I believe that my grandfather, Ronnie Hackett, was surprised when my grandmother agreed to marry him. He was the youngest of six brothers and four sisters, born in the Blackrock area of Cork city. Many of the brothers having a medical qualification went off to see the world with the British merchant navy. But in their later lives all came back to Cork, and enjoyed a happy life fishing and shooting, and a little bit of medicine. Indeed there are several family stories about a brother’s wife apologising to a full waiting room for her husband’s abrupt departure ‘on an urgent medical matter’. Whereas in fact, the call was from another brother to come fishing.
My grandfather did not join any merchant navy. He qualified as a dentist, and immediately set up practice in Skibbereen, a small west Cork town. He was the only dentist there. Not only did he fill and pull teeth, but he made dentures and fixed broken ones. At my mother’s recent funeral near Baltimore, a woman proudly, and without embarrassment, showed me her dentures made by my grandfather!
In the early years of the last century money was scarce. Patients more often than not paid in kind: a dozen brown eggs, a fat plucked chicken or a goose, breads and jams; or, as on one occasion, I was told as a small boy, that there were two pheasants in O’Driscoll’s field, and that ‘ they would be in it again that evening’. After work my grandfather went to O’Driscoll’s field, and shot them. My grandparents had little money but their larder was always full.
My grandmother, Dorothy (Dorrie ) Ellam, was a very beautiful woman. Her father was an artist in Croydon, South London. She modelled for him, and other artists. Somehow the family had sufficient money to send her to a boarding school in Belgium, where she grew into an accomplished young woman, fluent in languages; winning books for her high marks in English, French, and religious knowledge.
My grandfather fell instantly in love with her when they met for an ‘afternoon tea’ at a cousin’s house. My grandmother’s parents expected their daughter to marry some sophisticated and wealthy man, probably with a handsome property in the city. Instead she fell for Ronnie Hackett, and came to Skibbereen as his wife.
The London wife
My grandfather’s brothers were alarmed for him. They feared that the poor young London girl would never survive Irish small-town life. Her beauty was legendary. Men and boys would point her out as ‘the London wife’; and some would stand opposite the house (also the dentist’s surgery ), and wait to get a glimpse of her. The brothers clubbed together and bought them a Ford Model T, which even then was a bit of a bone-shaker. After work my grandparents would go for ‘a rattle’. The street was too narrow to turn the car around, so with loud banging and smoke from a faulty exhaust, they would drive outside the town, make a U-turn at the first wide cross-roads, and, with boys and dogs running alongside the car cheering, my grandmother holding her hat firmly on her head, they would ‘rattle’ through Skibbereen, and on to their favourite place, Ballydehob.
Banging on the door
The eldest of the brothers was called Wilkie, a retired surgeon-captain, who was the boss of the family. He lived alone on Spanish Island, just off Baltimore. There were no phones to the island. Every day he would come into Baltimore on his boat, an open launch called The Goldfinch, for his mail, and a drink at Tim Donovan’s pub. The pep-pep-pep sound of his engine as it passed around the headland was familiar for many people. Farmers waved from their farmsteads as he passed.
If you wanted to contact Wilkie, you flashed your car-lights from the small, high, pier opposite his island. He always saw the flashes. A few minutes later he’d come across, pep-pep-pep, to see what was up. Even though he was bossy, everyone loved him, and his romantic stories of his life at sea. When my mother was five years of age, she suddenly announced that she would like to stay with Wilkie on his island. This came as a surprise to her parents, as she adored her mother Dorrie, and would never let her out of her sight without howling for her to return.
But she insisted on going to Wilkie’s island ‘for a stay’. Surprisingly Wilkie agreed. Arrangements were made, and one evening, a well wrapped child, with a suitcase, two dolls, and a basket of food, was handed down to Wilkie in The Goldfinch. As it pep-pep-pepped away, Dorrie waved and wept. But my mother apparently, did not look back. Delighted with herself, she only looked towards the island.
After supper Wilkie lit the paraffin lamps, and showed her to an attic bed he had specially prepared. But whatever happened at that moment, my mother let out a wail. She insisted on going home. Poor Wilkie became alarmed. Totally unused to children, he pleaded that he could not contact her parents, she would have to stay at least for the night. This only made my mother howl all the louder. After several attempts to calm the child, there was nothing for it but to wrap my mother up in the warmest clothes, and head back to Baltimore. My mother sniffed as The Goldfinch pep-pep-pepped its way to the shore. Tim Donovan was roused from his sleep. His car was backed out of its garage, and my mother was driven to Skibbereen in the dark hours of the night.
Dorrie and Ronnie were woken by loud banging on their door. Afraid that something terrible had happened they ran downstairs. The lights from Tim’s car blinded them for an instant, but in that time, what seemed miraculous in its re-telling, was that two hands gently passed into Dorrie’s arms, a sleeping child.
February 25 1920
- March 5 2014