Three Irish boys. Three very different backgrounds. A bond that will be tested beyond all reason.
USA Today Bestselling Author Jean Grainger is taking you to Ireland...
For Liam, Patrick, and Hugo, life in 1960’s Ireland proves to be both idyllic and flawed. Leading vastly different lives, an unexpected friendship blooms between the teenagers when they all attend a private Catholic boarding school, a bond that seems unbreakable.
But, in a world where the Catholic Church is a pervasive presence, and life is both simple and complicated, can their friendship survive as they navigate love and loyalty, secrets and lies? Are they close enough to weather the gale, or will their separate struggles tear them apart?
In Under Heaven’s Shining Stars, author Jean Grainger is reminiscent of the late Maeve Binchy as she brings to life the struggles and simplicity that often go hand-in-hand with growing up. Experience it all with Liam, Patrick, and Hugo as they face the beauty, turmoil, and endless possibilities of life under the turbulent Irish sky.
Release date: July 23, 2016
Publisher: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform
Print pages: 356
* BingeBooks earns revenue from qualifying purchases as an Amazon Associate as well as from other retail partners.
Under Heaven's Shining Stars
Cork City, Ireland, 1963
The clanging bells broke through his dream, just as an angel was explaining in great detail how to score a point from a sideline cut at the fifty-yard line. The noise was deafening since the house was only seven doors down from the entrance to the hallowed church of St Teresa on the north side of Cork city. Mammy always said how lucky they were to live so close to God’s house, some people had miles to go to get to Mass on a Sunday or during Lent but the Tobin family was blessed; they only needed to run up the street anytime to be in God’s house.
‘Pop in and say a prayer on your way home, Liam,’ she would always say as she brushed his brown curly hair neatly and sent him off to school to the brothers armed with a bottle of milk and a doorstep of bread and jam for his lunch. He was luckier than most of the lads in his class he knew, to have a lunch every day and good shoes and an overcoat in the winter.
Liam dragged himself out of bed, the edges of the mattress cold to his skin as he blearily looked for his clothes. He sighed as he spotted his trousers, shirt and pullover on the floor as usual, despite his folding of them last night. Con always threw his clothes off the chair when he came in. Liam was sure he did it as a matter of course just to annoy his younger brother. It was hard being the youngest. The girls more or less ignored him or laughed at his seven-year-old thoughts on things and Con liked winding him up. He was four years older than Liam and much bigger and stronger, but to be fair he wasn’t the worst big brother, some other fellas had desperate things to put up with altogether from their older siblings—Con was all right. He always played hurling with Liam even though he was way better. He taught him some great tricks of the national game, and Liam always made the school team because of Con’s help. Sometimes, he even gave Liam a sweet if he got a shilling for doing a job for one of the . He’d hate anyone to know that he had a nice side though; Con liked his hard man image.
Liam opened the grey, shabby net curtains to see what kind of a day it was. Mammy washed them every week, but there was no money for new ones so they were grey with age, the smoke from the fires, and the mist off the River Lee didn’t help either. He heard her sighing as she hung them back up week after week, and Liam vowed that when he grew up he’d go into Murray’s on the Grand Parade and buy her the whitest net curtains they had. Everything looked a bit grey this morning though and as he dressed quickly, he could see his breath in the cold bedroom. At least, the range would be lit downstairs, Daddy banked it down before he went to bed and stoked it up in the morning when he was going out to work so that the kitchen was nice and warm for his family, even if the bedrooms were freezing.
Liam looked out into the street as he put his foot on the windowsill to tie his shoes. Even the famous golden fish weathervane, which adorned the top of the church, seemed less luminescent in the gloom of the morning. Everyone round there called it ‘de Goldie Fish’ and it was put on top of the church for the whole city to see. Stories varied as to why it was there and what it represented. Some people said it was there as a symbol of Cork being a port city but Mammy said it was because the Lord Jesus was a fisher of men. Whatever it meant, the generations who lived and died under the Goldie Fish considered themselves the luckiest people on earth. There was even a prayer that they learned in school, asking Our Lord and the Virgin Mary and St Finbarr to bless Cork as it lay beneath Heaven’s shining stars. A fella in his class asked Brother Aquinas why was Cork so special and wasn’t the whole world under Heaven’s shining stars, not just Cork, but the priest replied, ‘No wonder you don’t understand, and your father from Kerry,’ and gave him a clout across the head for impertinence.
To an outsider, the north side of Cork city and Chapel Street in particular might look poor and unkempt, and there wasn’t much going spare in 1963 that was true, but Cork people had always pitied those other unfortunate inhabitants of the earth without the geographic good fortune to live their lives on the banks of the River Lee. And those who lived on the north side pitied those on the south side of the river, even though that’s where all the posh suburbs were. The demarcation was important, and while all loved their home there was a respectful distance kept by both sides of the river. Life on the north side was poor and plenty of families had lost people to emigration—to the car factory at Dagenham in England mostly—but there was a pride and a passion for their home that belied its dilapidated appearance. Liam thought it was the best place in the whole wide world.
Liam peered down the hill from his bedroom window. The fog lay heavily on the river as the dawn tried valiantly to break through the thick grey clouds. The distinctive aroma of hops hung in the air, sandwiched as they were between Beamish’s brewery on the south side and Murphy’s on the north side. Liam loved the malty bitterness that greeted your nostrils each morning. Unless of course the tide was out, then the lovely hops aroma was replaced with the stink of a river at low tide. Rats would scurry around the riverbed among the silt-covered old bicycles and bits of timber. They made Mammy shudder to look at them but Liam thought they were fascinating and Daddy was always telling him what a resourceful little fella the rat was, always managing to survive despite people doing their best to kill him off for centuries.
The city lay at the top of Cork Harbour, the most southerly city on the island of Ireland and the safest natural in the whole world, another thing Liam’s Daddy had told him proudly, more than once. The river rose way out in the country and wandered gently through the green valleys and small villages and towns to find its way to the sea, almost at Liam’s front door.
The sound of deliveries, bringing milk, bread, and newspapers to the shops around Chapel Street, a few voices, hooves of dray horses on cobbles, and a fog horn further down the were the only sounds in the early March morning. You could set your clock by the arrival of the big horse with the furry feet pulling the milk cart to a stop at their door.
‘Ow!’ Liam yelped as a flying hob-nailed boot hit him in the back of the head.
‘Close the curtain, big eejit.’ Con pulled the blanket and coat over himself, trying to go back to sleep.
‘We have to get up now anyway, Con. Mammy will be up here in a minute. If she doesn’t hear us, she’ll murder you,’ Liam pleaded with his older brother. He hated it when there was anger in the house in the mornings. Daddy and Liam’s older sister, Kate, would be gone to work already, but Mammy had to get the rest of them out to school and she took no nonsense, especially from lazy eleven-year-old Con.
‘You’re serving today, Con, and Father Mac warned you about being late for Mass again. You had your soutane on backwards yesterday, lucky Mammy couldn’t find her glasses or she’d kill you.’ Liam begged his brother to cooperate. He was so lucky too, not everyone was picked to serve at Mass. Liam longed to be an altar boy like his brother, but he hadn’t yet made his First Holy Communion so he wasn’t allowed. He always vowed that if he was picked to serve Father Mac he’d never, ever, be late for Mass and his vestments would be immaculate.
‘’Liam, I swear I’ll bate the head off if you don’t close them bloody curtains!’ Con groaned, his voice muffled under the feather pillow. Reluctantly, Liam closed them, knowing only too well that Con meant every word of the threat. He checked himself in the mirror on the wardrobe door. His short trousers had seen better days, having first being owned by Con, and now him. Mammy patched the backside of them so many times they looked a bit mad, but he didn’t mind. It wasn’t like he was the only boy in the class with patched trousers. Compared to most, Daddy always said, they were lucky. Food on the table, shoes on their feet and a warm bed. And they got to stay in school till they were twelve years of age. Loads of the kids on the street either never went to school at all, or left after a few years, when they could read and write a bit. It was the law that every child was supposed to go, but the authorities didn’t bother too much with the kids who lived on Chapel Street. Most of the parents weren’t able to read or write very well either, but Mammy and Daddy were very good at it, and Daddy read them the best cowboy stories at night. He could do the voices and everything and you’d swear Buffalo Bill or Billy the Kid was talking when Daddy read to them. Even the girls loved the stories, but they pretended they wanted him to read stupid old romances.
The bells rang again. Mass was at seven and then it was home for a bowl of porridge before being packed off to school at the top of the hill.
‘Con Tobin, you better be out of bed and dressed, I’m warning you. If I have to come up to you, so help me God I’ll brain you! hear me?’ Mammy shouted from downstairs. Liam went out onto the landing.
‘Ah, Liam pet, you’re the best boy ever, do you know that?’ she rubbed his hair as he passed her on the stairs. ‘Is that big lump of a clown out of bed yet?’
Mammy had her second best dress on. Not the one she wore on Sundays but the blue one with the little flowers on it. She made it herself and it was Liam’s . He loved how soft the fabric felt against his face when Mammy hugged him. She always made a funny sound like she was being strangled when he gave her extra squeezy hugs and it made him giggle. There was no time for hugs this morning though, they had to get to Mass. Mammy was fixing her long dark hair with pins in the small mirror over the Holy Water font in the hall before putting on her lace mantilla to cover her hair in the church. Daddy always said how lovely Mammy was, and how she was the most beautiful woman in Ireland. She usually just swatted him with the tea-towel and told him not to be trying to soft soap her with his old , but Liam knew she loved it when he said it. Her cheeks went all red and she smiled a kind of special smile at Daddy.
She looked at herself and was sure she looked respectable.
‘Con!’ she shouted again. ‘Was he up, Liam, when you were coming down?’
Liam hated being a tell-tale on Con, he mostly liked his big brother and anyway, he’d only give him a clatter for telling on him if he did, so he muttered something about getting his coat and ran out the back door.
He pushed the heavy oak door of St Teresa’s church—he wasn’t tall enough to reach the shiny brass handle—and immediately inhaled. He loved the scent of the incense mixed with beeswax polish, the muted notes of the organ played by Hegarty who Daddy said was an old lady when he was a child, and the sense of anticipation among the congregation, waiting for the bell to announce the start of Mass. Most of the pews were almost full and he hoped that nobody would sit beside him because there would be no room for Mammy and the twins. Daddy would get Mass on his way back from the dockyard in St Peter and Paul’s church in town, and Kate took the patients to Mass in the hospital every day anyway, so in the mornings it was just Con, himself, Mammy and the twins.
He knelt and said his prayers, asking God to make him good, good enough to be able to make his First Holy Communion in two weeks time. Father Aquinas said only very good fellas were going to be allowed to make it, and he told them that the week before the Communion he’d be sending a list to the bishop of the good fellas and the bad fellas and any bad fellas won’t be making the Communion, and what’s more, they won’t get a shiny penny, and won’t be able to go to the breakfast in the monastery where had it, sticky buns and lemonade were available to all the good fellas. He tried to suppress a smile at the memory of Jackie Byrne asking Father Aquinas if the bishop was like Santie so, with a good and bold list. The entire class watched the priest’s reaction with bated breath, Father Aquinas was very scary. The priest had puffed up like a bullfrog and roared at Jackie not to be so cheeky, thumping him on the shoulder as he did so. Father Aquinas was huge and used to be a brilliant boxer so when he hit you a clatter, you knew all about it.
He felt someone touch his shoulder and he started. He looked up, relieved to see Molly and Annie, the nine-year-old twins, nudging him to push in, their mother behind. He moved along as far as he could, making space for the rest of the family as the piercing ding of the bell indicated the start of Mass. Seamus Daly was on the altar with Con this week, and he walked reverentially across the altar, bowing low before the Blessed Sacrament, then kneeling on the left hand side of the pulpit. Next, came Father Mac, his bald head shining under the lights as he bent to kiss the Bible. Liam scanned the altar for Con, praying he had his soutane straight and on the right way. His stomach lurched as he nobody was on the other side. He glanced sideways at his mother, who was rapidly taking in the situation as the drained from her face. Where was Con? To shame the family like that, by not turning up for mass in front of everyone was going to be unforgivable. Mammy was going to be mortified and Daddy would go mad. Suddenly, the door behind the altar that led to the sacristy opened with much and creaking, and a mortified Con, with hair standing on end and one boot missing, crept across the altar. Molly started to giggle and that set Annie off, both girls shaking with mirth as their mother threw them dagger looks. Liam focused on the sanctuary lamp, where the sacred heart of Jesus was covered with a purple cloth for the forty days of Lent. He prayed hard that Father Mac didn’t notice Con arriving late, or that he only had one boot. He knew that Con had forgotten he had thrown the other one at Liam for opening the curtains so it was probably under the bed or something.
The Mass went on uneventfully and Liam watched in awe as Father Mac held up the body and then the blood of Christ, but Liam could feel Mammy seething beside him. Poor old Con, she was going to go mad when they got home. The Glen and the Rockies were playing in the hurling County final down in the Park on Sunday and Daddy was taking both of them, but it was looking bad for Con now. There is no way Mammy would let him go after this, and Daddy always bought them chips afterwards and everything. Con would be heartbroken to miss it, but Daddy wouldn’t overrule Mammy.
Liam pulled his attention back to the Mass. In school, Father Aquinas was teaching them about transubstantiation, the way that a real miracle happened in front of your very eyes when ordinary old bread, made by the nuns in the Good Shepherd’s convent in Sunday’s Well got turned into the real body of Jesus Christ.. And then how wine got turned into his blood. Liam was transfixed when Father Aquinas talked all about it, trying to make sense of how a miracle happened every day just across the road from his house, and all over the world as well.
The wonders of Catholicism fascinated Liam. He loved to hear the stories about the missions and how brave priests were leaving the comfort of home and their families to go out and convert the black babies in darkest Africa so that they could be saved and go to heaven when they died. At night in bed, Liam worried that there weren’t enough priests to go around, what about all the babies with their big brown eyes and curly hair that never got to meet an Irish priest? Was hell full of black babies just because they weren’t lucky enough to be in the same village as a priest?
He’d asked Mammy about it one night and she said that they were probably not in hell, but they might be in Limbo. That place wasn’t as bad as Hell, no fires burning for all eternity or the devil and all that horrible scary stuff, but that they would never get to see the face of God because they hadn’t been .
‘But Mammy, who minds all the babies up in Limbo so?’ Liam had asked, getting more and more upset. ‘If all the Mammies and Daddies did get , there’s nobody there to mind the babies.’
‘Oh, Holy God and the Blessed Virgin Mary send very special angels to look after the babies so they’re fine, all playing together and lots of nice things to eat and everything,’ Mammy reassured him as she peeled the spuds for the dinner. ‘They have a great time there, buns and lollipops and everything.’
‘Well, I suppose it doesn’t sound that bad so,’ Liam wasn’t convinced, ‘but it would be better, wouldn’t it, Mammy, if they got into the Holy Catholic Church and then when they died they could go up to heaven with all the other good people?’ He watched and waited as his mother peeled the wafer-thin layer of skin from the potato, they had enough, but just about. There was no waste in the Tobin household.
‘It would, of course, pet, and sure aren’t there priests and nuns going out to the missions every week, doing their best to get to as many of those poor people as they can?’ She ruffled his brown curly hair with her wet hand. Mammy always had time for him, even when his brothers and sisters told him to get lost with his endless questions, she would chat away to him as she did the jobs around the house. He got home the earliest since he was the youngest and it was his time of the day, helping her to wash the sheets or get the dinner, and talking away all the time. Mammy had great devotion to St Bernadette, the Little Flower, and St Anthony. She often told him that he looked like St Anthony with his lovely brown eyes, but her angel by far was St Michael the Archangel.
‘St Michael the Archangel, Liam, he’s the one you want if you are ever in trouble or worried or scared. Sure, didn’t he take on the devil himself and won? He’s not scared of anything or anyone so he’s a great one to have in your corner. And the Little Flower, oh she’s lovely. They say that when people who had devotion to her die, the room smells of the sweetest roses.’ Mammy would stare off into the distance then and sigh with contentment at the thought of such a lovely death.
‘But we’d be lost entirely without St Anthony, wouldn’t we, Mammy?’ Liam grinned.
‘We would indeed, pet, because he’s the only saint who can find lost things and we’re forever losing things in this house, aren’t we?’
Liam nodded enthusiastically. ‘Like, remember last week when Daddy couldn’t find the key for his bicycle lock and I ran over to the church to the statue of St Anthony and said a prayer and then Con found it in Daddy’s old donkey jacket?’
‘That’s right. Aren’t you the smart lad to think of that?’
Liam didn’t say that Daddy had given Con a bulls eye for finding the key, but it was Liam’s prayers that did it. Con had to put the lovely black and white sweet away till after Lent since nobody ate sweets in Lent. Sure, Con would probably let Liam have it anyway once Easter came. Con pretended to be grumpy and mean to Liam in front of people but he was nice under it all.
‘Lost entirely without St Anthony is right,’ Mammy laughed, and when she did, it sounded to him like little bells ringing. Mammy was always laughing at funny things Liam and his siblings said or did, but especially she laughed at Daddy. He loved to lie in bed at night, hearing them chatting quietly downstairs, having a cup of tea before bed, or if things were good, and Daddy got overtime, cocoa. One time, he crept downstairs because he’d had a scary dream and he saw Mammy sitting on Daddy’s lap. They were just looking into the fire together, lost in thought. Daddy had his big arms around her and was rubbing her hair. Liam watched for a minute but went back upstairs rather than disturb them. Every night she waited up for Daddy, even if it was really late when he finished work, and Liam was relieved when he heard the door open—everything was fine, Daddy was home. And every so often, lying in bed, he’d hear Mammy laugh and Daddy shushing her so as not to wake the children. He knew some of the boys in school had Mammies and Daddies that used to fight, and even sometimes the Daddies would drink too much porter and get very scary and be shouting. Just across the road, Patrick Lynch’s Daddy was forever roaring around the street. When he’d wake the whole place up singing and shouting in the middle of the night on his way back from The Glue Pot, Mammy used to say to them, ‘Just say a little prayer for Lynch that he’ll fall asleep.’
Last weekend, there was really bad shouting, and Liam got a fright when it woke him up, and Daddy had to go out to try to make Lynch quiet and Lynch had to go to the hospital because she fell down the stairs. Liam was really glad he had his Daddy who never shouted or drank too much porter or made people fall.
The next morning was Sunday, and Daddy was at home so Liam asked him, ‘Why was Lynch making so much noise last night?’
Liam saw his parents exchange a look and then Daddy said, ‘ Lynch drinks too much porter and then it makes him do stupid things.’
‘But why does he?’ Liam was confused.
Daddy pulled Liam onto his lap then, ‘Ah Liam, Joe Lynch has had a hard life, you know? His Mammy died when he was small, and there wasn’t anyone to mind him so was raised in an industrial school up the country and maybe they weren’t as kind to him as they could have been. And then he got married to Lynch and she’s a lovely woman, and he was working below in the butter exchange, but they had to let people go when they got the new churning machines so he lost his job. I know he can be a bit scary and all of that, but he’s not had it easy either. I’ll tell you what, when we were younger you’d dread it if Joe Lynch was marking you in a hurling match. He was the quickest centre forward I ever saw, and he could score from anywhere. One time, I remember he doubled the sliotar over his shoulder and scored a point from about sixty yards out. Even the mighty Christy Ring was beaten by Joe a few times. Sure, I see it now with young Patrick, he’s what? A year older than you? And I’ll tell you he’ll be one to watch. Patrick Lynch is nearly as good a hurler as his father was, and in time, he might even be better. I’ve watched him when I go to see Con playing, he thinks three moves ahead. Did you ever notice that? Other fellas are tackling in the box but young Lynch is nowhere near, then one of his teammates makes a bit of space and there’s Patrick, in exactly the right spot to score. He has it all, speed, skill, accuracy, and most importantly, intelligence. He got that from Joe.’
Liam’s eyes were wide as saucers, amazed to be party to such detail of an adult’s life. It was true, Patrick Lynch was the best player in the school, and he seemed nice too, though he was ahead of Liam so they just said hello mostly. Liam was anxious to get back to the racket of last night though.
‘Did you have to hit him to quieten him last night, Daddy?’ Liam liked the idea that his Daddy was the hero of the story.
‘Indeed, then I did not, Liam Tobin, what kind of a question is that? I don’t go round hitting people and neither does anyone in my family, do you hear me? Joe just had a bit too much to drink and I helped him to get to bed, that’s all.’
‘Did he push Lynch down the stairs by accident, is that what happened? Is that why she is in the hospital?’
Liam caught the warning glance his mother threw his father.
‘Ah no, I think she just tripped on a loose bit of carpet or something.’ Daddy said quickly.
‘But the Lynches don’t have carpet on the stairs...’ Liam began.
‘Now then,’ Mammy interrupted, ‘who wants a sausage?’
The family yelled with delight at the weekly breakfast treat and the Lynches and their stairs were forgotten.
He was panicking. It wouldn’t go down. It was only the practice host, the real ones were the body of Christ, but these were just the ones the nuns made before the priest consecrated them. They were using them for practice but though Liam tried as hard as he could to swallow, the wafer disc felt like it was actually blowing up like a balloon inside in his mouth. He struggled again to swallow, aware now how red his face must be as beads of sweat prickled his neck. Father Aquinas was explaining how you must never touch the host with your hands, only a priest was allowed to do that. You had to open your mouth wide when the time came to go up to receive the body of Christ and stick out your tongue to make it easier for the priest.
Liam tried to focus on the priest’s voice.
‘Under no circumstances must you touch the body of Christ with your teeth. Would you bite the Lord Jesus Christ if he walked up to you here in this holy place? Would you?’ His bright blue eyes, almost covered by long hairy eyebrows bore down on Timmy O’Shea whose jaw was moving.
Timmy shook his head quickly, ‘No, Father, I would not,’ he mumbled.
‘Indeed, you wouldn’t if you knew what was good for you. Then why would you think, O’Shea, that chewing the body of the Lord your God, with your big yellow teeth like a donkey, the Lord that died on the cross for you, gave up everything for you, would be acceptable?’ He roared the last bit, poor Timmy shivered.
Timmy swallowed with an audible gulp and squeaked, ‘It isn’t ac...ac…acceptable, Father.’
With a heavy sigh and a cuff across the back of the head for Timmy, the priest turned his attention to the next part of the Holy Communion Mass.
The monastery chapel was cold and smelled of beeswax polish. The dappled sunlight through the high, narrow stained glass windows played and danced on the ornate brass altar rails. There were only about ten pews either side of the aisle, enough for the brothers, since no members of the public ever attended Mass here. It was much smaller than St Teresa’s but it was just as lovely.
One or two of the really good fellas got to put beeswax on old socks and polish the floors of the chapel on a Friday afternoon while everyone else sat listening to the readings and the Gospel for the following Sunday in the draughty high-ceiling classrooms, but they would never tell what it was like. Those lads would probably turn out to be priests themselves.
The class were so excited, being brought into the private chapel as a group was the most talked about event of the school year. Holy Communion practice went on for months in the classroom but to get inside the priests’ private house was thrilling. It was hard to imagine them sleeping or eating or doing normal things, they seemed so far removed from ordinary people. Normally, everything behind the big oak door that linked the school and the monastery was off limits and the boys never dared to take a peek at the place where the brothers slept and ate, but in the week before the sacrament, the first Communion class were allowed in and it gave them legend status with the smaller fellas. Even the older lads were kind of envious because it was years ago they were allowed into the private area of the monastery and they were always asking what changes had happened.
Liam tried to take in as much as possible as the priest opened the big door and the whole class trooped through. The smell was the first thing that hit you, not like anyone’s house or even like school, it smelled warm and sweet and just like what Liam imagined rich people’s houses to smell like. Their feet squeaked on the polished parquet floor as they waited in the hall. There were statues of saints on little tables in every corner and loads of holy pictures on the walls. The silence felt heavy. As they followed the priest past a room that had lots of fancy looking furniture and bookshelves from floor to ceiling, Liam spotted the most amazing thing he’d ever seen. A big brown television stood in one corner of the room, between the huge marble fireplace and the window. There was a television in the window of Fitzgerald’s Electrical Shop on the Grand Parade, which the people of Cork at. There was a cartoon called Lacha about a duck every Saturday morning and sometimes Con would take Liam into town to watch it through the shop window. No one they knew had one, they were much too dear for anyone living on Chapel Street and yet there was a really big one, bigger even than the one in Fitzy’s right there in the monastery.
Mammy and Daddy had laughed when he told the family about his day and the sounds and smells of the monastery over dinner.
‘How can someplace smell rich, you clown?’ Con laughed, but Daddy gave him a disapproving look.
‘I know exactly what you mean, Liam, don’t mind him. I did some work in there a few years back, they needed some pipes replaced and it did smell rich, and there was a great smell of cooking too, I remember. They weren’t supposed to, I think, but the nuns that ran the kitchen used to bring me a cup of tea and currant cake with butter and jam. lovely altogether.’
‘Oh I see, Tobin, you prefer the nuns’ sweet cake to the stuff your wife makes for you with her own bare hands. Is that the way of it? Maybe you should have been a priest yourself and you’d have a clatter of nuns traipsing after you day in day out feeding you cake!’ Mammy sounded cross but when Liam looked at her properly he could see she was only joking with Daddy.
‘Ah, but I’d have no lovely wife to be cuddling and kissing then, would I? And sure that would be a fright to God now, wouldn’t it?’ He winked at the children, who giggled. They loved hearing this story though they’d heard it a thousand times. ‘Oh no, I could never have taken Holy Orders because I fell in love with Mary Clancy and even the Lord himself couldn’t stop it. He must have said to himself, and he sitting around on a big fluffy cloud one day, with a small little angel beside him playing tunes on the harp, “Sure I don’t need that many priests and poor old Tobin down there in Cork is stone mad about Mary Clancy and if they got married they’d have a fine brood of lovely children so I’ll leave him off.”’
‘! Will you stop with all that auld talk, and our Liam about to make his First Holy Communion, isn’t that nice chat for him to be listening to over the dinner table. What if Father Aquinas heard that, did you ever think of that?’
Mammy was blushing and trying not to smile, but Daddy was still smirking.
‘Sure, maybe he’s above kissing the nuns,’ Con quipped.
Liam started with the fright he got as his mother’s quick temper emerged.
‘Con Tobin,’ Mammy was not joking cross now, this was real cross. ‘How dare you say such a thing about a man of the cloth, a holy, saintly priest like Father Aquinas! And I might add, a priest who was willing to let you serve on the altar even though you can’t turn up in time or ever wear two shoes, and you making a show of the whole family in front of the entire parish? ‘Tis lucky for you that Father Mac is half blind, God love him, or he’d be onto the school above demanding a new altar boy!’
Mammy was glaring at Con and then at Daddy urging him to get involved. Con wasn’t going to be allowed to forget the one-shoed altar boy fiasco in a hurry.
‘Your mother is right, Con. Father Aquinas is an ordained priest, and you shouldn’t be making a mockery of him.’
Mammy seemed satisfied and it was only when her back was turned, Liam noticed Daddy kicking Con under the table to get his attention and giving him an almost imperceptible wink. Con smiled, and Liam felt himself relax.
He wanted to restore the good of earlier so decided to share his latest discovery.
‘The brothers have a television, too, in the sitting room.’
Annie and Molly suddenly sat up and took notice of what was going on. A girl in their class had come from England to live in Cork with her granny and she was full of what television they had over there and how much she missed it. The twins thought she was the most glamorous thing they ever clapped eyes on.
‘Have they really, Liam?’ Annie’s eyes were round in amazement. ‘What do they want a television for?’
‘Ah, go way that, Liam! You’re joking! Sure there are only old news and fellas going on about farming on it, anyway,’ Kate laughed, looking up from the newspaper. She was always looking for a new job; she hated working in the hospital. ‘Sure, what business would the brothers have with a television?’
‘They do have one, I saw it. It’s even bigger than the one in Fitzy’s window.’ Liam wanted them to believe him, but the twins trusted Kate and if she said it wasn’t true, then they believed her. They went back to testing each other on their spellings; they were very at school and always won medals and things for being the best in the class. Liam was fine at school; he didn’t get the strap that often for getting things wrong in his lessons, but that was only because Daddy checked it for him and told him if he made a mistake. Con launched into a story, telling Daddy how he scored the winning point in the game against St Michael’s. Kate was busy circling things with a pen in the paper. He’d lost everyone’s attention except his mother’s.
‘They really do have one, Mammy,’ he said.
‘I bet they do, pet, maybe they’ll need to know what people are looking at in case it’s not suitable,’ she replied as she cleared the table. Daddy turned from Con’s graphic description of a tackle and gently put his hand on her arm, stopping her from continuing.
‘Now, Mary, my love, let you sit there by the stove. Myself and these fine sons and daughters of ours, who you go to such trouble to feed and clothe and educate, are going to wash up and get the place straight, and you are going to have a cup of tea. Now, ladies,’ he announced, grabbing the paper from Kate and putting it up on the high shelf, ‘tea towels at the ready. Con, scrape the plates for the hens and get coal. Annie and Molly, ye sweep the floor and bring in the washing from the yard and fold it, then ye can hang out the next lot. Liam, you put away, Kate will dry, and I’ll wash.’
Groaning only a little bit, everyone went about their jobs. Daddy was not to be argued with, when he told you to do a job, you just did it. Not because he’d slap you or anything, he never slapped them, and he got all quiet whenever he heard any of his children got hit at school. One time, when the nun had really beat Kate for daydreaming, he went down to the convent. Mammy begged him not to, but he said that he wasn’t going to have anyone attacking his children. Nobody knew exactly what happened that night, but everyone saw him march up to the front door of the convent and ring the bell, and none of the Tobin girls ever got a slap again. Con was forever getting the strap from the brothers in school, but then Con was forever doing bold things so he never told Daddy about it. The night he went down to the nuns, Liam was only two so he didn’t remember it, but Con told him that everyone looked at Daddy a bit different after.
He was a gentle giant really, but people usually did what he said, and he didn’t care one bit what people thought of him. Liam knew that none of the other fellas in school would believe that his daddy did the wash up every night, while Mammy had a cup of tea. None of the other fathers would do anything like that, but big, handsome Tobin wasn’t like others, Liam knew that. He was taller than most of the men, and he had loads of hurling medals from when he was younger. He always wore a collar and tie and changed into his overalls when he got down to the dockyard. He never walked home covered in dirt like the other men, he always washed up after work, even though he told them that the water was icy cold. For as long as Liam could remember, he would watch him every morning, standing in his white vest, braces hanging from his trousers as he shaved with a cut-throat razor at the kitchen sink, and sometimes in the evening too if they were going out somewhere. One time, when Con was about three, he got the razor and nearly cut his head off trying to copy Daddy, so now the razor was kept on the very high shelf. Mammy and Daddy always insisted that the family were well turned-out. He pushed the pram when they were small, he even cooked dinners and made brown cake when Mammy had to go and stay with Granny that time last year. Though it wasn’t as nice as when Mammy made it, they all ate it without complaining. He didn’t really drink, which made him a bit unusual too, and after Mass on Sundays he would always take them to the little huckster shop up Murray’s Lane and buy them an ice cream or a few sweets. Liam knew he was lucky and other fellas watched with envy as they walked home after Mass licking ice creams and he holding his daddy’s hand.
Daddy stood at the sink washing the dishes as Kate dried and put away. She was singing an Elvis song, she was mad about him, forever going on about him, and she told them that she was saving up for a record player.
‘Kate Tobin, I don’t think that all those songs are suitable for young ladies. O’Shea was only saying the other day when we were doing the altar flowers how a lot of that music isn’t one bit nice and that Elvis Presley is not allowed to do concerts in lots of places because parents, even in America, don’t like the kind of influence he is having on their children. And all his songs, well, they only encourage company keeping and all that sort of thing, and I just don’t think it’s suitable for nice girls to be listening to,’ Mammy said in a voice that brooked no argument.
‘Ah, Mam, sure he’s lovely looking and his songs are great, don’t mind O’Shea, she wouldn’t know Elvis from the Bishop!’ Kate jumped to her hero’s .
‘Well, the Bishop might have something to say about him and all his…gyrating. If he ever comes to Cork, you for one won’t be going to see him anyway. Can’t you listen to that lovely traditional music or a choir, or Seán O’Riada, sure his music would bring tears to your eyes. ‘Twas on the wireless yesterday, beautiful it was,’ Mary suggested.
Kate snorted in disdain. ‘Ah Mam, did you ever see the state of him, and them fellas with the fiddles and accordions? They’d bring tears to my eyes all right. They’re all about a hundred and that’s the music for the old folks, but you’ve nothing to worry about anyway, I don’t think someone as marvellous as Elvis would ever bother his barney to come to Cork. Why would he? He’d want his head checked to even come to Dublin let alone Cork.’
The twins giggled as they swept the floor, they thought Kate was the picture of sophistication.
Seán flicked sudsy water at his daughters, ‘And what’s wrong with Cork all of a sudden? Sure isn’t it the real capital of Ireland, the jewel in the Irish crown, the place where all the best people come from? Michael Collins, Christy Ring, Jack Lynch. Sure wouldn’t Elvis be only too thrilled to meet the people of such a fine city?’
Kate responded, ‘Ah sure, Daddy, Cork is grand for hurling and fellas dying for Ireland and all that stuff, but it’s not cool. Not like London or New York or places like that.’
‘Cool? Well, I can tell you ‘twas cool enough trying to unload a container of coal this morning below at the quay wall. ‘Twas fine and cool, ‘twas freezing in fact. Not that you would know anything about that, inside with the nuns and the place like a bake house. I don’t know if having the hospital so hot is good for people, sure they’d catch their death then when they came out into the real weather.’
‘Well, Sister Gerard insists on having the private rooms roasting altogether, nothing is too much trouble for the quality, don’t you know?’ she giggled, mimicking the staff sister’s voice. ‘It isn’t the same for the poor people in the public wards, the food, the heat, everything is different. Sure, nuns have no interest in poor people.’
Daddy gave her a warning glance, Liam knew he kind of agreed with Kate when they went on about how snobby the nuns were but Mammy wouldn’t like any of that talk about nuns or priests.
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