The girls from 5th and 6th class of Scoil Mhichil Naofa Athy have just completed a Memories Project in which grandparents were interviewed on camera about times past. The project is a pilot scheme before its rollout across the country by the Federation of Local History Societies of Ireland.
Oral history is accepted as an important source of material, especially for the history of localities and the people of those localities. The choice of grandparents as the material source is understandable given the knowledge and experience gathered by people of advanced years. Not everyone interviewed would necessarily see themselves as falling within the elderly category. I was one of those non believers, for even though I initiated the project with the good help of the Principal Mary English I found myself falling within the age category which was deemed likely to yield useful information about life in Athy 50 or 60 years ago. Despite the fact that I am a grandfather three times over I have never conceded that my chronological age is so advanced of my mental age as to justify my being described as elderly. It was a gentle shock to the system to be approached by the class teacher to be interviewed as an elderly member of the community.
The subsequent interview by four young school girls, monitored by a teacher who doubled as camera and sound girl, proved to be a rewarding experience. I was asked questions I should have asked my parents in their time, questions which brought me back decades to a life which was so different to that I enjoy today. Forgotten memories of youth came tumbling back as each question prised open a bit further that door behind which recollections and memories are stored just like items no longer in use are put away in the attic and then forgotten. The two hour interview was a mental cleanout of some of my past memories, ranging over many aspects of life in Offaly Street in the 1950s. I couldn’t but draw comparison with life today and acknowledge how so much has improved, certainly in the material sense.
The two up two down home life of the 1950s with an outside toilet and a zinc bath on the kitchen floor on a Saturday night is just a memory. Hand me down clothes were an accepted part of the sartorial life of a boy who followed three older brothers and the corduroy jackets so popular in the mid 1950s are indelibly imprinted on my mind.
Nowadays almost every family has a car. I can remember a time when the only car on Offaly Street was that belonging to Bob Webster who was manager of the cinema in the same street. The only cars I can recall passing up and down Offaly Street where the young Kellys, Websters, Whites, Moores and Taaffes played football belonged to Archdeacon McGinley, the Church of Ireland Rector and the two doctors, John Kilbride and Jeremiah O’Neill. I can still see Tadgh Brennan’s car parked, as it was all day, outside his offices (now Toss Quinns) in Emily Square where it would be impossible even to park a bicycle today.
I am sitting at my desk writing this as snow drifts a few feet high can be seen outside my window. The house is insulated against the cold and warmed by a central heating system, both of which were unknown to house tenants of the 1950s. I use the term ‘tenants’ as none of the families in Offaly Street were house owners in the 1950s. The turf burning range in the kitchen was the only source of heat and the kitchen was where daily life was lived. The visits to Hickeys butcher shop in Emily Square, to Jim Fennins grocery shop in Duke Street and to Dalys of Stanhope Street for milk can no longer be made. All have gone, replaced by the ubiquitous one stop shop, the supermarket. We no longer walk or cycle to work. The car is king and the roads laid down in medieval times and bridges built in the 18th century for horse drawn carriages still do service today for those who benefit from Henry Ford’s inventive mind.
Perhaps the biggest change in Irish life today compared to life in the 1950s is the change in people’s attitude to authority. Whether that authority is Church or State the modern Irish man and woman is no longer the same subservient person who once felt cowed by unquestioned church authority and politicians whose every word and action were believed and trusted.
Times have changed and attitudes have hardened. Those of us who enjoyed our young days and have more happy than sad memories tend to look back to the old days with rose tinted glasses. Perhaps it was because we were young that only good memories have persisted. We were young and carefree and once we had enough to eat we had little or no concerns. It was not the same for everyone because truly in the 1950s many families experienced very hard times. Their memories will be mixed but for all of us there is the realisation that life 50 or 60 years ago was so different than today and as such memories of those days will hold interest for today’s younger generation.
The Memories Project involving the 5th and 6th class of Scoil Mhichil Naofa could not have been completed without the help of the School Principal and the various teachers involved. My thanks to the young girls, the teachers and the School Principal for helping to record a part of Athy’s most recent history.