Wednesday, February 4, 2009
I was born in Cobh, in Co.Cork Ireland. It's main claim to fame is that it was the last port of call for the Titanic before it headed out into the Atlantic. Cobh is a small town built on a steep hill and is dominated by St. Colman's Cathedral with its towering spire and beautiful bell-ringing. It is one of the few churches or cathedrals where they make fantastic music with the bells. When I was a child there, the head organist and bellringer was a man called Staff Gebreuwers, a Dutch man. It was such a part of our days there that I have missed it whenever I hear church bells that ring normally. St. Colman's was donated by the US as a tribute to all the Irish Immigrants who left from Cobh for America during the famine years in the mid 1800s. I was baptised there along with my twin sister. Being in that great cathedral has left me with a real appreciation of cathedrals and I tend to go into the main cathedral of any new city I am in, time permitting, to light a candle for my family. I love the smell of candle wax and polish and the quiet calm of being in a catherdral. I am not a practising Catholic and have not been since I was 13 years old but I do love some of the ritual of the church.
My mother, at the point when I start remembering things at about 3 years of age, had 5 children under the age of 4. Two sets of twins and one in the middle. Agnes, my twin and I, were born in 1958, our sister Louisa in 1960 and our twin brothers in late 1961. I was 3 1/2 when they were born. She used to put the boys it the baby carriage, the old fashioned kind that was pretty huge; place a board on the front where she put my twin and I and then put our sister in between somehow and she used to push us all down the hill to the main town and the back up the steep hill again. My mother is one of the physically strongest women I have ever met. Needless to say, she attracted a lot of attention with all these twins in the pram and also because she was a foreigner.
In those days in Ireland, there were not many foreigners living in the country. Most people were leaving Ireland to find work in the UK or the US so it was rare to meet people from other countries. This gave her an exotic edge and, thanks to her warmth and friendliness, she was accepted and admired in many ways. I remember her telling us that Una and I had won a beautiful baby contest and how proud she was. I think there was some hero worship of my mother from the local woman as she seemed so different and interesting. I remember this more when I was older and we were living in Roundwood. The women in the Irish Countrywomen's Association to which she belonged, used to hang on her every word. At that point, I was old enough to understand it for what it was and I did not like the sort of preening she used to do in their presence. I suppose it is human nature in some people to feel superior when people treat like that.
I don't remember my father being around a lot when we were in Cobh but I do remember standing on the top of the hill and waving to him on the bridge of the ferry to England, where he stood with a white hankie so we could see him. He would be away for weeks and weeks and then arrive home laden down with gifts from whichever exotic place he had just been. One of the most memorable returns was when he arrived with records ( as in for a record player) of the Beatrix Potter stories with lots of songs interspersed with the stories. The excitement of that was enormous and, to this day, most of us remember all the words to those songs. Peter Rabbit, Squirrel Nutkin and Mrs. Tiggywinkle became a huge part of our childhoods.
I have a theory that the books and movies you see when you are under 10 years of age, have a huge affect on your preferences later on in life, in many areas of life not just what you might like to read or see. For example, I learned a lot about not being naughty from Squirrel Nutkin and remember being fascinated that he dared to be so cheeky to his elders. In my house, you did not answer your parents back and it seemed surprising to me that you could. It did not make me suddenly try to be naughty but it always stuck with me, the idea that some people could be and get away with it. Poor Nutkin lost his tail from his naughtiness but this somehow seemed a badge of honour not disgrace. Another example of this is that I saw a lot of American Western movies as a child and was always terrified and fascinated when the Indians would capture white people and tie them to posts and threaten them with torture. There was something very sexual about it, especially in one movie I remember where they tied a woman to a stake and her blouse was very decollete. Although I did not realise it at that time, those images stuck in my memory and created a template for how men treat women.
On a lighter note, I did always relate to the Indians and not the cowboys and was also in love with Hiawatha when I was 3 and my father gave me an illustrated book about him when he was a teenager. I became obsessed with him and wanted to be Minnehaha and even had an Indian Squaw outfit that I wore to the point where it was filthy and could not be prised out of my possession to be washed. One of the most abiding memories I have that traumatised me in ways that were to haunt me later, was when we were finally leaving Cobh to move to Co. Wicklow and the big black car was standing there waiting for us to pile into it and my mother, no doubt harassed and exhausted, ripped my dirty panda bear and my Indian Squaw dress out of my arms and announced that 'We are not taking those filthy things with us' and dumped them in the bin. I cried all the way to Wicklow. I never had a stuffed animal again as I created a 'story' that they were stupid. Years later, a close friend gave me a stuffed bear for my 30th birthday as she was so upset by this story.
For me it was the first time I got the idea that my mother did not love me unconditionally and it was the start of the abandonment issues that were to get so much worse later on.