By Mary Thomas

When I grew up in the fifties, my granny had a barrel outside her house. The water from it was used to wash the clothes, the house, and ourselves, and she also collected water from the pump up the road to cook with. In those days, everyone had a barrel outside their house. She had a dry toilet, and the men had to dig a hole in the garden to bury the waste. It fertilised the garden– the best fertiliser! Everyone had a big garden in those days for that purpose.

In our house we had running water– hot and cold– and a flush toilet. My mother washed the clothes in a big tub with a washboard. She would run the clothes up and down on it and it was very hard work– no washing machines in those days! The soap she washed with was Persil, Omo, Surf, Rinso Sunlight Soap or carbolic soap. And the soap was used to wash us too– no fancy stuff then.

My dad mended our shoes. I still have the last that he used. The iron my parents used was heated on the range to iron our clothes. Our food was cooked on it as well and bread was made in the oven. My dad planted carrots, cabbage and other vegetables. He also cut turf on the bog in Glencree. He and three other men would go together and help each other with bringing the turf home for the winter. 

When Dad’s shirts got frayed, my mother would turn the collars and cuffs around and he would wear them a bit longer. When they were all worn out, they’d become dusters or floor cloths, and if the back was needed, it would make a pillowcase or a cushion. Buttons were cut out with zips and put aside in a box in case they were needed again. My mother would get some flour bags, wash them, and sew them together to make a double sheet or one for a single bed. I was lucky– I was the only girl, so my sheet didn’t have a seam in the middle! With good sheets, when they got worn out, my mother would turn sides into middles and use them again until that part wore out. They really used everything to the capacity! She made our curtains and clothes for me, and she would do embroidery. I still have some of what she had done. 

My mother had fruit growing in the garden– strawberries, blackberries, loganberries, and gooseberries. She had six apple trees she grew from seed. She got dad to build a chicken coop around the trees for the hens, and that’s what fertilised the trees. She made jams and pies, and preserved some of the fruit for the winter. She also made elderberry wine and dandelion wine. And when all the veg was gone, she’d have to buy some. She had a veggie bag, and all the veggies went into that to be carried home. Eggs were wrapped in newspaper and very carefully put in a brown paper bag for them to be carried home. Butter was cut from a big slab like cheese, and tea was sold loose. There was no plastic then– all fruit and veg was loose. 

They were hard times but good times. All the neighbours looked out for one another, but we had plenty of love and care and good food.

Some wise words from Mary:

Put clean underwear on in case you have an accident.

Don’t come running to me if you break your leg!

It’ll end in tears!

Half a loaf is better than none.

A stitch in time saves nine.

Don’t count your chickens before they’re hatched.

Waste not, want not.

Your eyes are bigger than your belly.

If you were hungry, you’d eat it.

Cleanliness is next to godliness.

Peig is dressed and the box is empty.

Better late than never.

Penny wise but pound foolish.

Gone for the milk in the oil can (billy can).

Shut your mouth and eat your dinner!

Time and tide waits for no man.

It’s nice to be important, but it’s more important to be nice.

There’s no pockets in a shroud.

It never rains but it pours. 

Charity begins at home.

If the cap fits, you’d wear it.

Variety is the spice of life.

There’s not a hair’s breadth in the difference.

God sent the food but the devil sent cooks.

An empty sack never stood up. (don’t work on an empty stomach)

Wear it in good health.

Wear your Sunday clothes!

Mary attended an ACT workshop hosted by Dublin South City Partnership in Walkinstown Library in Percy French Road. Over four weeks, the group explored sustainable development, poverty and climate action. As an action project, the group wrote personal responses to the course content. Others can be found here.

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