My early childhood began on Essex Street, at the top of Temple Bar, where the hint of sea air carried up the River Liffey from Dublin Bay at high tide. The heavy smell of petrol drifted off double-decker buses rumbling across Parliament Street. The aroma of fine food carried in from the Clarence Hotel through open windows of the four story tenement building where we lived.
The old tenement still stands. The front of the building is painted fiery red, blazed on like flame from a dragon’s breath. The bottom floor has been converted into a cozy bookstore. Gone is the faded flowered wallpaper in Mrs. Early’s bottom floor flat, replaced by paneled walls stacked high with books, and cardboard cutouts of author faces are pasted around the store.
A gray haired man, a scarf hanging loosely around his neck, stands behind a cash register in the same spot where Mrs. Early used to sit in a worn brown armchair by the window. She watched my brother Stephen and me play round-towers in the street with our friends, the Mays, and the Crawfords. Her aged face, always tender and smiling, became concerned when one of us fell on the cobblestones and started to cry. She’d call us into her flat that smelled of lye soap and fried food. “Sit yourself down right here,” she’d say, urging the injured child into her armchair. Then she’d treat the wound with iodine and apply a Band-Aid. There was always a chocolate biscuit or bread with jam to help clear away the tears.
Seven families lived in the four-story tenement building. We occupied a two-room flat on the third floor. One room served as a living room, dining room and bedroom, the other an attached small scullery. Toilets were communal, one on each landing. Red metal water tanks stood above commodes that flushed noisily when pulled by chain handles. Families filled up their buckets from the tap in the backyard to warm on stoves for baths in aluminum tubs, or to use for scrubbing floors, or washing clothes.
At the back of the bookstore a small theatre sits where our backyard used to be. A black ceiling with recessed lighting has supplanted the long clothesline that hung from end to end, the tap that provided water for tenants, the walled concrete area where we used to play. Inside this small, dimly lit theatre that was once my playground, childhood recollections creep onto the stage of my mind.
Mrs. Kelly lived below us on the second floor. She loved her cats, but had no patience with children. She bragged about what good mousers her cats were. Other tenants nodded their agreement to appease her, but everyone knew the cats never caught mice, we could hear the rodents scratching inside walls at night.
My mother hated the cats. She called them “fecking nuisances.” They waited outside our flat and darted inside the moment the door cracked open. We chased after them until they ran back out again. The black cats were the worst because they slept on the stairs just below the landings. At night when lighting was bad they blended into the dark wood making them hard to see, until we stepped on their tails. They shrieked, we screamed, dropping whatever we carried down the steps to the next landing.
We avoided Mrs. Kelly whenever we could, which wasn’t always easy because she roamed the hallways looking for her pets. I learned to recognize her heavy footsteps, to bow my head and politely walk past if I met her. She appeared tall and round, her gray hair tied in a bun, her arms folded over a stained white apron, her face set in a permanent scowl. Except when she saw her cats, then her wide mouth would break into a smile showing yellow teeth. Whenever she happened upon my brother Stephen and me together, her scowl would deepen. She’d shake her fist at us. It wasn’t until years later that I learned the reason why.
My mother said the cause of Mrs. Kelly’s discontent happened one summer’s day when I was about four months old. My mother was getting ready to take Stephen and me to the Phoenix Park. But first, she carried me downstairs to my pram in the backyard. She left Stephen behind in the flat until I was sorted, and in her haste she didn’t close the door all the way. One of Mrs. Kelly’s kittens slipped inside. At age two and a half Stephen wondered if cats could fly like birds. With the kitten sneaking about the flat, and the top part of one of the windows open, he seized his opportunity to find out. The opening was too high for Stephen to lean out, but low enough for him to reach it if he stood on a chair. He pulled a kitchen chair over to the window, grabbed the kitten, hoisted it up to the opening and let it drop.
My pram, parked in the yard directly below our flat, had a canvas cover stretched tight like a trampoline across the front, and fastened on both sides with snaps. The kitten fell splayed onto the pram cover, bounced off, and somewhat disoriented and dizzy, stumbled away. My mother had been chatting with Mrs. Early who was hanging clothes on the clothesline when the squalling kitten flew tumbling from the sky. Mother got the shock of her life and promptly fainted. Mrs. Early ran inside to get smelling salts and brought her round. Mrs. Kelly saw the kitten flailing past her window and ran downstairs and out into the yard. Finding the kitten okay she looked around for the culprit. She caught sight of my brother’s face pasted against our flat window and shook her fist at him.
Stephen was disappointed to learn that cats didn’t sprout hidden wings when they flew. Instead they shrieked and clawed at the air, then threw mothers into faints. Until we left Essex Street I always thought Mrs. Kelly shook her fist at my brother and me because he jumped off the kitchen table and chairs in our flat and made her ceiling shake.
Joe Mulvaney lived on the fourth floor with his mother who had a drinking problem. My mother said Joe was a confirmed bachelor. He never kept a girlfriend for long because once she met Mrs. Mulvaney, the relationship would dwindle. No girlfriend seemed willing to share Joe’s devotion to look after his troublesome mother. The deal-breaker was her drinking. Mrs. Mulvaney used her pension money to go on drinking binges. I was too young to understand the effects of alcohol; I just thought the woman acted batty sometimes. I remember her as a small, thin woman dressed in a black coat and hat who stood at the bottom landing and shouted, “Mrs. Hopper, are you up there? Mrs. Hopper, for the love of God, come down and get me.”
Mrs. Mulvaney trusted no one but my mother to help her. Word traveled from one floor to the next that she was calling for my mother. My mother would rush downstairs to the woman’s aid, warning us to stay inside our flat until she got back. That just piqued our curiosity. We wanted to see what stupid thing the old woman would do. So we followed behind my mother and Mrs. Mulvaney as they slowly walked their way up to the fourth floor. The whole time, Mrs. Mulvaney kept a large black handbag clutched against her chest with both hands. This made the trek more perilous because my mother had to keep them both from falling backward. She didn’t let go of the bag, even after my mother helped her on to the bed, where she lay face up fully clothed, hat and all. She kept muttering over and over, “God bless you, Mrs. Hopper.”
The story of his mother’s inebriation usually reached Joe after work long before he got to our landing. He and my mother would stand in the hallway whispering, and we’d hear bits of conversation like my mother saying, “Ah sure, God love her, Joe. You have to go to work. You can’t stay home and mind her all the time. You have no choice but to leave her…” In those moments Joe’s face became a contradiction of fondness and frustration.
I remember seeing Joe happy once. It was when my parents announced we were moving to a new housing scheme on the outskirts of the city. He was smiling because he had found someone to marry him and he intended to rent our flat. There was a lot of hugging and congratulating. I had never seen him with any girlfriends and wondered about the woman who would share him with his mother. At the same time he seemed too old to get married, at least forty. But then I was only seven years old.
The Olympia Theatre fronts Dame Street, but the building covers the distance between Dame Street and Essex Street. A lane runs the full length of the building. Side entrances open onto the lane. These doors were often left open in summertime during play rehearsals. Drawn by curiosity, the Crawfords, the Mays, Stephen and I would sneak inside. We hid behind the seats, peaked over the tops at the actors. The stage was usually set up with old fashioned furniture. Actors appeared through a door that banged shut behind them, the sound coming from off-stage. After the actors finished their parts, a man sitting in the front row would ask them to rehearse again with “more passion” or with “more emotion” next time. Sometimes he would just say, “That’s good.”
On nights when there were no performances, homeless people slept under the overhang in side entrance archways. We were too young to know about homeless people—we called them boogeymen. My brother Stephen said they ate children and I had better not get caught by them or I would never see our mam and dad again. One winter’s evening when all seven of us kids were outside playing, Eddie Crawford dared us to see if Johnny Fortycoats, a boogeyman, was hanging around outside the Olympia. I didn’t want to go and neither did Clare May or Antoinette Crawford, but Mary May and Moira Crawford called us “cowardy cats.” Reluctantly we followed our older siblings.
Johnny Fortycoats was frightening. He lay covered in layers of old tattered coats huddled against the door under the archway, his unkempt gray beard scraggy, his long hair disheveled. He looked like an Ogre ready to snatch little children, which is what Stephen said he did. The two boys taunted the man, repeating over and over, “Johnny Fortycoats come and get us if you can.” Soon the man lunged from the doorway and screamed unintelligible words in a deep, throaty voice. He lumbered toward us, arms outstretched, hands as big as bear claws ready to grab us, boots flapping around his feet. I ran as fast as my short legs would carry me and didn’t look back until I was safely inside the hall-door of our tenement building. The older kids laughed victoriously, but we younger ones shook with fear and pounding hearts, relieved we had escaped a terrible fate.
At age four I started school at St. Michael and John National School. All the kids from the neighboring Temple Bar tenements went there. Although we all attended the same school, boys’ classes were held separately from girls’ classes. This made my brother happy. It meant he didn’t have to mind me, except when we walked the two blocks home from school. Our mother told him he had to hold my hand crossing Parliament Street. He hated doing that because he thought it made him look like a sissy. But he knew if he didn’t mind me, I’d tell on him.
One particular afternoon after school, one of the kids had the idea that we should sneak into Christ Church Cathedral, a spooky old protestant church. Stephen egged us on saying Strongbow, a famous old-time hero, was kept there in a tomb. We should go see if he was a mummy like the ones we saw at the Mero in the film Abbot and Costello Meet the Mummy. We could get him to chase us, then give him the slip in the tunnels beneath the church. I was afraid and didn’t want to go but I couldn’t go home without my brother. So I trudged behind him, the Crawfords, and the Mays.
I’d been past Christ Church many times when my parents took us to visit my grandfather’s flat on Clonbrassil Street, or my paternal grandmother’s house on Clarence Mangan Road. Christ Church stood next to the old city wall that had been built around Dublin centuries ago; it was made of heavy stone meant to last forever. The door into Christ Church was tall and heavy with keyholes so large I could see right through them to the other side. Eddie Crawford checked to make sure no one was looking then heaved the door open allowing us to sneak inside. The floor was made of marble and columns lined the side aisles. Rows of chairs with red seats and high backs, no kneelers, ran the length of the church with an aisle up the center. In each side nave, a bronze tomb sat with a life-like figure engraved on top. The tomb on the right side displayed a figure covered in robes; the tomb on the left side displayed a figure in medieval armor. The other kids scurried over to the tomb on the left, which turned out to be the long-dead wartime hero, Strongbow. I hung back afraid that if they got the tomb open a very annoyed mummy would come stomping out. I wanted to be ready to run.
The others were tugging and pulling on the tomb cover when a voice bellowed down from above, “What do you children think you’re doing?” At first I thought God was talking to us, but then I followed the sound and looked up. A tall man in a black suit with a ferocious frown stood looking down from the balcony, organ-pipes looming behind him. He seemed too human to be God. As I stood with my eyes glued to the man, the others ran past me and out the door. My brother paused just long enough to glare at me and grab my hand.
At the end of Essex Street, the streets of Temple Bar still crisscross in the same old pattern, foot-worn cobblestones tell the tale of old Dublin. Here, too, tenements have been modernized, no longer the derelict impoverished buildings that plagued the city. Doorways have been widened into red, blue, green store fronts with street views from large bright windows; interiors refashioned into snug restaurants or boutiques displaying high-priced merchandise.
In the newly constructed square, patrons sip aperitifs at outdoor cafes and share opinions about Da, Hugh Leonard’s play performing at the Olympia Theatre. Internet chat-rooms offer virtual communication, oblivious that live chat-rooms once existed inside these rooms. Tenants used to share cups of tea and scones at small kitchen tables, brooms and dustpans left idle for a few moments of lively gossip.
Temple Bar in the tenement era, once home to Dublin’s working poor, is stored away inside a generational closet. Gone are the dusty hallways, the small concrete backyards of overcrowded dwellings that emitted stale smells of urine and disinfectant. Clothes strung across clotheslines smelled of lye soap and sun on warm days; and of soot and dampness on rainy days. Parents overburdened with too many children and too little money, escaped their problems inside local public houses.
Shadows of long-ago children roam the mirror-image streets wearing worn pants and dresses. They gaze longingly at sweets in small confection shop windows. Their laughter and tears echo through the layers of time, together with women’s shouts of annoyance and men’s retorts of frustration.
Merchant’s Arch, a covered stone archway, is a shortcut from Temple Bar on to Wellington quay, and was once home to my first-class schoolmate Joan Matthews. We sat on a window-seat at the second floor window inside the archway and watched people passing back and forth beneath us. We wondered where they were headed, where they’d been. The entrance to her flat, now a middle-eastern restaurant, smells of sandwiches and wraps, replacing aromas of bread baking, pies cooling that tempted our taste buds from window ledges.
I pause inside the Arch, still captured in Temple Bar’s past. Others walk around me, their stares telling me I’m in the way and should move with the flow. I imagine my dad carrying my younger sister Margaret in one arm, a bag in his other hand filled with our swimming togs, a blanket, and towels. My mother holds Stephen’s hand and he holds mine. She carries a bag loaded with a teapot, tea, sugar, and sandwiches. It’s a fine summer’s morning. We are on our way to Connolly Station to catch the train to Williamstown. We will play in the sea all day and my mother will buy milk and chocolate biscuits. She will take the teapot to a nearby cottage where a woman will brew tea for us.
My dad, now passed, is preserved here in my childhood memory. I touch his warm, muscular arm and try to match my small footsteps with his long strides. He grins widely, happy we are all together. The past dissolves. Essex Street, Temple Bar and the old tenements fade away. I continue on through Merchant’s Arch, out onto the quay accompanied by long jump ropes slapping against cobblestones. Over the echo of time distant voices chant:
There was an old woman who lived in the woods, weile weile waile
There was an old woman who lived in the woods, down by the river Saile.
She had a baby three months old, weile weile waile
She had a baby three months old, down by the river Saile.
Patricia Hopper Patteson is a native of Ireland and lives in West Virginia. She spent her early childhood in Temple Bar in the heart of Dublin. At age seven Patricia moved to a newly constructed housing development on the outskirts of Dublin. She later married an US Air Force man, and came to West Virginia where she now lives. She earned an B.A. and M.A. from West Virginia University and received honors in creative writing. Additionally, she received numerous awards from annual West Virginia Writers’ competitions ranging from second place to honorable mention. Her fiction and non-fiction have been published in magazines and anthologies. Her debut novel KILPARA was published in May 2015 by Bygone Era Books.