The Christmas half-crown

My old friend, who died some years ago, was born in the Workhouse.

My old friend, who died some years ago, was born in the Workhouse.

His birth coincided with the birth pangs of the new Irish State. He was born into a category of citizenship then described as “out of wedlock.” Although his mother’s name was shown on his birth certificate, his father’s identity was given as “unknown.”

The then poor law authorities of the Workhouse arranged a foster mother for him. She was a young childless widow, whose husband had been killed in the early months of World War I. She was a warm loving woman. He became for her the child she never had, and she became for him a real mother - and that is how he always spoke of her - “my mother.”

In that trick (or maybe compensation) of old age, while he often could not remember what happened yesterday, he had almost total re-call of his childhood. He had a picture in his head of a woman, wearing a smart hat, who visited his home when he was about four or five.

She hugged him and kissed him and then she was gone.

He presumed, in retrospect, that she was his birth-mother, but though he was aware of her name, from his birth certificate, he never made any attempt to trace her, even when such research became subsequently possible.

Christmas seemed to be a time of coincidences in his life, and when he was 15 his foster mother died on Christmas Eve, by which time he had finished school and was in his first job, that of a messenger boy, a form of youth employment, and sometimes of exploitation, now unknown in Ireland.

But traumatic though that Christmas Eve was, yet another Christmas was seared in his memory. As an old man he recalled it in detail, giving it time and location and feeling. He thought it was the year of his First Holy Communion when he was seven years old.

It was a fact of his, and his foster mother’s, life that they always lived on the edges of insecurity. They existed from week to week. The Board of Health (as it was described in the new Ireland) made a small payment for his fosterage but the bulk of the household income came from a very small pension (a derisory sum) paid to his foster mother for the loss of her husband in the war. This came in the form of a cheque every week.

Translated into modern times, it was a bleak existence, but he never thought of it as such, and remembered his childhood as being very happy. It never occurred to him, even as an adult, that he was, in modern parlance, a victim, or that he was deprived.

But this particular Christmas Eve, he sensed that there was a crisis in his home. The second, and last post, had been delivered and there was no pension cheque. He remembered his foster mother taking him by the hand and together they walked into unfamiliar streets, areas of Clonmel where he had never been before. Looking back, he identified a three-storey house in Bolton Street, where they climbed the steps and they rang the door-bell. This was the house where Mr. Wolfe, the President of the St. Vincent de Paul Society - Ss. Peter & Paul’s Branch - lived.

Repeating bell-pushing and rat-tat-tatting on the door knocker seemed to echo a sort of emptiness. Mr. Wolfe was not at home. They walked for sometime around the adjacent streets, William Street, Morton Street, Upper Gladstone Street, Queen Street and returned to the big house in Bolton Street. More ringing and more knocking, but there was no opening of the door.

He sensed a certain desperation as they both made their way down Mary Street and into a busy O’Connell Street. There, his mother stopped to talk to another woman, who was obviously a friend. He grew impatient as they talked on and on but as the conversation was ending, the woman opened her purse, and then opened the young boy’s hand and placed in it a silver coin, a half crown. Then she closed his fingers over the coin. He clutched it tightly but was unaware of its value. At that time in Ireland a half-crown was a significant amount of money. There were eight of them in a pound Sterling.

The pair continued walking down O’Connell Street and when they reached the Main Guard, and were about to cross the road, his foster mother peeled back his fingers from the coin and told him she would take care of it for him, because he might lose it.

They had a meal the next day, and though he had forgotten what that consisted of, he never forgot his present from Santa Claus. It was a comic “The Adventure,” a predecessor of “The Dandy” and “The Beano.” He looked at the letters on the script, formed them into words, linked them with the colourful illustrations, and he disc overed that he could read.

It was a discovery which was to influence his life. He read the names over shops, the labels on packages, swopped comics with other boys. His foster mother took him to Clonmel Library, which was then housed in the old Vocational Schools (now Mulcahy House). There, he read all the schoolboy adventure stories on the shelves, moving on to Wild West Cowboy books, and then as he grew into adulthood he read his way through the great classics of 19th century English and Russian novelists, and then the Greek classics. He read philosophy, and history and all the great books which have so influenced the world. He talked about books with the same affection as one talks about old friends.

It is now an accepted cliche that some actions have unintended consequences. The woman who slipped that half-crown into an impatient child’s hand in O’Connell Street at Christmastime all those decades ago, could never have foreseen how her modest generosity could so influence and enhance the quality of his whole life.

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