Here is an image out of my childhood: a woman on her knees weeding a field in which turnips have been planted before it’s set out for grass seeds. Around her are her 13 children, the older helping with the weeding: their younger siblings tethered like goats to prevent them wandering off. In a land without opportunity then, Irish women had it tough.
As the wife of one of my grandfather’s farm hands, at least the woman in that image had a house in which to sleep, albeit one with smelly carpets fashioned out of dried cow dung. Other women had no homes.
Like the Seanchai, the traditional itinerant storytellers who travelled from one community to another offering their skills in exchange for food and shelter, the ‘Shawly Woman’ and the ‘Friday Woman’ were a feature of our lives, walking the country roads all year round, stopping off at homes like ours where they were given food and drink. In return, they gave us news of other households, spiced with gossip and surmise.
Our washerwoman, Mrs Markham, was another source of gossip. Slaving at her tub and washboard, she had definite opinions and in creating Mrs Cash, who features in A Wrong to Sweeten, I’d been thinking about her (‘That fellow,’ said Mrs Cash, ‘Wouldn’t he steal the eye out of your head and come back for the eye-lash, if you gave him half a chance.’).
And when, in Seeking Clemency, I created Norah Cusack, I was thinking of our Bridie, though the two were not alike. Clever, pretty Bridie Hogan was 16 when my grandmother, Nina O’Brien Kelly, hired her as the children’s nanny. For Bridie, living in an orphanage, the job seemed like a salvation. When the children all grew up she became the household cook. Seventy years later she was still in the house, having long since become ‘family.’
Many others weren’t so lucky: even in the 1950s, domestic labour was still the largest single source of paid work for Irish women. Many of them never married: ‘followers’ were not allowed and the hours of work so long they had no time to socialise. If you were a farmer’s daughter you might well be married off. Matchmaking is one of our oldest traditions and much of it took place in a small spa town called Lisdoonvarna. Each September people flocked there – some to simply ‘take the waters’; some, with daughters in their ‘twenties, to see what land deals could be made by arranging marriages with the sons of other farmers. Official matchmakers were on standby to officiate at ‘deals’ – daughters, sometimes grateful, sometimes not, had little say in what went on.
Courageous, practical, upbeat, they made the most of what they got. They were truly wonderful.,
Illustration: Detail from Kerry landscape by Reg Gammon, in the author’s own collection.
Next week: The mystery of the missing bureau.