Lifting the Latch

By Patricia McElhone

My story begins with my grandmother’s copper latch when one day I found it in an old shed under a pile of rubbish. There I stood holding this filthy broken relic of other days and different times. Such a host of memories came flooding back that I knew I would have to place them together and so with the latch soldered, scoured and shining in all its former glory, I am ready to open the door on Rosses Point village in the early part of this century.

Rosses Point, five miles from Sligo Town, is a village that nestles between the twin-heights of Knocknarea and Ben Bulben. The road was washed on one side by the waters of Sligo Bay, turned passed Memory Harbour and the Greenlands, through Upper Rosses and down the Rosses Lane to rejoin the village road. Words cannot describe the great beauty of the entrance to the village, with channel waters stretching across to the foot of Knocknarea, Oyster Island like a bright gem resting on the sea, Coney Island tantalising and remote with cottages like old friends standing in a line just off the shore and the Ox mountains tumbling in as far as the eye can see, to fade out of sight into the open seas.

In olden times the village houses were set, as they still are, on the inner road but now with the construction of the promenade have lost their front gardens. Each village house had its garden across the road which dipped into the sea. Most houses had small front and back gardens as well. Two-storied slated house (usually hotels and guest houses) were in equal proportion. The cottages and garden walls were white washed every year before Easter brought the golfers and first visitors. These walls were a brilliant white because of the use of sludge (carbide deposits) from the lighthouses on Oyster Island. Indeed the white walls of Oyster Island were a landmark and could be seen gleaming across the Bay as far away as Lissadell and Raughley. Unlike the porch structures of today’s renovated cottages the front doors were shielded by narrow strips of concrete known as ‘the out-shots’. Some cottages had trellises around which twined one or other of the indigenous creepers such as woodbine, roses and clematis after which many of the cottages were named. Two exotic names I remember were Arbutus and Myrtle. The front doors were latched - often quite handsomely. Back doors were also latched. Front doors were usually set open as soon as the household stirred and passers-by shouted in and were answered from within.

Seldom would anyone pass without a word of some sort.

The houses consisted of five rooms, the kitchen just inside the front door, a bedroom on the left (always referred to as the lower room), a sitting room to the right off which were two smaller upper bedrooms. Before piped water was available to the village, toilets were across the road or in the back yards. There was no running water in the houses and every household had galvanised buckets to fetch water from the pumps along the road. Rain water was regarded as a precious commodity for washing woollens and the family hair. It was beautifully soft and the rainwater barrel was carefully tended and regularly tarred. Basins used for washing-up were tin as were milk tins and porringers. The repairs of these utensils were done by the then tinker men who called regularly to the houses to repair or supply as required.

One of the greatest excitements of our childhood days was the visits of the Indian journeyman who would arrive with big cases full of brightly coloured scarves and materials which would be spread out on the kitchen floor like stained-glass reflections thrown by a brilliant sun. In later years a woman walked out from Sligo every Tuesday and begged from house to house. Because Tuesday was the day for the novena to St. Anne, which was a most popular devotion in the village, she was never called anything but ‘St. Anne’.

Houses were lit by paraffin lamps, many of them discarded when the Electricity Scheme came to the village in 1947. Some of these lamps were glass-bowled and ornate and are today in much demand on the antique market. Other lamps were tin with mirrored backs and hung on the wall. Most houses would have a special lamp with a red glass globe which burned in front of the Sacred Heart picture in the kitchen. Aladdin lamps were more sophisticated, having the same glass-globed structure as the oil lamps but a mantle instead of a wick.

I remember my aunt having a cardboard shoe box with her kit for keeping the globes shone and the wicks trimmed, also a supply of hairpins to put hanging on the top of the globes, which was suppose to keep the glass from cracking. The smell of paraffin oil was very much part of that kit.

Cooking was done on the range which was usually coal fired and having ovens. The chimney breasts were marked out in red paint with white squares. Painting the chimney was part of the spring cleaning. Black-leading the range was a standard chore as was polishing the chrome edges. The mantle piece was decorated with a chenille-type frill trimmed with baubles or a brass strip nailed to the front of the mantle piece. Some houses had open fires.

There was always a dresser and willow-patterned delph was very popular. Most houses had sets of delicate porcelain with Japanese design brought home by the sailors but these were displayed in the sitting room.

One exotic gift from far away was a garrulous parrot which had a repertoire of songs and shanties and seemed to have a good ear for a tune. This parrot resided at Auntie Bee McGowans and through the open door would whistle at passers-by. It used to whistle as the bus passed and sometimes the driver would stop, thinking a passenger was running to catch the bus. Village children both coveted and feared Auntie Bee’s parrot. It was quite a definite feature of village life, even to joining in the family’s prays and reciting the Our Father and Hail Mary.

Some houses had settle beds in the kitchen, either curtained off, or with doors closing like a press - a very cosy napping place for an older family member who could enjoy the heat of the range and the chat of the kitchen. Linoleum was the usual floor covering and tea chests on the kitchen floor served as toddlers’ play pens.

Village kitchens were the heart of the home where everything was done, where anyone who came in found a place to sit and where in the evenings fire and lamplight threw their shadows on the walls.

Thatching the houses was a major event and was timed for the mens’ onshore Spring leave. Women and children had their share in the process of scutching the wheaten straw. Tarpaulin was stretched across the stones on the front shore and the grain separated from the wheat by striking with heavy stones. The work was best done on a windy day so that the dust would be blown away from the workers. The straw was then bound in bundles and the wheat put into bags and taken to Drumcliffe Creamery to be ground and taken home for the family’s supply of meal for making bread.

Another thatching material was gilco or rushes. Sally rods were cut and left to soak to make them pliable, after which they were pointed at the tips. They were then used to fasten down the straw. Only one thatched cottage remains in the village today.

Some men were professional thatchers. The one I remember was Brianie Mitchell from the Lower Rosses. Brianie smoked a pipe with a lid on it and supplying plug tobacco for his pipe was like stoking a fire to get the engine going. The Mitchells soaked their sally rods and got their rushes from Starling Lake which was so beautifully celebrated by the poet Seamus O’Sullivan:-

My sorrow that I am not by the little dun.
By the lake of the starlings by evening when all is still
And still in whispering sedges the herons stand
‘Tis there I would nestle at rest ‘till the quivering moon
Uprose in the golden quiet over the hill.

Another thatcher, a native of Roscommon, came to the village where he met and married a Rosses Point woman. Not alone did he thatch but in the war years (1939-45) he made clogs for the village children using wood from trees and odd bits of timber, nailing on the cast-off uppers. A strip of tin covered the nails and the joins between soles and uppers. Mick Healy’s clogs knocked sparks off the village roads for many years. His little hut across the road was also used as the barber’s shop where he snipped and trimmed among his tools for thatching and clog-making.

In later years when the thatched roofs were being replaced by slates, the ‘beams’ holding up the thatch were found to be an assortment of old oars and bits of trees. between the ‘beams’ and the thatch were thick squares of clay and grass providing a most efficient solution, keeping the house warm in winter and cool in summer. Very few thatched roofs went on fire.

Thatched roofs were low and comfortable looking. The very deep eaves were ideal nesting places for small birds like wrens and sparrows. The constant picking of the birds put holes in the thatch and chicken wire was fixed across the eaves to prevent the birds from building their nests. Early morning bird song was one of the greatest delights of spring awakenings. Another familiar sound was the knocking of snail shells on the garden walls when the birds were preparing breakfast. It was as homely a sound as the iron kettle on the hob with the lid hopping up and down when the water came to the boil.

Trees were never a great feature of the village landscape. One abiding landmark is the thorn tree on the neck of the peninsula that is known as Tommy’s Island (Punta Beg). In the Yeats poem ‘Red Hanrahan’s Songs about Ireland’ the lines: "The old brown thorn trees break in two high over Cummen Strand. Under a bitter black wind that blows from the left hand" epitomises this stunted tree that is bent double as long as I can remember.

Cummen Strand, across the Bay from Rosses Point, is marked by fourteen stone pillars and provides low-tide access to Coney Island.