Even though, my grandfather, John Brown was blind he ran a shop and delivered groceries to different districts in the locality by pony and cart. The horse knew the way. He used to stop at the schoolmaster’s on the way home from Oldcastle and bring him the newspaper and the schoolmaster would read some of the articles out for him. The young men in the district used to go hunting rabbits – my father called them ‘the good boys’ and they would sell them to my grandfather. In those days people used to cook rabbits and make rabbit stew.
There were three children in the family, my father, Pat, the eldest, Auntie Dymphna and Auntie Chris. Auntie Chris had a twin, Michael, who died when he was a baby. There was a cartoon in the Irish Independent, called Count Curley Wee and Gussie Goose. Auntie Chris loved that cartoon and when a book was published based on it, my father cycled for miles to find a bookshop that was selling it and bought the book for her. He always looked out for Auntie Chris, because she was the youngest. When she was three years old, my grandfather died and my grandmother, Elizabeth Brown, who was an intelligent woman with strong values, brought up three children on her own.
My mother, Mary Owley, was visiting her aunt, we called her Granny Egenton. Nanny Egenton, Granny Egenton’s husband’s sister, an old woman who always dressed in black, lived there too. She used to sit in a nook beside the fire and drink a cup of hot water, first thing in the morning. One day my father called with the groceries – he had a certain day every week for the different districts. Pat Brown was an eligible bachelor, aged 32 years. The mothers in the locality, who had marriageable daughters, used to invite him in for delicious teas and dinners on a Sunday. They were hoping there would be a match with one of their daughters. He would have been a good catch. The most important thing was that he was kind and intelligent and respected women and he would have had a bit of money as well. Granny Egenton went out to the van and said to him:
“I have the woman for you, now.”
She introduced her to him. My mother used to boast that my father asked her to marry him, on the third night. She had to go back to Wexford, the next day. My father used to drive down to Wexford once a month to see her and Granny Owley would have boiled ham, cabbage and potatoes for him. In between, they used to write letters to each other. My father wrote great letters. You would think that he was beside you, talking to you. They got engaged that Christmas and married the following June. Pat Brown bought my mother a beautiful designer, platinum and gold ring. The jewellers in Dublin sent down a card with holes in it, to measure her finger. The next time he was down, my father wanted her to fit it on but she said that it was unlucky, so he wouldn’t show it to her, then. They were married in Saint Michael’s Church in Gorey by Canon Harper, on 17th June 1953 and had their wedding breakfast in the house, which was a lovely thing to do. They went around Ireland on their honeymoon. My mother kept ‘Kerry diamonds,’ that she had picked up on a beach, in a glass dish, in the bedroom, to remind her of that time.
Marie Gurren (Lee), our neighbour, was eleven at the time of the marriage. She remembers my mother and father coming back from their honeymoon. Marie became friends with my mother, straight away, even though there was eleven years difference in their ages. Marie was always there for us in good times and bad. Any kind of event or crises in the house and my mother would say:
“Send out for Marie” and Marie would come in and work out a solution for us all. Marie lived with Mrs Reilly, her aunt. Mrs Reilly used to live in a house down the fields and the dressmaker, Brigie Butler, had her business there too. Mrs Reilly’s new house was near the road. John and I used to go out to see her and she would ask us if we had our breakfast. We would say ‘no’ and Mrs Reilly would make us delicious potato cakes, fried on the pan over the fire and give us soda bread with transparent, red gooseberry jam, dotted with tiny seeds, made from the fruit of the gooseberry bushes, in the garden. Mrs Reilly used to peel the cold potatoes, left over from the day before and mash them with a ponger – a big, tin mug. Mrs Reilly would add flour to the potatoes and a pinch of salt, shape it into a cake, cut out triangles and fry them on the pan. The potato cakes and bread and jam in someone else’s house tasted delicious. Marie and Mrs Reilly had a wicked dog called Twiggy and one Sunday, he bit my father’s leg and tore a piece out of his good suit. One time, my brother Paul put his head between the bars of their little front gate and his head got stuck. He had to be cut out with a hacksaw.
Susie Brown, a lovely, kind, old woman used to come over and mind us every day. She was originally Susie Monaghan and had worked in America. She used to say: “I crossed the ocean four times.” One time when she was home from America, a match was made for her with a widower, Jim Brown. He had several children. Susie loved children and minded them all but never had any of her own. They all scattered when they grew up. One girl, Katie, went to America and she used to send parcels home. Susie would bring John and me over to open the American parcel and it was so exciting. The parcel was full of powdered jellies and caramel puddings and candy and clothes. Susie used to come over to our house, every day to mind the children. She was my father’s aunt by marriage. Susie loved Foxes mints and there was always a big red tin full of mints for her in the kitchen. Her apron pocket was full of these glassy, miniature loaves. On fine days Susie used to sit outside with John and me and Patrick, the baby, on her knee. She would tell us stories about her time in America. It didn’t matter about age. She loved us and we loved her. Milo, our white dog, thought that he was minding us, too and if anyone came in, he would stand between us and that person.
When Susie was 84 years, we had a birthday party for her. My mother made a big cake with 84 candles. This was in 1958. Susie was born in 1874 but she was always young at heart. She had a brother called Tawdy, who lived in Oldcastle. There is a photograph of Susie standing at the top of the table with a crochet shawl around her shoulders, getting ready to blow out the candles and another one where she is sitting down, holding Patrick on her knee and John and I are standing each side of her with wine glasses full of lemonade, in our hands. Susie used to go home to the house she shared with Roof Brown, her stepson and Claire his wife. Claire taught us how to make pancakes and watch the bubbles rise like beads on the top. There was a river and trees beside their house. Roof used to shoot pigeons in the trees and Claire would make tasty, pigeon soup for us.
We burned turf in the big, open fire. My father took two weeks off every year to cut the turf. That was his holiday. He used to say that turf warmed you twice, once when you were cutting it and once when you were burning it. We used to play around on the bog. My mother would send down piles of sandwiches and hardboiled eggs and Swiss Roll and fruit cake that she used to make. Pat Brown would fill the kettle from a well in the bog and put it on the fire, made with sods of turf and we would drink smoky tea and pour in milk out of a lemonade bottle with a newspaper cork. You had to cut the turf first with a sleán and then spread it out on the bank to dry, then foot it so that it looked like a triangular stool with legs, next build the turf into a clamp and when it was dry in the Autumn, bring it home. My mother never came to the bog with us because the midges used to bite her skin. There were wild raspberries growing on the bog and we used to have branches of these to eat, on the way home with the turf.
My father used to bring us down the fields to pick hazelnuts. Mrs Reilly’s old, stone house was down there, with a tangled garden and old fashioned, pink roses with an ancient, evocative scent, growing over the stones. We would bring home bags full of nuts and crack them with bits of rock on the stone floor. Sometimes, my mother would chop the kernals up and put them into butterscotch. She made butterscotch in a saucepan over the fire. The butterscotch was hard, like brown glass and we cut it into pieces and sucked it in our mouths until it dissolved.
Every Monday morning, Pat Brown would drive to Dublin to sell crates of eggs. A lot of the women in the district kept hens and they would exchange them for food or sell them to my father and then they had their own ‘egg money’ and were independent. He used to weigh out stones of maize meal in the store and the women would feed the hens with the maize meal, so that the eggs had deep, yellow yolks. He would bring back a van loaded with products and Tara tea wrapped in gold foil packages, from Dublin. People would ask him to do messages in Dublin, get an umbrella repaired, collect a parcel in Clerys, bring money up to a student or visit someone in hospital. He was always glad to do these. When Marie was getting married to Kit, she and my mother went up with my father to Dublin, to buy her wedding dress. Pat Brown would collect old people’s pensions for them in Oldcastle and the post mistress trusted him and knew that the cash was safe with him.
Briody’s old house was thatched. Tom Briody used to thatch it himself with straw and do a kind of woven ornamentation, on the top of the roof. Inside, it was lovely and simple with a big table covered with oilcloth. Ann Briody used to sit at the table and show me pictures from her schoolbook. Outside the front door was a low wall with a little gate leading to the yard. To the right of the gate was a table. Mrs Briody used to make delicious, homemade lemonade in a big jug. We would sit at the table outside and Maureen would pour out the lemonade for us. It was better than any restaurant.
We used to play over in Hennessy’s in their wood and pick blackberries on their mountain. Patricia would mash the blackberries with a fork and divide them up on plates for us to eat. The Hennessy’s called for me every morning to bring me to school. Patricia, Francie and Chris. When I went to school, John used to make a hole in the hedge with a little hurley stick and pull Marie Hennessy, through the hole to play. We walked to school. At first it was down to the old school with four teachers. We had a lovely teacher called Miss Fitzsimons. She was very kind. She had two little houses with cellophane windows on the window sill. She used to dust them every day and when the sun shone, they looked as if they had lights inside them. One day she had a raffle and I won a box of bubbles. I was enchanted. It was the first thing I ever won, in my life. When we moved up to the new school, we had Miss Simpson. Father Troy had built a new church and a new school. At the opening of the new church, he said that it had cost 14,000 pounds. Every morning, Miss Simpson drew a chalk box on the board and put in a number and later on we had to learn our tables off by heart. Afterwards, we were all able to do sums in our heads. When we went into Mrs Connaughton’s class, we had lovely colourful books and we learned poems like Rainy Nights and stories about the Snow Queen and Kay & Gerda. Father Seán, her son, used to write letters home from the Philippines and the postman would bring them to the school. Mrs Connaughton used to read us bits out of the letters. Once, Father Seán sent home a stalk of rice in the letter and it looked like oats. Before that, we thought that rice came in packets and that you made it into milky puddings with currants. Mrs Connaughton had a big rosary beads that Father Seán had sent her. It was about the size of a rope that you put around a cow’s neck. Mrs Connaughton used to pray for all her children, Father Seán, Sister Mary, Evelyn, Michael, Frances, Finnian, Alo and Brendan. Father Alo, after he was ordained, was always setting things up for us in the hall, when we were teenagers, a youth club, drama, quizzes, céile’s, talks and exhibitions. On Saturdays, Mrs Connaughton used to ‘do the altar’ in the church. We helped her clean the vases with Brasso, wash the marble altar rails, sweep and tidy and arrange beautiful flowers, most of which came from her own garden. She was ahead of her time.
The Master used to read us stories to help us with our essays. There were maps on the wall, showing the different countries in the world. We used to get The Far East and read about Pudsy Ryan and children from far away. In the Master’s class, learning geography and history, we began to get glimpses of other worlds outside our small community and he prepared us for what lay ahead in secondary school.
During the Summer holidays, we went down to the river and caught pinkeens in jamjars or climbed trees or swam in a river/lake that the Hennessys knew about. It was another part of the pinkeen river but we called it by a different name. We brought bread & sugar sandwiches and jam sandwiches and bottles of milk for a picnic. Nobody worried about us in those times. We were let out in the morning and we came back when we were hungry or in the evening. The Oldcastle Show was on during the holidays and Patricia Hennessy was in charge of us all. She used to take our money and divide it out to us at the different stalls, so that we wouldn’t lose the run of ourselves at the wheel of fortune or the lucky dip. We used to meet lots of people we knew.
Summer was a time when our cousins, the Egentons and the Flynns came over from England. The Hennessy’s elder sister, Margaret (Maggie), was a nurse in England, as well. Our cousins had different voices and different stories to tell. Elizabeth, Anne and Catherine Flynn would come over with their father, Maurice Flynn and mother Nancy Egenton. Bartle Egenton his wife Eva and their children sailed over on the boat. Tom Egenton was a character. He didn’t drink but would go into Lynch’s Pub every night to meet his friends and neighbours, have glasses of red lemonade and get all the news. He sowed cabbage plants in the fields, near the house and sold them on market day in Oldcastle. We were taught in college that difference is enriching and that we define ourselves against difference. It was true. These visits expanded our horizons, enriched our lives and made us aware of other worlds.
They would all want to talk to my father about old times. He had all the stories of the community in his head. He always saw the best in people and was very kind to everyone. He never slapped us in his life. Once, John was sitting on his knee and trying to stick a nappy pin in his trousers. He stuck it in his leg, instead. My father slapped him. It was a reaction to the pain but that was the only time, he ever hit any of us. He never went to pubs. He stayed at home with my mother. Sometimes, on a Sunday, he would have an Irish coffee and my mother had special glasses with pictures of whiskey and sugar and coffee and cream on the sides. There used to be a bottle of whiskey and a bottle of poitín, high up in the press for medicemel purposes. My mother used to put whiskey and poitín in cakes and if the vet had to come out to a cow, late at night, my father would give him a drink of poitín.
One time, Milo, the white dog went missing. After a few days, John and I asked our father where he was. He said that the dog had been knocked down by a car. Even though it had been late, my father had taken the dog to the vet. The vet said he couldn’t do anything because the dog’s back was broken. My father couldn’t bear to see anybody or anything suffering. So he held the dog in his arms while the vet put him down. Then he brought the dog home and got a flash-lamp and buried him in the garden, near some plum trees he had planted years before. My father took John and me out to the grave under the plum trees. John and I knelt down on the grave and said an “Our Father” and “Hail Mary” for the dog. And it was alright.
My father had died suddenly, in the middle of reading the Sunday newspapers. He stood up to get his jacket from the bedroom and just fell on the kitchen floor. My mother caught him, put a cushion under his head and held him until he died, ten minutes later. There was a traditional wake with the neighbours coming in and having tea, sandwiches, cakes and whiskey or whatever they wanted to drink. He was laid out in the bedroom, dressed in his good suit, not a brown habit. The neighbours talked about his life. My father had been very straight and upright, but with a sense of humour, and he helped a lot of people in the community. A man from Louth had written to my mother saying that when he was a child he used to visit his grandparents. My father used to call and say that Louth never had a good football team and that the Meath team was the best. They used to discuss football and then the boy got sweets. In the letter, the Louth man said that my father’s visits were the highlight of his holiday and that now my father was up in heaven discussing past games with all the old, Meath footballers.
Requiescat in pace. May he rest in peace.
Elizabeth Doyle (Brown)