"I came across this image yesterday when I was looking through my old photo albums. It is a photograph of my Irish grandfather and grandmother Fanning, and though I have a few snaps of them, this picture is one of my favourites. It is how they first appeared to me and how I will always remember them, having been born in their home in Portlaw, County Waterford, where I lived for the first five years of my life.
My grandparents were plain folk of basic education; well known in the village where they lived and highly popular with their neighbours, parish priest and the nearest publican. They spoke as they saw, did as they felt proper, carried no airs and graces and were greatly respected in their church and community. Although a Catholic couple from cradle to grave, their daily contributions to the saving of their souls were one Our Father, five Hail Mary's, a bottle of stout and forty Woodbines.
While my grandparents no doubt expressed their love and affection for each other in the privacy of their bedroom on a night, they were never seen to be demonstrably affectionate to each other in public. They'd parented seven children who lived, of which my mother was the oldest. No doubt, by the time their first grandchild arrived on the scene (myself), all thought of love's first passion had long past.
Grandmother was the most dominant of the two. Anywhere inside the household was her realm, which she ran to her rule and satisfaction. My grandfather's kingdom and holy ground upon which no woman's foot ever trod was his shed out in the backyard where he worked most days repairing bicycles and mending punctures for the villagers, and his large strip of garden, immediately beyond the shed. Even the area of his garden was bordered by a six-foot-high hedge surround and had an old door as an entrance that was always locked to keep granny and the world out. When he stepped foot back inside the house, my grandfather usually did as grandmother said, and when she said it! When he strongly disagreed with her, they never argued; instead, he would go for long daily walks accompanied by his packet of Woodbines. Because grandmother was not allowed to enter his working shed under any circumstances, if she wanted to tell him something, she initially had to tell him through a locked shed door.
Granddad was a quiet man of very slim stature. He was very thoughtful and avoided all manner of argument and dispute. As a young man growing up in the heart of rebel Ireland, he was 'on the run' for a number of years before a heart attack in his early twenties brought him back to a more settled life of marriage and raising a family of eight children (one of whom died at birth). In many ways, some might think my grandparents an odd couple, him with his svelte like body and elegant looks, and she, looking like a lost sister to Arthur Lucan's character of Old Mother Riley.
My grandmother was a weighty, buxom woman, who had a big nose in the centre of her face that you could hang a kettle on. All day long she would bake soda bread on a big, black range and eat half of it as soon as it was baked, whereas granddad never ate much and was as thin as a rake. Granddad's contribution to the family table were potatoes, kale and cabbage; all produce he grew in his back garden and tended to, whenever he wasn't mending bicycles. The only thing the family ate on most days of the week was mashed potatoes and either kale or cabbage mixed together, which the Irish call Colcannon. To finish off, we would then have the remainder of the soda bread that grandmother hadn't eaten during the day, spread thickly with salty butter.!
For fifty years after his heart attack in his early twenties, granddad was unable to undertake any heavy manual work. So he did what he could to survive. Between 9.00 am and 4.00 pm, Monday to Friday, he could be found in his working shed behind the kitchen, mending bicycles for the cyclists of Portlaw. Two things always fascinated me about this occupation of his; the method of payment he received for his work and my grandmother's constant supervision/surveillance of him. While the working shed was his kingdom, to which he locked his door once he entered, he still never managed to prevent my grandmother from being able to see what he was up to or to stop her pestering him.
Whenever granddad repaired someone's bike, occasionally he might be paid in coppers, but in the main, it would be a packet of Woodbine cigarettes, a cabbage or a pound of fresh butter. I can still recall my mother telling me once that one person paid him for his labour with pigs trotters! He would always accept all manner of goods as payment for his labour, much to my grandmother's constant annoyance, with one exception; soda bread. It would have resulted in the breakup of his marriage had he ever accepted another woman's baked soda bread that was offered as a cyclist's currency, as grandmother would eat no food that she hadn't baked herself on the range and neither would she allow her husband to! She always said that were she ever to get food poisoning, she'd rather be poisoned by her own hand than the cooking of another woman
When my grandfather first erected his working shed for the purpose of his bicycle repairs, Grandmother made him turn it around so that one of the two windows behind his work bench faced her kitchen window. He would work between 9.00 am and 4.00 pm daily, throughout which, grandmother would always keep an eye on him, just in case he had another heart attack. Granddad also made up lots of useful gadgets. He was more or less, the Keith Robinson inventor of Portlaw. Between the kitchen window and his shed, a long piece of rope was attached to a pull cord at each end with a bell suspended from its washing-line centre in the back yard, half-way between his shed and the kitchen. This enabled each to attract the attention of the other, should they need to. Grandmother would simply pull the cord to communicate that the mid-day meal was ready and he would pull the cord to make his regular request, 'Make me a cup of tay (tea) woman with six spoons of sugar!' Whenever my grandmother served him with his cup of tea, because she wasn't allowed to enter his shed, she had to leave it outside the shed door, which he would retrieve once he saw her back inside the kitchen. Grandmother always said that he had a secret stash of cash in that old shed, along with the identity of traitors he'd shot while 'on the run.'
Despite having six children still living at home, plus myself, somehow we all managed to sleep by the males and females doubling up and sleeping top to tail. Every night, when my grandparents went to bed, we would hear them talking about what they'd done that day as they smoked their last Woodbine. As they spoke, they each looked up at the ceiling and allowed their eyes to rest on their homely heaven that my grandfather had created just after they'd started married life in the house. Over many years, granddad had painted all the ceilings in the house blue and had painted in hundreds of golden stars to gaze at. One always knew when my grandparents were ready for sleep, as they gave each other a loud, sloppy kiss that I always listened for.
My grandparents were Irish Nationalists in their politics through and through. In the narrow corridor of their house were hung over twenty photographic portraits of Irish rebels who'd been born between the mid 19th century and the early 20th century. Occupying the central and most prominent position of their 'rogues gallery', was a framed photograph of their hero, Kevin Barry. Kevin Barry was the first Irish Republican to be executed by the British after the leaders of the 'Easter Rising' were sentenced to death for their part in an operation against the Crown that resulted in the death of three British soldiers. Following his hanging, Kevin Barry became an Irish hero and it is a recognition of how well he was regarded by the Nationalist supporters that they wrote a ballad about his part in the 'Easter Rising' that is 6 minutes and 38 seconds long. It is the longest recorded song I ever heard in a world where early records were never longer than three minutes. One of the few luxury possessions that my grandparents owned was an old gramophone which I used to love winding up and playing the only vinyl record they had to play on it; the 'Ballad of Kevin Barry'. For any non-Irish reader who wants a potted history of the 'Easter Rising' in 1916, it is well worth a six and a half minute listening.
My grandparents remained staunch Irish republicans until the day they died, within weeks of each other at the age of 75 years. Ever since they could vote, they would always travel 100 miles by train to Dublin at election time to cast their vote for the Irish revolutionary leader and statesman. Eamon de Valera (1882-1975) who served as Prime Minister and later as President of the Irish Republic (1959-73).
I once recall me, mum and my two oldest sisters being taken into the seaside resort of Tramore in County Waterford by my grandparents. My grandparents stayed in the pub drinking and smoking Woodbines all day, while mum and the three children on holiday with her went on the beach. The place was as busy as Blackpool during the height of the holiday season. When mum asked grandmother where we would meet up later, she replied, 'Oh, don't worry your head, girl. We'll be around somewhere. I'm sure you'll find us in one of the pubs!' Tramore had over one dozen pubs at the time, and we did!
The one thing that the English will never understand about the Irish is their ancestral connections that bind blood with bones. Take the pub in Tramore for instance, where we left my grandparents that day, or for that matter, any pub in the 26 counties of the Republic. While there, within five minutes of their arrival, they had struck up a conversation with a number of strangers. Within fifteen minutes of drinking, talking and chain smoking Woodbines, they would always have found someone with whom they shared a close or distant relative that ancestrally bound them! I could never get my head around, and neither could they explain this peculiarly Irish phenomenon of finding a relative beneath every bed one looked under! It can only have come about by much interbreeding between consenting colleens and boyos over the past century. All I can testify to is that walk in any Irish pub and somewhere you'll find a relative in the pack, if you speak to enough folk long enough!
When my grandparents died, so did a part of me. They represented much more than blood and bone to me; they were the green grass and the soil of this blessed Ireland I was born into and have loved ever since. I will never forget them, and when I die, instructions are left to bury part of my ashes with them in their Irish grave, along with the English grave of my parents and the memorial site on Haworth Moor of my wife Sheila's deceased husband. God bless my grandparents who first taught me that there's no place like home, especially if one's first home was at grandma's house." William Forde:November 21st, 2016.