Charity begins at home.
One winter’s evening there was an urgent knocking on the hall door of our family house in Dublin. My mother answered the door and there, in the rain, stood a large, bedraggled, down-at-heel girl, probably in her late teens. She was crying piteously, “Oh mother of God missus – can you give me some shelter? Me Mammy’s after havin’ another babby and there’s no room for me in our house any more.” Mum was a charitable woman, always sympathetic to the underdog, so she invited this poor girl in to get dry and offered her a bed on the sitting-room couch for the night.
Joan Begg was her name and she had been turned out of home to fend for herself. As long as she could remember she had fed, changed, walked and nurtured each 'babby’ her ‘Mammy’ had produced with alarming frequency and finally she had nowhere to lay her head.
At that stage there were four of us children and my younger sister was about six months old; the rest of us were aged eight, five and three years old, so my mother had her hands full tending to us without any help in a big old house; this was very hard work in the late 1940s, without any of the mod-cons we take for granted nowadays. Being a quick-witted person, Mum spotted a mutually satisfactory opportunity and the next day she offered this stranger bed and board and whatever she could afford, in return for Joan helping her for a while.
You can imagine our surprise next morning when we were introduced to an unusual looking person who was going to live with us “for a while.” In fact Joan lived with us for five years, to everybody’s benefit. Our father was an easy-going, existential man and didn’t complain when he came home from work that evening and was faced with this fait accompli. He was used to those and if Mum was happy, he was happy.
Now Joan Begg was an ill-educated country woman, with the constitution of an ox and the kindest, purest heart I ever knew. One of her legs was considerably shorter than the other and she would set off to Sunday Mass at a goodly pace, loping with an unusual gait, which gave rise to her naughty charges nick-naming her Joan Begg Pancake One Leg (but never to her face, as we were brought up to be polite children.) She was like a huge mother hen, with a capacious bosom, an open, smiling face and never a cross word that I remember. We loved her and she adored all of us, including our parents and when we moved to a smaller house on the other side of the city five years later, Mum made sure that Joan had another post to go to, having given her a glowing recommendation.
One particular episode during her time with us stands out in my mind. Joan convinced our mother to let her take my elder brother and me to visit her family “down the country.” Nowadays, most mothers would have made excuses and said no, fearing that some ill might befall their children, but in truth it was probably a relief for her to get her two eldest children out of her hair for a day during the summer holidays. Excitedly we set off on a great adventure, taking three buses and gradually leaving the built-up city, travelling down winding country lanes and ending up in what seemed to me the back of beyond, surrounded by green fields divided by hedges and small stone walls and arriving at a shabby homestead that would be thought of as a hovel nowadays. At first it was dark inside, but as our eyes adjusted from the sunlight outside, a neat little room with a range was visible; on it were two huge steaming black pots and a kettle. A large table was surrounded by many chairs. I don’t remember any grown ups or children around, although there must have been, but I vividly remember two other things. The first was a plate covered in creamy-coloured food for lunch placed in front of me at that table - tripe, onions and boiled potatoes; even now I remember trying not to gag as I gulped the knobbly, slimy never-before-eaten tripe and onions and the familiar powdery potatoes, which were more palatable. No doubt this was a special meal for special visitors and true hospitality, but it was torture to me.The second vivid memory is the toileting arrangement, which was a hole at the bottom of the grassed area behind the house.
This was all too much for a six year old, but I imagine my brother, who was three years older and more confident and precocious than I chattered away whilst I hid my building fear. We lived close to the Irish Sea, with The Dublin Mountains providing a beautiful backdrop to the City and here we were in alien surroundings with awful food, no bathroom and who knew what else? My usual chest pains, which came when I was anxious, started. I first felt them when I was at the local flea-pit one Saturday with my brother, watching Batman and Robin having one of their dangerous, daring exploits; being an impressionable child I was enthralled and tension built up in my chest. I had often seen my mother clasp her chest saying “Oh my heart, my heart, you’ll be the death of me!” and so I thought I was dying as I stood outside the cinema afterwards, gripping some railings and wailing “Brian, Brian wait for me - my heart is dying,” as my brother merrily ran off without me to our house fifty yards away.
But I digress. I survived the chest pains, of course, and our uncommon day in the country finally ended and it was time to catch the first of our buses home, gradually returning to the safety of familiar surroundings and our own nest.
I don’t know how we explained our day out to our parents, but much later our mother told us that Joan was glowing with pride at having taken some of her charges to her own home for a treat and showing her family that she was making her way in the world; it was a wonderful gift my mother had given her and they remained in contact until my mother’s death sixty-odd years later.
- Carole Stafford, Harston