The Man with the Box Brownie

It was a great disappointment to me that I failed to find a single photograph of my mother on my trip to County Mayo in April. However, once she had left Ireland to seek her destiny, she did then have the good fortune to fall in love with and marry a man with a box brownie camera – my Dad! So, happily for us, our family history was recorded from its earliest days – in fact I should say meticulously recorded, for Dad would carefully enter all the snaps, with captions, in a big leather bound album with black pages separated by tissue paper. This album became an essential part of our childhood and survives more or less intact to this day, give or take a few gaps where sisters have “appropriated” various pictures of particular significance to themselves. Here’s the first page:

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John and Nellie started out their married life in digs near Queen’s Park, so naturally this was where I was proudly paraded in 1954. I’m afraid there are more pictures of me than anyone else!

This lovely old book tracks our family’s development, not to mention each new arrival as she came along, and especially in the early pages, provides evidence of events none of us can now really remember. This was how I knew that Mum and Dad visited Ireland with me in September 1955, the year after her father died. These are among my favourite images of my mother, seeing Nellie through John’s eyes in the early years of their marriage. (You can click on the individual pictures if you want to have a closer look.)

Unfortunately Dad seems to have been so enamoured with his own little family that he forgot to take any snaps of my grandmother, Maggie Hynes, who would still have been alive then, or any other members of the Hynes family that he was meeting for the first time. Maybe they were too shy…

He’s done slightly better in these pictures of a holiday in Fort William in June 1957, when my sister Ann was just one year old and I was three and a half. This time he has also captured Grandpa (George) and Auntie Catherine, the youngest of George and Jessie’s six children, my Dad’s half siblings. Catherine must have been around 10 in these photos and I do have a memory of her pushing me on the swing and patiently spending hours playing with me in the garden – I absolutely adored her! I think we must have stayed in the house at 50 High Street, or The Barn (an adjoining annex), and by the look of it we had a lovely time. But as far as I know that was the first and last time Dad took his family to stay in what had been his childhood home.

Another selection from the family album shows an occasion when Ann and I were taken to visit Dad’s ship, the MV Bhamo when it was laid up at Princes Dock in August of 1958. I’ve also included a picture of Dad taken during the course of a voyage, and one of his radio room – a whole other life that had nothing to do with us! Again, I have no memory of this visit…

Dad was always very interested in gadgets and how things worked – the radio officer had been a boy who recounted such exploits as building a bogey and writing with invisible ink in the letters he wrote to his mother during the time she spent in the TB Sanatorium before her death in 1932. This letter is from 1931, when he was coming up for 10…

Don’t you just love that his trousers were “past mending”? I wonder what scrapes he’d got into to get them into that condition. John never lost the boyish playfulness and enthusiasm that’s displayed in this letter. If any of us ever collected stamps (I did for one!) or made a model or showed the slightest interest in morse code or how a valve radio or a car engine worked, he’d be there, explaining, showing, joining in. He tried, I’m not sure how successfully, to teach us to play bridge and he loved corny jokes. He once brought something home for Mum and patiently bided his time until she gave the answer she was in the habit of giving when asked if she wanted a cup of tea, “Just half a cup”. Whereupon he whipped out his prize – HALF a cup! Mum didn’t have much of a sense of humour for that kind of joke, but we all thought it was hilarious!

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This is not the actual one, which mysteriously disappeared! But you get the idea…

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The piano playing too carried on into later life. The familiar sound of him playing away on our upright piano would let us know he was home. Here’s how Mary remembers it, “He’d play Chopin and Debussy, and had a gift for arranging the popular songs of of his youth into his own lovely versions, like Stormy Weather and Stardust. He was a romantic person and bought Mum a pair of earrings every week, which she kept in a chocolate box.”  Ah yes, Mum’s earrings, I wonder what happened to them, I used to love being allowed to look through them and try them on. Dad’s piano playing reminded me of Russ Conway, a popular performer who used to appear on the Billy Cotton Band Show on a Saturday night. We would all squeeze up on the family sofa to watch. Dad often arrived home halfway through TV shows, depending on his shift pattern, and would be shushed by us when he wanted to know what was going on, ungrateful children that we were!

In many ways, the boy who wrote the letters points to the man he would become. The man who collected, in blue binders, the entire set of “Knowledge, the new colour magazine which grows into an encyclopaedia”; the man who spent endless painstaking hours constructing a model bungalow (long gone) entirely out of spent matches, setting the walls in place according to his detailed plans. You only have to look at these notebook pages (preserved for 60-odd years from when he was studying for his radio certification) to see how neat and meticulous he could be.

He was also meticulous in the way he kept control of the family finances, assigning the cash from his pay packet to the bills and the household expenses, from the largest to the smallest amounts, including our weekly dinner money. He would count this out on a Sunday night and wrap it up in little brown paper parcels complete with our names and amounts, ready for us to pick up on a Monday morning. Beatrice 4/11d, Ann 4/4d, Mary 3/9d. I think those are the right amounts though I can’t remember what Grace had to pay. I think he’d probably given up doing it (had he?) by the time Jane and Eleanor started school. I don’t know about my sisters, but there was no way I was going to hand over this pre-packaged payment intact as intended – I would unwrap mine (always sellotaped) and hand over the cash to the teacher in the normal way, just like everyone else!!

With hindsight, I suppose I’d have to say that Dad was just a tad obsessive-compulsive in his manner of fulfilling his responsibilities, as he saw them, as head of the household! But you know, I also see someone with a rather inflexible personality who struggled to accept and deal with some very hard blows that life had dealt him. I’ve said before that he never really got over the death of his Mother when he was only 12. And it’s perfectly obvious even from his boyhood letters that his expectations were somewhat different from the way his life turned out.

As a mother and grandmother I know that you have to learn how to be a parent, instinct will only take you so far, the rest has to be learned as you go along. The way I see it, Dad coped by doing what he always did – by faithfully carrying out what he saw as his duty and staying true to his beliefs and principles. Among the possessions he left behind are some items that say it all – his wedding ring, his wartime service medals, his rosary beads, awards from the Road Operators Safety Council for 5, then 10, then 15 years of safe driving. And this one, a tiny wee drawing done by his mother, our long lost granny, Beatrice.

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I think what I’m trying to say is that, with Nellie by his side, John grew into the role of father, became less uptight and more accepting. That whatever his faults and failings, they were tempered by his sense of fun and romantic soul. And that he always loved Mum and his six daughters with all his heart –  you only have to look at our family pictures to know that the photographer was in love with his subject. I find it very striking that when I look through albums Dad made of his time in the RAF and then at sea, there are lots of photos taken of the places he’d been to. Whereas the family album contains pages and pages of just us, with hardly a view in sight. In fact I’ve only scraped the surface of those family pictures, so we’ll need to come back to them another time.

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In the meantime, with Father’s Day coming up on Sunday, I’m going to leave you with my last loving memory of my Dad. It was 1981, he had come home from hospital – come home in fact to die – and his bed had been set up in our light and airy lounge at the front of the house in Kersland Street. We knew it wouldn’t be long and I had come up from London to say my goodbyes – my own four little ones were very young so it couldn’t be a long visit. I was sitting by the bed just quietly chatting with him before I was due to depart when he crooked his finger for me to come closer. As I leaned towards him he tapped his chest three times with his forefinger and said “Number one daughter”.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Childhood in Govan

 

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1654 map showing Mekle (“Big”) Govan, Litle Govan, and the small town of Glafgow.

Let me introduce you to Govan, a historic area of Glasgow on the south side of the River Clyde. According to medieval legend,  a monastery was founded here in the seventh century and during the Middle Ages, Govan was the site of a ferry which linked the area with Partick for seasonal cattle drovers. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, textile mills and coal mining were important; in the nineteenth century, shipbuilding emerged as Govan’s principal industry and brought prosperity. In 1864, Govan gained burgh status, and was the fifth-largest burgh in Scotland. It was incorporated into the City of Glasgow in 1912.

So what’s all this got to do with my family ramblings you may ask? Well, Govan is an important character in this blog because it became home to John and Ellen MacFarlane, John and Nellie, when they bought a room and kitchen here at 31 Rathlin Street in around 1956. It was to be our family home until 1963, when our parents sold the little flat to a certain R McCaig for the princely sum of £275. This was a private arrangement and my Dad would cross the river once a month to go and collect the instalments in cash. We even still have the receipts…

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The last time I was in Govan, quite a few years ago, I went to have a look at Rathlin Street and was not surprised to find that the old tenement had been demolished and the space occupied by a playpark. I found this picture from the 80’s on the web, obviously before the playpark was built. Our home would have been just where the empty space is.

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There are some rather smart looking modern flats on that site now (some of which seem to be selling at upwards of £100,000 nowadays!) and some nice little houses along the street where I used to walk to school, past what was still Fairfields Shipyard, on to McKechnie Street where there was a cinema on the corner and across Govan Road with the lollipop lady. St Anthony’s Primary was right there at the corner of Harmony Row; we were so near it would only take me about 5 minutes to walk to school, which I seem to remember I was trusted to do on my own from a fairly early age. If you were a wee bit late leaving the house and the school bell rang, all you had to do was run and you’d still be on time. I still have my two class photographs from that time, 1960 and 1962. I’m third from the left, age 6, in the middle row in the top one and third from the right, age 8, in the second row of the bottom one.

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I can remember a few names – Gemma Corr, Paul Mellon, Anthony, Susan, Gerard, Rita, Annemarie, Sarah… and Alec, I will always remember Alec. He’s in the back row of both photos, third from the left in the top one and second left in the other. One time in class the teacher was filling in some information for the register – mother’s and father’s names, date of birth and so on. He was going round the class and we were telling him our dates of birth. He got to Alec, who just looked blank. Teacher got a bit impatient and said “Come on boy, your date of birth – when is your birthday?” Poor Alec looked even blanker and said “What’s that? I don’t have one.” That was the first time in my life I realised that there were children in the world who didn’t get presents or blow out the candles on their birthday cake every year, as I did. Alec was one of the “rough” boys, usually in trouble for fighting, and normally someone to be avoided. But ever after that – and to this day – I had a little soft spot in my heart for him, and looked at him less disapprovingly.

Govan seems to be enjoying something of a revival of fortunes these days (hence the desirable flats), but in the 1950’s the tide of its history was at a low ebb. Govan had a reputation as a deprived area of Glasgow with high unemployment and poor housing, including the notorious “Wine Alley”, an estate which had been built in the 30’s. During the war the shipyards made the area a target for enemy bombers and there were frequent reconnaissance missions overhead, and long hours spent in Anderston shelters, for those who had them, for the inhabitants. Not as badly hit as Clydebank, a short distance further down the river, nonetheless Govan also suffered bombing raids, the worst of which completely destroyed a tenement building on Govan Road, killing 69 souls.

So this was the post-war Govan where John and Nellie, Mum and Dad, fetched up in the mid-1950’s, neither of them with any connection to or knowledge of the area or its social mores – they just bought a flat somewhere they could afford. I’m pretty sure in my Mum’s mind anyway she would have looked upon this as somewhere she was just passing through – as indeed it turned out to be. She never really saw herself as part of, or understood, the culture of this very Glaswegian lower working class area.

I don’t think Dad did either, especially as for the first few years he was away at sea for large chunks of time. He had been a radio officer in the Merchant Navy since 1952 and continued in that career right up until 1958, by which time there were three of us. I’m told that when I was little I used to call this person who would occasionally come and stay in our house “the man”.  I’m sure that must have been upsetting for someone who set such great store by the family.

It’s hard enough for any wife whose husband works away from home, but I am also very conscious that my Mum had no family in Glasgow, no network of friends. Our flat was modest to say the least. For example we had a curtained off “potty corner”, which potty had to be taken downstairs to the outside toilet on the landing below to be emptied. I remember mum bathing the babies in the big ceramic sink in the corner of the kitchen.

For us older children the big tin bath would be got out – taking up practically the whole kitchen – kettles boiled for hot water and the weekly bath undertaken with much arguing about whose turn it was to get in first and who would have to make do with someone else’s used water – or maybe we would all get in together (“she’s got more room than me!”). It’s no wonder it was only once a week, it was such a palaver boiling up all those kettles, and there was usually a lot of spillage while the damn thing was being emptied with pots and basins and other receptacles.  Once my Dad had left the sea and became a landlubber (or maybe when he was on leave) it was much easier – he could just lift the whole thing up and empty it down the sink.

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Times were tough for John and Nellie, they had to endure long separations and money was tight. Dad didn’t always appreciate that although he always left carefully calculated amounts of housekeeping money for Mum, this was too inflexible to allow for price fluctuations or emergency purchases and would sometimes leave her short.  Many lessons had to be learnt, probably painfully, as their family grew and developed. Eventually the life at sea could no longer be sustained, John found a good job as a bus driver with Glasgow Corporation and came home for good. In later years he would very occasionally talk about the sacrifices he made for his family, as he had loved his life as the onboard “Sparks”, but it didn’t take much to remind him how much he loved Mum and us. If there was a choice to be made there was no contest, even if it did take rather a few years to make it! I think it took all that time for John and Nellie to finally accept that much though he tried, Dad wasn’t going to be able to continue his radio career on land; there just weren’t any opportunities in those austere days.

But, you know, my memories of Govan are not of deprivation. I’m not one of those children in the school photographs whose wee faces stare out at you with poverty and hardship written all over them. I’m one of the ones who is well fed, well dressed, clean and shiny. Maybe Mum wasn’t always as patient as you might have wished (this is the pot calling the kettle black!) and Dad had a tendency to keep harking back to the past, but they made a home for us where we were safe and warm, where we could rely on being fed and clothed, have your hair done up in a ribbon (“ouch, that hurts!”), toys to play with, books to read, be made a fuss of on your birthday, be taken for walks in the park, be bought comics. It was everything you needed and seemed abundant. Or perhaps I just had very low expectations!  I’ll probably come back to this topic another time…

I realised when I was writing this that I have never thought of myself as coming from Govan. When asked, I say “Glasgow” or “Hillhead”, which is indeed where I feel my roots are. Thinking about it now, there ARE some deep Govan roots in there too – you just have to dig a bit deeper to find them, and I find myself happy to do so. Here are some of the things I can remember when I try:

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Jumping on the ferry was an adventure, though I feared I would fall in!
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All the back greens were like this, with the mothers watching their children from the kitchen window. The lucky ones would get a wrapped “piece” and jam thrown down to them.
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We loved going out to play in the back green – never got as dirty as this though
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I remember the river of men who would flow out of Fairfields Shipyard when hometime came around
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This vehicle would take workers and goods up and down Govan Road. It’s going past the Co-op department store where I once bought a cardigan I fell in love with in the window. I saved up all my Saturday sixpences for weeks for it.
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There were 4 or 5 cinemas in Govan in those days. The Lyceum was the one I passed every day on my way to school. I think I was taken there to see “The Parent Trap” with Hayley Mills.
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The coal man would hoist your bag of coal on his back and bring it up the close stairs to be emptied into your coal bunker in the hallway. Mum would scramble to lay newspapers on the floor to keep it clean.
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I would watch the rag and bone man give out balloons in exchange for old clothes (no, we were never allowed to do that!)
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This is the Pearce Institute, a legacy of Victorian days. I think I performed in a choir here once, wearing a white dress with a blue sash
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This is the Elder Park, scene of many perambulations.
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Trams ran in Glasgow until about 1963. I remember sitting on a hard wooden seat and asking for a “three ha’penny half”
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St Anthony’s School. You went in through the gap between the two buildings.
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I remember my first Communion and Confirmation in St Anthony’s Church. The Parish Priest was Father Molumby and he would visit his parishioners at home. I was always a bit afraid of his big black cane.
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Everyone turned out for the Govan Fair every year. I can remember seeing the Fair Queen go by on her decorated float, and being given a pear ice lolly.

I wonder if I subliminally imbibed that feeling of not quite belonging from my parents – I would never have described them as coming from Govan, or even Glasgow. I would say that Mum was Irish, and Dad came from Fort William. They settled in a place that was essentially foreign to both of them and in many ways had to invent our family mythology from scratch. Which perhaps meant that although we were IN Govan, we weren’t OF it.

 

On the Trail of an Irish Colleen, Part 2

I’ve been using my recent visit to Ireland to try and throw some light on the enigma that was my mother, Nellie Hynes. Last time, the trail took us as far as An Clochan School. After that Nellie would have progressed to the Secondary (Intermediate?) School at the Convent of Mercy, Ballinrobe and then later to the Convent’s Commercial School where she gained, respectively, her school leaving certificate and certificates in bookkeeping and shorthand.

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I remember that when Mum talked about her school days, it was always with an element of frustration, even annoyance. She would describe how the nuns had a pecking order when it came to their charges, whereby the children of professional and trades people came higher in the hierarchy than the farmer folk. I don’t think she ever really forgave those nuns for not seeing her potential and encouraging her to go further in her education, although to be fair it would have been practically unknown in those days for girls from that area to have gone to university or college. As it was, it was Nellie’s mother and her aunt as well as her own personality which drove her forward to strive for more.

Of course, the upshot of her school experience was that Mum would forever be encouraging us, her six daughters, to “get qualifications”. Our all-girls school, again run by nuns, was academically focused and the preferred choice for the daughters of Glasgow’s Catholic establishment. Though she tried to fight the feeling of being an outsider, I think Mum felt rather intimidated by this and I remember her telling us that we were as good as anyone else – which was a bit counterproductive as until she mentioned it I don’t think I’d given it a second thought! She would always tell us not to let on that our Dad was a bus driver.

This did have a big impact on me – I would quietly shrink into the background if there were ever a casual conversation about what girls’ fathers did for a living – it seemed to me they were all doctors or lawyers or bank managers. It was a revelation when one girl proclaimed that her dad was a taxi driver. I so admired and envied her, and wished I could have the confidence not to care whether anyone judged me because of my Dad. I knew perfectly well that he worked tremendously hard to provide for his family and I loved him and was immensely proud of him for the person he was – in no way did I see him as “just” a bus driver. I don’t know if I ever told him that when I was growing up, so I’m declaring it now – perhaps he can hear me somewhere out there in the cosmos. But for me as a teenager, “telling” would have felt like a betrayal of my parents.

It’s possible that my younger sisters felt these restriction less then me as they followed on behind, I hope so. I know that by the time the two youngest, Jane and Eleanor, were at school, they had friends who would come and spend time at our house, some of whom even found a refuge there when life was difficult for them at home. Changed days! When I was at school I was always warned not to bring anyone home as the house was not “good enough”. I like to think that in later years Mum gradually started to escape the shame instilled in her by those Irish Nuns all those decades before. And I also like to think I eventually escaped it too.

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I didn’t manage to visit the Convent of Mercy on my recent trip, but I did go to Roundfort, where Mum’s parents are buried. As you can imagine it was rather poignant to stand at the grave of these grandparents I never knew, and to realise that Mum had also come and visited this place as a pilgrim from afar. As far as I know, she never again met her beloved father after she left home – he died just six months after I was born in January ’54.  I think that she and my Dad came for a visit the following year, so Maggie Morris would have met her grandchild. But again, that would have been the last meeting as she died in the same month that my sister Mary was born in 1957.

After Mum left school she obtained a post as a receptionist in the Imperial Hotel in Tuam, a few miles away from Davros (there may have been other jobs too, but this is the one I know about). Mum once told Mary that there was a huge dirty mirror and dirty bottle display behind the bar and Mum cleaned it all up and made it beautiful and sparkling, much to the owner’s delight. Not surprisingly, Mum did very well in this job and advanced to Assistant Manager. I found this picture of the hotel as it would have been then displayed on the reception desk.

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I’m sure that Mum, with her lifelong love of history, would have been aware of the story of this place, which describes itself as “one of Tuam’s most historic buildings”. It was built in 1832 as a stage-coach depot named Daly’s Hotel and managed to prosper, surviving two raging fires in the town centre, the first one, in 1892, being an accident. The second happened in 1920 and was a deliberate act of reprisal by British soldiers during the War of Independence. Which confirms a suspicion of mine that there was probably quite a lot of gun running activity in the area at that time. Not that you’d ever know it from Mum – it was one of those things she didn’t really talk about. That and her more than passing knowledge of the presence of poteen (home made spirits) at the family ceilidhs I mentioned in my last post!

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Anyway, by 1920 the Hotel had already passed into other hands and had been known as Guy’s since 1891. It became the Imperial Hotel in 1932 and Mum would have worked there in the 1940’s. It’s still going strong in its current incarnation as the Corralea Court Hotel, complete with snazzy cocktail bar. I wonder what Mum would have made of it. The Tuam that she knew was, and is yet, a busy little market town and you can still get a feel for what it must have been like in Mum’s day, despite quite a lot of building and development round the outskirts. Here’s an old photo – the cross itself is no longer there, but the buildings look just the same and you can see the Imperial Hotel just behind the wee booth to the right.

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Directly across the road is the Town Hall, where you can see a statue of the Virgin Mary below the clock (just to remind you you’re in Ireland!) The container with flowers is more or less where the old clock tower was.

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Let’s turn now to the episode that was to change the course of Mum’s life and set her destiny on a completely different course. From Mary’s wee booklet: “The story goes that around 1949 Nellie was sitting on the large stove in the kitchen at home on the farm, idly tearing up newspaper and feeding the strips of paper into the fire. Suddenly she snatched a half-charred piece out of the flames and read an advertisement for the position of housekeeper and nanny for a family in Fort William, Scotland. Without knowing anything about Fort William or having experience of being a nanny, she decided there and then to apply for the job. She was accepted and a few months later left her home in Ireland to embark on the long and momentous journey to Scotland to join the MacFarlane family in Fort William as housekeeper and nanny to six children.”

This momentous decision of Mum’s seems to have been made almost on a whim and with breathtaking speed. But Nellie was already restless, wanting more out of life than a small rural town could offer. A semi-serious boyfriend had already left Ireland to go and seek his fortune in Liverpool and she and a female friend had made plans to go and work in a big hotel in Dublin. But just before they were due to go the friend fell seriously ill and ultimately died, and it all fell through. So the fateful advert arrived just at the fortuitous moment when Nellie was ready for something to happen. As on so many occasions throughout her life, when the opportunity came she seized it without hesitation.

Thus one life ended and another began. It feels to me as if Nellie Hynes left Ireland with little more than her certificates and the clothes she stood up in. She never seemed to look back or to long for the land of her birth. When she did eventually return to visit after our Dad had died, I suspect she found it much as she had left it and was probably confirmed in her original instinct that she wanted more out of life than to stay where she was, treading a path that was circumscribed and limited. Having followed in her footsteps I can understand how someone with her drive and imagination would look for a wider destiny with more possibilities.

Mum once told me how when things were difficult she would retreat within herself to a place where she could find comfort and strength. I now think that place was her childhood home. How else could she have later recalled the stories she told Mary? If she didn’t share them with us as we were growing up, it was because, as Mary said, she was always looking forward, always focused on where her drive and vision would take her next. There was no space in that for what she might have thought of as wallowing in the past. Besides, my Dad tended to be a wallower, so maybe she thought that was enough without her doing it as well. Despite the fact that she never lost her Irish accent, Mum regarded herself as a citizen of Scotland, the country she had adopted as home over 60 years before.

But she did remember. The echoes of her Irish identity and upbringing lay just beneath the surface, subliminally colouring all her attitudes, whether in positive or negative ways. This didn’t always make for a person who was easy to get on with, but she was always true to herself and would embrace any challenge with that same grit and determination which enabled her to create a new life for herself at the end of the war. We’ll explore that new life further another time, but for now let’s end with some stories Mum told Mary. I like them because it reminds me of the Mum who loved the countryside and stone walls and drinking water from mountain streams – this was a Mum I knew. I would also have liked to have known better the one who would think nothing of cycling home from a dance in the dark. But maybe I’m getting to know her now…

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“She told me three ‘horse’ stories – perhaps you know them? The first is when a horse stamped on her foot when she was a girl – she had a permanent semi-circular scar on her foot / The next was when she was crossing a field at home when she noticed a horse staring at her – she started to run as the horse snorted and charged at her – she ran faster than she had ever run in her life. The horse’s breath was on her neck as she flung herself over the wall, while the horse crashed into the wall / The last is when she was bicycling in the dark after a dance when too late she saw a large white stone in the middle of the road. She and her bicycle were flung over the fence. Meanwhile the ‘stone’ woke up – it was a white donkey sleeping in the middle of the road!”

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On the Trail of an Irish Colleen, Part 1

Colleen, definition (Irish): a girl or young woman. Colleens are typically known for their beauty and mysterious ways.

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Nellie Hynes, my mother, was the one who got away. Of all her siblings, she was the one who didn’t stay at home in Ireland, but struck out on her own, looking for a different life. And of course she found it in Scotland, as I’ve mentioned in previous posts. Part of my recent trip to Ireland was all about trying to find out more about her childhood and youth in County Mayo. I’d heard that there were old photos and of course I hoped that there would be some of her as a child or young woman, maybe a wedding photo of her parents, that sort of thing.

There was nothing. Pictures of her nieces and nephews growing up – I shared some of those with you in my last post – some of her visiting Ireland in later years, but nothing from her childhood or adolescence. And there were none of her siblings either, or anything going back to the previous generation – I suppose it would have been unusual for photography to have featured in the life of the rural West of Ireland in the first half of the 20th century. I was tantalised by mention of a blue album containing older images, including supposedly a wedding photo. But it couldn’t be found and I had to resign myself to the possibility that it never would be. You can be sure that if those pictures ever do emerge, you’ll see them here first!

So, what to do? Nothing for it but to follow in her footsteps. The first port of call being the family farm in Davros, County Mayo (location for the high tea I told you about last time). The farmhouse was called “Na Liomai Ard”, which is Gaelic for “Tall Limes”, but the name seems to have fallen into disuse, and in fact the limes themselves were cut down years ago – there’s a lot of moss growing on that stump.

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Behind the stump you can see a dry stone wall which I like to think was one the young Nellie would help her father mend when she was a child. I don’t know who repairs the walls now – the farmland itself is rented out and it’s only the house and immediate grounds that are still occupied by sister in-law Phil. Below to the left is the house as it is today, all spruced up, and on the right an old aerial photograph which is probably closer to the home Mum would have known. It’s worth noting that in those days there was no inside toilet. You can see that this was before the trees were cut down.

Mum seldom talked about her past when we were growing up – she preferred to look to the future. But my sister Mary recalls, “I remember many times in the last 20 years, sitting with Mum in our garden, talking about her story and her family and about Dad. Perhaps the green grass and countryside brought it back to her.” It was these memories that Mary lovingly captured in a marvellous booklet which was distributed at her funeral.  In the absence of photographs I can do no better than to quote here the evocative word pictures Mary paints of Mum’s life at home in Davros. (With permission – slightly abridged).

“Ellen Hynes, was known to everyone as Nellie. She was the second of four children and described her mother, Margaret Morris, as a gregarious, ambitious person, while her father John Hynes had a creative, sensitive character. Growing up on the farm, Nellie loved to help her father repair the stone walls, look after cattle, plant hedges and help her mother bake the bread daily for the farmhands and the family.

She was musical and said she was very close to her father, a very fine fiddle player who always carried his fiddle in his pocket and would be found playing the traditional tunes sitting under the trees on the farm. The Hynes house was filled most evenings with all the neighbourhood folk holding a ceilidh, which in those days included recitations of legendary stories and poetry, tales of folklore and fairy-folk and discussions of history and news as well as the traditional music. Young and old contributed. Nellie would sit for hours in the evenings, loving and absorbing these traditional gatherings, and would herself sing a Gaelic song or recite a poem.”

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Some facts and figures (garnered from old diaries, notebooks, records): – John Hynes and Maggie Morris married in 1919, and had four children, though there might have been more if Maggie’s first pregnancy (twins) hadn’t sadly ended in miscarriage due to a fall. They went on to have Kathleen (1921), Ellen (1923), Patrick (1924) and Mary (1925). When John died in 1954, the farm, as is still largely the way in Ireland, went to the son Patrick (Pat). To be fair, there’s probably not a living for more than one family on the land, but putting my (occasional) feminist hat on, I can’t help wondering why it should always be the boy that gets the land? Anyway, Pat married Phil and they brought up their family on the farm. Kathleen, Nellie and Mary all eventually left home and married.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves, let’s get back to Mary’s memoir:

“As she grew up, Nellie was a very sociable person and she loved to attend as many social and family occasions as she possibly could. There was plenty of social life in the surrounding villages in the form of dances, markets and church socials, as well as her own home being the hub for ceilidhs for the local community. The roads were almost car-free in those days and she would bicycle far and wide with great freedom.”

“Nellie enjoyed school and performed very well there, proving to be a highly intelligent girl with plenty of drive. She developed her lifelong interests in literature, history and languages from her earliest days at school, where at that time all subjects were still taught in both Gaelic and English with a strong emphasis and pride in the great Irish literary tradition, culture and history. When she was about 15, an aunt offered her the chance to go with her to live in Chicago where many of the Hynes family had settled before, but it was decided that she would not go.”

In fact I think it was Nellie’s Morris relations, her mother’s family, who had emigrated to America. There are some colourful tales about their exploits, but they’ll have to wait for another time. In the meantime, let me show you Cloghans (An Clochan) National School which Mum attended as a young scholar.  A plaque has the date 1860 on it. I got a good shot of the rear of the building, but as you can see there was too much undergrowth to get a good one of the front, so the lower view is captured off googlemaps. If you’d like to “stand” in the road yourself, send me a request by email and I’ll forward the link to you.

Next door to the old school is its modern replacement. There was a dedication ceremony, I think to mark its 50th anniversary, in the sixties, which is shown in this next photograph. Look at the middle of the row of adults standing behind the children. See that tiny little old lady wearing the dark hat? That’s Mary Varley. She was headmistress in the old school for many years, and taught my Mum. She was also Mum’s aunt – I think John Hynes was her brother. She would have been in her eighties in this picture.

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It’s been a bit strange telling this story without Mum there to ask when I’ve wanted to check my facts. In episode 2 I’ll get to the part where she left home to find her fortune. One thing that’s clear to me so far is that although it sometimes seemed as if she had left her past behind without a second glance, she manifestly held these memories close to her heart throughout the decades. In her final days when she talked about “home”, she didn’t mean the West End Glasgow flat that she had made her own for 50 years, but her childhood home, her beloved Davros.

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Travel broadens…

… I was going to say the mind, but considering the associated meals out, incidental cups of tea, snacks on the train, plane or whatever, it would probably be more accurate to say that travel broadens the beam! This is on my mind because I’m on the move right now – a mini tour of relatives in London and Ireland. I started this post on day 4 of the County Mayo leg of the trip, a place I’ve not been since 1969, though it’s my mother’s family home. She visited her homeland quite a few times in the years after my dad died in 1981, but somehow we daughters never did, other than the aforementioned family holiday in the sixties.

So I’ve finally come over to try and retrace her footsteps, starting at her sister Mary’s house, where Mary (92) still lives, cared for by her daughter Marian. Here’s Mum (left) on one of her visits, chatting with sister in law Phil, and then cousin Marian  (“don’t be silly, of course you must come and stay with us”), sitting at the self same table, chatting with me (the picture of me didn’t come out).

Catching up with the relatives has involved limitless kindness and hospitality on the part of these lovely cousins of mine, so warm and welcoming, and ready to ignore decades of neglect on my part. There seems to be something about family ties, especially in a friendly place like Ireland, that you can always rely on. Calling at the family farm in County Mayo turned out to be more than just a quick visit – Auntie Phil had other ideas: cosy fire in the living room, high tea laid out on the kitchen table, and –  surprise, surprise – more cousins; Marian, Sarah and Ann, who had “just popped in” . And then came the piece de resistance – this little suitcase absolutely crammed full of old photographs, which engrossed us all for the next several hours…

Here’s just a small selection, mainly from the fifties and sixties, of Phil and Paddy’s family snaps. Paddy was my mother’s younger brother, and he and Phil had three daughters, mentioned above, and a son, John, who now lives in England. The top left picture is of Phil and Paddy’s wedding day.

And of course Marian in Tuam also unearthed a fine collection of photograph albums, chronicling HER family over the years. It would be too confusing to start reciting all the names here, so I think I’ll just let the pictures speak for themselves, except to say that the first photo is of Marian on her mother’s knee.

I love the way these rather faded old photographs seem to reach out to you directly from a lost era. But I suppose I’d better bring you more up to date with a couple of pictures from a family wedding (Marian’s daughter Denise). Don’t they all scrub up well?

It’s a bit overwhelming to catch up with quite so many relatives, so many lives, all at once, so I think it would be best not to leave it several decades before I come back again.  And I would also do well to remember that visiting relatives in Ireland is definitely an exercise in going with the flow – whatever thoughts you might have had of being very organised and self-sufficient and independent simply fade away in the face of such boundless hospitality.

I’m not sure if it’s better to travel hopefully than to arrive – passing through Stansted Airport, as I did for the first time last week, just about knocks all hope out of you, a truly ghastly experience, only surpassed by the appalling Charles de Gaulle in Paris. So what with that, delayed trains, carting luggage up and down stairs in the Tube, I think I’m probably more a fan of actually arriving.  However I do agree with the author Mary Anne Radmacher: “I am not the same, having seen the moon shine from the other side of the world.” Now that rings true. I will never forget travelling to China five years ago and watching the sun slowly rise over the curve of the Earth as we flew towards the morning from Europe to Asia. That kind of experience makes a long lasting impression. “Travel makes one modest. You see what a tiny place you occupy in the world.”  Gustave Flaubert.

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Travel does change you, if you let it. It might be the spectacular once-in-a-lifetime trip, such as that fortnight in Shanghai, or the apparently more modest excursion to somewhere that captures a little corner of your heart and stays there long after you’ve returned home again – it’s great to occasionally be cast adrift from the normal, familiar routines, to see different sights, think different thoughts, be open to different cultures. That’s when travel really does broaden the mind, changes your perspective, creates lasting memories. As John Steinbeck observed “People don’t take trips, trips take people”.

 

Clutter … or Treasure?

Did you get a home-made card this Mother’s Day? And will it sit proudly on the mantlepiece for a few days before getting tossed in the recycling? … or maybe be displayed on the fridge door for a couple of weeks or months? … or does it join a whole collection of artwork and wee notes and cards carefully preserved for posterity? If I tell you that the above card was made for me around 30 years ago and that Daniel will be 40 next year, I think you can guess which category I fall into!

As it turns out, from the point of view of the family historian (as I now have the temerity to call myself), these tiny trifles are like golddust. For example, here’s a little letter from Theresa, a cousin of mine in Inverness, sent to her Aunt Beatrice (my grandmother) in 1931.

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And a drawing of “The wee Pickles” (John, Mary and Donald) from the back of one of my dad’s letters to his mother, as described in my previous post, again in 1931.

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I am so glad that these little handmade documents have survived the years; there is something almost unbearably touching about handling these relics of the past, and feeling that the love that went into their making, giving and receiving still survives to this day, even when the people are long gone.

Don’t get me wrong, I do have bouts of clutter clearing. Bouts? It’s continuous!  I’m currently going through boxes and boxes of my mum’s remaining letters, papers and photographs, looking for the small gems among all the clutter. On the whole, my mum kept EVERYTHING – it all meant something to her and more often than not, some card or letter will be preserved in its envelope marked, for example, “from Tia in London, keep safely” or “To Dad from Eleanor for Father’s Day ’79. Very precious”. You see what I mean? It makes it almost impossible to toss anything away!

Actually, my solution for the moment is to parcel up all these various mementos and return them to the original senders – that way, my sisters, children, nieces and nephews can make the decision as to what should happen to them . I’m sure they’ll be delighted with that. And by the way, I have no idea who Barry Kiernan is.

You know, it’s very random what survives and what doesn’t, so in a way I’m glad to have this surfeit of stuff to sort through, as it’s better than not having anything at all from a particular era. Which was the case when I was telling you about George and Beatrice and how they met sometime before 1920. George, of course carried on after Beatrice died in 1932, eventually married again and had more (many more!) children. But that’s a story for another day. For the moment, let me tell you a memory that has been passed on to me, which will perhaps explain why I’ve not been able to find any artifacts from that decade when they met in Ceylon, or perhaps even on the boat home.

These are the words of Pat, widow of George’s son, Sandy;

“When George knew he was dying, around 1961/2 he bade Sandy fetch a tea chest and emptied the shop safe – it was huge – into it. He stood over Sandy while chest and contents were burned in the back yard.”

Aaagh!

It’s generally agreed that George’s last word on his deathbed – and remember this is 30 years after she had died – was “Beatrice”.

It’s a bit of a mystery to me as to just how the photos I have of Beatrice and the family, and the childrens’ letters, somehow survived this bonfire. My sister Mary thinks that perhaps some female relation – possibly one of George’s sisters – might have kept them when Beatrice died and then passed them on to our Dad at some point. Whatever the truth is, we can only be grateful to her for this act of preservation.

So, I kind of hope that despite the technology we have at our disposal nowadays when it seems we can document and share our lives almost as they happen, people will still find delight in discovering the odd home made card or gift or souvenir that has been squirreled away in a shoebox, only to be unearthed years later, after the items – and possibly the people associated with them – have been long forgotten. You never know – these simple keepsakes, not necessarily having any monetory value, might become cherished family heirlooms, like this service button owned by my cousin Pauline which is the only memento she still has of her father (my Uncle Donald).

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Beatrice and George: a love story, a young family and a great loss.

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My grandparents, George MacFarlane and Beatrice Bentley, met in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) sometime in 1914 or 15 and married in Market Harborough in 1920. I know that statement probably raises more questions that it answers, but I’m afraid I don’t really know very much more than the bare bones. George, newly qualified, had been sent out to work as a chemist in Kandy, don’t ask me why, but there is a theory that it had something to do with taking medicines out there to help fight an outbreak of plague which had taken place in the country round about this time (which I CAN verify thanks to Wikipedia!). In true Who-Do-You-Think-You-Are fashion, I have found him listed as a passenger on board the P&O steamer SS Malwa which set sail from London on the 7th of April 1911, calling in at Colombo, Ceylon. However that’s where the WDYTYA similarity ends because I can’t find him on any returning voyage, nor is there a team of helpful experts ready to tell me where to look for evidence of how George would have spent his time in that far off outpost of empire. So we’ll just have to imagine – think elephants, temples, tea plantations…

As for Beatrice, she was 17 when she set off from Liverpool on the 10th of December 1914 on board the SS Leicestershire. She is listed as a governess, accompanying Mr and Mrs WG Wishart and Miss Jessie Wishart. Miss Jessie was probably only a year or two younger than Beatrice herself. The return journey was made by the three intrepid ladies in December of the following year on board the SS Gloucestershire, William Wishart no doubt remaining behind to pursue his business interests.

So, we can only speculate about the 25 year old George and the 18 year old Beatrice falling in love during that year when she was out in the far east. Did they maybe meet at an afternoon tea party, dance together under the moon, share their hopes and dreams, make plans to be reunited back in Blighty and then write letters to each other during the months and years they were apart. I have no idea. All I know is that the next we hear of them is their wedding on the 8th of September 1920, so SOMETHING must have happened!

The young couple settled in Fort William, where George took over the family chemist business from his widowed father, Peter, and they lived with him in the commodious flat above the shop at 50 High Street. It wasn’t long before the family began to grow, and at last I have some pictures to show you – here’s a wee slideshow. I particularly like the ones where the children are grubby… and that one with the whole family out with the pram, doesn’t John remind you of “Just William”?

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I am named after my paternal and maternal grandmothers, Beatrice and Margaret. I know little about my mother’s mother, Maggie Hynes, though I’m working on it… But it was always going to be on the cards that my dad would call his eldest child after his beloved mother, for she died when he was only 11 and that loss affected him deeply for the rest of his life, I think he never really stopped longing for her.

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As a child, you don’t always appreciate what it means when you are told that someone in a previous generation died before you were even born – it seems like the natural order of things. Now of course, I can understand what a tragedy it was that this grandmother of mine died of TB in 1932 at only 35 years of age. It’s quite a shock to realise that had she lived she’d only have been 57 when I was born in 1954. It is also painful to know that a diagnosis of TB in the 1920’s and 30’s was more likely than not a death sentence, as antibiotics did not become widely available until the 1950’s.

Beatrice left behind the three cherished children, John aged 11, Mary aged 8, Donald aged 6 and her distraught husband George, who was probably singularly ill equipped to deal with this bereavement given that he had lost his own mother when he in turn was only 6. His wife died far from home at the Tor-na-Dee Sanitorium, Aberdeen and due to a mix up, the telegram notifying George was delayed by three days. It’s said that he wept inconsolably when he heard the news. I rather think he found himself unable to be of much comfort to his children and I’ve heard that they became rather neglected and that George took rather more refuge in the bottle than was healthy.

Beatrice spent at least two extended periods in sanitoriums being treated with rest and fresh air, the prescribed therapy at the time. The family wouldn’t have been able to visit as the disease was so terribly infectious. So, starting in May 1931 George made sure that John, Mary and Donald wrote letters to their mother every Sunday, many of which are still in existence, though as far as I know none of the replies from Mama. Here are the first couple of letters sent by Mary to her mother. Reading that second one especially, you get a strong sense that Mary felt as if she had just gone out of the room for a short while.

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All three children wrote regularly, the letters of the older two being full of all the things they were busy with – how they were doing at school, what games they were playing, what cousins they were visiting, how tall they were, the excitement of the talkies coming to Fort William…. and so on. Donald, being only 5 or 6 would dictate his letters and either George or Mary would write them out for him (John didn’t seem to have the patience!) and he would fill up the rest of the page with kisses, letters or numbers …. like this. (Mary has added the explanation, but Donald has signed his own name at the bottom.

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I suppose over the months the children gradually grew more used to not having their mother at home. She was still absent by Christmas, and I have to say it’s heartbreaking to read their letters wishing her a happy Christmas and telling her about the presents they received. I’m sure she wept many tears over those words. There’s a gap in the letters once we get into 1932, but I’m not sure if Beatrice was allowed home for a while, or if it’s just that those ones are missing. I’d like to think it was the former. At some point she was transferred from the Sanitorium at Kingussie to Aberdeen. The letters have got rather darker by the autumn and George seems to have gone for a visit in September as Mary writes to him asking how Mama is doing. (He couldn’t visit much, as he had the business to run and the household to supervise, also he didn’t have a car.)

All the children talk more about how they were praying for her. John’s final letter to his mother was written just five days before she died, and I find it very touching that he was finding a little comfort from sleeping in her bed…

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Beatrice is buried at Cille Choirill Graveyard, Roybridge, where many MacFarlanes have been put to rest. Many decades later, her daughter Mary’s ashes were scattered at her mother’s grave by my cousin Michael, who, like me, would have been one of Beatrice’s 16 grandchildren.