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BLESSINGTON.


RECOLLECTIONS FROM A TOWNS DAUGHTER.


I was born in Blessington during the late fifties and grew up there in the sixties and seventies. I thought I might jot down a few lines to remind me of how things used to be in the town which has now changed so much.Horseshoe Archway. Main Street, Blessington.
We lived in Lake View. A sort of semi-circle row of quaint cottages, situated at the back of the town. They had huge long meadowy gardens at the rear on one side, overlooking the beautiful lake and Blessington Bridge. My father was an ex army man, then working in haulage, and my mother had worked in service before marrying and having the five of us, two girls and three boys. My elder sister Maureen and I were like the bookends to our brothers Jimmy, Mick and John, she being the eldest and me the baby!
Blessington for us was a place we took pretty much for granted and we grew accustomed to the freedom and the beauty that surrounded us. Even in those days, it was a very busy town with people travelling from quite a large radius of its surroundings in order to shop or bank or do whatever other business needed doing from time to time. We had all the facilities required for plain simple living. We also had the huge natural playground of the rest of the locality, though the lake was always a worry for our parents. The town and blissful countryside was our whole world then and I always felt safe and had the protection of the older ones.
My earliest memories are of being jaunted around in my big old pram by my brothers, as they were sent to the shops for messages each day. I can still recall the speed at which the clouds rolled by as the pram sped through the streets, perhaps to Millar’s for the newspaper or to Cruise’s for the meat! Walking hand in hand to Mass with Maureen, and going to the Dispensary on the Kilbride road with my mother for vaccinations and getting a sugar lump or two is still strangely quite clear in my mind.
Old school photo.Fast forward now to early school years and I can safely say that though your school years are supposed to be the happiest years of your life, in a way that’s true except for me it wasn’t actually in the school that I was happiest. Even the first day was filled with fear and disappointment. But that’s beside the point. Suffice is to say that I wasn’t a stupid child nor was I considered difficult, and so should have liked school more. Alas, teachers and their methods were different then. Corporal Punishment was rife, and we children of the sixties were no strangers to the cane.
Among the places that I was happiest, was fishing down at the ‘Point’ with my sister and brothers. This was a particularly special area along by the strand on the nearest side of the lake to our home, which jutted out like a stony bib in the water. That’s where we paddled too! Someone would be designated to find a sturdy twig in the shape of a ‘Y’ from the branch of a tree. Snap it off and place it in the ground. This would be the prop for the rod. Then while we waited for the ‘bite’, we would collect the prettiest shore-washed stones and drift-wood and treasure them like precious jewels. And when the lake was placid and resembling a sheet of glass we’d skim the flattest stones we could find across its surface. This was a sight to behold. We’d hold competitions to see who could throw the farthest. The boys always won! If a fish was caught it was always made out to be a lot bigger than it really was! We would wander around to the area off the Mill Bank when the water level was low, along the rocky shore and soft marshy ground of burned umber, to where it was possible to see the tips of old ruins ghostly peeping out of the water. Remains of the valley before flooding. There was once a graveyard there, and we’d discuss the mystery of the girl whose body was found to be still in perfect condition after exhumation even though she had been buried there for years. Rumour had it that she must be a Saint!
The cemetery was at that time in the forties being moved to Burgage on the far side of the town, another place that held many mysteries for us. Our mothers told us that if we were worried about anything that we should pray! We were ‘Cathecism’ powered.

People were very religious then it seemed, though I believe Blessington is one of the places that survived theThe old Church. Church of Our Lady of the Most Holy Sacrament. later fallout from the church which occurred in the eighties, and nineties throughout the rest of the country. Whenever I go home and am in the lovely new church, The Church of Our Lady of the Most Holy I am amazed at the size of the congregation there no matter what time I go. The old little chapel, The Church of Our Lady of the most Holy Sacrament, now part of the new school, is where I made my first Holy Communion, did all the retreats with my mother and in later years got married in. Confirmations were then held in Cross Chapel. The little Chapel was too small for the growing district. And if you were late at all for Mass you’d be sure to be left standing outside throughout.
I remember the regaling yet haunting toll’s of the bells of the Church of Ireland rolling out the news of all things special to them and to us. In a way our own little Notre Dame.
During the retreats the missionary priests would come to preach fire and brimstone and generally put the fear of God into the people. Thankfully that’s one thing that’s ceased. Looking back now I can see that it was bound to change. People became “life” enlightened and couldn’t accept being hoodwinked anymore. But on a lighter note the days of the Corpus Christi processions in the month of May were lovely. I can remember feeling very important as I walked through the town spreading the shiny, crimson petals of peony roses from a little wicker basket, along the streets. All to the sound of harmonious hymn’s like ‘Faith Of Our Fathers’ and ‘To Jesus Heart All Burning’ amplified through a loud speaker.
These days there’s been so much change in the way children play too. The material world has taken over. My friends and I would play ‘Babby-house’ in the plots across the ‘Green’ from our house. This area has long since been built upon and I wonder if the echoes of our joyful play could still be heard there today. We would play Hopscotch and Tag and Skipping and versions of Charades and Blind-mans Buff. In those times occasions like Halloween and Easter were made all the more real by our own over active imaginations. We sat around the fire at night listening to ghost stories which I now believe probably caused a multitude of mini nervous breakdowns not just on all Hallows Eve but on other dark and wintry nights. But then on balance in the brightness of the spring we truly believed in a big yellow Easter bunny delivering a chocolate egg to the homes of every child in the world, just like Santy Clause had to do with the toys at Christmas.
Kilbride Road.My eldest brother Jimmy was a great craftsman all his life, and even then as a very young boy he would build, among other things, little wooden go-carts complete with steers and wheels! I can remember being chauffeured all the way along the boreen from Troopersfields! Then we’d run through the banks of the lakes and I could be a damsel in distress one day or Calamity Jane the next! We’d search the trees for wildlife homes and seek out birds nests; and there must be several of these with the initials MC, JC, MC, JC, TC carved into them. Just our initials, no love connections then! Except for life itself. They were halcyon days. Seasons tumbled over one another, and whether the weather was good or bad was irrelevant. No foreign climes for us and distant shores were unreachable, but we were satisfied in our own cosy paradise, and the jungle lilies in our garden were the closest we got to the tropics.
One day we sneaked into Roadstone Quarry where we climbed huge mountains of sand and gravel, and gleefully skidded down their slopes on our backsides! I remember having a lot more holes in my underwear on the way home than I did setting out! Obviously security would be a lot tighter there today and boisterous ragamuffins like us would be dealt with sternly.
Another day we took a boat out on the lake. We spent about an hour there splashing about in the soft summer breeze, listening to the glorious sounds of the blackbirds in the leafy banks and I can still smell the heady air that surrounded us on that gorgeous day when I journey back there, if I try hard enough. I think the Angels protected us.Blessington Lake.
At the weekends we’d go to Gobbitt’s picture house for the matinee. I can remember clapping along to the latest offering from Disney. My brothers loved the Westerns, Maureen the Musicals and I loved Laurel and Hardy!
Basically we did all the things that I believe the children today do not have the freedom to do, for now it is unsafe. We picked mushrooms and wildflowers in the fields and took them home to where the mushrooms would be roasted on the range and the flowers would be placed in a little vase before the picture of the Sacred Heart. (The one with the burning flame of eternity, which was in most homes then.)In the month of May my mother would prepare an alter for the Blessed Virgin in the corner of our kitchen and we’d gather huge bunches of primroses and cowslips for her to use for decoration. We cycled to the ‘outskirts’ of the town to places like Three Castles, Crosscoolharbour, Lacken or even as far as the Poulaphouca Dam! Collecting pinkeens and tadpoles at some of the many well’s near by was a common practise. We’d go to the springs for fresh water and knew all the secret streams that flowed to the lake from above us. One day when I was about four years old my middle brother Mick gave me a cross-bar to the furthest away I’d ever been. He told me we were in Tipperary, and I believed him, but I was later to find out that we’d only been to Eadestown! Mick was always the practical joker of the bunch. Not too many escaped his brilliant, sharp wit or avoided getting a nickname and a whole new identity when he was around, but all in jest nonetheless.
We’d go to Hughes’s lane to ‘tabogan’ down on plastic sacks and old car tires after a heavy snowfall and many a knee was skinned and ego bruised. Some days the boys could be soldiers or pirates or warriors and we girls could be princesses, Florence Nightingales or majorettes! We held song contests at the Four Stone Tree in the centre of the town and serious drama was performed at the Downshire Monument!
We played cricket on the ‘Green’ in the evenings long after the sun had set and by the single lamp light in the centre. This was our main play area. Beneath the light was where the batting post was positioned. On frosty nights we’d blow icicle ‘smoke’ from our breaths, as we stood around and made up our rules, for every day they could be different! We were bursting with good health and never wanted to sleep. Neighbours looked out for each others children. They looked out for each other. My mother and the other women from the neighbourhood had such good rapport that no one ever went without. If one lent the other as much as a cup of sugar during the week they’d get two cups back at the weekend! If you did an errand for someone, you’d get a few pennies for your deed and we’d run to the town to buy ice cream wafers or gob-stoppers!
There was one particular shop where the ice cream block was sliced meticulously with precision. You were never short changed but you never got too much either! Then there was ‘George Balfes’ where the people used to journey all the way from Dublin to, on a Sunday afternoon in order to enjoy his delicious 99’s cones. They’d take them to the bridge where it was then possible to park their cars and relax listening to the match on the radio, while they took in the view of the slate blue Wicklow Hills. And it’s from this point that in the autumn the golden trees along the banks surround the lake in a gilt-edged frame.
There was always something going on in the town even back then. We had carnivals and circuses, ( where we saw the strongest man in the world lifting a tractor with one hand!) Sports days and garden fetes and festivals, with full orchestras, traditional Irish music and dance, ballad singer’s’ brass bands and the Artane Boys band!
There was a Horseshow just a little beyond the ‘Green’ from us and this was a very big occasion indeed most years. It was the nearest children of our ilk ever got to see a beautiful mare or stallion close up. We even got a chance to stroke some of them on their wonderful gleaming coats. Watching the jumps too was impressive and I think my eye for all things neat and tidy was well catered for there, as I took stock of how well the riders were turned out in their perfectly fitted costumes. Pity though I seem to remember a lot of the horsey people as being stuck-up and unfriendly.
Each summer there was a Regatta on the lake. Teenage girls would flock to the shore to watch the boys from far away places, and as a result of that all the local boys could be found there too! I knew girls who fell in love!
The town was full of lovely people like the woman who cycled her bike on flat roads as though she were climbing Luggala! Back and forth she’d push and pull as she journeyed through the town for her shopping, and a nicer woman you couldn’t meet on a days walk or cycle! Also the lady who had gotten so used to checking the back seams of her stockings that she continued to do it long after the seam had gone out of fashion. She’d take a step, and look back at each leg alternately. I wonder if it didn’t take her twice as long to get to her destination! Mick Byrne the one legged man who never stopped singing, and also Jack Byrne who was extremely eccentric and took great pride in having the shiniest shoes in the town!
Of course there was an Garda Siochana in the formidable form of Guard Brown who would quiz the cyclists up about whether they had a bell or a light or not. Intimating that if you didn’t you would receive the full rigours of the law!
Mick Clarke, Jamie & Lisa.Another great local character was Mick Clark the Undertaker who was also a carpenter. He used to make coffins, and for some reason my friends and I would often call into his workshop on the way home from school. I’ve never known a man happier in his work since. I can remember the smell of the freshly cut wood of all types. The floor of the workshop was always covered with shavings and saw dust. We’d take ringlets of curly white pine, twirl them around our little fingers and place them in our hair! I can still see the carpenter’s plane in his skilful, crafty hands perfectly turning the wood into the final resting bed of the locally deceased.
The shops in the town also had an amazing diversity of characters. There was the lovely Sadie Brophy in her charming little sweet-shop. She’d often give us the odd free lollypop! Thinking of her now, my mind paints her in a sort of Victorian style picture somehow. Then there was Mr Hennessy and Mr Dempsey the two gentlemen who brought great improvements to the town at various different times down through the years. Mr Hennessy’s constantly keeping up with the ever changing times whether it was in his public house or in his food store. He was always a very busy man it seemed.Hennessy's shop.
Mr Dempsey was the first man to bring a ‘Chipper / Take away’ to the town. Something that was a raging success from the start, not least because he also had installed the great miracle of the jukebox! When I was thirteen years old the Beatles had a massive hit with ‘Hey Jude’ and every time I went to Dempsey’s I played it along with ‘Maggie May’ by Rod Stewart’. A crystal clear glass encased the lists of wonderful songs that you could play for a bob or two, and watching the automatic arm seek out a chosen disk for the turn-table seemed to entice us into a mystical other world of pop and rock. It was a brilliant business move on the part of Mr Dempsey because as well as the tasty real potato chips he had to offer, (which were wrapped in newspaper!) the teenagers flocked there to hear the latest chart hits also.
The Mayfair was another little shop that I loved to visit. A dreamy place, full of everything from sweets to sunhats to knick-knacks. You never knew what treasures you would find there. I bought several of my parent’s Christmas and birthday gifts there. Handkerchief’s for Mam perhaps and tobacco for Dad! Then there was Twyfords for the lucky dips, and McGreal’s where you could take your mind off the fact that you were sick after handing in your prescription by browsing through the cosmetics. O’ Hagan’s and Kennedy’s were the only two restaurants and I worked in the latter place during my summer holidays from secondary school.
Miley Balfe with his new potatoes which he’d assure his customers were “absolute balls of flour, and laughing at ya”, Quinn’s, O’ Hora’s and Gyves’s shops at the bottom and in the middle of the town and Flannagan’s grocery at the top, where in time they had the first supermarket. There was also Chamber’s on Miley Cullen’s corner.
Downshire House Hotel.The Downshire House Hotel was another place that was always very impressive for me. Very grand things took place in there I believed. I used to like to watch the stylish guests arriving or leaving as I’d walk through the town. But people from all walks of life held their wedding receptions there and it used to be lovely to watch the brides and grooms walk up the big granite steps, and pose to have their photos taken. Scenes frozen in time with the flash of a camera, and stamped forever in a corner of my innocent, young mind, as I stood back and watched from the sideline.
I did eventually get the chance to go inside the Downshire when I took part in Irish dance classes for a period of time in the late sixties! But Jean Butler’s future career was safe!!! And then later still, I went to many other functions there including the odd wedding. I was sorry to see it close down recently. The end of an institution, but picture Galleries are good!
Incidentally around the time that I was about eleven or twelve my father, who was at that time the chairman of the local soccer club used to bring me to some football matches. I remember being out in all weathers cheering on the Blessington team who were doing very well and at the top of the league. At Christmas time my father, with the help of the committee and the players would visit Naas and Baltinglass hospitals and bring gifts for the patients. There would be music, song and ‘craic’. My father also brought me to my very first big dress dance in association with the F.C which took place in the Downshire when I became a teenager. I remember how all grown up I felt in my home made silky pink dress, complete with sequined Peter Pan collar and cuffs. It creased to no end but I enjoyed myself nonetheless!
Our childhood was full. We were wild with freedom without being hooligans. There was always some adventure to undertake. One day my brother John (the one closest to me in age, and a real nature’s boy) and I were on our way to the lake when we heard the distressing sound of a dog whimpering. Unfortunately one negative thing about our area in those days was the presence of a County Council dump just a few yards away from our terrace. It was very dangerous and unhealthy to say the least and the place was a haven for rats. The neighbours were always kicking up about it. However on this particular day after hearing the dog close by, John got into his ‘Super Hero’ mode and decided to investigate. That’s when we found the most beautiful little collie dog tied to a tree stump at the bottom of the dump. She was a lovely two tone colour of black and brown with four white socks. She had a rope around her neck and a brick at the end to weigh her down. We couldn’t believe our eyes. Someone had actually dumped this beautiful little creature. We took her home and cleaned her up. We named her Sally and she lived happily with us for many years to come. Our parents were used to us bringing home all kinds of strays and Maureen seemed to be forever rescuing cats! We loved animals. We had two goats at one time named Bell and Petal, and many thoroughbred greyhounds too.
During the sixties St Josephs Hall in Blessington was ‘the’ place to be! I used to pester my parents to let me goSt. Joseph's Hall. as soon as I thought I was tall enough! Every weekend there would be a different show band playing each night. From my bedroom window I could hear the music playing, (three chords and a double beat to the bar) and I thought I’d never get there. To make matters worse my friends mother had the job of looking after the hall. Before each dance she’d bring us with her to sprinkle sliding flakes on the dance floor in order to make it slippery for the dancing. We used to practice all our moves, but before the band began we’d already be on our way home!
I loved music and dancing. All sorts! And that particular time was a wonderful time for both. It didn’t bother me that my brothers were into The Rolling Stones, Procol Harem or The Who, or that Maureen was into Motown, for I loved them too. Our house was always full of rock and roll! Yet at the same time I’d listen to Joe Dolan and The Drifters , The Conquerers or The Swarbriggs! Anyone who could hold out a tune or slam a beat would do. But I do these bands a disservice for they really were very good and genuine musicians to boot!
When I finally got to go to the dances I thought I was the luckiest girl in the world, and couldn’t wait for the weekends to come! In the Hall there would be the usual setup with the boys at one side of the floor and the girls on the other, waiting to be asked to dance. But trends were beginning to change around then and so my friends and I would take to the floor in groups and dance away the night whether we were asked or not! The pop scene transformed many things, including youthful expression. Indeed only a few years previous to that it wouldn’t be unheard of for the local parish priest to physically stand between the couples during a slow set, for fear they got too close. Now we were part of the post sixties revolution and God love us we thought we were ‘IT’
What with there being plenty of public houses in the town, the Hall used to become very packed after closing time. Incidentally with the exception of just a couple, most of these have changed hands down through the years. Mick Ried’s used to be Johnnie Mac’s, another ‘in’ place to be in the seventies and ‘the’ place for Cabaret.
As the crowds poured from the pubs and into St Josephs the customary fight at the back of the hall would inevitably take place. Perhaps some opposing group from a close by town with some grudge to bear, ( probably off the 65 bus )but for no special reason other than to start a fight and spoil everybody’s fun. So yes it was the ballroom of romance, but alas also the ballroom of blood, sweat and tears.
My parents had an amusing and peculiar relationship but they made a fine couple. My father would tease my mother and if they had an argument he had a certain way of defusing the situation by rearranging all her ornaments around the house! This never failed to make her laugh. I also witnessed him breaking into song and dance in the middle of a confrontation between them. He had a habit of bringing home these ‘hobo’s’ (as my mother called them) whom he would have given a lift to somewhere along the road and expect her to ‘feed them up’ Well she would do it but not without a little protest, and warn him off about springing these unexpected guests on her. But he never stopped and there were times when our house was full to capacity with all his friends as they played Poker and discussed the football. Looking back I wonder how my mother coped! But I believe she’d share her last crumb if she had to. My mother sang her way through the domestics of her daily round it seemed and she was blessed with a lovely voice.
Christmas time was when my father went all out, and it was his favourite time of year. The turkeys were often too big for the oven! Yet somehow my mother managed. She seemed to make everything look so easy and nothing ever went to waste. First the bird would be cleaned out, taking care to save the giblets! Then it would be stuffed with a delicious homemade stuffing of fresh herbs and sausage meat. On Christmas morning the turkey along with its neck, would be prised into the oven and the giblets would be fried for breakfast!
My father would make a big deal out of the ‘Popes nose’( which I refused to have anything to do with,) telling me it was the best part! Even the carcass would be made into soup later on.
After dinner they could finally relax and my father would pour himself a little whiskey, read a little ‘Dickens’, listen to some classical music, and prepare his pipe for a smoke. To do this our old sheepdog Joker had a task. He’d place his head on my father’s knee in order for him to tap the pipe on it to loosen the ash before emptying and refilling. But it was all done gently and with no suffering caused. We think!!
My father’s comedic ways were well known around the town. There used to be a huge cedar tree outside Nan Broe’s house on the corner of Lake View. Couples used to go there to ‘hold hands’. Many times parents were heard to shout from their windows towards that tree to their offspring to come in, late at night over the years. One night my father found me there with my friends. Smoking! I’ll never forget the look on his face as he approached me. “Is this what you’re at now” he said, “and your mother at home still worried about the soft spot on the top your head, Home with you, Now”
Really it was all such a brief time and had we known that it would all end so soon we could have cherished it more. But such is the way of life and we were on the threshold of major change.
Sadly in 1972 my father passed away rather suddenly, and the void he left behind is indescribable. The loss of my father’s huge presence in that little house on Lake View made the place seem cavernous and cold. But time attempted a healing of sorts. One thing I must say about the people of Blessington and that is that they definitely know how to give their neighbours a good send off. At funerals they walk through the town with their old friends and relatives in blazing sun or freezing cold while they make their last journey. They are people who know how to rally around. They’ve got great dignity and savvy. Having now lost my mother and elder brother along with my father, I speak for the rest of my family when I say that the people of Blessington helped us through those difficult times to no end and we could never thank them enough.
I am sure there are lots of changes in Blessington these days other than the physical and the ever increasing population. Lots of progress has been made. But this is just a flash back to a bit of my time. Yes it was a very different place then but I believe the ‘spine’ of the old town is still there. It would be a tall order to expect or even hope that these words could convey the era well. It did have its down sides too. Gone are the days when one could walk through the town and know everyone you would meet. Yet to my delight I can still bump into some of the old pals that I sat beside in school over forty years ago even now! That can warm the heart. And completely gone are the days when children could play in the wilds with such contentment and security. In later years I went to live in Dublin, but I don’t believe I ever really left Blessington. I’m drawn back there constantly. It is my foundation and part of me. Blessington is very much a part of me and I’m proud to say that I’m very much a part of it.

By Martina Cullen Delaney.

Note.
I am well aware that a lot of the people that I have referred to or mentioned in this essay have now passed on. May I extend my deepest sympathy to the families and friends of those people. May they rest in peace.