She was born in November 1907 in Ireland. Her native county was Clare. She grew up only a few miles from the Cliffs of Moher. Despite living within walking distance of the Atlantic Ocean she never learnt to swim. Her named was Brid. Her family was Catholic like almost everyone in the county. At school confirmation was coming up. She had picked herself a pretty one. She chatted to another pupil about it. The other girl said – you can’t have that name, I am choosing that one. Rather than stand her ground she gave way. There is no rule in the Catechism against more than one child in a class having a certain confirmation name! My grandmother opted for Ita. She later winced to recall it – she thought it hideous.
She was one of six children. There were three girls and three boys. She was in about the middle. Her mother was named Susan. Susan was also from Clare. Susan’s mother died when Susan was little. There has been five children of that marriage. Her father had remarried partly to have a woman to look after his children. Nine children were the progeny of that union. 14 children cannot be easy to raise. The stepmother was not kind to the children of her husband’s deceased wife. Previously I only ever saw things from the perspective of the children and not the stepmother. I have to sympathise with her. It would be so difficult to treat them fairly. Perhaps it was just their misconception that she was bad to them. Anyhow, my great grandmother went to the United States. She worked as a maid in Boston for a few years. She was there long enough to obtain citizenship. She did not do it though. She returned to Ireland. This was very rare for the time.
Brid grew up on a farm of a few acres. It was all spring land and boulders. There was a well down the road. It was a two room cottage they lived in. This was a very run of the mill house for Ireland at the time. It has since been sold to an American couple.
At Christmas they got tiny present because the family had little money. They did not live in the wretched poverty that affected some families at the time.
With the howling gales outside the firmly believed in phantoms. I snorted with derision that my grandmother should believe in such nonsense. My sister chided me. There were loud noises at night and there was no electricity. It would be easy to start to believe in the supernatural in such a situation.
Brid went to the local national school. They had to take sods of turf for the fire. Children who were too poor to do so were not permitted to sit near the fire. This was harsh. However, if they school had not enforced this rule then perhaps some who could afford to contribute peat would not have done so. Ideally of course there would be no need to require children to bring turf.
They were taught entirely in English. The home was Anglophone. My great grandparents also spoke Irish but did not teach it to their children. They could speak it when they did not want the children to comprehend of what they were talking.
Brid came to the age to go to secondary school. There was little money around the house. Her father bought bicycles for the boys so they could cycle the many miles to the secondary school on Ennistymon. He would not pay for bikes for his daughters. Perhaps he could not. The girls stayed at school till 17 but could not move ahead in school years. It was quite something that they attended even that long. The school leaving age had been raised to 14 in 1918. Most people finished school aged 14.
Michael, her eldest brother, worked in the Customs House in Dublin. He must have been there when it was burnt by the IRA in 1921. Michael then became a priest. He was exalted but also feared because of his sacerdotal station. Once he came home and spoke of Brid and her elder sister Ann becoming nuns. They were having none of that. They immediately went to England and became nurses. I do not know why they did not do that in Ireland. There were meagre prospects in Ireland whether one became a nurse or not.
She worked in London and Kent. They were miserably paid. They had to do cleaning more than medical care. I was only an old slap dash nurse she said. She said her sister Ann was superb at her job. ” Yerra I was only an old slapdash nurse. Ann cared for titled people – now” That ”now” was added with pensive pride. Ann was an accomplished person who never wed. I noticed my grandmother’s automatic reverence for the nobility.
Ann would economise by going into Lyon’s Corner House and getting a pot of hot water.
In London there was ample scope for experimentation but nurses were appallingly underpaid at the time. There were no care assistants. They had to do all the humblest tasks. They were not allowed to provide much of the medical care. Almost anything medical was done by doctors.
The razzmatazz of London must have been a jarring contrast to rural Ireland. Think of the lights of Piccadilly. In the 1920s there were a few non white people in London. I would wager that she had never seen a person of another race in Ireland. The dullness of bucolic life was something she never professed to miss.
She was stocky and agricultural. She was not a beauty.
Brid had two boyfriends at the same time. Both were in the Irish Army. She told each of them that the other was a cousin on the other side of the family! An Irishwoman at the time could easily have 50 cousins. She got away with this fib. Eventually she married Mr Woode.
She married in around 1940. She had a son, a daughter and a son in that order. The girl died as an infant and is interred in London.
They lived in an area of London called Kilburn. Many quipped that it was County Kilburn. Irish people identify themselves by their county and Kilburn was so Irish as to qualify as a county of Ireland. In 1952 they returned to Ireland. However, they did not go to her native county but to Cork.
She was a stocky and self-possessed woman. She was not a reading type and she was anti-social. She had rude health and purported to believe that illness was malingering. Those who were sick lacked moral fibre. Her house was none too clean and she was not especially feminine. That said I never saw her wear trousers. She voted Fianna Fail on the basis that they cared for ordinary people. She was a conventional Catholic and would never dream of skipping mass. A portrait of the Pope and her brother the priest graced the front room. It was a very Irish concept. This room was pin clean and its fine furnishings were too good for us to go into. Only high status guests could be entertained there on very unusual occasions.
She was downright hostile to her neighbours. She was a decent grandmother and cared for us. Grandchildren spent the day at her house and sometimes overnight. It is shameful that she got little thanks or recognition in return. We would be served salad and ham when we visited her house. This repast never varied. It would the be followed by trifle. She had a dry wit. She chided her daughter in law ”ah you are very stout.” She liked the broad build of one of her granddaughters and chided the other ” you are springing up like a weed.” When asked to sing she declined jocularly, ”I wouldn’t want to frighten the cats.” She could engage in lightning verbal repartee.
Her younger son was artful in avoiding work. He left school early. He had been bunking off so his education was haphazard. Then he was apprenticed to a mechanic across the road. He could not be bothered his barney to get out of bed in time for work. He lost that job pretty quick. She was at a loss for a way to make this scapegrace earn a wage. This pressaged a lifetime as a chancer. He went to London and worked on Carnaby Street running a stall selling leather goods. He was an accomplished swindler. He knew how to tail a moist tail and bilk his soft hearted aunt Ann out of her hard earned pension. This layabout sorely tried her patience. He was notorious for scamming decent people. He was absurdly affronted when anyone accused him of pecuniary dishonesty. Stout denial was a strategy. Windfalls from his aunt kept him in funds.
She developed an anti-black prejudice. She detested blackies but could not say why. Her nephew had a Kenyan friend named Francis. She received Francis courteously and was nonplussed by his articulacy and urbanity. For him she seemed to make an exception.
She was at daggers drawn with a woman over the hedge. There was a dispute over about an inch of garden. A flurry of solicitor’s letters threatened devastating legal actions. In the end it transpired that my ancestress was the one who was under a misapprehension was to the boundary. In the end her antagonist forgave her. When my grandmother was very debilitated towards the end it was this neighbour who tended her. There was no easy familiarity. They were never on first name terms.
She was apparently relentless in bawling out those whom she disapproved of. She biting towards her sons when she felt they had failed her. At the age of 25 she said her son did not have the right to go to Dublin for the weekend without her say so. She would not be gainsaid.
She was fairly religious. A portrait of John Paul II graced her front room. She would never dream of not hearing mass. Her religiosity seemed joyless. When her brother the priest came to stay the household was oppressed by religion. There were ceaseless prayer sessions – praying mindless decades of the rosary about the Blessed Virgin; joyful mysteries and sorrowful mysteries. All the joyful ones seemed sorrowful. Irish Catholicism at that time was blighted by arid formalism. As mass was in Latin it made people unthinking in their faith. She believed in its ethical scruples. In the late 1980s she expressed her adamant opposition to divorce. ”I am against it because of the kids.”
She came to stay with us a few times when I was 11-15. I noticed she spoke to herself in her room. She had been alone to much this was unsurprising. She was fond of her eldest son and his mimetic talents. She said he was the soul of the place.
She knew what was happening in the First Gulf War. ”Bush is telling Saddam to get out of Kuwait. The old mind is not gone yet.”
I remember her having me cut the hedge. She would show me how to do it and say ”look at.” I always noticed she phrased it wrongly. It ought to be ”look at it.” I would say ”I get the hang of it” and start doing it for her. I was seven.
I found her a decent person if not especially warm. Nor did she have a polished appearance. My mother told me that in her heyday this grandmother of mine had been formidable and even tyrannical. But the atmosphere was light. I never felt stressed and anxious around her. My mother and I only once stayed overnight in her place. I never saw her belligerence.
I recall her saying, ”I have enough money to bury meself.” It would have been more pleasurable for her to spend the cash on something else. There was never any jamboree in her house. What would she have done to live it up? A pilgrimage to Lourdes I suppose.
After her husband died she started to treat herself to regular trips to the front room. She could bask in her new uninhibitedness. It was also an indulgence to eat off her finest china. A bed is made to be slept on. This was a lesson my grandfather never absorbed. She was not a warm or gregarious person. Because she was my grandmother does not mean that I ought to deceive myself about her.
Only in the last two years of her life did she decline. She was largely senile. She was trapped in her front room. A nurse came to tend her daily. Only then did I inquire about the Second World War. ”Do you remember the war?”/ ”By God I do. Twas terrible. Bombs going off everywhere and you didn’t know if you were going to be killed.” I should have asked her much more. She would have recalled the Great War and the Troubles. She did not seem in the least bit Anglophobic.
She spent the final year of her life in a nursing home. By the end she had patently lost her mind. I saw her perhaps a month before she died. She was comfortable but not compos mentis.
She died at the age of 90. Only perhaps 30 people attended her funeral.