Tuesday 20 March 2018

Peter Sheridan's... Memories of Sheriff Street

Peter Sheridan on his new play, which was inspired by growing up in the heart of inner-city Dublin

Peter Sheridan on Dublin's Sherrif Street
Peter Sheridan on Dublin's Sherrif Street
Another view of the famous street. Photo: Damien Eagers.

Sheriff Street always felt like a place apart. Close to the city but cut off from it. Hemmed in by a barrier know as the 'boundary wall,' a 30-foot wall that ran the entire length of the parish. That was on one side. On the other, the area was cut off by the Royal Canal; and the enclosure was sealed by the River Liffey that separated us from the south side. It was a ghetto before the word had been invented.

You didn't need to go up town if you lived in 'Sheriffer.' It boasted four public houses - and they competed against one another in the darts league. The real competition was which of them had the best singers. Sunday night was the women's sing-song and it's said the roof on Noctor's Public House actually left its moorings on one occasion. It is the only one of the four pubs that survives today.

Christy Dooley had a vegetable shop that was a monopoly. I hated going in there with my Ma because it meant standing around for hours and listening to talk of 'flowery potatoes' and 'giant heads of cabbage.' It seemed like it was a forum for gossip. And gossip is a dangerous thing.

Christy fell out with the Whelans, one of the street's great families, and Dinah Whelan opened a lock-up in opposition to him. It led to the vegetable wars and split the parish in two.

The street is unrecognisable now from the time I was a child. Back then, along with the four pubs, it sported three newsagents, two butcher shops, a bookie's shop, a chemist shop, a chipper (Aldo's, finest chips in the city), Mattie's sweet shop (people came from all over Dublin just to stare in his window), a place that always stank of paraffin because Mattie supplied it to one and all. It was an Aladdin's cave and I have never before or since found a shop to equal it.

My least favourite shop was McIntyre's. My Ma loved their loose, unsalted butter. Catherine McIntyre cut it from a huge slab using wooden spatulas and she placed it on white, greaseproof paper before weighing it on a Merkel scales that contained hundred of tiny numbers. There was always a queue and being sent there always meant losing valuable playing time in the boys' playground, my favourite place in the street.

McIntyre's also contained the post office and it was there we were sent to deposit our Confirmation money so that it would earn interest and grow. Ma said it was better than spending it on sweets and Da said it was our introduction to 'thrift.'

Miss McIntyre was in charge of the post office. She was Catherine's sister and no one knew her first name. She took in the Confirmation money and gave you a brown book with your name on the first page and the amount of your savings on page two. But that was the last you ever saw of it. Trying to get money back out of your account was impossible. If you asked, she snarled back at you and her face turned into cement. It was my first introduction to pyramid stealing.

Next door to McIntyre's was the convent and the shrine (oratory) to the Little Flower, a place of great devotion. There was an unwritten law in Sheriff Street that no one stole from the candle-box in the oratory. This was all based around the notion that the nuns themselves had taken a vow of poverty and that they needed the coppers to provide the famous 'penny dinners', a service that was available not just to the poor of the parish, but to all.

I was fascinated by the characters who frequented the convent. Some of them frightened me. Annie Apple was a red-faced woman who drank meths. She would curse you into hell and out of it again when she was intoxicated.

She cursed the nuns and the priests and the Catholic Church and the Pope. Then when she was sober, she would recite poetry and prayers and ask could she hold your hand and stroke it. She had a sometime friend, Jimmy Kelly, who had been a docker on the quays. He once lived in lodging four doors from my home. Every summer, he booked himself into the Gresham Hotel for two weeks. And that was his holidays. As he always said, "the world comes to me in my room, drink, grub and whatever you're having yourself."

In the early 1980s, when the street was in terminal decline, I initiated a drama project. My aim was to try to bring some of the great Sheriff Street stories and sagas to the stage. One of the people who auditioned for me was Florence Cunningham, who worked in the kitchen of the convent. I could tell from the moment I first met her that she was a 'real character.' On her arm she sported a tattoo of a heart and, on her ankle, a red rose. This was a time before tattoos had become fashionable. I asked Florence was it a climbing rose?

"No, are you mad? If that was a climbing rose it would be up me arse by now."

I then asked her what she had dreamt of becoming when she was a little girl.

"I always wanted to be a nun. You know, like Julie Andrews in the The Sound of Music. That sort of a nun. A singing nun. Not a dowdy, zip-your-mouth-up, say-nothing sort of a nun. I wanted to be a nun with a big mouth. A nun who caused trouble."

Florrie, as I came to know her, was a woman with a big mouth and an equally big heart. She was Sheriff Street through and through. And behind the big personality was a keen intelligence and a remarkable sensitivity. She struggled with her weight all her life and this struggle made her uber-conscious what others were dealing with. She wore her own mask, she was a brilliant comedian, but she knew when to take it off and this made her one of the finest performers I have ever worked with.

In the play we created, I will never forget Florrie singing Dicey Reilly. The chorus of that song describes Dicey as 'the heart of the rowl.' The reference is to the sweet spot of the tobacco, known as the heart, or centre, of the roll. The compliment could as easily apply to Florrie herself, for that is what she was, the sweetest thing, and there was no one like her.

Florrie died on Monday of this week and was buried today, Friday. May she rest in peace.

'44 Seville Place' is at the Dolmen Theatre (Dolmentheatre.ie), Cornelscourt, Co Dublin until Saturday and on tour this summer

Irish Independent

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