On long summer evenings, when children were playing football in the field, my grandmother would come to the door and say “Off home with you now boys and girls. Tis time for the Rosary here”.
Holy water and snuff; sometimes I think that these where the twin essentials of her life, the things she could not have done without at all.
Sometimes, just before dusk on winter’s evenings, she would head off down the old boreen to a friend’s house. There the two of them, two old ladies, would sit by the fire and discuss the events of the day, both having resort to their precious little snuff boxes every now and then.
The snuff, it seemed, was the cure for all ailments, or if it couldn’t cure them, then, at the very least, it offered the prospect of some consolation.
Typically, my grandmother wore a long, dark skirt, the hemline of the skirt not far from her shoes. She wore a dark cardigan over a blouse, the latter plain or plaid, her shawl thrown over her shoulders whenever she went outdoors.
I know that she had two shawls at least, an everyday shawl and a Sunday shawl, the latter reserved for trips to Mass and visits to neighbours on Sunday afternoon.
One of my aunts remembered her as a young woman going down to the tide to meet the fishermen returning home. Then she walked barefoot in the water, the hemline of her skirt turned up to reveal the red petticoat underneath.
When the fish, the salmon, were unloaded from the boat, she took them by donkey and cart to the fishery office in Klllorglin, this latter part of her daily routine all summer long.
Many of her children subsequently emigrated to America and, when they came home, they invariably brought their cameras with them. One of the photographs shows my uncle Mike, his wife, Jane, and my grandmother, standing in the garden, the photo with that brownish sepia tint so evocative of its time.
A great flourish of flowers overhangs the path and, though it is hard to say exactly what they are, they look like hydrangeas. The photo, which was enlarged and framed, has the name “Knowles of Ballybunion” written in ink in one of the bottom corners, possibly the name of the shop where the photo was enlarged or framed, or maybe even that of a local photographer.
I remember my grandmother’s fondness for snuff, with it every-thing was sweetness and light, but without it, nothing was right at all. Likewise, she was a great one for holy water.
Two of the bedrooms were divided by a partition and so before she went to bed at night, she not only blessed her own room with it, she splashed it over the partition into the next room too.
She was a great tea drinker at the best of times and so would readily have appreciated the wisdom of the old saying, “Dead from the tea and Dead without it”.
She took it as a great compliment in her old age when one of the neighbours brought her a half pound of tea now and then, the much prized tea sometimes drunk from wafer thin china cups that had all the look of the Orient about them.
Like so many of her generation, her language was very often a ‘meascán’, mixture of both English and Irish. Sometimes she would say that she had met a neighbour on the road and was talking to them for a ‘tamall’, meaning a while.
People who did a good line in flattery were said to be all “plamas”, while those who were full of bravado were dismissed as being all ‘gaisce’.
It was a familiar thing, too, to see her tending the hens in the yard, for there were very few yards in those days that did not have hens and ducks and geese.
Sometimes she came down the old boreen to greet us when we came home from school in the evening, the same self boreen where my uncle Jer went to and fro with his little white pony and cart. Sometimes to Maggie She`s shop on the bog road for a little sack of flour.
Sometimes when I walk the old boreen, I think of my grandmother still, her little box of snuff tucked away under her shawl, her memories full of rivers and fishes and boats, for she had reared her family in a little thatched cottage on the very edge of the Laune.
When I think of her, I think of flowers: purple geraniums and orange montbretia, Michaelmas daisies and lovely chrysanthemums flowering late in the season. The little thatched house may have been small, but it was a homely, welcoming place, a place where songs were sung and the lilt of music heard when the moon was on the tide.
There was always room for the music; it seemed, for friendship, companionship too, the long nights whiled away in the company of friends.