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Issue No.1-2020

ISSN 22093265

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Gerdette Rooney

The red and white bungalow was my parents' pride and joy and in its prime in the 1960s. The house sometimes featured as a clue in the local rotary club's treasure hunt, with reference to its sporting cardinal red railings atop a  white snocemed brick wall, red front door and window frames, and even a children’s swing on the manicured lawn had a red seat! To complete the picture, my father had a preference for red cars - at that time, a reliable Beetle Volkswagen.


The house was built in 1958 outside Monaghan town, on the Armagh road to the border, and often passing drivers would stop to admire the colourful rockery which was a spring and summer blaze of primrose, phlox and violet primula, aubrieta, and helianthus. People asked for cuttings from my mother, who had a home-schooled Master’s degree in horticultural management. I think her weeding of the rockery and tending to her cherished plants was her weekly meditation.


Sadly, this was not a chore we children took to at all, as that dreaded command issued from her mouth at any sight of idleness, ‘Get out there and weed that rockery’. At the slightest protest would come the threat, 'No backchat now, or you’ll get a clip on the ear’.


Extensive gardens surrounded the house, and my parents made full use of it all. A yellow laburnum tree was king of the immaculate front lawn and used as the backdrop for family photographs for many years. A May altar shrine sat in a corner by the roadside, where a blue and white statue of Our Virgin Lady resided, but if no flowers were blooming during a harsh May, my mother would place a jam jar of primroses at the Virgin Mary's feet. Two pseudo-Grecian flower planters highlighted the front door entrance, with a trellis of roses and a low box hedge to the right. On the left, a red wooden garden seat provided the perfect spot to watch the activity on the road or rest from the monotonous weeding.


A tarmacadam driveway led through the white pillars and red gateway to the garage at the rear of the dwelling. This was in turns, the race track for roller skates, go-karts and skateboards - whatever the fashion at the time - and my father even made us stilts which were a tricky business to master. In later years when learning to drive, if you could manage the reverse out of that narrow gateway onto a busy corner of the road, change gears and proceed forwards, you deserved your licence immediately.


The side wall of the bungalow was Tenerife in the summer months, where the striped deckchairs were fetched down from the attic and aligned against the wall for pale winter skin to pink up a bit. Old Irish cook pots disguised the circular concrete well on the lawn in front and when children outgrew the swing behind, the remaining posts were festooned with an array of black hooks, winches and skillets best suited to an 18th century fireplace but popular garden ornaments at the time. 

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The big vegetable garden was my father’s domain, and I can picture him now wearing his peaked cap, standing to rest on the spade handle among the potato drills, pausing to light up a Sweet Afton or, in later years, his pipe. The framework of sally rods collected in the hedgerows sprouted a healthy harvest of peas or runner beans, and the green of young onion plants shimmied in sunny spots. We children would watch fascinated as Daddy built up the mound for winter storage of the spuds and deftly inserted his bottle or two of sloe wine or rosehip syrup to ferment for a few months.


The bottom of the garden had a small group of apple trees that kept us in tarts year-round, as well as fruit bushes - thorny gooseberry, blackcurrant and red currant for making jam. Again a chore, we children dreaded those big saucepans appearing in the kitchen because it heralded the picking season and there was no more tedious job than capping blackcurrants. In that spacious garden a glass bed for seeding lettuce and parsley kept company with the septic tank close by, and we were largely self-sufficient with the produce from our organic garden of the '60s. 


As the years passed and my parents’ enthusiasm waned, the garden size diminished and the plot of spuds made way for a tennis court. This was very posh indeed and a credit to the skill and interest of my father in keeping us amused and away from the television. For a short time, we had a croquet pitch with hoops,  and an ad hoc pitch and putt course, with jam jars in the holes, was another summer project. Daddy's forte was ‘futtering’ and he liked nothing better than to fiddle and fix something; from a radio to children’s’ cheap toys, he gave it a shot, the only drawback being it could take months and sometimes be forgotten altogether.


Both my parents came from large families and poor farms so nothing was wasted and everything upcycled if possible. It is interesting these days to witness in all my adult siblings which thrifty traits they’ve inherited, whether recycling old underwear as dishcloths, never throwing out leftovers, or turning down the heat controls. No one has inherited the ‘futtering’, I notice, as cheap Chinese replacements are to be had nowadays but I do witness in myself a hoarding of clothes for years and good use of the needle and thread for repairs. We were reared with the concept of ‘keeping something for good use’ which was usually Mass on Sunday, the clergy visiting, or sitting the music exam and other special occasions such as Christmas. ‘It’ll do you rightly round the house,’ my mother would say, regarding an old school gymslip or jumper handed down from cousins.


My father's building skills were unique and worthy of an award for quirkiness. The shed, which he added to the garage, did the trick for storing bikes and blocks of wood, but the addition of a toilet block with just a hole in the concrete floor smacked of the third world or showed evidence of early ‘greenie’ tendencies. His ‘masterpiece’ however, was a  greenhouse which was constructed from old windows and pieces of galvanised iron and in our teenage years it served as a bolthole from the house to swig cheap wine. And the strong smell of onions would disguise the whiff of wacky baccy smoked in the dark.


To provide shelter from wicked winds and privacy from neighbours, a long line of conifers was planted along the back of the house and garden. It was a childhood forest for playing hide and seek and served as my research territory as an amateur ornithologist at age seven. I saved up my pocket money to buy my first book, British Birds and their Eggs - and I still have it. The speckled eggs of thrushes were observed carefully until hatching time but I specialised in watching the waterhens on the old canal behind the trees. At first, my father allowed me a small patch among the spuds to bury dead corpses in shoeboxes that were roadkill, but soon that hobby was discouraged. 

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Television arrived in the Monaghan area in 1958, the same year the bungalow was built, and was proclaimed from the pulpit as ‘the new evil from across the water’ ie England. The warning was that TV would loosen the moral fibre of good Irish Catholics, but my mother loved it as it provided a break from us for her to do some housework. Before reaching school age, the morning children's programme Watch with Mother kept us mesmerised while she washed the kitchen floor. Sitting on the island mat ‘on the sea’ that was the wet floor, content with our milk and Marietta biscuits, we got hooked on the Wooden Tops and Little Weed and learned all the words for Andy Pandy. Standing in her apron by the red Formica countertop, my mother would bake Irish soda bread with buttermilk daily and was a dab hand at apple tarts. Our favourite was her butterfly buns, made for special occasions, and we would fight over who got to lick the bowl.


On Saturday nights my parents' favourite TV program was 'The White Heather Club' featuring Scottish dancing. Then we three kids would practise jigs around the tiled floor, dressed up in the family ‘tartan’ rug. As we grew older and stayed up later, programs were strictly monitored and at any sign of ‘passionate kissing’ or, God forbid, ‘undressing’, my father would say, 'Turn that filth off,’ and the channel was quickly changed or the TV switched off.


I grew up a tomboy with my two younger brothers Padraig and Cathal, and we were always up to devilment of some kind, running wild over the fields and sailing rafts on the Blackwater river nearby. The older, Padraig, had a tendency towards pyromania. One summer as farmer Traenors’ hedge went up in flames, the ‘sally rod’ came out for punishment. That sally rod was well used for beatings in our house. Sadly, that was the times. One of us would be sent to fetch a cane from the back hedge and try to find the thinnest willow stick possible.


Enid Blyton was our favourite children’s’ author of the day and I formed my own Famous Five Club with my brothers and some neighbours. We went in search of empty houses to break into and looked for the secret tunnel at Montgomery’s - the ‘Big House’ down the road. An old hollowed oak tree by the canal bank provided endless hours of amusement, as did rolling down the big field in a rain barrel. Marbles were collected, along with conkers from the chestnut trees. Bad weather days - and there seemed to be fewer in my Irish childhood before climate change kicked in - were passed contentedly building jigsaws, playing 'Snap' cards or dressing up for a theatrical performance in our neighbour Egan’s barn. My brothers and I all had great imaginations and made our own fun. At Easter, my father would light ‘the Paschal fire’ in the corner of the garden and we would boil eggs on it in an old saucepan.


We loved playing in the big varnished hot press in the corner, cosy with the heat of the boiler, and learned to sneak in there on Christmas Eve in the hope of spotting Santa Claus. My father would leave out a shot of whiskey to warm Santa up after the journey from the North Pole. But we children just couldn’t stay awake to see him empty the glass or eat the mince pie. Once when I woke early and the toys were in three neat piles, I swapped a Dr Who Dalek for my doll and there was a big argument about it being a boy's present.

Those were fun times. The kitchen was the centre of the home and our childhood universe, probably because it was the only warm room in the house! There was always a big kettle boiling on the range and the warmest spot to sit was on an old red milking stool in the corner nook, which we fought over. Another lucky child got to warm their feet in the small bottom oven until my mother warned, ‘You’ll catch chilblains doing that’.


Homework was done at the kitchen table and my father, a science teacher, always helped out. He taught us the names of the trees which formed the old Irish calendar, and we would look for frogspawn in the canal and marvel at the transformation to tadpoles in a basin in the kitchen. I was captivated one time helping him bake clay balls in the oven to create his own periodic table of the elements for his classroom. Once hard, we coloured them. 


The Catholic religion featured daily in our lives. The Rosary followed evening tea without fail, and the three of us would drop to our knees with a sigh, mumbling our way through the boring ritual of Our Fathers, Hail Marys and Holy Be’s, making faces at each other. It was always at this time that I felt the eyes of Jesus staring down at me, reading my bad thoughts. Every Irish kitchen possessed a Sacred Heart picture at that time, often with a perpetual light in front, and his penetrating eyes seemed to follow my every move. If travelling by car in the evening, my father would start up the rosary whilst driving, much to the confusion of any strangers with us at the time. Once we collected my atheist friend from Dublin, Tina, and not understanding entrenched Catholic tradition, she thought my family absolutely bonkers and worried that my father's distracted driving would cause an accident.


There was just no escaping religion as a picture of Armagh Cathedral, Pope Paul 6th and statues of St Theresa of the Little Flower and the child of  Prague, or St Bridget crosses adorned walls and mantelpieces all over the house. Staring down at me in bed at night was a picture of St Gerard Majella, my namesake, the patron saint of sinners as I'd be planning to climb out the window later to go to forbidden parties.


'Knockaconny' was a cold un-insulated house with freezing bedrooms and despite two heavy eiderdowns on the bed, the three of us complained of icy noses and blew cold breath at each other. When we were small and shared a room, the best excitement was discovering our very own hidey-hole under the floorboards as the house was built on a slope. The trapdoor was in the corner under the carpet and we would smuggle candles, comics and biscuits down there and plot our adventures. It all came to a halt one day when my father nearly fell through the hole. Only the carpet stopped him.


Cousins would visit at weekends and when playing in the garden, the small coal shed was the prison for locking up whoever got on our nerves or was bold. Sadly, my younger brother Cathal ‘did his time’ in the coal shed as we often deemed him a nuisance. Children can be cruel and we were no different. In our teenage years, Padraig converted the shed to his art studio and as it lacked any natural light, he had a good excuse for the quality of some of his masterpieces. In later years, our Aunt Melda garnered most of the canvases to build her jigsaws on.


Ina Smythe, a fun Protestant neighbour who lived in the old cottage across the canal, was a lifeline for all the children in the neighbourhood. Childless herself, and with a cranky old Black Protestant husband, John, who was twenty years her senior, she loved us all. With an evil cackle of a laugh and owning ten cats, she seemed like the good witch, as we sat around playing card games or Ludo until our mother would shout across the canal to come home for our tea. A ‘no mans land’ of dense undergrowth on the canal bank was our imaginary Amazon rainforest to explore, and when Ina spotted us playing there, she would throw oranges and sweets across the divide. She also owned a billy goat who grazed in the field next to our house and we taunted it, pretending to be bullfighting, to see who could jump over the wire fence quickest when chased.


When I was nine, I kept two guinea-pigs called Cherry and Snowy in a pen in the garden and I loved them dearly. I'd cause an uproar when I’d take them to town and they’d peep out of my pockets in the grocers. This pair started a dynasty to keep the local pet shop supplied and I had a notice at the gate ‘guinea-pigs for sale’ in big letters. I soon added rabbits to the menagerie but they were always escaping and breeding with the wild rabbits in the neighbourhood. The name ‘Knockaconny’ means ‘the hill of the rabbits’ in Irish and I soon tired of hunting down the escapees before school. Sadly, a mass genocide took place one summer when I was at Irish college and some greyhounds on the loose killed all my pets. I clearly remember this as one of the most devastating events in my childhood as I treasured my furry family.  


My parents had a love of antiques and furnished our small bungalow with mahogany and oak pieces more suited to Montgomery’s big mansion down the road. It was their hobby and an excuse to ‘go for a spin’ to Bully’s auction house in search of a period piece, or down to the Moy. One winter they upholstered a pair of Queen Anne chairs for the sitting room and took to rug making.


My father was a quiet scholarly man whose party piece was quoting Shakespeare and his big mahogany glass bookcase held an array of volumes from How to Play Chess or Perfect your  Bridge, to the classics popular at the time; Lorna Doone, James Hilton’s Paradise Lost, Dickens' The Old Curiosity Shop and collections of 1940s encyclopaedia popular ‘for show’, I think. The sexy James Bond paperbacks were well hidden behind the trigonometry volumes. My mother wasn’t a reader but had a fondness for playing the Jewish harp and whistled lyrics at the kitchen sink, ‘Pretty little girl from Omagh, in the County of Tyrone’. I learned years later that my mother was ‘Miss Omagh’ during wartime when American soldiers were stationed in the town. She was a good-looker in her day with a reputation for being a great dancer and I laughed at her story of going to country dances with 'a fella on the bar of his bike' but looking for 'a fella with a car to drive her home'.

We had a piano for a while and the three of us had music lessons, but only my brother Cathal had natural talent, winning medals in singing until his voice broke. Mine was beaten out of me by the cross nun who was my music teacher. It was a Christmas ritual I hated, having to perform for the relations - Oh dear, What can the matter be?’ or ‘The Old Folks at Home’, the most boring of pieces!  It was my dream to play Mary Poppins music instead. The sitting room was much livelier in later years when we acquired a record player, and the loud rock sounds of Led Zeppelin or Thin Lizzy blasted out at high volume. ‘For God’s sake, turn that racket down’, my father would shout.


The priests came to visit often from the local seminary where my father taught. The Waterford crystal whiskey tumblers came out and the Bushmills and bottles of stout were fetched from the bottom of my parents’ wardrobe, stored away in case we took a swig too young. Father Cahill would bring us sweets and tell ghost stories which frightened us - of haunted houses needing an exorcism, poltergeists and seances people held to communicate with deceased loved ones.


When I was nine, my baby sister Dympna was born, and the following year, the youngest in the family, Aidan. The dynamics in the house changed with my mother busy again with bottles and nappies and, as the girl, I was roped in to help. It seemed my tomboy days were at an end as the school gymslip tightened at the bust and ‘women’s business’ was imparted in whispers. I so resented housework and especially polishing the boy’s shoes for Mass. Before long I was a spotty teenager and strutting my stuff on the streets of Monaghan, ogling at the boys from the Christian Brothers school. My life was rapidly expanding outside 'Knockaconny' and a love of reading and listening to global music fed a longing to explore the wider world.


The red and white bungalow is occupied by strangers now but each time I drive past, I long to see a bent aproned figure in the rockery or my father leaning on his spade - and the sadness of mourning lost childhood lingers for a time.


Copyright Gerdette Rooney   

Photo credits Gerdette Rooney

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