I was born in 1951 and I have lived all my life in the same midland town, Athlone, in the heart of Ireland. As I sit here today, aged 66, looking out on the river Shannon, I want to share my memories of very happy days in the 1950s, and my memories of nuns.
I have been with nuns from the age of four until four years ago. I was educated by nuns and then taught with them, until I retired recently. Of all the nuns I know well I can honestly say that very few of them were ‘holy terrors.’ Most were kind women trying to do their best. Some were ‘cold’ in their approach to us as teenagers, however they gave us a great education. The many nuns I taught with were no better nor worse than us lay teachers.
Back to the 1950s. I was the second eldest of ten children, born within fifteen years of each other. My mother was always pregnant. Our house was full of children. So was every house on our street. However, at the risk of sounding like The Waltons, can I say that we all played happily together and loved minding the small babies?
What impressed me most, as a young girl, is the strong women I encountered daily. A neighbor, Mrs. Casserly (mother of six) had a clothes shop beside us. As I walked up the street every morning to call for my friend I saw another neighbor, Mrs. Sammon (mother of four), opening her hairdressing salon and Mrs. Melvin (mother of five) opening her chemist shop. My friend’s mother, Mrs. McCarrick, (mother of eight) was a dentist and, often, a nervous patient would be waiting in the hallway of their house, as she ushered her many young children out to school. My own mother was a well-educated, well-read woman who helped in our family business.
Life was busy. In the 1950s we had no television. However we had a marvelous well-stocked library. We were all avid readers. We loved ‘Little Women’, ‘What Katie Did’ and all the classics. We knitted and sewed. The Ritz cinema regularly showed good films. My six brothers loved the cowboy and Indian ones. We played hopscotch and skipping out in the middle of the street with all our friends.
Of course religion played a big part in our lives. We learnt our Catechism answers and attended Mass, Benediction, Novenas and Confession, as required. During the month of May we made lovely May Altars to Our Lady. I remember filling jam jars full of bluebells for this. The Procession was a great occasion as we followed The Blessed Sacrament around the town. The Saint Patrick’s Day Parade was a wonderful event too. I remember much fun and excitement in those days. I was a very happy child, in spite of there not being much material pleasures. We had great fun together, along with ALL the children on the street.
An example of how simple our pleasures were was watching Carmel getting ready for the weekly dance. Most households with many children had a girl who came in to help. Carmel worked in our house and we loved her. To us, she was a cross between a second mother and an older sister. Carmel went to Roseland Ballroom, in Moate, every Sunday night. She was eighteen when my sisters and I were about nine, ten and eleven. The highlight of our week was sitting in a circle watching Carmel getting ready to go to the dance.
After all the babies were put to bed – the excitement began. Carmel would come into our kitchen with her hair in rollers and all her paraphernalia. She’d tune the wireless to Radio Luxembourg, our hearts would lighten as a little bit of magic came into our lives.
Her ‘Gypsy Gold’ seamless nylons, size nine and a half would be waiting in their pack. One of us would be allowed remove them. I can still feel the soft nylons, which had to be handled MOST carefully. Carmel would roll these stockings up her leg and attach them to the suspenders as we watched, fascinated. Next she’d put on her stiff slip which stood out all around her. The beautiful dress was put on over this. She then took out the rollers before back-combing every strand of hair until it was perfect. Next the make-up was applied and we watched fascinated at the difference it made to her. We sat, full of awe and wonder, observing every move.
We listened to ‘The Station of The Stars’ as it played ‘All I have to do dream, dream, dream.’ And dream we did. We dreamt of romance and glamour, excitement and love – as Carmel sprayed lashings of ‘Parisian Nights’ hair spray onto her hair and us. ‘Ashes of Roses’ was the perfume she used. She’d dab a bit of this behind each of our ears. When she stood into her high heels we thought she was absolutely gorgeous. Her friend had a boyfriend with a car. They would call for Carmel and off she’d go.
And long after she was gone, we sat in our old kitchen, in a haze of perfume and a daze of dreams. We dreamt of being grown up like Carmel and going to The Ballroom of Romance ourselves – where we would meet our handsome prince, with whom, we were sure, we would live happily ever after. Such was our simple happy life back in the 1950s.
My mother is/was an extremely positive person. She had very high self-esteem. I never heard her say a single negative word about anybody. Her involvement in the Irish Country Women’s Association and the local drama group kept her sane, amidst a sea of nappies [diapers] and babies. We were so proud of her, and so proud to be her children.
Two things brought about great change in Ireland: they were free education and television.
In the mid-sixties secondary education became free. Many sensible parents of large families saw education as the key to escaping poverty. They sent their girls to secondary school instead of into local factories or domestic service.
We became a lot less enthralled with religion once we knew we had a stake in this world – instead of pinning all our hopes on the next!
Television brought about huge changes too. We saw how the other half lived and our expectations were raised accordingly.
All has changed utterly since. However, I look back on my childhood in the 1950s as happy days. Many others do too. It wasn’t all awful.