by Bridget Crabtree, of Bexhill-on-Sea, East Sussex
My family, the
McGinty's, emigrated to England in 1947, but I went back to Ireland
to a funeral in Achill Island, County Mayo, in November 2001.
Achill has a
road called "The Atlantic Drive", which bends and curves
around the Atlantic cliffs ending where our "old cottage"
still stands. It is known as "Atlantic Drive Cottage".
grandfather, Michael McGinty, built it with local stone in 1924 in
Ashleam village. This is where all my family were born and it's
still there as we left it, but shuttered up. The life it once knew
has gone forever.
It has three
rooms, the one in the middle is the biggest with a back and front
door and was called the kitchen. The rooms either side were
was a room of many activities, where butter was churned, wool spun
from the spinning wheel, buttermilk bread made and baked in the
ovens on the peat fire. Irish stews were boiled in large skillets,
hung over the peat fire on a hook hanging down the chimney.
peat fire most things were done, knitting, sewing, and most of all
story telling. Ghost stories seemed to be everyone's specialty! They
seemed to take great delight in putting "the fear of God"
in each other. I had a few sleepless nights whilst I lived there.
concrete floor we did our Irish dancing, jigs and reels mostly, but
on occasions like weddings they let "rip" with Irish
country dancing. We took it in turns to visit each other's homes.
like ours had a strip of land, a few cows, two donkeys, a pig, as
well as mountain sheep, hens, geese, dogs and cats - all needed on
our "Crofters Farm". The cows to supply the milk and its
products like butter, cheese and buttermilk. The donkeys to collect
the peat from the bogs on the hills and bring it home where it was
stored in large clamps near the cottages.
Peat was the
only fuel for cooking and heating. Paraffin oil was used in lamps
either hanging from the walls or on the tables for our light.
was basic, enamel chamber pots under the beds and privys outside.
Water was collected in buckets from the village pump. Bathing was a
Saturday family ritual in a galvanized bath in front of the fire.
Hair combing every night and "searching" for nits or lice
before we went to bed. This had to be done because, with large
families, as they were then, four children slept in a double bed,
two at the top and two at the bottom!
food was plentiful for the needs of the large families. As well as
having bacon from the pig reared during the year, there was pickled
herrings, roast chickens, eggs, fresh fish caught in the Atlantic
and mutton from the mountain sheep.
scarce and the men had to go to England and work on farms in the
summer and earn money for other needs of their families.
My mother was
a good dressmaker and I can clearly remember when she was making my
school dress in blue cotton with pink flowers. She sat by the fire
when the others were at school except myself and Anthony, who was a
year younger than me. I had to "mind" him whilst she sewed
my dress by hand.
She said to
me: "When you go to school work hard and get a scholarship like
your big sister May, she is going to go to college and become a
mummy, I'll be a teacher too - see I can count before I go to school
-one, two, three, four, five, six, eight, nine, 10."
happened to number seven?" my mother asked with a smile on her
start again. One two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine,
10. That was all right wasn't it Mummy?"
I asked and
I'll never forget it again. And I haven't nor have I forgotten my
mother encouraging me to learn.
In the summer
of 1935, my mother took me to Ashleam National School in my newly
made pretty dress with knickers to match, I felt very smart.
When I was
five my mother had another baby and she called him John. He was
still only a baby when she became ill with pneumonia and again she
was pregnant. She had a premature baby who was not expected to live.
Her illness continued as there was very little medication to help
her in 1939 and our family doctor said she needed hospital
and nurse came to take her away. In the bedroom I clung tightly to
my aunt Catherine's skirt and watched the nurse change my mother's
nightdress. Then she took scissors from her pocket and cut my
mother's hair plait off and threw it in the blazing peat fire.
Aunt Catherine she cut my mummy's plait off and burnt it in the
fire." I sobbed into her long skirt crying. "I brushed her
hair and did her plait not long ago."
darlin," Aunt Catherine whispered in my ear, "maybe your
mummy will get better quicker if she hasn't got so much hair and
when she comes home it will grow and you can do it again for
I dried my
tears in her skirt and felt much happier.
We all took it
in turns to say goodbye to my mother. May, the eldest (14 years
old), was first to kiss her and said: "Goodbye Mummy, get well
soon, and don't worry I'll look after them all until you come home
The last was
baby Manus, just a mite in Granny's arms, and lifted to his mummy's
face. She put her emaciated arms around him, kissed him and said:
"God take good care of you darling until your mummy comes home
My dad put his
arms around my mother saying: "I love you Mary and with God's
help you'll soon be back home again."
last words to my father were: "Don't close the door Pat."
We waved the
ambulance off shouting: "Goodbye Mummy get well and come home
to us soon."
after that my dad cycled to the post office to find out how my
mother way. The Robinson family who owed it made sure he got in
touch with the hospital and he was able to tell us how our mummy was
before we went to school.
forget the morning we met him on his way to school. He got off his
bicycle and said: "It's a sad day for all of us, your mummy has
He consoled us
as much as he could and said: "Come on home to May."
We all shed a
lot of tears together and didn't go to school that day.
sobbing and crying had eased, Dad said to May: "Now I can tell
you what your mother meant when she said 'Don't close the door'. If
she should die I was not to send you all to an orphanage."
May looked at
us with her tearful eyes and picking John up in her arms cuddling
him close to her saying: "Never, never will we split up, I'll
do my best for our family. Her best she did do and we all loved her
She died of
cancer in 1992, the year I retired from nursing.
On the wet and
windy November day with tears welling in my eyes, I walked from the
cottage leaving my childhood memories both happy and say locked
within its walls.