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The Clothesline sign - the community react to the kindness of a lady

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Illustration by Caty Bartholomew
When Margaret Mulcahy got too old and careful to ride her bike down to the village for shopping and Mass she reacted with all the commonsense for which she and her late husband Jack had been noted all their lives.

She rented the 25 acres of good farmland to the Owens family with the additional condition they would bring her to Mass every Sunday in their cars and allow her a little shopping time after Mass.

That worked out very well for everybody involved and the land rent was very reasonable too.

Margaret had a fallback system as well. She got young Pat Owens to erect a second clothesline for her at the gable of her small, neat farmhouse on the hill. Her washing always was hung out on the main clothesline but, if she wanted some message from the shops, some unexpected requirement like a replacement silken mantle for her Tilley lamp, then she hung out a white sheet on the small line for the neighbors to see and react to.

The schoolboys of the townland forever watched that line like hawks because, if you were the first responder, Margaret was extremely generous. Maybe a shilling even when you returned with the shopping, certainly at least sixpence, that coveted little "tanner" that was worth a fortune to a boy.

Always a hot slice of apple or rhubarb tart just cooled on the outside windowsill and a glass of milk or even lemonade.

And Margaret would hear the daily news of the townland from the boy as he ate beside the open hearth that always seemed to have a huge kettle boiling from its hook on the crane. She was a lovely wee sparrow of a lady.

There was a family of fast boys just a little closer to her signal line than we were. I very rarely got there first when the sheet went up.

One time I will never forget, though, was an occasion when the other family were away and I cycled up like a shot when the sheet went out fluttering in a spring breeze. It was a fresh day but dry. The sheet was crackling a bit in the breeze when I got to the door.

"Young MacConnell," she called out from within.  "Take it down."

The message she wanted was a bottle of tablets from the chemist's shop. We call these pharmacies today.

She gave me a red 10 shilling note, told me to spend a shilling for myself and to come back as quick as I could.

I got the tablets and the change, spent nothing out of the change and was back in less than a half-hour.
My father would have been angry if I'd taken any of the money. 

She was sitting at the end of the oil-skinned kitchen table and she took two of the tablets immediately with a glass of water. "That will keep me going in top gear for another week anyway,” she said.

She gave me a slice of apple tart. It was gorgeously warm and sweet with a hint of cloves.

We talked about this and that small thing, like the weather and the parish priest's new housekeeper from Leitrim who seemed to be in control of the parish herself, not him at all.

I was surprised she knew my first name and that I was the eldest boy of the family. “Always do your homework Cormac,” she advised, “and don't be a trouble to Sandy and Mary.”

And she forced me to take the shiny shilling before she would let me out the door.

"Good lad," she said, and she ruffled my hair with her wee hand. She was a lady.

It was that autumn that a boy of the nearest (and fastest) family of first responders saw the sheet on the message line in an unusual fashion. It was only pegged up at one corner instead of two and was flapping all over the place.  There was a stiff breeze that morning and it was raining quite heavily from the east. 

His father went up with him and they found her lying under the line, as if sleeping, with the second clothes peg still in her right hand. The heart went, said the people, she did not feel a thing God rest her.

Strangers bought the house three years later. They were Germans. They knocked it down and built a modern bungalow in its place.

They would have had all the modern electrical appliances like washing machines and dishwashers and a tumble-dryer so they had no need for an outside clothesline.

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