Sheila’s story of Ella

13 Sep Sheila’s story of Ella

Bewley’s Oriental Café, a traditional establishment in Grafton Street, Dublin, Ireland, first opened in 1927. In the 1930s, for a treat, my maternal grandmother used to take one of her six children there for cream buns and tea each week.

More than fifty years later, in 1982, my mother, Ella, and I visited the same café together. I remember the aroma of freshly ground coffee, the clattering plates, and the constant chatter. The café was sombre; the floor, tables and wall panels were all made from dark wood. Sunlight illuminated the large stained-glass windows; the light appeared to breathe life into the brightly coloured exotic birds painted on the classical pillars. A display case was filled with chocolate eclairs, cream mille-feuilles and all kinds of fancy cakes.

When we arrived, we settled down in a window seat to watch the crowds go by. We were giddy from being tossed around like rag dolls in the front of the top deck of the bus from Enniskerry to Dublin.  My mother always dressed smartly, and that day she wore a navy-blue suit. Her thick, curly pepper and salt hair was cut short, and her green eyes had that Irish twinkle.  Thankfully, in 1982 there were no mobile phones to interrupt us, while she took me back in time to her childhood of the 1930s.

She recounted how in the 1930s, waitresses used to hover around the crowded dining tables like fishing bobbers, dressed in black frocks with white starched aprons and matching hats. The clouds of steam that billowed from the boilers in the café echoed the steam train ride up from south Dublin.

My mother grew up on a dairy farm south of Dublin, which was demolished in the 1960s to build one of Ireland’s first shopping centres. On their fifty-acre farm, the family grew wheat, barley, and oats. The house, the barn and outhouses were built around a rectangular farmyard. In rural Ireland in the early twentieth century, there was no electricity and no running water, just a well in the yard. The cow’s milk wasn’t pasteurised, and tuberculosis was common.

Roads were dirt tracks, and it was rare to see a car outside Dublin.

Long summer days stretched out before the six siblings. They had chores to do, but many hands did light work, leaving them time to find adventure in the countryside.

My mother remembered mushrooming and how the blades of grass drenched in morning dew tickled her ankles as she ran barefoot, basket flailing, after her brother and his friend (who would later become her husband.) The moss was soft underfoot, and fresh, moist forest air filled their lungs. Wisps of mist danced around the trees. They lifted ferns; their curly tentacles stretched up to the sunlight to reveal virginal white mushrooms popping out of the earth like popcorn cooking in a pan. My grandmother laughed and wondered if there were any mushrooms left before throwing them into a pan on the range to roast with just a sprinkle of salt to season them.

My mother remembered her fifteenth birthday, Tuesday, 22 August 1939.  Her mother baked a cake, and her father said grace before they ate.

Nine days later, on Thursday, 31 August, the children played in the fields, rolling in the dried grass, giggling as they fell, legs akimbo, grass clinging to their hair and clothes making their skin itch. Their father called them to the farmhouse. The children thought their mother had come back from the Bewley’s Café – Dublin trip with their little sister and a bag of gobstoppers. They traipsed into the kitchen in anticipation. Their father sat at the table.

The breadboard lay abandoned where their mother had left it that morning. Their mother had suffered a fatal heart attack at forty-six while waiting for the Dublin train at the station. My mother’s nine-year-old sister had been holding her hand when she suddenly dropped to the ground.

A few days later, the family squashed into a horse-drawn carriage to return home after their mother’s funeral at St Brigid’s Church, Stillorgan. My mother recalled her father’s sister’s chilling words during the journey: ‘You’ll have to put the children into a home.’

Instead of going into a home, my mother was taken out of school to care for them. Not only did she lose her own mother, but she also lost her childhood. At fifteen, and the eldest girl, she kept house. Day in, day out, a myriad of jobs had to be done. Minding the hens, keeping them out of reach of the foxes, collecting the eggs. Cooking and cleaning. Picking fruit and making jam. Cleaning the oil lamps, replacing their wicks.  Washing clothes by hand. Collecting water from the well. Looking after her sisters and brothers. Her childhood and education, over. This was Ireland during the 1930s, where women were second class citizens, and their place was at home.

On 3 September 1939, the family listened to the radio in the kitchen as Taoiseach Eamon de Valera announced the outbreak of war or ‘The Emergency’ as the Irish call it, and Ireland’s neutrality. When my mother heard the news, she dropped the teapot – it shattered on the floor. In February 1939, her sweetheart Alex had signed up to the British Royal Navy and would now be sent off to war, and she worried that he would not come back. Alex regularly wrote, care of her brother. Whenever he had home leave, they met in Blackrock Park away from the farm or went to the cinema.  During one of these visits, Alex proposed and together, they hatched a plan to elope to Wales and marry there. Although it must have been hard to hide such a close boyfriend/girlfriend relationship in a small community.

As Radio Eireann was not allowed to refer to the war due to the Emergency Powers Act, Ella followed the war’s progress by listening to radio broadcasts on the BBC.

My mother recalled how British posters started to appear in Irish Labour Exchanges advertising jobs in Britain, urging women to enlist in the armed forces. In Ireland, equality of the sexes didn’t exist, the pay was poor, and the cost of living was high. Upon marriage, women had to quit their jobs by law.

Across the Irish Sea, in Britain, women workers were needed to keep ammunition factories going while the men were at war.  During the second world war years, nearly a quarter of a million Irish women left Ireland to go and work in Britain. They voted with their feet; rather than stay in Ireland as unpaid family help and left to earn their own money.

My mother must have known local women who had found work in England. All she had to do was wait until she turned twenty-one in August 1945 to leave and marry Alex. The temptation of the ‘freedom’ of her own life must have been alluring at the time.

Although Ireland was neutral during the war years of 1939-1945, Irish citizens also endured food rationing. In 1941, Britain punished Ireland for its neutrality by reducing exports to the country, especially tea. There was a constant nationwide discussion on how to eke out the meagre tea ration. The fact was that Irish citizens had to live with a quarter of the tea ration that British people had.

World War II ended on 2 September 1945. Less than a year later, my mother secured a job as a domestic companion to an elderly lady in Cowen in North Wales.

When my mother told her father of her plans, he disapproved and told her in no uncertain terms that she would go with nothing. Was Ella’s father against the match because Alex and his siblings came from a mixed Protestant/Catholic marriage? Or was it simply a case of who would look after the children if she left?

When the time came to go, heart-thumping, my mother marched out, grabbing the breadboard as she passed. The family tradition was to hand the breadboard down through the generations. It was something tangible that her mother had touched every day of her life. She looked back at the farmhouse and took in the ivy-clad façade, the green front door with its stained-glass windowpane. The slate roof with its random scattering of moss nestling between the tiles. By early evening, she stood on the chilly deck of the ferry bound for Holyhead, Wales, as it sailed past Ireland’s Eye.

My grandfather remarried within a year of my mother leaving, and a few years later sold the farm and emigrated to New Zealand.  His sister wrote to him, imploring him to keep the farm in the family, to no avail.

Back to our visit to Bewley’s café in 1982, the waitress arrived with our order. Two coffees and two cream buns later, the conversation switched to other things. You know those special moments in life that you don’t realise at the time how precious they are?

In 2021, I am about the same age as my mother in 1982, and I realise it was one of those special moments. My mother died in 1993, and we never spoke again about what happened when she left Ireland. She must have been a headstrong young woman to defy her father and, I suppose, took her future into her own hands. My mother was fiercely independent and proud. This independent streak has passed down through the generations, and I see it in myself and my daughter. My mother was a kind woman who always considered others and always put her children first.

I sifted through old photographs to complete her story. The ‘Man on the Bridge,’ a famous Dublin Street photographer also snapped my mother and a friend walking hand in hand down Grafton Street. On the back of the photo is inscribed: ‘28 May 1944. To my dearest Alex, with all my love xxx.’

In a blurred black and white photograph dated 25 June 1946, a young sailor and his bride smile at the photographer – my mother and father married in Ty Gwyn, Corwen, North Wales, in a registry office in front of two witnesses, no family were present.  I cannot find a record of exactly when my mother left her home in Ireland to travel to Wales, but from the photographs, it becomes clear that it was sometime between August 1945 and June 1946.

From the photographs, I worked out she earned her own money for four years until the birth of my eldest brother in 1950 when she stopped working. The family moved to the North-West of England and went on to have four more children.

Over the years, trips to Ireland meant that Ella kept in touch with her siblings; two sisters followed her to England. In 1978 my mother received a telegram to say that her father had died in New Zealand aged eighty-five.  She was distraught; after all, he was still her father and New Zealand was far away.

In the 1980s, in an extraordinary twist of fate, my mother inherited a substantial sum of money from a friend, giving her renewed independence. She bought her house, a new car and paid for holidays to visit her five children and grandchildren dotted around England and Europe. Even after my father, Alex, died in 1985, she remained courageous and optimistic and thought nothing of hopping on an aeroplane to visit me in France and Belgium.

Sadly, my mother died suddenly of a heart attack in England in 1993. She was only sixty-eight. She died alone, without her family around her. This was a shock to us all. I was living in Belgium at the time and my son was just ten months old.

In my own kitchen, that same old, round breadboard she left home with has pride of place. Knife-cuts criss-cross its worn surface like the tracks of skaters across the ice, an analogy for the crossroads in life that we all encounter.