28 Sept 2022

My father’s memories of a Thomastown childhood

Memories: When Sean Stapleton began recording his father Patrick’s memories of his childhood in Thomastown in the Thirties, little did he realise the wealth of stories and long lost traditions that would be uncovered. Patrick emigrated to the UK to work in construction, married Bridget Roche from Caruiske, Ballyhale and they had eight children together. A proud Irishman, he never forgot his roots, regularly returning. He died in 1993, and his wife died in 2017. Thanks to his son Sean, we have t

My father’s memories of a Thomastown childhood

Patrick Stapleton on his first communion day

We had a Wexford man living at the Legan level crossing and he introduced our locals to “Mumming”
This form of dancing (yes, dancing) was particular to Wexford since the 1798 Rebellion.
It was a formation dance of 12 men, six on each side all named after Irish patriots. It was a formation dance and also used to beat the tempo were “mumming sticks” (these were wooden swords about 18” long) I used to make to make them from broken hurleys using the handles.
They had a “caller” and a musician. As far as I can remember the troupe was led by Father Murphy, then came Wolfe Tone, Robert Emmet, Patrick Sarsfield, Michael Dwyer, Brian Boyce, Hugh O’Donnell, Hugh O’Neill, Lord Edward Fitzgerald, William Orr and Fionn McCumhall.
All dancers were dressed as the person they represented in the appropriate period costume or uniform. There was an inaugural recitation extolling all the patriots involved spoken by the caller.
I don’t recall the recitation but I do remember how it ended thus “And show the audience that you can dance play up St Patrick’s Day” and then the dance began.
It was quite popular and what was I am sure the only Kilkenny troupe. The Legan Mummers lasted while this man stayed at the level crossing; when he left it went into decline.
House Dancing
This became very popular in the fall of the years when all the boards closed down. All the local houses took part and all the local musicians supplied the music.
Some of the farmers used to use the barn for dancing. We used suspend bicycle wheels flat from the ceiling with small pieces of turnip stuck in them.
These turnips were scooped out to hold a candle and there you were - the original chandeliers!
As I remember there were very little, if any, alcohol present the principal occupation being to perfect your dancing and often to outlast all the others.
These dances must have been the origin of the call “around the house but mind the dresser”.
Our most popular dances were Haymakers Jig, Siege of Ennis, Bridge of Athlone, Sets, Lancers, Waltzes, The Ciallrua, Scottiches and Polkas and, of course, The Stack of Barley. These dances were usually very impromptu affairs, but were most enjoyable and catered for all ages and were most enjoyable.
If, by any unfortunate event, no musicians turned up at one of these house dances it didn’t stop the fun. We just danced away to Mouth Music, ie lifting. The only thing was that the throat had to be kept well lubricated to keep lifting and of course everyone had to take their turn lifting.
Dance Boards
These were open air affairs which were held all through the summers.
In our locality there were four or five, Moonerue, Sheepstown, Danesfort and Ballyreddin.
What happened was the local community made up a dance floor in sections of joists and floorboards and they were laid out in a roadside field with a bit of a bandstand alongside.
They were about 18ft wide and 40ft long and that was it. A packet of soapflakes was shaken all over the “floor” and all was ready for dancing. At these boards, as they were known, the ditches at each side would be lined with bicycles for hundreds of yards.
It was 4d (four old pence) to get in ie about 1 1/2p now and you danced from about 7.30 till dark. The most popular dances were sets and lancers, waltzes and of course some jazz and jitterbugging. As Autumn approached you’d find the odd board “lit up” with storm lanterns.
Our Steam Engine
We had an upright steam in our shed and a saw bench fixed in the middle of the yard with a 3’ circular saw.
Every so often, when my father had accumulated enough logs, he’d set up a day for ripping the logs. His brother, my Uncle Jack, used to help him. It was coal-fired so we had to lay in coal and many barrels of water.
A long belt from the engine flywheel to the sawbench provided the power to the saw. When I think of it now it was a risky business with the long belt flapping about and me ducking under it with water and coal.
He’d rip up ash for hurleys and swings, elm for farm carts and gates, larch spruce for ladders and elm for wheel spokes and felloes (the outer rim of a wheel, to which the spokes are fixed).
All the slabs and wavey boards were used for fencing and rough farm work. These occasions were used for a kind of celebration, as a few large bottles would be drank when the day’s sawing was over.
The timber was then stacked in the darkest end of the shed to season and dryout. It never twisted if kept in the dark. Those saw cutting days were always quite an occasion in my childhood days.
In my early boyhood days I don’t recollect much about social conditions or indeed what they meant. But as I grew up I was quite aware of the poverty and hardship that was the order of the day for most people.
Ireland was recovering from the war of independence and subsequently the civil war and the dependence of the new Free State on handouts from the British.
Children, 90% of them, went to school barefooted from about March to October. Our feet became so hardened we could run through a field of stubbles. While we didn’t think this any great hardship as it was so common we felt it in the late October frost when we used to warm our feet where the cattle lay in the fields.
Our lunch at school was a couple of cuts of bread and maybe a small bottle of milk if we were lucky, but mostly we survived on the bread.
But being in the country we always had a good hot dinner, usually of vegetables from the garden or from a farmer’s field. It was the norm then to just go into a field and get a bag of turnips or cabbage or whatever. We usually had salt meat and nearly everyone kept a pig to eat. We could also, as my mother used to say, “to hell with poverty I’ll g’out and kill a hen”.
Housing conditions were reasonable as we were sheltered and had plenty of timber for heat and cooking and baking. It was hard work cutting and storing timber and of course in the Winter we had to put the “topcoat” across our feet in bed.
A labouring man at that time made about 30/- ie £1.50 per week. Many people reared families on that. My father was a carpenter and he could make maybe £3 per week so we were fairly well off.
For heating at school we used to bring a shilling around October time for coal for the fire. If you brought no shilling you were not let near the fire, no matter how cold or wet you were.
Agricultural labourers were the worst off of all working people. The farmers were tyrants and kept a man working long days, fed him like the animals at his own table and slept him in an outhouse then gave him a couple of shillings on Saturday night. I remember my uncle was a well off farmer and he kept two men; his dogs were treated better.
When he wanted carts or wheels he’d get my father to make them for him and then tell him I won’t pay you now but I’ll give you a bag of spuds whenever you want them. All the farmers wanted was a man and a couple of dogs to mind the cattle as they exported all the cattle to England.
The biggest treat we used to have then was on some Fridays the Herring Man would come on his horse and cart selling Herrings at 1/- per doz but my Mam always got 13 for her shilling. Our food supply was always supplemented by rabbits, poaching pheasant, salmon trout from the river and also Eels.
We had to pick blackberries and crabapples from the locality and my mother made jam and crab jelly. We also collected water cress from the streams and wild garlic, young nettles and mushrooms. All this food provided freely by nature.
My mother used to suffer on Mondays as that was wash day. The clothes were boiled over the fire then rubbed out on a washboard, usually corrugated zinc, and lathered with Sunbright soap and steeped in “Reckitts Blue”.
Then she rinsed them and squeezed them as dry as she could before hanging out to dry. When dry she ironed them with a metal iron heated on the fire and put in a little steel ‘slipper’. You had to use two irons, one in the fire while the other was in use.
To continue on the food bit another source of meat was goats as usually when they had kids they were killed and eaten. I suppose I was 10 years old before I tasted cow’s milk as up till then we had goats.
There was scarcely any crime in the community. One of the biggest scandals was a farmer fined 10/- for not cutting his thistles or a poor man in court for not shoeing his ass. Doors were never locked and the neighbours were always in and out.
We had our share of “disasters” then too, as the town was very vulnerable to flooding in the winter. I remember at least half-dozen serious floods with all the low lying shops having six feet of water in them and the contents of shop windows flowing down the streets with some people trying to salvage what they could. What you salvaged was yours, so the floods were not disastrous to everyone.
The recreation was mostly self provided with house dances and card schools. We also had what was called “Smoking Concerts” in the concert hall. They consisted of a number of tables set out around the floor with about eight people per table. Cigarettes and matches were provided and the entertainment was provided by the people themselves. An MC conducted the proceedings and usually a great night of song, dance, recitation and music was had by one and all.
My sister May and I used to recite ‘Emmet’s Speech from the Dock’ - she was Robert Emmet and I was Lord Norbery. My mother and father used to dance. Jack Durger played the Fiddle, Tom Harper the Uillean pipes, the Denieffes the accordion and saxophone, Pigeon Fallou the piano, Jimmy McDonald the tin whistle and so on and on.
The bane of our lives then were the parish priest, the curates and the nuns. In the convent the nuns ruled with the iron fist. We used to call them the sisters of no mercy, they certainly didn’t live up to their title of sisters of mercy!
As for the parish priest, he was the most powerful man in the locality. What he said went and all were threatened with fire and brimstone for disobedience.
He even told people how to vote, how to think and to banish all republican ideas from their minds. The church gave a very hard time to republicans, even denying them absolution if they didn’t drop their republican ideas. How often have I heard it said “Only for the church we’d be free long ago”.
About that time I first heard murmurings about Communism among the labouring classes. Back then I didn’t know what Communism was but now, in hindsight, I could understand them.
Communism died in Ireland with the outbreak of the Spanish Civil war. The church latched on to it and I remember pictures in the Irish papers of Communist atrocities to people and churches in Spain. This propaganda killed Communism in Ireland.
When I was about 11 years old we had a change of government and Eamon De Valera’s Fianna Fail party was elected and Cosgrave’s Cumann na nGael lost.
The first thing Dev did was to cancel the Land Communities and do away with the Oath of Allegiance to the British Crown. The British Government was in uproar and responded by placing huge tariffs on all Irish imports which was mostly dairy produce and cattle, sheep, pigs etc.
This almost killed off Irelands foreign trade and thus started the economic war. Ireland replied by stopping importing British coal and manufactured goods and imported from Germany instead.
We had no market for cattle, so Dev bought them all had them slaughtered and given to the lower-paid people. He also forced the farmers to till one acre in four of arable land. Britain’s imposition of the economic war was now a blessing in disguise as, when World War II started we were self supporting food-wise. This became known to us all as the “Emergency”.
Likewise when the Fianna Fail government was elected they set out on a rural housing scheme, encouraging builders to build cottages for the boards of health. My father applied for some cottages to build and got quite a lot of them to do and I always remember his first price to build a four-roomed cottage, hip roof, fuel house and fence one acre of ground for £322.
He was very clever and then devised the first bonus system I ever heard of. He sat down and carefully worked out all the costs, including a figure for labour and his own profit and wages. He then worked out his minimum team to do the job and the time limit was six weeks. So he got his gang together and guaranteed them six week wages if the houses were built in four.
That was how he got started. It worked admirably and the concrete was mixed at 6am and still going at 7pm. He progressed well with plenty of work and was quite well off until he destroyed everything by his addiction to John Barleycorn and deteriorated to such a state that no Board of Health would give him a job. This was a traumatic experience for us all in the family. Having experienced quite a prosperous spell in our lives to see it all lost and the harm and unhappiness the drink addiction caused in our house.
I was now a teenager and developing a strong interest in the female form. Despite our religious upbringing all about ‘that side of things’ being taboo I didn’t do at all too bad in finding out about the female mysteries.
Even with a crowd of about 20 boys and girls we used to go on picnics etc throughout the summer, followed by road dancing till late at night. We always had musicians with us and we would cycle miles to some pattern or maybe climb Slieve Na mBan or Mount Brandon and have a crossroad hooley on the way home. All night dances were the thing back then too. Dancing went from about 9pm till 6am with supper served from 12 midnight. Admission was then about 2/- including supper.
Films started to come to the town then and I vividly remember Deanna Durbin films and the crush we all had on her. About that time to an Irish film called “the dawn” came to Kilkenny about the War of Independence, I remember cycling to Kilkenny to see it six times!

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