High Tea At A Low Table.
Talk by author / poet Angela Patton at the Royal Marine Hotel, Dún Laoghaire. June 29th 2019. 7-8.30pm.
“High Tea at a Low Table.” (If you click here, you’ll see a short description, brief review, and an excerpt from her wonderful memoir)
Angela will read from her memoir, interspersing the reading with poems about her childhood where relevant. There are several poems about the Thatch Pub in Sallynoggin and the local milkman who rode a bicycle delivering ‘loose’ milk from a churn.
Q&A : Over tea and coffee afterwards, we’d love to hear recollections from the audience triggered by her reading.
At the Bandstand, the Peoples Park, Dún Laoghaire, early 1960’s
About Angela Patten: She is the author of three poetry collections, In Praise of Usefulness (Wind Ridge Books), Reliquaries and Still Listening, both from Salmon Poetry, Ireland, and a prose memoir, High Tea at a Low Table: Stories From An Irish Childhood (Wind Ridge Books).
Her work has appeared in a variety of literary journals and anthologies, including Poetry Ireland Review, Nimrod International Journal, Crosswinds Poetry Journal, Green Mountains Review, Birchsong: Poetry Centered in Vermont, Cudovista Usta (Marvellous Mouth), Drustvo Apokalipsa (Slovenia), and The White Page/An Bhileog Bhan: Twentieth-Century Irish Woman Poets.
In 2016 she received the National Poetry Prize from the Cape Cod Cultural Center for a single poem. She has presented readings at home and abroad, including DeBarra’s Folk Club, Clonakilty, County Cork, Dingle Bookshop, Dingle, County Kerry, Word Portland, Portland, Maine, The Frost Place, Franconia, New Hampshire, and at various locations around Vermont.
Born and raised in Dublin, Ireland, Angela now lives in Burlington, Vermont, with her husband, poet Daniel Lusk. She is a Senior Lecturer in the University of Vermont English Department.
It was far from guns and kidnappers I was reared, as my father might have said. I grew up during the 1950s and ‘60s in Sallynoggin, a working class neighbourhood about seven miles south of Dublin City. This was an era in which the ragman, the slopman, and the coalman still came to our doorsteps with horses and carts, and Mr. Byrne, the milkman, arrived on his bicycle to ladle loose milk from a tilley-can. In this pre-technological world, stories were our entertainment and our sustenance. The nuns at school terrorised us with tales of leprosy and the foreign missions, black babies desperately in need of baptism, and sudden appearances by celestial beings.
The radio brought plays, sponsored programs, and serialised stories for children. There were true stories too, like the assault by a priest that cost my father his eye, my narrow escape from being sent to an orphanage, and my first cousin’s discovery that the woman he had always called “Aunt Kathleen” was really his mother. Over it all lay my mother’s mellifluous but incessant talking that formed the foundation of my literary education. My mother and her relations were all great talkers. If they had been runners, they could have competed at the marathon level. My father, on the other hand, came from silent country people and he was always warning us not to be talking to strangers. Country people, my mother explained, were moody and secretive. “They’re too quiet and they never tell you about their affairs,” she said of our rural relations, “but they’re nosey enough to find out everything about you.”
Mother, or Mammy, was born Annie Elizabeth Mary Swords in 1913, the daughter of a sailor from the Northside of Dublin and a seamstress from the County Wicklow. She grew up in Glasthule, Dublin, cheek-by -jowl with countless relations and innumerable neighbours, a stone’s throw from the seaside, the shops, the red-brick Harold National School that she attended until the age of thirteen, and Glasthule Church where she married my father in 1948. Her relations were all sailors, and we loved her stories of their adventures on the high seas with the British Navy and the descriptions of the silk fans, lace shawls and other exotic gifts they brought back from foreign parts.
Dad, on the other hand, was a “culchie,” born in 1918 in Addinstown, County Meath. He grew up in a small, whitewashed house on one acre of land. His father had been born in the house next door and, although his five brothers emigrated to America, the move from one house to another was the only one our grandfather made for the rest of his life.
These fundamental differences formed the basis of our identity as children. We were Irish, we were Catholic, we were poor, and our parents were as different as chalk and cheese. I grew up among Mammy’s jovial Dublin relations in a world that was filled with sounds—harsh, sweet and various. There were the murmured prayers of the priests at mass, the hymn-singing of nuns at school, the shouts of children on the street, the rasping lilt of paperboys, the rumble of doubledecker buses, the metrical chuffing of steam-trains, and the rhythm of Dad’s infectious fiddle playing. But the world came in at my ear most of all through Mammy’s melodious voice as she recited poems and platitudes, dispensed advice, sang Irish songs, retold the novels she read at night, and entertained us with the story of her life as she cooked and cleaned and cared for us.
I was a shy, fearful, bookish child and it was a long time before I discovered my own voice, still longer before I developed the courage to use it for my own storytelling as a poet and writer. Even within her own loquacious family, Mammy was famous for her incessant talking. Her voice was like a radio that was never turned off. It was the soundtrack to my childhood, as constant and inevitable as the rain. Dad was always telling us to keep to ourselves. “Don’t be gassing and talking, telling everyone your business. Sure, they’d live in your ear if you let them,” he’d say. But Mammy was incorrigibly garrulous and friendly. Dad tried to rein her in, but telling Mammy to stop talking was like trying to stop an avalanche with your bare hands.
Although her formal education was brief-she left school at thirteen to work in Leonards’ greengrocer’s shop in Dun Laoghaire-she had a marvelous memory and an unerring ear for language. She remembered all the rhymes of her childhood, including the one she and other Catholic children used to sing to tease the Salvation Army followers as they rang their bells along Dun Laoghaire’s seafront promenade:
“The Salvation Army, free from sin,
They all went to Heaven in a sardine tin.”
There were other rhymes that memorialised the various outbreaks of disease, like the one about whooping cough:
“My mammy told me not to play with you.
Not because you’re dirty, not because you’re clean.
Because you got the hoopin’-cough
From eatin’ margarine.”
My childhood memories are inextricably linked with Mammy’s quotations from Longfellow, Shakespeare, and Tennyson. Her favourite advice was “To thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou can’st not then be false to any man.” She had once played Portia in a school production of “The Merchant of Venice.” Thirty years later, she recited speeches with relish. “The quality of mercy is not strained,” she’d declaim as she cleaned the hearth on her hands and knees. “It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath.” She entertained us with droll recitations of “The Owl and the Pussycat” or acted out the tragedy of “The Wreck of the Hesperus.” I could just picture the captain lashing his little daughter to the mast, her long skirt billowing out behind her, and the waves crashing over the deck. “If I didn’t go to school, I met the scholars coming back,” Mammy said proudly. She was an avid reader of adventure stories, which she devoured in bed after we were asleep. Next morning we’d beg her to tell us about the latest chapter of The Sign of the Spider, set in deepest darkest Africa, or The Dog Crusoe, set in Canada’s frozen north.
Mammy seemed to have a bottomless well of proverbs and pithy phrases that she ladled out unexpectedly and with unflagging enthusiasm. “It’s many a man’s mouth that broke his nose,” she’d say, “and what you don’t want is dear at a farthing.” Her plentiful platitudes were irritating when she used them as spurs to better behaviour. “The sun is splitting the stones,” she’d announce as she manoeuvred around our beds to whisk open the curtains in the morning. “There is a tide in the affairs of men which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune.” All four of us children slept in the same small room for years, fiercely guarding the tiny territory of our individual beds from the others. In the meantime, however, Mammy had us all at her mercy. “Let us then be up and doing!” she’d say as she attempted to pry us out of bed. “When I was your age I used to be up with the lark, riding my bicycle through the Wicklow Mountains, exploring the countryside, instead of sleeping my life away.” There was always an implied comparison between us lazy good-for-nothings and she herself, who was up earliest and doing the most. “Ah, don’t be always giving out,” our Susan would plead from her untidy nest in the corner. But there was no stopping Mammy once she got going. None of us, least of all Dad, could fathom her gift for memorisation or her endless aphorisms and household hints. “Leave it to Annie,” he would tell us, rolling his eyes. “She’ll always have the last word.”
The radio with its pink satin face sat in the cupboard beside the fireplace in the living room. It was the centre of the household and it taught me early on to love the spoken word. It brought us news, game shows, comedy programs, and advice to the lovelorn in a series of half-hour programs that were sponsored by companies like IMCO Cleaners & Dyers, Jacob’s Biscuits, Fry-Cadbury Chocolate, and Glen Abbey, makers of fine nylon stockings. Mammy loved “Woman’s Page,” a sponsored program hosted by Frankie Byrne. “This is Frankie Byrne with ‘Woman’s Page,’ ” the husky voice would commence, “a program for and maybe about you. Now the problems we are discussing today may not be yours, but they could be someday. In any event, ‘Woman’s Page’ draws its material from the lives and events of real people…”
I was fascinated by the unhappy housewives who called in to the program and the glimpse of a grown-up world full of romance and heartbreak. Frankie always followed her advice with an upbeat song by Frank Sinatra by way of consolation, or so I assumed.
When she wasn’t listening to the radio, Mammy was always singing. One of her favourite songs was “The Blackbird of Sweet Avondale” about the tragic Irish leader, Charles Stuart Parnell. She sang as she washed the breakfast dishes or peeled the potatoes, ballads about young men like Roddy McCorley and Kevin Barry who marched cheerfully to their executions so that “old Ireland might be free.” The songs made me almost unbearably sad and I begged her to please stop singing before I burst into tears.
The cupboard under the stairs held Mammy’s treasured cookbooks and handwritten recipes, a purple chocolate-box full of family photographs, and an album with lipsticked images of Gary Cooper and Rudolph Valentino from her romantic girlhood. We kept our own bits and bobs in wooden orange crates beside our beds and we wore our cousins’ cast-off clothes. We licked our dinner plates and wiped our faces on our sleeves. But Mammy read aloud to us from Charlotte’s Web and The Wind in the Willows, and we thought we were the luckiest family in creation.
In marked contrast to Mammy, Dad was quiet, serious, and suspicious of strangers. He loved rivers and trout fishing. No matter how long he lived in Dublin, he always referred to County Meath as “home.” He had The Meath Chronicle delivered to the local newsagent’s shop, and he devoured every word of it on Saturday afternoons when he sat in his special chair by the fireplace. He often went home at the weekends to shoot and fish with our Uncle John. When he came home on the bus on Sunday night, he laid his brown cardboard suitcase down on a chair and clicked open the locks. There, resting on the sheets of newspaper would be a beautiful pheasant or a fresh speckled trout he had caught that afternoon and wanted Mammy to prepare for dinner.
Dad also went sea fishing off the East Pier in Dun Laoghaire on summer evenings. I loved to trail behind and watch him toss the flatfish with their glassy orange eyes into the rock-pool by the shore. I stared down into the sea’s black depths and brooded happily for hours. At home, Mammy tossed the fresh fish in batter and deep-fried them and we feasted night after night on their succulent white flesh.
Dad hated to be cold, and like a cat, he detested getting wet feet, so he would never even put his toe into the freezing waters of the Irish Sea. No matter the season, he always wore a tweed cap for fear of getting his head wet. The cap was a nondescript brown colour that had moulded itself to the exact shape of his head. Hair-oil had softened the leather band inside to a kid-glove texture. Dad automatically reached for it every time he left the house, set it in place on his head, and adjusted the brim with a practiced gesture. He raised the cap to salute acquaintances on the street. On Sundays, he wore a felt hat out of respect for the Sabbath, but he always donned the cap again on Monday mornings.
Dad loved Irish music and he played the fiddle on Saturday nights in the back rooms of various pubs, although he never touched a drop of alcohol. He didn’t have Mammy’s gift of the gab, but he was a dab hand at making up stories straight out of his head…