End of an Era

As the 1960’s ended and the 70’s began, our family was heading towards the end of an era. By 1974 I had got married and had my first child, and over the next decade or so my sisters, one by one, would also leave home and start to make their various ways in the world. All of these transitions brought their own challenges of course. Suffice to say that in some ways Mum and Dad, and perhaps especially Dad, didn’t always find it easy to adjust to the ever changing family configurations as their six daughters ventured out into the big wide world.

But I’m jumping ahead of myself. Before all this re-configuring began, there were still a few years when we would all pile in to Victor the car and head off on various trips, which Dad would continue to document in that old leather album.  In 1969, we crossed the Irish Sea, and for the first time met our Irish cousins. For my Mum, it would have been 14 years since she had last visited her homeland. That first picture, of my mum and Phil her sister in law, has always made me smile as they pose in the garden complete with handbags!

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What do I remember of that visit? Very little I’m afraid. I see from the pictures that we visited Galway Cathedral and were taken by our Uncle Pat for rides in the hay wagon. My memories coincide with how my sister Mary describes it: “The family visited Mum’s home in Davros where she displayed her bike-riding skill to the astonishment of us all. On our journey home through Belfast we encountered a crowd throwing a pipe bomb and stones. We cowered in the car as Dad drove us to safety (the wrong way) up a one-way street. As we left on the ferry we spotted large graffiti letters painted on the jetty behind us saying “Paisley for Pope!” which we found very funny – I suppose because it seemed to insult both sides in equal measure – and it became a saying in our family for years afterwards.”  Trust us to choose practically the first night of the Irish troubles to finally make it over the sea to Ireland!

It was maybe a year after the Irish adventure that Mum and Dad acquired a great big tent, big enough to sleep all of us, and we became a family who took camping holidays instead of just going away for day trips. I think Glen Orchy was chosen for our first proper camping expedition, a spot beside a stream, which was our one and only concession to modern facilities. I remember my sister Ann and I being allowed to walk maybe a couple of miles up the road to the Bridge of Orchy, where there was a hotel and a shop. I’ve got a feeling we did no more than hastily buy some chewing gum before we headed back again for fear we wouldn’t get back to our camp before it started raining – I know, intrepid or what?. And we probably ended up with blisters as our footwear of choice was wellies!

After that we discovered North Ballachulish where there was an actual campsite owned by a very nice couple called Dykes. Although when I say campsite it was more a bit of extra land attached to their cottage, an informal – and relatively inexpensive – arrangement which suited us so well we went back a few years in a row. This was an ideal location for us, a mere 15 miles south of Fort William and thus within easy reach of places – and relatives – from Dad’s childhood, and indeed the place where Nellie had been the family nanny and the story of their romance began. (See post from 10 March “A Glasgow Wedding”). Both of them loved the Highlands, and passed that love on to us.

We would make visits to various of Dad’s Highland relatives and “John’s girls” would be duly lined up and coo-ed over.  One time we went on what must have been quite a major expedition to Dundee where we visited my Dad’s Aunt Ettie, Sister Mary Evangeline – she belonged to the Convent of Mercy there. The nuns seemed delighted to have us as visitors and the younger ones ran around the garden playing tag with our “wee ones”, Jane and Eleanor. I remember the nuns’ parlour with its characteristic smell of furniture polish, and all of us standing in a row entertaining said holy Sisters with our rendition of “Eidelweiss”. The nuns, being nuns, were very kind and clapped enthusiastically – or maybe they really did enjoy it. Another time we reached even further north and visited Ettie’s sister, Aunt Winnie, in Inverness.

In truth we rarely had much appreciation of who all these relatives were – I think in those days adults were not much in the habit of explaining things or introducing themselves to children, and it’s only as I look back now that I can understand just who those various aunties, uncles and assorted cousins were. In fact part of the purpose of this blog is to try and make some sense of it all.

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As you can see, at some point Dad had upgraded from the box brownie and discovered glorious technicolour! I was also lucky enough to acquire a camera of my own (a wee Kodak Instamatic as a reward for doing well in my Highers). One of the first pictures I took was this one of Mary, who had obviously just received her box brownie training! Now I come to think of it, I have very fond memories of my Dad showing us how things worked. He would take your hand in his and position your fingers in the right place, explaining all the time – Don’t shake the camera.. Make sure you stand with your back to the sun.. Press in the button gently.. He’d also tell you a whole load of stuff that you didn’t want to know – shutter speed, exposure times and so on. But, there’s something about those big gentle hands that is a deep abiding memory for me. My mum used to tell me that when I was a very little girl I’d push my hand into his and say “Hold oo wee handie”

So, to finish, here we all are, still at school, still having our pictures taken in the back green, still relatively unaware of the changes that would inexorably come upon us, and indeed upon the world. Embrace it or resist it, nothing ever stays the same for ever…

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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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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”.