Wicklow journalist and broadcaster, Valerie Cox, has just published her fifth book. It’s all about the ‘Independence Babies’, the people who were babies and toddlers in the years around the foundation of the Free State in 1922.
Valerie interviewed twenty six men and women, now aged from 90 to 99, about their memories, their family memories and how their lives have turned out to date. There are fascinating glimpses into a world where there was no electricity, where people didn’t know they were poor, where families were self-sufficient, taking part in the Meitheal and killing their own pig twice a year.
Many children walked barefoot to school and brought a sod of turf for the fire in the classroom or sixpence to buy fuel. Clothes were handed down and coats and shirts were made to last for years by turning the collar and serious repair jobs.
One of the Wicklow connections to the book is the story of Anne Blake, widow of the late Cllr Vincent Blake and mother of Cllr Vincent Blake, Junior. Anne was born in 1921 and from the time her husband entered politics, she has been the leader of the backroom team that saw both her husband and her son elected to Wicklow County Council. ‘I always had a lot of people who were out canvassing coming in to me for their dinners and I was making tea all day’, she told Valerie, ‘I never went out though. It was an exciting time for the family but I can tell you about the first time the party wanted him to run.. I remember putting out the cows and walking up the road ad crying because they wanted hi to go for election’.
Anne’s daughter, Ettie, the only one of their children to live abroad, came home from Boston each time there was an election.. ‘My father was a popular man’, she said, ‘I would go out with him, we would go up all kinds of lanes and open gates and he would always tell me, ‘You stay there, don’t say anything’!
Anne was born in Killanure.. She was a great camogie player and played on the Wicklow team.. She says she met her husband, Vincent, at a football match. They got married in war time with a reception in Gorey, ‘We didn’t go on honeymoon, just back to work the next day, it was tough.’
Anne is very positive about the state of the nation today. ‘We are a lot better off today, well off. It’s a better place, a lot better. There is still a great sense of community in this area, in Shillelagh, in Mullinacuffe. My neighbours are all very good and so is my family.’
‘Do what you have to do, go to Mass and say a prayer. And be good to your neighbours.’ They are the words of Tom O’Mahony who has just celebrated his 98th birthday with a big family party at his daughter Eileen’s home in Co Wicklow, where he now lives. ‘There were
cousins and friends and neighbours,’ he tells me as we leaf through the photos of the event, including one of the magnificent red velvet birthday cake in the shape of Tom’s toolbox.
Tom grew up in Ballylanders, seven miles outside Mitchelstown, Co Cork — over the Limerick border. He was one of four children of Willie and Nellie (née Quinn). Tom’s earliest memories revolve around the family farm in Ballylanders. Children were given responsibilities from a young age so, from about eight, he found himself helping to milk the cows, clean out the sheds and thresh oats in a barrel. ‘It was a very simple life but hard enough.’ Families tried to be self-sufficient and Tom’s family reared their own pigs as well.
But there was also romance and Tom says he literally met his future wife, Alice Martin, at the crossroads. ‘Myself and another fella went to a dance, we got our bicycles and we were on the way home together when we came to the crossroads, where we took separate roads. Alice was also coming from the dance. We got talking and I offered to see her home.
‘The next thing it began pouring rain and we ran for shelter under a tree. So we sat on our bicycles till the rain stopped and then I went along the road with her walking her home.’ Tom took the Pledge when he was 21 and is still a Pioneer and proudly wears the Abstinence emblem on his lapel. He has never smoked either.
So what does Tom think of Ireland today? ‘People are all trying to “best” one another. When I was young, my father always told us not to do harm to anyone else and to be nice to people.’ Tom is a practising Catholic and recalls how, when he was young, the entire family went off to Mass on a Sunday morning on a horse and cart and returned home to the farm to face their chores. He believes in an afterlife. ‘There must be some place there, there must be a heaven.’ And as for death, Tom says it shouldn’t bother you ‘as long as you weren’t a blackguard — anyone who is good is okay. I do my best.’