Stories are made to be passed on. The recent death of my much-loved mother-in-law, Joan, has reminded me yet again that the window of opportunity is fleeting. Say what you have to say while there’s still time, and don’t forget to listen…
Only last year,Joan told me the following tale (over one of her amazing Irish Coffees, no doubt!). I was asking her about Irish watermills, but I learned a lot more besides. Enjoy.
Joan O’Connor was born in a cottage at Clonbanin Cross, Co.Cork, a place which has entered the history books as the scene of a shoot-out between the volunteers of the Irish Republican Army and British soldiers from the East Lancashire Regiment on March 5th, 1921. Brigadier- General Hanway Robert Cumming was killed in the skirmish. This happened ten years before Joan was born, but her grandmother liked to recount the story with a few extra details. When a wounded volunteer burst into their kitchen, the grandmother hid him in the cupboard under the stairs and pulled her chair across the door. When the authorities came looking for him, all they found was the old lady, calmly knitting… Who knows what happened to the fugitive, but such a fascinating story, and proof that family history is a fragile thing. Interview your own grandparents without delay- find out how they felt about the events of their day. It may well be a voyage of discovery!
I asked Joan what she remembered about the mills of her youth. She grew up in an all-female household: Granny, Mum and four sisters. With only Mum, Lena, working, money was scarce. They kept hens and grew vegetables, but milk and corn had to be purchased from the nearest farm. I can imagine the little girls hauling buckets of milk along the boreen. Accidental spillages were rectified with water from the well- I wonder if they ever got found out?!
It was the girls’ job to take the corn to the mill (possibly on the handlebars of the bike) and return with a sack of flour. The miller would sift the flour for them, so they took it home in two parts: the soft white flour for baking and a pail of gritty husks for the hens. Once home, the flour would be stored in an enamel bin, while the sacks were washed, bleached and hung over the hedge to dry. They would then be carefully cut open and sewn into bedsheets and pillowcases. Nothing was ever wasted.