So, Grandpa Flor and Grandma Ellen – as was the Catholic Irish way – had a large family. They must have sometimes lost count. Six boys and four girls I believe (edit – I’m advised eight boys, four girls + one more adopted), though I’ll need to check that. All somehow lived together at ‘Tonafora’. Flor & Ellen had their own room, the boys in another and the girls in the last one. They would sleep, like pilchards in a tin, alternatively head to feet.
No wonder that they scattered to the four winds once they were old enough. Their stories are, for the most part, long forgotten. The family lived through the early years of the last century, through the War of Independence with Britain and the ensuing Civil War which saw the birth of the Irish Free State. Indeed Uncle Jimmy, one of the youngest boys, was born during Easter Week 1916. The somewhat bodged ‘Rising’ that week nonetheless kick-started Ireland’s freedom from British rule.
Uncle Jimmy became a legend in my eyes. He worked on the railways. When I first knew him he was a level-crossing keeper. He lived only a couple of hundred yards from ‘Tonafora’ with his wife Sheila and his children – my cousins – Mary and Ann. The West Cork line ran through the meadows here between Cork city and Bantry. When the bell sounded in their house Jimmy would put on his hat, completing his uniform, and would head outside and open the level crossing gates. We’d stand on the gates and watch the train rumble through. Later, Jimmy would go on to work at Cobh Station, out along the estuary from the city. He died one Christmas, relaxing in his armchair with a glass of whiskey after lunch.
My father Donal was the youngest of the boys. I used to travel back to Dunmanway with him when I was young. We’d do the rounds of aunts, uncles, cousins. I used to think Ireland as a sort of fairyland and I never got over my love for the place.
But what of my mother’s side, I hear you cry. Part 4 coming up.