Memoirs of Nuala Holland: Childhood memories of Tullamore
Nuala Holland now living in Lancaster, England writes of her childhood memories in Tullamore. She was a daughter of Sean or John Mahon and her mother hailed from Kerry. They lived at Knockaulin, Charleville road. Here she recalls the Troubles, saving turf in Ballard bog, and schooling and living in Tullamore.
Bangs, Pangs and Gangs
Nuala Holland (nee Mahon)
Early April 1921
There was an ambush outside our house, in which a Black & Tan was shot dead. The Black and Tans forced their way into our house, searched every inch and left a huge mess. They also left my terrified mother, father and five brothers and sisters. Three weeks later, I was born & my mother often recounted the fact that after my birth I was a very jumpy baby. Often waking myself up with a violent start. My father used to keep a shotgun to keep the wood quests from devouring his cabbages, so perhaps that caused a certain amount of suspicion. Whilst the Brits were combing our house, the lads had skedaddled down the open fields to the callows and probably down to Ballycowan across the canal, or maybe they legged it over Charleville wall. Who knows? Incidentally after my father sold the gun the wood quests returned and my poor dad used to attribute human qualities of cunning and greed to the birds. Well how did the birds hide so well? Charleville road used to have some fine trees by the side of the road, and one grew between Lavin's and our house 'Knockaulin' built in 1911, the first on the right about a quarter of a mile from the station, except for Dix'es Cottage and smallholding. Some years later Mr. Lavin had a house built next to ours. He was a national schoolmaster with two daughters. Ethel a bank clerk, and Lily who stayed at home. (I noticed in Clonminch Cemetery that Lily's age at death was put on the cross at 70 plus. In actual fact she lived to be over one hundred.) The architect who designed our house suggested that it should face south and consequently it's the only house not facing the road. The garden where my dad conducted his battle with the wood quests had been used by a butcher from the town to bury his offal, so consequently the soil was very rich. The first few years my dad grew huge strawberries for sale, and from the proceeds he bought garden tools, lawn mower, apple trees etc., etc.
Pat Dix and Dillon Street
I mentioned Dixes' cottage. They kept a donkey and creel in which Pat used to bring home the turf and Mrs.Dix kept a pig. Their garden extended along Charleville Rd. past the present Dillon Street opening and past the two semis. It was bounded by a continuous hedge and I remember seeing Pat scratching at the ground, not very successfully. They also had a fine looking green painted pump outside their gate. Pat's sister, Lizzie was a teacher in Great Harrod, Lancashire till she retired about 1945. When Dillon Street was first built there was only four semis, housing the families of eight ex. soldiers. Hogans, Connells, Lloyds, Fords, Cosgroves, Briscoes, O'Reilly's, and O'Dowds. The entrance was a narrow rough road at the end of Dixes' land which ran down hill, turned sharp left, then right to the end of the street. Several years later the other houses were added and my friend Maura Briscoe and I had great fun playing on the sites till I fell into a lime pit one day. Several years later another street of bungalows were added: Healy Street, (parallel to Dillon Street), which ended at the bottom of our garden. Some of the lads used to nip in, nick some of our apples and leave my mother furious! Incidentally when the first families moved into Dillon Street, the poor mothers were up and down to Mrs. Dix's pump, with buckets all day, which caused my brother Alo to christen it Bucket Street. I really thought that was the correct name for years! Patsy Briscoe had served in the Boer War as well as the First World War. He'd managed to survive the trenches and filth and lice in Flanders and was a pleasant smiling man. He pounced on the back of my neck one day, thinking he'd caught a 'poux' on me, but it was a mole! He pronounced poux as poo.
Saving Turf in Ballard Bog
I started to say I know another survivor of the Boer War. He was Ned Smith who lived in Ballard just beside the bog. He was married to a Lyons, an old Tullamore family, which included also Pat and Joe, and a Mrs. McNamara. Pat and Joe had a smallholding down the end of Spollenstown and another brother lived in a cottage down Kilcruttin Lane. Pat ad Joe were a wonderful pair of good old stock, keeping the real tradition of hospitality alive. It fell to Pat to cook the dinner (all home produce) and every day he put a few extra spuds in the pot, or an extra cabbage "in case someone called in on the way to the bog". At that time, there was a road through to the banks directly, which at some later date got blocked off, as people had the extra mile or so along Charleville Road, and down Ballard Lane to reach the bog. I often woke early on a summer's morning and heard the donkeys clattering along quietly pulling an empty creel. Their last trek home at night would be nine ish, to give the owners time to unload in daylight. Ned Smith's two daughters used to work on the bog during the summer, and Sis, the eldest always had a joke and a pleasant smile as she passed. In those days, Spollenstown was almost like a little settlement of its own. Lloyds, who owned a grocery and dairy on Charleville Parade (Cormac Street) also had a herd of cows. They were driven twice a day up to Spollenstown to graze, and then back down to fields opposite the courthouse, to be milked. There was a tennis club in Spollenstown where a lot of young townspeople used to play. I went there as a small child with my older sisters, but it closed down while I was still quite young.
On the left hand side of Charleville Road going away from the town, and just past Dew Park, a maiden lady called Sarah Walsh owned a large field. One gate was opposite our house, and one about a hundred and fifty yards up the road. Sarah had a house and farmyard on Bury Quay, between the convent and the Christian Brothers School. In those days most farmyards kept their pile of manure in front of the house and we children used to have to run past it in summer holding our noses. Sarah used to cycle up daily to inspect her field and see that her employees were getting on with their work. I suppose. Every second year a field of corn was grown at our end. When the corn was ripe at our end it was very exciting. A huge threshing machine appeared about eight a.m. along with a team of workers. They literally never stopped working all day long and by about seven p.m., the field was bare and the gate locked! No drinks, no dinner, no nothing. We children used to stand (well back, I may say) staring at the workings of the machine. There used to be a lot of dust blowing about and a strong oily smell coming from the machine. Another exciting development was the laying down of the tarmac on Charleville Road. That was roughly about the time the electricity from the Shannon Scheme was brought to Tullamore. We put it in our house in 1931 and our bedrooms were lit by the brilliance of forty-watt bulbs. After candles it seemed to be brilliant, and as to the miracle of the two-way switches on the stairs! No longer did my poor sister have to accompany me upstairs to the toilet when I was too scared to go on my own.
A much earlier memory, when I couldn't have been more than two, was my brother Alo being ushered out the back door holding a plate covered by a tea towel. I was mildly curious at the atmosphere in the kitchen, as if everyone was holding their breath and hardly speaking, but it was years later when I heard the reason for it, that I recalled my childish awareness of something clandestine going on. It was because a young man from the town called Mike Whelan was on the run, and was sheltering in our outhouse loft. Mike was an insurance agent when I was growing up, and I always thought of him as a friendly sort of chap, because he always smiled at me. It was later that I found out why.
Another very early memory was my first sight of Irish Free State Soldiers in High Street. They looked great in smart green uniform and were standing to attention outside the big house, which later belonged to Daniel Williams. I couldn't take my eyes off them but I can't properly remember whom I was with, I vaguely think I was walking past the Ulster Bank with two older sisters.
My father John Mahon
My late father John or Sean Mahon was one of the youngest of twelve children, born in Killurin. At seventeen years old he went to America to work for his eldest brother Pat in Chicago. Pat had a small grocery business and most of his customers were Irish, living in tall tenement blocks. It was Dad's job to drive the horse and wagon and deliver the groceries, which he had to carry in heavy boxes up several flights of stairs. The winters were very cold with heavy snowfalls, and the summers were very hot and smelly due to the abattoirs being too close for comfort. Dad had left for the U.S. with the intention of settling there, but fate stepped in to scupper that plan. First I must say, when he was leaving home, my granny produced two sovereigns she'd managed to save, and gave them to him. He loved his mother dearly and always spoke of her with great affection. He never spoke of his father, other than to complain that he made them all kneel down in the kitchen every Sunday afternoon and recite all fifteen mysteries of the Rosary, while the other neighbouring boys were in the field kicking football.
My uncle Joe went to the Irish House in Paris to train for the priesthood. Due to poverty the diet was poor, and Joe got T.B. The priests thought that if they sent him out to California the sun would do him good, but of course it had the opposite effect, and he was sent home to die in Ireland. My dad (aged twenty one) and Aunt Maggie sailed back with him but poor Joe died at sea and was duly buried at sea. The trauma of that tragedy stayed with my dad for years. He returned in 1900 to a changed Ireland. The resurgence of Irish culture, games and language had got well under way, to his delighted wonderment. He was utterly astounded to know, for the first time, that we had always had our own language. He started to learn Irish and mopped it up like a sponge, and in later years he ran into some leaders of the movement, including Padraig Pearse. I remember him saying that Pearse didn't approve of cuaigtheor, (I think that was the word) meaning a sort of regionalism rather than a unified accent and language. Nowadays we enjoy diversity in accents and habits, but of course with the rediscovery of our own identity it was understandable to want to keep the language 'pure'. My dad joined the Gaelic League and so immersed was he in our language and culture, that he traveled round the Feisseanna as a judge. It was on one of these trips that he met my mother who was from Kerry and a native speaker. He got her a job teaching in the convent school in Kilcormac, after she'd done a five-year monitorship and they got married shortly before her twentieth birthday. I think my mother was an offender against Pearse's wish for Gaelic purity, because she used to get angry with us for coming from school with Connaught Irish! I must say in her mitigation, the southern Irish seemed less harsh and more musical to my childish ear.
In 1924 a tragedy happened in Tullamore with the introduction of sleeping sickness. It was blamed on the B. and T.s, and may well have been, but in view of their background i.e. prisons, crime-ridden slums etc. I often wondered if it had unwittingly, been brought back from Africa by one of our own missionaries. However, my brother Des was sixteen at the time and he got it in its worst form. He lived for twenty eight years, and between the end of the first seven years and the end of the second seven years his suffering was indescribable. All of the victims were young. The young victims of sleeping sickness were Des, Ted Smith, Andy Gallagher, Willy Sheil, Molly Dunne, and Nan Woods, all of whom lived in the town. As far as I know, no cure has been found for it, even today, eighty years on.
School at Bury Quay
I started at the Convent School in April 1926 and had mixed experiences there. Some of which were not pleasant. However there was a lovely woman, Miss Mc Dermott who introduced us to the tonic sulfa, using hand signs to distinguish the notes. I was utterly fascinated by these lessons, and although it must be seventy-six years ago, I well remember her emphasizing the note 'me', and dwelling on how lovely it sounded to the ear. That experience must have fashioned my future because I ended up in a large comprehensive as Head of Music. After I'd made my first Communion I went to St. Joan's, which was in a little terraced house next but one, to the Convent. The Ryans were renting the house immediately next the Convent. At St. Joan's I had the fortune to meet Miss Kennedy, who was a gentle but firm lady, who never used painful punishment for petty misdemeanors, and later at the Sacred Heart School, there was a gem of a teacher, Miss McGowan from Balllyhaunis, Co. Mayo. She taught us English in an erudite and interesting way. I could never understand why the lay teachers were much nicer and much better teachers in every way than the women who apparently were devoting their lives to God.
I have pleasant memories of the Corpus Christi Procession, although shortly after my first Communion myself and about seven other young girls were selected as 'angels' to kneel on the hard cold steps of the convent entrance on Bury Quay. We had to line up for ages beforehand and at some stage I was bursting to pee, it trickled down my legs and on to the ground. My shoes were white and I did my best to cover the damp patch on the ground and to my great relief nobody noticed. I was sure I was going to be half killed.
Another memory came into my mind recently, and that was Killeaavy's butcher where my mother shopped every Saturday. It was first on the right in Patrick Street, and was a lock up, with a single huge door, with the carcasses kept at the back, and some large joints hanging from giant hooks. They had an assortment of wicked looking cleavers, which were frightening to watch being used. There was (to my child's nostrils) an overpowering smell of animal blood, which got largely soaked up by thick sawdust on the floor. The assistant was a man called Martin Poland, who was the owner of one of the most pleasant manners I've ever met. Martin had a very strong speaking voice, allied to strong outstanding features, and was, altogether a most cheerful kindly man.
Another memory was Earl Street where the Thomas' had a barbershop, while further along there was a boot maker's shop, owned by a Thomas James. Next to James' shop lived the Dunne family, and Willie Dunne had a shop in High Street, which I think sold shoes. It was the Dunne family who had poor Molly, one of the victims of sleeping sickness. Also in Earl Street lived an old lady who in her eighties was still quite attractive called Emily Barry. Her daughter was Mrs. Emily O'Reilly, and one of her sons was a well-respected patriot. I believe one of Mrs. E. O'Reilly's descendants hears her name and is a well-known employee of an Irish newspaper. As it is so many years since I left home, I don't know much of who's who, alas! Another inhabitant of Earl Street was a Nurse Hutchinson, a widow. She worked for years past retiring age, and always wore her nurse's uniform, long after she finished work. Her uniform was something from the nineteenth century, all starch and ribbons, with a sort of pleated bonnet. As the years passed poor Nurse Hutchinson's uniform got very shabby looking and she herself looked unhappy and not at all as sprightly as she once was She didn't seem to have any friends in her very old age., and it used to sadden me to see her looking frail and undernourished. I hope she ended her life happily and cared for. Its' possible that she had never married but because of her nursing qualification she was justified in putting Mrs. before her name.
Before I finish, I must mention Mrs. Kenny the church organist. She used to produce wonderful organ preludes before last Mass on Sunday, which to my child's' ear were wonderfully satisfying. One beautiful chord after another led to a perfect solution, and while she was building up to the final resolution. I was excitedly awaiting the complete whole. (Incidentally, Mrs. Kenny also produced a very talented family of musicians.) It was worth the very long dreary last Mass, with the long dreary sermon and the long dreary Acts of Faith, Hope and Charity which were read out before mass started, and the hard wooden kneeler. On which I knelt with bare knees.
Nuala Ni Mathgamhna