Remembering Devon Place from afar

Sheilah Morris pictured as a child in the 1930s.

Sheilah Morris pictured as a child in the 1930s.

SHEILAH MORRIS (now Cangley ) was born in Livingstone, Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia ) in 1928. Her father, who was born in Galway, had been recruited in London in 1920 to join the Veterinary Department of the Civil Service in Northern Rhodesia. He married a Galway girl, and they both moved to Mazabuka, where he worked at a veterinary research station. Now in her eighties and living in Australia, Sheilah recalls her childhood memories of Galway in the 1930s.

I remember seeing the fisherwoman coming round the corner from Sea Road to Devon Place. She was wearing a shawl made from thick wool in shades of brown and cream, obviously of far better quality than most of the shawls. On her head she carried her creel of fish. Her carriage was as upright as that of the African women who came to the well daily in Mazabuka, Zambia, where I was born, to fill their pots which they placed on their heads. The main difference between them was that she did not have a baby on her back or a child trotting along at her heels.

The Claddagh women came almost every day to the back door of 3 Devon Place with their bounty of mackerel, plaice or trout as fish figured largely on my grandmother’s table. I liked the mackerel coated in breadcrumbs and fried in foaming yellow butter.

When my father came home from Africa he always had brown trout for breakfast. He said it reminded him of his boyhood when he and his brother and my mother’s brothers spent part of their summers on an island far up the Corrib.

There they would catch fish, and swim in the cold, cold water all the live long day. When the summer dusk eventually faded they would light a fire and cook the catch of the day for supper. Eventually they went off to bed in the tent sleeping on a ground sheet laid over bracken. They drifted off to sleep listening to the sounds of the river as it hastened to the sea. Those were wonderful days for youngsters with no nagging grownups around.

A flock of seagulls

The women of the Claddagh were hardy, weatherbeaten and enduring. They were usually darkhaired, often missing several teeth, with large hands and broken nails. When they gathered together and started talking it sounded like a flock of screeching sea gulls. Arguments frequently occurred and occasionally fisticuffs but no outsider ever interfered for fear of his or her own skin. They had their own customs and culture and even their own king.

Much has been written about the Claddagh ring but a great deal of it is fabricated. The ring was used as a wedding ring in days gone by but now every tourist from Beijing to Berlin sports one. Jewellers now use precious and semi-precious stones such as emeralds and amethysts but the original ring was either gold or silver and close in design to a ring from Brittany. The latter lacked the crown of fidelity.

The houses of the Claddagh were whitewashed, thatched, cottages which were picturesque, damp and unhygienic. There were often pools of water outside the door and the interiors were dark and gloomy. Sometime between the 1930s and 1940s these cottages were demolished and ugly council houses erected in their place.

Recently I found some old photographs of the fish sellers near the Spanish Arch in Galway. Their faces tell the story of the hard life they had led. Very often their men were away at sea a lot and often drank away their earnings. The children were often barefoot and tuberculosis was rampant. There was a piscatorial school in the Claddagh, built circa 1846. It was not used as a school after the clearance and the fine stone building still stands today.

I remember seeing children as young as seven wearing gold rings in their ears and these rings would have been handed down from mother to daughter like the Claddagh rings. The children might be barefoot but they still wore their earrings.

I so wanted to be like them, wear gold earrings, live in a thatched cottage and go barefoot but little did I realise the harsh realities of their lives.

Selling eggs

I remember my father telling me that Connemara women also came to Galway to sell eggs. They would walk barefoot from their little cottages to the top of Taylor’s Hill where they would put their boots on so as not to be looked down upon by the townsfolk. Boots cost money and had to be carefully looked after so they would last many years.

When they returned home the boots came off at the top of the hill and were slung around their necks. Their feet were calloused and hardened from going barefoot from babyhood. They, too, were a breed apart, like the people of the Claddagh.

I grew to know the narrow winding streets of old Galway, the tall dark buildings in Dominick Street where my ancestors had lived in centuries past and where the marriage stones of my Tribe are embedded into the walls.

Nowadays the roundabouts on the road going into Galway are named after the Tribes and pennants with their crests on them blow in the wind in Eyre Square, but these were not there when I was a child.

Growing up I learnt about my ancestors who had been sheriffs and mayors of Galway and how they were stripped of their lands and houses by Cromwell. Some of them were shipped off to the Caribbean and sold as slaves. What an ignominious fate for a proud family.

One of my ancestors was instrumental in determining the fate of Spanish sailors, survivors of the wrecked ships of the Armada.

Remembered in the stained glass windows

My ancestors had arrived in Galway towards the end of the 15th century but had been in Ireland for some centuries. They were Norman knights who had come to Ireland in the train of Strongbow, Earl of Pembroke. Their name had changed over the centuries and various forms of spelling appeared. This makes research into family history difficult in the extreme and, with the loss of records in the fire of 1922, the trail often goes cold.

My mother and her brothers and sister live forever in the stained glass window of one of Galway’s churches. My grandfather had given generously to the church and he was asked if his children could be used as models for the angels in a Nativity scene in the big window behind the altar.

There they are frozen in time, forever young and perfect in early childhood.

I remember the water wheel and the mill race leading from the Eglinton Canal into the racing river. The houses along the canal had brightly coloured front doors which opened onto the narrow banks with the waters of the canal a couple of feet below. Those houses must have been damp with water on all sides, the canal beyond the front door and the back door overlooking the turbulent Corrib.

Almost everywhere in Galway there was the presence of water, whether it was the river or the dank canals or the fresh saltiness of the sea as the wind blew in from Galway Bay.

No wonder it is known as the Venice of the West.

My paternal grandmother often took me shopping with her and we sometimes stopped at Lydons tea rooms for mid-morning refreshment, cups of China tea and slices of cherry cake (although I thought my grandmother’s cakes were far better than Lydons ). She also took me to Moons the drapers, McCambridge’s which stocked the lemonade I liked so much and the egg market where Grandmother bought eggs by the score rather than the dozen.

One Easter I was taken to a Holy Week service in the church of St Nicholas. It was a marathon service called Tenebrae which was held on three evenings of Holy Week, an ancient and sombre ceremony which made a deep impression upon me.

I seem to remember that the lights in the church were dimmed one by one until the church was in darkness.

There were visits to other churches too, some of them very ancient, dark and musty smelling. The churches were often filled with shawled women murmuring prayers or telling their beads and there was a glow from the votive candles burning in front of the Lady Chapel altar.

I remember the smell of hot candle wax and the clink of pennies going in the offering box. This was an Ireland pre-Vatican II where Mass was said in Latin, the old rubrics were adhered to, every child had the catechism drummed into them, and the parish priest was all powerful.

The churches were always packed on Sundays and feast days and the music of plainchant was heard along with the old familiar hymns.

Daily walks took me over the bridges of the Corrib and past the forge in Dominick Street. I loved to stand in the middle of the bridge and look down on the swift dark river beneath. I was mesmerised by the movement of the water, imagining that I was a leaf or a branch borne along towards the open sea and over the ocean to lands unknown.

There were big clusters of swans down near the Claddagh and they could be frightening and ferocious at times. Those swans were a familiar sight in Galway. They tended to gather in groups in the Claddagh basin and it was a lovely sight to see them bobbing about among the other birds, dipping down from time to time to snatch some morsel from the water.

One day a black swan appeared out of nowhere and made itself at home among all the others. Smaller than the white swans, it dipped and swayed, the wind ruffling its feathers as it moved with the current. Crowds gathered on the bank to puzzle as to how this exotic stranger ended up in Galway, so far from its native home in the Antipodes.

There was much poverty in Galway in the earlier part of the 20th century. The little houses and shops which lined the streets were cramped and unhealthy.

I remember going into one of those tiny shops which stocked everything, jars of boiled sweets, comics, brooms, tin buckets, and so on. They were all packed into the shop in one glorious jumble but the shopkeeper knew where everything was kept and would get something down from a top shelf with unerring judgement.

To me those dark caves of buildings appeared fascinating and full of treasure.

There was always a smell of turf in the air, a sweetish musky smell which clung to clothing and always became stronger if it was raining. You could tell a Galway man by his bawneen jacket and the aroma of peat, his height and his dark hair.

Some say the Spanish links in earlier centuries showed up in the features and colouring of the men of the west and it is certain there was much trade between Spain and the port of Galway. Occasionally there is mention in Hardiman’s History of Galway of the bonds between Ireland and Spain.

The children of the poor in Galway lived by the old adage “cast not a clout till May be out” and I remember being told that some of them were sewn into brown paper at the beginning of winter to keep out the cold. This last sounds very Victorian, but Galway on the edge of the Atlantic was far behind the times in the 1930s.

Today is a very different story with thousands of foreign students at the university, a flowering of the arts and festivals galore.

My childhood home is no more. My grandmother’s house in Devon Place is an office space for accountants. Today it has a scarlet front door with a fanlight above it and I believe the old coach house is now a very smart mews apartment.

When my grandmother lived there was a striped awning over the door to keep the sun off the paint in summer, a fuchsia hedge and a silver painted garden bench in the front garden.

My maternal grandmother’s house has recently changed hands and from the photographs which accompanied the notice of sale, I can see it has been refurbished in recent years but certain features are still recognisable, such as the hall door and the silver railings into the front garden.

The gate is still there with the name of the house on it. I have photos of myself standing near that gate with my cousins when we were children and I have often pictured my mother as a child returning from school as fast as her eight-year-old legs would carry her to see her brothers on leave during World War I, all the ghosts of the past.

Galway in the year of our lord 2017 is still recognisable to me and will always be etched in my memory as a place which is different, linking me to my past and to my forebears who once flourished in this city.

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