Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Just around the corner

Leaving The Diamond for now we take a very short walk around the corner to visit te flat of my aunt Nanny and uncle Willie in Sean McDermott Street. If you've seen the earlier photo of The Diamond you'll have seen The Diamond Bar. Well Nanny's flat is right next door to that bar. Or at least it was, the building has since been demolished.

Nanny, Willie and their two sons, Michael and Paddy lived in this two roomed flat. The blacked out window that you can see was Michael and Paddy's room. Nanny and Willie's room was at the back.

The building you see is an old Georgian building, and like those on Summerhill, Gardiner Street and other areas was over 200 years old. These buildings were never actually pulled down. After a time, when Dublin Corporation (the council) realised that the conditions in the old buildings were a huge contributary factor in the rampant illnesses like TB etc, the inhabitants were moved to temporary accomodation while the buildings were renovated. The insides were torn out and rebuilt and the outer walls were scraped and painted where necessary, and then the tenants were moved back in after the work was done.

Poor Nanny and indeed Willy had a tough life. Nanny lived through the The Great Lockout, the Rebellion, The War of Independence, and the Civil War. She had a niece who one day went across the road (they lived on Summerhill at this time) to buy a packet of peas in a local shop. As she crossed the road on her way home with the peas a Crossley Tender carrying Black & Tans (British paramilitary police force) drove into the street. The Black & Tans shot Nanny's niece dead. She was 12 years old. That was not an unusual atrocity for these men to commit at that time.

Later, Nanny was pregnant, expecting Michael and she was in a shop when someone screamed and told her she was on fire! It turned out that in fact her coat was smouldering. She believed that just before she went over to the shop a spark from the fireplace had lodged in her coat and was starting to burn it. Anyway, this fright, and probably the trauma I already mentioned, led to Nanny becoming agoraphobic. Although she could leave her home she never left the immediate area, and if you were to walk down Sean McDermott Street in any weather you'd have seen Nanny standing there at her halldoor. If she needed anything in the shops she had to depend on local kids (or us if we were around) to go for her. The first time she left the street was when her son, Michael died as a young married man.

Then there was Willie. Willie left to join the British army, despite the wave of nationalism here in Ireland. But he had to. It was not because of any belief in the British system, it was for economic necessity. May I recommend a book called "Strumpet City" by James Plunkett. If you read this book it will give you a better idea of living conditions in Dublin at that time. And indeed the story of the male and female lead characters could easily be that of Nanny and Willie.

I remember that there was a long picture frame on their wall and this contained all of Willie's campaign medals. I used to love his stories of the time he served on the Northwest Frontier in India and in Afghanistan. Willie wasn't left untouched by these campaigns. I believe that his fondness for drink was because of things he had done and seen while serving overseas. I remember once I was standing at his halldoor and he and some man were having an argument. I clearly remember the words that Willie used which ended the argument. In a cold and (to me) frightening voice he said quietly to the other man, "Go away, son. I've killed better men for less!" The other man had the good sense to follow Willie's advice -- he walked away.

But let me describe the conditions they lived in.

As you walked into their hallway the first thing you'd have noticed would probably have been the bare wooden floorboards. But you'd also have noticed that unlike the other houses around, there were only 4 families living in this four story building. The overcrowding of families had ended. From that hallway, the door to their home opened into a tiny hallway. Straight in front was a tall walk-in cupboard which in fact was used by Nanny as a toilet as she couldn't go up the flight of stairs to the one they shared with another family. To the right of her little hall was the door to Michael and Paddy's room, and inside of this room there were two beds, a sideboard and a small fireplace. Michael kept that room spick and span, and later he even managed to get a sitting room suite into it... not leaving room for anything else. To the left of Nanny's little hallway was another door which let to her's and Willie's room. This rooom was much bigger than the front one. It held a dresser (for holding dishes) a sideboard, a large double bed. And on the walls were some old photos, and one of Jesus with a small red lamp attached to the picture frame. Oh yes and a fireplace... and I don't remember the fire ever being allowed to go out! There was always a large iron kettle standing on the hob simmering away. Nanny loved her cup of tea.

At the time I'm speaking of Willie had been demobbed from the army and got work wherever he could, mostly casual work on the docks. But as his taste for drink strenghtened the work became less and less until they were really living in hard times. But they somehow managed. And one of the ways they got by was by Willie collecting scrap metal. I remember him often bringing home coils of electrical wire and using the fireplace to burn off the insulation, leaving him with coils of copper wire which he sold to scrap dealers. I don't suppose he ever received much money for this, but it did help to keep them going.

The law back then was very harsh, and poor Willie fell foul of it once. He was walking along the dockside when he saw some kids climbing up onto the rail line above. He called on them to stop and come back down as he was afraid one of them would fall from the Loop Line Bridge (onto which they were starting to climb) and into the Liffey. They told him that they were just going up to retrieve a young pigeon that couldn't fly, so Willie told them to stay where they were and he would get the pigeon for them. Willie climbed up and had just made it to the level of the train tracks when he was called on by a policeman to come down immediately. He did so and was arrested for trespassing on the rail line. He tried to explain why he had been climbing up, but no one was interested. He was brought to court next morning and the judge wasn't interested in his story neither. That judge sentenced poor Willie to seven calendar days in Mountjoy Prison. To be sentenced to 'calendar' days meant that you served the whole sentence, no time off. And at that time if you received a sentence of less than one month (I think) you weren't fed a dinner. You were given tea and bread for breakfast and that was it. If you wanted any more your family had to supply it. So I remember going with my Gran to the gate of Mountjoy Prison and she handing in two billy cans, one containing a stew and the other filled with tea. A tough sentence for Willie and for his family just for wanting to rescue a pigeon, and save some kids from possible injury.

Well, time passed and Willie was taken to hospital because they thought he had a hernia. But it turned out to be much more serious, it was a cancer. Back then there was no palliative care at home, so when Willie was allowed home the only medic he had visit him was a nurse who came to change the dressings on the surgery wound. He never got back out of that bed alive and died in pure agony. I was in the flat the following day and Nanny and her sister, Mary (Liz's mother) were there alone. Nanny said that because of the state of the room she was ashamed of any of the neighbours coming to the wake, and Mary asked me to carry Willie into the sitting room and lay him out on Paddy's bed. Michael had married and left by now. This was the first time I had ever carried a dead body and he was stiff as a board. I had to manouvere him through the door, into the small hallway, through the other door to Paddy's room and then lay him on the bed in there. But as I carried him I bumped his head off the door jamb and Nanny and Mary screamed when they saw and heard the bump. Mary said, "Ahh poor Willie's head!" I, rather thoughtlessly replied, "Sure he can't feel it now!" I regret saying that to this day because as I said it poor Nanny cried bitterly. How we can hurt someone with a thoughtless word or remark!

For the wake the walls around the bed were hung with white sheets (as was the tradition) and pieces of cloth were fashioned into black crosses and pinned to the sheets. Willie was laid out in a brown habit (which was provided for free by the Magdalen nuns who had their convent across the road) and his hands were clasped as if in prayer, and a rosary was threaded through his fingers. My dad asked the owner of The Diamond Bar for some bottles of beer and sandwiches, to be paid for at a later date. This too was a tradition... for the local publican to supply the refreshments for wakes. Then the neighbours and friends started to come to view the body and pay their last respects to Willie. After they left I saw something that left an indelible memory. I had never seen Nanny or Willie showing any kind of affection to each other. But as soon as the neighbours had gone I saw Nanny go over to Willie and hold his face between her hands, and she kissed him and told him how dearly she had loved him and always would. I must confess that touched me very deeply.

Later that evening Paddy and I went for a drink together and we came back to his room (complete with Willie in the bed) a bit the worse for wear. We pulled some armchairs together to try to get some sleep, but it wasn't possible to sleep... those armchairs were just too uncomfortable. We both looked at Willie and I know we were both thinking the same thing. There we were with nowhere to sleep while Willie was taking up a whole bed. So we lifted Willie from the bed, laid him gently on the floor and slept the night in the bed... replacing Willie to his rightful place early next morning. No it wasn't disrespect, or at least we didn't mean it to be. To be honest the plain fact is we were both drunk. But I'm sure that Willie, wherever he is now, has had a laugh with my dad 'up there' about what Paddy and me did that night.

Later that evening the undertakers delivered the coffin and Willie was placed inside. We carried that coffin on our shoulders across to the church and as we left, poor Nanny called out "Goodbye Willie, we'll be together again soon!"

And they were reunited fairly soon after.

I think it's nearly time we moved to Gardiner Street and the births of Marie, Chris and Ellen. So till the next time..... please do come back.... there's lots more.... including the street games... the fun.... the growing up in a tough neighbourhood.

1 comment:

Kelly said...

Heya Jim
Really great to hear about the neighbourhood that I & all my family were born & reared in (& still live in!).
Love the stories about ur family the Inner City wit reminds me of my own!
Me Granda was a docker & me Nana was that typical special Dublin Lady!. They both born & reared aroung Gardiner St, Sean McDermott st & in Liberty House. Prob would of heard of them, sure every1 knows every1 in Dublin, well they used to!
Keep it up Jim I have all my family & mates reading ya blog!
Kelly dublin 1