Chrissie Mulcahy welcomes me with a wide smile, ushering me into a front room redolent with lavender furniture polish.
In pride of place stands an impressive silver-laden chiffonier whose deep shelves act as a repository for memorabilia, newspaper clippings and a myriad of photographs.
Chrissie herself is a petite, slim woman with a ready laugh, words at will and an energy that belies her ninety-two years. She tells her story with verve, recalling a world of lovely girls with an eye for style and ‘glamour boys’ who set hearts a flutter – a world where everyone knew everyone else.
It was the era of the last of the big houses, when the centre of Clonmel was a hub of individual shops and public houses, each with its own character and a story to tell.
Chrissie’s inimitable voice is impossible to paraphrase, so what follows are brief glimpses of a life that could fill a whole book in the telling.
I was born on Christmas Eve, 1930 at Number 27, Upper Irishtown, Clonmel. Daddy had to go down to Midnight Mass in the Friary to fetch Nurse O’Meara. Mammy had her for the five of us, all born at home safe and sound.
I was the third girl of five. Kitty was first in 1926, Peggy came two years later, and I arrived in 1930…My two younger sisters, Esther and Bridie, were born in 1932 and 1935. Five girls and I’m the only one alive. Yes, I buried them all.
We had a great childhood and we always had a marvellous Christmas. We were the envy of our friends because we always got such wonderful Christmas presents: bouncing clowns, rag dolls, stockings filled with apples and oranges.
People may not know that a lot of families came from England to Ireland during the war. Opposite where we lived were the Browns, the Foxes and the Newitts.
They never mixed much. They stayed until the war was over then they all, except the Newitts, went back to England. We children were all terrified thinking our fathers would have to go to war.
There were blackouts and I remember cement barricades painted black and white being built across the bridge. There were about six of them, with just enough space for a bus to go through, and we used to play hide-and-go-seek between them. Down on the island there was a pontoon bridge in case the Germans would come in. We never saw a German.
We all had ration books. The bread wasn’t white anymore; it was a brown, chalky colour and everyone only got two ounces of butter each for a week. Miss O’Donnell, a small little countrywoman, used to keep lovely, salty butter for us under the counter in her shop. Tea you couldn’t get at all or sugar. People started making tea out of all kinds of mixtures and it was awful.
Mammy used to read all the war stories to us from The Irish Independent newspaper. “Wait ’til I read this,” she’d say. “It’s desperate.” And she’d be crying because it was so sad.
When we were young our favourite place was the Cannon wood out where Pollard’s sawmill is now. We used to go there picking hurts [blueberries]. We each had to pay one shilling and sixpence for a permit to go into the wood.
Mr. Clarke, an old man who lived in a little cottage inside the gate to the wood, used to collect the money. We’d go every day of the holidays and when we weren’t picking hurts we were picking blackberries. We spent many a day out there and the weather was just beautiful always. Smyth’s in O’Neill Street used to buy the berries and we used the money to pay for our school books in September.
We heard lots of stories growing up and we were talking about ghosts one night with Daddy’s mother.
“There’s no such thing,” Nanny said. “I’ve travelled every road at all hours of the night bringing babies into the world and I never saw a ghost. But I’ll tell you one thing, I was brought off in a horse and carriage one night. It stopped at our door and took me away. I was blindfolded but I knew we were travelling up a long avenue by the sound the wheels made. I was brought into a room and the blindfold was taken off. There in the bed was a girl about to have a baby. I delivered the baby and then I was blindfolded and taken home again – that’s how it came about. That’s the only strange experience I ever had.”
Goodness knows what happened to the girl in the bed or the baby. That was a long time before we were even born.
We went to the Presentation Sisters primary and secondary school. Most of the nuns were grand especially Sr Bridget who taught us basketball.
Peggy would be studying all the time, she loved school and she won an All-Ireland medal for Irish. Mother Gerard was mad about her and wanted her to be a teacher but sure we had no money for college.
I couldn’t bear to be tied to a classroom so I bailed out after Second Year in 1945 and went off and got a job in Munster Shoes.
Local people called it the boot factory but we always said Munster Shoes. It was a huge building down on the Quay. Mr Albert Adams, the boss man, was English. He was a lovely man, a gentleman.
My job was to examine the shoes inside and out, before they were boxed, to make sure they were perfect. I don’t know how the workers upstairs stuck the noise of the machinery. There must have been about three hundred girls working there and I don’t know how many men. Most of them were there for years and years. When the girls got married they had to ask for permission to keep working but once they were pregnant they had to leave before it became noticeable. That was the done thing then; it was the same in the shops.
Later on, I went to work as a shop assistant in Carri’s on O’Connell Street and I stayed there until I retired. Charlie and Johnny Carri came from Italy. They opened Carri’s in O’Connell Street and a furniture shop in O’Neill Street. Mrs Carri had beautiful china and fancy goods the whole length of the shop. Everyone came to us to buy wedding presents. I’d get up at half six, be in at half seven to take in the newspapers because we supplied them to the whole town. I used to finish at five o’clock. I’d get a half day on Wednesday and I worked Saturdays. Two days before Christmas Lady Donoughmore would arrive with her list. I used to love to see her coming. Every child on the estate got a present, nothing big now, a packet of pencils, a storybook, a jigsaw. I’d wrap all the presents and they’d have a big party out in Knocklofty for the children.
One of my best memories dates to 1954. Frankie Reilly was our postman, a droll, slow talking man. He was cycling over past Drohan’s and this big, chauffeur-driven car stopped to find out the way to Youghal. And who was in it but Gregory Peck! And I’m sure when he heard Frankie explaining in his own particular way how to get to Youghal, he must have been hysterical. When we heard the news Kitty, Peggy, Esther and myself decided to go to Youghal for a week to watch the filming of Moby Dick. We took the bus to Dungarvan and then another bus to Youghal.
It took ages to get there. All that week we sat for hours on a wall in the harbour watching the filming and waiting to see Gregory Peck. We each had a different coloured dress for every day we were there. I got lots of autographs. From Richard Basehart, Edric Connor, Seamus Kelly, but we never even got a glimpse of Gregory Peck.
We moved to Connolly Park in 1958 and, as I never married, I stayed here. I’ve had a marvellous life full of family, friends, travel and pitch and putt. Music played a special part in my life. I was in the church choir and the Choral Society, involved in operettas like The Belles of Cornville and Maritana. I remember going to the pictures in the Regal and dancing to the Clipper Carlton Band in the Collins Hall. I loved rock and roll.
Clonmel was a great place to grow up. You could walk the streets safely. You could leave your front door open. Nobody would touch anything, whereas you have to be very careful now. I felt very safe as a young woman going out and about. It was the people who made Clonmel special. They were down to earth people, ‘top drawer people’ as we used to say. They were just lovely, all families who knew each other. Then Clonmel got so big you wouldn’t know who anyone was. It all changed.
I’m glad I lived when I did, as a child, a teenager and as a young woman.
Mary Hanrahan hails from Fethard.
She has had a life-long love affair with words, written, spoken, performed.
A poet by default, she also writes short stories and is currently working on memoir.
Her stated ambition is to ‘dance the pen upon the page’.