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Boyhood in 1940/50s Ballinasloe by Declan Burke - chaper 1

 Damian Mac Con Uladh

Boyhood in 1940/50s Ballinasloe

by Declan Burke

Chapter 1

I was born in the very centre of the town in a flat over Salter's Shoe Shop (on Main Street at the top of the Square) in November 1938.

My father was a Garda (Uimhir 129) an unusually low number for someone who remained only Garda all his professional life (sin scéal eile). He hailed from Loughrea, where he was active in the "Struggle" and spent two years in the Curragh Internment Camp till the (1921) Treaty set him free. He also spent time in Galway Jail, the present site of the Cathedral, for anti-state activities. (He was 'agin' the British Empire.) A point of pride for him was the fact that the East Galway Brigade of the (Old) IRA caused significant economic damage to the British Empire without the loss of a single life.

The burning of Bookeen Barracks was a classic guerrilla action.

Mother was working in (Angela's Ashes) Limerick as a barmaid when he met her in Lisdoonvarna on holidays. She was a Minehan from Newmarket on Fergus, same area my wife hails from.

My boyhood was in the 1940s and 50s.

My earliest memories hark back to the house on Dunlo Hill, overlooking the Fair Green, where I grew up.

I remember the outhouse (a two-holer) we had prior to the Council putting sewage line about 100 yards from our backdoor and my father digging a trench to connect to it and then he installed a flush toilet indoors, all by himself!

Dad was a man who could turn his hand to anything. During the war years (1939–45) (yes, that war) there was an endless stream of neighbours bringing various things to be put back in working order. Electric kettles and radios and Electrolux vacuum cleaners vied for place with clocks and shotguns on our kitchen table.

One pleasure in summer was to go about in the "bare wans" (bare feet) and apart from the occasional 'stone bruise' it was great. Of course that world class sward of grass on the Fair Green made the 'bare wans' a pleasure to be relished even still.

The bog

The sods of turf that kept us warm during winter were hard won in Poolboy bog. The Gardaí organized 'meithels' where a large number of them bicycled to each family's turf bank in turn and 'cut' the years supply of fuel in one day. There were constant relays of the women and children on bicycles who brought meals to the workers. Milk, which was brought in emptied whiskey bottles whose corks were lost and were plugged with wads of newspapers had a special flavour, and there is no gourmet food better than an egg sandwich eaten in the bog with the wind whipping the flames under the kettle making the tea.

It was hard work and the sharp breeze did more than whet the appetite. It kicked up a vicious miasma of dust and particles that made the eyes sting and water.

As time went by I eventually graduated from a 'gofer' to a 'spreader' and eventually a 'slanesman', the Prince of the Boggy Hierarchy. Our bunch firmly believed in the 'Foot Slane' and considered the 'Breast Slane' turf cutters somehow effete.

As always we were at the mercy of the weather and the fear of getting the harvest of turf stranded on its waterlogged 'bank'.

Enter the specialist, Paddy Mullery.

Paddy had obtained his expertise in the fields of Flanders during the bloodbath of World War One, which he rightly saw as detrimental to his health, and left with no permission from anybody save himself. The British Army took a dim view of such freelancing and raided his mother's home (back of Poolboy) several times but never found Paddy. It appears he hid up in the chimney whenever he saw them coming.

Mullery claimed to be an "old Residenter" and looked down his nose at more recent arrivals whose family name had only been in the country 1000 years or less. They were 'new Residenters'.

But thanks to the excellent training he got mullucking artillery pieces around the mud of France, hauling cut and saved sods of turf to terra firma was a 'piece of cake', especially since nobody was shooting at him.

But he was magnificent to see in action. He would drive his horse and turf-laden cart through an absolute morass and get it through where lesser men would be left stuck and cursing.

He was an artist in his own right!

And those turf fires. They burned your face and froze your arse in the draft they caused and there was plenty exercise as large volumes of sods had to be hauled in each day and scads of ashes had to be disposed of afterwards.

The burning of turf caused soot to accumulate and chimney fires were routine. Mostly we dealt with them by restricting the air and letting them burn themselves out but on occasion they got out of hand and Jack Carrick, the town's only fireman would leap on his bike up in Brackernagh and hare off down to where the town's fire truck was kept and proceed to the scene.

The Winter of 1947

I was about eight years old in the winter of 1947 when we had a spectacular snowfall.

It lasted on the ground for weeks and there was time to construct toboggans to slide down Church Hill by the Town Hall. There were hundreds of Ballinaslovians out on the snow, day and night. Bannertons constructed a large toboggan and it carried about a dozen.

Remember, practically nobody had a car and TV was a distant dream.

My mother would come outside occasionally and haul me indoors to strip off my frozen stiff outer garments and replace them with something warmer, then back into the fray I went. Naturally, school was cancelled. At least I hope it was.

My father had planted thousands of cabbage plants earlier on and the snow had acted as an insulator and preserved them when almost all the others had perished and Dad made quite a 'few quid' selling his crop mainly to the Mental Hospital. (Tis an ill wind…..)

It is difficult now to imagine Dunlo Street completely empty, but in the years of the "Emergency" this was so. A craze for tops took hold once and I remember seeing the street filled with probably hundreds of young (and some not so young) people whipping tops and getting them to spin on the ground for many minutes, up and down the length of the street.

Another winter pastime was constructing "slides" on the streets. This was accomplished with a few buckets of water which froze on the street and then the 'lads' would line up and run at it and slide 30, 40 yards, helped by the type of sole on the boots.

You could slide for ages on well studded boots.

Not too likely nowadays.


Bicycles. Everybody got around on a bike. So much so that all the buildings were scarred by the handlebars where they were parked and they rubbed the pebbledash off the walls at that level. Very few bikes were stolen and practically nobody had a lock. They were often parked 3 and 4 deep around the walls of St. Michaels on a Sunday. I did not see the scars the handlebars had caused last time I looked, so I assume they were erased.

Some bikes were fancy. They had Sturmley-Archer three-speed gears, some had a "bottle generator" on the wheel and it generated a spectacular beam of light at night, especially a foggy night.

Otherwise the cheaper battery lights were the norm, but on the whole, very unsatisfactory. The batteries were not cheap (by standards then) and lasted for relatively short times.

There were two general types of bikes: 28 inchers and 26 inchers. My Dad had a 28inch Rudge and Mom had a 26inch Hercules. I wound up with a 26inch Humber and we used to think there were real differences between these brands. In retrospect there probably were none.

During World War Two (The Emergency) some type of ersatz rubber was used to make tires. I remember the yellow colour of the things which were held in high disregard by all. They seemed to attract punctures.

Ah, punctures. Every boy had to learn to fix punctures. The bicycle had to be turned upside down on its handlebars and saddle. Then the flat tire had to be removed and the tool of choice was Mother's  desert spoons, a choice not well appreciated by Mother, so a matter to be handled with some finesse. (You snuck in when she wasn't looking and swiped them)

The tire was removed and the inner tube re-inflated, the puncture located and patched. Then all these steps were reversed and the bike righted and rode.

Small thorns wreaked havoc.

Few cars

One of my earliest  memories of Ballinasloe is when I was a small boy trotting across the Fair Green and thinking my 5th birthday was next week and I wondered if it would feel different to be a five year old instead of a four year old. (No, it did not)

As small boys, it seems we trotted or ran everywhere unless slowed down by our parent's insane wishes that we walk beside them.

As curious little buggers, I recall one day being drawn to a small crowd gathered at the bottom of the Square just to the left of St. Michaels as you face it.

There was a smoky fire there and some men toiling over something.

What they were doing was preparing to place an iron tire on a large wooden cartwheel.

The wheel was there in its woody newness and uselessness before the tire was bound to its rim by physics of red-hot iron contraction as it shrank fiercely on the wooden form with tremendous smoke and hissing. Ah, the spectacle!

Back in those days the Gasworks functioned and the town's street lighting was supplied by gaslight.

The man with the job bicycled around each evening and manually lit each street light. There was one outside my bedroom window and I was glad as it served to keep monsters away for many dark-night years. (They could not stand the light, you see).

The Gasworks was out by the Canal Harbour and used coke (a derivative of coal) to generate the Gas which supplied the town. The giant dome of the 'gasometer' rose each day as the newly generated gas was stored for consumption and fell as the gas was used.

Walking. People were great walkers in those days. Whole families would set out after Mass on Sunday and strolled for miles. Walking out to Eyrecourt was considered a bit much but nevertheless done by some hardy folks. It was possible because traffic was nearly non-existent.

Then home in time for the Football or Hurling on Radio Éireann (none of this logo stuff of RTÉ) with Michael O'Hehir, or Micheál Ó Hehir, in Gaelic. The guy painted a word picture better than any of today's High Definition Television sets.

In those days, the 8.30, the 10.00 and the 11.30am masses were absolutely packed, with the crowd of late-comers trailing out in to the yard. Of course, only pennies were given in the collection then.

Fire and brimstone

"Missions". Two weeks of Fire and Brimstone usually by Redemptorist Fathers, one week for the Women and one week for the men.

The big question was always: "which night will he give THE SERMON"? (The one on sex and masturbation.)

In our world the rest of the sins were trivial but unmarried orgasm was a ticket straight to Hell. And the meetings were packed, standing room only. (I think it made sin more special and daring) You really felt you were doing something then.

The "Missions" were also marked by religious hucksters setting up shop in two tents flanking the gates of St. Michaels to sell salvation in the form of their trinkets.

As soon as I was old enough I became a Mass server. This was an honour but hardly a unique one. There were 18 of us, divided into three teams of six, in a strict pecking order as to who "took bell", who took "right' and so on. "Bell" was considered the 'plum job'.

Giggling was one of my problems. I remember the first time I saw chewing gum was on the Altar when P.B. Ryan beside me pulled a string of it way out of his mouth and then reeled it back with his tongue. (We were kneeling with our backs to the congregation) I thought it was the funniest thing ever and giggled uncontrollably and got a clip in the ear and was sent off to reflect on my sins by Father Dunne.

Apparently giggling on the altar was a major sin too.

And so ends this part of my reflections on a Ballinasloe boyhood in the 1940s.

Declan Burke is now a medical doctor and lives in Culpepper, Virginia, USA.

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