I slid into this world on Valentine’s Day 1949. I say slid as I weighed only 5lbs 5ozs and probably my mother didn’t need to push too much to introduce me to the world. However, I can’t have looked too healthy, as to be on the safe side I was baptised the next day. I was called Ann Patricia Valerie and I was born under the sign of Aquarius, the water carrier. Well that’s not strictly true. I was baptised Anne Patricia Valerie but the kids in school used to call me Annie so I knocked of the ‘e’. Annoys me even when I see it on prescriptions etc.
The river Ghan ran along the side of Peacefield, the house in Rostrevor where I was born and then made its way out into the nearby Carlingford Lough. Ironic as I have always had a fear of water. I had been under the illusion for many years that my birth place was a cottage called Rose Cottage. But on a recent visit my delusions were shattered when I found out it was not actually a cottage, was in a state of decay and going to wreck and ruin. A check on my birth certificate confirmed it was called Peacefield. Rose Cottage was I suppose more romantic.
The house is still standing but we moved from there when I was two, to a large Victorian terraced house which was rented from the local parish. It looked over a large estate which belonged to the Bowes- Lyon family. My aunt who was a nurse looked after Miss Marriane Lyon, a second cousin of the Queen, and so I accompanied her on many occasions to the house that stood in the park. Unfortunately it was knocked down as it had fallen into disrepair. I believe the Queen mother and the present Queen and her sister Margaret visited the house and played in the grounds. It is now Kilbrony Park having been taken over by the local council. When we were young many beautiful Arab horses roamed the huge expanse of meadow. In spring the ground was covered in daffodils. It became our private playground as we grew up.
Many happy hours were spent exploring Kilbroney Park. Along with many rare and beautiful trees ( Rostrevor is often called the Riviera of the North because of its mild climate) Rostrevor is also home to the evergreen Holm Oak. The oak also known as ‘Old Homer ‘was nominated as Northern Ireland’s tree of the year. C.S. Lewis was inspired by the view and it is believed Narnia was the result. Every year girl guides and boy scouts would pitch their tents in the meadow. In the evenings my brothers and I would stand at the windows for hours watching them playing round the campfires and listening to the campfire songs. We did however feel sorry for them when it rained and they were mud to the elbows.
We lived near the sea and to find out if the tide was in or out all I had to do was stand at my front door. On summer mornings we would head off to the beach for the day unaccompanied, and we wouldn’t come home until we were hungry. I never went out of my depth and despite all those hours splashing around in the water I still can’t swim.
The house we moved into had been a boarding house run by two elderly sisters and each upstairs room had a bell which had been used to summon the servants from ‘below stairs’. Great fun to play with but a nightmare for Mum down in the kitchen. They were taken out during renovations which was a pity. My first memory in my new house was of almost flooding us out. Left to my own devices at about aged three and after the arrival of a new baby brother, I decided to wash myself. I pulled a small chair over to the hand basin in my Mum’s room, put in the plug and turned on both taps. I guess the overflow didn’t work because I can remember my Mum running out of the kitchen as the water flooded through the ceiling. Her first reaction was to run to a neighbour who happened to be the local constable. I thought he was coming for me but he quickly found the source of the water and a scared little girl. The chair I stood on was made by my grandfather, who was a carpenter and I still have it.
Four boys arrived over the next eleven years and I began to wonder if they were coming from somewhere in my mother’s bedroom. Every time she disappeared into that room with the local midwife another baby appeared. I was thirteen when my sister arrived and this was the first time I worked out where babies came from. Men were barred from the births in those days and were called in when the baby was delivered and was alive and kicking. Mothers were confined to bed for two weeks, unlike today when new mothers are discharged from hospital only 24 hours after giving birth. I also remember that after a birth my mother had to be churched. Until this archaic ceremony took place shortly after the birth, mothers were considered unclean. A sort of purification. It was done away with in the late sixties by the Catholic Church. When I look back on it now, the cheek of it, making women feel unclean because they were giving birth.
My father was a a favourite with the local children as we were one of the few houses with a fridge. Every weekend he would fill the ice maker with orange juice and then add sticks resulting in home made lollipops after a couple of hours. A steady stream of youngsters would appear on the doorstep looking for a lolly. We were also subjected to National Health orange juice which was extremely sweet and that together with a daily spoonful of Virol ( a vitamin preparation based on malt extract), it’s no wonder dental decay was a big problem.
I remember at about the age of five getting our first television. It was an ugly-looking box, with a tiny screen and watching it was an ordeal. TVs in those days had a vertical hold and a horizontal hold. The horizontal hold was to control the picture from continual lilting to the side and the vertical hold was to stop the picture continually dropping off the screen. We got used to watching every programme through a snow storm. Reception was awful and for many years there was only one station. We sat in awe watching Muffin the Mule, a puppet horse on strings and a mad woman who played the piano and talked to said Muffin. Goodness! We were easily entertained. Muffin was followed by Bill and Ben, the Wooden Tops and Andy Pandy.
Nevertheless we had TV nights when the neighbours came in to see something special, had something to eat and money was raised for the local church. As I said the reception was terrible but TV was a new phenomenon in Rostrevor and the neighbours were enthralled.
We had a happy childhood. We didn’t need xboxes or Playsations. We built pretend houses, we skipped, roller skated, explored and read comics. We attended the matinee in the local cinema on a Saturday afternoon. Saturday was Bunty and Judy for me and the Victor and the Hotspur for the boys. Comics in case you haven’t heard of them. Food was wholesome but adventurous. Meals out at an hotel were a treat. There was no central heating in most houses in the fifties. Many winter mornings I woke up to find ice had formed on the bedroom window. When we were sick, a coal fire was lit in our bedroom. Getting dressed was an ordeal. We tried to do it while still under the blankets. No duvets in those days.
Living in a terrace of eight houses we had an eclectic mix of neighbours. Next door was the local headmaster of the boys primary school and his wife who was the headmistress of a local country primary school in a town land called Drumreagh.
On the other side was the district nurse and midwife. Extremely handy for delivering my four brothers. Further down was the local Methodist minister’s Manse and next door to him the local policeman. In a detached house on the same road was the local doctor. In those days the local doctor knew you and your family and all the family history. Home visits were normal and happened without even a request. No appointments were necessary at the surgery you just sat in a queue and waited your turn. Many occasions saw me running with one of the younger ones, blood dripping from somewhere in order for the doctor to do a quick stitch. My mother couldn’t stand the sight of blood .
I attended the local school. We were taught by nuns. I can still remember my first day when I sat beside a boy called George Cahill. I loved being at school. We wrote on boards with chalk as we hadn’t graduated to ink pens. When we graduated to ink pens, fingers were constantly inky and blots on exercise books were common. Outside toilets with half doors were the order of the day. Can you imagine it in the middle of winter? The water in the toilet was frozen, the toilet paper was Izal, that’s the shiny sort. There was central heating in the school but why were those crates of milk always set beside the radiators? I can still taste that warm milk. Ugh.
My Dad had a Ford or an Austin, not sure which, and many times we travelled with him to Dundalk to smuggle home sugar and butter which were still rationed in the North. We thought it was a great game and I’m sure the customs officer who asked ‘Anything to declare?’ knew we were sitting on something. On one occasion while on our foray for food, my brother leaned on the back door of the car. There were no safety locks in those days. He must have flipped the handle because he suddenly disappeared out the door. Luckily the car wasn’t going to fast. ‘Dad, Dad,’ I shouted, as I looked out the back window to see my brother lying on the road. Seems hysterically funny now but not so then. After the once over in Daisy Hill hospital he was released with a slight concussion.
On a final note bearing in mind what is happening in 2017 the twelfth ( Orange Order Parade) was held in Rostrevor on one occasion. Shopkeepers of every denomination had their stalls out selling Smyth’s lemonade and homemade sandwiches to those marching and those watching the parade. Our local milkman, an Orangeman, delivered the milk the night before, apologising profusely for the early delivery. We were too young to know what the Orange Order was and what it stood for. In those days most people seemed to come out to just to watch the bands. No bonfires and very little, if any, trouble. My lovely granny who owned a pub in Camlough was visiting on that occasion. As the parade passed our garden she waved and was acknowledged by a lot of the marchers as many were her customers. I remember thinking she was like the Queen. I loved my Granny and I used to visit her often and stay with her in Camlough. She would also come and stay with us in Rostrevor. I was devastated when she died.
The fifties were a quiet time but we did have a taste of what was to come. One night a loud explosion shook our house. A bomb had blown up a U.T.A bus in the nearby depot.
Kilbroney Park, Rostrevor