Throwback Thursday: Holidays, the Ritz, and polio epidemic in Cork

Jo Kerrigan recalls long-ago summer holidays, Jimmy Cagney at the Ritz, and life in 1940s Cobh, in this edition of Throwback Thursday
Throwback Thursday: Holidays, the Ritz, and polio epidemic in Cork

COMMUNITY IN FEAR: The Blessing of children at Holy Trinity Church, Cork, in July, 1956, at the height of the polio epidemic, seeking divine intervention to keep them safe

SEAN O’Sullivan, who featured in that photo of the Youghal excursion train in last week’s Throwback Thursday, is wondering where his sister was when the picture was taken.

“She is three years younger than me, so looking at the picture, it’s hard to work out why my mother and I are on our own. Maybe it was a Wednesday half-day excursion?” he wonders.

Sean does remember that the family did spend time in Youghal.

“It was probably a fortnight, at Summerfield Cross, in a chalet, when we were young. In the evening time, my father and I would walk to Claycastle around by the train station and back out to Summerfield.

“The highlight of the walk was sitting on the bridge and watching the train pass underneath on its way to Cork.

“A number of years later, we graduated to a bungalow in Ardmore where we spent our Julys. I think we went there for about 12 years. Mostly the same families went year in year out, and nearly always to the same houses, bungalows and chalets. Things didn’t change much back then, not like now. And yes, the summers were always sunny and dry when we were there!”

Chris Cotter at the age of one, wearing a dapper outfit which had been sent by friends in America. Here, he recalls a trip to the Ritz to see Jimmy Cagney in Yankee Doodle Dand
Chris Cotter at the age of one, wearing a dapper outfit which had been sent by friends in America. Here, he recalls a trip to the Ritz to see Jimmy Cagney in Yankee Doodle Dand

Chris Cotter was interested in our feature on the grand old Ritz cinema, which was demolished 30 years ago this month, although he couldn’t help us out on our enquiry as to whether the place was haunted.

“I never saw the ghost,” says Chris, “but I do remember being taken to the Ritz by my mother to see Jimmy Cagney in Yankee Doodle Dandy, when I could not have been more than four years old.

“It was my first experience of cinema and on returning to my grandmother’s house in Cobh I gave an impromptu demonstration of step dancing, after requisitioning the kitchen table as my stage. It goes without saying that I brought the house down.”

Chris obligingly supplied us with a delightful picture of himself as a toddler, smartly dressed in an outfit which had been sent by friends in America.

His mother, Sarah (Sally), he tells us, had an interesting back story. “She had emigrated to America when she was a young woman, and over a period of 15 years in Boston had become an American citizen. She was engaged to be married until, sadly, her fiancé died.

“She had returned to Cobh on visits to see her mother, but after that loss she came back, and eventually married my father in 1938. I was born a year later.”

It isn’t clear, says Chris, if her mother had known his father before she emigrated, or if she had met him on one of her return visits, “but the family story is that he wrote to her and suggested that as her fiancé had died she might as well come home and marry him. Which she did!”

Chris’s father had been discharged from the Free State army and British Navy respectively because of health issues, and was working as a cellar man in a London restaurant prior to the war.

“After their marriage, my mother joined him in London. When war seemed inevitable, in 1939, my then-pregnant mother returned to Cobh where, I am pleased to say, I was born. That was a drama in itself, which I must record for posterity some time!”

Chris and his mother stayed on in Cobh until the war was over, and then his father came across to take them back to London.

“I have a very clear memory of his arrival and going down to meet him. I remember my mother pushing me towards a group of passengers in Kent Station and being told to give my daddy a kiss, and me plaintively asking ‘which one is my daddy?’”

Chris has remained living in the UK ever since.

He says: “I’ve been here for the last 75 years, but I am forever a Cobher and Corkman, returning whenever I can.”

He is currently writing a memoir of his life — including that dramatic tale of his birth, which we are all longing to hear.

Chris explains: “It’s primarily for my grandchildren, and I would encourage everyone to try and leave some kind of personal history for future generations. 

"We took it all for granted growing up, but today’s kids have no idea of the lives we led then.”

We couldn’t agree more, Chris. Even the kind of toffee bar you used to buy, the price of chocolate, the cost of a bag of chips — all this is the kind of information today’s historians long to find.

Pat Hillgrove wrote in response to our mention of Mystery Train Tours, with a very interesting recollection.

“I can remember going to Galway on the mystery train. It was during the polio epidemic in Cork, and I vividly recall that not all of the restaurants in Galway would serve us hungry hordes when they realised we came from Cork, which was regarded at that time as the Polio Capital of Ireland!”

Pat Hillgrove aged about seven. He recalls a Mystery Train Tour to Galway during the polio epidemic
Pat Hillgrove aged about seven. He recalls a Mystery Train Tour to Galway during the polio epidemic

It’s interesting to note that excursion trains still ran, even during such a serious epidemic.

The Hillgrove family moved up to the city from Youghal around 1910/1911, Pat continues.

“My father was the only one born in Cork. After a few moves they ended up living in a flat over a pub in Grattan Street called Brick’s. That was knocked down to make way for the registrar office that stands there now.

“My father was born in 1912. He was friendly with one of the sons of the publican, Tim Brick. He became an officer in the Irish Army.”

Pat’s grandfather died in the 1930s, and his grandmother and her two sons (Pat’s father, Tom, and uncle, William,) moved to 6, Sheares Street.

When Tom married, he took over the two top rooms in the Sheares Sreet house. “Then his brother got married to my mother’s sister: two brothers married to two sisters, and all sharing the house with my grandmother!”

Pat was born in August, 1945, and grew up playing in the surrounding streets, which were then far quieter and safer than they are today.

“An early memory is of what I think was the first set of traffic lights in Cork, between South Main Street and Washington Street. 

"There was always a garda on duty as well, because you couldn’t trust the electric bulbs.

“We, the local lads, would sneak up and press the Cross Now button and then run away. We would get chased by the garda but were never caught, because we knew all the escape routes.”

Tuckey Street, though, was a no-go area, he affirms.

“The Masons had their headquarters there, and we were told (and firmly believed) that they kidnapped Catholic boys. We had no idea what they would have done with us, but it couldn’t be good, so we kept well clear.

“On a recent Heritage Open Day, I went into the building at last, and on my tour I told my guide the story. He got a great kick out of it!”

The Marsh, recalls Pat, was a very different place in the 1950s.

“I can see even now that man with a deformed leg who made his living buying Fords boxes, breaking them up on the street, and making little bundles of sticks to help get a fire started.

“You had no fire lighters then. Boxes were still being broken up even in the summer, because fires still had to be lit to do the cooking. A lot of that was still done on open fires.”

There may well be some younger readers of this page who don’t even know where the Marsh is, and yet it played such a large role in the childhood of many Corkonians. Tell us your own memories of the Marsh area!

In 1956, remembers Pat, came that polio epidemic. After the excitement of the Galway train trip and the less-than-welcoming restaurants, came the extension of the summer school holidays because of the continuation of the epidemic (sound familiar?)

“We were warned to keep away from the water, so it wasn’t as free a time as we could have wished,” says Pat. “No swimming, no fishing: at 11 years of age, I found my life very restricted. So us lads came up with a Grand Plan: we would make a boat.”

Timber and tar paper were acquired from their Ford Box friend (who, of course, knew nothing about the boys’ plans for it).

“We made a boat frame and covered it with the tar paper. Then, one fine morning we struck off to the start of the Straight Road where the County Hall is now. Back then there was a small stream/river flowing there. The ideal spot to launch our great ship.”

Gently the craft was slipped into the water, the crew being careful not to get themselves wet, “and lo and behold, it floated!”

Then came the big discussion: who would have the honour of boarding her first?

“Eventually one lad volunteered and got in carefully, standing on the timber struts. We pushed him out to mid-stream, but a few minutes later disaster struck — the ship sank in 15/20 inches of water, with the brave sailor shouting ‘I’ll get Polio now!’

“We had all been threatened by our mothers, KEEP AWAY FROM WATER, DON’T GET WET! If you do you will get Polio!”

And so the inventive landlubbers took off at speed, down the Mardyke to Sheares Street and home. “That was the end of our sailing lives, but anyway, not one of us got the virus!”

Pat and Chris, thank you for sharing your wonderful memories. There must be so many other recollections of childhood summers tucked away in readers’ minds. Dig them out, and send them to us! Email jokerrigan1@gmail.com.

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