My Irish Heritage

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Its St. Patrick’s Day and I’m listening, on my playlist, to the refrains of “The Field of Athenry” sung by Frank Patterson. I always spare time for quiet celebration, on this the holiest of drinking days, listening to Frank Patterson, Josef Locke, James Galway or John McCormack; the great Irish artists.  Taking another sip of Smithwicks I fondly remember my mother’s and great aunt’s Irish influence on my life.

Survival against the odds, the courage to follow your own path, the determination to never give up, the ability to find solutions where others only see problems and a sense of what’s important in life – these are the characteristics that for over 300 years have made Smithwick’s Ireland’s favourite brewer of ales.

My mother, was born in 1926 in Waterford, situated in the south east and the oldest city in the Republic of Ireland. Her father had moved there because of employment opportunities to be had from the fisheries. She was christened Catherine O’Dwyer but was known as Kit. At the age of nine, together with her brother John aged five,  she moved in with her aunt Kate O’Mahoney who lived ten kilometres away in Moolum, Kilkenny. My mother was always vague on the reasons for transferring households but her mother’s sister Kate was childless and it also probably helped my mother’s family financially. She told a story of being offered goats milk, daily on her walk to school, and throwing it away when she was out of sight. She later told me that her childhood on Moolum was the happiest time in her life, except for her children of course. At the age of fourteen she was reunited with her parents and moved to Stepney, London, England.  Her father had found employment as a brick layer. It was there she met my father, and they married when she was eighteen, she had six children, I was the second eldest.

I grew up under the influence of my mother as she was always around to guide and to scold as the occasion warranted. I attended St. Joseph’s convent school run by the Sisters of Mercy, a religious order founded in Dublin in 1831 by Catherine McAuley (1778-1841). Not to be confused with the ‘Sisters of Mercy’  song written by Leonard Cohen. The St. Patrick’s day concert performed by the school was the high light of the year. I would  line up behind other optimistic children to audition for the role of  conducting the choir who would sing McNamara’s Band. I almost made it one year, except I forgot some of the lines to the song and so failed the audition. Much like forgetting my rap lines in my granddaughter’s rap video.

Every year when school was out my mother would take all her children over to Ireland to visit Aunt Kate. Taking the train from London to Fishguard in Wales and then the ferry to Rosslare. Aunt Kate would be waiting for us at Rosslare with her ‘assen cart’, a cart pulled by two donkeys, blackman and greyman. Her house in Moolum was small, though the living quarters had been enlarged by converting the forge. My great uncle had been a blacksmith. There was no electricity, no running water and no toilet.  The fire was lit early in the morning and kept going all day, there was no cooking stove. I loved to work the bellows to spark the fire into life.  Every morning we would walk the half mile to the pump, carrying our buckets, to hold the water. There would be blackberries to pick on the bushes by the road and we would return home with purple fingers and lips. The farmer up on Moolum rock would stop by every morning in his horse and cart to offer me a lift to the creamery in Kilmacow. There he would pour his churns of cow’s milk into a large container. On the return home I would  be allowed to ride the horse bareback in the field . When darkness fell candles were lit. If we needed to do a No.1 we would go to the field, if a No.2 we would retire to the donkey’s shed ensuring that we picked the biggest leaves beforehand, for hygiene’s sake. Aunt Kate would allow me to go with her on her bread rounds twice a week.

Aunt Kate was known as the ‘Bread Woman’ or ‘Egg Woman’ to neighbours who primarily bought eggs from her or sold them to her. She got her bread supplies from Harney’s bakery in Kilmacow and would take the assen cart to deliver these supplies to her customers the same day each week no matter what the weather. Before my time the Moolum house was a ‘safe house’ for IRA members. Though as Aunt Kate told me, she didn’t hold with violence and would have none in the house, but she would not turn away anyone in trouble. In 2006, on the 90th anniversary of the Easter Uprising, there was a reunion in Kilmacow of men and woman who had been active republicans forty years prior and my mother was asked to lay the wreath on Aunt Kate’s grave. I hadn’t realized that Aunt Kate had been so famous an activist for the cause.

My mother moved back to that house in Moolum in 1991 when she was 65 and I visited her every year, only occasionally going back to visit England. I went to Ireland in March of 2016 for my mother’s 90th birthday and we celebrated her life in traditional Irish fashion and had a great time. Two months later I went back to Ireland for my mother’s funeral and we celebrated her life in traditional Irish fashion and had a great time. My heart has always been divided between Ireland and England despite my cockney accent. A mother’s influence is a powerful thing.

Song For Ireland

Walking all the day, near tall towers
Where falcons build their nests
Silver winged they fly
They know the call of freedom in their breasts
Saw Black Head against the sky
Where twisted rocks they run down to the sea
Living on your western shore
Saw summer sunsets, asked for more
I stood by your Atlantic sea
And sang a song for Ireland
Drinking all the day in old pubs
Where fiddlers love to play
Someone touched the bow
He played a reel
It seemed so fine and gay
Stood on Dingle beach
And cast in wild foam we found Atlantic bass
Living on your western shore
Saw summer sunsets asked for more
I stood by your Atlantic sea
And sang a song for Ireland
Talking all the day with true friends
Who try to make you stay
Telling jokes and news
Singing songs to pass the night away
Watched the Galway salmon run
Like silver dancing darting in the sun
Living on your western shore
Saw summer sunsets, asked for more
I stood by your Atlantic sea
And sang a song for Ireland
Dreaming in the night I saw a land
Where no man had to fight
Waking in your dawn
I saw you crying in the morning light
Lying where the falcons fly
They twist and turn all in you’er blue sky
Living on your western shore,
Saw summer sunsets asked for more
I stood by your Atlantic sea
And sang a song for Ireland

Songwriter: PHIL COLCLOUGH

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