Chapter Excerpt: Lost in Cabbagetown by Terry Burke - Dundurn
Apr 11, 2023

Chapter Excerpt: Lost in Cabbagetown by Terry Burke

Terry Burke has two previously published two memoirs about his time in the military. His latest release, Lost in Cabbagetown, is a little more personal in that it takes place during his childhood and adulthood, back when he had was forced to grow up too fast. If you enjoyed Angela's Ashes, check out the following excerpt from Lost in Cabbagetown below and order your copy from our website or your local bookstore!

Growing up on the south side of the River Liffey, near the heart of Dublin, in the first half of the 1950s, it’s a wonder any of us survived to tell the tale. My earliest recollections of Hogan Place are full of old, rat-infested tenements and dirty streets and narrow laneways strewn with fireplace cinders and pieces of broken furniture. Years of neglect and constant rain had left the cobblestone streets and narrow lanes around Hogan Place nothing more than a great patchwork of cracks and gaping, water-filled holes.

    My most vivid memories of Hogan Place are of those rare summer mornings when the sun would finally break through the gloom and give us a few hours of warmth. The clotheslines at the back of each flat would sag under the weight of newly laundered bedding. Everywhere I looked there were women carrying laundry, sweeping the steps, and draping mattresses and rugs on windowsills, trying to take advantage of the fresh air and sunshine.

    My mother, Molly, who we called Mamie, always seemed happiest on days like these. With all the windows and doors open to the warm breeze, there was no need to use the fireplace. While Mamie and my sisters busied themselves cleaning our flat, my older brother Fred and I would be sent down the block to see if Granny and Grandda O’Keefe needed any help with their cleaning.

    Our grandparents’ flat consisted of one large room, with a fourposter bed in the far corner and an old, rickety wooden table and some mismatched chairs placed next to the front window to catch the outside light. My grandparents rarely had a shilling to put in the gas meter, so most of the cooking was done over the fireplace in the corner.

    When we came through the door, my grandda would wave hallo from his armchair next to the fireplace. Mamie warned us ahead of time not to bother him. Grandda had been wounded in an artillery barrage during the Great War and still had small fragments of metal in both legs. Over the years the pain had only gotten worse. Now he rarely moved from his armchair. Mamie always told us not to be asking for anything, but after we’d dumped the ashes in the back garden and hauled a few buckets of water back up the three flights of stairs, Granny would insist we stay for some tea and a biscuit.

    By the time we got back home, our flat would be scrubbed clean and the dampness could be forgotten for a little while. Mamie would tell us to go off and play while she sat on the front steps, drinking her tea and waiting for the floors to dry. On days like this, it was good to see Mamie smile. She might complain when we tracked dirt into her nice clean flat, but she enjoyed all the noise and chaos you can only find in a house full of kids.

    Mamie hated when the flat was too quiet. Often we would come home to find her sitting alone, staring into the flames of the fireplace. The moment we walked in, she would busy herself, stoking the fire and pretending it was the smoke that had reddened her eyes. She would never cry in front of us, but every night before bed, she reminded us all to say a prayer for the brothers and sister we had lost.

    Those days of warmth and sunshine never lasted long. By early August, the weather would begin to change. The predawn fog would come rolling up the River Liffey and blanket the entire neighbourhood. Hardly a day would pass without rain. Almost every morning from September to June, the sky would turn slate grey as another line of thunderclouds came in from the Irish Sea. For the young and old, there was no escaping the sickness brought on by the constant dampness. By midwinter, influenza and pneumonia would be taking its toll on the people of Hogan Place.

    If there was one thing that Hogan Place had, it was an abundance of people. In the early morning we could listen to the women talking and shouting to each other as they leaned out over the windowsills of their flats. Just before dawn, my father, Bill, would join the steady procession of men peddling their bicycles down the street, heading for the docks along the Liffey. When we looked out the front window just before first light, the street would be filled with tiny flickers of light from bicycle lamps shining through the rain and fog. The lucky few were going to work at one of the factories that dotted the landscape along both sides of the river. Like most of the men, my da was heading for the docks to see if he could get a day’s labour unloading cargo from any ships that had come in during the night.

    When the dock supervisor appeared just after dawn, there was already a crush of men, all pushing and shoving as they tried desperately to be one of the few picked from the crowd. The chosen ones were in for a day of back-breaking labour. If the cargo contained fruit or vegetables, no one dared slow down. All perishable goods had to be off the ship and loaded onto waiting trucks while they were still fresh enough for sale. Rain or shine, the workday ended only when it was too dark to see.

    At least these men would come home with a few shillings in their pocket. For the many left standing on the dock, it was just another day of failure. Most of them would spend the morning wandering the city streets. Anything was better than going home to face an angry wife and hungry children. By late afternoon most would be back in their usual spot on the front steps of the tenement. If someone had a Woodbine, it would be passed around until it was smoked down to the very last nub of tobacco. Always the talk turned to the feckin’ government or the feckin’ British or anyone else they could blame for their misfortune. My uncle Jack said that feckin’ Seán T. O’Kelly, the president of Ireland, and his government would be the ruin of us all.

    At the start of the month, the line at the labour exchange would form well before dawn. The dole money was barely enough to pay the rent and put a bit of food on the table, but somehow there were always a few pence left for a pint or two at Doolan’s Pub, down on the corner. By nightfall we could hear the wives and mothers cursing out the windows as their men stumbled down the lane, singing rebel songs.

    My da wasn’t a big man, but years of heavy labour had made him strong. Before the Second World War, he had always been able to find work on the docks. After the war, he was never quite the same. He never talked about his wartime experiences, but sometimes he joked about being one of the lucky ones. He hadn’t been wounded by bullets or shrapnel, but after years of fighting in the jungle of the Far East, he finally fell to malaria. He spent weeks in an army hospital in India before finally being discharged and shipped home to Ireland.

    Growing up, I didn’t see a lot of my da. When he was looking for work, he would leave around dawn and not return until after dark. If he’d made a few shillings unloading the boats, he might come home with a handful of carrots and potatoes in his pockets, and Mamie could make enough stew to last a week. The odd time, he would have a bag of overripe bananas that couldn’t be sold. Mamie would mush them into a pulp and make sandwiches we could take to school. If he wasn’t too tired after a long day’s work, Da would get down on the floor and we would all dive on him, wrestling and laughing until we were out of breath. He loved to hear us roar with laughter when he rubbed his stubby whiskers against our cheeks.

    My father was always a bit of a puzzle to me. He could be calm and understanding, but if we were caught lying or stealing, we were in for a walloping we wouldn’t soon forget. When I was five or six, he would often use his belt across my backside. After a few whacks it would be over. By the time I turned ten, he was using his fists to beat me down to the floor. Many times I remember curling up in a ball as his fists rained down on me. “I will teach you what happens to liars in this house!” Each word was punctuated with the blow of his fist.

    All I could do was wrap my arms around my head and try to protect my face. I would cry and beg him to stop, but the punches kept coming. Many times I thought he might have actually killed me if Mamie hadn’t stepped in to stop him. Da never raised a hand to my mamie or any of my sisters, but as he often told us, none of his sons would grow up to be liars or thieves.

    Sometimes Da could find steady work for months, but suddenly he’d have another relapse of malaria. Day after day Mamie sat by his bed, watching him shiver under the blankets and wiping the sweat from his face. “Don’t be worrying yourself about us. We will be fine,” she would say every time he asked.

    Sick or not, the landlord still wanted his rent and the greengrocer had to be paid. Mamie wanted Da to rest, but with the constant threat of eviction, he had no choice but to get back to work. But first he had to do something about his appearance. If he looked pale and rundown, the man in charge would simply pass him by. Smudging a little coal dust on his face and pinching some colour into his cheeks might be just enough to get picked from the crowd.

    The malaria and years of heavy labour had left Da with stooped shoulders and stiffness in his all his joints. His pale complexion and thinning hair gave him the appearance of a man much older than his forties.

    Even when Da was sick, Mamie made sure we didn’t go to bed hungry. Somehow she managed to stretch five pounds of oatmeal into enough porridge to last a week. With so many children to care for, her life was an unending struggle. Years of child-bearing had taken a toll on her health.

    Rosaleen was born in 1934, the first of twelve children. My brother Will followed two years later, and Michael two years after that. Michael was barely three pounds when he was born. Most of his early years were spent in and out of hospital with frequent bouts of pneumonia. Many times Mamie thought we were going to lose him, but each time he fought back. When he made his First Communion, at age seven, he had to be carried to the altar by one of the nuns. By age ten he had begun to put on some weight and Mamie didn’t have to spend every waking minute worrying about him.

    Mary Brigit came into the world a year after Michael was born. She was two months premature. She was a frail little thing who fought hard to stay alive. Just when it looked like she was going to be all right, the pneumonia set in. Mamie spent days trying to feed and comfort her and nights sleeping in a chair next to her crib. But as much as Mamie tried, Mary Brigit’s health continued to deteriorate. She was just six months old when she died.

    All Mamie could do was wrap her tiny body in a blanket and wait for the doctor to arrive. Death among the very young was not uncommon in those days. Sometimes it would take days for the doctor to come and sign the death certificate.

    Soon after the doctor left, a small wooden box with a crucifix was delivered to the house. It was left to my father to carefully place her in the box. Late that night, once the children were asleep, he nailed the lid shut on Mary Brigit’s coffin. Early the next morning, Da placed the coffin between the handlebars of his bicycle, and he and Mamie walked down to Glasnevin Cemetery. After the parish priest said a prayer over the casket, Mary Brigit was laid to rest in a secluded area of the graveyard. The priests always said it was a special place, reserved for all the babies who had gone to the angels.

    A year after Mary Brigit died, Mamie gave birth to twin boys, but one died before he could even be given a name. Someone said the other boy was the spitting image of his grandfather, John O’Keefe. He was christened John, but from that day forward everyone called him Johno.

    When Fred was born, some eighteen months later, barely a whimper came from his tiny body. The midwife told Mamie he probably wouldn’t make it through the night, but somehow he did. Day after day, Mamie sat next to the fire, trying to feed him and keep him warm. Each day his cries became louder. The neighbours might have complained about the noise, but Mamie only smiled. She knew it was a sign that her baby was getting stronger by the day.

    Soon after Fred was born, Mamie had her first heart attack. Rosaleen was twelve when she had to leave school and take over the running of the house. Not much thought was given to a girl’s education in those days. Girls were expected to finish primary school and then to stay at home until it was time to get married and start having babies. Da had believed that Rosaleen could be the exception to that rule. She had always done extremely well at school, and her math skills alone could have gotten her a well-paying job as a bookkeeper. Da had hoped that his first-born child would be the one to finally break the cycle of poverty. But Mamie’s heart problems stretched from weeks into months. It took Mamie almost fourteen months to recover her health after the heart attack, and by then it was too late for Rosaleen to return to school.

    A year later, Thomas was born, the first in our family born in a hospital. Most newborns come into the world kicking and screaming. Thomas’s skin was blue and he wasn’t breathing. The nurse kept shaking him and tapping on his back, trying to force that first breath into his lungs. His first sound was barely a whimper, but at last he was breathing. When the doctors examined him, they said he had a defective heart valve and there was nothing anyone could do. Mamie stood watch over him day and night as he fought to stay alive. Thomas hung on for almost a month before dying in his sleep. Before Da took the coffin to the graveyard, Mamie made the priest promise that Thomas would be laid next to his sister Mary Brigit so he wouldn’t be alone.

    I was born in the fall of 1947. My sister Marie arrived roughly three years later, followed by my brothers David and Philip, each two years apart. Rosaleen was thirteen when I came along, but already she was more than capable of running the entire house, while Mamie took longer and longer to recover after each birth.

    As we got older and the house got fuller, my brothers and I spent every waking hour playing in the street. By the time I was seven, my friends and I would wander the neighbourhood playing kick the can and hide-and-seek until our mothers called us inside just before dark.

    On Saturday morning we would all be on the lookout for the coal man making his weekly rounds. We watched as he slowly manoeuvred his horse and cart along Hogan Place, trying to avoid the many potholes. Suddenly one of the wheels would drop, causing the whole cart to pitch sideways. The kids would cheer as the driver took the whip to his horse, trying desperately to pull the cart back to solid ground. The more we jeered, the more the driver cursed the horse and all of us for being a bunch of feckin’ hooligans. We didn’t care about him or his horse. We were only there to pick up the bits of coal that spilled off the cart. We might get only a few pieces, coal was so expensive that it was good to have some extra bits to put in the fireplace.

    In the afternoon, my pals Tony Murphy and Al Kennedy and I would head for the docks along the Liffey. If we got there at lunchtime, some of the dock workers would give us a penny to go to the pub and pick them up a pint of beer. If there was no money to be made, my pals and I would walk along the water’s edge looking for rats. There were always a few around, feeding on the garbage. As soon as we spotted one of the big brown buggers, we attacked it with sticks or stones or anything else we could find to hurl at it. The rat catcher said he would give us two pence for every ten rats we brought to him, but we never managed to kill more than one or two.

    Mamie didn’t mind if I strayed from Hogan Place, as long as I was back on the street by dark. When she called me in for tea, I had best move quickly if I didn’t want my brothers to eat everything and leave me with an empty plate.

    I always dreaded going into the tenement late in the day. The moment the front door banged shut behind me, I was plunged into total darkness. I couldn’t see anything, but I could hear the tapping of rats and mice scurrying for cover. Once in a while I would hear the sudden snap of metal as one of the many traps found a victim. Most of the mice were dead in an instant, but the rats were much harder to kill, and they would squeal as they tried desperately to escape. If the noise was loud enough, one of the neighbours would come out onto the landing and put the thing out of its misery with one quick blow from a coal shovel.

    A single bulb on the second-floor landing provided just enough light to illuminate the top of the stairway and cast long shadows across the walls. Standing alone in the blackness, all I could think about were the stories Johno told me of the ghosts that haunted the tenements. I tried not to be scared, but it was hard to be brave when I knew someone or something might be lurking in the shadows, just waiting to reach out and grab me.

    As my eyes adjusted, I felt for the banister and began running up the stairs toward the light on the landing above. Now I could hear voices from our flat, but still there was one more set of stairs to climb in total darkness to reach the third floor. Sometimes Mamie would open the door of our flat, letting out a sliver of light to guide me the rest of the way.

    Our flat consisted of three rooms. The largest room, at the front, was used as a kitchen and sitting area, with two small bedrooms at the back of the flat. The front room faced onto the street. My da had tried to brighten it up with wallpaper, but the paper had slowly peeled and faded from the heat and smoke of the fireplace. In the corner of the front room was a curtained-off sleeping area for my sisters, Rosaleen and Marie. David and Philip shared a crib in Mamie and Da’s room. The one remaining room was just big enough to fit a dresser and two beds, with Willy and Michael in one and me, Johno, and Fred in the other.

    Being the youngest in the room meant I had to go to bed first. I could hear them all talking in the front room, but the moment the door closed and I was alone in the dark, the night terrors would take over. If I cried long enough, Mamie would eventually send someone to sit with me. Johno didn’t help matters by telling me all about the monster behind the dresser who would come out to get me if I didn’t shut up. Michael was the only one who could get me to go to sleep. He would turn on the light and let me check everything in the room until I was satisfied that no one was there.

    Michael was only eight years older than me, but for as long as I could remember, he was always the one who took care of me. When I was old enough to walk, he would often take me for long strolls along the banks of the Liffey all the way to the locks on the Grand Canal. I loved to stand on the bank of the canal and watch the barges enter and leave the locks. When the lower gate opened, I could feel the ground shake as the water came thundering down. Once the water levels were equal, the barge could continue its journey down the canal until it emerged into the mouth of the River Liffey.

    One rainy Saturday in the autumn before my sixth birthday, I slipped off the steep embankment and went tumbling into the water, just below the massive wooden gate. The lock operator didn’t see me, and he began cranking the huge wheel to open the lower gate. The sudden rush of water drove me straight to the bottom. I have no doubt I was only a minute away from drowning when I felt two hands pulling me out of the current and up to the surface. I would have died that day had Michael not jumped in after me and pulled me safely to shore.

    When Mamie saw the two of us standing in the doorway, wet and shivering, she was angry at first. But once Michael explained, she grabbed us both in a big hug and wouldn’t let us go.

    That would not be the last time Michael had to jump in and save my life.

Terry Burke immigrated to Toronto’s Cabbagetown in the late 1950s. His two previous books, Cold War Soldier and Under the Blue Beret, deal with his time in the military. He is retired and living in London, Ontario. Learn more here.