SEAN O’Sullivan read our Throwback Thursday feature last week on Bonfire Night and immediately sent us his own memories of June 23.
“Work on collecting material for the fire began a few weeks in advance of the night itself,” he recalls. Wood of course, dry branches, old off-cuts and the like, were snatched up, but he and his pals had other, less innocent sources too.
“We lived on Wallace Avenue in Ballinlough, which was then on the outskirts of the city. It was considered that tyres were a great asset to any fire, and it so happened that on the Ballinlough Road at that time was a tyre remould depot, Fit Kilkenny Remoulds.
“Now that was a prime target for any tyres that might have been left out, or might not have been under lock and key.
"Word always seemed to arrive by bush telegraph that there were tyres ‘outside’ and a quickly-chosen crew would be swiftly dispatched to secure as many as possible.”
The only way to manoeuver these bulky heavy trophies, he explains, was to roll or ‘hoop’ them to wherever the site of the proposed bonfire was, or else to a secure hideaway.
“Groups from other areas would also have their look-outs out and about for the tyres, lads from Lower Ballinlough, Ardfallen, Beechwood, and even as far away as Albert Road.”
Sean’s abiding memory concerns a massive tractor tyre en route to Albert Road.
“It was let loose, or else made a bid for escape at the top of Wallace Avenue, and careered down the hill, across the four-road cross with the Boreenmanna Road, and on down Victoria Avenue with a gang of young fellows chasing after it, managing at last to get their hands on it, and taking it back to where they were planning their bon-ah. No cars were damaged in the chase, fortunately!”
Fires, he recalls, would be held in the Dump on Victoria Avenue, Old Glenanaar tennis club, the Bank in Beechwood Drive, the old Douglas Nurseries (now the site of the Gus Healy swimming pool), and the Boggy (now Kennedy Park). “Whatever the location, the spot would be black for weeks after the fire. There would be no football in that section.”
The best bonfire ever, considers Sean, was in Altona, now Yorkboro.
“Not sure of the year (late ’60s, early ’70s) but members of Loudest Whisper (I think) lived on the Ballinlough Road and rigged up a sound system in their garden and played a gig.
"It was great and seemed to go on all night, but in reality it was probably all over by 11pm.”
Tom Harding has some rather explosive memories of Bonfire Night in 1950s Cork, recalling: “I do remember throwing a handful of bullets into the fire and telling everyone to duck!”
At our astonished query, he explained that live bullets seemed to be easy to get in those days and he often had pockets full of them.
“I suppose I got them from a boy in school whose father was a fairly senior army officer,” says Tom. “I took it as normal.
“My own father once found an IRA cache in the grounds of UCC, and they would ‘play’ by placing bullets on the tram tracks on Washington Street (where he then lived). Innocent days. It’s a wonder anyone survived!”
Summer days, and if the weather was good (didn’t it always seem to be so in those far-off days of childhood?) there were so many things to do, places to explore, in a world where the city was still small and the countryside only round the next bend in the road.
Water was considered essential for a good day out, whether for paddling, catching tiddlers, sailing boats or going for a dip. Many’s the child went home distinctly damp after playing too enthusiastically in the stream at Goulding’s Glen.
Others went further afield.
“We first went playing around in the water at the old weir at Inniscarra,” remembers my brother, Tom.
“My father would drive out and park along the road (you could back then) and the whole lot of us would bundle out and over the bank and across the fields to the weir. It was a good place to splash and get wet because it wasn’t too deep below the weir.
“I remember my father experimenting with staying below water in the deeper pool above the weir. He had an old army canvas water bucket and put that over his head so he would be able to stay down longer. I think he got about four minutes out of it, but of course he couldn’t see anything.”
The best place of all for a swim, though, says Tom, was Loo Bridge, just over the county bounds in Kerry.
“There were big smooth boulders in the river, and you could slide off them into pools, which were never too cold. My father showed me one pool where you could dive down and go underneath an arch of rocks and up into another pool. I did that and my sister got an awful fright when I disappeared and then came up behind where she was peering down to look for me!”
Yes, this writer remembers her father explaining how easy it was to get past a water barrier in a cave.
“You just dive down, swim forward, and chances are you will find there is a gap at the bottom, and you will come up the other side where there will probably be air.”
Chances are… Probably! Dear heaven!
This was before he unearthed an ancient diving suit, complete with helmet, on the Coal Quay (where else?) and tried that out at Lough Ine. But that’s another story.
Meanwhile, Eileen has fond memories of Bealathanamorrive out near Dripsey.
“It was great. You walked down through the woods and came to a secret lake with a waterfall cascading into it. It looked like a fairytale. It didn’t do to go too close to the waterfall, because the force of the water had pushed away the stones at the bottom and it was really really deep there.
“I brought lengths of wood with me once, to try and gauge the depth, but couldn’t do it. We thought it was bottomless!”
Others swear by the frighteningly-named Hell Hole, out by the Angler’s Rest.
“Most of it was fairly safe, but there were these very deep holes in it which gave it its name,” says Eddie.
Most of this was splashing and playing, though. For real swimming, the sea was the place. Trouble was (still is) that even its own mother couldn’t claim that Irish sea water is balmy. Alaskan would be more like it.
Yes, we do realise that there are staunch and stalwart bathers out there who regularly go for a dip, even at Christmas, but for most of us, it was far too cold — even on a warm summer’s day.
“Oh, I well remember the effort of trying to ‘get down’ and get wet all over at once,” shivers Elaine. “It actually burned your skin, it was so cold.
“The tough boys dived off the rocks but that must have given the risk of a heart attack, it was so freezingly cold!”
In later years, travelling abroad gave Elaine the delightful experience of bathing in warm water. “It was a whole new world, all of a sudden. No need to fear the chill any more!”
The outdoor baths on the Lee Fields, opened in 1934, proved an oasis of summer amusement for generations of city kids. National swimming championships were held there too, attracting great crowds, and breathtaking exhibitions from the famous high diving board.
“I think men and women had specific separate days,” recalls Eddie.
“No, says his pal, Donal, “there was a big fuss about it at the time because only males were allowed. I don’t think they ever allowed the girls a day to themselves.”
Can readers enlighten us on this sexist point?
Those outdoor baths are now no more, but Eglinton Street Indoor Baths (opened way back in 1901) were hugely popular, especially during the summer months. This was where Katie, her sister, their cousins and their friends learned to swim.
“When I think of it now, it’s the strong smell of chlorine that comes back to me! A foggy glass roof, shrieks and splashing, and this chlorine smell everywhere. It was in your hair, on your towel, all the way home.”
Katie remembers getting an inflatable rubber ring with a horse’s head for her summertime birthday one year. “It even had rubber reins, and I loved it to bits! It was almost as good as having my own horse. I taught myself to swim wearing that, and then one day at the baths just left it on the side and took off without it, and it worked! I could swim!”
Those baths have vanished too, replaced by a car park, and only the name of the street remains by the City Hall. “Gosh the women in charge were harridans!” recalls Katie. “When it was near to closing time, they would yank aside the tattered curtains covering the cubicles and yell ‘Dress yerselves!’
“Still, I suppose they had to be strict. All those kids shrieking and splashing and enjoying themselves. Of course there were no such conveniences as hair-dryers back then, so if you had long locks, you did the best you could with your damp towel and then just went home with a wet head.”
Jane remembers going to the swimming galas at Eglinton Street.
“They were held in the evening, and you really went to see the stars of Christians and Pres diving! I remember the Wheltons were outstanding swimmers. And there would always be a fun episode where someone all dressed up fell in and was shrieking for help, and a kid would dive neatly from the edge of the pool and lifesave him!”
Her memories are echoed by Kevin, who always made a point of going to the girls’ swimming galas to talent spot!
Did you frequent the Lee Baths or Eglinton Street? What local river or stream was your favourite spot for paddling? What small strand by the sea? Robert’s Cove or Crosshaven? Email us your memories at firstname.lastname@example.org.