family history

Can I Ever Go Home Again?

Margaret Mulvihill, October 9, 2016

It’s a blustery day in the Washington DC suburbs. I’m hearing the wind pick up outside, with a scattering of rain pecking at the windows. It’s one of those mid-October days with a bite to it, yesterday was summer and tomorrow will be winter. As I listen to the sounds of the weather outside, my mind is drifting back in memory toward the year 1960, toward the household of William Guerin in Foynes, West Limerick. The area is now known as the Wild Atlantic Way section of the Shannon River. That age old question comes unbidden, ‘Can I ever go home again?’ I wonder.

In my mind’s eye, I see the big warm kitchen in Foynes, with the heat radiating out from the shiny black and chrome range. Mary keeps it well-fed from the coal scuttle in the cupboard to the right of the range. The long wood table is the centerpiece in the middle of the room, surrounded with eight Sugáin chairs waiting for us all to sit down to eat.

The pinky brown and tan-flecked tile floor is gleaming, and the Sacred Heart lamp is casting a rosy glow across the tall cream-painted kitchen door. The plaster walls are painted in a shiny green color to chair rail level, and wall-papered above that, with a deep border of extravagantly cascading roses between ceiling and walls. There is a less exuberant straight-edged border where the painted wall meets the wallpaper. Dada does the wall-papering himself, and the painting, but everyone gets involved in cutting around the roses for the border. His younger brother Jimmy does the white-washing outside.

The wide wood dresser takes up most of the wall opposite the range, flanked by a single Sugáin chair on each side. The seat cushions are all made by Mam on her Singer sewing machine, of shiny green brocade from the same bolt of material as the long curtains at the window. She makes the curtains as well, and she knits Dada’s socks. The dresser holds all of the everyday china in its middle section. It has drawers for the knives, and forks and spoons.

Although the plain sash window is longer than most, it is not a bright room, because of the tall palm tree waving and swaying in the wind outside, surrounded by the dense shrubbery dotted around the lawn and the high hedges.

Two leather armchairs stand on either side of the range, Dada’s on the left nearest to the window, Mam’s on the right. The long narrow mantelpiece stretches across the length of the range, covered in shiny patterned oilcloth, with the clock in the middle. The enamel tin of loose tea leaves is kept here for convenience, and the kettle is always on the boil in case a neighbor comes in.

A small oil lamp sits up on the mantelpiece as well, standing ready for when the electric light goes out. Nobody really trusts it, this single bulb with the green enamel shade hanging down from the center of the ceiling where the old oil lamp used to hang. The ESB only finished the Rural Electrification scheme here five years ago. The ESB says our house is in Shanagolden, and Jimmy agrees with them because he went to school in Shanagolden. The Post Office says our house is in Foynes, and Mary agrees with them because she went to school in Foynes. The house itself hasn’t moved at all since the day it was built.

The hand-painted faux brick surround extends down from the mantelpiece to the floor. Floor to ceiling double-door cupboards flank the range, painted in the same creamy ‘French Beige’ as the door and window.

The cupboards are split – each side has a set of double short doors on the bottom, and a set of double tall doors on top. The left is for storage. Mam’s sewing machine, dress materials, the button box. The dictionary and the atlas that Mam uses when she’s reading. They were Uncle John’s when he was going to school. Up high on the top shelf, Brenda’s toys and books. The right side hides the water heater, and is called ‘the hot press’. All of our clothes, sheets and towels are in there, always warm and ‘aired’. Under that is the coal, old newspapers, and kindling.

On a deep shelf in the corner of the window wall furthest from the range sits the over-sized Radio. The Kennedys of Castleross, the Hurling and football games and Michael Dillon’s livestock prices all broadcast from that corner.

Mam and Mary shake out the tablecloth before putting it on the table. The everyday dishes come out, what we call ‘the Island plates’, because they came from the Sheahan house on Foynes Island.

(Mary Sheahan from the Island was Dada’s mother, she married James Guerin in Limerick on the 28th April in 1891. Dada was born the following May.)

The Island plates are blue and white Willow pattern, the cups and saucers are white with a blue band. Soon the table is set for supper. Freshly baked brown bread, and crusty white soda bread. Mam makes the gooseberry and blackcurrant jam, and scones.

The yellow butter comes from the Creamery in Shanagolden. There’s slices of cold meat and chicken for the men. A jug of our own fresh milk appears, followed by the big steaming teapot.

Dada and Jimmy come in from milking the cows, taking their boots off outside, and their tweed caps. God bless all here says Jimmy as he dips his head to come through the kitchen door. It’s what he says every time he comes into the kitchen.

Mam takes a seat and starts pouring the tea. Mary is getting the sugar. Dada thanks God for all of us and the meal begins. Sharp words between him and Mam because he pours his milky tea into his saucer. He prefers it this way.  Jimmy tells them to whist in front of the child.

The conversation moves on to a discussion on the prices of prime beef on the hoof, cattle in general, and poultry. The warmth of this room, of the people in it, and the conversation would continue like this for another three years, until Dada’s death. After May of 1963, while the conversation would continue, it would never be the same again.

No, I can never go home again. Neither can you.