Drogheda Independent

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A place to call home...

Born and reared in Marian Park, New Jersey-based writer Maurice O'Neill recalls a very different Drogheda of his youth, yet one of pure happiness

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Drogheda native Maurice O’Neill has fond memories of his hometown

Drogheda native Maurice O’Neill has fond memories of his hometown

A trip to the zoo in 1964: (l-r) Maurice, with his mother Bridie, younger brother James with the reins, and older brother Eric, the well known local photographer

A trip to the zoo in 1964: (l-r) Maurice, with his mother Bridie, younger brother James with the reins, and older brother Eric, the well known local photographer

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Drogheda native Maurice O’Neill has fond memories of his hometown

On the 28th of May 1956, the family of three living in the dinky three-roomed, single-storey house at number 5 Old Abbey Lane was increased by one, and I was born. Some months later, the county council being good old souls, we moved to 64 Marian Park, a luxurious and spacious three-bedroom dwelling, with thick wooden windows that stormed the years without swelling.

'These terraced homes were constructed at the time when robustness and craftsmanship were untainted by greed. Built of solid brick, the exterior walls were pebble-dashed, and hand-cut rafters supported a roof of corrugated tile. A hurricane could not uproot this sturdy house. 

'Inside all the walls and ceilings were plastered. Upstairs consisted of a small, smaller, and smallest bedroom, where a single bed and locker poorly placed would impede the closing of the door. Over each of these three doors was a pane of glass.

'A marvel of ingenuity,' my father proudly told me, 'architectural illuminating at its best, son.' Dad was proud of his first and only house. In the centre of the landing ceiling, there was a trapdoor that gave access to the attic and proved useful for storage.

'Downstairs, the entrance hall with its concrete floor gave a clear view of the back door, with its four panes of wire-mesh glass so a divergence light might enter. It was painted a sickly green and stayed that way for donkey's years. The staircase butted to the front door. On entering, you had the equal choice to go up the stairs or take the first door on your left into the parlour. The second door was to the bathroom.

'The bathroom was modest and half-filled with a real enamel bathtub complete with taps that won my mother's esteem gratitude. The galvanized tub they had brought with them was now in the backyard destined to hold coal because the parlour had a real fireplace and back-boiler, the only source of heating. When there was money, coal was burnt. To prevent the flames from carrying the heat up the chimney, the fire was banked down with moist glistening slack. This pressed the fire against the back boiler to heat the brass riveted water-tank in the hotpress. Unused to such luxury, mother used this lukewarm water as sparingly as the coal. With the parlour door closed, it was the only warm room in the house. To escape the cold in the rest of the house required more layers of clothes and blankets on the bed.

'Connected to the parlor was a tiny kitchen, 10 X 8 feet without the cooker, small fridge, sink, table, and stools. Yet, somehow for the next 20 years, we all managed to squeeze in at mealtimes, even with one more addition to the family.

'In time the windows finally gave way to the aesthetics of aluminium. Wood and aluminium windows both function efficiently, but they are generations apart. In the old wooden days of Drogheda you could feel safe in your own home, doors were locked at bedtime. Road rage wasn't a coined phrase, and young people along West Street retained their alcohol, calibrated their language, and seldom had the price of a taxi home. Somehow, I can't imagine the old dancehall dating line 'Can I walk you home?' would serve any useful purpose today, except perhaps for a novelty giggle. I speak of course of a time when television advertisements were passive, devoid of smutty innuendoes and female exploitation.

'By today's standards, there was a subtle simplicity and naïve innocence to us. Television remote controls were things of science fiction. In my youth you had to walk across the room just to change channels. If you had rabbit-ears on top of the television you had two stations, but if you could afford an aerial for the roof you had six stations, if it wasn't raining.

'In 1966, I played cowboys and Indians, and a walk along the ramparts towards Oldbridge Concrete was an expedition made better if you had a jam sandwich in your pocket. I got my first bicycle in 1968 and loved every rusty spoke of it.

'It is easy to remember idyllically. To speak frankly about my youth on a Drogheda housing estate. One must consider young boys and girls playing roughly but fairly in an environment where poverty fueled rage, violence resolved an impasse, and intellect was a privilege afforded to few. The poverty of the streets was coupled with a poor educational system, where corporal punishment held order, and this channeled whatever good intentions existed into rebellious contempt

'All children were dressed similarly in short pants, gray or black woollen socks, and shoes. Long pants, as they were called then, commenced at about 13 or 14 years old, when you instantly became a man seeking employment. In 1956 there were only a handful of cars on the estate.

'The milk was delivered by horse and cart in pint glass bottles with a tinsel sealed top. The bottles were dropped outside your door. If you delayed, the birds pecked through the tinsel and stole the cream.

'Coal and mulched coal called slack arrived weekly by truck, in 100 weight cloth sacks. 20 bags made a tonne of coal, and then you got one bag free, but few could afford more than one bag of coal, and one bag of slack every other week. To receive the coal on a breezy day was a three-person affair. One opened and held the front, while another opened the back. At the same time, the humped-over coalman carried it through the hallway, with mothers perpetually fussing watching the woodchip wallpaper for a clumsy rub. After they left, the linoleum floor immediately was mopped with the brush and damp cloth.

'Joe was our milkman. Few people used family names, everybody knew everybody, knew their business, habits, and peculiarities. All purchases were either cash or installment. Nobody had a credit card, wages where paid directly in cash, few houses had a TV, and fewer still had a house phone.

'On Friday, the debt collectors called. There was the breadman, gasman, coalman, milkman, rent man, the church curator always dubious and smiling, some shop-owners like McAllister's Electricals and Tucker Condra's shoe shop, and always, the unctuous money lenders forever lecherous and menacing in appearance. They were joined by others selling football pools, encyclopedias, vacuum cleaners, brushes, anything that might make them a coin.

'In those days, the Parish Church issued each home with a box of 52 envelopes for a weekly donation. Should the curator fail to collect for several weeks, then the priest would call in person, and the tongues on the street would wag with wicked delight, or the absolute worst your name would be scolded from the pulpit.

'On Fridays, the door knocker was seldom quiet. On occasion, mother would threaten us three children to silence as we hid beneath the parlour window fearful a collector receiving no answer might peer in through the front window, as they often did. Now I realize we only had to close the scullery door, and that an adventurous mother was making the mundane dramatic and exciting for her children.

'I have just listened in passing to a child demanding a new iPhone with some degree of arrogance. How differently he might he have been treated in 1956? I inwardly smile to myself.

'Times have indeed changed. In my youth, the town's icon structure was the Abbey Shopping Centre and cinema. It was a spacious cinema with black marble pillars, and a sweet shop 10 shoulders wide that sold penny black toffees to the children who jammed each matinee. The usherettes wore uniforms and hats, and the single screen was humongous given the characters' life-size credibility.

'There was a ballroom to the rear where a daring fellow was rumoured to have rode a motorcycle through the emergency exit, once around the hall, and out again. I still wonder did it actually happen. As children it was a hero's feat, which we happily believed.

'Further over town, by the police station we had a second cinema simply called 'The Gate'. It was a hovel compared to the Abbey, but served its purpose, for luxury was relative to our expectations. A block further was Donaghy's massive shoe factory, which officially ended the town centre, before drifting up Trinity Street and the hill of single-storey, galvanized roofed cottages. Ironically another shoe factory, Woodington's sealed the other end of town. I remember fondly the 70s as the town began opening to a more prosperous economy.

'Everybody still knew everybody; football was a unifying activity and girls hitched up their waistlines a turn or two at the weekend. It was a time when a weekly salary was less than £50, and a pint of Smithwicks sold for three shilling thereabouts. Paddy Everett was the resident on-fire disc jockey in Biba's nightclub. The White Horse dancehall and the Central Lounge drew large crowds at the weekend, and for reasons unknown, the mineral drinkers congregated in the Drogheda Inns bankrupting the owner.

'There was a pub on West Street called O'Hagan's and Mr O'Hagan sang the opening song that brought RTE television station into life. His son (Johnny Logan) later won the Eurovision song contest on two occasions. The pub changed hands and O' Hagan moved to Australia. The pub was renamed the Haymarket and successfully managed by the McArdle family before given way to the town's first Shopping Centre.

'The town has changed with radical indifference since. The mills along the Quays are now luxury apartments. Mrs Carberry has departed to the pearly gates. God bless her. She was a lovely lady who understood that heritage was priceless. May her daughter continue to pay homage and pull pints on the weekends. '

Drogheda Independent