Memories of Balbriggan in the 50’s
By Roger Turner
Part 3: Saturdays are Special for Kids.
You know, mothers are
canny people! They take you halfway across the world, let you run
wild aboard a huge ship all night, make your little legs walk what
seems like miles when you get off a battered old bus, stuff you
up with food, send you out for another long walk, feed you again
and then take you out for another long walk. No wonder I slept that
first night! I was blooming well exhausted, that’s what I
was. “Cream-Crackered” we call it in Sheffield!
Mind you, we bairns didn’t go to sleep straight away. No,
we could hear our mothers downstairs… Chatter, Chatter, Chatter.
So that’s what we did, well, at least for a while.
At home I was a very light sleeper and had become a pain in the
bum to our Pat by trying to crawl into bed with her in the middle
of the night.
know now that that beautiful fresh Balbriggan air coupled with
tiredness knocked me out that first night. But I also know that
I was the first to awaken the following morning. Well, not quite
the first, for from downstairs came that smell that still now
makes me lick my lips. I was faced with a dilemma; wake the
others or slip out of bed, dress quietly and get down for the
first slice of bacon to come out of the pan. I tried the latter
but was thwarted as the smell aroused the others.
Roger at the Zoo
Roger's sandcastle |The
plan for today, Saturday, was to take a long walk to Gormanston,
having a picnic on the way. I was ready to go off straight after
breakfast, but the tide was against us.
We had a choice. Either go to the shop with our mothers, or
stay and do some chores in the house.
To me it was no choice at all for I knew full well that if I
went with mother she would be stopping for a chat every few
yards. Been there, done that last night.
‘Ah! Tis yourself
now,’ some strange old woman would stop and say. ‘Grand
to see you again, grand.’ The woman would then turn her attention
to our Pat. ‘And don’t tell me that’s your little
girl? My, haven’t you grown, and aren’t you the image
of your mammy, now….’
I would slip behind my mother and grab her leg in a vain attempt
to hide. Not a prayer.
‘And hasn’t the wee boy grown….’ I was totally
embarrassed by now.
No, I was best out of it. ‘I’ll sweep the floor, Aunty
Eileen….’ I wasn’t daft, that was the easiest
of the chores and I knew it.
Off went Mum and Aunty Eileen, still chatting, whilst we kids did
our bit. And it was bit too, and soon I was seated on the concrete
gatepost, playing a tune on me new mouth organ.
you know, when I sat on that gatepost, I became invisible? Tis
true, honest. I would be sat there, tootling away, when a couple
of woman would approach on their way to the shops. They took
no notice of me for they were far too engrossed in gossip…
‘…then she told me! Well, who am I to break a confidence,
but…’ Then they were gone out of earshot.
A few minutes later another pair would stroll past…. ‘…far
too fond of the taste of the black-bush for my liking…’
Taste of which bush? I wanted to ask. I couldn’t understand
why anybody would want to lick a bush, unless it was full of
Aunty Eileen, Our Pat, Rita, Rory, Roger. somewhere past the
yes, sat there I must have become privy to many secrets, but these
women talked in a secret sort of code.
‘She’s lost another baby. Sure that makes five that
I know of…’
I wanted to shout, ‘Maybe the Tinkers have them.’ Mother
always warned me that if I didn’t behave the Tinkers would
come for me. Terrified of them Tinkers I was, so I would seek solace
in another tune on me mouth organ until more women came past.
‘…she was in a right state when I called round for a
cup of sugar…’ Some of those Balbriggan ladies were
in the premier league when it came to gossiping and I loved listening
to snatches of their conversation. You know what, I should have
put me mouth organ away and taken notes. Could have made a small
Over the coming years I was to become an avid people watcher. Not
a voyeur, I might add, but just an observer of the human race.
Balbriggan as seen from the "Sailors Grave". |Hands
up all those who “…once took a walk up to Phoenix,
to view the Zoological Gardens?” (Where’s me mouth
Yes, I thought as much. We all admit to watching animals, and
birdwatching is big business, so what’s wrong with watching
people? Don’t tell me you haven’t sat in pub and
looked at people sat there minding their own business!
And don’t tell me you have never listened in to half a
conversation on a bus and wondered what you are missing.
It starts with some tinny tune waking everyone up… “Hello….
You’ll have to speak up…. No, It’s a poor
signal… Yes, I’m on the bus now… He didn’t,
did he? … And you just let him? … Fresh cream…
Yes, but… Well, er, no, I thought… You’re
How many times has
that happened and you have tried to fill in the missing pieces?
I thought so. Well then, don’t judge that little lad sat on
the gatepost playing his mouth organ, eavesdropping.
After a while, Rory would escape from doing his chores and come
out for a chat, leaving our Pat and Rita to finish off in the house.
Now here’s a question; do the youngsters in Balbriggan still
Both in Balbriggan and back home in Sheffield, we fifties children
always had chores to do. We were never happy to do them, and got
a thick ear if we refused or argued, but do them we did. I learnt
to cook by helping my mother and my grandmother, but, I suppose,
it was a different way of life back in the fifties, we didn’t
have... but we’ll not go down that road again.
Like me, Rory was a bit of lad and had the gift of the gab. I would
teach him Yorkshire sayings and he taught me Irish words. I could,
and still can, count in Irish, but I doubt if I could still do sums.
I learnt a smattering of Irish words including some you really don’t
want to know, although most of these are now locked away in some
inaccessible area of the brain.
other children in the street came out from doing their chores
we would all meet up and play until our mothers eventually came
back from the shops.
Potatoes were then peeled, vegetables prepared and put in water
and the sausages put on a plate in the cold-press all ready
for a good meal once we returned from our walk. Finally, sandwiches
were made, a flask of tea brewed for the picnic and we were
ready for the off.
Oh, you want to come along with us then? Well, you’d better
run home and ask yer mammy. We’ll be leaving in a couple
of minutes, so you’d better hurry. And tell her we’ll
not be back ‘til half six.
Stevie Calow, my mother, Eileen and Chris at gormanston
in the 30s.
I loved that coastal walk and despite the fact of we children having
little legs we would set off at a brisk pace. My mother, being in
far from the best of health, was usually well behind us with Aunty
Eileen, still chatting away. It usually followed the same pattern;
down the back way, across level crossing, saunter across the wooden
walkway over the viaduct to the front strand, along to the path
past the tower and down to the old bathhouse.
My Nan Calow used to tell me how she liked to take seaweed baths
down there in the thirties. God, the thought of anyone paying good
money to sit in a bath of seaweed was beyond my comprehension for
it sounds like some kind of torture to me! But she said it was good
for rheumatism, and, well it must have been, for she definitely
On this first part of the walk we’d pass groups of nuns taking
in the wonderful air. I often wonder what them nuns did all day
in that convent? It can’t be very nice for they never looked
very happy to me. Maybe they had escaped and got caught.
Our Pat won’t be too happy either, because I’ll soon
be telling her I’m tired and ask if she’ll carry me.
I know what she’ll say… But that’s what big sisters
are for. Winding up.
‘My legs are tired, Pat,’ I would say. ‘If me
dad was here he would put me on his shoulders for a ride!’
Our Pat would give me the dead eye. ‘Well he’s not here,
and I’m not carrying you, so there!’
I knew she wouldn’t, but you’ve got to try, haven’t
I don’t think I’ve mentioned me dad much, have I? Well,
that’s because he’s back home in Sheffield. He never
comes with us for the whole summer. Poor thing has to work. Does
something in one of them dirty smelly factories.
I don’t know what it is he does, but he goes out before I
get up and comes home just as me mum’s getting me ready for
bed. He even works on a Saturday.
You know that old concrete walkway that goes into the sea? Well,
when me dad comes over in a few weeks he’ll go swimming off
Did you bring your net?
Good, then we’ll do some dipping in the rock pools.
Rock pools appear as the tide slowly ebbs away and as our timing
on this warm Saturday morning is right, there will be many for us
But what will we find? Well let’s see…
The Delven Bridge. |First
of all there are thousands of baby crabs scurrying sideways
trying to find a bit of wet sand to hide in for a few hours.
Them crabs must be daft leaving it so late to find shelter.
If you creep up, you might just see a dab settling down in the
sand at the bottom of deep pool. Mind you, you’ve got
to be careful on those rocks for only a few minutes ago they
were under the water and are very wet and covered in seaweed.
Seaweed again! Why didn’t Nan Calow come and sit in one
them pools full of seaweed? Grown-ups are very strange when
you are only a little kid!
I suppose she might have been scared of them horrid jellyfish.
Our Pat told me, if they stung you you’d die. Bit like
being kissed by a big sister then! Anyway, I’ll not chance
either, and I’d give any jellyfish I see a bash with me
enough to do the same with our Pat though...
Back in the fifties, buckets were made of tin as was the working
bit of the spade, and the long handle was made of wood. You could
buy a shiny new bucket and spade for about a shilling but within
a few weeks the things would have started to go rotten. Nowadays
they make them out of plastic that never rots and neither do they
decay or break down by the action of the sea. Mind you, the first
time you use the bucket the handle will snap off, and the handle
of the spade will bend double and snap off the first time you dig
it into the wet sand.
That’s progress for you!
Anyway to get back to the rock pools, it’s not just little
crabs and dabs you find. One year I came across a bloody great conger
eel at the bottom of one of those deep pools. It looked dead, so
I poked it with a length of driftwood.
It jumped up out of the water, gnashing its teeth at me. I don’t
know who was most startled, him or me. I fell backward and dropped
the driftwood plank on him at the same time as the conger’s
nose hit rock under my feet and fell back in the pool. Never been
fond of conger eels ever since.
Now starfish, they’re good sports. They just lie there waiting
for the tide to come chasing back up the shore. You could scoop
them into your net and they wouldn’t be bothered in the slightest.
Crabs, on the other hand, became most angry when scooped up. There
used to be an old fella called Paddy Doherty, who rowed out to Cardy
Rocks most days to check his lobsterpots. His old dog would come
for the ride and never bothered about the lobsters. But if Paddy
took a crab from a pot that dog went crazy and would rip the poor
crab into pieces. It turned out that it once got bit by a crab and
never forgot it.
No, the trouble with crabs is that they get aggressive at the slightest
provocation and sometimes are liable to attack first and ask questions
later. Mind you, crabs were great for scaring big sisters. It wouldn’t
have been the first time our Pat went to bed to find one lying in
wait under the sheets. ‘MUM!’ she would yell at the
top her voice. ‘Tell him to give over!’
Ha–ha. It was worth a crack from mum.
‘Come on you children,’ Mother would call from miles
in front of us. ‘Lets put a stone on the Sailor’s Grave’
How did they get so far ahead of us?
it’s what we do. What I don’t know is why we do
it? Life’s like that. When you are little, you are told
to do something without any explanation as to why. Still, it’s
good fun. One day someone will tell kids who the sailor was,
and why he is buried under a pile of stone miles from nowhere.
Maybe Mum did tell me but it was on one of them days I wasn’t
listening. I was very good at not listening some times! Our
Pat once told me that it was the site of shipwreck where all
the sailors died. Well, if that’s the case, then where
are the other sailors buried?
A Jelly Fish on Gormanston Beach
Gormanston Beach |Do
you know, I’ve spent half a century in complete, yet happy
ignorance of the facts and then one day I discovered www.balbriggan.net,
read the brief history of the town, then clicked on to the Historical
Society web site.
Wow! Did all that really happen down here on these rocks?
When I were a kid, history was the most boring thing in the
world. At school, bald old men, with leather patches on their
elbows, taught history, or should I say, tried to teach us history…
“…William the Conqueror, arrived on these shores
in …” I shoot my hand in the air to interrupt the
teachers flow. “Yes, Turner?”
‘Did they have them in 1066 Sir?’
“Have what, Turner?”
‘Conker trees, Sir?’
of piece of chalk hitting me right in the middle of my forehead
silenced the laughter. “See me later, Turner!”
History was the most boring of subjects back in the fifties because
those who taught it thought that only famous people made history,
when in fact ordinary people like us made the world what it is today.
All towns and villages are populated with ordinary people like you
and me, and we all have a story to tell.
I live in a big city that can trace its history back over a thousand
years. Back then Sheffield was a couple of cottages surrounded by
rivers, fields and trees. Over the years many villages grew up until
eventually they all merged into one huge conurbation called Sheffield
making goods for export.
These goods were taken to the ports loaded onto ships and exported
all over the place. It could be that on that day in 1875, a sailor
loaded some items made by my great-great-grandfather onto the hold
of the Belle Hill. And it could be that that sailor, just an ordinary
man trying to earn a living the only way he knew, lost his life
when the ship was hit by a storm and floundered on the rocks between
Balbriggan and Gormanston.
So the next time you walk to the Sailor’s Grave and add a
stone, give a thought to the millions of ordinary people who shape
history every day.
And if like me you live hundreds of miles from Balbriggan and can’t
place a stone on the Sailor’s Grave, click onto www.balbrigganhistory.net/
and find out more about the history of the little town in Ireland
that still tugs away at the heartstrings. Since I did that I have
learned that about 3 dozen boats have been wrecked within the fall
of the Balbriggan light. Isn’t the Internet great?
where was I?
Oh yes, enjoying a rest beside the Sailor’s Grave.
I do so like a picnic, don’t you? There is nothing better
on a hot sunny day than to spend an hour sat on a tuft of grass,
or in this case a rocky foreshore, enjoying homemade cakes and
sandwiches, and dinking hot sweet tea. We would do this many
times that summer, and I always enjoyed it.
After a while we would round the point and head towards the
sandy stretch of beach where the Delvin River slips gently out
into the sea… But before we get to the Delvin we have
to pass… Philgates.
Now I can’t remember Major Philgate, but if I had have
come across him I would have remembered, for by all accounts
he was the most obnoxious person imaginable.
The sailor's Grave
can still remember him come charging towards him when he and my
mother were walking past on the foreshore at low tide.
‘You’re trespassing!’ Philgate bellowed. ‘Now
be off with you before I open fire!’ (Or words to that effect)
My dad squared up to him and, in his best English, told him that
under both English and Irish law, the foreshore between the low
and high tide marks did not belong to any one person.
Philgate went off mumbling that they had better not stray onto his
land or else.
I also heard that he would take his shotgun onto the railway viaduct
and try to stop the trains.
I can only remember the house after his death and how it quickly
it became a total wreck. Serves him right!
Now the walking was over and we had a few hours to spend on the
glorious sands of Gormanston. That beach must have been the seashell
capital of the whole wide world. At least it used to be before Nan
Calow came and pinched them all. I’ll be telling you more
about Nan, my grandmother, in my future parts of this epic, but
while we are here on the sand I must just tell you that Nan came
over every year and always went home with a case full of perfect
Once she got back to Sheffield she would glue the shells to her
window boxes, plant pots or anything else that didn’t move.
When she died in the early 70s we had to dispose of many hundreds
of shells all carefully wrapped in tissue paper and packed away
We stayed on that beach until shortly before the train was due,
when we were rounded up and herded towards the platform.
‘How’s the train running?’ Aunty Eileen would
ask the stationmaster.
‘Ah, well you know how it is,’ came back the reply.
‘It all depends on the express.’
Yes, we all knew how it was. Irish railways in the fifties were
a law unto themselves. Yes they were reliable, if you weren’t
in a hurry, for they always turned up… eventually.
Then, when it did come, the driver and fireman would leave the engine
and come for a chat with the stationmaster or anyone else who happened
to be there.
We would settle into a compartment and wait, and wait, and wait.
Whooshhhhhhhh! The Dublin Express sped past. Time to go? No.
Head out of the window and ask the question.
‘Ah, well,’ the driver called back, ‘we’ll
just be waiting a while longer...’ That’s the Irish
railways for you.
There was only one thing we could do, so we had a singsong.
Whatever we sang must have worked for a couple of minutes later
the guard blew his whistle and we were off.
If my memory serves me right, the trains that went across the border
had to have their carriages locked. Now I can clearly remember that
on one occasion our train must have been running even later than
normal when it pulled into Balbriggan station. No one was waiting
to get on, and the guard failed to come and let us out! Panic! The
train started up and headed south with us still onboard.
Mother and Aunty Eileen gave that guard a right good tongue lashing
when he let us out in Skerries.
We kids didn’t mind the extra adventure. We never did!
Back safely in Craoibin Park we were ready for food: a big meal
was the norm on Saturday evenings for from midnight the fast began
and continued until after Communion on Sunday.
Despite being out and about all day, a short walk to The Bower brought
the day to a fine conclusion and we went to bed happy and tired.
“Thank you God for a very special day...”
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