How Springtown Camp saved my life
I have searched for words, elevated, beautiful words adequate to the solemn task of restarting a conversation severed in 1964. Somewhere over the Atlantic, between Derry and the Statue of Liberty, I entered the silent realm that emigrants know well: the no mans land where time and distance merge and the sense of belonging dissolves setting the exile adrift.??I understood, for the first time, why, I wept when I young, at the retelling of the story of Colmcille and his lonely, cold, windswept journey to Iona. Now I was weeping for myself and all the others who had gone before. The ghost of old Mrs. Kennedy floated into my consciousness, a tiny figure, with snow-white hair covered with a black bonnet. She waited outside her door for mammy coming home from work to ask her to read a letter from her son. I gripped mammy’s hand tighter as she read the letter from Boston and buried my head deeper into her brown jacket so I could breathe in the smell of cotton and starch that clung to her after a long day in Tillies laundry. After mammy had finished reading, Mrs. Kennedy blessed us all and mammy told her she would go to her house and write the reply after she got us our tea.
Words do not emerge out of thin air. They are excavated, one by one from the depths of the human heart. Words tell us who we are and where we came from. . Willie Deery, John McLaughlin, and everyone else connected with the Springtown Camp play have built a bridge between the past, the present, and the future and all I have to do is ask:
“How are youse all doin’? Come on in!
We’re doin’ grand ourselves. We live in a nice quiet neighborhood in the city of Cleveland. Ben, Ruby, and their families live a few doors away and we see each other almost every day. The kettle seldom gets cold. On Easter Sunday we all had dinner at my house. On these occasions, Ben brings his guitar and we sing. Ruby sings: It’s Just Three Miles from Derry to the Bridge of Drumahoe. My act is the Little Beggar Man. Sometimes we’re joined by people, from Mayo, Pennsylvania, and Donegal. We don’t make distinctions. When the noise gets too much, the cats take off for the basement.
There used to be a lot of singing down the Bog. Until we moved to Springtown when I was fifteen. We lived at 89 Bogside in a room rented from Lizzie McDermott. Lizzie wasn’t married herself but she loved wains and, at every opportunity, gathered up anyone around for a great bear’s hug. These hugs were accompanied by the invocation:”God’s blissin’ on ye and may ye live ta the skin of a gooseberry makes ye a night cap”. I think with gratitude, that, in my case, her prayers have been answered.
I was not happy to leave the Bogside with Lizzie and my friends. The the worst of it was if I left Tillie and Hendersons at 6 o’clock, and went home for my tea, there was no way I could get from Springtown to Nellie Sweeney’s dancing class at the far end of Hamilton Street in time, not to mention the journey back. Even if I got the bus to Eden Terrace, I had to be home at ten o’clock. Mammy’s strict curfew also ruled out the pictures as the last house wasn’t over until ten thirty. As I saw it, moving to the camp meant I had lost everything important in my life; Hop a long Cassidy, Joan Crawford, and Nellie Sweeney. And I lost them all in one fell swoop.
“What’s the matter with her?” granny would ask. Mammy was not very helpful. “I don’t know”, she would answer quietly turning her head away. I took to going alone on long walks every Sunday and in the evenings, when it was still light. The weather was no deterrent. Granny said I would catch my death so to pacify her I would put on a Sou’wester hat, a raincoat, and rubber boots. At the top of the camp, I turned right and walked along an unapproved road that that ended in an open bog.
There were no trees on that lonely landscape, only stubborn heather and gorse digging roots deeper into the soil as if laying claim to the land that nourished them. The silence was broken, every now and then, by the wind or a lonely bird as a passing cloud made a fleeting shadow. I felt free here and as I swished my feet into the soggy turf, I pondered the possibilities of life as a hermit.
One day I amused myself by jumping up and down in a pool of dark bog water. I wanted to see how far it I could make the water splash. It was almost as much fun as dancing. Then I remembered Miss McGranaghan. She had entered my life shortly after I left school when I was summoned to Lizzie’s front door. Miss McGranaghan handed me a white card and informed me I was a member of the Guild of the Angels. She instructed me to attend the nine o’clock mass once a month, and hand her the card after receiving communion. I had the sense I was no longer a wain. And, if I were not yet an adult, I was, in addition to being a factory clipper, a member of the Guild of the Angels.
I showed up on the appointed Sundays and handed in my card until one Sunday we overslept and had to go to a later mass. Several days passed before I was again summoned to Lizzie’s front door. Miss McGranaghan, in front of the neighbours who had congregated for a chat, gave me the worst telling off I have ever had before or since. Stunned, speechless, and humiliated in front of the whole Bogside, I was afraid to attempt an explanation as she might do the same thing to mammy. Within the span of a minute or two, I had been dropped, without ceremony into the Vale of Tears, without any of the sympathy doled out to adults who find themselves in that sorrowful place. Miss McGranaghan had the last word on the subject for the matter was never raised again either by mammy or the neighbours. Shortly after that we moved to Springtown.
I was still swishing around in the water that had turned golden in the sun after the clouds had passed. Knowing this was inappropriate behaviour for a young lady according to the dictates of Mother Ignatius added to the exhilaration. Not even Miss McGranaghan could touch me now. I was beyond the anyone’s reach.
When I returned home, I noticed the great expanse of polished wooden floor spanning the hut from end to end. It no longer frightened me as it did when I first saw the contents of Lizzie’s room in a small heap swallowed up in that vast space. Instead, the floor invited me to do the double jig lifting me into the air with every tap. . I followed this with the reel and then the slip jig and on and on until Mammy whispered in my ear that she and granny needed to get their brains shired and asked if I could continue my dancing at the far end of the hut. That was the first time I realized Springtown Camp had saved my life and as Lizzie would say: God’s blissin’ on youse and may youse all live ta the skin a gooseberry makes youse a night cap.