Friday, 29 January 2010
“…It was all so simple then…”
With John Fitzgerald
The words of the song come to mind when contemplating Nell Leahy’s word pictures of a past that has virtually disappeared.
In her interviews on national and local radio, Nell recalled the simpler lifestyle of the 1940s and preceding decades. The Tilly lamps and candles… the water drawn from the well…the open fires that cooked everything…the old cures that worked no matter what the doctors said.
The nation might have been in the grip of rationing, she told RTE Radio’s Donnacha O Dualin, but most country folk had ample supplies of milk, eggs, and meat.
They had their porridge or a boiled egg for breakfast, washed down with tea…rations or no rations. Re-cycling of tea eaves was something you got used to, Nell joked.
Spuds were plentiful too, especially in rural households, she confirmed, as were carrots, onions, turnips, cabbage, parsnips, lettuce, and scallions. And you could feast on Rhubarb or apple tart, or current cake, mainly at teatime on Sundays.
Women didn’t drink like they do now. Nell laughed at the very idea: “Lord above, t’would be a terror to God and a scandal for a woman to be seen sipping a glass of stout or whiskey, though we all knew about a lady in Callan who liked her bottle of stout. She was a brave woman, before her time.
“The women now can have their tipple and no one minds them at all. Sure they drink porter or spirits to beat the band and the divil a harm it does them.”
Nell alluded also to the respect bordering on fear that most people accorded anyone in positions of power or influence. Authority figures such as clergy, civil servants, guards, auctioneers, solicitors and bank managers and even bank clerks were, said Nell; held in high esteem and reverence, to an extent that would seem baffling or even laughable today.
Nell opined that this reverential attitude had a positive effect on society in that people were less inclined than nowadays to engage in reckless or violent antisocial behaviour.
The profound sense of respect for property and personal integrity inculcated in them from an early age held most people back from such nastiness.
Nell mused: “Oh if you met the doctor on the street you’d dip your cap or hat to him if you were a man, or curtsey to him if you were a woman, and say, nearly genuflecting, Good morning doctor, and if you met the priest, sure you treated him as though he were the Lord Almighty himself.
“He was God’s agent in Kyle or Callan and you were blessed if he passed your way. And you didn’t damage anyone’s property because you’d have to face God some day; you had your religion to guide you. We didn’t know what vandalism was because nobody went around doing things like that.”
The downside of the almost over the top respect for authority was a widespread reluctance to question any possible wrongdoing on the part of authority figures and institutions.
Corporal punishment was thus not questioned, apart from murmurings in the pubs, or hushed complaints and street gossiping.
There were no fitted kitchens or anything resembling the modern type house interior during the thirties and forties, Nell informed Donnacha; just a plain table, a few stools, and a dresser neatly lined with plates and cups. People wore simple clothes. Men sported suits for formal occasions and put on heavy trousers for working.
All adults wore topcoats, not as fashion accessories Nell emphasised, but to insulate themselves from the cold, the winds, or from hail, rain, or snow. With few cars on the road, they needed this protection from the elements when walking or cycling or travelling by horse or donkey drawn transport.
The wearing of trousers by women was anathema. Any woman who did wear them would be frowned upon and pointed out in an antagonistic way, if not discreetly cautioned by the local clergy or a representative of the Legion of Mary. “Are you having me on?” Nell asked incredulously when Donnacha broached the subject. “Trousers on a woman would have been as rare as snow in the month of July!” she teased.
Marriage was taken more seriously than today. It was deemed to be really for life, which had its advantages and disadvantages. The marriage vow condemned couples who found themselves to be incompatible to a veritable life sentence of strife and unhappiness.
Most Irish people perceived divorce as something, Nell recalled, that happened in other countries that had “lost the faith”, and the prospect of eternity in Hell awaited anyone even advocating it, let alone attempting to get a divorce by travelling abroad.
Matchmaking was becoming less common but was still fairly widespread in the 1940s. It could be very unfair, Nell thought, especially to the woman. The marriage was arranged, and a date set for the two to wed whether they liked it or not. Some matches proved successful, others disastrous.
Word of mouth invitations to weddings were far more common than written ones, Nell stressed. There were precious few of the extravagant marriage ceremonies that have become the norm nowadays.
After an early morning wedding in the church, and breakfast in a hotel, celebrations for the happy couple would follow in a local pub or hall. Amateur, and mostly local, musicians would perform. The music might for some couples consist of one man playing a few favourite tunes on a tin whistle or squeezebox.
Relatives of the bride and groom would take turns singing, and everyone applauded them no matter how bad their singing was…
(from Are We Invaded Yet? by John Fitzgerald)
To be continued…
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