Politics were never discussed in my house or at least not in front of us children. Until this attack at the bus depot, which I reckon was 1956, we were oblivious to what was going on in Northern Ireland politics. We were, I think what is now referred to as castle catholics. We were happy with the status quo but others around us were awakening to the fact that there was a need for change. My dad was a staunch GAA supporter and I accompanied him with my brothers to matches in Croke Park. I was there when in 1961 Down won the all Ireland championship and brought the Sam Maguire across the border. I hate to hear the GAA equated with terrorism by it’s critics, as this would have upset my dad so much. The explosion, in a peaceful village like Rostrevor, was the start of a bombing campaign along the border. It fizzled out and for many years things remained calm until a certain young preacher called Paisley appeared on the scene.
I was actually very lucky being born in 1949. The war now over, the Labour government, with the vision of Aneurin Bevan introduced the National Health Service. The welfare state was introduced in Northern Ireland and my siblings and I were able to enjoy the benefits of free education and avail of free health care from the cradle to the grave. With free education the way was open for those who wanted to better themselves and challenge those who had held the majority at Stormont for almost 40 years. I had to avail of that health service earlier than I would have wanted, when at age of seven, I was rushed to hospital with a septic appendix. I knew even at age seven I was seriously ill when a priest appeared at my bedside and administered the last rites. Never thought much of the Catholic Church after that. My opinion would be justified in years to come. What were they thinking? Frightening a seven year old? Unlike today, when most patients are discharged within twenty four hours I remained in hospital for two weeks followed by bed rest for another two weeks at home. Visiting hours were extremely strict. I remember to this day feeling that I had been abandoned by my parents and refusing to speak to them when they did visit. I often wonder if that episode in my life contributed to situations I found myself in, during later life.
My dad was the local town surveyor and many times I accompanied him while he worked. I often went with him to a water source at Kilfeggan. A long trek up the side of the mountain and then across a river. Then a long walk to make sure that the good people of Warrenpoint were not having any water problems. Well, with their drinking water anyway. At the top in a ramshackle cottage lived an old farmer called Dan White. He lived there through all weathers with his collie. He grew potatoes in the clean mountain soil. We left with a bag of them and they were delicious, boiled in their skins and eaten with a knob of butter. Nothing like them in the shops today. While on the mountain my dad used to scare us by telling us of an American plane that crashed in a bog on the mountain. He told us that their ghosts roamed the area and we had better beware. It was very quiet up there and we were very gullible. In later years I did learn that there was some truth in this and that an American plane had indeed crashed in the Mournes, only closer to Annalong.
I also accompanied my father on a survey of the outlying districts of the area one summer in 1956 /57. We visited tiny little cottages where peat fires were lit in the kitchen and the lady of the house or ‘bean án Tí’ wore a long black dress with a shawl. An occasional chicken wandered in and out of the kitchen in one of the houses. I had no problems recently when out canvassing and was confronted with a chicken in a suburban front garden. There was no electricity and the toilet was an outhouse at the back. When offered tea I refused because they all had such dirty hands. I didn’t appreciate how hard life was for them trying to make a living from the soil. The lanes and fields round these cottages smelt of wild flowers and on a sunny summer’s day it was idyllic. We brought a Volcano kettle with us and dad made us tea and we ate mikado bickies. Some things don’t change. You can still buy both the mikado biscuits and the Volcano kettle.
I remember life in the fifties as colourless. Everything was painted brown or green. The floors were covered in oilcloth. Everything symbolised the austerity of the time. Rationing was still in force and Britain was recovering from the war. The sixties were to change all that. Flower power, the Beatles. Hippies,Mods and rockers. ( Part Three on Vixens tomorrow…)