Throwback Thursday: Yo-yos, hula-hoops, and tree-climbing too

In today’s nostalgia column, Throwback Thursday, JO KERRIGAN returns to the subject of the games Cork people used to play in the 1950s and ‘60s
Throwback Thursday: Yo-yos, hula-hoops, and tree-climbing too

MAGIC CIRCLE: A woman demonstrating how to use a hula-hoop in Dunnes Stores, Cork city, in late November, 1958 — ahead of the Christmas rush. They sold them in Woolworths in Cork too

WELL, The Shilling Stores on Daunt’s Square seems to have supplied the needs of a vast number of Cork’s children in the 1950s and ’60s.

Most of you who emailed in your memories after last week’s Throwback Thursday column spoke of buying there on a regular basis — or at least as often as funds allowed.

Money was tight enough back then, and certainly parents had enough to do feeding and clothing their families, and had little left over for luxuries.

Janet Kelly remembers buying the chalk for the endless games of ‘picky’ at the Shilling Stores.

“You played it by first marking six large chalk squares and two semi-circles on the pavement. Then you threw the polish box, and you hopped on the squares, rested on the one your box landed on and kicked the box if you could to the semi circle. The kicking had to be done on one leg. Great for balance!”

MAGIC CIRCLE: A woman demonstrating how to use a hula-hoop in Dunnes Stores, Cork city, in late November, 1958 — ahead of the Christmas rush. They sold them in Woolworths in Cork too
MAGIC CIRCLE: A woman demonstrating how to use a hula-hoop in Dunnes Stores, Cork city, in late November, 1958 — ahead of the Christmas rush. They sold them in Woolworths in Cork too

Presumably, the inevitable tumbles would be met by gales of laughter rather than sympathy, and the child would get up, dust herself down, and return to playing with renewed vigour. We were tougher back then.

Janet also remembers playing ‘Ali, Ali, who has the ball?’ on long summer evenings. For this a small rubber ball (also available at the Shilling Stores of course, as well as HCC, Kilgrews, and the Lee Stores) was used.

The player who was ‘it’ would turn her back and throw the ball behind her to the others. Once it was safely hidden behind someone’s back, they would shout “Ali, Ali, who has the ball, are they big or are they small?” She would try to guess, and if she got it right, that person became the next thrower, and so on.

“Such simple games they were, and even writing about them brings back such happy memories!” says Janet. “Our pocket money went a long way then. We bought scraps there too.”

Oh, scraps, enthuses Carol McCarthy.

“Does anyone remember those lovely pages of scraps you could buy back then? We would get them when we went into town. Not every week mind, but when we did, we would go straight to the Shilling Stores and choose our sets. You could get plain or tinsel and they were beautiful.”

Afterwards came the delight of knocking on your friends’ doors to swap the scraps, which you kept carefully in a book.

“If you had two of any scrap, you would swap it with someone else for one that you particularly needed.”

She recalls that some keen collectors would never swap their especial favourites. “They were priceless!”

She recalls spending hours during the summer looking through each other’s books, swapping or admiring the lovely colours and designs.

Mary Holly was one of four girls, so they did a lot of skipping, ball playing, picky, and collecting scraps.

NEVER TOO OLD! Jo Kerrigan’s father Joey still climbing a tree at 90. Picture: Richard Mills
NEVER TOO OLD! Jo Kerrigan’s father Joey still climbing a tree at 90. Picture: Richard Mills

“I loved the Dressing Doll books where you would cut out the doll from the cardboard cover and press out her different outfits from the inside pages, to fit on to her with the little paper tabs to hold them in place.”

There would be a story in the book too, which would include references to the different outfits, so you could make up all kinds of stories around the doll in question and her social life. That the glamorous life so depicted was far removed from 1950s Cork reality made no difference. It was exploring a different world and learning something about fashion.

These paper doll books could be bought in several shops, especially Landon’s in Bridge Street, a stationers.

And here is a real vintage story. When Mary married Sean O’Leary, she learned of an old Cork game that his father, Pat, used to play with them, much to the annoyance of Sean’s mother, Madge, because it made such a mess.

“It was called Bellsy Bay. The children were each given a rolled up copy of the Echo and stood in a circle with one in the middle. Each was assigned a name. I remember Bellsy Bay, My Man Jack, Saucer Slack and Cup of Tay as some of them.

“Then Sean’s father would begin to call out instructions, ‘Bate ‘em all my men, bate ‘em Saucer Slack, Stop off all my men, Bate ‘em all my men, Stop off Cup of Tay,’ etc.

“Each child would have to try and follow the instructions, whacking the one in the middle while remembering the name they had been given and stopping and starting as the instructions demanded.

“When one of the circle made a mistake, they had to go in the centre and the other child returned to the ‘whacking’ ring.’ (With much relief, one imagines. It is reminiscent of the final stage of the circular game, The Farmer Wants a Wife, when, the farmer had chosen his wife, his child, his nurse, his dog and his bone, and all the children closed in on that last poor unfortunate chanting ‘We All Beat the Bone, We All Beat the Bone…’)

The newspapers, observes Mary, were soon reduced to flitters and her mother-in-law would be left to clean up. But a generation later, Sean introduced their own children to Bellsy Bay, and she in turn was left to clear up the scraps and bits of the Echo. “Happy days with simple fun. I wonder if any other readers ever played Bellsy Bay?”

When hula hoops came in, they rapidly became the new “must-have” and many were the techniques and expedients used to secure the necessary funds (was it around 3/6d?).

Kate O’Brien remembers deliberately waiting until Christmas Eve to go into Woolworth’s with her two best friends to buy these new delights, counting the almighty struggle up and down the crowded stairs at the back of the store as part of the fun. “Well, it was fun for us back then, although I don’t think the other harassed customers saw it that way!”

Yo-yos were an instant success too, with both Woolworth’s and Kilgrew’s stocking them. This was where Ger Fitzgibbon bought his, recalling that making them do all the tricks demonstrated so easily by the salesman wasn’t as easy as it seemed.

“You were lucky if you could even get them to go up and down, let alone run along the floor or things like that.”

There were even demonstrations between the films at the Savoy, encouraging even more children to beg or borrow the money to buy one.

Most of all, though, your memories speak of games in the open air, whether in the streets or out in the countryside. It was safer to play in the streets of Cork back then, with far less traffic and also far less worry about children falling over and hurting themselves.

It was quite acceptable for someone to straggle home with a cut knee or bumped elbow, and nobody thought anything of it. “Toughen ‘em up”, as a dad might comment.

This writer can recall tree climbing being part of her life since toddler days. We had a father who couldn’t pass a tree without shinning up it, and naturally we followed suit.

The basic techniques were learned on a hardy old apple tree in the garden, which had branches just the right height for swinging from one to the other, giving us strong and supple arms.

Shilling Stores (here Variety Stores) in Daunt's Square , Cork city, in 1967. Picture: Richard Mills
Shilling Stores (here Variety Stores) in Daunt's Square , Cork city, in 1967. Picture: Richard Mills

Then we followed dad into the countryside and learned the scary system of crossing rivers by moving hand over hand, out along a long branch over the running water, and hopefully reaching the other side as it bowed low under our weight. Yes, we did get wet. Often. He didn’t, of course. Led a charmed life to the end, old Joey Kerrigan did.

A famous family anecdote concerns a well-known undertaking firm in Glanmire. The son, aged around 50 at the time, went out for the day with my dad, who was then in his 70s, and returned home at evening with soaked clothing, a badly cut knee, and trousers ripped beyond repair. “That’s the last time you go out playing with Kerrigan!” expostulated his 80-year-old dad. And he meant it too.

The thing was that children in the 1950s and early ’60s played with whatever they could find or make or occasionally afford to buy. They were creative, making forts from scraps of wood, imagining entire encampments among the trees, fitting up houses and shops in a vacant corner of the garden, making the top of a tree the mainmast of a pirate ship.

They were learning group interaction too, through the ball games and skipping, and following strict rules of behaviour in a particular game.

If you had shown them the modern child, ensconced in his bedroom with an electronic game or staring at Facebook, they would have been perplexed. How could that compare with the summer games of their own world?

Last year, we drove through a large housing estate on the outskirts of the city. It was a fine summer’s day, but there wasn’t a child to be seen anywhere on the invitingly open spaces, the clean pavements, even on the doorsteps.

What has happened to the wonderful world of yesteryear?

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