In a departure from my usual post, I’d like to use the platform of my blog to introduce you to an inspiring woman I encountered recently – another ‘Fierce 50’ woman.
Deborah Blacoe, however, is not a blogger but rather a writer who until now has only shared her musings and jottings with her friends. I have persuaded her, though, to allow me to publish (below) an abridged version of a childhood memory, which I believe deserves a wider audience.
Blessed with a wonderfully creative writing style and a keen eye for detail, you will see how she transports her readers back to Dublin in the 1960s. Like me, you can imagine her glamorous grandmother sweeping into a department store; you can taste the tea and cakes in a city tea rooms; you can experience the luxury of it all. Growing up in the country, I never knew any of that life – tea outside the farm was in a field in a bottle during harvest!
A former air hostess and married to Gerry (both above), a pilot whose career took them for a while to the Far East 25 years ago, Deborah’s gift with words is hardly surprising considering her family background. Her father Philip Ryan was a major figure in the Irish entertainment world and was noted for acting as well as writing plays with his best pal Hugh Leonard. He later wrote books about Irish theatres and biographies of such stars as Jimmy O’Dea and Noel Purcell.
The family home was always full of books and music and visits to plays, pantomimes and summer variety shows were a regular occurrence. A love and appreciation of the arts was always encouraged. It rubbed off on her older brother Philip (below) who threw himself wholeheartedly into a career in music and theatre. While his musical interests were broad, his first foray into the entertainment sector was as a member of Ireland’s first punk band, The Radiators from Space, and better known as Phil Chevron, he was later a guitarist with The Pogues. His skills as a writer and musician subsequently led him down the path of musical director in many major productions before his untimely death at the age of 57.
Although initially inspired by her father and brother, Deborah also came to realise that the creative gene also emanated from her mother who wrote remarkably detailed, eloquent letters to her when the family lived abroad. Until then, she had pigeon-holed her mother as the maker of the home, the stereotypical Irish mammy. Which is exactly what many women of a certain age now fight against. It is easy to witness a certain ‘loss of self’ in that path but here is creativity at its best.
Memories of a Dublin Childhood
My grandmother La Grue was a jovial, generous woman. She had a taste for style – the array of bags, shoes, hats, gloves, silk scarves and clothes which she wore was a constant thrill to a little girl with her eye on the finer things in life. Nanna thought nothing of wearing shimmering fabrics during the day. Matching, tailor-made coats and dresses, lined with a contrasting colour in silk or satin.
Her necklaces were made of beads to complement whichever outfit she was wearing. Or sometimes it would be multiple strands of pink or cream pearls, held together with a clasp studded with diamonds.
Perhaps a longing for style is inherent, but I think that I probably acquired my love for all things clothes and accessories from this, my maternal grandmother. Time spent in the presence of this wonderful woman surely influenced her adoring young first granddaughter? Oh, and I mustn’t forget the brooches, she always wore a brooch which was quite daring in its size and colour. And it usually sparkled. Quite delicious!
The venue for our family afternoon tea outings with Nana was chosen depending on where she was shopping that day. Perhaps she might be visiting Clery’s for a look at their linens – then it would be the Capitol Tea Rooms. Or if she was visiting Switzer’s for the purchase of some shoes, it would be Bewley’s.
She was always welcomed in these stores by the floorwalker with a “Good afternoon, Mrs La Grue”. I don’t think floorwalkers exist anymore. Shopping happens at such a pace that the need for such an individual is defunct.
It was always the four of us – Nanna, my mother, Philip and me. Sometimes we would be joined by my Aunt Jean, the much younger beloved sister of my mother, and the baby in a family of eight children. I was in awe of Jean. She was truly a Sixties’ beauty. Long blonde hair back combed and held in place by a white hair band, lots of black mascara and pale lipstick, and best of all, a powder blue leather suit with a mini skirt which just about paid homage to decorum.
On high days and holy days, my grandmother Ryan would accompany us, equally generous and equally jolly, but with less of an eye on style. When she accompanied us there would be the reading of the tea leaves at the end of the meal. She always managed to make us laugh with this performance and my Nanna La Grue would shake with laughter, her glitter and her diamonds sparkling in the light of whatever chandelier was above our heads.
The business of food was a serious one. We started with sandwiches, followed by scones and cakes, as well as pastries which made the mouth water on first sight. The texture was always light and delicate, melt in the mouth fancies. And the ceremony of tea pouring was always done by my mother. Each adult cup filled almost to the brim with the golden liquid, each child cup half filled with the same and topped up with an amount of milk so that small mouths didn’t burn. The job of sugaring the tea was left to the individual and in this minor detail, I got to feel quite the grown-up. I would carefully take the spoonful of sugar from the little basin, slowly bringing it towards my cup, trying not to spill it.
Each time we met there would be more shopping and more afternoon tea. Being a child, I didn’t see this as out of the ordinary. I didn’t see it as privileged. I didn’t see it as anything other than meeting with Nanna and having tea with her in town rather than in her home. But as I do my own shopping in town these days, I always stop for tea or coffee, a habit I don’t seem able to drop.
Of course, I don’t frequent the salons of the Shelbourne or such like too often these days. That is only for special occasions. But wherever I do stop, the empty seats at my table echo with light and laughter from days gone by. Memories from a childhood in Dublin, where the haze of nostalgia blurs the realities of the time. And perhaps that is best.
(To read the full article, click here Memories of a Dublin childhood)