When my grandfather was 10, he was arrested for stealing a holly bush.
He’s 85 now and I have learned many lessons from him, lessons on creativity and waste and how hard work pays off, through parables that are usually inappropriate. He has also taught me love, kindness, and generosity, qualities he has in abundance – but there are no good stories about those.
He was driving me to Clontarf recently and he pointed to the Garda station.
“I was held in there.” he said.
Having only ever thought of Granda as the pinnacle of all that was good and righteous, I was intrigued by his criminal past.
It was Christmas time and he and a friend had taken a saw to the top of a holly bush. The bush had belonged to Dan Guiney of Guiney’s Stores and he was caught by the brother of a boy he went to school with. He wouldn’t give his friend’s name to the Gardai, he said, wouldn’t rat out his accomplice… until his father arrived and he gave him up quick enough. I never met my great-grandfather but he must have been a formidable presence.
“We were going to sell it,” Granda said, by way of explanation.
It was the same entrepreneurial spirit he displayed when his mother would give him money to buy a cabbage, he’d steal a cabbage from someone’s garden and spend the money on beer. Growing up in Dublin in the forties, the decade of war and want, you had to get creative if you were surviving on pennies and wanted to get pissed on pennies. He did and so he was and so he did.
When Granda started smoking, aged seven, he would collect discarded cigarette butts from the ground, take them home to the cigarette roller and combine them to make one perfectly decent cigarette. To this day, he hates waste, although he gave up smoking decades ago I’m sure his eyes still linger on my uncles’ wasted cigarette ends and he thinks of how much could be saved or made if he still had that old cigarette roller.
When given four pence to go to the “pictures”, Granda and his friend would take the pennies down to the local shop. There – and he had to explain this math quite carefully to me – they would each buy 5 woodbines for 2 and a half pence. They would then sell four of them at one penny each in the queue for the cinema – keeping one for themselves and making one penny profit. With that penny, they could buy a gobstopper – big, pink sweets that would last the whole film. By the time the film had started, they had their tickets, a cigarette and a gobstopper each. Not bad for half a day’s work, considering they were still in primary school.
These stories were small insights into the childhood of a man I’ve only ever known as a man, who has always been the oldest person I know – except for one teacher in primary school who insisted she was 99 years old for the entire duration of our schooling.
Hearing about my grandfather’s childhood, I’ve learned a little of what made him the man he is today, the man we all love so much (“we all” in this case is just really my family). I also have a better understanding of Dublin and Ireland in the decades before the Republic – these are teeny tiny slivers of local history, but they still count. Mostly, though, I feel guilty for having such a soft upbringing – we were always treated at the cinema and even as children we didn’t have to roll our own cigarettes.