When We Were Kings and Queens of the Road: Vicky Twomey-Lee

I grew up in Limerick and am the eldest of four. When I was 7 years old, I went to Mary Queen of Ireland primary school in Caherdavin, a suburb in Limerick. Walks were only 10-15 minutes to and from school, and initially my mom walked me to school until I was old enough to go by myself, then followed by my brother as he started school. There was a group of us, my aunt and her son would walk past our house, and we would join them (or run chasing after them as we were normally late out the door) towards school in the morning which was straight down the road.

And if I see them after school, we would all walk home together. Another cousin would sometimes join us as well, it was nice to walk home together especially in May when all the cherry blossom trees were in full bloom and it was snowing pink blossoms when the wind picked up.

Most kids walked to school back then as opposed to parents dropping kids off by car nowadays. It’s also very noticeable that the number of kids playing at the school’s playground is a lot less than when I went to school, and more multicultural.

As the eldest child, I was the first to experience everything, so school notes were crumpled at the bottom of my bag. I was responsible for letting my parents know my days off, when things are on, and so on. Well, more than once I would dress for school and realise no-one was walking to school and half-way turn back home red-faced and hoping none of my friends saw me embarrassingly going to school when it was not on.

Fitting in was not easy for an Asian-looking child those days, I found school hard, activities like the Communion were unknown to me, all I wanted was a pretty dress, because that’s what my classmates kept talking about. I took part in the class activities, but on the day, they all disappeared to the local church, leaving me alone in the classroom, in my dress, waiting for them to come back. I still really don’t like dresses in general.

I would also forget my precious house key from time to time, and initially I would drop over to my aunt’s across the road, but I soon learnt to get the bus from the bus stop which was only a few minutes from the house, and head to the town centre by myself. The final destination was on the same street as my family’s restaurant, so it was only a matter of crossing the road safely and surprising my mom at the kitchen’s back door.

Back then, Ireland was not as diverse as today. My earliest memory of my previous primary school was at Presentation Primary School, which was near my family restaurant on William Street. I would wait for my mother to collect me at lunch time to go home after school, and she was always late due to work at the restaurant.

One day, when I was waiting for my mother, a boy picked on me, calling me names. That particular day I chased after him with my beloved Mickey Mouse metal lunch box hoping to whack him for being mean. I was very proud to be Irish born Cantonese Chinese. Even though I didn’t understand those awful words and the mimicking of my eyes when he pulled his back, I knew it wasn’t right. I don’t think I caught or hit him as my mother arrived to pick me up. Later I would tell my story gleefully to any restaurant staff who would listen to me, that was my proud moment as a 5 year old, defending my own honour. My younger self thought he was lucky to have gotten away, but as I grew up, these incidents happened all the time, I learnt to ignore them as best as I could, and forget about them.

I had more fun in secondary school, I went to Salesians Secondary School and either got the bus or walked to and from school. A lot of the time, I would walk to the restaurant and do my homework there, and wait patiently for my father to bring us home in the evening. When I was fifteen, I met a girl from Hong Kong who was only here for a year to study at my school. She was staying with my aunt across the road. I was fascinated with her beautiful writing as opposed to my scrawls. Her hair was impeccably styled, she was fashionable, wore a distinctive perfume, and was always so calm, cool and collected. She would teach me how to write Chinese during our study period and art classes. We spoke Cantonese all the time. She also got me into trouble at times, we fought and made up. My heart broke when she left to go back home.

But I hold on to, and cherish all those memories, especially the good ones that are part of who I am today. I give a shoulder to cry on for those who have those bad days from being bullied because they are different, sharing the hope that things will get better.

Vicky Twomey-Lee was born in Cork in 1977, grew up in Limerick, and after graduating University of Limerick in 1999,  she now lives in Dublin with her husband. Early in her career, she worked as a software engineer before being drawn to running a technical user group in mid-2005, and since then she has been quite entwined with the Irish tech community. She gives 100% of her time devoted to advocating diversity in tech through her not-for-profit she co-founded called Coding Grace, and another group she founded called PyLadies Dublin. Spreading the word through collaborating with other organisations, giving talks, curating regular newsletters and organising events, conferences and activities. She’s been a curator and researcher for Science Gallery Dublin’s GAME exhibition, runs game jams for another of her co-founded not-for-profits called GameCraft, and even was The Maker Advocate for Dublin Maker to highlight Maker culture and connect the Maker community around Ireland. Closer to her Chinese roots, she is also the founder of Irish Born Chinese to connect with next generation peers like herself. And most recently, she is a committee board member of the Cantonese in Ireland as the representative of the next generation where she is getting plenty of practice improving her spoken Cantonese interacting with the community who are mainly from Hong Kong and Macau. She helps where she can, which includes introducing Dublin culture through a Cantonese reading of Ulysses at Sweny’s Pharmacy before Bloomsday Festival.

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!