'Their IRA father had to go on the run on his own wedding day' – Ireland's nonagenarians share life stories in new book Growing Up with Ireland

When we think about the people who have lived before us, we tend to picture them in their old age, our parents, grandparents and, if we’ve been lucky enough to know them, great-grandparents. But I’ve always been fascinated by the thought that once upon a time, they were small babies, schoolchildren with homework, teenagers before the species was recognised, young men and women who fell in love. So it was pure gold to sit down and listen to 26 men and women, now in their nineties, who were born in the 1920s, alongside the Irish Free State. They grew up with Ireland.

And, while there is a certain nostalgia in the lives they led, they were also a generation born between two world wars, plunged into the War of Independence and forced by economic circumstances to emigrate all over the world. There are many stories of teenagers leaving home for America or Australia, possibly never to return and of young girls with a vocation setting off on the Missions and knowing they couldn’t return. It was a world where communication was by handwritten letter, where news was slow to float around the world and where family was everything, a slower world where there was time to think and time to appreciate each milestone.

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My father and mother, Des Fitzpatrick and Imelda Tucker, were born in 1922 and 1924 so I was a small child in the 1950s. My parents were keen bikers and had founded the Wanderers Motor Cycling Club so, when they had three small children, Dad built a sidecar! We took part in Horse and Hound runs all over the country and my job was to stand on tippy toes, throwing the bags of whitewash out of the sidecar and splashing them on to the road for the other bikers to follow. It was an exciting time for a small child but there were the tough days too, like when a flat tyre at Dún na Rí in Co Cavan meant we had to stuff the thing with wet grass and ride bump, bump, bump all the way home to Dublin!

My Dad was a shiftworker so he had days off during the week. We used to load up the sidecar and head for Brittas Bay which was quite a trek from Dublin in the 50s. We’d pay our shilling entrance fee at McDaniel’s and collect a billy can of water. I was allowed to sit on the passenger seat of the bike and to carry the can down to the beach where we made tea with a primus stove.

There was always a ‘Sunday drive’, in summer we’d drive to Glenasmole to swim in the brown water streams which my mother loved because, she said, it gave her ‘a good colour’ and in autumn we picked tons of fraughans [bilberries] to make jam. Sometimes we’d walk around Bray Head and I will never forget the taste of chips served in newspaper and eaten on the prom.

Eventually, after too many wettings, my Dad traded in his beloved motorbike and sidecar for an Austin with a hole in the floor and a choke held by a clothes peg. Then there was a red Opel caravan where the kids and the dog travelled in the boot! Another favourite trip was into the city to Uncle George’s pet shop to visit the parrot who cursed.

My father, my grandfather and three of my uncles spent their working lives in the ESB. My father used to tell us about his first day at work when he was 15. They cycled down through Ringsend towards the sea and, he said, they were almost smothered by the smoke coming from the Pigeon House and had to wrap handkerchiefs round their faces. It was a handy workplace for the young fathers as the heat from the giant furnaces dried their bundles of wet cloth nappies during their shift.

When I was eight years old, the Howth tram stopped running and my parents, my sisters and grandfather, William Tucker, travelled on the tram that last day. There was a little sweet shop at the terminus and we stood there licking ice creams. Little did I know then that 15 years later I would marry the son of the lady who owned the sweet shop!

My maternal grandmother, Ellen Tucker, was the granddaughter of the nationalist Michael Lambert, the man who made the key that freed James Stephens from prison and who was president of the Amnesty Association of Ireland. She would tell us stories of when she was a small child of being allowed to play while her grandfather held his meetings in their house. On one occasion when he was forced to flee to France, her mother, Mary Lambert, had been born on the high seas.

Mary was a wonderful dressmaker and made dresses for Maud Gonne MacBride. My grandmother told us stories of Maud coming for her fittings, accompanied by her wolfhound, Dagda. Mary had seven daughters and five sons and most of her daughters were excellent seamstresses. One of them, Molly, worked in the UK, sewing curtains for the palaces. She used to come home a couple of times a year and always brought the ‘leftovers’ from the curtains! But the leftovers from the royal curtains could run to a few yards. This meant that in my childhood the entire family had very posh curtains, made from the most beautiful fabrics. The softest satins and silks were used to make dresses. However, when I was about 11, I was in an aunt’s house when I suddenly realised that my dress matched her new curtains! I was outraged, as only a fashionable 11-year-old can be.

There were great parties in the fifties, my grandmother and her sisters would gather, the gramophone would be pulled out, there were always mountains of sandwiches and cakes, there was a fog of cigarette smoke and everyone would be persuaded to contribute their ‘party piece’. I can still hear Granda’s Goodbye to the White Horse Inn and Great Aunt Louie’s Vilja from The Merry Widow.

Saturday night was bath night and my mother insisted on putting ringlets in our hair for Sunday Mass even though we had to wear hats or mantillas. My sister, Iris, still recalls going to Mass without anything to eat and nearly passing out with the hunger and heat of the place.

The more I remember of my early years, the more I value this handshake with history. I interviewed 26 nonagenarians for this book. They range in age from 90 to 99. Sadly, John Flanagan from Dundalk died on July 19. A most interesting man, John worked for the AA on the border and shared his stories of the smuggling that went on – in both directions! May he rest in peace.

There are many memories of a troubled Ireland. Austin Dawe’s father, Felix, was the vice-commander of a battalion of the IRA in Dundalk while Nora Ryan from Riddlestown in Limerick tells of her father’s friendship with Michael Collins and how he built a secret room in their attic which Collins used when he was on the run. Speaking of which, siblings Tom Stack and Sr Dympna Stack from Moyvane in Kerry tell how their IRA father, James, had to go on the run on his own wedding day.

Another Limerick man, Tom O’Mahony from Ballylanders, talks of walking barefoot to school in summer and winter and bringing sixpence for fuel to keep the fire going. Rose Smith from Oldcastle in Co Meath tells how her mother made beautiful linen sheets from used flour bags and kept one set for visiting American family and for laying out the dead. Then there’s the romance of Ann Kennedy and her late husband Frank. They met when he started throwing roses from his bus as she cycled along on her bicycle.

Michael O’Connell from Cork says joining the civil service and being appointed to Castlebar in 1941 was like “being sent to America”. Sabina Tierney remembers food rationing during World War 2 and Eithne Lee’s family farm was acquired by compulsory purchase order to build Dublin airport.

Anne Blake, widow of Wicklow councillor Vincent Blake, remembers “putting out the cows and walking up the road and crying because they wanted him to go for election”. It has been such a privilege to meet these wise people. We have sat and talked and laughed and been sad together. There have been scones and fires and a real sense of the warmth and richness and wonder of the past. We are all enriched by our contact with the past, it’s what we’re made of after all.

‘Growing up with Ireland’ by Valerie Cox and published by Hachette Ireland in Trade Paperback, is available now, €14.99

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