Sean Masterson remembers Athenry in the 30s



One of Stephan’s first tangible memories was remembering remembers. At the age of three years he came home to Athenry from the family’s vacation and heard the familiar sounds of the lowing cattle through the concrete wall vents of the stables in O’Neill’s yard. He thought how similar they were to the steam whistle of the ferry boat, He remembered then other familiar place associations of the walled town, his playground wonderland.

The pivotal town square with stone cross seemed vast, a stage or proscenium forming a tee to his street. Behind the square, the ivy-covered wrought iron rails made a mystery of the seven hundred year old medieval ruins, once the Parish Church, and now partly preserved as a "Reformed" church. A gate in the corner opened only on Sundays to allow the few Protestants into their church for services, almost secretively it seemed.

A torch-lit procession welcomed "Dev," a new leader when Stephen was three and came down Caheroyan Road with turf sod torches soaked in petrol held aloft on pitch forks. The procession came past King John’s castle and under the ancient arched entrance to the town. Tradition said, that this would finally topple onto and kill, the best looking man in the world.

The grownup’s walk "around the pound" circled the town outside the old towers and ramparts that had defended the city from the "Ferocious O’Flahertys" or any marauders. Another ruined masonry entrance, the Swan Gate, was where the walk ended.

The leper colony ruins were inside the wall enclosed Lawn opposite Hansberry’s Hotel. There he had found a spiral staircase which led to a stone tower and the ramparts.

Tom Milmo was Stephen’s best friend for walking. Whenever one of them got a penny, the other would cadge another, even a half would do, and they’d plan a "feast". The total amount of money was pooled and they visited Higgins' shop at the corner of the square. Budgeting was critical and had to be democratically arrived at. At twelve toffees a penny, they might decide on six or twelve. Then there was a small bar of Cadbury’s which could be got at a ha’penny. They might take two of them. This required a crucial decision about whether there was more chocolate in two small or one large. Assuming that the larger was better value, the narrowness of the ha’penny bar allowed you to put it into your mouth endwise and lick it more effectively, or even suck it extravagantly - and beside, two could be more efficiently divided. You could get a few packets of sherbet which sometimes went up your nose and it was a terrible waste if that happened, but it had it’s own kind of tickle pleasure. Twists of liquorice came cheaply and lasted a long time if chewed, or even longer if sucked. The most awful waste was the way big people ate chocolate. You might give them a square which could last the boys all of five minutes sucking, but adults would pop it into their mouths and after a couple of quick chomps, it was gone. Terrible!

One day when Stephen and Frank were six, they bought their "feast" and decided to walk "around the pound"; a most ambitious undertaking. They swung round the corner, down the street past Taylor’s field where the circus pitched, over the mill bridge and beyond the boy’s school and the ball—alley, along the gravel path by the seven hundred year old Dominican Priory ruins. These were graceful and impressive, with the slim masonry tracery of what he would later recognise as Gothic. At the fork in the road leading to Our Lady’s Well they turned right, into the country heading for the pump—house and the new cemetery.

Unfortunately they ran out of "stuff" about a quarter mile beyond that, and there was nothing for it but to turn back. The idea of walking for the sake of walking had never occurred to them. Their reason had been exhausted.

Next they decided to visit "the railway" where they could check up on their friends, the linesman. Grave questions were put to the man at the ticket window to establish that the linesmen were due for lunch-break soon, so they sat on a bench from which they could await their arrival.

The railway station was a mass of travel posters, every one seriously framed like a work of art which were changed often and had lots of colours.

Important looking rooms off the platform were nearly always empty; a waiting room, baggage rooms, lavatories, offices and just empty rooms; millions of places all explored previously. The station was kept together by big masonry walls and some carefully painted wood fences. At one end there was a high green painter footbridge of metal lattice, just in front of the stone bridge.

Beyond the second platform and the station wall, across the road on the other side, facing where everyone could see its importance, was the Railway Hotel.

Each boy wore short pants and grey knitted pullovers, open-necked shirts and their legs were partly covered in knee length stockings turned down over garters. These were beginning to crumble over their knees from all the walking. Stephen’s knees had many scars and cur rent scabs. All four black shoes were badly scuffed from kicking balls, tin cans or stones. Stephen had even kicked a nun’s black stockinged shin once, when she had attempted to overcome his wilfulness and had dragged him in her overweaning direction. He got "lathered" for having attacked her "holy habit". The boy’s hair was cut identically, very close cropped for summer, but showing a bob in front.

There was one other person at the station that day; a priest, engrossed in his breviary reading, as he passed in front of them. After a while he came to question the boys. Stephen knew what the query would be, before it was said, “What will you be when you grow up?" and had decided on the political answer. "A priest, Father!". Unfortunately the opportunity to answer was given to Tom first and the priest expressed his satisfaction with a serious pat on the head, before he turned gravely to Stephen, who was feeling resentful of Tom stealing his answer.

The boy caught his hair bob in hand and lifted it in an inch, in a gesture of salute as if he had a real cap to doff. "And what will you be my child?" "A Pope, Father". The priest obvious amusement was not appreciated by Stephen, thinking it another adult mystery.

A few minutes later the men came down the line, six of them stepping familiarly and evenly from sleeper to sleeper. Some had coats rolled and slung over one shoulder, others carried tools and they all had lunch packs. The boys were recognised and greeted like old friends, which they were, by Jim. Over twenty at least, indeterminate middle age, he was smiling and friendly. "What would you fellas be want’n? “momentarily serious. "Are ye goin’ ta have lunch? " Tom asked, almost too casually. He didn’t know how to be indirect. "Any eggs‘?" asked Stephen, and Jim and the men roared with laughter, to the boy’s puzzlement. They were invited into the furnace room, beneath the water tower, as the big wooden gates set in ashlar masonry were unlocked. The ponderous bolt was drawn and one side gravely creaked open on giant leaf hinges.

First the fire was checked when the door to the furnace was open. One man raked the slacked and dampened down fire which had been dormant. A bed of red glowing coals was exposed and flattened, close to the door. Meanwhile the large coal shovel was scrubbed and rinsed carefully, but remaining mainly black with some shiny worn metal edges. The boys watched fascinated as each man picked a spot to park and unwrap his lunch pack. Some had flasks and a billycan was being boiled for tea.

Stephen’s main interest was focused on Jim who was now putting a large dollop of butter on the shovel, about a quarter pack. The shovel was slid into the furnace and the butter melted almost immediately. It came out with a float of fat and just a few lumpy traces of butter remaining and was placed on the concrete floor. Then Jim’s big hand reached into the brown paper bag, crumpled from several previous uses, and extracted salt and pepper shakers, a pair. This whole procedure was ritualistic and Jim was grinning, glancing upwards over his own manipulations, enjoying the boys eager engrossment. Now this hand was searching the bag again and this time it came out holding three eggs, then three more and eventually a dozen. They were arranged along a ledge of concrete which was a foundation of cast iron, black furnace, which had Hammond Lane Foundry stamped on the door in raised letters.

Jim took one egg and cracked it on the edge of the shovel, dropping the yolk inside the almost transparent mucous "white". Some more joined it and the shovel was slid into the furnace heart, resting on the flattened glowing bed.

Those eggs were served up fried, with the whites now really white and solidified. The yolks were soft, ready to spill the yellow goodness. Stephen enjoyed his with more relish than he had ever known and why they tasted better than any others, remained a puzzle for the rest of his life.

Later, the boys turned down the track in the other direction and climbed through the large heavy white gates to explore the shunting yards. A huffing and puffing steam engine was being swung around on the turn table. This was such a centre of activity that the big monster had almost a life of its own with so much activity around it. It seemed to Stephen that all the big and little wheels were connected to one another with steel strap links so that they wouldn’t get mixed up and work in different directions at the same time.

The engine driver had no name "cause you couldn’t hear anything with all the noise", but he took them up on the control deck and showed them how to lever the throttle. It was bigger than the `man’s arm. He even let them move it, and the surge of power was mighty. The driver rinsed a dirty mug with scalding water, poured tea into it and stirred in a drop of milk and sugar. They drank more out of curiosity than interest.

Big people’s taste in drinks was peculiar. Even the porter at the bottom of a glass, which Stephen had tried in Carter’s pub, was rotten. So much talk over it when they could be drinking lemonade all the time, with the amount of money they had. Wealth was wasted on grown-ups he thought.

As they headed home they saw Mr. Bompheret the parson lift his hat passing the chapel, deferring to majority opinion that God was inside. Mrs Jordan called them into their shop, in from the connecting street which led home through the square. She was wife of the "T.D". "What’s it I hear about ye swimming in your skins and losin’ our sandal? Stephen looked trapped and was ready for the worst. They had gone swimming in the river beyond the pound, and to tease one of the Jordan’s they had thrown clothes about. A sandal was lost. Stephen was the last one to fling the missing item and had seen it sank into the rushes. The game was up now, so all he could do was to look repentant. He hung his head, which was a kind of lie. But he was smiling again and dipping into the cash register drawer, she took out some coins as big and shiny as half crowns. She gave one to each of them. This couldn’t be true, since that was untold wealth, but it seemed to be happening nevertheless. Stephen looked at Tom, not knowing what to say, then back at the large important woman. The moment was frozen in memory. They couldn’t move. "Let me show you!" She took back Stephen’s from him and he knew she was teasing him then, but she peeled away the silver wrapper to reveal brown-red milk chocolate, with the embossed same images which had pressed through the paper to make it look like a coin. Now she popped it into her mouth as she gave him a fresh one.

They walked into the street wealthy, hot hands holding a succulent yet too attractive to eat dilemma, already melting.

Sean Masterson for the Athenry Journal, August 1996

 

 




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