Where are you, Walter Lally …

By Ned Egan

Part 1

Well, Peamount TB Sanatorium, back in the 1940’s. For those of us who were ‘inmates’, it was – as Dickens would say – ‘the best of times, the worst of times’.

Two of my sisters had been swept away by the tide of consumption – as TB was so delicately termed. Whatever was consumed in our house, it was bought by the scrag ends of pennies the parasitic bookies hadn’t got their grasping coffin-filling claws on.

I remember the first night I was in this Peamount ‘prison’ – for that was how most of us first regarded it. I’d known nothing of lavatories – the back field being our only ‘evacuation centre’ – the school one being a hole in a board over a dreadful swamp of maggot-ridden ordure.

So, when nature called that first night in the ward – in polite-speak – a Number Two – I held on as long as I could, then ‘went’ at the far end of a dim corridor. {Jaykers, sure I couldn’t find a field anywhere, in the dark. What a joint!}

Next morning, in comes clattering the gimlet-eyed nurse – Gallagher by name – she’s long dead now, I’d say. Turned me on my face in the bed to inspect the guilty area of my skinny frame. Saw the evidence – I couldn’t find a bit of grass – and announced my guilt to the rest of the ward.

Strangely enough, she didn’t get the cheap derisive gale of laughter she was seeking. The twenty or so boys who had been standing beside their beds looked away from my shaming – just looked at the ground – or the bare wall opposite. I will forever remember their kindness.

My punishment, then, was to be taken down and stood outside the Admin office, in my shirt. Underpants didn’t even exist in the Ireland of those days. Well, in my Ireland, anyway. They were years away. A very few of the nurses had their little laughs at the small scrawny country mug. But again, an unexpected kindness: a Sister Boyle, from Roscommon {I’ll never forget her} found me, gave a rollocking to the Gallagher wretch, and brought me back to my ward – calling into the pantry on the way to get me a few slices of bread and butter and a cup of milk: cripes! Epicurean Heaven!

After a few days, I got the hang of the place. Near-hunger was a constant companion. Probably part of the treatment, for all I knew. But what grub we got was well cooked, if a bit sparse.

After tea at five or six in the evening we would be herded into the wards, and expected to settle down for the night. But, weakened as we were, there was still plenty of “go” in us. Talk would go on amongst the older boys about the girls over in the “Old Wing”. Many of us formed fanciful ideas about imaginary ‘coorting’ with these completely unattainable angels – for such they seemed to be to us gawky lads.

I had a childish love for a little girl called Maisie, whom I’d seen at Mass one day. Because I knew nobody at home by the name of Maisie, I misheard the word, and went around bragging and boasting about ‘my mot, Lazy Leonard.’

I used to get in a real tiny fury when the other lads laughed at the name I had given this queen of my childlike imaginings – thinking they were just jealous of my obvious attraction to the young lady! Not too long afterwards, this little girl – whom I’d never even spoken to – went home. In a small white box. And it broke my heart, because she took with her the only thing any of us had – some kind of unreachable impossible dream. Some refuge from loneliness.

And the strange sad unusual thing was that when we found out she had passed away, without any prompting, in the dark of our old ramshackle winter-wind and rain-lashed wooden verandah, we all knelt down and said a little prayer for her. One of the few prayers I’ve ever really meant.

And the lads all told nice ‘moryah’ stories about poor little ‘Lazy,’ who hailed from the hills above Glenties, and who only saw ten summers. And I told the lads tales laced with the wildest imagery I could conjure up out of my child’s mind, about what larks and innocent trickings and hide-and-go-seekings Lazy and myself would get up to, on the way down to Collinstown to see Roy Rogers or Gene Autrey, in a cinema that probably never even existed.

And whether they believed the stories or not, they were listened to in respectful dignified silence, and at the end there’d be many a quiet “good lad” and “we knew you could do it.”

I wasn’t alone – or even prominent – among the small seanchaís. There were many who could ‘tell the tale’ – as we termed it – far better than I. And in our loneliness, far away from home, with no radio, our own thoughts and imaginations were all we had to help us through the long nights and days.

Most nights we would launch raids on the pantry, to get some bread and butter. Spies would be positioned: the warning whisper was always the word “Echo!” A sudden rush of scampering bare feet, and we would be back in our beds, slices hidden all over the place. Why the pantry wasn’t locked up, I never knew. I think the kind nurses {who were in a majority} turned a blind eye.

And, there were endless plans to escape. From memory, the strategy was always the same: get down to the gate – and go home from there! No thought went into plans for transport, food – or direction of travel. Colditz escape merchants we were not. Get to the gate – and off with us. And that would be the end of all our homesick misery.

The desire to escape was imprinted deep on our consciousness. Horrendously poor and deprived though my background was, I yearned for the dark and the cold and the dirt of home, like a Sultan would for his Palace. I missed my mother terribly. I also missed my father, as I was too young to realise that it was his malign gambling addiction that was the dire and direct cause of all our horrors, including the death of three of my sisters.

One winter day, in the middle of a snowstorm, I made a break for it. Away with me across the playground, past the ghostly white ‘Jungle Gym’ and down towards the gate. But I’d been spotted, and a ‘posse’ was sent after me. I was captured down by the elm trees, not too far from the magic exit, and brought back.

Another sentence of standing half-naked outside the office door. And I could hardly believe my luck when, once again, along comes a certain Sister Boyle! And demanded my short trousers and shoes back, and that I be fed right there in the office.

Ned E

Part 2 in next week’s edition of The Kilkenny Observer



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