To most people he was Bobbie or Robbie. To me he was my father, a rather distant figure - and not just because of the 40-year age gap between us. When that gap spanned perhaps the most turbulent period in modern Irish (and world) history, it became an almost unbridgeable chasm between his generation and mine. Almost.
Bobbie was born in the last year of peace before World War I broke out, and was really a child of the 19th century. When my father entered the world, Ireland was still part of the United Kingdom. The seat of government was in London not Dublin, and the Easter Rising was almost three years away. By the time I appeared on the scene in the 1950s, it must have seemed like a different place to what Bobbie had known as a boy.
My father was a well-known figure around the area where we lived. Not being a driver, he always walked to work in Thomas Street, a journey that took about 20 minutes each way. This brought him past a variety of shops, such as Lockhart’s butchers. There he might pick up an ox tail or a sheep’s head, which my mother would turn into a stew for the family’s dinner.
There were several pubs along Bobbie’s route as well, but he was not a customer. He was a non-drinker, as was my mother. They might have a glass of sherry at Christmas, but otherwise alcohol was not a feature of life at home. I never saw Bobbie tipsy, let alone intoxicated. But he did have one secret “vice”, although not so secret really.
Apart from Guinness's brewery, whose offices and warehouses dominated the area, the most significant building locally was the Roman Catholic Church of St. James. Invariably, on his way home from work in the evening, Bobbie would drop into the church and we might not see him for hours. His purpose was not to light candles or say a few prayers, although he may have done both. He was there to help out.
These were the days before parish committees made up of lay folk came into vogue. Bobbie had no specific job or function. Perhaps he just liked being involved at the centre of local religious life. Sometimes I tagged along and saw for myself the sorts of things he did.
Once I stood beside him in the belfry as he sounded the Angelus. As he clung to the thick rope I was horrified to see him being pulled maybe 10 feet off the ground by the weight of the massive bell as it swung back and forth above our heads. At the weekend, I might accompany him as he went door-to-door around Mount Brown collecting the little envelopes into which parishioners had put whatever they could give towards the running of the parish.
While he spent a lot of time on these and other parish-related activities, mostly Bobbie was to be found in the Parochial Hall right next door to the church. As well as being the focus of social life in our little community, the hall was a source of revenue for the parish. Various groups hired the hall for their meetings, competitions, or jumble sales. It was also a venue for bigger events like plays, variety shows, and dancing competitions. Every winter a pantomime, such as Babes in the Wood or Robinson Crusoe, would entertain packed houses and brighten up the dark days after Christmas.
|Bobbie in the hall (Front row, fourth from left)|
As far as the Parochial Hall was concerned, Bobbie’s role was to “keep an eye on things” on behalf of the parish priest and his curates. Their religious duties would not have allowed them much time for the day-to-day maintenance and running of a busy venue like the hall. So they were probably glad that someone like my father was willing to devote himself to making sure the place functioned as well as it did.
While I have fond memories of my times hanging around the Parochial Hall, another aspect of life in those early years made a greater impression on me. As I described here, the highlight of my week was travelling into town with my father to see the latest show at one of Dublin’s many picture houses. I have no doubt that my lifelong love of cinema developed out of those childhood trips.
Sitting in the auditorium of the Grafton, for instance, we shared many a chuckle as we watched the Three Stooges or Laurel & Hardy lark about on the big screen. Maybe Bobbie had also laughed at their antics when he was a youngster. I don’t know.
What I am sure of is that, for a few hours on a Sunday afternoon, that chasm I mentioned was no longer there.