My First Visit to Dublin
I’m wide awake watching white, puffy clouds tumbling past the bedroom window, followed by flocks of noisy jackdaws flying low over fields that were amber with wheat in the summer. I turn and watch my widowed grandmother dress her slight framein layers of black clothes over her red flannel petty coat. She says the red flannel keeps her old bones less painful. She walks to the window and her head nods up and down as she looks through the rippled windowpane. She studies the mist and the colors of the heather and wild flowers on Mount Leinster. She looks down at the Barrow River to gauge how strong the wind is and how warm the weather will become as the day goes on.
“No rain. No rain a ‘tall for a few days,” she announces and her grey eyes are soft and happy. “A fairly strong wind is coming in from the Atlantic Ocean. It will be about 50 degrees F. A crisp,dry November day, thank God.” Gran stands at my bed and clasps her hands.
“This morning,we’re going to get on the bus an’ go up to Dublin to visit my daughter, who is your Aunt Greta.” I’ve never been to Dublin so my heart starts to beat like a drum with excitement. Last night, in preparation, I polished my shoes and hung my new clothes on the end of my white iron bed in the bed room I share with my grandmother.
“Jump to it. Jump to it girl. The bus leaves at half seven.” She flings her two long silver braids back over her shoulders and goes down the stairs.
I dress quickly in the ice cold room and run down after her. We have our breakfast of porridge, home-made brown soda bread, plum jam and strong Lyons tea. She said she will leave the fire banked until we get home from Dublin. Gran washes herself with lavender soap in a china basin. She wraps her braids around her head, and pins a rose-pink satin scarf around her neck with a cameo brooch.She laces her black leather shoes. I hold her black wool coat while she slides her arms into the sleeves. Then she pulls on her Napolean-style back hat. We walk down the incline from the house and get into the car that takes us down to the bus with its engine running, parked outside Shea’s Shop in the Market Place. We live so far down in the countrythe bus won’t go any further. Its last stop every night is Graiguenamanagh.
In no time we pass the old Cistercian Abbey and turn left into the narrow crooked Main Street. We get into the bus and sit in the front seats. Gran says the driver’s name is Charlie Piggot and the conductor is Johnny Hickey. They climb up and down a ladder that is attached to the back of the bus and put bikes, baby carriages, large boxes and big suit cases on the roof that has a railing around it. Inside the bus, there are crates of live baby chicks and they cheerp, cheerp, cheerp – non-stop. Charlie takes the wheel. The big engine throbs and the bus climbs onto the stone bridge and we’re off to Dublin. It stops often to let passengers on and off. Johnny walks up and down the bus taking the fares and ringing up the passenger tickets. He puts the money he collects in a black leather pouch that is strapped across his chest. Women and children wave from cottages with halfdoorway and farmers in fields tip their caps to us as we speed along the narrow road. Every now and then, overgrown hedge branches slap the windows. Everyone talks about crops and weather. Some of the passengers work in Dublin, others are going to visit sick relatives in hospitals, a few are going to shop. Everyone talks in happy tones about Ireland becoming a republic. A man wearing a soft hat says,“If anyone asks me, 800 years of British rule was more than enough.”Johnny Hickey says people will always remember 1949. The day-old chicks chirp, chirp, chirp in agreement. It’s also the year I’m nine years old.
The bus stops at the Bagenalstown railway station. I look over at the goods department where the man I call Daddy Jim works.A wave of sadness comes over me, remembering he and his wife, my Aunt Christina, are still in hospital. Because they have to stay there for a long time, I was suddenly taken to live with my grandmother, who lives in a small village at the end of the world. I’m going to go to school there when my birth certificate and my school marks come in the post.
As we get on wider roads, Charlie circles the steering wheel around narrow corners and the bus travels fast. I look out at the green fields that race by the window. They are speckled with sheep, and hardy lambs, cows and their calves, and race horses with foals. When we arrive in Dublin, we get a taxi to Aunt Greta’s house. The driver zig-zags fast in and out of the heavy traffic. “Jaysus! God A-mighty! Jaysus! Eejits!” he says often while we smileand sway in the back seat. When he turns a corner, we knock and bump into each other and it makes us laugh. Battalions of people ride bicycles in front of the kelly-green double-decker buses with screeching brakes that belch out strong fumes into the air. More armies of men and women are walking shoulder-to-shoulder up and down the wide sidewalks. There are huge signs with blinking lights on the tall buildings advertising Guinness, Powers Whiskey, Bovril, Donnelly’s sausages, and cheese. As we cross O’Connell Bridge and the Liffey River, Gran points back to a giant-sized statue of a man. Sea gulls perch on his head, his shoulders and arms. They circleand cry over the RiverLiffey.Some people throw bits of fish ‘n chips at them and they gobble the food as if they were starving.
“That’s Daniel O’Connell, this bridge was named after him. He was a great orator,” Gran says.
“What’s an orator.”
“A person who’s a good speaker.A person who can inform, persuade, convince. He was a lawyer. He believed in non-violence. He was a Catholic. He was the first Catholic to have a seat in the House of Commons. He brought about Catholic Emancipation for Irish people.”
Gran then points to a building that’s inside black iron railings and tells me it’s Trinity College and that it was started by Queen Elizabeth 1 of England. I see dark-skinned men with big white teeth who until now I’ve only seen in books and in the cinema. In the books they wear very little clothes, carry spears and havebeautiful paintings on their faces and bodies. I want them to stand still so I can have a good look at them and sink my fingers into their black, tight curly hair. I see beautiful womenwith red dots on their foreheads wrapped in lovely, colorful silk fabrics. Gran tells me not to stare at them. She says they are from African and Indian countries attending Trinity College and the Royal College of Surgeons. We go up Grafton Streetand the scent of perfume tells me everything is expensive. An old woman is sitting on the sidewalk playing a harp, nearby another woman is selling flowers. Gran asks the taxi driver to stop at Bewley’sdessert and coffee shop. When we enter, the aroma of coffee, vanilla and all kinds of desserts float up to the ceiling. She buys a Swiss jam-roll and we get back in the taxi. Soon we are outside Aunt Greta’s big old Victorian house on Harrington Street, before the South Circular Road, on the corner of the street where George Bernard Shaw was born. Aunt Greta runs a boarding house and has eight children. When we enter her house, Gran givesher the jam-roll. Aunt Greta cuts it and lovely cream and raspberry jam ooze out of the sides, and we enjoy it with our morning tea. At noon, several of Aunt Greta’s children come charging down the steps. They are home from school for their lunch. She sends the oldest son, Louis, across the street to get fish and chips. He brings them back wrapped in newspaper. My aunt opens them up and sprinkles malt vinegar on them.
While we gorge ourselves, the aroma of the brown crispy chips and the batter-coated fish rushes into every corner of the kitchen. I had heard of the fish and chips, but I had never eaten them until today. They are so delicious, I will love them forever. Aunt Greta holds up a big bottle of milk that has inches of cream at the top and says, “Baine?” which is the Irish word for milk. All the children put up their hands and she fills their cups with milk. After lunch, Gran tells me to go and play with the children who are too young to be in school. We run up and down the many flights of stairs playing hide-an-go-seek.
Sometimes, when I come back close to the kitchen, I hear Gran telling Aunt Greta the Fitzpatrick’s won’t be out of hospital for a long time. Frances, six months older than I also comes home for lunch. She lets me play with her doll’s china tea set. She tells me to be careful with it because it belonged to her Mammy when she was small. When the children go back to school, Aunt Greta says she’s going to Moore Street to get some meat and vegetables.
“Would you like to come with me Vonnie?” she asks me.
“Oh, yes! I say and run to get my coat.
“While you’re there, could you get me three lamb chops?” Gran asks and gives her some money. “I’ll stay here an’ take care of the little ones,” she says.
Aunt Greta takes two shopping bags from the back of the kitchen door and we get on a double-decker bus back to O’Connell Street. I sit on the top level of the bus so I can see all of Dublin, but Aunt Greta prefers to sit downstairs. I go down and sit with her so I’m not left on the bus and can’t find my way home. Moore Street is right in the center of Dublin. The street is crowded with women selling vegetables, fruits and flowers out of baby prams. They hold up bunches of bananas.
“Get yer bananas here! Five for a shillin’ the bananas!” a chubby lady shouts.
“Four for a shillin’ the oranges.,” sings another woman who is holding a baby. “All the way from sunny Seville, the oranges! Get yer oranges here!” There are all kinds of beautiful fresh roses, gladiolas, dahalia, and other flowers I don’t know the names of.
“Here luv, buy yerself a bunch a red roses! No need ta wait fer himself ta bring ya roses. Ye can git a bunch a twelve just for a half-crown, missus!” That’s just two an’ a half pence a piece,”shouts a woman with carrot-red hair to Aunt Greta. She laughs and shouts back.
“Ah…now, after eight children, I’m beyond roses, if ya know what I mean.”
We go to another vendor and buy potatoes, onions, parsnips and carrots. On both sides of the street, there are shops for butchers, bakers and fish mongers to sell their items. We stop outside a butcher’s shop that has pigs’ heads, pigs’ feet, liver, kidneys, brown hen eggs and long links of sausages displayed in the window. We go inside and like all butcher’s shops, it has sawdust on the floor. There is beef, lamb and pork hanging on big hooks. My aunt orders the lamb chops. The butcher lifts down half a lamb from a hook and puts it in front of her.
“Would you like ‘em cut from here missus?” he asks. My aunt says yes and tells him to give her three and then six more in a separate package for herself. We then follow the smell of bread baking into a bakery. Aunt Greta buys scones, bread and an apple tart.
When we are back in O’Connell Street, I see young boys selling newspapers.
“Ireland soon ta be free! Read all about it!” shouts a skinny boy selling The Evening Herald.
“Ireland ta kiss the Commonwealth Goodby! Read about it in The Press!” shouts another boy.
We ride the double-decker back to the house and we have more tea, scones and the apple tart. The rest of the children come home from school and the whole house is noisy and happy while we play cowboys and Indians. I’m always an Indian and I tell the tribe the white man speaks with forked tongue and that all he wants is to take our land away.
Around four in the afternoon, my aunt, who is the only one in the family to have a phone, rings for a Taxi to take Gran and me back to the bus station. Because it will be late when we get home, she makes ham sandwiches for us to have on the bus or when we get to Graiguenamanagh. It’s fun to be back in a taxi as it zig-zags fast in and out of the traffic to get us back to the bus station in time and get the bus home. My cousins give me last week’s Beano and Dandy comic books to take home. On the way back, Gran and I eat our sandwiches. I think about the great day I had going to Dublin for the first time, riding in double-decker buses, seeing live dark-skinned people from far-a-way places, eating fish and chips, going to Moore Street, and being driven around Dublin in a taxi. I had children to play with and I learned two new words. Orator and Emancipation. But when the bus stops in Bagenalstown, it’s dark outside. I have a huge urge to get out and run to the Fitzpatrick’s house, to go home. I don’t want Gran to see my sad face and think I’m ungrateful. So she doesn’t see the tears that have welled up in my eyes, I turn and stare out the window.
Soon, we cross over the Tinnahinch Bridge and the bus bumps down into the Market Place in the little town of of Graiguenamanagh, Uncle Eric is waiting for us at the bus. He has arranged for a man to drive Gran and me to our house. He says he’s fed the hens and locked them up for the night, but he did not bring in their eggs. He also said he brought home the water from the well, and bought a loaf of bread. When we enter the house, Gran says she’s tired and goes up to bed right away. Uncle Eric says he’s going up to the Healy’s farmhouse to play cards. I sit in Gran’s chair and poke the fire, and it jumps into a lively blaze. I hear Gran’s leather shoe drop onto the wood floor in our bedroom. The only other sounds are the ticking of the clock and the sap spitting out of the wood blazing in the fire place. I hear her second shoe hit the floor. I lean back in her chair and read the comic books again. I love Corky the Cat, Keyhole Kate and Desperate Dan. After awhile my eyelids feel heavy. I take the clock and go up the stairs. I miss Gran’s prayer ritual and being sprinkled with holy water. After such a great day in Dublin, this is the happiest I’ve been since I came to live with her.
I sink into the hollow of my feather bed and look out at the full moon shining in through the window. I close my eyes and dream that Gran and I are bumping into each other in the taxi, while we zig-zag around Dublin.