When We Were Kings and Queens of the Road: Mary M. Trant

Journey to and from School – County Kerry, Ireland, 1950

After finishing some farm chores each morning, I began the journey to school with my big brother at my side, and at seven he was one year older than me. We went to school on foot and our Mum always stood between the two white pillars of our farmyard gate with Sally, our dog, by her side, waving her two youngest children goodbye. With army-green canvas satchels on our backs, we grumbled and moaned, making every excuse why we shouldn’t be going to school.

We reckoned life would be much better, and far more beneficial to us, if we could stay at home helping on the farm. We whined so much that I am not sure the holy water our grandmother blessed us with each morning before we left could have done anything to allay our discontent. During the long chilly days of winter, we wore brown leather brogue ankle boots to school, but as soon as May Day arrived and the roads shimmered with the heat of the sun, we walked to and from school barefoot, to save our boot leather for the coming winter.

Stubbing a big toe off the loose stone chippings on the road was a regular occurrence during our trek to school in the morning and coming home in the evening. Then we had to navigate the hot bubbling tar patches, which could cause serious burns to the soles of our feet. Sometimes, it was necessary to walk on the soft grassy roadside edge to avoid such disasters. While the idea was to save the wear and tear of our boots, going barefoot to school was a time of great joy for children back then, and everyone looked forward to the freedom of it. 

Children then didn’t have several pairs of footwear, having to make do with one pair of shoes for Sunday and other religious occasions and a pair of brogue boots for school. Having been made of pure leather, they had amazing lasting qualities and were handed down from one child to the next. 

I had the good fortune to have lived in the most picturesque part of Ireland, between the mountains and the sea in County Kerry. The road to school was long and winding, framed for most of it by stone walls. On the left side, an enormous range of heathery mountains stretched high above for miles, while, on the right, an endless turquoise sea swelled in the distance below. Stony rivers ran from the mountain top to the sea under some bridges along the road, and these were a huge source of distraction for my brother and I. We often stopped to watch the riffs and whirls of the running water, where birds searched for food and small fish swam on the riverbed. We were engrossed in this wonder of nature and it took our minds off another unpleasant school day.

On our way home, when our spirits were high, our voices bounced off the bridge roofs as we hollered underneath them. An array of farmhouse buildings, with rusty corrugated-iron sheds and some thatched cottages, were peppered along the length of the narrow road. A swathe of boggy or rush-filled fields, with furze bushes aplenty, separated the road from the mountains on one side and the sea on the other. 

Mary as a child

On one particular occasion, when we were walking to school and had reached the next townland, Timothy, a friend of our father’s, was scratching his head, as he peered under the bonnet of his car. He hadn’t the slightest knowledge about mechanical matters. Having noticed that my brother was otherwise occupied, he called me over to help him start his car. As luck would have it, his car was similar to our Ford Prefect and I had watched how my father had started it. After having a quick look at his predicament, I drew his attention to the choke switch on the dashboard. Timothy, you need to pull out the choke switch for your car to start, were the words I uttered to him. He adjusted the choke, gave the crank handle a few turns, and, like magic, his engine hummed back into life. Timothy had no bother starting his car from that day onwards. For years afterwards, he told the story to many people, about how a six-year-old little girl was able to instruct him on how to start his car. 

The big clock on the front wall of our classroom seemed to malfunction, as most days it ticked ever so slowly. But when its hands, at last, read three o’clock, you couldn’t see us for dust. My brother and I, along with all the other pupils, were out that green school gate as quick as our legs could carry us. Other days, on our way home from school, my brother and I, and neighbouring children, would hightail it inside a stonewall ditch at the sight of a tattily dressed scary woman coming towards us, putting fear in our hearts. We’d peep over the wall to check if she’d passed, and only then continue on our journey home. Our fear of this woman originated from stories we heard within our community, and Heaven only knows why or what the purpose of it was. One day, my brother and I were walking home from school, and we must have got distracted and dropped our guard. Before we could react, the scary woman appeared out of nowhere and stood straight as a poker in front of us and said hello children. I was so scared, I grabbed my brother’s arm and neither of us could utter a sound, trembling, and terrified of what she’d do to us. She asked us what class we were in, and she also continued with some other small talk. To our astonishment, she took some wrapped blackjack sweets out of her message bag – grocery shopping bag – and gave them to us. We were amazed. The scary woman could not have been more pleasant. From that day forward, we chatted with her on a regular basis, as did our neighbouring friends after we told them our delightful tale. 

Each school day, our little dog Sally waited for us at our farmyard gate, wagging her tail at a furious rate as she welcomed us home, and she filled our hearts with joy. We knew it had to be tough for her not having us there during the day, though I was sure she kept busy doing her jobs around the farm. School days can conjure a powerful mixture of emotions, good and bad, and it is often said that “school days are the best days of your life”, but for my brother and me, staying at home and doing farm chores was far more favourable to attending school.

-Mary M. Trant

Author Mary M. Trant, a native of County Kerry, Ireland, has a deep connection to her rural roots, where she spent her early years within a tight knit farming community. For a child it was a place of unrestricted freedom and delight. However, a few years later during a life changing event, she moved along with her family to County Dublin. But, County Kerry always remained close to her heart.

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.

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.