When We Were Kings and Queens of the Road: Frank McDonald

"Truly Frank: A Dublin Memoir", Frank McDonald, Penguin Books, 2018.

Cycling to School through Droves of Cattle and Sheep

As the first son of William and Maura McDonald, I grew up in Glenmore Road, a little cul-de-sac between Old Cabra Road and Blackhorse Avenue in what came to be known as Dublin 7. The house had been built in 1948, the year of my parents’ wedding.

It was too small for what became a family of four children. A terraced bungalow, it only had two bedrooms; there was no easy way to extend it, and no money to do that either. I was born in 1950; my brother Liam, with curly red hair, followed in 1952; our sister Edel (called after the Irish Legion of Mary missionary, Edel Quinn) in 1954; and our youngest brother Denis came along in 1959 as a welcome ‘afterthought’.

Even though our parents found it hard going financially, the first two of us were enrolled in Mrs Kelly’s Private School on New Cabra Road until we were aged seven and old enough to go to national school. That’s where we were taught the rudiments of reading and writing in English and Irish (in the old Gaelic script), arithmetic and religion, by nice teachers in small classes, in the dining room, the sitting room or the converted garage. What I remember most about the three years I spent there was the penny Catechism. Laid out in Q&A format, it started at the beginning with a big question, ‘Who made the world?’ to which the answer (inevitably) was, ‘God made the world.’ Years would pass before we heard about Charles Darwin and evolution.

After Mrs Kelly’s, we were dispatched to St Vincent’s in Glasnevin, as Mam thought the CBS in Brunswick Street, much closer to home, was ‘too rough’. Going there was like being thrown to the wolves. It was a brutal regime, under the control of sadistic Brother Cahill, who would produce his leather strap and slap our outstretched palms with it for even minor infringements of the rules. We went to Mass every Sunday in the Church of the Holy Family on Aughrim Street and to Confession every other Saturday, along with novenas, sodalities, ‘first Fridays’ and God knows what else.

Dublin was a different place, another world really, when we were growing up. Nobody seemed to have any money and, if they did, they were very discreet about it. There were no flash cars, indeed not many cars at all. In the 1950s, on our little cul-de-sac, there were only one or two cars between fifteen houses, and we were able to play on the road; even football games were feasible because there was so much space. At least in our day, cars were quite distinctive; you could easily tell the difference between one marque and another – between a Morris Minor and a Volkswagen, or even between an Austin Seven and a Ford Prefect.

Mam was a great baker, and every day she would put on an apron over her blouse, cardigan and skirt, and get to work. She made brown and white soda bread, as well as buns, biscuits, sponge cakes filled with cream and raspberry jam (the classic Victoria sponge, but we didn’t call it that) and all sorts of other goodies. We couldn’t have asked for more.

During the week before Christmas, we would ‘do the rounds’ in our first family car – a Ford Anglia, instantly recognisable by its backward- slanting rear window – delivering all the cakes and puddings Mam had made for our relatives. (Liam can still remember the car’s registration, EZC 774; there were no ‘D’ plates then.) Dad was a careful driver, which reflected his moderation in all things, especially alcohol; he might drink a couple of pints of Smithwick’s when he would meet his brothers Paddy and Din in a pub, and have the odd glass of whiskey on occasion, but that was it. I never once saw him drunk – merry, yes, but never ‘scuttered’. Dad’s version of an expletive was, ‘Suffering ducks!’

Frank McDonald in his First Communion suit at Glenmore Road in 1957

We had our hair cut regularly (short back and sides) in an old barber’s shop on Prussia Street. Much more excruciating were our six-monthly visits to the dentist on North Frederick Street, not least because Kevin Harrington didn’t seem to believe in pain relief. Uncle Din would call to our house every week on his High Nelly bike and give us a bag of bull’s-eye sweets. We also went through a lot of Taylor Keith lemonade and loved bringing back empty bottles to a shop beside the railway bridge on Blackhorse Avenue, where we’d get a few pennies for the returns and buy a bar of chocolate with this windfall.

The railway line was still very much in use, with steam engines pulling goods trains. As a train came along, we would lean over the parapet on one side of the bridge to get a blast of smoke and then run over to the other side – it was perfectly safe to do that – to get another blast. The railway embankments were productive allotments then, probably a holdover from ‘the Emergency’, but have since reverted to a wilderness of sycamore and scrub that’s hacked down periodically by Iarnród Éireann for fear of autumn leaves sticking to the tracks.

Liam and I had learned how to cycle, thanks to our father, with a lot of wobbly trial-and-error on our back lane, and we’re both still cycling more than sixty years later. We would usually cycle to and from school, often through droves of cattle or sheep being herded to the vast market on North Circular Road, between Aughrim Street and Prussia Street. The poor animals left their droppings all over the place, and it took a bit of skill on the bike to avoid them. The market attracted lots of burly men up from the country, many of them drinking in Hanlon’s pub or having a square meal in the City Arms Hotel on Prussia Street. But then, we ourselves felt quite close to the country. For years before McKee Park was built, initially for army housing but later turned into a sink estate by Dublin Corporation, there were fields just beyond where we lived, with cattle grazing in them behind a big, unruly hedgerow.

In secondary school, we had some great teachers. Two of them were brothers – the very patient Dónal Ó Laoire, nicknamed Goofy, who taught us Irish; and Frank, who had a hot temper, so we called him Fury; he taught us geography. (Donal’s son, Seán Ó Laoire, went on to become a leading architect and president of the Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland.) Brother Beere, the Latin master, was also good. But our favourite was Bob Eagar, who taught us French and English. Whatever about his faults as a non-native speaker in communicating French, we thought he was the best teacher ever.

 He gave us a love of the English language, because he clearly loved it himself. Dressed in a beige tweed jacket, light waistcoat and cavalry twill trousers, with a moth-eaten black gown casually draped over the lot, he encouraged us in writing essays, discussed the hidden meanings of poems by Yeats and led us through the works of Shakespeare, or at least As You Like It for the Inter Cert and Hamlet for the Leaving. At the time we were at school, Hamlet rotated with King Lear and Macbeth on the Leaving Cert syllabus. Bob Eagar lived in Dartmouth Square and would usually either walk or cycle to work in Glasnevin, as there was no direct bus route. It’s almost entirely due to him that I developed the confidence to write and, ultimately, become a journalist.

Frank McDonald is the former Environment Editor of The Irish Times, and the author of several books, including The Destruction of Dublin (1985), Saving the City (1989), and The Construction of Dublin (2000). He is also co-author of books including Chaos at the Crossroads (2005) and The Builders (2008). Born in Dublin, he graduated from UCD in 1971, joined The Irish Times in 1979 and lived in Temple Bar for 27 years before moving out to Blackrock in 2022. In the above excerpts from Truly Frank: A Dublin Memoir (2018), reproduced with the author’s permission, Frank talks us through life, school and travel in mid-20th century Dublin.

On behalf of the Museum of Childhood Ireland and Robert Burns, we would like to extend our heartfelt gratitude to all of our wonderful participants for their time and their stories. We are thrilled to be presenting this project and we hope you will enjoy following along with us in the coming weeks.

Have a story on this topic and want to get involved? Contact us on our social media sites, or email us at cbrowne@museumofchildhood.ie – we would love to hear from you!

By Chloe Browne

Chloe Browne is an Irish writer, curator and Art Historian, with a keen interest in objects and social history.