THE HOUSE WITH NO BACK DOOR (revised edition)
Every now and then a memory suddenly chrysalises. Sometimes it’s triggered by the scent of honeysuckle or the glimpse of wild strawberries in a roadside ditch. Or the ticking of a clock. Or the silhouette of a tree at dusk. Or, most immediately, by the pungent smell of farmyard manure.
Then that small-unfocused blur, that is always to the side, suddenly snaps into focus and a wide vista opens before me. I can recall it so clearly, as if it were yesterday.
It begins on the long and winding road from Laurencetown, a village in east Galway. There my grandfather collects me from the Loughrea bus and we set off, sitting side by side, in the pony and trap. The open fields with their cattle and sheep quietly grazing. The over-hanging trees. The verdant hedges. The many twists and turns on the narrow roads as the pony trots along. Then the final bend in the boreen that finally reveals the long clamp of turf on the right-hand side and the white-washed, thatched cottage, with the small windows and the half door, to the left. The place is called Lispheasty and the time was – well – a long time ago.
Once again, I cross the threshold into the warm kitchen. The smooth flagstones on the floor. The harnesses hanging on the walls. The lines of jugs and plates on the dresser. The open fire place with the sooty, black pots over the glowing sods of turf. The two tiny windows that brighten the room.
To the right of the kitchen are 2 interconnected bedrooms, one of which is divided in two by a curtain. A very different room has been added to the left of the kitchen. It has a slated roof and is known as the Parlour. The walls are papered with a rose pattern and there is a rug covering most of the timbered floor. There is a dining room table and chairs. The best ornaments and the gramophone reside here. However, it is out of bounds most of the time as it is only ever used for special occasions when visitors call and even then, only for special guests.
I see my grandmother, the spirit of that house, perpetually busy – washing, baking, boiling, stewing or stitching. I can taste the fruits of her labour: the rich, cream milk, the salty tang of the homemade butter on the thick crusty slices of wholemeal bread baked that morning and the bittersweet taste of the blood-red blackcurrant jam on the hot scones.
I see the geranium pots, with their vermilion flowers and velvety leaves, on the window ledge. The orange spear of the white arum lily is silhouetted against the small back window. In the ditch opposite the front door are the blazing oranges and yellows of the calendulas.
And at night, in the room just off the kitchen I snuggle down in the soft feather bed and listen to the resonant tick-tock of the large, pendulum clock on the wall, mingling with the murmur of voices from the kitchen.
My grandfather was a lean and stern man of few words. He was always impeccably dressed no matter what he was doing – jacket, waistcoat, hat and strong black boots. Everybody deferred to him and the house rotated around his wishes.
He was seldom in bad form except on a Sunday morning when the stiff and starched collar had to be attached to his shirt by those “infernal” studs. Prior to this ceremony he would have gone out to the shed to harness the pony and take out the trap for its weekly airing. Then, when all was ready, my grandparents and I would sit side by side in the trap, pull the rugs over our laps and set off on our journey to Mass mesmerised by the rhythmic clopping of the horse’s hooves. And so, we travelled the 6 miles to Eyrecourt church along the narrow and winding roads with their overhanging trees and encroaching ditches. At journey’s end the pony was stabled in a yard near the village and we walked the rest of the way.
In the early years, two of my uncles and an aunt lived with their parents. Brendan cycled to his job, as a carpenter, in Banagher every day while his older brother, John, worked from dawn till dusk in the fields and haggard. Kathleen helped her mother, anticipating the time when she would marry and create another wonderful home on the banks of the Shannon.
There must have been times of family friction in that house when the five adults sparked off one another but, if there were, I have no memory of them. There must have been dull or wet days but I don’t recall them. Can it have been so happy, so tranquil?
There was no TV or even a radio. The only source of artificial sound was a large wind-up gramophone and a collection of 78 records kept in the Parlour. Many of these were Negro spirituals with lyrics like ‘Oh I wonder, yes I wonder, will the angels way up yonder, will the angels play their harps for me’ or ‘Swing low, sweet chariot, comin’ for to take me home’. In the quietness of the countryside these were exotic sounds from another world, distorted by the varying speed of the gramophone and the quality of the needles. How they ended up in the same room as oil lamps, candles and the best china, I’ll never know though I suspect that my Canadian uncle, the mysterious man in the white suit, was probably responsible.
In this modest house there were no dishwashers or washing machines, no baths or showers, no toilets or running water. Instead, there was a spring well down the field, a mysterious hole in the ground accessible by some intricate manoeuvring with the tin buckets the tinkers made. Here we went every day to replenish the drinking water of the house while water barrels provided the rest. And long before the Green movement began to worry about the environment we used dock leaves for more than medical purposes. There were no rubbish problems in those days because there was so little waste. One drawer, for example, contained all the bits of twine and string that ever came into the house.
Much of my time during those long summer days was spent roving the boreens and fields or playing with the McEvoys next door. One of them was 2 years older than I was but to this day her name, Moira, is magical.
There was so much to do and see on this small farm with its cattle, sheep and pigs; its chickens, ducks and geese; its golden fields of wheat, oats and barley. In the garden behind the house were rows of Golden Wonders and Kerr Pinks, serried lines of carrots, parsnips, turnips, beetroot and onions. In another corner were the clusters of cabbages, lettuce, scallions and herbs. There were gooseberry and blackcurrant bushes, rhubarb stools and Victoria plum and apple trees.
In the little dairy, beside the garden, the cream was separated from the milk and churned by hand producing a strongly flavoured, golden butter. In this cool place I came across an old tin box with dozens of cigarette cards – pictures of dogs and ships and exotic birds. How many hours did I spend pouring over them?
It was a self-sufficient house, like many houses in those days, with its own bread and butter, cakes and jams, vegetables and meat. Other essentials came home from the shop on the carrier and handlebars of the bike – tea, sugar, salt, Sweet Aftons and Yorkshire toffees.
Most of the things I love in life were shaped by the weeks of my childhood that I spent in the home of my grandparents in east Galway – the sights, the sounds, the smells and the tastes. Years later I was to put names on those indefinable gifts and to realise that my love of gardening, for example, has very deep roots.
The only shady place in this sunny landscape was a ring fort in one of the fields. With its high banks and whispering trees it was easy to convince me that it was haunted by fairies and the spirits of unbaptised children. I felt ill at ease here – at once fascinated and frightened – drawn to it yet repelled at the same time.
While the sun shone perpetually in Lispheasty, and the only shady place was the fairy fort, elsewhere in Ireland dark shadows crossed the land as young boys were ferried to industrial schools and wayward girls were taken into care in homes and institutions. For them there would be no cock to announce the arrival of another glorious day, no freshly baked bread and homemade jam, no friendly aunt to erect a swing in the paddock, no open fire to herald the twilight and no cosy bed to wrap up all in peace.