“The Quiet Man” starred John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara and brought an enormous amount of excitement to the west of Ireland when, in 1951, Hollywood took over the village of Cong in Mayo to film the many outdoor scenes. Locals were brought in as extras and paid 30 shillings per day, a welcome income for everyone concerned.
The Quiet Man Museum is the smallest museum I’ve ever visited, consisting of just two small rooms, an exact replica of White-o-Mornin, the cottage featured in the movie. The film is set in the 1920s and my dad having been born in 1925 was the perfect tour guide, explaining what the various tools and kitchen equipment would have been used for.
A black lidded pot which looked like a saucepan was in fact used for baking bread. After adding the dough to the pot, and the pot to the open fire, hot coals were placed around the lid to project the heat from all directions.
In truth, we don’t hear quite enough about my dad’s childhood since many of his memories are difficult ones. Life was extremely hard for many people in 1920s Mayo but as the small son of a simple widow my dad’s memories are of impoverishment and lack of charity and compassion from those who might have helped. My grandmother was a housekeeper in the local convent where, he says, the pigs ate better than they did. He remembers his mother fainting from hunger after a day spent cooking fine meals for the Sisters.
Extra income was earned selling socks my grandmother knitted, requiring a walk of 17 miles for the return journey to the closest town, not to mention the herd of cows he was milking before and after school – a man’s work for a boy’s pay.
He doesn’t dwell on those times and it’s why we know so little about his childhood. He got to London by the age of 16 with a borrowed five pound note, slept in hedges till he found work and then swiftly repaid the loan.
The two of us were in the car the other day travelling through his homeland having just dropped my brother at Knock Airport. As we passed the graveyard where the father he never knew lies buried I asked him “So what’s your earliest memory then?”
Quick as a flash, and to my surprise, he said “my fourth birthday”. I’d imagined that birthdays were non-existent events for the small boy he’d been. I asked “what do you remember?” “I got my first pair of shoes that day, a present from Aunt Marie” and he went on to tell me about the fine black boots she had brought for him that day.
“Did you love them?” I asked innocently, expecting to hear he’d taken them to bed with him.
I can’t tell you how pleased I was to hear that even at the age of four, and even in the simplicity and poverty of their lives, my dad already had a sharp eye for style and fine dressing which he has maintained all his life. We had a great laugh about his memories of that day. I felt he’d shared some treasure with me and this little story will become one of my favourite memories of him and our present holiday trip to Mayo.