Archive for May, 2019

The Belfast Chronicles: Operation Demetrius Part IX “Written on the Soul.”

As beautiful as she was, my mother told me that Granda told her that she would never be ‘Good looking!”

My sisters cannot believe he said that to her, as our mother was exceptionally beautiful, and I can only think that he either said it in jest, ironically, because she was beautiful. And this was just a little throwaway little joke, perhaps.

Or, perhaps he said it to make sure she would never depend on her looks to get through life. 

Or, it may have been that my Granda was worried that she might have known it, and he did not want her to be vain – an ugly trait in anyone – but far worse as a Catholic woman.  A Catholic woman looking at herself in the mirror was literary a sin. One of the seven deadly sins, in fact. Vanity.

And if you put on a bit of rouge onto your cheeks – or, worse, dabbing a bit of polish on your lips you are basically a Harolot! And you are condemned to Hell for all eternity.

Unless you confess to a priest and do your penance.

So, vanity, yes, let me tell you, it is a sin worse than eating meat on a Friday.

Mammy in her Wedding Car

Mammy in her Wedding Car (With no make-up on her face)

But whatever way Granda said it, it affected her self-esteem, and she had a deep complex about her looks for her entire life. 

She also complained about her long-lanky-legs and her awkward gait.

She also had one leg longer than the other from birth and she was very self-conscious about it. Not least because people constantly told her that she should stand straight: At school; in sports classes; in Assembly, and especially for photographs.

She was embarrassed to announce that she had a leg shorter than the other, so she found a way to hide it. She told me her secret, only a few years ago, she went up onto her tiptoes on her shorter leg and then half hid that leg behind the other one and hoped no-one would notice.

It worked.

The funny thing was that I never ever noticed it in all the years she was my mother. But she did. She was always conscious of it. 

On top of that, she also had a bash on her left leg in her pram when the ‘driver’ of the pram bashed into a garden gate and crushed her lower leg which scarred her for life.

She also spoke about her massive feet and found it really hard to find shoes for a woman in an adult shoe size eight. So she often had to buy smaller shoes and just jam her feet into them and hope they would stretch in time. 

She also thought she was far too tall for a lady.

Clearly, dainty was in vogue at that time. 

Such nonsense. But somehow these comments goes in to the deepest crevices of the soul.

As a full grown adult, not dainty like a nice graceful women with a smaller and slimmer frames and no dodgy legs, big feet and massive hands, she felt out of place. She said, “I stood out in the crowd and I hated it”.

I remember telling her that is a good thing these days, and we younger women are encouraged to STAND OUT from the crowd. But she said she was too self-conscious and just wanted to blend-in.

However, whether she wanted it or not, my mother stood out in the crowd. And it was nothing to do with her height, her ‘gammy leg’ as she called it, nor even her big feet and tall stature.

She stood out in the crowd because she was taller than all the women around her, and most of the men, she was beautiful, a full and sturdy figure, strong hands that could tear up the telephone directory in the height of the landline-era, and her strong, booming, lilting, Irish voice that carried beyond the street she stood upon and resounded in every green valley, small town and in the highest mountains of the land

Still, yet, our mother was the baby of the family, doted on by her big brothers, loved by her neighbours, loved by her friends, loved by her community, and why not? She was cheeky, formidable, bold, charming, feisty and witty.  And she definitely covered up her self-consciousness with humour. She was a bit of a wit and a whole lot of clown and was the life and soul of the party.

Her brothers were also great craic, of course, and full of stories and brought the party wherever they went. Her older brothers spoiled her, undoubtedly.  And she loved heading out with them to the pub and to parties and dances.

Her friends loved her for her great humour, her laid-back attitude and her very direct ‘tell it like it is’ way with storytelling and telling rather baudy jokes. And, not least, her reputation of being a bit of a social rebel. 

However, there was one person who really did not have too much time for her when she was young and that was her older sister, Mollie.

Mollie was “The Apple of her Father’s Eye” and in his eyes she could do no wrong. My mother did think that Mollie was his favourite, and everyone we spoke to about it confirmed it. So, being the baby, I guess she had to be a bit of a second wheel. 

Mollie saw Clare as a very annoying little sister who was deliberately stealing all the limelight from her and she would rather not pay her any attention.

There was a real sibling sisters rivalry there, even though the two ‘Book-End’ girls were at least ten years apart.

My mother told the story to me and to my oldest sister, Mollie, a few years ago. The story went that after spotting her big sister on the top and back of the bus, Clare ran up the stairs with her friend, and went up to the front of the bus and sat down with them, saying, ‘Hi!’

At that point, Mollie gathered her friends and stood up then walked away from her ‘Annoying little sister’ and headed down to the back of the bus and settled down into seats there. Clare was hurt and honestly did not know what she had done wrong.

She did something wrong just by being a wee annoying sister. Even if all you did was say ‘Hi!’

I have a similar story about my big sister, and told that to my Mum. And we both realised everyone is jealous of their little sisters. And we had a good laugh about it.

Nevertheless, when my Auntie Mollie was getting married, she asked her little sister to be bridesmaid. She loved her anyway, and that is the joy of girl sisters. You hate them one minute, you ignore them, you slag them off to their face, and bitch about them behind your back, and the next day they ask you to be your bridesmaid!

Both Mollie and Clare decided that they were going to go on diets for the wedding.

My mother repeatedly told me that Auntie Mollie was “The Apple of Grandad’s eye”. And everyone knew it. She told us that he adored her. She was great fun, quick witted, a little devious and and above all, she made him laugh.

When she and my mother decided to go on diets for the wedding, they consulted the latest diet books that were filling up the bookstores in the late 40s and in every Good Housekeeping supplement ensuring every woman who saw those images already felt shitty about themselves. And, as a catholic women, you have to measure up to Mary, The Mother of God. And The Mother of God Diet would be a brutal one indeed. As no matter how many pounds you starved off yourself, you will never be able to ascend into heaven. 

Mollie’s diet recipe said that she could have two ounces of bread at breakfast, along with one slice of lean bacon and half a grapefruit.

Grannie was up at dawn every day to retrieve the bread from The Hot Press, and baked a fresh loaf every morning. This bread was heavy. And, so, when Mollie weighed her two ounces of bread the previous evening, preparing for her diet breakfast the following morning, she was furious as it was so so tiny. 

She took the bread in her hands, stormed through to the sitting room, where Grannie sat happily knitting by the fire, Mollie stopped at the door and threw the two ounces of bread straight at Grannie, screaming, “There’s really no point in eating this is there. I’d be better off eating a cardboard box. There’d be more in it!”

Another young adult child would have been scolded for such an act, Grannie was shocked at her outburst but couldn’t really scold her because Granda just laughed.

Granda just laughed. 

How he loved his Mollie Malone.

The Apple of his Eye…


Auntie Mollie in her Ballerina Dress


The Belfast Chronicles: Operation Demetrius: Part VIII “The Children are our Future”

Belfast, The Falls Road, La Salle Park, 20 August 2018 

If one named one’s son, “Billy”, in The North, it certainly helped with the rise in rank.

And, after years of discrimination and hardship in his employment, my Granda wanted things to be as easy as possible for his sons to excel.

And, so it was, Granda and Grannie named their first son, Billy.

This choice of name was probably tactical, as, by naming their Catholic son, Billy – ostensibly, after the protestant King Billy of Orange – would help smooth his journey along the old rocky road of sectarianism and help lift the barriers in business that were firmly closed for his father, in his time.

Although nobody said that aloud.


William’s victory secured the Protestant Ascendancy in Ireland for generations to come.


The so-called “Ascendancy” was the domination of politics, the economy and high society in Ireland by a minority of elite Protestants between the late 17th century and the early 20th century. These Protestants were all members of the Churches of Ireland or England and anyone who wasn’t was excluded – primarily Roman Catholics but also non-Christians, such as Jews, and other Christians and Protestants.

To balance things up a bit, Granda and Grannie named their second son, Peter. ‘The Rock’ – after Saint Peter, the first Pope of the Roman Catholic Church. And, of course, Grannie’s brother, Great Uncle Peter, who had fled to America after being ‘marked’ by The Black and Tans.


St. Peter Preaching the Gospel in the Catacombs by Jan Styka


Granda and Grannie named their third son, Denis, after his favourite uncle, Uncle Denis, the policeman. The name “Denis” takes its root from Dionysius, the Greek mythological god of wine and revelry.

Anyone who knew my Uncle Denis, and Godfather, did indeed love wine, fine food, rough food, travel, the great outdoors, classical music, pleasant company, stories, laughing, chatting, partying and having the craic – and indeed, revelry – so he was very well named.


Dionysus Painting by Lourry Legarde

As my mother told me, Granda also dictated what each of his sons was to do for a living. 

My Uncle Billy was to be a lawyer. Whether he wanted to or not. Granda was passing down the baton to his son and he was to run with it. Granda wanted his first born son to carry on the legacy that Granda started and Billy was to realise the dreams that JJ did not manage, due to the legally-sanctioned discrimination.

My Uncle Peter was to be a Civil Engineer. Whether he wanted to  or not. And there are whispers – loud whispers – that Peter did not want to be a Civil Engineer.

He wanted to be a lawyer.

My mother told me, “Peter asked if he could do law instead, but Granda said, “We’ve already got a lawyer in the family, you will be better off being a civil engineer.” And so it was.

My Godfather, Uncle Denis, was to be a doctor. He had to go to night school two nights a week to make sure he had the qualifications to get into university. ie; extra Latin, physics and or possibly chemistry.

Hee became a fine and respected doctor, dedicated to his vocation. I asked him once what was the best thing about being a doctor and he told me that over his lifetime career that bringing babies into the world was his greatest joy and never tired of it despite the many thousand babies he delivered in his lifetime.

And so, the boys were sorted. There were very set plans in place for the boys. The boys will be alright.

But what of the Girls?

My mother, Clare, wanted to be a pharmacist. She expressed this wish to her father, often, and he said that he believed that she would not work hard enough to make the grades, and in any case, Granda felt it was a waste of time and money because she was a girl and would only end up being a housewife anyway and her job will be to have lots of babies.

However, my mother protested, begged and pleaded to her father to allow her to be a pharmacist. And, so, Grandad said, Okay, but you must go to night school two nights a week to brush up on physics and learn Latin. – Subjects that were not offered, or not sufficient enough, at St Dominic’s Convent School at the time.

Bottles of Medicine

My mother said she was delighted and was excited at the prospect of going to university and eventually becoming a pharmacist, and she got stuck into her extracurricular studies with vigor, but after two or three weeks, my mother told me she felt it was too much work, she was bored, it wasn’t fun, and she would rather be outside playing with her friends in the evenings. And, so, she told this to her father, and he allowed her to drop out.

I always wondered if the boys would have been allowed to just drop out of classes because it got boring? Perhaps they did, but would they then have been encouraged to continue as there was a long-term goal invested in this.

I think that Granda may have been softer on my mother because, somehow, he really believed that my mother’s education beyond high school was indeed a total waste of time and money?

To think that my mother was someone who would just drop her dreams because it became boring, is not really the person I saw when she took up her education again in her 50s. 

My mother took night classes and indeed day classes in her fifties, studying French and Spanish, and in all those five years, she never missed a class. She also became a lecturer at a slimming club, and she threw her heart and soul into it. She was never late for class, she prepared her lectures meticulously, practiced and delivered all the requirements to run those classes.

I do believe that had she been encouraged, I think my mother would have reached a good degree in Pharmacy and she would have worked hard at it. 

My mother has always been very determined to complete her duties and tasks when she set her mind to it. So, I do wonder, that this ‘drop out’ attitude may have been put into her mind at that very young age, as in life, she often lamented not becoming a pharmacist.

Mammy spoke to me and my siblings often about not being given the chance to be a pharmacist,  she said that her Daddy didn’t think she would stick it out because she was lazy. But my mother told me that she would have stuck it “If she’d had the choice”. Which sounds like Granda did not encourage her to go to University and so my mother felt like there was no point arguing with him. 

However, a few weeks before she died, she told me that she was in fact lazy, and Granda was right. She said, “It would have been a waste of time and money, because I wouldn’t have stuck it out.”

I wonder about this. I wonder about her being the youngest girl and her being ‘lazy’ a label she may well owned.

Grannie used to tell us that your mammy is ‘Lazy’. Grannie tells us, “She always left her things at her backside!” Grannie tells us, She would come in the house, throw off her bag onto the polished floor, her coat came off second, her hat thrown across the hall, her gloves, shoes, shirt, skirt, socks made a trail from the entrance of the hall, up the stairs and into her bedroom, leaving Grannie to follow her up picking everything up in her wake. 

I am sure Grannie would have scolded her for this behavior, but I do not think my mother would have ruffled her feathers over it. My mother was very laid back.

Grannie was an incredible worker, up at dawn to bake bread, very ordered and kept her house spotless. The children came in at different times for lunch and dinner, so Grannie was feeding them at different times and also different meals, depending what they wanted. And everything was cooked and baked fresh from scratch and made everything herself.

And then tidied and cleaned up.

Grannie did teach Mammy how to cook, bake, clean the house, polish the floors, make her own dresses, knit her own cardigans, socks, crochet scarves, shawls, cloths and darn stockings, socks and patch up holes in jumpers. 

The boys did not do any housework.

The boys did not darn socks.

The boys did not do any cooking.

The boys did not do the dishes.

The boys did not polish the floors.

The boys did not make the beds.

The boys did not sweep the yard.

The boys did not do any hand-washing of clothes.

The boys did not make their own clothes.

The boys did not knit cardigans or dishcloths.

The boys did not fetch groceries from the shops and carry back the heavy bags.

The boys didn’t get up at 6am to bake bread.

My mother told me that she worked hard alongside her mammy, polishing the tiles in the hall, one tiny tile at a time, by hand, with tile polish and a shammy.

There is a famous pilgrimage in Ireland called Loch Dergh, where Catholics go for religious retreat. It is a severe term of fasting, praying and sleep deprivation. And upon the retreat’s end, everyone is absolutely exhausted, starving, faint and on the brink of collapse.

Grannie always prepared the breakfast for the three boys coming off retreat. She would make a huge fry-up for the boys as they entered the kitchen, coming off the very early morning ferry.

Grannie asked what they wanted, and Uncle Billy would say, “The full o’the pan!” Meaning, everything.

My mother watched as the boys devoured their breakfasts of eggs, bacon, sausages, pudding, mushrooms, beans, potato scones, wheaten bread and soda farls – all washed down with copious cups of tea.

They would all then head up to bed to sleep it all off.

Irish Breakfast - The full O'The Pan

The Full O’The Pan

My mother did not get this fry up on that morning, because she had not gone to Loch Derge – as she was not yet old enough to do it. 

However, when she was old enough, and eventually went to Loch Derge with some of her pals from school, Mammy reports to me, that when she got off the ferry in the very early morning she was really looking forward to her fry up.

She arrived home, delighted with her achievement, she and went straight into the kitchen where Grannie was sitting drinking tea and reading a book.

Grannie looked up and my mother, exhausted and hungry, with a beam on her face after doing her first retreat and then quickly noticed that there was no breakfast feast to welcome her back from Loch Derge.

She stood in the kitchen doorway in astonishment.

“Where’s my breakfast?” She said.

Grannie said, “You can make it yourself.”

I still feel a bit sad when I think of that story, trying to understand why that happened.

It may well be that Grannie was preparing my mother for motherhood, or that Grannie did not want to spoil her, or that Grannie was annoyed with her for always throwing her things around the house.

But one thing is clear Grannie gave my mother a stark lesson: As a woman in this World, if you want something, get it, make it, and do it yourself. 

But there was one thing that my mother was NOT to do for herself. And that was to get a job. It was Granda’s job, as with the boys, he dictated what job my mother was to do before she eventually settled down and got married and had lots of babies.

My mother did not even need to do a job interview, as when my mother left school, Granda got her a job in the Civil Service, working in The Ministry of Agriculture, based in Belfast.

She was literally handed a secure job for life on a plate. Why try harder.

Clare worked there for ten-odd years, and worked there diligently and dutifully with a rare day off sick right up until the day she became engaged to be married, ten years later.

Mam with First Paypacket

Clare in Belfast with her first ever pay check.

All the women in the office crowded around her, wowing over her gold and diamond engagement ring and listening to the story of the proposal to this dashing Scottish optician, living with his sister and parents in a middle-class area in the west of Glasgow, educated at a prestigious Jesuit school, and how he whisked her away to the west highlands and got down on one knee and asked her if she would marry him.

And she said yes.

And it was so romantic.

The office girls were thrilled for her, but it was bitter sweet because my mother would soon be leaving her colleagues and the job she loved. Not just because she would be moving to Scotland, but she had to give up her job now, as a married woman could not continue to work. Whether she wanted to or not. And, so, once mum got engaged, she had to put her notice in. All her colleagues wished her well, and were very sad to see her go. One of those reasons was that my mother was the hardest worker in that place. 

Mum spoke about her work at The Ministry of Agriculture. There was a lot of complicated paperwork, and her colleagues would take the easier pieces and leave my mother the harder more complicated work.

My mother loved solving problems. She had a great head for figures and an even greater head for word play. 

She did the crossword every day and did mental games as well, quizzes on TV and especially Countdown – she rarely missed an episode, and if she was going to miss it, she recorded it for later.

These mental games kept her sane right up to the day she died. She was as sharp as a tack mentally. It was her body that let her down in the end.

Mammy wanted to have fun. She loved having people around her, and chatting. She hated being on her own.

The youngest child of this dynamic family, she deserved to be treasured, pampered and spoilt. It was her birthright. So bloody what. She was true to herself. Always. 

Lazy’? We shall revisit that, later! But for now, I’d like to add another label: “Woman”. Had Clare not been born a woman, she would perhaps have been encouraged to go on to realise her dreams of being a pharmacist. And since no-one really took that request seriously, she had nothing to strive for.

Meantime, this 5″10, blue-black hair full of natural large curls, bold, beautiful and baudy, woman, was destined for marriage and a family life beyond the office, and with her skills, beauty and formidable character, she could have married anyone in Ireland – or indeed Scotland – just as long as they were Roman Catholic.

Mammy kissing The Blarney
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