and if she could have said no or stopped it in any way she would have done so, but she was powerless to do anything about it. Once she came back home from Walter Fitzgerald’s house, her mother Mary Ellen was still left with the unanswerable question, of how to feed her?
Indeed, now that she was almost a woman, it was her duty to go out and work like her brothers and to bring money back to her mother and help lighten the weekly effort to pay the bills and the creditors and put food on the table.
The opportunities for work in Taylorstown and Ballycullane for a young woman were minimal. Once she came back from Walter Fitzgerald’s, she busied herself doing jobs like thinning beat whenever asked but there was very little work of any kind to be had. At times when there was literally no work and she used to walk the country lanes picking raspberries and blackberries. She would then try to sell them at Pierce Powers pub in Ballycullane. It was something and therefore better nothing, but only just. Something else was needed now.
Once Christmas had passed, the decision was made and that was that. She would be put with the Mercy Sisters and they would give her the skills she needed to go out and work in a proper job that paid proper money, rather than in kind, and she would take up her full responsibilities in the house as an adult, just like her elder brothers and sisters.
The application to join the Training Institute was made through her cousin, Mary Joan Wheaton, who was a nun herself at the Summerhill Convent. Bridget’s mother assured her that her cousin, Mary Joan, would take great care of her and she’d be treated better than any of the other girls. Bridget found this immensely reassuring, but as things turned out, her cousin was transferred to another convent within a few days of Bridget arriving. But the deed was done now and her fate was sealed.
The Sisters Of Mercy
In early January 1944, just a few weeks before her fourteenth birthday, Bridget entered the Convent of Mercy in Wexford Town. Her mother, Mary Ellen, made the journey into Wexford with her, but she only went so far as the gates of the convent. Here they said their goodbyes, and Bridget went on alone. It seems brutal to us today that a mother could do this to her daughter, but we simply cannot see things as it was for people back in those times. The walls between simple rural folk and the Sisters were high and wide.
Before telling Bridget’s own story and speaking of her direct experiences of Summerhill, it might be best to set the scene by looking at the whole Summerhill phenomenon from the perspective of one or two other women who also attended the Institute at about the same time. It is useful to do so, because their time at Summerhill and their account of it seems to be at odds to some extent with Bridget’s account of the same Institute.
These women’s experience of Summerhill, just like the women who were locked away in the Magdalene laundries, seems to have left them very bitter and emotionally scarred. One woman, Diane, entered Summerhill in 1947 and left in 1950, so a few years after Bridget had gone. She related her experiences of the Training Institute as follows:
When I wasn’t crying in pain, I was crying inside. I cried for my friends and for the life I’d known. God knows it had not been perfect, but I had been free. Here we lived in fear. We walked around with our heads bowed. I became quiet and withdrawn, and that’s not like me. We slept in huge dormitories and at night we couldn’t talk. The biggest sin of all was wetting the bed. There would be a bed inspection in the mornings and if the nuns found wet sheets they would strip them off the beds and tie them around the girl’s faces. They’d do the same if there was blood on the bed when you had your period. But as they limited the number of horrible bleached-cloth sanitary towels we were allowed, that was almost impossible to prevent. I got caught that way more than once. They never called us by our names in that place. Sometimes they used our numbers; I was number 83, but usually it was just a pointed finger and, ‘You! And you, and you!’
Diane Croghan, 65, lives in Dublin and works in catering. She spent three years in the Sisters of Mercy Summerhill Training School, a Magdalene laundry in Wexford, before escaping when she was 15.
Another woman, Margaret, was in Summerhill a decade later and had the following to say to a local newspaper in 2013:
Margaret spent time in nuns’ Wexford laundry – but has got no apology
PUBLISHED12/03/2013 | 05:38
1Magaret Cowman at her home in Chambersland New Ross
As the Goverment continues to ponder the McAleese report into the Magdalene laundries, a New Ross woman has told of the horrific time she spent at a similar institution in Wexford, which has not yet come under the brief of the Magdalene inquiry.
Margaret Cowman (née Cullen), a native of Ballywilliam, spent four years at the Summerhill Training Centre near St Peter’s College, but says it was more akin to a slave labour institution than a training centre.
She says that the apology made by Taoiseach Enda Kenny in the Dáil three weeks ago today (Tuesday) gives her hope that the Government is beginning to recognise the pain and suffering of all the women and children in the laundries.
However, she says this does not go far enough because Wexford’s now demolished Sisters of Mercy laundry in Summerhill is still being referred to as a ‘training centre’.
‘I was thrilled by the apology by the head of state, but I was very distressed and shocked to hear that the House of Mercy was referred to as a training school.
‘The only training for me was scrubbing floors and polishing and sorting out foul laundry, putting sheets in the dryer and putting them through the colander for ironing, washing dirty laundry in the sink or working in the sorting room.’
‘I believe I was aged 12 and a half or 13 when I went in,’ Margaret says.
‘I was taken into this “House of Mercy” by the local priest, Fr Clancy, and my mother. It is my belief that I was placed there because my mother thought I would get into trouble, get pregnant. But I, along with my siblings, was told that I had been placed there to educate me to get trained in English and in mathematics.’
She estimates that this was between 1953 and 1957.
In July 2011, when it was first suggested that the Irish government might make an official apology to the survivors of the Magdalene laundries, Margaret says she wrote to Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform Brendan Howlin to tell him of her experiences at the so-called Summerhill Training Centre.
She says she did this as she felt it was time that the government recognised that children that were sent there were treated in the very same way as all the other victims at the officially recognised Magdalene laundries across the country.
On July 18 she received a letter from Minister Howlin stating that he had received her letter and was forwarding it on to Minister of State at the Department of Justice Kathleen Lynch.
Margaret says it wasn’t until November 26, 2012, when she received a letter from Minister Lynch’s office stating that her correspondence had been ‘brought to Minister Lynch’s attention, who has noted all of your comments and taken them on board’.
Margaret is disheartened by what she claims is the State’s reluctance to recognise the suffering of the children who were ‘incarcerated’ at this particular laundry.
She says that she will stop at nothing, even if it involves hiring a solicitor, to ‘pursue this issue as long as I live’. She said she is intent on proving that the women and children who were sent to Summerhill suffered in the very same way as those at any other Magdalene laundry did.
‘My basic day began at 6 a.m. for Mass and I recollect that breakfast was at about 7 a.m. and consisted of bread and butter. Different girls would be given different tasks to do each day. Typically at about 7.30 a.m. we would begin scrubbing big long corridors and dormitories,’ she said.
‘We would then wash the dishes after breakfast and laundry work would start at 8.30 a.m. when girls would have to sort foul laundry. It often had faeces from the local nursing home, Ely House. On reflection we were simply child labour and were treated as such.’
Most of the hotels in town, such as the Talbot Hotel, the County Hotel, White’s Hotel and the Johnstown Castle Agricultural College, sent their laundry to the Sisters of Mercy, says Margaret.
A typical day in the laundry would usually end at 9 p.m. but if the girls had not finished their work at that point Margaret claims that the nuns would dim the lights so that ‘anyone passing by could not see the lights on in the laundry and know that the inmates were still working’, and the girls would be forced to work up until midnight.
It was also the practice of the House of Mercy to contract the girls out to the community to work as servants. Margaret spent one stint working for a local family where she claims she was physically and verbally abused.
Margaret can remember a green laundry van would come in and out of the convent dropping off and collecting the laundry. She claims the driver had a board that read ‘Sisters of Mercy Laundry’ which he would always remove when he parked up in the convent because the girls were never supposed to know that that was what it was actually called. They were to believe that it was a training centre and not a laundry despite never once engaging in any lessons or even being given books to read.
Eventually after four years and several failed attempts to escape the nuns’ control Margaret managed to leave and made her way back to Ballywilliam, where her mother told her: ‘You’d better get a job quickly because you can’t stay here.’
Margaret left Wexford and emigrated to London. It was only then that she realised the full extent of the damage which her time at Summerhill had caused.
‘I wanted to become a nurse but I had so much to catch up on after years out of school. My English was dreadful and I had no maths.’
Margaret said that when she was first sent to the House of Mercy she was given the impression that she was going somewhere that would give her a top class education, which her family would not have been unable to pay for without the support of the Sisters of Mercy. However, this was not to be the case and her years at the convent actually inhibited her education more than anything.
She says things were different in England where she met people that offered to help her catch up on all of her missed lessons. One teacher, she says, offered to tutor free of charge. She enrolled as a trainee nurse, and after two years of hard work and attending extra classes by night, she became a qualified nurse.
While living in London, Margaret fell in love with a Waterford man. The couple married and raised two children before he died at the age of 49.
After 50 years away, she decided to move back to Co. Wexford and now lives at Chamberlain Close in New Ross.
New Ross Standard
First of all, the two ladies above told their story to a journalist, whereas Bridget told her story to her son, me, (Kevin). People articulate things differently according to the person they are relating them to.
Secondly, the two women above were extremely disgruntled that they had not been included in the compensation package that had been negotiated for the victims of the Magdalene laundries. They felt they were being unfairly treated and that their experiences and sufferings were not being acknowledged in the same way that the girls who went to the Magdalene Laundries were.
None of this is to say that what they had to say in their recollections of their experiences at Summerhill wasn’t true. It is just that, different circumstances can colour our perceptions of the same thing. It would seem to me that Bridget had a slightly different experience of life at Summerhill, and remembered her time there in a slightly different way too.
Here is her story, so you can judge for yourself.
Bridget’s Account Of Her Time In Summerhill
Bridget remembered doing very little in the form of lessons while at Summerhill. There were certainly no lessons in reading, writing and arithmetic. It simply wasn’t that kind of school. Whatever “training” that went on or “learning” that took place was geared toward orientating the girls toward the “virtues” and protecting them from the “vices”. The nuns would talk to the girls about what Bridget described as the “rights and wrongs”. Catechism was also taught, of course, but as the girls were mostly aged ten or eleven or above, it was assumed that they would already have been catechized in the main. This is something which very nearly resulted in Bridget bringing the roof down on her head.
The Rosary was said almost daily, and all the girls were made to participate. Unfortunately, Bridget was not familiar with the order of the mysteries and all the words said in-between each decade. She was saved, however, by a very kind girl called Mary Joe Brady, who taught her all the mysteries on the quiet and when the nuns weren’t around. Mary Joe became the first friend Bridget made at the Convent, and she proved to be a very good friend. The two girls were fiercely loyal to one another.
Of course, the nuns also taught the girls how to act in the presence of their social betters, how to address them, how to anticipate their needs and how to meet their demands with the least amount of fuss. These were the core lessons, and these were the skills they had been sent to Summerhill to learn.
Despite such “lessons” first and foremost, the Convent was also a place of work. A place of hard work. That aspect of Summerhill is very much in agreement with Diane and Margaret’s account above. Hard, relentless physical work was the everyday experience for the girls who were sent to Summerhill. The work they did was to do the laundry of the good people of Wexford town who would bring them their dirty washing and in exchange for a few pence have it cleaned, pressed and returned to them the following day.
On her first day, Bridget was given a uniform to wear, as were all the other girls. The uniform was functional but not especially smart. It was made up of a plane blue tunic and a yellow blouse. These were the clothes that she would wear from morning until night, day in day out except for Sundays. She didn’t mind in the least, and never thought it was in the least bit strange. She was no different from any of the other girls and she didn’t mind that, even if she didn’t exactly like it.
One thing she certainly didn’t like, and something that came as an almighty shock to her, was that she would be starting off her new life in the Training Institute in debt. “Debt” was very much a four-letter word for a young girl like Bridget. It was something to be feared and something that would ultimately come to no good. She had come here to be trained for work and to then be able to earn money. Now she was being told that she already owed money.
It was explained to her by the nuns, and before she’d had time to find her way round the place, that she was now in debt to the good Sisters for the fine clothes she had been given, and that she might also incur other debts as and when the good Sisters needed to pay for this or pay for that in order to give her the education and the training she had come here to receive. The first thing Bridget thought of was what on earth her mother would say if she knew of this?
The nuns knew exactly what all of the girls were concerned about. But they were not to worry about this. The good Sisters would not be annoying their mothers about this. For Bridget, this was an enormous relief and she could feel herself breathing easy once again. The nuns then went on to explain how the debt would be paid off and their slates wiped clean.
Once Bridget had completed her training and so long as the Nun’s honestly believed she was a girl of good standing, they’d be able to find her a good job somewhere with a fine family here in Wexford, or perhaps even further afield. If the nuns were happy with her progress at Summerhill, she’d be sent her on her way with excellent references. Once she was working, of course, she would earn good money, especially if the references merited it, and then, thanks be to God, she’d be able to pay back her debts to the good sisters. The debt would be paid off in no time and once that was taken care of she’d be able to send money back to her mother in Taylorstown.
Each day began the same with mass at 6:00 am in the Chapel. The girls would walk in together. They would then take their places at the back of the chapel, dressed in their uniforms, unless it was Sunday, and with their beads in hand. Mass was immediately followed by breakfast in the kitchen. For the most part, breakfast was a bowl of porridge and a slice of bread with a scrape of butter.
The dinners, however, were always meat based. According to Bridget, the food was actually very good, but then she was comparing it to her experience back in Taylorstown were eating any meat at would have been a rare treat. She was also delighted to be served a pudding each day after dinner. If anything was bad about Summerhill, as far as Bridget was concerned, it was certainly not the food.
After breakfast the girls would then all march in file along to the laundry rooms where they would work, perhaps “toil” would be a better choice of word, throughout the day. The work essentially involved the girls washing, drying and ironing. Everything was done by hand and it was back breaking work.
Bedtime, officially at least, was 9:00 pm, but no one slept very much until 10:00 pm or even later. This is where the stories and the recollections begin to drift apart. While Diane and Margaret seem to remember nothing that was good about Summerhill, Bridget did remember at least a few good things about the place. In fact, she had many fond memories of the Summerhill, especially of her time spent with her friends there.
Long after the nuns had turned out the lights, and prayers had been said, the girls would still be up chatting. If they weren’t laughing at something funny that had happened or been said, they’d be consoling someone who was down for some reason. While lying in their beds, the girls would invariably talk of home and recall faces and friends now left behind. They would also tell tales about the Sisters such as Sister so and so did this or did that. Bridget particularly liked Sister Mary of the Sacred Heart, so she’d always defend her if any one of the girls said anything particularly mean about her, such as her having the face of an old sow.
On other occasions, and not infrequently, a pillow fight would break out and girls would leap out of their beds and batter some other unsuspecting girl who was already half asleep. The pillow victim would then leap out of her bed to get revenge on someone who, rightly or wrongly, had been identified as the culprit.
These were good girls, every one of them, and Bridget very quickly made friends with so many of them. Her best friends were Brenda Moran, Peggy Carrol and Kate Dugan. As far as I know, Bridget lost touch with them over the years and I don’t know what became of them.
Sundays were the best days. In the first place, no work was done and, secondly, after Mass they were free to leave the Convent and pretty much go wherever and do whatever they pleased. It wasn’t a requirement, but nearly always the girls went out in large groups of up to fifteen or more. They might go for a walk in the park, which was just a short walk away. Here they would sit and talk and while away the hours until it was time to return to the Convent.
Some girls even liked to go to see one of the football matches that were played every Sunday at the GAA club in Wexford Park just a little further down Summerhill Road. On one or two occasions, Bridget joined them, but she wasn’t in the least bit interested in the game. Many other girls would go along to the GAA club to find more people to sell their raffle tickets to. The Sisters at the Convent of Mercy organised a weekly raffle to raise funds for the Convent and each girl was expected to her bit in helping to make this a success by selling as many tickets as possible.
Some girls were better than others at doing this. Perhaps this was because they were a little more pushy, or perhaps they were just more lucky. In the end it didn’t really matter either way. The Nuns made it known publicly which girls had sold the most tickets that week and their names were read out for special praise. It didn’t matter in the least whether this was the result of sheer graft, divine intervention or pure luck. In the end it all added up to the same thing.
A Familiar Face Brings Bad News
On one Sunday afternoon, Bridget too went along to a football match that was being played that afternoon at the GAA Park. She had no interest in the game whatsoever, of course, but it did rankle her that her name had never been read out by the Sisters as one of the girls who had sold an impressive amount of raffle tickets that week. She was determined to put this right and sell every ticket she’d been given to sell.
Things were going very well indeed, and she was already well on her way to selling nearly half of her batch of tickets, when she saw a very familiar face in the crowd. She looked once, and then twice, and then she recognised who it was. Stood just a few yards in front of her and out of uniform she saw Garda Clancy, the father of Theresa, the little girl who she used to escort to and from school every day.
Mr Clancy. Good afternoon, Sir.
The Guard, who wasn’t in uniform, recognised her immediately. He smiled instinctively, but then held back before greeting her. It was odd, and Bridget picked up on it straight away, but acted as if she hadn’t noticed. She smiled again, broader still, and asked Guarda Clancy about Theresa and how she was. Once again, the Guarda looked awkward, almost as if he was embarrassed, and he could only mutter his words. But there was a real gentleness in his words.
Theresa is fine, Biddy. Just fine.
And then he paused. It was only for an instant, but Bridget could see he was distracted by someone, and she couldn’t help thinking that someone was herself. She was smiling still, but he didn’t smile back anymore. She thought for a moment he might be angry, but his face bore no trace of anger. He didn’t look angry at all. It was almost as if he looked concerned.
Bridget’s smile was now leaking away from the corners of her mouth and now it was she who stumbled over her words. She tried to think of something meaningless to say simply to fill the silence, but couldn’t. She wasn’t sure whether to continue through the awkward pause or just leave the poor man alone with his thoughts and quit disturbing his peace.
Mr Clancy, I have tickets for the Convent of Mercy raffle and the prize is ……
Guarda Clancy put his hand on her shoulder, so gently, so kind. She looked into his eyes and she froze.
Biddy, my deepest sympathies on the death of poor Peg.
Bridget said nothing. Guarda Clancy said nothing. Nothing could be said. Nothing was understood. Guarda Clancy let go her shoulder and walked away. She walked away too, with neither strength nor direction. There was no place to go to and no means of getting there.
Rightly or wrongly, and for her own reasons, her mother had decided not to tall her of the death of her sister, Elizabeth, just weeks earlier. It was thought that had she known, she would have left the Convent of Mercy and not returned.
The Loneliest Place
Bridget was taken back to the Convent by her friends, Brenda Moran, Peggy Carrol and Kate Dugan. They had found her wandering aimlessly and ran to her aid once they realised her distress. In the Convent, both the Sisters and the girls offered their condolences and tried their best to console her.
She was allowed time by herself, but she was watched over.
That night, in their beds, her good friends comforted her still, or at least as best they could. But there were no words to be said. None that brought understanding, nor any embrace that brought release, and no prayers that brought peace. In her dormitory bed she turned her face to the wall, while her burning tears did nothing to drown the pain rising from her broken heart.
Bridget’s time in the Summerhill Training Institute was hard. It was menial, and it was relentless in its insistence that she was there for one reason only and that was to serve her betters and be grateful for the opportunity to be able to do so. Her life with the Sisters was a struggle, but with the help of her friends she got through. She went in a girl who thought she was a woman, and came out a woman who knew she was no longer a girl.
In her talks with me, she never said a bad word against any of the Mercy Sisters at Summerhill. She told me specifically that the nuns were “never cruel” to her in any personal level. She certainly talked about the hard times and often cruel times that she and the other girl there lived through, but she never laid the blame for any of this at the feet of the Mercy Sisters. She blamed it on the Times.
She blamed it on the Bad Times in Ireland in the 1940’s for poor rural people like her. She also marveled at the progress she had witnessed in her life and all the good things that people like me take for granted and fail to appreciate or give thanks for.
Bridget left the Sisters of Mercy in Summerhill in early September 1946, just over a year and a half after joining. She left of her own accord. She left at a timing of her own choosing and she left for her own reasons. As we shall see below, the Sisters found her a job to go to directly from the Convent and, on starting that job, she very quickly wished she’d never left the Convent at all. That is hardly a savage condemnation of the regime the Sisters ran at Summerhill.
Bridget was never a victim her whole life. She refused to be a victim. She chose to be a fighter.
The Sisters Fight Back
Before we move on to the next stage of Bridget’s life, it would not be fair if we didn’t allow some time for the nuns at Summerhill to speak in their own defense. As I said previously, based on my mother’s testimony, what little I have of it, it would seem to me that the Mercy Sisters were unfairly treated in being tarnished with the same brush as the Sisters who ran the invidious regimes in many, or perhaps even all, of the Magdalene Laundries throughout Ireland.
What follows is what one of the Sisters at Summerhill had to say in her own defence. It is presented here in her own words and without any commentary from me. Make of it what you will.
Anonymous16 July 2013 at 14:14
The whole Magdalene Laundry thing is just another plot by the Irish secularists and anti-clerics to attack our Church.
Many of those women had a much better life in the care of the sisters than they would have had at home.
They had a warm bed, decent food, a religious upbringing and were taught how to cook, bake, wash, iron and be home-makers.
We all hard times and difficult home lives in the Ireland on the 40s, 50s and 60s.
We are just living in an Ireland now that has abandoned God and the faith and an Ireland where everybody is a so called victim with their hand out.
Ireland needs to return to the Sacred Heart and the Immaculate Heart of Mary and to people offering up their sufferings with Our Lord on Calvary.
Mercy Sister – Wexford
Another Sister, not speaking for Summerhill specifically, but for the Magdalene laundries in general, when quizzed by a journalist about the demands being made for an apology, retorted,
Apologise for what?
Nuns Claim No Role in Irish Laundry Scandal
By: Claire Mc CormackMay 29, 2013
DUBLIN (WOMENSENEWS)– The sit-down interview took place over two nights, behind the walls of the convent where they both live.
On the first night, Sister B opened the gates and directed me to her apartment where Sister A was waiting. I didn’t meet any other members of their religious order as I walked through the convent.
As I positioned my Dictaphone for my story for The God Slot, a program on Ireland’s National Public Service Broadcaster, RTÉ Radio 1, the nuns looked at the recording equipment with suspicion. But they didn’t back out.
It was Feb. 11, almost a week after the publication of the McAleese Report, a damning publication linking the Irish State with the incarceration of over 2,500 women between 1922 and 1996 and failing to supervise their care. In reality this number is likely to be much higher but many records did not survive.
I was there so that Irish nuns, for the first time, could comment on a long-simmering scandal over subject matter that has drawn high-profile attention, including the 2002 movie The Magdalene Sisters.
The interview was agreed to on the condition the nuns or their order was not identified because they feared the backlash that would follow if their names became public.
In return for anonymity, the nuns spoke frankly and openly about what they believed has become a “one-sided anti-Catholic forum” about the Magdalene Laundries in the Irish media. During our conversation, both stated that they had nothing personally or directly to do with the orders involved in the scandal. Nothing directly or personally, they emphasized.
They also made clear that they strongly believed the religious orders that operated the laundries had done nothing untoward and perhaps even should be commended.
‘Apologis e for What?’
“Apologis e for what?” demanded Sister A, her voice choked with emotion. “Apologis e for providing a service? We provided a free service for the country . . . All the orders involved saw a need in society and they tried to respond to it in the best way that they could and there was a terrible need for a lot of those women because they were on the street, with no social welfare and starving. We provided shelters for them. It was the ‘no welfare state’ [a term often used to describe the Ireland of that era] and we are looking with today eyes at a totally different era.”
Sister B echoed that view. “They were not laundries as such. They were refuges originally. Washing was taking in to fund the running of them and to make a living.”
The McAleese Report, recommended by the United Nations Committee Against Torture, confirms the Irish State gave lucrative cleaning contracts to 10 Magdalene Laundries, located across the country and run by four orders of nuns. The contracts included one to clean the uniforms of the Irish Defense Force.
“All the shame of the era is being dumped on the religious orders . . . the sins of society are being placed on us,” said Sister B.
“I’m glad the report was written because it kind of takes the lid of an era of Irish society that anybody under 60 years of age hasn’t a clue about,” said Sister A, as she shifted in her seat. “I think it’s great that the women are releasing themselves of the stigma to be able to speak and find their voice. To say I was in the Magdalene home; I survived; I’m here; I made it in life. OK with bad memories; but I made it and that is an achievement.”
Magdalene Asylums Began in 1765
The Magdalene Laundries grew out of the Magdalene Asylums, the first of which was set up in 1765 as a short-term reformatory for “fallen” women. In 1829 the Catholic Church appropriated them, and they began turning into the longer-term laundries, run by the Sisters of Charity, Sisters of Mercy, Sisters of Charity of Our Lady of Refuge and the Good Shepard Sisters.
The causes for women to be sent to the laundries expanded to include unmarried mothers, women with “special needs,” and women considered as too pretty or tempting to men. Those without families anxious or willing to claim them could stay for a long time, some stayed their whole lives. The inquiry found six months was the average length of stay.
In addition to their work in the laundries, the women were required to endure long periods of prayer and silence for their sins.
“The nuns profited from our labour,” said Maureen Sullivan, 61, the youngest known-survivor in an interview. “I often saw big orders coming in with new materials and rosary beads and sweaters for the nuns . . . I saw that they kept money rolled up in rubber bands and hidden in biscuit tins and they were then given up to the bishop.”
The McAleese Report concluded that the institutions barely broke even and were not run on a commercial basis.
“We have always lived very frugal lives. The money paid for their food and their keep,” said Sister B, referring to the women who worked in the laundries.
Asylum records estimate that 30,000 women were held captive in Ireland‘s Magdalene Laundries. The youngest was 9 and the oldest was 89. Almost 900 women and children died while living and working in them. Ireland’s last such home closed in October 1996.
The oldest known Magdalene survivor, Madge O’ Connell, died on May 16, aged 97.
The McAleese report said that 10 percent of Magdalene residents were sent in by their families, almost 9 percent were referred by the Roman Catholic Church and 17 percent entered voluntarily. There is no surviving documentation on the rest. No evidence of sexual abuse was included in the report.
Church Blamed for Stigmatizing Women
The Catholic Church’s role was not explored by the McAleese report. However, a crucial argument by survivors, which has gotten wide press attention, is that the church encouraged families and the state to stigmatize “fallen” women and send them away.
Sister B strongly protested that view. “The society those women grew up in encouraged them to be compliant and to conform and all those who ended up in the laundries went against that stereotype,” she said.
My second evening with the two nuns came on Feb. 19, hours after Prime Minister Enda Kenny offered an official state apology to the women who suffered and announced plans to set up a compensation fund. Survivors could claim up to $260,000 for unpaid work and for physical, psychological and emotional damage.
Both nuns said the figure was excessive since residents in the Magdalene Laundries “did get their keep.”
Said Sister A: “I understand there was a lot of pressure on Kenny to Apologis e and of course we are all sorry for the society of that time. I think it is very important to remember that he didn’t just Apologis e for the state but he also Apologis ed for the society. Because even if a woman did escape and jump the walls she still wasn’t free from the stigma because the stigma was in society. It was a whole society thing. It wasn’t just because they were in the Magdalene.”
Justice for Magdalenes, a voluntary advocacy group, ended its campaign on May 22. “JFM has achieved its twin objectives of an official State apology and the establishment of a compensation scheme . . . Responsibility to ensure justice is delivered now rests with Irish society, including the Church, State, families and local communities,” reads a statement on the voluntary group’s website.
The Law Reform Commission of Ireland is currently assessing how the government could provide payment to former residents. These plans have also urged Magdalene survivors in Northern Ireland to seek similar justice from the British government, reported the Washington Post on May. 1.
I told the nuns that I recently interviewed survivor Maureen Sullivan. After her father died she was placed in New Ross Magdalene Laundry, Co. Wexford, aged 12, in the care of the Good Shepard Sisters.
“By day I would work in the laundry but by night I would sleep in St. Aidan’s Industrial School,” Sullivan said in a phone interview. “It was long, hard tedious work and because I was small they made a timber box for me to sleep in. I remember being hidden in a tunnel when the school inspectors came. I can only assume that this was due to the fact that I was too young to be working in the laundry.”
She went on: “I didn’t know why I was put in. I didn’t know how long I would be there. I couldn’t contact my family. I couldn’t speak to anyone except to God when I was forced to pray for penance for sins I didn’t commit. I still blame the nuns: the stigma they caused took over my life and forced me to pretend I was a different person with a different past.”
I asked the Sisters what they thought of this story.
Sister B sat forward to answer. “I know a lot of abuse cases have been reported in the media and some of these may have been exceptional circumstances but I’m sure they were not everyday events. In terms of abuse, I’d say the residents did work very hard but the nuns would say they worked hard too. Everybody worked hard. Factory work is hard today. It’s monotonous. It’s tedious. The hours are long.”
In a statement to the Irish press, the Magdalene Survivors Together said the group was “shocked, horrified and enormously upset” by how the nuns portrayed the laundries.
“I think they [the nuns] are stopping the women from healing. The women were starting to heal and forgive but now it’s going to be very difficult for them,” survivor Maureen Sullivan told The Journal, a Dublin based website.
But some who had heard the radio program stood up for what the nuns said in the interview. “I have wanted the nuns to speak out, because those of us who lived through that time know what life was like . . . Those girls were abandoned by their families . . . well done Sister A and Sister B,” wrote Elizabeth Murphy in an email to The God Slot.
Claire Mc Cormack is a reporter based in Dublin, Ireland. A regular contributor to The Irish Times and RTÉ Radio 1, she covers religion, women’s issues and human interest stories.
The Bells Of Shandon
In September of 1945 and within a few months of hearing of her sister Peg’s death, Bridget had left the Convent of Mercy and entered full time employment. Paid employment, and paid in pounds, not kind. She left the bells of the nunnery for the Bells of Shandon, but they didn’t toll kindly for her.
The Mercy Sisters at Summerhill had found her the job, but it was Bridget herself who had asked to go. She could just as easily have opted to stay. When news of the job in Cork was presented to the girls, it was Bridget who volunteered to go. Her new job, and her first ever full-time job as a paid employee rather than merely working for her keep, was as a maid for a rich family in Cork. More specifically, she was to work as a maid for a bank manager, Mr McCarthy, and his wife.
Mr McCarthy was a fine man. Bridget considered him a gentleman, and she liked him very much. He was naturally kind, and never mistreated her or spoke harshly to her, which is what she had been led to believe to expect. Indeed, he treated her with a kind of respect she had never experienced before in her whole life. This was something she certainly didn’t expect to receive from a man of Mr McCarthy’s class and social standing.
Married Above Her Station
His wife, Mrs McCarthy, was the exact opposite. Mrs McCarthy made her position very clear to Bridget from the first day she entered the house. Bridget was her maid, and she wasn’t liked, she wasn’t trusted and she would be watched at all times, day and night. No nonsense, or any of the shenanigans typical of a girl of Bridget’s class, would be put up with.
One of the first things Mrs McCarthy pointed out to Bridget was that she’d could be sent back to the Convent of Mercy just as easily as she had been sent to the McCarthy’s in Cork. All it needed was one false move, one wrong turn, or for Mrs McCarthy to be given any reason for complaint or any kind of grief at all.
All of this was explained to Bridget before she’d even taken off her coat. She listened without a word and then curtsied and said,
Yes Ma’me. Of course, Ma’me.
She tried to assure Mrs McCarthy that the nuns in Wexford had never had any trouble from her and that she wouldn’t be any trouble to Mrs McCarthy and her husband here in Cork either. She moved to take the reference out of her bag that Sister Mary had written. Mrs McCarthy told her to stop. She wasn’t in the least bit interested in her new housemaid’s blathering and was quick to tell her so.
We’ll see how you get on in the next day or so. Now come with me.
Before she was shown where she herself would sleep, Bridget was taken away by Mrs McCarthy and shown exactly what her work would be from morning to night, and how it needed to be done, and that in this house there was a right way and a wrong way and God forbid she ever confuse the two.
If I have to send you back to the good Sisters in Wexford, Biddy, I’ll be sure to tell them exactly why I did so.
Finally, and it took an eternity, Bridget was allowed to take off her coat and was shown to her room. With lip pinching beneficence, Mrs McCarthy, graciously announced that given she’d travelled so far and was no doubt tired from the journey, she might like to rest for a moment or two before commencing her duties. She turned to leave but before she closed the door, she concluded with,
Of course, sure a young girl like yourself wouldn’t be getting so tired as easily as that?
She looked back over her shoulder, disdainfully at the waif she just been so good as to take into her house.
Let me know when you’re ready to start.
Bridget put down her small battered case by her bed and tried to breath. Breathe in the air. Breathe deep and long and let it out slowly. Remember those days, and not so long ago, when you could fill your lungs freely, and laugh till your lungs ached so much you had to suck in the air over and over again. She took off her coat, laid it on the bed next to her unopened case, opened the door and went downstairs. Mrs McCarthy was waiting, in anticipation, at the bottom.
I’m not tired at all Ma’me. I’m ready to start now Ma’me, if you please. Thank you Ma’me.
Mrs McCarthy’s pinched lips almost betrayed a smile. Catching herself on, she turned on her heels and made her way to the kitchen.
The first day was a bad day, but at least it gave Bridget forewarning for the next day, and the day after that and the day after that. Bridget knew she would be unhappy here because she knew she could do no good here. Nothing good could be done for Mrs McCarthy. It wasn’t in her nature to recognise it.
Over the coming days and weeks and months, she took great delight in finding fault with whatever work Bridget did. Whatever she did, she did it wrong. Whatever she said, was said out of turn and/or was impertinent. And Bridget’s response, when her slovenliness and her clumsiness and her untidiness were pointed out to her, was always the same,
It burned her heart with indignation to have to say it. But she did have to say it. Apologies, and increasingly profuse ones, came to be her only means of communication with Mrs McCarthy. It was awful but bearable because it was only what she had expected from the first time she’d set eyes on Mrs McCarthy. Bad as it was, she could live it. But then came the false accusations, and these cut to the bone.
Apologising for no good reason is, of course, soul destroying, but to be unable to defend yourself against false accusations, is death by self-denial. To have to apologise for something you haven’t done, is tantamount to carrying out a character assassination on your own character. It is the beginning of the end. And if you don’t end it, then it will be the end of you.
A month or so after Bridget first arrived, Mrs McCarthy accused Bridget of breaking the iron used for pressing the clothes. Bridget had done no such thing at all, and Mrs McCarthy knew full well she hadn’t done this. The iron had never worked well from the day one. Bridget had tried to use it as best she could and had never drawn attention to its inadequacy for fear of the inadequacy being blamed on her. But now it was beyond any kind of use at all. The ghost had left the machine, and Bridget was left holding the handle.
She reported the fact that it was broken, but Mrs McCarthy immediately accused Bridget of concocting a web of lies and excuses to cover up her deliberate act of sabotage.
Is this the thanks I get for taking you in?
Bridget tried again to explain, but when Mrs McCarthy made it plain she was not interested in explanations, masquerading as lies and excuses, Bridget stood her ground.
She insisted, and then pleaded with Mrs McCarthy that in truth the broken the iron had been broken from the day she first set foot in the house. The iron had barely functioned at all from the start but she hadn’t liked to say, and that she‘d done her best to do a good job with the iron even though it was clearly malfunctioning, and barely fit for use at all.
It was a step too far. Mrs McCarthy, now shaking and visibly outraged with the impertinence of the waif stood before her, raised her hand to indicate silence.
Let’s be clear now Biddy what’s being said here. Are you calling me….. me, that is, a liar, at all? Is that what it is, Biddy?
The argument was over. There was nothing that could be said against that. Nothing except,
No Ma’me. Of course not Ma’me. Sorry Ma’me.
The money needed to repair the iron would be deducted from Bridget’s weekly wage. Priding herself on her own magnanimity, Mrs McCarthy then explained that Bridget had no need to be alarmed.
Mrs McCarthy was not like many another woman who’d not think twice about deducting the entire expense in one lump-sum. Rather, and as a gesture of good will, Bridget would be allowed to pay back the sum in weekly installments.
Repayments for repairing the broken iron were not the only payments she had to make. Bridget had left the Convent of Mercy seven pounds in debt to the good Sisters for their gracious loans they’d made available for her to pay for her uniform up front and to pay for a number of other expenses she had incurred during her time with the good Sisters. Her debt to the good Sisters had to be paid first, as this was the arrangement made with Mr and Mrs McCarthy when Bridget was sent to them.
Her wage was two pounds and ten shillings per month. Out of this, she had to first of all pay her debts. It took her four months to pay back the good Sisters in full. It felt good to do so for then, for the first time, she was she able to keep all her money after slaving for it. After five long months she was now able to send back all her money to her mother, and it felt so good to be able to do so.
Finally, and for the first time in her life she could contribute meaningfully to the household income back in Taylorstown. And she could do so on an equal footing as all her siblings as she was contributing as much as many if not all her brothers and sisters.
Out of her two pounds ten per month, she kept very little. In truth, there was very little for her to spend any money on, but it pleased her so to be able to send money home, and to imagine the look on her mother’s face when she got it. The feeling was so good that it almost, I repeat almost, made her job bearable for a while and her life in Cork tolerable for an hour or so.
A Manager And A Gentleman
However bearable the job and tolerable the life, in the passing moment, the weight of sadness and despair lay heavy on her day in and day out. The thing that really made her able to carry on day after day, and to bite her tongue and to mouth meaningless apologies, was Mr McCarthy. He was everything his wife was not.
On Bridget’s first day in Cork, he had met her at the station and greeted her with a smile on his face and a warmth in his voice that immediately reassured her. Mr McCarthy looked and acted like the gentleman she believed him to be. He welcomed her, asked after wellbeing and asked if she
Once assured that she was all right, he then, and only then, took her back to his house. On the journey back in his car, he continued to make polite conversation, and pointed out shops or other things as they passed by, mindful that they might be of interest to Bridget. By the time they got back to his house, Bridget had almost got to the point where she was trustful enough of Mr McCarthy as to not be fearful of him. It was at this point, when she was at her weakest, that he unwillingly, though inevitably, had to hand Bridget over to his wife.
When his wife was in dispute with Bridget over this or that, which was almost a daily event, Mr McCarthy invariably took Bridget’s side. When he first did this, Bridget dismissed it as almost a kind of accident, or just one of those strange things that happen from time to time in life. Once a pattern started to emerge, Bridget increasingly allowed herself to draw more and more comfort and resolve from Mr McCarthy’s support.
Despite him offering this support, it never seemed to alter the fact that Bridget would be chastised, reprimanded and even threatened for whatever it was she was being accused of. But that wasn’t the point. What Mr McCarthy’s support did do, was to alter the way Bridget felt about the daily abuse she had to undergo.
Just the understanding that Mr McCarthy believed her when she said she hadn’t done whatever she’d been accused of, or that this, that or the other had not been done to satisfactory standards, was enough to save her from despair. To be believed by a good man, that you are a good person, is enough to get through to the next moment before your swallowed by the previous one.
During her time in the McCarthy household in Cork, Bridget had ample opportunity to observe Mr McCarthy and Mrs McCarthy in their true environment and to see how they lived and acted accordingly, free of any exterior factors that might distort the true nature of their characters. She concluded that Mr McCarthy was a true gentleman, just as she suspected from the first time she met him, and that his wife was as common as the dirt she spent the whole day cleaning, and dusting and wiping away.
Bridget believed that Mrs McCarthy had married way above her station in life, and she was conscious of this on a daily basis. In fact, it obsessed her. What she saw in the mirror each morning, was a true reflection, and she understood it to be a true reflection. What she professed to be, however, as the rightful wife of a gentleman, was something she knew she could never be. She hated herself for it and in her daily rage that stemmed from this realisation, she was determined that someone would have to pay for it.
Bridget was a woman who held that mirror up to her face from dawn till dusk. She reminded Mrs McCarthy of what she was herself, and as a result Mrs McCarthy hated Bridget every bit as much as she hated herself. She couldn’t condone Bridget without condoning who she herself was, and she couldn’t convince herself of her own gentility without condemning Bridget for her lack of it.
Mr McCarthy’s support was enough, just, to stop Bridget from losing her grip and falling into absolute despair, but it was not enough to make her happy or anything that comes close to even resembling happiness. The time she spent in Cork with Mrs McCarthy was the unhappiest time of her life. She was terribly homesick, but that wasn’t the whole of it. She had been equally homesick at the Convent of Mercy, but not at all unhappy, not in the sense and to the extent that she was now.
The difference now was that she was unable to see a way out, and the longer this went on the more she felt unable to do anything that might help her find a way out. She was bound by debt, bound by honour and bound by her own folly in ever coming here in the first place. Despite Mr McCarthy, his kind words and support, she had never felt so alone in her entire life and she had never felt so powerless to do anything about it.
The Sisters Of Mercy, They Are Not Departed Or Gone
When you are as lonely as Bridget was in Cork, there is perhaps nothing you can do but to try and draw solace from happier times in the past. Bridget did this by writing to her good friends in the Convent of Mercy, in Summerhill.
In writing to her friends, Bridget felt able to bare her soul to the girls she’d left behind, in a way she couldn’t to her mother who was dependent on the money she was sending home. She also felt compelled to warn her friends of the things that can happen and the lives that can befall you once you leave the convent and go out to work in the real world. A harsh, unforgiving world populated by the likes of Mrs McCarthy. A world that thought nothing of you but what it could extract.
Bridget would always finish her letter by asking about how life was in the convent now and what the girls were doing and how so and so was coping. She would wait and wait so desperate for a reply, and when they came she would read them over and over again in her room. Whenever Mrs McCarthy would hand her over an envelope, she would always do so with a sarcastic remark such as,
Sure, if the nuns at Summerhill give those girls that amount of time to be writing their nonsense, is it any wonder they learn nothing, and can do nothing but back chat.
It is also very interesting that at this same time, when Bridget was in such great need of advice and in need of support, she also wrote a letter to Sister Mary of the Sacred Heart in Summerhill, explaining the difficulties she was going through and, presumably, asking for help and advice. I don’t know what advice Sister Mary gave, or if she even replied, but I can say that the very act of writing the letter got Bridget into yet more trouble. For some reason, perhaps the stress she was under at the time, Bridget managed to spill some of the ink she was using to write the letter to Sister Mary of the Sacred Heart, all over the sheets of her bed.
There was no way round it. The stain looked back up at her like an accusatory black eye. Mrs McCarthy had to be told and, as such, what better time to do it than the present. Her life, of course, was made even more hellish for the next few days, but she was already accustomed to that and had already developed ad hoc techniques to overcome the trials and tribulations. You simply go to bed each night with a sigh of relief and wake up each morning with a determination to put one foot in front of the other, and press on regardless until it’s time to breath that sigh of relief again.
Eventually, of course, enough is enough and you have to move on. This is exactly what Bridget did in January 1947. Less than six months after arriving in Cork, Bridget decided that she couldn’t put herself through the daily ritual of cruelty and abuse anymore. She handed in her notice and returned to Taylorstown and back to her mother and back to a life of no work, no money and no prospects. It was worth it.
Bridget left Mrs McCarthy with one parting shot that gave her the one and only moment of satisfaction that she experienced during her whole time there. For Christmas, Mrs McCarthy had given Bridget a dusty old hat that had been laying on the bottom of her wardrobe for years. It had been put out of shape by the weight of things placed on top of it, and it had a hole clearly visible at the back.
When Mrs McCarthy had so graciously given Bridget the present, she had to mouth her words of gratitude as profusely and as sincerely as she could manage. On the day she left, she took great delight in leaving the battered old hat behind her. Indeed, she left it markedly on top of the bed, and back to front, where Mrs McCarthy would be sure to see the tawdry black hole peering back up at her.
Beets, Berries And Dances
Back home in Tailorstown, Mary Ellen hugged her and did her best to fight back the tears, partly at the sight of her daughter again after all these months away, and partly at the thought of no more money being sent back each month from Cork. What could she do? Her daughter could stick it no longer and she’d come home. Where else would she go? They had eked out a life before she went to Cork and they’d continue to do so now she was back. After years of experience, she had practice of eking out an existence down to an art form.
Once all the gossip had been dealt with, Bridget wasted no more time on peripherals, and immediately asked about where and when the next dance was, and who was going to take her if Jimmy couldn’t, and could Willy lend her a few bob? Mary Ellen soon put a stop to any more of that kind of talk. Bridget may be home but she still had work to do. And not just work about the house, but “work” work, or failing that, any work at all that would bring in a few bob, or at least a few pennies, anything.
Within a day or so she was asking local farmers for work, at times thinning beet, at other times work about the house. There was little to be had. She then took to picking blackberries and raspberries that grew feely on the side of the roads, and down in the fields. Once she’d got an ample amount she took them in a basket to Pierce Power’s pub-cum-shop in Ballycullane and tried to sell them for a few pence to whoever might humour her.
She had some success, at least at first, and whatever she couldn’t sell she took home with her. Evidence perhaps, if any more were needed, on the innate Sinnott entrepreneurship that seems to run through the family, and across the generations.
The days rolled on into weeks and months. She might find a morning’s work here and an afternoon’s work there and bit by bit the pennies came her way, and then made their way back to her mother. It was a kind of life, and she kind of got by, but in comparison to her life in Cork, she was in paradise.
Speaking of paradise, if the mornings and the afternoons were occasionally spoken for, the night never was and it did not take her too long before she’d managed to wangle her way back to Camross Hall and to the dances. With a blouse borrowed from this one and a skirt passed on by that one, and a loan of few bob from Willy, and the loan of her brother Jimmy’s arm, she was set and ready to dance until dawn. Now she was really back. Now she was truly home. Now she was free. Now she could live again.
This manner of life went on for about another year or so and Bridget enjoyed every minute of it. The whole merry-go-round came to an abrupt end on day, however, when her brother Jimmy came home with a proposition that was music to Mary Ellen’s ears and torment to Bridget’s. This was the day when Bridget received word that she would be travelling yet again.
She had been invited to go and work as a maid once again, but this time in Wexford Town. Her new employer was to be Mr Coffey and his wife who owned a clothes shop in Wexford, and were said to be very rich. Bridget was still traumatized, of course, by experience of working for Mrs McCarthy in Cork, so the idea of going off again to work in someone’s house filled her with fear. Her only consolation was that she would be working in Wexford and thereby close be able to go home to visit from time to time, providing she got the use of a bicycle.
That she got the job through Jimmy, was a bitter pill to swallow. She had grown accustomed to hitching a ride with him to Camross Hall, and taking his arm as he led her onto the dance floor. It never occurred to her that he might send her away into service. But then, work is work.
The reason she had heard about the job through her brother, Jimmy was that at the time Jimmy was laboring for the Codd family who had a farm in Clonmines. The Codds were related to Mrs Coffey, and it was through this connection that Bridget’s name was mentioned as a possible maid for the Coffee family in Wexford. Apprehensive though she was, it was unthinkable that she might turn down such an offer, so preparations were made for her to travel to Wexford and leave her mother’s house once again.
Stay Of Execution
Just a day or so before she was set to leave, and take the train to Wexford, a letter arrived explaining that there had been a change of plans. According to the letter, the Coffey family would now be going away for a month to their summer house in Curracloe, and that Bridget wouldn’t be needed for another month. When she read the words, she sighed with relief. She then read on and the very next line made her shout for joy.
We will of course, pay Biddy the agreed money for the month ahead even though not needed for work until next month.
Rarely, if ever, had Bridget received something for nothing, and even if she had, she’d certainly never received a month’s wages for doing nothing. The letter was passed from hand to hand and people were dancing jigs and singing songs and for the remainder of the day, times had never been so good.
Even so, when the time came for to go a month later, she got the train to Wexford with a heavy heart and with extremely low expectations. The Codds, via Jimmy, had reassured her that the Coffey’s were a nice family, and Wexford wasn’t Cork, and if she didn’t like it she could get the next train back.
People were kind, and the reassurances were appreciated, but Bridget still boarded the train with more than a little trepidation.
The letter had said that she was to be paid the same amount she got in Cork, two pounds ten bob per month, so Mary Ellen was delighted. Nervous as she was about leaving home again, Bridget was also bursting with pride at the thought of being able to send money back home again.
Mr and Mrs Coffey
Pictured above: This photograph was taken further up, outside of the Heatons department store (the red-coloured building that is visible on the right). Previously, this was the location of a clothing store called Coffey’s. Coffey’s is fondly remembered by the older generation of Wexford shoppers,
She was met at the station in Wexford by Mr Coffee who greeted her and immediately put her at ease. Both his house and his shop were on Main Street South, and just a short walk from the station so they were there in no time at all. Although made to feel welcome by Mr Coffey, Bridget was still in fear of meeting his wife. She fully expected Mrs Coffey to be every bit as cruel and vindictive as Mrs McCarthy.
Once she did meet up with Mrs Coffey, she was amazed at how wrong she’d been in her expectations. Mrs Coffey was everything Mrs McCarthy wasn’t. She was kind and considerate and genuinely friendly. Before she ever talked about what Bridget’s duties would be and what work she’d be doing, Mrs Coffey her down and served her tea.
Embarrassed by the reverse of roles, Bridget tried to get Mrs Coffey to sit down and let her make the tea. Mrs Coffey would have none of it. The two women then spent the next hour or so talking of this, that and everything as if they’d known each other their whole lives.
Mr Coffey never had to take anyone’s side for the whole time Bridget was with them because there was a never a side to take. Bridget was happier than she felt she had a right to be. For the first few days, she still thought that it was too good to be true and that Mrs Coffey would resort to type, and reveal herself as the mean ogre she was supposed to be. But she never did.
Happy as Bridget was in her new job in Wexford, the thing that thrilled her more than anything else was that she was close enough to home to be able to continue attending dances in Camross Hall and other venues. At the weekend, she was able to use one of the bikes at Mr Coffey’s house and cycle the ten miles to Camross Hall and cycle the ten miles back after dancing her heart out until the small hours of Saturday night/Sunday morning.
Her cousin Betty Sinnott, was also living and working as a maid in Wexford at the time and the two girls would accompany each other virtually every weekend. More often than not, they would only arrive back in Wexford just in time for seven o’clock Mass. The two cousins would laugh and joke their way all the way back, sometimes humming or whistling one of the tunes from the dance or kidding each other about who was looking at who and what so and so was thinking, or worse still, saying about so and so. Mass would hit them like a cold wet blanket and then they’d go back home and sleep till afternoon, waking only in time for dinner. Life had never been so good.
Main Street South
Very often in the evenings, and after her day’s duty was over, she would meet up with her cousin Betty in town and enjoy each other’s company for an hour or so. Betty lived and worked further out from the town centre, so Bridget would wait for her by Coffey’s Shop on Main Street South, just a few yards from her house.
Once Betty arrived, they would link arms and walk here and there, and pause at nearly every shop to peer in through the window and dream. There was plenty of dreaming to be done, and many a wish was made, some revealed and others kept close to their hearts.
The months flew by but then without warning about ten months later, Bridget was told by Mrs Coffey that they would be moving permanently to their summer house in Curracloe. Bridget was invited to go with them, but they explained that the cottage was very isolated and that Bridget may not like it there.
They told her she could give it a go to see if she liked it and if not she could go back to her mother’s. Bridget did go with them, but within a few weeks she told Mrs Coffey that she couldn’t settle and that she would like to go back to her mother’s cottage in Taylorstown.
Once again, she was back in Taylorstown and going from farmer to farmer looking for work that didn’t exist, or at least not for a young girl who could dance better than most but couldn’t do the work in the fields that the boys could do. But the blackberries still grew on the bushes and the raspberries too, and people still allowed themselves a little indulgence from time to time, especially with drink taken, to help themselves to a fist full of berries in exchange for a few pennies.
It was in this way, at Pierce Power’s pub/shop that she made herself known to Tom Mc Grath. And it was by making the acquaintance of Tom Mc Grath that Bridget opened herself up to an opportunity that to this day seems astounding and an experience that is and was life shaping.
This is the story that will be told in the next chapter.
|Jimmy Sinnott||Born: 1920-01-01|
|Father: Nicholas Sinnott||Mother: Mary Stafford|
|Siblings: Bridget Kehoe (nee Sinnott 1930 – 1958), Willie Sinnott, Kitty Sinnott, Peggy Sinnott, Nellie Sinnott, John Sinnott, Peter Sinnott, Mary Sinnott, Watty Sinnott|
Jimmy Sinnott was born in Wexford around 1920.
|Willie Sinnott||Born: 1920-01-01|
|Father: Nicholas Sinnott||Mother: Mary Stafford|
|Siblings: Bridget Kehoe (nee Sinnott 1930 – 1958), Jimmy Sinnott, Kitty Sinnott, Peggy Sinnott, Nellie Sinnott, John Sinnott, Peter Sinnott, Mary Sinnott, Watty Sinnott|
Willie Sinnott was born in Wexford around 1920.
|Kitty Sinnott||Born: 1920-01-01|
|Father: Nicholas Sinnott||Mother: Mary Stafford|
|Siblings: Bridget Kehoe (nee Sinnott 1930 – 1958), Jimmy Sinnott, Willie Sinnott, Peggy Sinnott, Nellie Sinnott, John Sinnott, Peter Sinnott, Mary Sinnott, Watty Sinnott|
Kitty Sinnott was born in Wexford around 1920.