Tuesday 21 May 2019

TK Whitaker recalls his childhood in Paradise

Dr TK Whitaker
Dr TK Whitaker

I WASNT born in Drogheda but I spent my schooldays there. My parents had moved from Rostrevor, Co Down, to Drogheda in 1922, when I was six. One of my earliest memories is of seeing a man with a revolver in his hand running into our street. I confess to some embarrassment at the name of our house. Paradise Cottage, at the corner of Paradise Place, but I realise I shall ne

I WASN’T born in Drogheda but I spent my schooldays there. My parents had moved from Rostrevor, Co Down, to Drogheda in 1922, when I was six. One of my earliest memories is of seeing a man with a revolver in his hand running into our street. I confess to some embarrassment at the name of our house. Paradise Cottage, at the corner of Paradise Place, but I realise I shall never again be as happy this side of the real heaven.

In the tiny yard, there was an old box, left behind by the previous occupant; it was full of pleasant surprises for children, like coloured playing cards for Snap.

Not only my address, my name seemed odd. My Christian name I owed to the coincidence that before I was born my mother, an O’Connor from Clare, was reading a novel by Walter Scott in which the hero was called Sir Kenneth.

My surname was particularly suspect. At an early age I decided that offence was more effective than defence. So I roundly declared that the Whitakers came over with Cromwell and this, by confirming the worst suspicions, usually produced a shocking silence. It was only much later that I was assured by Dr McLysaght that the first Whitaker in Ireland was bailiff of Drogheda in 1305. The Whitakers spread into Meath and Westmeath later – my father was born in Killuran – but it seems they never achieved fame or wealth.

I went to school to the Christian Brothers, mostly at Sunday Gate where conditions on the whole were good, but with a couple of rather grim years at West Gate.

One of the Brothers there was a bit of a tyrant who, to no one’s regret and not a moment too soon, left to join the Canadian Mounted Police. We remembered him for the weals on our inner wrists and our furtive conspiracies to ‘lose’ the offending leather strap.

The classrooms were cold, the yard covered with clinkers, and to get to school on fair days one had to creep in terror past the unpredictable legs of the horses crowding the Fair Green. There are, however, some brighter memories, such as playing marbles all along the kerb in Fair Street on the way home.

Sunday Gate was only up the hill and I could get home and back in the half hour allotted for lunch. Amongst the juniors there was a keen interest in provoking fights. Where there was no casus belli, and the selected opponents were slow to start, the cry went up to ‘Give him caijin’ and the fellow so exhorted would kick the other or spit in his face, thus ending indecision. It was much later that I realised that this expression was a corruption of ‘give him occasion’. In some respects Drogheda’s pronunciation of English went back to Chaucer: I heard the ‘Priestes housekeeper’ and ‘looking for nests’.

Now and again a terrifying fight between inebriated adults could be seen on the streets. I was watching two powerful men slag one another when Madame Schwer’s excited dog dug his teeth in the calf of my leg. I still remember the pain of the old-fashioned cauterisation.

In the Secondary School life was better. We had outstanding teachers. Brother James Burke was a patrician with a discerning taste in English prose and poetry – he compiled the anthology ‘Flowers from Many Gardens’ while teaching us – and a flair for clear and elegant exposition of mathematics.

A layman, Peadar McCann, who taught Irish, History and Geography, was a shy, widely-read scholar whose concern for the success of his pupils was not dimmed by the merciless tormenting he endured. Imagine a man so exceptionally dedicated as to come to school half an hour early, and for no reward, to teach a handful of us French.

Brother O’Farrell strove hard to build up our prowess in hurling on his new playing field. Amongst my least merited trophies is the silver medal of the Louth Minor Hurling Championship of 1929. I can recall no heroic feats. Indeed, I suspect that I was merely a ‘sub’ on the winning team.

In our final years at school, we enjoyed the seniority of back benchers. When a rather gruff Superior took over, we could overhear his communings with himself as he paused by the door considering the day’s arrangements – ‘Burke wants chicken: steak is good enough for the rest of us.’ Chicken and steak have since changed places on the price list but I can remember well buying steak in McConnells for nine old pence a pound.

For a time my favourite bedside reading was Stories from Dante. I thought that Beatrice had been reincarnated in Mell and it was a great thrill to encounter the Vision Splendid, a girl in scarlet coat with long golden hair, as my pal and I walked, as we did regularly after school, the five miles circuit up the Ramparts, across the river at Oldbridge and back on the Louth side into Drogheda. He married her years later, but in our early teens, a muffled red-faced ‘hello’ was a much as either of us could muster.

Because of Drogheda’s compactness little passed unobserved and meetings between schoolboys and schoolgirls were not arranged in the enlightened manner of today. Having spent a spell or two in the Gaeltacht we formed an Irish-speaking boys club before leaving school and organised a dance in the Mayoralty Hall to which girl contemporaries were invited. Their mothers came too but this did not spoil the fun.

Continued next week

Our interest in Irish made us search out any residue of the old language that might have survived in the neighbourhood. We took down prayers in Irish from an old lady in Tullyallen. At Monasterboice a bent and bearded man kept the key to the round tower; he, if anyone, should be in touch with tradition. When we inquired whether he could speak Irish, we received, on that sacred ground, the impious reply, ‘yes, póg mó thóin’.

Walking up river with school friends or with Brother Andrew, OP and his pedigree cocker spaniels, was never without interest. At Pass you could wait until the semi-circle of dragnet narrowed to hairpin shape, in the hope of seeing a few salmon cast high up the bank in the last quick heave. Or you could watch the flocks of whirling starlings above the beds of tall yellow reeds, or search for wild strawberries on the mossy crest of the wall which bounded the small wood just before the first lock of the old canal to Navan.

You could follow the towpath, along the canal to a salmon weir where a round hide-covered coracle of ancient lineage was still being used. With rifle or shotgun you could lie in wait for cormorants to land on the high branch of a tree on an island below Oldbridge. The Boyne Conservators paid 1/6d for a cormorant’s beak and on one evening of slaughter I shot seven, the price of a day’s trip to Dublin.

Every summer an exciting regatta was held on the stretch of river between the Viaduct and Tom Roe’s Point; and late every autumn the tree-lined sweep of the Boyne above Oldbridge became a multi-coloured splendour. In those days, before the prison gates began to close, one could experience Wordsworthian intimations sitting on the stump of the Obelisk or peering down the cold passage to the sanctuary of Aengus at Newgrange. The poet was right who said:

Make of the stones of the place

A pillow for thy head

And thou shalt see angels

Ascending and descending.

When I went to meet my father at the Boyne Mill I would stray at times into the steamy weaving shed to see the shuttles speed back and forth and perhaps pick up a bright steel cone for my spinning top; or I could watch the great bales of cotton sheeting between being loaded for export to India – a strange and transient version of sending coals to Newcastle.

I learned about spinning and weaving and how to distinguish cotton, twill, canvas, fine linen and damask, all of which made it easier to follow later some technical aspects of the Industrial Revolution. On holidays in Rostrevor, I saw the scutching process and endured the sour stench of the retting flax as it lay in the ditches near Greencastle. How lovely, on the other hand, the China blue of a field of flax in flower.

Brother Andrew introduced us to the use of the shotgun. We went with him to shoot rabbits near Dowth when the furze was in bloom and often swam the river at this point, even in the cold water of early May. We cycled, too, to Baltray for a surreptitious game of golf or to Mornington for a plunge in the Minister’s Hole.

One learned to be an ‘economic man’ at an early age, pocket money being scarce. For a penny the best marginal value was a packet of Roche’s peppermints or ‘little men’ – boiled sweets moulded in human form – or four NKM caramels or two long spirals of liquorice. Dates were substantial, if sticky, but in O’Hagan’s shop opposite St Peter’s when you got a kid’s eye for 3d for choir attendance or for good performance as an altar boy.

Apart from singing practice under Eddie Lambe, choirmaster and organist in St Peter’s, I had piano lessons for a few years from Miss Crilly in Fair Street before I decided to take up the violin with Miss Agnes McGough in Laurence Street. She and her sister Annie who taught the piano, were also church organists and rendered a great service to the town by putting on an opera – usually a Gilbert and Sullivan – every year. Any pupil who could scrape at all on violin or cello was roped in and, by dint of attending numerous rehearsals, ended up with a thorough knowledge of the Pirates, the Mikado and other favourites.

Drogheda was small enough (it had then 12,000 inhabitants) for everyone to know one another; it was exceptionally endowed with academic and music teachers; it had an excellent Carnegie Library much resorted to in those pre-television days; there were reminders on all sides – St Laurence Gate, the Magdalene Tower, Mary’s Abbey, the Butter Gate, the Tholsel – one of the town’s long and proud history; and both seawards and inland stretched a hinterland of great natural beauty containing both the most impressive pre-historic monuments on the fringe of Europe and the earliest sites commemorating the coming of St Patrick to Ireland. To swell our pride, our parish church housed the shrine of the heard of Blessed Oliver Plunkett, now St Oliver.

Drogheda was indeed the ideal place to grow up.