Sunday, 10 June 2007

Growing up in inner-city Dublin

Some people have the impression that families reared in working class areas are neglected, or dragged up by their parents. I suppose I did nothing to help change this image by the mere fact of ending up on heroin, but we had quite a strict upbringing when we were young kids. Our home was old-fashioned, my parents were very conservative, and we had a lot of routine and order in the house. We didn’t have a lot but we had enough to get by. When you are a child, you never think too much about your own home. I certainly never did. I was too busy having fun. I took our life for granted because I knew no different.

Ma made us all sit down to dinner together when we were young. We had to be in bed at certain times, and we had our curfew. Saturdays were our bath days and you had to have a bath whether you wanted to or not. That was great. I loved the structure of home life. I always knew what was about to happen. I loved my large family even though it had its disadvantages.

For example, we all slept in bunk beds, and it got a bit cramped as we got bigger. When I think back on it I wonder how my parents coped. We were everywhere. We did everything together and we went everywhere together. The house was always full of children.

Our flat had three bedrooms. Ma and Da lived in the front room, looking out over the balcony, and our bedrooms were in the back. It was all the girls together and all the boys together.

My parents Mary O’Brien and Patrick O’Toole were working class people, and like me, they were also real townies. Ma grew up on Mountjoy Square and Da was from the tenements nearby in Summerhill. They met as teenagers and got married after a few years. They were close at first, but things started to go wrong a few years into their marriage.

Da was a drinker; one who went on binges. He mightn’t drink at all for a few weeks, then suddenly he’d lapse and go on a big binge. Because he didn’t drink everyday, he couldn’t recognise the fact that he had a drink problem.

He worked at the boats on the docks for a long time but work dried up and they let him go. He did a coal run for a while after that, but then he stopped working. After that, he done bits and pieces here and there, but nothing was really permanent.

He was a broken man cos he didn’t work regularly. He came from a very traditional family set-up where the man was the provider while the woman stayed at home and reared the children. When he couldn’t live up to this ideal, and as we got older and less controllable, he turned to the drink more and more.

Drink destroyed Da and my family. He lost his personality when he had drink on him. He wrecked his health and body, and was a different man when he went on the booze. There was no talking to him.

Every few weeks he would promise Ma that he’d stop. He would stay dry for a while but he would always fall off the wagon. He’d go on binges, then get a job on a building site, and then he’d hit the booze again. He got worse as he got older and trouble came into the family.

The last job he had was in the IFSC, doing security. It was a form of escape for him. He’d be there on his own, watching television, drinking a few cans. He was happy then. He died because of drink. He got ulcers and they burst. Despite all the hurt and pain he brought to the family, I miss him terribly; I know we all do.

* * *

Ma and Da didn’t really have a relationship or a marriage after a while. They just lived together for our sake. They were just two people living together who got along sometimes, but mostly they argued and fought. I think that’s the best way of describing their marriage after we started to go astray.

They were so busy trying to rear the seven of us that they left no time for each other. They came and went all the time.

When they weren’t fighting, they just existed alongside each other. Any love that had once been between them was long gone by the time I was old enough to realise it. I don’t know why they didn’t separate or leave home. I suppose they didn’t because they had nowhere to go, or maybe they stayed together because of us. I don’t know the answer to that question. But I know one thing for sure. Although they often weren’t able to show it, they both loved us; I just wish they loved each other more.

My parents made sure we had everything. We never went to school without our lunch. We never went without toys or schoolbooks, even though there were seven of us. I was bang smack in the middle of the family, and from an early age, I never felt like I fully belonged to either group. Debbie was the oldest with Olivia and Anthony close behind. You could say we were like slices of bread — one came after the other. There’s just a year between all of us. Then there was me, with Gary, Lindsay and Ryan close behind. While I was growing up, the question that forever occupied my mind was who I should play with. Should I go with the oldies or the young ones? We were all close in age, but we were also very close friends.

If I ever had a problem with anyone, Olivia or Debbie would be down like a shot to sort it out for me. They looked after me and the younger ones growing up. We were that sort of family. We were close. If you messed with one, you messed with us all.

My parents always looked after us no matter how bad things were between them. I have to say, though, that Ma did most of the work. When we were living in Saint Laurence’s Street there was only two bedrooms, and all the kids were in a single bed. We hadn’t got a bed when we were eight and nine months old so she used to put us in a chest of drawers. That’s how she survived.

Life gave her a raw deal. You could say it gave the people of the inner city a raw deal. Ma did what she had to do. She used to have to go in to her next-door neighbour and ask for a lend of half a shilling or half a crown to get us beans on toast or something like that. There were times she hadn’t got a penny. Da would be out drinking and she had nothing.

When it got to the point that they weren’t coping financially any more, she ended up shoplifting. It started off innocently, robbing messages from the shops, some milk and butter. When she realised that she was actually very good at it, she became more brazen and started doing all her ‘shopping’ in this fashion. She got away with it for a while, but she eventually got nicked, and went to prison several times for it.

It wasn’t until I was much older that I discovered she had been one of the best shoplifters in Dublin. It’s not something that she is proud of but she was so good, that at one point the security guards used to call her the Weed, because she could sneak in and out without them noticing. Ma doesn’t talk about those days now.

She stopped shoplifting a long time ago, and it was only when I got older and wiser that I realised what she was doing. She robbed to make ends meet and looked on it as a means to an end. She thought it was the only way, so she did what she felt she had to do to provide for her family and children.

At Christmas time she’d make a list of what we wanted, and then she would go down the country to do some ‘shopping’. She’d come back with our presents; Levi jeans, runners — everything we’d asked for and more. At the time, I didn’t know what was going on. At first, I thought she was making a list of what we wanted so she could give it to Santa. After that, I thought she was making the list so she’d know what to buy us herself. It was only when I got older that I realised she wasn’t buying these things, and neither was Santa. She was robbing them.

I have clear memories of her going off to Wales to make money from robbing. She would go on a day trip to Holyhead, fleece the place, and come back with thousands of pounds worth of cigarettes and drink. That’s how we had everything we needed growing up.

It was inevitable that she would get caught. You can’t get away with that type of thing forever. She was in and out of prison throughout my childhood, but Da always took good care of us while she was away. Although he was very fond of a drink, when she wasn’t around he stepped in to fill her shoes. It was only when she came back that he allowed himself to fall to pieces and to start binge-drinking again. He used to say to us, your Ma is gone away for a while, but we didn’t understand where she was, or why.

He really did his best for us. Sometimes, he’d bring us to see her in prison. We’d all walk up from SheriffStreet to go and see her in Mountjoy Prison. Debbie and Olivia would visit her every week but it was too hard for her having all the younger kids there as well. She’d be broken hearted, so it was only every now and then that we went up.

At the time, physical contact was allowed between the prisoners and visitors, so Ma found it very hard to let go of us when it was time to leave. I was too young to understand what was happening and I used to play with the toys they had there to keep the kids busy. I hardly paid any attention to Ma, until it was time to leave. I used to cry then when we had to leave because I didn’t want to leave her behind.

I wanted her to come home with us, and I’d realise that I’d hardly spent any time talking to her. After an hour we were all gathered up and told to say goodbye. When we’d get home in the evening, I’d be wondering why Ma hadn’t come home with us. Why did she stay behind? I would get upset then and worried about her being on her own, even though she had a lot of friends in there with her.

I can only imagine how she must have felt. I don’t believe that any woman would ever want to leave her children. I never stopped worrying about her when she was inside.

That was only natural cos, as a close family, we always worried about each other and looked out for each other. Children have short memories though, and we just continued with our football and our games and it never seemed long before she was home again.

In a strange way, things were peaceful when she was gone, because Da didn’t have anyone to fight with. We were too young to be doing anything to really annoy him, but if we did, he was quite good at dishing out discipline.

He always made sure we were clean and were ready for school. We never missed a day of primary school because of him. We could have been dying of the ‘flu but he’d still get us up out of bed. They were important things at the time. He tried to keep a structure in our lives, but it probably wasn’t enough to keep us together. It would be difficult for any man to raise seven children in inner city Dublin on his own, never mind someone with a drink problem.

Ma was only ever in prison for three months, or perhaps six months at a time. Once she was in Holloway prison after she got caught shoplifting with her friend. She’d be in and out of jail all the time and overall, she spent 10 years behind bars. It was always good having her around, until she got sent away again.

You might ask if I’m embarrassed about this now. I’m not. I’m proud of my Ma. I can see that she’s got strength of character. She had to feed her children, and she didn’t shirk her responsibility. She did what she had to to survive. - Julie O'Toole, author of Heroin

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