A Sing Song

‘Gus’ whose given name was Owen Augustus; lived along the avenue he was a contemporary of my parents. He always dressed in a Magee three piece single-breasted suit with turn-ups on the trousers and black soft Lee boots. Originally from Ballydehob near Skibbereen in County Cork, he was the youngest child in a household of women. Already established in Dublin when my father arrived he took daddy under his wing, they worked together and stayed in the same digs for a number of years.

Once married, Gus brought his sweetheart from Cork to join him in Dublin. They lived in the same house for all their married life. I was well into my teens before I discovered that their childless existence was not one of choice. There were in fact four or five babies in the early years, all ‘blue’ and nearly 70 years ago with no knowledge of the cause or how to deal with this situation all the infants died soon after birth.

We became their family; Gus and his wife were regulars at our fireside at least twice a week, and for all high days and holidays. Once supper was over Gus produced his pipe and all the paraphernalia that went with it. The ritual of preparing the straight stemmed short bowl pipe for smoking began. The upturned bowl was tapped on his hand, scraped with the little silver gadget, tapped once more before blowing through the stem. Only when he was satisfied that all was clear did Gus produce the envelope of St Bruno. A strip was removed from the tobacco and rubbed between his hands, then slowly and gently packed into the bowl. There followed the striking and lighting of several matches with deep sucking and inhaling before Gus was satisfied the tobacco had taken light. Once lit, the pipe remained in his mouth for the rest of the night, caught in his teeth as he added to a conversation.

Being the pre-television era, the entertainment around the fire often turned to song. Nothing pleased Gus as much as joining in as his wife sang for Ireland. She had at least one song for each county and knew all 32 verses of each one! While his wife sang like a bird, alas Gus oblivious to the fact that he had only one note, hummed along off key from the ‘Banks of my own lovely Lee’ through the ‘Gold Galtee Mountains’, round ‘Galway Bay’ to ‘Ballyjamesduff’ and on for some ‘Londonderry Air’, turning through the ‘Green Glens of Antrim’ to where ‘The Mountains of Mourne sweep down to the Sea’ past the ‘County of Armagh’, before returning to ‘Dublin’s Fair City’!

Suddenly he would realise the time and jump up calling to his wife “Nora, the bed, the bed! The bed will be on fire!” In winter time before the days of central heating they switched on the electric blanket and set it to low before going out for the evening! Thankfully they never required the services of the Fire Brigade.

Once the coats were donned it took at least half an hour for them to leave. There were always a few last thoughts or arrangements to be sorted before they walked to their little Ford Anglia parked outside on the road. We all stood at the door to wave them on their way. At this stage my brothers started to make revving noises reminiscent of those heard at the beginning of a Grand Prix Motor race. They were only echoing those from the car as Gus put his foot on the accelerator and pressed it to the floor, revving several times before taking a couple of kangaroo jumps and finally waving and heading off down the road!

28 thoughts on “A Sing Song

  1. You tell it so well, GM.

    I can almost picture the scene like an old black and white movie.

    It’s so sad that Gus and Nora never got the opportunity to raise a family of their own. I find it heartbreaking to think of the grief they must have suffered with each baby lost.

    I presume it was a congenital heart problem or possibly the Rh factor to blame?

  2. What a lovely memory and you tell it so well Granny. I can nearly smell the pipe and feel the warmth of the fireside. Gorgeous.

  3. @Steph – When we meet people in life,particularly the older generations, we make assumptions about them before we know the back story. I never remember Gus & Nora being sad, but then I was a child and dearly loved by both of them.

    The reason for the babies being ‘blue’ was never discussed. I imagined it was due to the Rh factor. Would they have known about that 70 years ago?

    @Annie – When I think about Gus I too smell the pipe! The heat from the fire was wonderful … on your front, while your back was frozen!

    @Daisy – Glad you enjoyed it.

  4. That was wonderful in the reading of it, Grannymar. I’m so sorry about their babies, and happy they had your family as friends.

  5. Sadness aside, and your family will have gone some way to counteracting that, this reminds me of so many of “the older generation” Great Uncle Teddy, who couldn’t stand exaggeration, and who made his own ( and everyone elses) fence posts, my father’s brother Uncle Walter whom I only learned about for my wedding (father being dead) and my father. They all smoked pipes from time to time and each had their own favourite tobacco…Teddy had St Bruno, Walter had something different and my father had Honey Dew, Balkan Sobranie for Christmas and if he could find it an American import called Edgeworth.

    However none of the sang or had wives that sang. As kids we had Radio and, for treats, the wind-up gramophone.

    Gus and his wife were part of a tradition that many of us respect and treasure.

    Just think ….when we are the “older generation” will people have memories like that of us I wonder?

    I used to wear Magee suits back in the 70s…bought in Henry Taylor’s in Walthamstow….. great cloth always!

  6. @Judy – Glad you enjoyed it.

    @Magpie – Off the top of my head I just counted eight people I know that smoked pipes. The pipes, tobaccos & rituals were as varied and unique as the owners.

  7. I can’t think of a single pipe smoker I knew. I did, at some point, smell the aroma of a pipe smoker and it was most pleasant, unlike the smell of cigarettes.

  8. They sound like hugely enjoyable evenings. And that certainly brings back memories – Ford Anglias, pipe-cleaning rituals, pre-TV amusements, electric blankets. It all sounds so primitive now!

    I’ve just read a Tree Grows in Brooklyn and stillborn babies feature very heavily. Apparently one reason was they just needed to be given oxygen but the doctors didn’t realise.

  9. Grannymar

    I’ve done a little bit of research into the Rhesus factor antigen for you.

    It appears that it was first introduced in the 1960’s so sadly your family friends would not have had access to treatment (presuming that Rh factor incompatibility was their downfall).

    Rhesus incompatibility occurred (pre-antigen days) after a Rh negative mother had given birth to a Rh positive baby. It affected future pregnancies.

    This has made me realise how lucky I am to be alive as my mother was Rh negative and gave birth to four healthy babies (pre-1960) despite also having no access to the Rh antigen. My twin brother is Rh positive but I’m Rh negative so in theory my mother’s immune system could have affected the pregnancy.

    By the time I started to have babies, the Rh antigen was available to all Rh negative mothers. My first baby was Rh positive so I received the antigen to prevent me developing antibodies to any further Rh positive babies. However, inexplicably, I still went on to miscarry my next two pregnancies and was treated with the Rh antigen on both occasions. When I finally became pregnant again, I developed further problems and it was discovered that I had been carrying twins but sadly only one heartbeat remained. That heartbeat is now my lovely 18 year old daughter who thankfully, is Rh positive.

    I just wish that Gus and Nora could have enjoyed a similar outcome.

  10. Steph

    Thanks for all the research. What a complicated health map you have.

    Thankfully you were able to have, hold and rear such precious gifts and now watch as they unfurl their wings to freedom.

  11. Lovely memory Grannymar. My Nana had two babies who died after she had my mother due to being RH-. I’m also RH- but fortunately had access to D immunoglobulin after delivering both children.

    My father went through a pipe smoking phase but had a nasty habit of biting the end off the things! (and I’m not too young to remember a Ford Anglia either!)

  12. What a lovely memory. Thanks for sharing…it make one recall things long forgotten in their own past.

  13. What a lovely story well told.

    It clearly brings back memories to many of us as we think about people we’ve known. My granda used to smoke a pipe now and then and I loved the smell. He was a formidable man, I loved him lots and feared him a little. He used to sing Danny Boy beautifully but only on very special occasions.

    I’m Rh neg too and very grateful to the advances in science that have protected my children.

  14. Thank you Sharon.
    I love the way these little stories unlock memories for other people.

  15. GM:
    Beautifully told, a chara. You brought back memories to me of Granda and his pipe and me sitting on his lap while he sang sean nos. RTE (radio) might be interested in broadcasting this story, worth a try, it is truly evocative of those childhood evenings around our fireside in Cork.
    PS and who can forget the chilblains????

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