Growing up in Athenry

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Athenry in the 1950s offered a life of comparative ‘sophistication’ writes Freda McGough reminiscing on her happy childhood days

I was almost nine years old when I moved to Athenry. An untidy ribbon hung from the side of my tousled, blond hair and I had just left my small, rural, two-teacher school with only nine in my class, to which we all walked through field pathways slushy with mud in winter and strewn with heavenly-scented primroses and cowslips in spring. Although I didn’t know it then, moving to Athenry signalled the end for me of a carefree, unstructured romp through a gentle, slow-paced rural Ireland of plough horses, and threshing and wedding receptions held in country kitchens.

Townie schooldays

But what Athenry had to offer was a life of comparative sophistication, top of the list being streetlights, and shops with toys and sweets! Top of my parents’ list was, undoubtedly, to get me settled into my new school run by the Presentation Sisters, with their exotic and strange-looking head dress of white stiff material forming a little bonnet and framing the face, a white, starched sort of bib and, over all, a longish black veil. I just couldn’t take my eyes off the huge black rosary beads that hung from the leather belt.

And from one of these strange outfits, on my first day, beamed the smiling face of a young Sister Leo, who became my first teacher there. My anxieties began to subside and by the time we had gone to the “old cookery room” at the back of the Convent to do some nature study, and been invited to bring in some leaves for identification purposes, I was beginning to relax. In fact, I was already letting go of my country childhood and surrendering to what I knew was going to be very different, but fun. I was fast becoming a townie and loving every minute of it.

Street games

The fun continued with the arrival, that first summer, of Roseanna Hynes from Drogheda, who came on holidays to her grandparents in Cross Street. She had the most amazing repertoire of children’s street games, previously unknown in Athenry, and which could accommodate any number of children. Just as well, because word soon spread and we were joined by companions from far and wide and spent hours in the long summer evenings assuming various poses, often standing on one leg, and trying to avoid “O-U-T spells OUT”

Otherwise, entertainment in these relatively impoverished fifties was of the homemade variety. There were dreary walks with friends “around the pound” on Sundays, cycles in the direction of Craughwell to pick hazelnuts in the autumn, and I remember picking wild damsons for jam making, somewhere in Kingsland. By summer, we could hardly wait for the visit of the McFadden Family’s travelling players who set up a square tent in Bridge St., in front of the Castle, to present a nightly concert and play. The plays had such riveting titles as ‘Little Nellie Kelly’ and ‘Murder in the Red Barn’ and we cried buckets! Our imaginations were fired too in winter, by the fine productions brought to us by Kitty Lardner and the Athenry Players.

Scent of Wallflowers

But, above all, it is the scents and sounds of childhood in Athenry which come to mind most readily, the pomp and splendour of the Corpus Christi procession when the Blessed Sacrament was taken through the streets under a golden canopy preceded by children in white dresses walking backwards, strewing thousands of multicoloured flower petals in its path. The petals formed a sort of delicate mosaic on the ground for days afterwards. I’ll never forget the intensity of the clouds of incense dispensed by the thurible in the narrow streets, while the choir and the townspeople sang with fervour, hymns such as ‘Sweet Heart of Jesus’ and ‘Faith of Our Fathers’. The sweet scent of wallflowers still reminds me of May altars in school, decorated with blue and white chains, which we had so lovingly fashioned from crepe paper.

Hearty rural aromas

In the Winter months, in total contrast, odours of a different kind predominated when the street fairs took place, and farmers sold cattle and sheep right in the heart of the town. It meant a day off school — always welcome — but the stench of manure hung over the town for days afterwards while the big cleanup took place. The fifties were hungry times and I distinctly remember seeing migrant workers from Connemara, known as Spailpins, lined up outside Glynn’s pub in Davis St. after Sunday Mass, hoping to be hired by local farmers for the potato picking. The image of these dignified men, hunched in the rain and wind in their inadequate clothing, is one that has stayed with me down the years.

But by the sixties, thankfully, all that had changed for the better and my life was changing too. l had my sights set on Dublin and whatever that might bring.

Freda McGough is a renowned and popular broadcaster on RTE radio

See also – Aggie Qualter’s interview with Freda McGough 20/08/1984, transcribed by Helen Tully

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About this record

Written by Freda McGough

Published here 08 Feb 2024 and originally published Summer 2003

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