Mary Arrigan's Memories, 1950s

Mary Arrigan (nee Nolan) is a writer and illustrator of children’s books. Among her publications are Grimstone’s Ghost, Baldur’s Bones, and Lawlor’s Revenge. Her book, The Dwellers Beneath won the White Raven Award in Munich. A former art teacher, she writes in Irish and English and illustrates her own books .



From Eyre Street to Moore Park



The Cove, Eyre Street – writing that address even now draws me into the warm cocoon of my earliest memories. Our house was the last one on the right, at the end of the street (it is now a health-food shop). Our sitting room – known as ‘the carpet room’ because it was the only room with a carpet – looked out across the river to what was Maher’s field before the primary school was built. Other youngsters from the area – the Henseys - Noel, Willie, Anne and Paddy: the large family of Crummeys, whose two aunts, Maggie and Mamie ran an old-fashioned shop selling grain, sweets and, best of all, loose biscuits from glass-topped boxes; Dunnes, whose dad had a sweet shop and hackney car. In Canning Place lived the Lunneys  (father a garda sergeant) and the Breens – Seamus, Anne and Tom (hardware shop on the corner of Main Street). My brother Gay (Gabriel) and I loved the adventure of crossing the bridge with these kids to play in Maher’s field. We flew kites, caught minnow in jam-jars in the river, played hide-and seek in the big ruined house behind the chestnut trees, and fought the youngsters from the cottages known as Chinatown. When I was about six years old I discovered that the field had belonged to my grandfather, Tom Maher, and that my mother, Dolly, had been born in, and grew up in the house. I remember the day that the old house was knocked to make way for the new school. It seemed as if the whole town came to watch. Brick by brick, all of my mother’s memories came tumbling into a heap of rubble. I was too young to understand her tears.

Growing up in a street back then was like living in an extended family; all doors were open to us children. The house next door was home to Paddy and Dora Fox, tailors. It was fascinating to watch them chalk shapes on fabric, cut them out and sew the parts together on the clickety-clackety foot treadle sewing machine. Irons were constantly heating before the fire to press the finished jacket or trousers. At one time Paddy employed a tailor called Simon who had just enough English to say ‘Mary my girl.’ At the age of four one didn’t ask questions about where people came from - they simply materialised from somewhere - but I think he’d been a Jewish war refugee. An elderly lady called Katy lived in one room at the front of Fox’s. It was the sort of haven I aspired to have when I’d grow up. It was a treasure trove of the fascinating clutter Katy had gathered throughout her life. My favourite was a statue of the Virgin Mary which, when a key under her dress was turned, played the Bells of the Angelus. Katy’s big, soft bed was tucked behind a blue curtain. Much as I pleaded, I was never allowed to sleep there. It was Katy who taught me to see pictures in the fire. She would turn down her oil lamp, poke the red coals and tell me stories of dragons and giants – and they were so real as their shadows danced across the ceiling.

Summertime focused on the river. I had a love/hate attitude towards what was laughingly called ‘the strand’ which was accessed down a steep path above the fast flowing Liffey. That slip-sliding journey, with towel and togs under my arm, was a nightmare only partly relieved by Gay’s grip on my arm. A fraternal act, which he felt entitled him to half of my Honey Bee toffees - six for a penny in Mrs Murray’s sweet shop two doors from The Cove.  Mrs Murray had a lodger called Mr Duffy who shuffled about silently in brown slippers with the sides cut to relieve his bunions.

The river was also host to rowing boats and fishermen. The boatmen were mostly teachers, at that time called professors, from the Dominican College. Three of four of us would stand at the edge of the water and hitch a ride.  Mostly they obliged and took us aboard for a short trip, which became a sailing journey to imagined islands and pirate dens.
Summertime was also hay time. We waited patiently for the hay bogeys to appear on the street. There was a scramble to climb aboard and, legs dangling, head off to the unknown fields beyond The College. Even now the evocative smell of horse and hay stirs up that charmed time.

Across the road from our house lived Baba Ghent with her mother and her aunt, Miss Duncan. Three very gentle and genteel ladies who always welcomed Gay and me.  Baba ran the Welfare Office in a room across the hall from the cosy drawing room with its Victorian prints and statuettes and lace antimacassers. At Christmas time they got parcels of exotic goodies from relations in America, which they shared with us.

Perhaps it’s just the stirring of evocative memories, but Midnight Mass back in the fifties and early sixties seemed to be so movingly meaningful and majestic. Anyone who attended on the memorable night that Frances Harrigan first sang ‘Oh Holy Night’ will recall the hush of silence in the church after the first notes. Her clear voice sang that carol with a sweetness that remains unmatched by even Leontyne Price.

The pantomime was the highlight of the Christmas season. The crush at the doors of the school Assembly Hall for the three o’clock matinee was positively claustrophobic. When Larry Bradley’s Dame flounced on stage with swishy skirt, rosy cheeks, floppy wig and scarlet lips, the hall resounded with roars of laughter before he even delivered his lines. Other names synonymous with the annual panto were Paddy O’Leary, a natural comedian; Larry Hannon; the Principal Boy was played in turn by Kathleen Hall, the Harrigan and Treacy sisters – all of whose sexy legs were the envy of every female in the audience. Angela Moran, champion Irish dancer, filled in during scene-changes, her black velvet apron jingling with the prize medals she had won at feiseanna. Jack Lavelle and Sonny Ghent, Baba’s brother, were talented singers, Jimmy Dunney played the atmospheric music on the organ and Andy Byrne, who lived opposite our house, painted the sets.

The cinema in the fifties was the most exotic place in the world. The Art Deco of the Odeon foyer was the gateway to places and adventures that fired our imagination. Sixpence to the Sunday matinee was a small price to pay for a journey to the Wild West for aspiring cowboys and Indians. During the boring talking bits we acted out our own Wild West until Mrs Sylvester and her torch restored order. The best films for me were the magical fantasy of Disney’s Pinocchio, Cinderella and Peter Pan, and the Utopian world of  The Wizard of Oz. Later on Calamity Jane, Singin’ in the Rain and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers were the stuff to make us early teenagers drool.

It was my mother who inadvertently introduced me at a very young age to the scary world of horror films. It happened like this - in the nineteen thirties my father, Brendan Nolan, then a young man who had studied under an Italian professor in Dublin, was awarded a three-year  scholarship by the Italian government to further study in Italy. But when war broke out in 1939 the scholarship was put on hold until 1950. By then my father was a health inspector, married with two children. So a compromise was reached; he was allowed time off to accept part of the scholarship in Italy for several months. The day he left, we walked up Main Street to Charlie Ryans where he’d get the bus to Dublin. All along the street people lined up to shake his hand and wish him well. After his last wave from the bus, my tear-faced mother couldn’t bear walking back through the well-wishers, so she ushered us around to the comforting darkness of the matinee in the small Palace Cinema. The film was Frankenstein meets The Wolfman. So, a back-from-the-dead monster; a terrifying fanged night-creature; a far-away father and a weeping mother created enough trauma on a Sunday afternoon to fill dreams for months. However these scares were to form the embryonic ideas for several scary teenage books many years later.

Dead bodies, however, posed no threat or fear. Wakes were a good source of lemonade and biscuits and the nodding gratitude of the bereaved. From the age of about five my brother hauled me to every wake in Eyre Street. The waxen faces, rosary bead-entwined hands and shrouded corpses, he told me, were simply neighbours napping before going to heaven. Though that simple belief vanished into the ether when he added -  ‘when you go to heaven, you’re given a chair and you sit and look at God’s face for all time.’ No chubby cherubs, no pretty angels, no Disney-like landscapes? Hardly worth being good just to end up on a chair!

Saturday was library day for children – a clamour of youngsters crowded around the door of the beautiful old library. There wasn’t much beauty, however, in the children’s section, which was tucked under the stairs. We were allowed to take out one fiction and one non-fiction in total. With nothing like the wealth of children’s books available today, Enid Blyton was hot favourite, seconded by the Nancy Drew adventures and the William series. If you weren’t quick you ended up with some rarely-borrowed uplifting moral book and a non-fiction entitled How to Enjoy Maths. The chief librarian Mr Connolly’s avuncular smile in passing was in contrast to the stern lady who stamped our books, with dire warnings to have them back in time – or else. Two books to last one whole week! Needless to say a lot of underhand swapping went on which made reading all the sweeter for being daringly against the rules.

When I was about ten years old we moved to Moore Park. It was strange at first being so far from town. New location meant new friends. Our next door neighbours were the Roches, Niall, Stewart, Carl, Shane and Miriam. A wild, fun family, whose mother always turned a kindly blind eye from the mad, impromptu shows they put on in their wide hall. Behind Moore Park was the run-down estate of Lady McCalmont. The huge garden had grown wild, and became an excellent adventure ground, called The Jungle, for youngsters from the park – Roches, the ‘other’ Nolans – Mary and Michael; The Houlihans; the Feeneys (Joan, the eldest, is still one of my close friends). A chase from the owner Mr Hanley’s daughter gave our adventures an extra edge – especially when the pear trees bore fruit.

The nearest shop was Jack Scanlon’s beside the Crescent. It was also a place for top gossip. Mrs Lawlor, a large motherly lady who lived across the road from the shop, always seemed to be present, with a running account of all the news. Nothing ever happened without her knowledge. Jack’s daughter, Mary, assisted him in the shop. When a young butcher called Con Cross set up shop next door, we watched their growing romance with giggling interest.

Summer holidays always seemed to be sunny back then, and the days were long and filled with fun. The Curragh swimming baths was a haven for us youngsters. Sergeant Madden gave swimming lessons with true military discipline.No dipping the toe and retreating. When he blew his whistle everyone jumped in.

The tennis club at the top of the town was probably the best entertainment for those of us between thirteen and twenty. There was one fought-over hard court and three grass courts. Tournament matches were arranged between us and tennis clubs in other towns – mostly Naas, Kildare and Kilcullen, to which we cycled en masse. Every so often tennis ‘hops’ were held in the clubhouse – a small hall with the ladies’ loo on one side and the mens’ on the other. The music was played on a borrowed record player and we girls would jive, if lucky enough to be asked, showing off our layered petticoats. If we were bypassed in favour of older or prettier girls, some of us would stock up with the sandwiches and lemonade that was kept in the ladies’ and hop out through the window, licking our wounded egos and swearing never to look at another boy ever again. Until next time, that is.


To read Mary's article on The books that brought me here...Giggle and Gothic, click on this link and go to page 18.