Friday 14 December 2018

Card nights of times past by the cosy cottage fire

Avid Sligo Champion reader, Frances Gethins-McLoughlin (94) recalls the festive period from her childhood in this short story which she says was relayed to her many times by her mother, Sarah

Frances Gethins-McLoughlin
Frances Gethins-McLoughlin
A picture of Frances taken around 1940

My name is Frances Gethins-McLoughlin. I was born in 1924, at Knocknagee, Co. Sligo. This is a Christmas memory, told to me many times over the years by my mother Sarah. My family names remain unchanged, but the names of others have been changed with respect to their collective memory. My parents were Sarah and James, Grandfather was my paternal grandfather, and Mary Bedelia and Sadie were my eldest sisters.

"God bless all here," said Grandfather, as he bent his head to enter the forlorn, thatched cottage.

"You're welcome, John," said Thomas. I missed you at Mass," replied Grandfather, clasping the old man's hand.

"Things are not too good, Hannah is ailing." Thomas sighed, as weak, rattling coughs emanated from his wife, who was in the bedroom.

"I'm sorry to hear that Thomas, I heard the news at Mass. "Aye John, and when I went down to the back field the other day, I found a cow dead in the drain. It's the last straw, money is tight with Christmas just around the corner."

Grandfather put his hand on the old man's shoulder. "I could organise a card night, would you be willing?"

"Thanks John, I never thought that I would see this day," murmured Thomas.

"Think no more of it," said Grandfather, "you would do the same for me or for any of the neighbours if needed. What about Saturday the 6th? That will be three weeks to Christmas."

"Aye, that will do." "I will send help over during the week to get things in order, tell Hannah not to worry about anything," said Grandfather, as he lifted the latch to leave.

Grandfather, ever the organiser, knew a lot of people from his political days.

He was held in high regard in the area and his benefit nights had always been a great success.

"There is to be a card night in Thomas and Hannah's," Grandfather informed his daughter-in-law, Sarah, when he returned home, "things are bad."

During the next fortnight, there was a flurry of excitement as preparations were made for the imminent card night. Sarah sent her two eldest daughters, Mary Bedelia and Sadie, to dust and clean the house for Hannah.

Turkeys were killed, plucked and left to hang in McLoughlin's outdoor shed, in the freezing temperature.

Sarah's delph was taken out of storage, washed and left ready for transportation on the day.

The older boys were sent to inform the neighbours of the date and leave messages in the local shop.

Saturday the 6th of December arrived with a cutting wind and large, soft snowflakes swirling towards Thomas and Hannah's three-roomed cottage. Sycamore trees, devoid now of their rust and copper leaves, lined the lane.

Their stark branches laboured under the weight of large tufts of fresh clinging snow.

As Mary Bedelia and Sadie skipped in the winding path, a sudden, sharp gust of winter wind dislodged a snow shower.

They stopped to look upwards and were engulfed in a glistening crystal haze.

Neighbouring men who had arrived early, were shovelling away the heavy snow from the front path and replacing it with straw.

There would be plenty of foot traffic on the lane later and sidecars would need parking in the front field.

"Morning all," a cheery voice called out. Henry O'Flaherty winked at Mary Bedelia as the girls approached.

She blushed and looked under her. Sadie giggled and nudged Henry with her elbow as they passed.

The girls laughed as they linked arms and hurried into the busy clamour of the warm cottage.

Teddy, a playful ball of golden puppy fur, with brown ears and a smiling face, had followed them.

He shook himself in the middle of the shining, hand-scrubbed concrete floor and sent a spray of icy droplets sailing through the kitchen.

The host dog, a large, ragged black and white mongrel, was laid out panting in front of the blazing turf fire.

He eyed Teddy with a baleful, inconsequential stare, which seemed to say,

"No competition there".

Then he promptly resumed his drowsy doze with a contented air of superiority.

Sarah dressed Hannah and sat her in an armchair close by the cosy parlour fire.

"God be with the days I was able to do for myself," said Hannah sadly, as she wiped a tear from her face.

"Nonsense," replied Mary Bedelia, "those days will come again, you just need a little rest."

Hannah smiled a knowing smile, "What a treasure it is to have youth on one's side," she softly whispered to Sarah.

By afternoon the house had freshly stoked, roaring fires in the kitchen, parlour and bedroom.

Grandfather arrived on the sidecar, wrapped up in his rug and accompanied by his son James, Sarah's husband.

They brought an array of freshly baked breads, homemade butter, jams, cooked turkeys and additional crockery. Grandfather brought the obligatory bottle of Irish whiskey, without which a card night could not take place.

Neighbours came and went all through the day, bringing with them food, loads of turf, straw and other necessities to make life more bearable for Thomas and Hannah.

Extra chairs were also brought for the expected evening card-table guests.

Some of the old men reached into their topcoat pockets, and slipped small bottles of poteen to Thomas.

"A little drop of the 'craythur' to warm your bones.'"

A neighbouring man arrived on his donkey and cart.

He brought a wooden barrel, which was instated in the outdoor shed.

Then, a butchered pig was placed in layers of salt in the barrel; enough meat to see Thomas and Hannah through Christmas.

Horses and sidecars were directed to the front field and bicycles were parked along the low entrance walls at the road.

A neighbour had been kind enough to supply nosebags full with oats for the horses.

By now, the snow had stopped and everywhere was covered with a deep, white sparkling carpet.

The men shovelled away the snow at intervals, and replenished the straw so as to keep the pathway clear.

Tilley lamps lit the way in to the front door and some neighbours brought their own paraffin lanterns. Candles were lit in order to provide extra indoor light.

The house rejoiced and came alive with cheerfulness.

In the parlour, the table was dressed with Sarah's white, embroidered tablecloth, a bottom-drawer marriage present from New York.

She set five places with her bone china tea set, the gold edges of the cups glistening in the candlelight.

This was her favourite tea set and she always bemoaned the fact that one cup and plate were missing.

Grandfather never missed an opportunity to tell the story of the missing items.

He remembered the night well in September 1920, when he was woken by the door of their home being kicked in.

He rose from his bed, as Black and Tan soldiers stamped their way into the centre of the kitchen floor.

Grandfather protested at the intrusion, only to be told, "Stay out of it, old man."

He recoiled in horror, shocked at the insult.

"Where is he?" the commander bellowed, "we are the representatives of His Majesty, King George, and we demand that you inform us of your brother's whereabouts.

"I have no idea, we haven't seen my brother in weeks," replied James steadfastly.

"That Sir, is a goddamn lie," said the commander, as he struck his bayonet against Sarah's cabinet and brought her china tea set with the gold edges crashing to the floor.

James tried to reason with the commander but to no avail.

"Stand back! Since you will not be reasonable, I order your house to be searched for arms and insurgents in the name of the King."

The soldiers searched all the rooms, wakened the children, turned over their beds, and threw all the contents from the closets onto the floor.

They stuck their bayonets up the chimneys and sent a swirling soot mist into every part of the house.

"You give your brother a message from us," said the commander abruptly when their trail of destruction ended, "you tell him that we know what he and his friends are up to and we won't rest until we have them all rotting in jail, or worse if we have to."

Then he held a rifle underneath James's chin.

"We are not afraid to shoot Irish Fenians."

His friends laughed as they helped themselves to Sarah's soda bread from the table as they left.

"Never fear, we will be back," promised the commander.

With that, he turned on his heels and he and his platoon disappeared into the dark night. James helped Sarah to pick up the pieces of her precious tea set.

After telling his story, Grandfather returned to the kitchen as the men threw the card deck on the table.

He had brought a tall, old American biscuit tin, with rusty edges and New York scenes decorated along the sides.

This container was used to collect the prize money.

The idea of the card game was, that nobody removed their winnings from the tin during the evening and the final jackpot belonged to Thomas and Hannah. Grandfather said that it saved everybody's pride, to have an enclosed canister.

The cards were shuffled and the game got underway. Even though it was a charitable event, it didn't change the winning streak in the men.

Shouts of "Reneger" were to be heard as cards were flung on the table and chairs were hastily shoved back, screeching along the floor, amidst pleadings of, "Don't be such an auld fool, man."

Hot whiskeys were made with water from a black kettle which hung from a hook on the crane over the kitchen fireplace.

It hissed as it boiled over, and the scent of spattered ashes mixed with the sweet aroma of pungent hot whiskey.

As the fragrance wound its way into the parlour, Hannah smiled, leaned back in her chair and closed her eyes.

After a tea-break, the men returned to the card game and the ladies tidied up and cleared the parlour floor. Sarah and James had brought their melodeons and fiddles.

The neighbouring musicians also brought instruments and as the night proceeded, some of the men retired to the parlour and the music and dancing began.

Mary Bedelia and Sadie joined in the dancing under the watchful eye of Henry O'Flaherty. Grandfather also cast an interested eye over the dancing.

He was well aware of Henry's interest in Mary Bedelia.

"Are you dancing, Mary?" asked Henry shyly.

"That would depend on who is asking."

"Well, I wouldn't just ask anyone," laughed Henry. "Can you waltz without stamping on her toes?" teased Sadie.

"Will you give me a chance Mary?" They waltzed with ease.

Henry whispered, "You are the most beautiful girl in the world, would you consider walking out with me?"

Mary Bedelia smilingly replied, "I think my parents would have a few words to say about that."

"There is nobody else for me, I will wait forever for you."

"Don't be making promises that you may not be able to keep, Henry. I have a mind to go to America."

"Why would you want to leave here?"

"Are you not curious about the way other people live and the sights of different places? Grandfather has such interesting stories about his travels."

"Did you ever hear the saying, 'hills are green far away?' I think the hills are green here, I love Ireland."

"Well, I want to see the world," replied Mary Bedelia, "we won't agree on that."

"I have a few years yet to change your mind," laughed Henry well-humouredly.

"Don't they make a fine couple," whispered Hannah to Sarah, as Grandfather made an urgent, mental note to write to his son in New York.

A voice called out, "Maestro, did you bring your fiddle?"

A beaming Grandfather jumped to his feet and unlocked the leather fiddle case, with its frayed edges and royal blue flocked lining.

He tucked the gleaming, newly-polished fiddle neatly under his chin and a hushed silence descended on the parlour.

The bow sliced through the candlelight as the melody flowed from his accomplished hands and resonated around the room.

The notes plunged down and rose up in unison with his swaying figure.

They echoed off the bare, whitewashed walls and only for the ill-fitting window frames, the panes would surely have shattered and sent glass shards climbing to the highest heavens.

The audience erupted in rapturous applause,

"Never heard the like," they said, as they raised their glasses in appreciation.

Soon afterwards, Hannah retired to bed and the party drifted back to McLoughlins' home for another ceilidh.

The card players left an abundantly-filled New York biscuit tin on Thomas and Hannah's table.

Nobody ever asked how much money was made, but suffice to say, it helped the couple to get through the winter.

Epilogue: Hannah recovered soon afterwards and the community took the old couple under their collective wings.

Mary Bedelia realised her American dream and poor Henry waited in vain (forever).

It was to be Grandfather's last benefit night, but he thrived on the telling of the story for many years afterwards.

Is there a Thomas and Hannah in your community?

If so, they may not need such a benefit night, but they might need the benefit of a warm word and somebody to enquire how they are, especially around the Christmas and New Year.

Sligo Champion