|Publisher:||The History Press|
|Product dimensions:||6.10(w) x 9.20(h) x 0.70(d)|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Surviving Ireland's Death Row
By Peter Pringle
The History PressCopyright © 2012 Peter Pringle
All rights reserved.
I was born in Dublin in 1938. During the war, when I was about 4 years old, I would watch the searchlights in the sky at night and it was very exciting. They were operated from the army barracks at Portobello, nearly a mile away from our house. My pal Nancy, who lived next door, was the same age and we decided that we wanted to see the searchlights up close. So that night, after we were put to bed, we each climbed out of the window and down the drainpipe and headed off, hand-in-hand, to find the barracks. We got into the barracks area through St Mary's College grounds, which were adjacent to the barracks, and hid in some bushes to watch the searchlights. We fell asleep there and were found by the sentries who brought us to the canteen where they gave us cocoa and biscuits.
Meanwhile, our parents had discovered that we were missing and had frantically organised a search. They and the army notified the police and we were soon returned home safe and sound. I couldn't see what the fuss was about. Our parents were so relieved to have us home safe and sound we were not punished – but they checked on us more often when were were put to bed.
My older sister Pauline always looked out for me and my younger brother Pat, especially if some other kid tried to bully either of us. I, in turn, looked out for Pat. That's how it was with brothers and sisters, and not just our family. We built a hut made from scraps of timber in the middle of the bushes. In the autumn when apples were ripe we would go on an expedition to 'box the fox', which is what raiding an orchard to steal apples was called, although we did not think of it as stealing. Sometimes we would be chased by an irate house owner and have to run hell for leather to get away. When we got back to our hideout we would feast on the apples, sharing them with the other youngsters.
If we had difficulty with doing our school homework Dad would look at the problem. He would not solve it for us but would show us the method for solving it and leave us to sort it out ourselves. Then he would look at our result and question us as to how we had resolved it. At the time, I did not really appreciate his wisdom.
My Dad rented a bog on the Featherbeds, an area of the Dublin Mountains to the south of the city. He would go up there on Saturdays and Sundays and cut the turf. Sometimes he'd bring me with him, on the crossbar of his bicycle as far as Rathfarnham, where we would board a big turf lorry, bike and all, and be driven the rest of the way up to the Featherbeds. While Dad was cutting turf my job was 'footing the turf', stacking it in a special way so that the wind would dry it out. We would light a fire and boil tea and eat our sandwiches for lunch. I loved being in the mountains. Come evening time, we would travel home by bike as it was all downhill. We seemed to whizz along the road and be home in no time. When the turf was all cut and dried and ready to be taken home, the turf lorry would collect it and bring it to our house and tip it in the back lane. Our neighbours and all the kids on the street would help to bring it into our back yard where my Dad would stack it properly. Then there'd be a big party, with Guinness and food for the men and lemonade and cakes for the kids – and pennies too.
My grandfather lived in County Kildare, near Rathangan. He was originally from Dublin, but left the city when they started building outside of the two canals. He reckoned the city was getting too big. He and my grandmother had a small farm and every summer I looked forward to going to them on holidays. It was magical for me, being in the country and enjoying their country ways. They had two cows, a pony, pigs, hens, geese and ducks. There were fields and woods to roam, and a river at the bottom of the big field. Grandmother made homemade bread, cakes and butter. And in the evenings around the fireplace, it was so warm and snug. Listening to the stories and local news I got ever more drowsy. I would then be carried down to the room and into bed, to dreams wrapped in eiderdown quilt and not stirring until daylight. Sometimes I would lie in bed and listen to the chug, chug, chug of the barges as they passed along the canal about a mile away. The sound of the barge got louder on the night air as it came closer, and then it would fade away into the distance. And I would dream of its journey and of travelling on it.
Sometimes my grandparents told stories about the Fairies. And they believed in their existence too. Each night before retiring, Grandmother put a glass of milk and a plate of cake or scones in the window for the Fairies. And it was always empty in the morning. I remember one time walking in the woods with Grandad, and we came on a fox's covert. He pointed it out to me and told me that this particular opening was also the entrance to the Fairy world under the ground. The Fairies, or 'Little People' as they sometimes called them, lived underground and in the hillside and one must always respect them. This was wise, as the Little People could be lethal if they were upset or treated with disrespect. Grandad told me to keep the memories and not lose sight of the important things handed down to us through the generations.
I remember one time Aunt Mainie, who lived with my grandparents, had to visit the dentist in Kildare Town, which was several miles away. The evening before, Grandad brushed down the pony, polished the harness, and shined the buckles and the brass rails on the trap in preparation for the journey. We were up early for breakfast, and then I went with Grandad to get the pony ready for the trip. When he had been harnessed to the trap I held him while Grandad went to put on his Sunday suit. Grandmother and Aunt Mainie were all dressed up too, hats and gloves and all. The trap was a two-wheeled light cart entered through a door at the back. Seating was along each side, passengers facing inwards. Grandad sat to the front on the outside and I sat opposite him. Grandmother and Aunt Mainie sat to the back and away we went, Grandad gently clucking to the pony to start him trotting. After a few miles, when the pony had settled in to his task, Grandad passed the reins to me while he filled his pipe and lit up. Satisfied that I was doing alright, he settled back and enjoyed his smoke while I tried to appear casual driving along, especially if we met anyone on the road. It was the most exciting event of my life up to then.
In Kildare we watered the pony at the horse trough in the square. Then Grandad tied him to a tree and put a nose bag of oats around his neck and the pony munched contentedly. Grandmother had gone with Mainie to the dentist, and I strolled about the town with Grandad. He met lots of men he knew and I was introduced to them. Two of them even slipped me a sixpenny piece with a wink. After the dentist we all went to the hotel for lunch but Aunt Mainie was only able to sip a bowl of soup.
I don't remember much about the trip home. With all the excitement of the day, the motion of the trap and the rhythm of the pony's hooves, I fell asleep and only woke up as we were turning into the farmyard. But I helped Grandad un-harness the pony and wipe him down and stow the harness before going up to the house for supper. I don't remember going to bed either, but I slept the night through. The summers passed quickly. Then it was back to school.
About 1946 there was a teachers' strike, and my pals and I thought we would be off school and have great fun. But my parents had other ideas for me, to my great disappointment. The strike was by lay teachers, which meant the Christian Brothers schools remained open, so my parents enrolled me in St Laurence O'Toole's in Seville Place on the opposite side of the city. On my first day, my Mum took me on the bus to show me the way and collected me after school. That evening I was asked if I could make the journey on my own. I said that I could, because I thought this was expected of me. Although I was afraid, I kept my fear to myself. No doubt if I had spoken up my Mum or Dad would have escorted me, or sought a different school for me.
Thereafter, I would walk to Kelly's Corner and take the number 20 bus right across the city. I used to sit upstairs, in the front seat if possible, feeling much older than my 7 years. Walking down Seville Place to the school from the bus, I had to go under a long railway bridge with separate arches for traffic and pedestrians. It was halfdark and I was in strange territory. I braced myself, worked up the courage and ran as fast as I could through the long archway as though my life depended on it! On my second day at school the class bully picked on me and I had to fight him at lunchtime behind the bicycle shed in the yard. The other kids gathered around and I knew that I must not show my fear. In desperation, I fought like mad and to my surprise the bully gave up quickly. After that, I was accepted by the other kids and my time was happy enough at that school. I was big for my age and quickly learned not to back down. Most times I didn't have to fight. I was glad of that as I never liked fighting.
At that time, there was a lot of horse-drawn traffic in Dublin. The Post Office main sorting depot was in Amiens Street, which was on my route home from school. Instead of taking the bus I'd walk to the sorting depot, and when one of the post wagons, loaded with mail bags and drawn by two horses, trotted out from the depot heading across town I would 'scut' on the back of it and get a free ride across the city. Sometimes, someone would yell, 'Scut behind! Lash the whip!' and the driver sitting high in his box at the front would crack his long whip behind him to scare me off the back of his wagon. As soon as I heard the yell I would crouch down as low as possible, only straightening up again after hearing its 'crack' above my head. It was exciting, and I loved it. And I managed to save my bus fare to buy toffees, and sometimes cigarettes. I was rapidly becoming streetwise and learning to take care of myself.
When the teachers' strike ended my parents got me into Synge Street Christian Brothers School, which was within walking distance from home. I enjoyed the junior classes, but as I advanced through the primary school I had some nasty experiences with Brothers who seemed to enjoy punishing us. At the time, corporal punishment was accepted in schools. One Brother had coins stitched inside his leather strap and being slapped by him was tough. Sometimes he would take a boy by the ear from his desk to the front of the class, grab the short hairs above the ears and lift him off the ground by the hair. When he did it to me it was hard not to scream or cry. But when I saw that that was what he wanted I gritted my teeth and tried to stay silent, no matter what pain he would inflict on me.
The Brothers were not the only hazard in that school. The boys tended to pal together in groups, or gangs, for self-preservation. The rivalry between groups was mostly friendly, but occasionally there would be a fight. On one occasion I was picked on by a boy called Mac from another group. I had no option but to fight him. We were caught and punished by one of the Brothers, who gave us an extra leathering because neither of us would blame the other. No matter our differences, we had to stand together when faced by a brutal Brother. We became friends thereafter, and I had no more trouble.
Some days I would skip school, happily wandering the streets or through the park at St Stephen's Green. This was called 'mitching'. But when I returned to school I'd be behind the rest of the class in my studies, which brought even more trouble from the sadistic Brothers. Ultimately I decided it was better to attend and try to stay unnoticed, rather than give them an excuse to focus on me.
Our dog Spot was a floppy-eared mongrel, black with a white spot on his chest. He'd follow me most of the way to school and meet me on my way home. When I crossed Richmond Street he would usually turn back. But one morning he came after me and was knocked down by an army truck. I ran back to him and held him in my arms, crying my heart out. Soldiers got down from the back of the truck laughing, and I became fierce angry. I brought Spot to the veterinary hospital across from where the accident happened. But the poor thing was too badly injured and had to be put down. I was devastated.
I became an altar boy in our local church in Rathmines. There was a priest there who was shell-shocked from the war and who was eccentric, especially in his speech. His voice could range from a quiet whisper to a loud shout almost in the same sentence – and he did not seem to be aware of this. The other mass servers were scared of him. But I liked him, and was chosen to serve him at mass a couple of times each week. He was always allocated to say his mass at a side alter, and when very few people were in church. This often meant that I'd be a half hour late getting to school, which the Brothers forgave because I was serving at mass. The priest sometimes gave me a shilling after mass and that was a mighty bonus as far as I was concerned, considering that I could get in to the cinema for six pence and the Saturday matinée for four pence.
'Any oul rags, bottles, or bones? Any oul rags, bottles or bones?' called out the ragman as he came into our street with his horse and cart.
We loved seeing him come, and we would run to our houses to see if we could get anything for him. 'Mum! Have we any old rags for the ragman?'
'Get out of that and don't be annoying me, there's nothing for that old fella unless I give him the rags off my own back! Go on out to play!' But we would search in the garden shed and maybe find a few empty bottles and the ragman would pay us with a toffee apple or maybe a windmill. This was a sort of windmill on a stick, which rotated if we ran along holding it up to the wind.
We would not give him jam jars because they were too valuable to us then. Glass was scarce due to the war, and we could get into the Saturday matinée at the local cinema for two pence and two large jam jars. Without our jam jars it cost four pence to get in. We had two cinemas near us on Rathmines Road, the Stella and the Princess. The latter was commonly known as 'the Prinner' and was the only cinema locally to accept jam jars in part payment for entry to the matinée on Saturday. The queue outside the Prinner was always long – a crowd of laughing, talking, yelling youngsters holding tight to their jam jars. Johnny, the usher, was a tough little Dubliner who could control any mob of chisellers. When the concertina gates were opened, Johnny appeared in his tacky maroon uniform and stood at the head of the queue, hands on hips, and let out a roar. 'Quiet!'
There was instant silence. He proceeded along the queue, carrying a large basket. And as a kid placed his jam jars into the basket, Johnny handed a chit to the kid in exchange. When all the jam jars were exchanged for chits and he had deposited the basket inside, Johnny would allow us into the cinema. Once inside, there would be a mad rush to get seats. Everyone wanted to get up on to the balcony, and that's where the first of the queue went. If we did not make the balcony we made sure to be near the back and under the balcony. Nobody wanted to sit downstairs in front of the balcony, because sometimes kids in the front row of the balcony would pee over the front instead of leaving their seats to go to the toilet in case they would either lose their seat or miss an exciting part of the film. Johnny had his work cut out keeping order in the darkness of the cinema, as he ranted up and down the aisles flashing his torch along the rows. We had an economic crisis when glass became plentiful again and the value of the empty jam jars fell, first to one penny for a large jar and ultimately to no value towards entry into the Prinner.
When rationing ended and fruit could be imported again, the excitement of seeing my first bananas and oranges was wonderful. Sometimes, as banana lorries were stopped at traffic lights kids would climb up the back and throw bunches of bananas off to the other kids, who would gather them up. Then at the next corner the bananas would be shared out. We never thought about the dangers involved in such an escapade.CHAPTER 2
Just before I turned 14 I left school and went to work. Actually, I didn't just 'leave' school, I had no other option. One of the Christian Brothers had a boy out in front of the class giving him a beating, while the rest of us sat petrified in fear. To everyone's surprise, and none more than myself, I shouted out, 'Leave him alone!'
The Brother left him alone sure enough, only he called me out instead. I was terrified at what I'd done and knew I was really in for a trouncing. He grabbed me by my sweater and as he drew back his fist to punch me I suddenly realised that I was as big as he was and in desperation lashed out and sent him flying. He stumbled back, more in shock than from my wild punch, and banged into the blackboard, falling over it and bringing it down with him. The class gave a great cheer, a frenzied release of tension. There was a moment when I felt great, as the class continued to cheer and beat on the desktops. The Brother scrambled on the floor trying to get untangled from the blackboard and to his feet. I could see his face bloated red with anger and I knew I had to get out of there. I quickly gathered up my books and headed for the door, with him screaming as he scrambled to his feet, 'Quiet! Quiet! Get back here Pringle!'
Excerpted from About Time by Peter Pringle. Copyright © 2012 Peter Pringle. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.