Chapter 26 - Special Clothing for Wintry Weather which Came Too Late
Kathleen was convinced she was right. Old McCluskey must be a millionaire. When the weather was good, weren't they lucky to be able to hire McCluskey's taxi? One day each summer, his eldest son drove the family all the way to Blackrock, a fishing village in County Louth. It was 12 miles from Dundalk and three miles further to Blackrock.
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Here you could glimpse the blue water when the tide was in and always there was the smell of the sea. There seemed to be miles of golden sand across the bay to the glorious smoky blue Cooley Mountains sweeping majestically down to the sea. Further north, standing back and just as imposing as ever, stood the giant peak itself, Slieve Gullion.
It was a playground for the young and they enjoyed it to the full. They put more zest and energy into that one day than some others would use in a year. They plunged into the water under the watchful eye of their father. It was a good day too and being midweek there were not too many around to share their fun, except a big shaggy dog who seemed to greet their visit year after year. When the tide had retreated they felt the pangs of hunger. Then it was across to the Temperance Hotel. A room had been set aside for the family and they delved into the meal with great gusto. Imagine; fresh fish from the sea, waiting to be devoured by hungry children, their appetites sharpened by sea air. Not a morsel was left over on a plate. All this was washed down by a good cup of hot tea poured from a very large brown teapot.
"I suppose if Daddy asked for a drink he could get one?" mused Kathleen, only to be shushed by her mother who whispered,
"Why do you think they call it the Temperance Hotel?"
The trip was the highlight of the year for the young family and its pleasure was enhanced by the wonderful view. They carried back their memories of sea and sand and the wish that they could live there all the year round. Put to the test this might have been a different story.
By the end of the summer Mrs O'Hara was confined to bed. It was seven weeks before she was up and about again. Kathleen took on the job of caring for the children while the maid had her hands full keeping the place tidy and endeavouring to cook for the large family.
One day Kathleen asked,
"I don't suppose you'd like to change places with me Brigie?"
"No indeed thank you, you're far better off looking after the tribe".
A doubtful compliment she felt.
She missed her mother's tranquil presence and at every opportunity was upstairs, examining her face and hoping to see a remarkable change for the better. She even pushed the thermometer into her mouth and pretended to show much knowledge of these things. Her constant plea was,
"Mammy, don't you think you could get up, just for me?"
She remembered her own illness when her mother made a similar plea.
During this time her sister Deirdre fell ill with a severe pain in her tummy. Taking instructions from her mother, Aileen decided to give her a glass of hot milk with a teaspoon of ginger in it. This always seemed to have extraordinary healing powers and was the standard cure for all tummy pains in their house. Aileen prepared the medicine, making a big thing about it, took it upstairs to the bedroom and persuaded Deirdre to try it, saying,
"If you don't drink it then Dr O'Brien will be your next visitor".
Deirdre drank from the glass. She didn't get very far before she screamed,
"Are ye tryin' to poison me? That's not ginger at all. Ye'll kill the lot of us".
Aileen sipped it and a big grim came over her face as she concluded.
"Sure enough it's not ginger. I've made a mistake. I't mustard".
"Well you can always try a mustard bath".
Deirdre was not amused and a few days later she landed up in hospital.
Dr O'Brien suspected appendicitis and Deirdre was whisked off by ambulance to the hospital in Newry, 18 miles away. It was a tearful farewell, with their mother wrapped in a dressing gown, quietly shedding tears as she stood by the bedroom window, looking down on a fretful Deirdre bundled in blankets, showing her distress at her removal from home, and doing her best to see her mother's face. Kathleen and the young ones huddled by the front door, listening to their sister's sobbing, their young, vulnerable faces registering their concern. Their father went along with Deirdre and they derived a certain amount of comfort from this. Kathleen was left to watch the children.
"Do the best you can with them 'til Daddy gets back", said her mother who returned to bed again.
Anxiously they awaited their father's return but when he got back there was little he could tell them, as the Nursing staff was unable to give an opinion. Deirdre was kept under observation and in due course the Doctors would discover the nature of her illness. The days that followed were long and forlorn with the children's impatience mounting and hard to conceal. Then after a week had passed, Deirdre walked in the door, carrying her little suitcase. Her beaming, wide-eyed smile told them all they needed to know. She was well and eager arms welcomed her back into the fold. The ambulance man, hovering in the background, until now quite unnoticed, came forward and told the family Deirdre had been the victim of some overindulgence. Too many crab apples!
"There, didn't I tell you she was a glutton", remarked Aileen, "I saw her stealing poor Mr Quigley's apples".
Deirdre had returned but their mother was still confined to bed. Their Daddy tried to spend more time with his family but it was difficult for him. He worked between Dundalk, twelve miles away, and Carrickmacross, which was eight miles in another direction. He arrived home each evening, travel stained and weary and often soaked to the skin. More often than not, a change of woollen underwear hung across a chair in front of the fire, airing, ready for him. So it was with much pleasure they all welcomed the arrival of a little car, which the children promptly named "The Blue Bird". It was a two-seater with a dickie seat at the back open to wind and rain. It certainly was not luxurious but it served its purpose. The seats were leather and reminded Kathleen of her shoemaking friend. The smell was pleasant and relaxing.
"One thing for sure Daddy. You didn't let auld McCluskey have it all his own way".
One quelling look from her Daddy and Kathleen hopped it fast knowing she had been uncharitable again.
As Mr O'Hara's work was in the free State, the car was taxed there and rarely came over the border into Northern Ireland as it would be an infringement of Customs Regulations. They lived just a mile from the border and when the nights were bright and dry, some of the family went to meet him and to glimpse the car they owned but could rarely use. On a few occasions, when the weather was deplorable, a kindly Customs man gave her father the "go ahead" sign and the car and owner crossed the border and home to Crossmaglen. At such times it stood proudly on the flagstones outside their front door. This could have been a risk as well as an embarrassment with the driver of the Police Car living next door and their own house only a stone's throw away from the Police Barracks. The police spent a great deal of time and energy patrolling all the roads leading to the border. This was one of the hazards of life but it didn't really affect the O'Haras, as the car was only brought over occasionally, in emergency and after all, their Daddy had been a policeman himself in Crossmaglen before the partition of Ireland.
The arrival of Christmas was always a joyous time for the household with all the children, except Patrick and Kathleen, looking forward to a visit from Father Christmas. For the older ones, there was the joy of going to Midnight Mass. Kathleen was always impressed by the devotion and constancy of people attending Church. Three quarters of them weren't really local. They walked from far-flung areas like Shelagh, Drumbee, McShane's Cross, Clonalig, Courtbane, Monogue, Creggan, Loughross and Clarbane. All of them were sitting in their seats long before Mass began. The better off might come in a pony and trap but these were few and far between compared with the many who walked. Midnight Mass had a great pull for the faithful. No other night held so much cheer, animation and the feeling that some wonderful event was about to take place.
Mrs O'Hara, accompanied by the eldest three children, prepared for Mass dressing quickly and quietly so as not to disturb the younger children, already asleep. Mr O'Hara stayed behind to mind them. Already Kathleen could hear the sound of constant passing feet.
"Glory be, mustn't they be the saintly ones, walkin' so far and arrivin' so early. We'd better get a move on".
They stepped out into the dark night. The way was lit by the stars and by the glow of candles that stood in all the windows along the road to Church. They shone vividly out into the dark velvet night, casting fear aside and reminding the traveller that this was the night of the Nativity. It was both a solemn and a joyous occasion.
They fell into step with their neighbours, passing others with a Christmas blessing on their lips. As the Church bells pealed out their welcome, breaking the stillness of the night, doors opened silently, casting their light out into the darkness and closed again as the occupants joined the other pilgrims. The Church resembled a fiery Sun, sending its rays into all the dark corners and recesses nearby and upon the faces of the faithful.
On the side altar, a statue of Our Lady shone with all the brilliance of flashing lights from her halo. Her eyes, looking down on the congregation, seemed to say,
"Thank you for the welcome you are giving my Son".
Below one of the side altars, one little niche did remain in darkness, but the star shing over the Crib in the manger was more magnetic than all the lights in the Church. Here all waited patiently to pay reverence to the Infant Child. The young moved quickly and gracefully towards the Crib while the older ones shuffled along more slowly, secure in the knowledge that their turn would come too. The voices in The Choir, exultant and loud in their "Glorias", filled the large Church reaching to the lofty ceiling and beyond into the stillness of the night, to fall like petals on a silent earth.
Christmas morning was all noise and disorder. There was a smell of fried ham with thick slices sizzling in the pan along with sausages and white pudding permeating the rooms which were alive with children's laughter. All the presents were stacked on a large table, each bundle identified with the name of its recipient. Their youngest sister was very sharp and seeing a black doll not to her liking, tried to change it for Deirdre's but she wasn't quick enough so there was a fractious start to the Season of Goodwill to all men.
Their parents must have foreseen inclement weather on the way as Kathleen and Aileen each received green raincoats with matching souwester hats and a pair of wellington boots to complete the outfits.
"By gosh Aileen we must be going to have a hard winter".
"Well we needn't worry Kathleen we will be well catered for".
It was a shame that this Christmas Day, contrary to all expectations, turned out to be fine and sunny and the temperature soared up into the sixties. It was more like a summer's day.
"Heavens above", expostulated Kathleen, "What is God thinking about giving us summer weather now? Shure it's not seasonal at all".
Aileen and Kathleen found the weather very frustrating. They wanted rain! As the day wore on with no sign of the sunshine abating, they took matters into their own hands.
"Come on Aileen. If we don't get out soon it will be dark.
They dressed in their new outfits, complete with souwesters and wellington boots, and went out on their mannequin parade. Their mother cried,
"Get back you two. You'll have us the laughing stock of the town".
But this fall on deaf ears. After all weren't they just out for a walk?
They walked up and down The Square of Crossmaglen in full view of the inhabitants, many of whom had come out to stand in the unusual sunshine. Windows and doors were opened and some people were sitting in their chairs in their doorways. They looked on with silent amusement at the antics of the two sisters. As they passed Mr McCluskey's shop they heard him remark,
"I never saw the likes. You two are tempting providence. I hope you don't get the weather you're expecting. Why on earth didn't Father Christmas give you sunshades? That would have been a better omen. No I don't like it at all".
Mustering all her dignity, Kathleen gave him his answer.
"One thing is certain, Mr McCluskey, when the bad weather does come along, we'll be prepared for it. Some people have to borrow their son's coat and cap, when a drop of rain falls. Oh. And we're not all skinflints, like someone I could mention".
With that rejoinder, Kathleen and Aileen passed on their way with their heads in the air and looks of supreme satisfaction on their faces.
Mr McConnell drew back the curtains of his window and gave them a kindly wave receiving a beaming smile in return from both girls, who were agreed that he was one fine man.
The bad weather they were so well prepared for wasn't long in coming. In January the snow came and with it chaos, disorder and 'flu. For two days and two nights it snowed steadily, bringing down telegraph wires, blocking roads and stopping virtually all traffic. The only Bakery in Crossmaglen was unable to cope with all the customers now that the other vans could not get through from Newry. There was a great demand for flour too as many got set to bake their own bread and lots more paraffin was needed for stoves and lamps and candles for emergencies.
All the time the wind howled and the snow drifted against the doors and windows. Mrs O'Hara went down with 'flu and Kathleen managed the household as best she could. The schools were closed and for that she was grateful. The first night of the storm was a very anxious one for her and her Mammy. Their Daddy hadn't arrived home and there was no way of knowing if he had ever set out on the journey back or if he was out there somewhere under a snowdrift, with no one to help him.
It was a very long night, with their mother quietly walking from room to room, keeping her eyes on her brood. Kathleen couldn't sleep either and followed her on her rounds, eyeing the children, adjusting the bedding and lowering the little red lamps in all the rooms. This was the only light, placed on the mantelpiece under a large picture of The Sacred Heart.
"Mammy", she whispered, "You'd think we were on night duty and doing a Florence Nightingale".
Her mother managed a smile but Kathleen could tell her thoughts were elsewhere.
"Don't worry Mammy. God will look after him".
She knew it was little solace, but it might help to make her feel a little better.
The children's quiet breathing and the little red glow created a feeling of serenity, while outside the storm raged and angry winds shrieked down the chimney, deafening the rush of snowflakes hurtling against the window panes. All night the wind bellowed and wailed. It unleashed its wrath against all mortals and kept them prisoners in their homes. Finally sleep claimed all except Kathleen. She kept the night vigil and never prayed so hard in all her life. What would life be like without her beloved Daddy? He worked and slaved for his family and had spent many a sleepless night caring for them and keeping vigil. She was doing it now for him. He wasn't deserving of a snowy grave. If only she was out there to help him.
Next morning excitement was high as the children looked out on a white, silent, alien world. The wind was now spent but the snow was too deep to allow anyone to venture out. When the front door was opened, they were confronted by a wall of snow and her older brother, with the help of the young enthusiasts, cleared a path from the house to the road. That afternoon word got through that their father had sent a wire but because of the intensity of the blizzard, telegraph wires were down all over the place and it was the afternoon of the following day that the Post Office received it. Mrs Kelly rushed in to tell them that a bread van had got through from Newry, and this was sorely needed in their large household.
By now the snow had started again, swirling in the rising wind and Kathleen, who had volunteered to collect the loaves, found her journey a nightmare. She heeded her mother's advice.
"Keep to the centre of the road. Remember the hazards it has brought already".
One minute she was plodding along and the next falling into snowdrifts. She sought familiar landmarks but it had become an alien world and every step was treacherous. The wind snatched her breath away, filling her eyes and mouth with suffocating snow.
At length she reached the nearest shop, McConnell's in The Square. It was full of customers prepared to buy out the shop, standing there, creating their own problems from the melting snow. The floor was awash with it and she couldn't escape it either. Finally, she purchased her loaves and set off for home, triumphant. They wouldn't be short of bread now. Her Mammy could always bake some too, even without the buttermilk. She soon found her four loaves impeded her progress. She had to contend with their weight now as well as the elements and every few steps found her stumbling and falling. Exerting all he strength, she pushed forward in the teeth of the gale and snow, clinging tenaciously to the bread. One especially strong flurry took all her breath away and she slipped to her knees. She fought for breath, crying out in her panic,
"Oh God please send someone to help me. Help me!".
But there was no one to hear her. She was alone and so tired. The short journey had become more and more of a nightmare. The loaves now felt as heavy as lead. She knew she must hold on to them and prevent the snow from claiming them. Wasn't she the carrier of the bread of life for the family?
She could see their house a little further along the road yet couldn't seem to get nearer to it. Time and again she fell as the wind buffeted away her breath and the grey skies emptied a suffocating blanket of snow upon her and the bread.
"If only me Daddy was home", she thought. "He could help me".
Her legs were numb and her body so tired but she still held on to her loaves. Finally, after what seemed to be an eternity, exhausted and spent, she fell against their front door, crying out as she fainted. Cap and gloves had all disappeared in the snow but not the loaves.
When she came to, none the worse for her experience, she was surrounded by all the family, smiling their delight at her safe return and quick recovery, but one face shone above all others. Her dear Daddy was there, cradling her in his arms and telling her what a brave girl she was.
"What would we do without you at all? Always thinking and worrying about the family."
"Sure it was nothing Daddy. Wouldn't any daughter in the house be glad to keep the family fed - if only on bread and water.