Catherine Foley is a proud Waterford woman who grew up initially in the city before moving to An Rinn in the Waterford Gaeltacht. Deena and I had known of her before, through her contributions to RTE Radio 1’s Sunday Miscellany. However it was her cousin, and a regular contact of tides’n’tales on facebook, Mary Chaytor nee Rogers who alerted me to her recently published book; Beyond the Breakwater, Memories of home. The memoir takes us from her early days in Lower Newtown, a move in 1970 to the Gaeltacht, her career in journalism and as a carer for her parents in later years. But as this is a maritime blog, Catherine decided to share some recollections of regular visits with her maternal grandparents in Passage East; Joe and Mary Ellen Walsh. I think you will enjoy them.
My maternal grandmother, Mary Ellen Walsh, was a tailoress who lived in Passage East in County Waterford, all her life. She wore her grey hair tied back in a bun at the base of her head. She had deep-set dark brown eyes – a link to her Corsican ancestry. She wore a navy wrap around apron that had a pocket at the front in which she carried her beads, a few stray hairpins, sometimes the stub of a pencil or a spool of thread and maybe a little ironed handkerchief.
|Catherine as Little Red Riding Hood with her mother Ena Foley nee Walsh|
I remember her sitting at her Singer sewing machine, her upper body curved over the machine as she swayed back and forth in time with the motion of the wheel and the foot pedal underneath, all aligned and working with clockwork-like syncopation and co-ordination. I remember her starting the machine when she pressed down on the pedal underneath and then gave the wheel at her side a bit of a push. With nicely timed and precise movements, she’d crank up the beast and like a great steamboat it would all start up, and the whole machine would trundle into action, the needle ratcheting along. Then my grandmother’s highly controlled and beautifully intense dance would begin in earnest.
As children we stayed with my grandparents Joe Walsh and Mary Ellen in Post Office Square in Passage East throughout the 1960s. The noise of the Singer was like the sound of a great farmyard contraption clattering along. It had a rhythmic beat, a battering ram of a tune that carried a message of great condemning conviction and certitude, both satisfying and mesmerising. It was like hearing little hammer blows falling, cascading, tumbling down through the needle onto the fabric.
In the midst of this mechanical mayhem, she’d sometimes give the wheel at her side an extra little encouraging lash of her hand to speed up the sewing and that’s when she’d travel into the stratosphere of sewing wizardry. With her head bent low and her hands over the dress, she’d be flying along, concentrating fiercely, united as one with the powerful engine, her needle jabbing in and out of the material. At such moments, she was completely focussed, having to keep the seam in its correct place, the pressure up and the momentum going, pacing it, weaving it, all the parts moving in one great headlong rush. She was the seamstresses’ version of Zen and the art of Motorcycle Maintenance.
|Mary Ellen Walsh and Catherine as an infant|
The Singer, coming to a temporary stop for a moment, used to sound exhausted as it wound down, the frantic energy seeming to dissipate while my gran readjusted the fabric and fixed it under the needle. Then I’d see her thread the needle, holding her breath like a tight-rope walker, her glasses half-way down her nose as she tried to hold the cotton between her thumb and forefinger and direct it through the eye. It seemed to me as if she was facing down the beast, and a dual of two wits, a fight to the finish, would ensue until she’d threaded the needle, and once again bent the automaton to her will…
Her father was Joe Martel, a Corsican who ran away to sea when he was sixteen. He left either a year before or a year after a full census was conducted in Adjaccio in 1873 and although my sister and I went to Corsica years later and combed through the census returns in the heat of the National Archives we found no trace of him or his family. His father was Bastien Martel, a stone mason.
Joe Martel secured a job as a sailor on board a ship and sailed out of Adjaccio and thus he became a merchant seaman. In time, he became a bosun. On one of his voyages, he met a Captain William Ryan, from Passage East, and the two became friends. They must have been in their twenties when they came home to Passage on leave, Captain Ryan showing him his home place, where small fishing boats were tied up along the quays in the village, at a narrow stretch in the River Suir before the estuary widens to flow out to open sea. It was here that Joe Martell met Willie’s sister, Mary Ryan.
We have a photograph of Joe Martel with his drooping moustache and a slouched soft cloth cap, very much in keeping with the manner of his countrymen back in his native Corsica. His eyes are deep-set under the brim of his cap. The two were married in Crooke Church in 1883 – the same place where my parents married in 1958.
|Catherine as a toddler with her grandfather Joe Walsh|
Joe Martel and Mary, his wife, had four daughters – RoseAnn, Maggie, Angela and Mary Ellen Martel, who was the youngest and my grandmother. Ena, her daughter, and my mother, remembered Joe Martel even though she was only a little girl when he died. They used to walk along the cockle walk together, chatting away, hand in hand. He had black hair, dark brown eyes and sallow skin. He used to make model ships, which he moored against detailed miniature piers, all set against the painted background of the river estuary with detailed scapes of Ballyhack, Arthurstown, Duncannon and Cheekpoint all easy to pick out. These elaborate seascapes were housed in great display cases made of glass. He used Mary Ryan’s grey hair for the wisps of smoke coming out of the funnel of the ships. He was the first seaman to bring a gramophone home to Passage East from one of his voyages.
I have photographs of the times when we posed in the lee of the derelict Geneva barracks at a summer fair. I remember the swinging cots, the sandwiches and the cups of strong tea from wobbly tables in the field. Different years, different photographs. In another I am a child with my mother kneeling in the grass beside me, smiling. I am dressed as little red riding hood – in a kind of djellaba down to my sandaled feet. I have a basket on my arm but my tear-stained face shows what an unwilling participant in the fancy dress of the early 1960s I was. I can remember being afraid because I thought I was going to meet the wolf. But tear-stained or not, I came away with first prize. Some of those memories are still vivid. Here’s an extract from Passage, a poem, that is part of my recently published memoir, Beyond the Breakwater.
I’d like to thanks Catherine for providing this tweaked extract from Beyond the Breakwater, Memories of Home. Its published by Mercier Press and is available as they say in all good bookshops. (I got my own in the Book Centre, Waterford). There were many stand out pieces in the book for me like her wandering up Alphonsus Road on her communion morning knocking on doors, or the deeply poignant Ardkeen Visit. And I was delighted to readt her perspective on the visit of Jackie Kennedy to Woodstown which featured in another recent guest blog by Joe Falvey. If you need any more convincing about this wonderful book Manchán Magan gave it a “rave” review in the Irish Times.
Community Notice: Free Concert at Faithlegg House Hotel. Booking essential…
Finally from me just to say that I’m delighted to get contributions for the guest blog, especially from a female perspective. This is blog post 241 and only the third guest blog since we started in late 2016 from a woman. So if any others out there would like to contribute, I would love to hear from you. The bref is 1200 word count, on a theme of the three sister rivers and harbour maritime history by email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Next month will feature a well known Dunmore East personality.
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