Marilyn Monroe and my mother were born on the same day, June 1, 1926. One was reared in Los Angeles and the other in County Tipperary. My mother was Angela Keating, born in Carrick-on-Suir, a small town in the south of Ireland. Her friends and neighbors were Paddy and Tom Clancy, two of The Clancy Brothers.
Whilst Marilyn and The Clancy Brothers were becoming famous my mother moved to Athlone, in the Irish midlands, where she married my father Michael Coyle. After marriage she did what all good Catholic Irish wives did back then – she gave birth to many children, ten in all. I am her second born child.
Growing up in Ireland, in the 1950s, our view of life was very limited. We didn’t have a television. Films and books gave us our only glimpse of what life was like in America. I read and reread ‘Little Women’ many times. This lovely story was set in a small New England town. How I yearned to be like Jo, who was feisty and strong. We were encouraged by the nuns to be ‘meek and mild,’ like The Blessed Virgin.
While I read my library books, my six brothers went to ‘the pictures’ to watch westerns. How they loved them. All the little boys on our street had guns and holsters with rolls of caps. They played ‘Cowboys and Indians’ all day long. ‘You’re dead,’ they’d scream at their pal. ‘I’m not dead,’ the pal would scream back. My six young brothers thought that America was full of cowboys and indians constantly shooting each other.
We girls knew otherwise. ‘Parcels from America’ were a huge insight (we thought) into life across the Atlantic Ocean. Sadly, we ourselves had no immediate relatives there, but many others had. Our neighbor, always referred to as ‘Mrs. Next Door,’ had a sister living in Boston. Every Monday night of our childhood, after the Rosary was said, Mrs. Next Door would lay the bottle of Quink ink on the kitchen table. She’d take out her Basildon Bond writing pad and sheet of blotting paper. When the fountain pen was filled she’d send all the news of the town to Madge in America.
Every Christmas THE PARCEL arrived from Madge. My four sisters and I would be there for the opening of this treasure trove. Beautiful dresses in beautiful fabrics would be felt and admired by all. I remember, in particular, a gorgeous red velvet coat. We assumed that all American young girls wore this style. We had no idea that they were last year’s cast-offs. Once, a life size doll was sent and I can still feel the excitement of seeing this magnificent toy. Again we assumed that all American children had similar playthings.
We did know that some of those who emigrated were lonesome because my father had taught us Irish ballads. “My feet are here on Broadway, this blessed Irish Morn,” we sang. “But oh the ache that’s in them for the spot where I was born.”
Mrs. Next Door couldn’t understand how they could possibly miss the hardship and poverty here. “Are they cracked?” she’d exclaim!
Meanwhile, my mother was keeping up with Marilyn Monroe’s career. I remember her coming home from the local cinema one night telling us how wonderful Marilyn was in a film called ‘The Seven Year Itch.’ We were very young and very innocent. “What’s a seven year itch?” we asked her. She gave us a sad look and sighed deeply. She said nothing – which said everything! In holy Catholic Ireland such ‘itches’ were considered a temptation from the Devil and were to be ignored. Prayers were the answer!
We got television in 1962, when I was twelve years old. The very first program we saw on it was ‘The Donna Reid Show.’ We watched in fascination as this beautiful young housewife ran down the stairs, in a lovely frock. She then did something that we had never seen before – she kissed her husband! We loved this program and marveled at any family having only two children!
As the 1960s progressed we got older and wiser! My six brothers realized that America wasn’t all cowboys and indians when they saw President John F Kennedy. We were SO proud of him, he being of Irish descent. Us girls, like our mother, were watching the film stars. We thought that Grace Kelly, also of Irish descent, was very beautiful, (even if she was seen to wear slacks, lipstick and sunglasses!)
Mammy’s old friends Paddy and Tom Clancy had been joined by their much younger brother Liam and Tommy Makem. We sang ‘Fine Girl You Are’ as we grew up slowly, dreaming of the day when we too would go to America – where all was wonderful!