My mother died eleven years ago. Her few possessions, amassed over a lifetime which stretched over 89 years, were shared out amongst her four sons. It fell to me, for no other reason than the fact that I lived nearest the old family home, to collect up in boxes and bags the lifetime ephemera which, like all of us, she had accumulated in drawers, boxes or wherever such keepsakes are put aside. And put aside they are. I know, for I indulge in the same habit, putting aside pieces of paper, press cuttings, sometimes letters and bits and pieces, deemed at the time to be important or useful, but whose importance or usefulness seldom seem to be justified.
Which is why eleven years ago I emptied the presses and drawers of those things which my mother had put aside, because they were important or deemed of some special value or meaning in her lifetime. I promised myself to go through them as soon as possible but it was only last Saturday that I got around to the job. It was a sad task because amongst those bags and boxes were the only visible reminder of her journey through a life of almost nine decades.
Her original birth certificate showing the name of Catherine O’Regan of Ballykilleen was one of the first items I found. It’s contents were a surprise because throughout her life she used the name Kathleen and sure enough her Marriage Certificate shows her name as Kathleen O’Regan. When and why the metamorphosis from Catherine to Kathleen I wonder? Her parents were named on the Birth Certificate as Ann O’Regan, formerly Conneely and Anthony O’Regan, the latter marked with an X rather than a signature. I looked at my father’s Birth Certificate and find his father described, as was Anthony O’Regan, as a farmer and also showing a mark instead of a signature. The obvious conclusion is that neither could write yet amongst my mother’s papers is an obviously much treasured letter written to her by her father in the 1950’s. I wonder was the Registrar of one hundred years ago simply taking the easy way out when the father of the child did not attend on the registration of the birth.
The wedding of my parents on 8th September 1932 is duly recorded in a Marriage Certificate which came with the date of issue marked over a one penny stamp as 10th October 1932. The thirty-two year old civic guard and the twenty-six year old spinster were embarking together on a life’s journey which would see them end up in Athy. Keeping receipts seems to have been a lifetime habit for people born in hard times. I remember well the receipt holder where every receipt was pushed onto a wire before the holder was carefully put back on its shelf. It had disappeared in latter years, perhaps an indication of the ease with which an older generation had come to grips with the fast moving economy of the seventies and eighties. However, amongst the few receipts I did find was one which issued from G.W. Monson, furniture manufacturers of Market Street, Sligo on 13th April 1933. Guard Taaffe of George Street had purchased a three piece suite, one oak sideboard, one bedroom suite, four chairs, one oak pullout table and a mirror which, after discount, came to £44, £20 of which was paid, the rest presumably followed in instalments. Those pieces of furniture were with my parents throughout their married life and were in the Offaly Street home when my mother died.
The difficult time which faced everybody but the well off up to the 1960’s, is for me typified by a transaction which I can remember my father entering into sometime in the mid 1950’s. He was buying an electric razor and to do so he entered into a hire purchase agreement to pay for it over a number of months. Even the smallest electrical item was beyond the purchasing power of a man who had what could only be described as a very responsible job. He was a local Garda Sergeant, what his pay was I don’t know but it must have been particularly small given that he neither smoked nor drank and yet could not afford to purchase even the smallest electrical item without the benefit of hire purchase. It was probably an indication of the impoverished state of the Irish economy at the time which is now difficult to grasp and understand in this day of economic overdrive.
Certainly financial frugality was the order of the day and County Council scholarships to help with school fees were eagerly sought. Candidates for the few scholarships available had to undergo a written competitive examination and the successful candidates could in 1949 get a scholarship of £30, presumably to cover secondary education for the following five years. My parents kept letters relating to the various Taaffe boys successful foray in scholarship examinations and as you can probably guess my name does not figure amongst them. I was a failure in that regard and so a financial burden on my parents as I went through secondary school. However, viewed in the light of today’s values, it was a relatively easy burden made particularly so by the kindness and generosity of the Christian Brothers. I see receipts from the Christian Brothers for term fees of £5, not a huge figure but I suppose an additional charge, and if I had got a scholarship quite an unnecessary one, on a weekly wage which allowed for no luxuries.
It was probably the improvidence associated with the Garda pay which prompted my father to seek out for his sons jobs which would offer better financial rewards than he had ever obtained. I can still remember the reverence with which my father spoke of job opportunities in what were once regarded as the “trinity” of job creation in Ireland in the 1950’s - the E.S.B., Bord na Bona and C.I.E. To that list was later added County Councils, while the status symbols of a job with the banks or with Guinness’s were never to be dreamed of in those days by Catholic youngsters of lowly backgrounds such as ourselves. My parents kept letters of job offers from Bord na Mona, the County Councils and surprisingly a letter from the local Labour T.D., Bill Norton responding to my father’s request to have one of his son’s applications for a job with the E.S.B. looked upon favourably. He did not get the job but the letter probably confirms my father’s political allegiances and raises the issue of the deep rooted system of jobbery in this country of ours which would prompt an intelligent man such as my father, in desperation or otherwise, to seek a politicians help to get his son a job in a semi-state organisation.
One cannot go through life unscathed, especially if your work requires you to bring other people into situations they don’t desire and so amongst my mother’s papers I found two very interesting documents. One was an unsigned typed letter of complaint to the Chief Superintendent of the Gardai about Sergeant Taaffe “lately arrived from Castlecomer” (he arrived in Athy in 1945) who was “paying too much attention to the local public houses”. The other was a newspaper report of a criminal case in which he was the principal prosecuting witness and where the defendant eventually got off. Reading the yellowing newspaper of over fifty years ago I could not but feel a slight jolt of familiarity, now that I am on the other side of the trial process, as I read the defence counsel’s searching questions which he put to my father.
Figuring large amongst the reminders of the years past were the memoriam cards of family, friends and acquaintances of my parents. The little photographs reproduced on these cards brought back to me once familiar faces which were part of the fast fading background of my young days. Ernest Herterich who died thirty-nine years ago, Julia Meehan who died a year later and Bill Cash who died, aged fifty-six years in 1970. Joe Murphy who died in 1968 and his wife Kitty who passed away nineteen years later, just three years after another neighbour, Tom Moore, had gone to his maker. A face I cannot remember but a name well known to me was that of Brigid Blanchfield who died aged fifty-five years in 1969. Their memoriam cards stacked up as death reaped its harvest amongst young and old alike. Neighbour Leopold Kelly, ordained in 1965 died two years later, his father James died in 1977 and his mother Marie died in 1983. Other neighbours whose cards were found amongst my mother’s papers were Michael Tuohy who died in 1972 and Bob Webster who died eleven years later. The once familiar faces included Kathleen Clare who died aged fifty-eight in 1975 and Tom Meany who died a relatively young sixty-four years in 1973, but not as young as Dominic Ward who was just twenty-three years old when he died in the summer of 1961.
They were just some of the many memoriam cards which my mother put away so carefully over the years. They provided for her a gallery of memories of neighbours and other locals who once were part of her life and part of the life of the town of Athy.
I completed the task of examining the accumulations of my mother’s long life by gathering together some treasured reminders of her life and put them aside to be added to my own collection of favourite things. It will in time fall to another generation of my family to undertake a similar task and in doing so someone will come across mementos of grandparents whose life together started in County Mayo and ended after many side trips at the Ford of Ae in the Barrow valley.