CORCRAIN AND THE FLEMINGS
The Chtistmas Rhymers
When we were children there was an epidemic of chicken pocks. Freddy and I took it at the same time. My mother brought us to this woman who lived in Craigwell Avenue. She was McCann married to McCann. It was believed that a woman married to someone with the same surname as herself had a charm for chicken pocks. She only had to give you a slice of bread and jam and if you ate it you would be cured. My mother didn’t even have to ask. As soon as the woman opened the door she said, ‘I know what you’ve come for.’ She went inside and returned with two pieces of bread and jam. I don’t know if it cured us or not, but to this day I’ve never had bread and jam that tasted as good.
Usually a walk through the fields started off at Corcrain River Bridge. The first field past the bridge, near Corcrain Orange Hall, was where the boys used to dig away the river-bank and dam the river to make it deeper, so they could swim in it. It was called the boy’s bathing hole. All the boys used to bathe there. Very few had swimming trunks so they used to go in starkers. When they saw girls coming they would shout, ‘Here’s wee dolls!’ There would be this flash of naked bodies and a splash, as they dived into the water for cover. The girl’s bathing hole was further along the river, in the next field, but wasn’t nearly as good as the boys. No one had taken the trouble to either widen or dam it. But still it was a great place when the weather was hot. Like the boys – few girls owned a bathing costume, so they went in, in their knickers.
But it was lovely even just to paddle in the river. A crowd of us used to paddle and cup our hands in the water to catch the tiny fish we called ‘spricklies’. Those who could afford to buy them from Tam Gilpin’s shop, used fishing nets. We used to bring our catch home in a jam jar with a string tied around the rim for a handle. But the fish we brought home never lived long.
Some boys did what I now realise was very cruel. It was called ‘stabbing beardies’. They would paddle in the river searching for this other type of fish, which were bigger than spricklies and would try to stab them with a fork. Another cruel thing was when they caught wire eels in the river and instead of putting them in water, left them on dry ground so they could watch them wriggling about. In those days people weren’t educated enough about things like that.
One summer during the entire time the boys and girls were bathing in the river a dead pig lay on the riverbed a few yards further along. The flow must have carried every disease and rampant germ imaginable to where both the girls and boys were bathing, yet no one suffered because of it. I suppose we were so used to germs we were immune.
We used to live next door to a family called McCann. There were four sisters and they were very good, respectable people. They also had a brother who served on the army and afterwards, along with his wife opened a shop in Corcrain. They came from Donegal and could speak fluent Irish. The four sisters were great friends of mine. It was them who taught me to knit. When they first started to teach me I didn’t have any knitting needles, so I learned on two big nails. Later my granda got me these long spoke things which they used in Tavanagh Weaving factory where he worked. They weren’t exactly the equivalent of knitting needles either, but were better than the nails!
There was one story in particular which my mother told which used to give us a laugh. She said, before she was married, one morning she was sweeping upstairs in one of the bedrooms. There was always a chamber pot under the bed, to save going out to the toilet in the yard during the night. The po – as it was called! Well, it was full to the brim and my mother accidentally hit it with the brush, spilling its contents. They had no floor-covering, just the bare floorboards. Consequently the water from the po poured down through the boards. Jimmy was sitting at the table in the kitchen down below, having his breakfast, and it all went down on top of him.
Sometimes my mother and father would talk about the time we lived in Dawson’s Row. All the houses had half doors. Scottish relations came to stay with my granny. When the children with them saw Dawson’s Row they wanted to know were they horses’ houses!
In the same row where Gerald Foy lived, every year when homegrown eating apples were in season one household used to make toffee apples. Sometimes their stock ran out and you had to stand around the door waiting till they made some more. The toffee would still be warm, and lovely and chewy. They only cost about a halfpenny each. Another man in the same row once started making windmills. They were coloured cardboard twisted into a little whirly shape and nailed loosely to a wooden stick. When you ran the shape went round and round. It didn’t take must to amuse us in those days.
Halloween used to be great! My mother always made a really big apple pie. She used to wrap a couple of sixpenny pieces in greaseproof paper and bake them in it, also a couple of nuts. We would have the pie, smothered in custard, for our supper. But first we had a session of dunking for apples in a dish of water. We used also to hang an apple from the ceiling and with your hands behind your back, you had to try and take a bite out of it.
Christmas was another great occasion. We always had a goose for our Christmas dinner. The grease from the goose was kept for ages afterwards as a rub for pains. A few days before Christmas the Christmas Rhymers used to call at all the houses. A knock would come to the door and when you opened it there they all were. They would be invited in to perform their act. I can only remember some of the rhymes. One went something like – ‘ereHHHereHere come I - wee Dibbly Doubt. If you don’t give me money I’ll sweep you all out. Money I want, money I crave. If you don’t give me money I’ll sweep you to your grave!’ Another one went something like – ‘Here come I – wee Doctor Brown – the best wee doctor in the town.’ Someone would ask, ‘What’s your cure, Doctor?’ He would reply, ‘My cure is hen’s pens, peesie weesie, a juice of an apple, a stone of a plum.’ Everybody looked forward to the rhymers!
My uncle Bob married a girl called Margaret Jeffers – known as Maggie. My earliest memory of Bob is him and me walking along the New Road. I don’t know where we had been, but we were heading for Corcrain and home. I must have been about four or five years old at the time. Bob had me by the hand, but I was so tired my footsteps began to drag. I kept pestering him to carry me and finally he gave in and lifted me up in his arms to carry me the rest of the way home. The only trouble was – Bob was dressed in his good clothes. He kept shouting at me to keep my muddy shoes away from him. I remember bending my legs at the knees and straining to hold my feet outwards. Only, every now and then I tired of holding them in that position and would let them drop against him. ‘Didn’t I tell you to keep them dirty shoes away from me?’ Bob would yell. So every few minutes it was a case of my feet hitting against Bob and him yelling at me to take them away o’that! It continued like that the whole way home.
In his younger days Bob played football. He played for a local team and would sometimes be playing in a match in the public park. My mother and father used to go along to see him, taking me and Freddy with them. We were all geared up to watch a match one time, only shortly after it started Bob tripped on a hole in the ground, breaking his arm and dislocating his shoulder.
My mother used to tell me how when Bob was a child, if my granda happened to come home with a drop of drink on him, Bob was afraid of him. Ready for a good carry-on, my granda used to take a race at Bob to give him a rub of his beard. Bob would run all through the house to get out of his way, my granda after him. One time Bob jumped up on the bed, then down off the other side. My granda went after him, only, when he landed on the bed he broke it. Mattress and all ended up on the floor, my granda in the middle of it!
There was nothing Bob didn’t know about flowers. One day when I was through the fields with my granda I came across these lovely purple flowers, which I had never seen before. I gathered a great big bunch and when I got home put them in a vase of water and set them alongside my mother’s fern, on a little table which sat at the window in our parlour. They looked lovely, but when Bob saw them he rushed into the room, whisked them out of the vase, and threw them on the fire.
‘You threw my good flowers in the fire!’ I cried.
‘And if you bring any more of that rubbish into the house, I’ll throw them in the fire as well!’ Bob said. ‘D’you not know them things are deadly poison?’
As well as growing plants, flowers and tomatoes in Walsh’s nursery, both my uncle Bob and Uncle Alex were involved in the making of wreaths, wedding bouquets and buttonholes. My mother had this big fern in the window. Every now and then the nursery would run out of fern, so Bob would send one of the nursery workers to take cuttings from my mother’s. Or sometimes Bob or Alex themselves, called at our house to cut bits from my mother’s fern for whatever they were making – should it be wreaths or bouquets. My mother never minded and indeed the fern always seemed to thrive – maybe because of all the ‘pruning’ it received!
Bob’s wife, Maggie, was always a great baker. She could turn out cakes and buns or for that matter – anything you could mention – faster than the normal person could think about it. When we were children the birthday parties for our cousins were great, something to look forward to. You would go into their house in Jervis Street and the table would be laden with Maggie’s baking. Crunchies, chocolate haystacks, iced buns, coconut buns, buttermilk toffee, honeycomb toffee, toffee apples and everything you can imagine! And in the middle of it all a big fruit birthday cake decorated with almond and sugar icing and candles.
But the best part of Maggie’s parties was when she drew the curtains to darken the room, then made each child select a corner to hide in. She would present us all with a birthday candle and we would all hunker down in whatever corner we happened to be in and Maggie would go around lighting all our candles. Then we would sing,
‘Jesus bids us shine with a pure, clear light,
Like a little candle burning in the night;
In this world of darkness so we must shine,
You in your small corner, and I in mine.’
When we came to the words, ‘You in your small corner and I in mine’ we all jumped up.
Children’s birthday parties these days, with their bouncy castles and balloons are not a patch on Maggie’s parties! For one thing they will never know the memories that special children’s hymn brings back every time it is sung in church. Every time I hear it I think of Maggie’s birthday parties. Nor will they know the magic of seeing all that lovely food spread out on the table – the likes of which in those days was a rarity.
Maggie could turn her hand to almost anything. When I started cookery lessons at school she made me a cookery apron and cap from a bleached flour bag. I remember sitting in her kitchen, waiting while she sewed it on her machine.
Nearly every Saturday morning, before we went to visit Jimmy and Ethel, my mother and I first of all called in Bob and Maggie’s house in Jervis Street. We were never our lone. There always seemed to be somebody else there as well. If it wasn't Isaac Holland the insurance man, it was maybe a woman known as ‘Wee Sarah’. Or perhaps Maggie’s nephew, Sidney Jeffers, or Norman, Maggie’s brother - to mention but a few!
There was always a big pot of homemade soup on the go, with plenty of bread to dip in it. Maggie’s mother, Granny Jeffers would be there, helping to dish out the soup. It was greatly appreciated, especially on a cold winter’s day. That is what I will always remember best about Bob and Maggie – how they always welcomed you to their home. For me it was a home from home. And on Saturday mornings it was a halfway house, between walking to town and starting in to do some shopping – or maybe we should call it a free café! One thing for sure, whoever called at their door was never turned away.
Bob, as I have already said, worked most of his life in Walsh’s nursery, as did his younger brother Alex. My granny wanted a kitten one time. Her cat had been killed on the road. Bob said there were plenty of them running around the nursery and he would bring one home. ‘But mind,’ he said, ‘they’re a bit wild.’
Wild was no name for it! He brought this kitten home in a sack, then opened the sack in the middle of our kitchen. The cat wasn’t used to people and was so terrified it flew round the house like a whirlwind, before running up the curtains. Eventually my granny somehow got it tamed. She believed in rubbing butter on their paws to keep them from straying.
The Beggar Man
Getting a Fright
Reading the Tea Leaves
Lizzie – Brightening things up
Joe Hughes’ Clock
Growing up in Corcrain
Mrs. Montgomery Tam
The First Primroses
Walks around the Country Roads
Finding a Skull
The First World War
A Wee Drop of Drink
Attacked by a Bull – Saved by a Lighted Match
Dead but Wouldn’t Lie down
The Second World War
Ghosts and Lizzie Curry
The Country Fellas Come to Town
The Hay Shifter
The Christmas Rhymers
Maggie’s Birthday Parties
Chapter 9 Alex