Saturday 24 March 2018

'I hope we haven't lost sight of old qualities'

RTE presenter Mary Kennedy recalls a childhood full of wonderful memories such as games in the garden, loving but no-nonsense parents and strong family values. She doesn't miss cloth nappies, though.

I grew up in two families and two houses, in a way. My mother and her sister had a double wedding and after their honeymoons, (which they took separately, touring Ireland,) the newly married couples moved into adjoining semi-ds in Clondalkin.

There was a low wall dividing the two back gardens and one of the first pieces of DIY undertaken by my Dad and Uncle Tom was to make a gap in that wall so there was a stile between the two houses, for easy access.

My sister and I were seriously outnumbered when it came to what games to play in the back garden because while there were four in my family, two boys and two girls, there were three boys next door.

We generally left the boys to their own devices as they played cowboys and Indians by putting a rug over the back wall with a stone for the horse's head and a piece of string secured under it for the reins.

We were more likely to be playing Chinese skipping, which involved lots of elastic bands tied together so that we could jump in and out or "Queenie-i-o", a ball game, the intricacies of which I can't remember.

I consider myself to be one of seven children and all celebrations and holidays were enjoyed together by both families.

We were lucky in that we had two televisions, (one in each house), and on Saturday nights, there was a male/female divide, with the men and boys in one house watching 'Match of the Day' and the womenfolk in the other glued to Uncle Gabriel and 'The Late Late Show'.

Christmas dinner, for instance, was in our house one year and in Auntie Eilish's the next. We had all the usual fare. Dad and Uncle Tom would make the annual trip down to Carlow in early December to collect the turkeys, and Mammy and Auntie Eilish would set about the baking.

The sideboard would be heaving with several Christmas cakes. We ate at least two of them ourselves and the rest would be given away as presents.

Two Christmas cakes between six people is outrageously excessive by today's standards, I know, but we loved our sweet things.

Now I make one cake every year, and every year I say that's the last time because I'm the one who eats most of it and then I spend January trying to undo the damage!

Traditions are important, though. We were big on tradition growing up in Clondalkin.

Another Christmas Eve custom that I remember fondly was when my brother, Tony, because he was the youngest in the family, carried the candle into the sitting room, where it was placed on the window sill to welcome the Holy Family, and also to let passing strangers know there was a welcome within.

The eldest in the family (that's me) played 'Away in a Manger' on the piano and the rest of the family processed behind Tony in solemn fashion.

It's a pity that tradition seems to have all but died out in modern Ireland.

There are other customs that we won't miss, though. I remember when Tony was born, going down to the Church of the Immaculate Conception in Clondalkin and being present at his Baptism. Dad was there and so were Tony's godparents.

My mother, however, was absent.

She remained at home because she hadn't been "churched".

This is the ceremony that cleansed women after they gave birth so that they would be worthy to enter the church again. Good riddance to that!

Back to the house on St Brigid's Road, then, for a very simple cup of tea and sandwiches before normal life resumed. No blue helium balloons, no bouncy castles, no big cake. Nice memories, though, of simple times when looking after the new baby was the focus of the day.

I also recall changing nappies, and being careful not to hurt the little one with those giant pins. We're talking cloth nappies here, of course, which were steeped in sterile solution in a galvanised bucket outside the kitchen door, then dried in front of the fire and aired in the hot press before their next outing.

I know life is a lot easier in that regard nowadays but may I say that when my first child was born in the 1980s, I was that soldier!

Disposable nappies had just come on the scene but they were prohibitively expensive for all but the rich and famous. I did sneak in the odd disposable nappy to make life easier and then the snowball effect took over so that when Tom, my second child, was born, I was using the cloth nappies as dusters. I justified the expense by reminding myself that I didn't smoke and this was my indulgence.

When I look back on family life when I was growing up, my memories are of happy times, loving but strict parents, no nonsense, and strong family and community values.

Both my parents and my aunt and uncle next door were involved head, neck and heels in their community. The Vincent de Paul, The Tidy Towns, The Drama Group, Gael Linn, ICA, Church Choir. You name it, they did it.

They gave of their time and energy for those organisations with a view to building a community that would benefit their children.

It's now, as I look back, that I appreciate the enormous efforts they and others like them made to develop and nurture the qualities that make us a little different from people in other countries. I hope we haven't lost sight of too many of those qualities.

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