Chapter 30 - Uncle Ned and Homecrafts
There was something nice about Kathleen's Uncle ned. He was a big hearted man with a great flow of repartee, always willing to help others less fortunate than himself, but wary of hard physical work. He lounged in the kitchen in Mobane House, stretched out on the old settee and always found someone willing to make him a cup of tea, or just take his shoes off for him. He was always happiest with his shoes off. Maybe this was due to fallen arches though he maintained it only came on when he gave up the cycle racing and the knees let him down.
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Uncle Ned was the youngest brother of Kathleen's mother and he had been Ulster's champion cyclist both on grass and on the cinder track. He could very happily occupy his day relating his past feats. Kathleen believed every one of his stories. Hadn't he a full room of trophies to prove it. They were very numerous indeed and varied from suit lengths, to melodeons, violins, gold and silver cups, goblets, gold and silver watches, silver tea services and silver clocks with shining horses astride them. There was so much silver to clean it took a whole day each week for one person to do the lot. Uncle Ned did not take part in this activity personally. His stock answer when this question arose was,
"As I was lucky enough to win them, then think yourself honoured to be able to clean them".
Walking around his sitting room viewing his trophies was like being in a museum. One might look but not touch. One night a burglar entered the trophy room through a side door, which was an exit to the yard and outhouses, although seldom used. The next morning, when the burglary was discovered, there were sounds of "Hooray" from a younger member of the family who was tired of polishing silver. The lost pieces were never recovered and the burglar got away with a sackful of gold and silver but there was still a great deal left.
At some of the races, both for horses and dogs, he often presented one of his trophies. He was generous to a fault and welcome wherever he went.
He told her how he got started at the cycling. He bought his first racing bike for £15. It was a "Rover" which he had seen advertised in an English newspaper. At the time the Black and Tans were busy in the area, stopping traffic on both roads and railways, so he didn't expect a speedy delivery. All the same, the bike was delivered safe and sound but without a gearbox. Ned was not aware of such a refinement and rode and practised without it. When eventually a gearbox arrived and was fitted, the difference it made to his riding was dramatic.
One week in particular stood out in his memory and well it might. On Monday he rode at Croake Park, Dublin, on Tuesday at Cootehill, County Cavan, on Wednesday at Celtic Park, Belfast, on Saturday at Derry City and on Sunday at Drogheda County Louth. He cycled from one venue to the other and won every race. The most enduring prize was the ballad composed in his honour:-
"When Healy the Governor presented
A prize to the best in the lan'
Young Richardson rode out and won it
And brought the prize home to Mobane"
It was quite a long ballad and was later recorded by Margaret Barry who achieved some fame as a folk singer and had the reputation of being able to drink any man under the table. She was a familiar figure in Crossmaglen and the surrounding area, singing on the streets on all Fair Days. The ballad was written by a blind man and sung to the air of "Men of the West"
When a teenager, Ned had also dabbled in the art of playacting, once playing the part of Annie Chute in the play "The Coleen Bawn". After the show a local lad invited him out for a walk in the moonlight. Ned was still dressed in his female attire and managed to conceal his identity for some time. Kathleen could believe this. He was capable of leading anyone up the garden path.
Tonight, Ned chatted away while their mother sewed away on her machine. If she wasn't making summer dresses for the girls, she was knitting boy's jumpers and girl's sweaters. When ready, they were all hung on the wall just asking to be admired. She had tried to interest Kathleen in these pursuits but she preferred to remain a spectator or to make her way upstairs to one of the bedrooms where she could dream away her daydreams. Uncle Ned was a great preacher alright.
"Isn't about Miss Prim here too her head out of the clouds, came down to earth and gave you some help?"
"You're the one to talk", remarked Kathleen, but he just grinned at her. Then he left for home.
Kathleen liked to go into her bedroom and look out of the large window at night. She could see the lights of Dundalk twinkle and, a little further along the coast, the lighthouse at Blackrock, its light sweeping across the water. A friendly light but a warning one. It would set her thinking about "The Wreck of the Hesperus". Wasn't it a pity the Captain hadn't taken the advice of the old fisherman? On cold nights she pulled out the wooden shutters and closed them against the dark world and all its mysteries, tightly drawing the curtains before returning downstairs.
One such night she found her mother working industriously on a canvas rug. It wasn't an easy task as the skeins of wool had to be rolled into balls, cut to a certain size. Then the really hard work started and for once Kathleen decided to give a hand. Her mother had two different needles and she preferred the older one. She tried to keep up with her mother but never managed it, so she kept to one end, making sure she was using the right colours of wool. It seemed as though a whole winter went by before the finished rug, lined by her mother, lay snugly across the front of the fire.
After a good deal of prodding, Kathleen decided to knit herself a jumper.
"Are you out of your mind, Mammy. Sure I'll never be able to make one", she had protested, but in the end she decided to give it a go. She never could resist a challenge.
"If you buy the wool I'll make it".
"There's plenty of old wool around the house that's good enough for beginners".
She searched through the large box of multi-coloured wool finding an ounce here and two ounces there. The only colour in abundance was mauve, not one of her favourite colours.
"Is that the best you can do?" merely met with a quiet not from her mother. Her stitches were restricted to plain and purl so the latter was decided on.
When finally she finished her knitting, she sewed the jumper up, put it on and showed it to her mother.
"It's very good, Kathleen. You'll be able to knit all your own sweaters in future".
"That was my first effort and it was also my last".
It didn't take a fidge out of her mother whose knitting needles rattled contentedly on.
On wearing the jumper to school, she was surprised to be complimented by her teacher.
"Kathleen O'Hara, that jumper is a credit to you, I only wish more of the girls in this class were as industrious".
She smiled her thanks but thought to herself,
"There's not a divil of a chance of me repeating it".
Neither was there.
Bridie was a good friend of the family and Kathleen received many an invitation to her house where Bridie was always busy working on her Carrickmacross lace. She lived over the fields from Uncle Ned. A fine big lassie with a mop of black hair and a pair of twinkling brown eyes. She had a droll way of speaking and the laughter in those eyes captivated her friends. When Bridie wore glasses, Kathleen knew she was working on the lace. Biddy Phil and Alice Harvey were good at it too but Bridie had the batin' of them all. She was very dextrous with those hands of hers.
Stretched out on her table were the muslin and the greaseproof paper with its design on it. There was always an array of scissors, spools of thread and discarded pieces of pattern pushed aside. Lace collars, handkerchiefs and beautifully designed Mantillas were all around the room. Customers kept her very busy. Her veils were very fashionable but expensive, for First Communions, Confirmations or Weddings. Those who possessed one had an heirloom.
On her way home she met Mick the Boozer. He was a very moderate drinker but apparently his father had liked a drop and the name had been handed down.
"Ah it's yourself there Kathleen. Ye'd better get a spurt on before it's dark".
"I'm on me way Mick".
"Do ye know it's a holy divine terror, I met Owney back there beyond the rocks and he was conversin' with himself and cursin' like a trooper".
Her reply was out before she could stop it.
"Sure you're a fine fella to talk. I hear tell you'll spend all day talkin' to yourself".
"And who better to talk to?"
That floored her alright.
Kathleen finally did take up the long outstanding invitation to drop in and see Mrs Cassidy. She lived in one of the cottages on the Dundalk Road. They were all close together, whitewashed and each with its own front garden, front door and small back garden. The cottages were for the old folk and the poor and needy, mostly pensioners living on the princely sum of ten shillings a week. They all had their pride and kept clean houses, cultivated their little gardens and practised the local craft of making the lace. This was a real cottage industry. Much more Carrickmacross Lace was made in Crossmaglen and the surrounding countryside than in Carrickmacross itself.
You could see them all sewing away at their windows and as night fell the paraffin lamps were lit and they continued to work around their table, bent forward, making the most of the light. Some also put a candle in front of a glass globe to increase the amount of light. It was very difficult work and must have been a great strain on the eyes. They all used a layer of paper backing, laying the paper with the pattern traced on it on top. Then a layer of net covered with a layer of cambric or organza, which was stitched through all the outlines. They appeared to sew from the centre outwards. Scissors were used to cut away the unwanted parts and the real stitching began with loops and picot stitching. Beautiful and elaborate designs took shape before your eyes and Kathleen spent a lot of time watching these creations take shape.
Out of the long tedious work a mere pittance was earned. To pay their way, some of the old folk bartered their lace handkerchiefs, collars, headscarves and veils for food. Biddy was no exception. She took her work down to O'Connell's shop where she handed it over the counter and received her tea, sugar and butter for the week. They all knew it would end up in the big shop at Culloville, near the Railway Station, who were agents for this beautiful but ill paid work.
Kathleen wondered often how they could sew such small stitching by oil lamp or even candle light without impairing their sight and truth be told they all wore glasses. Biddy wore them too. Her small garden was the envy of all around her, full of colour with nasturtiums climbing across her front door, sweet smelling Phlox and wild honeysuckle giving her a scented greeting. Around the flowerbeds, she had painted the stones white and in the little plot at the back she grew lettuce, scallions, cabbages and potatoes.
Kathleen spent a great deal of time visiting most of the houses along the Dundalk Road and to her way of thinking they were a real hive of industry. Eyes were down and backs were bent with the needle in perpetual motion and the scissors constantly in use. She knew all the lace makers around the town and visited them all as the fancy took her. No doors were barred and they were always glad of a bit of a crack.
"Kathleen tell us the news. Have ye had any more rows with the cobbler?"
She had brought along a sweet cake and a packet of tea with her to Biddy Cassidy who called out as she entered the gate,
"Come on in Kathleen and God and his dear Mother shower blessings down on ye".
"And on you too Biddy".
She handed over her small parcel from her mother.
"God love her. Your mother's an angel".
She walked straight over and sat by the glowing stove, relishing the warm home-made pan bread though she was careful not to use too much butter on it. Not that Biddy minded. She was generous and she was holy too. Before they had their collation, she knelt down in front of the little red lamp glowing beneath the picture of The Sacred Heart of Jesus and prayed for Kathleen's continuing good health. Then they said the Memorare.
"Ah child as long as you keep God and His Blessed Mother close you can't go far wrong".
"Biddy you're a darlin' woman, always thinking of other people".
Biddy's potato bread just melted in her mouth as she sipped her tea. Biddy added something a little stronger to her own. She patted her chest.
"It helps the old ticker ye know. When you're my age a wee drop does ye no harm. It keeps the pains away".
"Aren't ye well deservin' of it Biddy, the way you work your fingers to the bone".
Although it was only a two-roomed cottage it was as clean as a pin and the warmth of the fire in the stove brought a glow to Kathleen's cheeks. Biddy's conversation was sprinkled with remarks about some of the neighbours and Kathleen found herself the recipient of all the local gossip. She left with her arms full of flowers, a wee Carrickmacross Lace handkerchief and a promise to return again soon. Biddy's parting remark was,
"You're always welcome to my wee cottage and it's a great pleasure for me to see you growin' up into a fine girl after your illness. If I'm alive come and see me again. It's a trick of youth. When you die you quit it." What a strange remark to make to her. It must be her sense of humour. It puzzled her quite a bit as she left.
She returned home and recounted her story to her mother who was pleased to see she liked the company of old folk, though she wasn't too happy about receiving the lace handkerchief as she thought Biddy could ill afford it. Just the same, grown-ups could be tiresome sometimes. When her mother had visitors she helped her mother hand round the cakes and biscuits and listened intently to their conversation. Sometimes when they stopped, she corrected them or added a piece of gossip of her own, just trying to get "her spake" in. Suddenly all eyes would be upon her. With her father's stern nod towards the door she was out - out of the room and out in the cold. She could hear his parting shot.
"That one would talk the leg off a table. What she hears here today you may be sure all the school will know about tomorrow".
She had all the time in the world to ponder over what she shouldn't have said but likely as not the next time round she would forget and put her foot in it again.
Now that the O'Haras lived on the Culloville Road the milk was delivered daily by Jimmy Cassidy from beyond the bog. He arrived the same time each morning heralded by the sound of the horse's shoes as they came to rest on the pavement outside the house. These shoes tripped along so lightly on the road, almost like a ballet dancer - but Jimmy was the real ballet dancer. He delivered to all three houses where they lived and Kathleen marvelled at his agility descending from the trap with a large can of milk in one and the measure in the other. His milk cart looked like a trap with little door opening at the back. Right in the front stood the large milk can and from this he filled the smaller can which was his measure. This was a large slender tin jug with a good pouring spout, which he usually filled on his way to the pavement.
By the time he reached their door her mother was holding out her can to be filled. His movements were quick and dextrous with the years of experience behind him, and all he needed was the music to accompany them. Jimmy was a kind man and when he had given the right measure he tipped his can to give a bit more "for the babbie". If he felt inclined to stop and chat he got a good hint as the horse and trap moved off without him. As he rushed after the horse you could hear him shouting,
"You cantankerous auld jinnet. One of these days you're going to end up in the Tanner's Yard".
Maybe it was this frequent exercise that kept Jimmy as thin as a whip.
Kathleen approached him one day when he didn't appear to be in too much of a hurry.
"Do you think I could have a ride on your horse Jimmy?"
"Of course Kathleen. If you're prepared to put up with that impatient cratur and him without a saddle, you're very welcome".
The horse pricked up his ears and looked at the two of them. She didn't know if it was approving or not, she was so anxious to get on his back.
Jimmy held the horse and at the same time gave her some help up. She hadn't realised how difficult it was to mount a horse. When she did get up she felt very small indeed. It was like sitting on a mountain. The view was good. Jimmy had to do some coaxing before the horse would take off with her. In the meantime she was accustoming herself to the smell of horseflesh and the feel of his body against her legs. She had nothing to hold on to but that wasn't the worst of it. Without a saddle she found the horse's backbone a most uncomfortable seat. To crown it all the horse decided to make her suffer and suddenly set off at a jogging pace, causing her to bump up and down in time. All she could do was hold on the horse's mane and he didn't seem to like that. It was sheer agony and Jimmy's cries for the horse to stop fell on deaf ears. He passed the New Line, the Police Barracks and went into The Square and only stopped when he reached McConnell's Pub.
There was no way she could hold back the tears and even when Sergeant Boy remarked,
"When did you take to the range, Kathleen",
she couldn't muster a reply. She didn't dismount, just fell off, landing in a heap in the road. Jimmy apologised,
"I'll have him shot Kathleen. That baste knows every word I say. He's been trying to get his own back on me for years and he's finally succeeded at the expense of a poor innocent girl. He'll suffer before this day is over. You have my word on that Kathleen".
The horse pricked up his ears, then whinnied and cast his malevolent eyes on the road. She limped home, remarking to herself,
"If that creature thinks he has put me off horse riding he has another think coming".
As she walked in the front door, she heard an unmerciful scream coming from the kitchen. She opened the door just as her mother was gently rubbing castor oil on her little sister, Letitia's bottom. They didn't know how it had happened. Their mother had picked her out of a pan of hot fat and the pan was still on the floor. Kathleen quite forgot about her own pains.
The next few days must have been agony for the little one as she scurried around the house, from time to time making little whimpers like a puppy crying. She never sat down at all. Some weeks later there wasn't the slightest evidence of the mishap, her little backside had healed up so well.
Kathleen came to the conclusion that their Mammy would have made a very good nurse. They rarely had to call in the Doctor. After all she had done it all before but, as their Daddy remarked,
"If Mammy had become a nurse what would we all have done without her?"