Coney Island Memoir

By Rosaleen Ferguson

I once read of a woman who, on getting up in the morning, strangled the day before it got a chance to strangle her. If anyone had a reason to strangle the day, it was my Grandma, Mary Haren. She lived on a farm which she owned on Coney Island and, from when she rose in the morning till she went to bed at night, she had hardly ever an idle moment.Cows on Coney

She rose at five o'clock, winter and summer and the first thing she did was put on innumerable layers of clothes - stays, petticoats, bodices, all to no end, and then went down to the kitchen where she raked the fire.

She made herself a cup of tea and then took her pipe and filled it with tobacco and had a good smoke. She sniffed snuff as well. She would take her finger from the little tin box and sniff it up her nose.

After Grandma had sniffed we lit the lantern, collected the milk cans and went out to the dairy. I took a green porringer with me to strip the cows.

I loved the smell of the cow house on a cold winter morning; fresh manure, the cows breath, the hay, all this variety. When you put your head against the flank of a cow, you'd hear all the squeakings and belchings that go on inside the cow.

Grandma, I often felt, was a woman long before her time. She detested the island in the first place. She couldn't stand anything to do with the sea. One of her favourite sayings was, give me a road and I'll go anywhere. But poor Grandma, there she was on the island.

She told me that when my grandfather came to marry her, she was a country woman; she came from what we called the foot of the mountain. My grandfather had seen her in town on a fair day and made up his mind to marry her. But there were two obstacles. The first was that it was an island and the second was that she would have to live with her mother-in-law. But Grandmother was having nothing of that. She told my grandfather that unless she could have a house of her own she would not marry him. My grandfather, obviously desperate to marry her, built a house on to the main farm house (Katie Haren's old house) for his mother.

That was one thing satisfactory, now the other was the island. Of course Coney is not an island in the real sense of the word, when the tide is out it is connected to the mainland by a long strand. But the difficulty was the tide. However my grandfather got over this by buying her a pony and trap. Even in the winter it was possible to get to the mainland, although there was always a little water which the horse could wade through.Katie Haran

So they got married and the result of this was ten children. Grandma ruled the roost right from the start. My Uncle Packy was ruled, Josie on the mainland, they were all afraid of the old lady, as they called her. But she said she felt she was hard done by, there were constant tasks and she was having children all the time. Women, she said, in childbirth, were not looked upon in any way as to be looked after. She told me that the farmers thought that the death of a cow calving was worse than the death of a mother in childbirth.

Churning day was the great event in Grandma's week. It was a real ritual. Before all the churning began she would drench anyone who happened to be standing round with holy water. And anyone who went into the dairy must stay. Someone could be bleeding to death on the street, but you were not allowed to go out.

The next thing she did was very mysterious. She would take the part of a plough that digs into the ground and put it into the fire. I asked her why and she said to ward off evil spirits. They might carry away the butter.

Every once in a while, Grandma would decide to go to town, it was usually a Saturday after milking. Packy harnessed the horse and cart while grandma started preparing herself. She stripped herself to the skin with the usual scrubbing of her body. Then she put on her good clothes. I helped her with her stays. I fastened them up the front and all the petticoats that she put on.

Then came her bodice. A work of art. It was purple satin and the whole front was embroidered with jet beads. The back had to be fastened with buttons and loops and the collar with hooks and eyes. Her boots had to be fastened up with a buttonhook. Then came her hair. Grandma as a young woman had deep red hair and she had kept a coil of it. This she placed on the crown of her head and eyeing herself in the mirror, scooped up the rest of her grey hair and kept it in place with combs and pins. It gave her the look of having three times the hair she had.

Her hat was another work of art, black with a deep crown and a beaded brim and a veil which came right down over her face and fastened under her chin. After that her black plush coat, another beautiful garment. It always struck me as a great pity that she did not go to town in something better looking than a horse and cart with seaweed, sometimes a calf and potatoes. I wanted the cart painted with gold and the shafts painted red. But the only gold in her cart was in the straw at the bottom of it.

In town the cart was left in the yard with all those of the country people and islanders. The first stop was a shop. The shopkeeper would rush out and shake her hand, ask about the island and then conduct us through into a back room which was also a pub. Grandma was treated to something to warm her up after a long trek. I was not forgotten, I was given a glass of orange juice with little artificial leaves of orange floating around in it, and a handful of iced biscuits. Then she'd give orders for what she wanted, and she never bought anything in small quantities.

We went to the ironmongers, for globes, candles, maybe a new twig to sweep the floor. Then the butcher's where we bought fresh meat for the tea that evening, a piece of pickled beef for Sunday, and pig's cheeks for the week. Then the draper's for wool, needles and threads. We never had to carry anything back, not even a packet of needles. Everything was sent down to the cart by the shop boys.

On my way home I asked Grandma had she ever travelled anywhere. And she said no, she had not been further than one mile from a cow dung. Once home all her finery had to be taken off. It always struck me as funny - if the shopkeepers had seen Grandma taking off her lovely clothes and me taking off mine, and going out to the cows in old frocks and bare feet.

Grandma thought more of the spirits than religion. In spring, although busy with cattle, setting the clucking hens on clutches, she did not forget the spirit of spring. She sent us children off to get wild flowers. We tied them up in bundles with thread and threw them up on the thatch of the house and the dairy. When there was sickness in a human, a cow or a horse, she had a remedy. She grew herbs, one which she smoked in her pipe, and she said that this herb helped her throat. She used garlic and whiskey and brown sugar if someone had a bad cold and for boils and cuts she'd make poultices of herbs mixed with white bread. She could cure a lot of things, cows and chickens. If they didn't get well, they died and that was just accepted. There were things you could cure and things you couldn't.

And alas for Grandma, when she became ill with her final illness, there was no cure for that. She was taken back to the foot of the mountain where she had come from, and buried in Drumcliff cemetery. She lies there now beside my grandfather and some of her children in that quiet piece of earth, far from the sea and the sound of sea and the sight of it. But there's one thing she'll have there, if she ever feels like getting up and having a walk, she will have a road under her feet.

Rosaleen Ferguson lived with her Grandmother and her Aunt Katie Haren on Coney Island during the war years, while her mother went to work in Glasgow. After the war she moved to Edinburgh. Coney Island Memoir first appeared in Force Ten, the Journal of North West Ireland.

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