Johnís Story - Preface
My brother Brian said that sometime I must write the story of what he called "that odyssey" which marked my early years. Now, approaching my eightieth year, I feel compelled to narrate the journey as seen through the eyes of childhood, aided by an old family album of photographs. It is as factual as memory permits. If it offers a glimpse into a childís life in Ireland of the 1930s it will have served its purpose. All the characters in it are real. All are no longer living, except me!
Hello, John. Is this your photograph?
What age are you?
Iím going to be five in August.
My, my. Five in August! And who is in the picture with you?
Daddy and Mammy.
And who is this?
John, you look very serious.
Mammy combed my hair.
And youíre wearing a tie. Do all little boys wear ties?
Donít know. Can I go and play now?
All right. Off you go.
Can you tell me more about the picture?
Donít want to. Go away.
All right. Another time.
John, I brought you some sweets.
I like sticky sweets. Mammy never gives me sticky sweets.
Why doesnít Mammy give you sticky sweets?
She says they stick in your throat.
Well, suppose we donít tell Mammy. Suppose I give you just one, then can we talk about the picture?
One now and one later.
John, whose house is that in the picture?
Does it have a name?
John! Go easy with that sweet. Suck it. Donít bite it! Now, tell me more about your house. Is it big?
Itís the biggest house in the world!
Itís bigger than Jimmy Houstonís. I like Jimmy.
And where is Jimmyís house?
There. Over there. Canít you see?
And is Jimmy your friend?
Yes. He letís me stay with him in the garden.
Is Jimmy a grown-up?
ĎCourse. He works in the garden all morning. Sometimes he letís me eat a bite of his dinner.
Does Jimmy cook it?
ĎCourse not. His sister. Sheís old.
Whatís her name?
John, your Mammy is calling you. I had better go.
I want my other sweet. I want my other sweet. You said I could have two!
Yes, John, I did. Put it in the pocket in your pants. And donít tell Mammy!
Now off you go.
Thatís not nice. Look. I brought you sweeties.
Mammy says Iím not to talk to you.
Did you tell Mammy about us?
Mammy found the sticky sweet in my pocket.
And what did you tell her?
A man gave it to me. And she said Iím not to talk to strange men.
John, do you think Iím a strange man? I know your name. I bring you sweets.
Is that Jimmy over there? Heís your friend, isnít he?
And Iím your friend. Right? Tell me, John. How old are you?
Iím going to be five in August.
Five in August! Thatís funny. My birthday is in August, too.
Daddy says he will have a surprise for me.
Your Daddy must be nice.
Heís the nicest Daddy in the whole world!
Mammyís not a Daddy. Daddyís a Daddy!
Tell me more about your friend Jimmy. What does he eat when he has dinner?
Itís really soft. Itís mashed up in a bowl, with little red things in it. And pepper!
You like pepper, John?
Mammy says Iím too young to have pepper. When I grow up Iím going to have pepper every day!
School. Do you go to school, John?
Do you like school, John?
I hate it. I hate it. I hate it!
Mammy took me there, and left me!
Was that your first day?
Yes. And I didnít know anybody, and I wet my pants, and the teacher said I should have raised my hand, and I told her I didnít know, and she was cross, and all the children were looking at me, and I donít want to go any more!
Here, have a sweetie. Itís a soft one.
My, my. Where did you learn to say that?
Mammy. Mammy says weíre to say thank you when someone gives us things.
I see your Mammy calling you, John. Youíd better go. Iíll see you again soon.
Maybe. Off you go.
Hello, John. Remember me?
Yes. You bring me sweeties.
Can we talk some more? Iíll give you sweets!
Now! Now! Now!
All right. One now. Tell me, John, what do you do in Jimmyís garden?
I help him. He helps me. We talk.
Bugs. And butterflies. And Old Diarrhea.
Who is Old Diarrhea?
Heís Old Diarrhea. Everybody knows Old Diarrhea. He passes Jimmyís garden every day.
Outside? On the road?
Yes. Every time I see him I shout to Jimmy, "Thereís Old Diarrhea!"
Tell me more about your house.
Itís scary in the back. And dark.
What makes it scary?
But itís not scary in front.
Me and Daddy play in front.
No. Thereís Brian, but heís got homework. Whatís homework?
John, homework is something youíll do when youíre as old as Brian.
Iíll be five in August!
Do you ever go out on the road by yourself, John?
I can go by myself down to the gate. Thatís a long, long way.
All by yourself? Doesnít Mammy or Daddy go with you?
When we go out on the road to go to Mass.
Do you like going to Mass?
Itís too long. And itís all people. I canít see.
But you are a good boy.
Mammy skelpt me.
Why did Mammy skelp you?
I cried. She said I made a sturbance. Everybody was looking.
Hereís another sweet, John. One of the soft ones.
Thank you. I like you. You bring me sweets.
And Iíll bring you more another day.
Sorry, John. Must go. See you tomorrow.
I donít want you to go! No! No!
Iíll be back, John. I promise.
John! A motor car! Is it yours?
Yes. Mammy and Daddy said it was for my birthday.
Youíre fiveóa whole five years!
Look, I push the pedals and it goes. And it steers, and everything!
Can I ride in it?
Youíre too big. Youíre far too big.
Are you the only one can ride in it?
Ciaran? Who is Ciaran?
Mrs. Donahue is his Mammy.
And do you like Ciaran?
No! He takes my car to ride in. Itís my car!
And what does Mammy say?
She says I must share. But itís my car! Mine! Mine! Mine!
Itís a very handsome car, John.
It has rubber wheels, too. Just like big cars.
Do you still go to school, John?
Donít be silly. Itís holiday time.
Well, what do you do all day?
Feed the hens.
Gather apples. But Mammy wonít let me eat them.
Thereís an orchard at the bottom of the lane. Is that where you get the apples?
And what does Mammy do with the apples?
She makes jam. And jelly.
How does she do that?
Sheís got a big, big pot, and she boils water, and puts in a whole lot of sugar.
Mammy and Kate turn over two chairs and theyó
Who is Kate?
Kate is Kate. And they put a sheet over the legs and a basin under it, and they turn the pot over and stain itó
I think you mean strain it, John. Say "strain".
Strain. And it drips out, and then they have jelly. I like apple jelly. Do you?
Always. Jelly is better than jam.
Jam has big things in it.
I donít like big things either, John. Do you know, youíre just like me!
I donít like gooseberries. Theyíve got whiskers.
Where do you get the gooseberries, John?
There. Right in front. See!
My, my. You know a lot of things, John.
And Iím going to learn to read, too. Mammy reads me a story every night. But I have to say my prayers first.
What prayers do you say?
I say God bless Mammy, God bless Daddy, God bless Charlie, God bless Barry, God bless Brian. Thatís a lot of prayers! Sometimes I forget one. Oh, and God bless me.
Weíve had a really nice talk today, John. Iíll see you soon again.
Didnít you bring me any sweeties? What about my sweeties?
You do remember things, John. I almost forgot. Close your eyes, hold out your hand, and see what God will send you. There!
Three! Thatís the most ever. But I donít think God sent them. I think youíre pulling my leg!
Me, John? Never.
Yes, you are. I peeked. You put the sweets in my hand.
I tricked you! I saw you!
Youíre a scallywag, a real scallywag, peeking like that.
Ha, ha. I tricked you. ĎBye.
Come back you rascal! Bye, John.
Hi, John. Whatís this picture?
And what are you doing?
Feeding the hens, silly. Donít you see?
And who is that standing at the doorway?
Thatís Brian, my big brother. He looks after me.
Do you like Brian?
Sometimes. Sometimes heís boring. Charlieís boring. Barryís boring. Theyíre all bigger than me. Sometimes Iím lonely.
But your Mammy isnít boring, is she?
No. But thatís her job.
Letís look at some other pictures. Who are all these people?
Visitors. Thatís the day we went on a picnic, down by the river.
Thatís me, and Paul, and Barry, and Brian, and Aunt Brigid, and I canít remember. The big people fished, and I wet my pants, and Mammy said I should have gone before we left and it was too far to go back to the house, and it was cold, and I hid behind Mammyís back all day.
Hereís another picture. I see eight little boys in it, and a priest.
Thatís Father Mnnamin.
And another one.
Thatís Daddy. He comes home for dinner every day, and then goes back to work. I wait for him down at the gate, and we talk, and I tell him everything. Guess what!
No, youíve got to guess.
Iím no good at guessing. Youíll have to tell me.
Itís a secret!
Well, if itís a secret, donít tell me. Donít tell anyone. Once you tell, itís no longer a secret. Tell you what, I have to go now, but Iíll be back. Not tomorrow, or the next day, but soon, and you can tell me the secret then. All right?
All right, I hippose. What about my sweets?
Next time, John. Next time. ĎBye.
Hello, John. Iím back.
Daddy took me on a train! We went a long, long way.
Did you like riding on the train, John?
Iím going to be a train driver when I grow up. Thereís a big, big engine at the front. The engine driver blows a whistle. And thereís a big fire. And the driver sees way, way in front. And he waves to people in fields, and they wave back, and thereís a chimney, and smoke, and the train goes clack-clack, and the wheels are normous.
What did you like best of all?
When the whistle blew. It was loud. And the train went over a bridge and you could see a river. And, andó
We went in a tunnel, and it was dark, and scary.
Were you frightened?
Daddy held my hand.
Where did you and Daddy go in the train?
To a big place with lots of streets, and we walked, and walked, and I got tired. Then Daddy carried me on his shoulder. There were lots and lots of people, and when we got there everyone was excited.
Got where, John?
Where the men were playing football. It was loud. It was louder than at Mass even.
I didnít know it was loud at Mass, John.
It is when people up near the top sing. Mammy says she wishes some of them didnít.
Who was playing with football, John?
Did they wear coloured shirts?
Were they all the same colour?
No. Daddy wore one of the colours when he played football.
And who won?
Donít know. I got tired watching, and Daddy got tired carrying me, and it was a long walk back to the train, and I fell asleep, and Mammy had to wake me in the morning.
That was quite a day, John.
Daddy says we wonít do it again for a long, long time. And Mammy says sheíll take me next time on a train, and I wonít get tired. She used a bad word when she was talking to Daddy.
John, I think we have had enough talking for now. Guess what I have in this hand?
Sweets. Sweets for me.
Youíre almost right. Guess again.
Gimme, gimme. I donít want to guess.
Look! Itís a pipe. A licorice pipe.
It doesnít look like a pipe. Jimmy Houston has a pipe. Thatís not a pipe!
Oh, but it is. Itís a pipe you eat. Here, put this end in your mouth and bite some off. Now, what do you think? Do you like it?
Itís a funny taste. Itís good. I like it. Wait till Jimmy sees my pipe! Jimmy, wait till you see what I got!
ĎBye for now, John.
Where is this, John?
Thatís me in the sea. By myself.
What are you doing?
Iím sitting down. Itís a big, big pool.
Do you like the sea, John?
You can go pee-pee and nobody sees! And you can splash. And you can build sandcastles. I like building sandcastles. Iíve got a bucket, and a spade, and I fill the bucket and turn it over, and it makes a sandcastle. One day Daddy helped, and Brian, and everyone, and we made a normous castle.
Where was that, John?
At the seaside. Thatís me, all by myself, sitting inó
Whatís the place called, John?
Donít remember. Ask Mammy. Look, hereís another picture.
It looks earlier, John. You look littler.
Thatís me on Daddyís knee. And thereís Mammy behind. And Kate, andó
Kateís Kate, and thereís Barry, and Brian. Charlie doesnít look like Charlieó
Do you go to the seaside often?
Donít know. Daddyís going to take us somewhere else next year.
Here is a big picture, John. It looks likeó
Thatís me, behind the box. Iím the wicked keeper, and thatís Brian with a bat.
Thatís Brian! My, my. He looks different.
Heís wearing long trousers, silly.
Oh, hereís one I like. I know who that is. Thatís you, and youíre feeding a little lamb.
With a bottle. And hereís another, of a wee boy holding a cat, in a garden. Which do you like best, John, the lamb or the pussy cat?
My pussy cat. I can cuddle my cat. Pussy cats wonít bite or scratch if you pet them.
Wow! Whatís that noise, John? Itís music!
Thatís Daddyís wireless, silly. When he puts it on, people stop at the gate and listen. Sometimes I go down and they go away.
John, it seems to me you are one happy little boy. You be good now, to Mammy and Daddy, and donít forget to say your prayers every night. I have to go away for a long, long timeó
Iíll be back. I promise. And you will have lots more to tell me. Bye, John, for now.
Footnote: Johnís house, as described above, was at Drumboy, outside Lifford. His school was at Murlog, where the family also went to Mass. The place with lots of streets was Derry City, where his Daddy took him by train. The river where the picnic was held was the Swilly. The seaside was at Bundoran. Kate is a shadowy figure, typical of the times in Ireland, where tens of thousands of single women, either widowed by the Great War of 1914-1918 or the "Troubles", eked out an existence, sometimes as live-in helpers. In surviving photographs she is always dressed in black. Kate may not be her real name.
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