The Second World War, which had begun 10 months after I was born, had been in the making for many years but in Northern Ireland very little preparation had been made for it. I had been conscious of the war from an early age. The principal reminder was the gas masks that were kept in grey cardboard boxes. We practised putting them on from time to time and I didn't like them, as they were difficult to breathe in and were very sweaty and claustrophobic. The masks were a uniform black except for a large red one that was designed to accommodate a baby. Unlike in England however, we did not carry them around with us and they tended to stay in the house.
When I started school in 1943 the invasion of Europe had not yet begun. Urker Hill outside Cross housed an RAF radar installation. Several tall masts that were visible from our house dominated it. This must have generated some worries among the populace as a possible target for German bombers and I had absorbed some of this concern because I was fearful of the sound of aeroplanes. When Belfast was bombed in 1941 the planes flew south and I remember being wakened by the menacing double throb of engines "Rrhumm-rrhumm-Rrhumm-rrhumm" as they passed overhead, waiting in fear for the crump of bombs that never came. For decades after the war I had recurring dreams of strange distorted and threatening machines in the sky. I knew enough about the war to attempt to threaten Miss Carroll, who was about to discipline me for some misdemeanour, to "get Hitler to drop a bomb on her" if she didn't desist. I doubt that the threat was effective. She married a local farmer, Tom Donaghy, for whom in my teens I occasionally worked in the summer.
During the war I was conscious of rationing. Meat, clothes, sugar, tea, butter, sweets were rationed. As a butter substitute there were two kinds of margarine, standard and special. Homemade country butter was available but I detested it. I had to eat it when I was in Granda Boyle's, but I would not eat it at home. Keeping foot fresh was difficult in the absence of refrigeration and storage had to be improvised. Mother once sent me to Mrs Hearty on a neighbouring farm for butter.
"Mammy says to get some butter please."
She went into the bedroom and emerged with a large cloth covered chamber pot. The pot was two-thirds full of butter. In those days of course the cool underside of a bed was a sensible place to keep the butter fresh although I didn't see it like that. I knew what a po was for and the episode did nothing to overcome my antipathy to country butter.
Frequent food parcels from American relations provided relief from the drudgery and shortages. I well remember the excitement of their arrival and the ritual of opening them. For me, apart from the food - spam, dried eggs, candy and chocolate, canned fruit etc, the most exciting part of the whole process was the comics. As well as regular editions of war comics and Superman, the main part of the packing of the goodies was made up of the "funnies" sections of the American Sunday papers. These were substantial publications in their own right, some 10 or 15 double broadsheet pages, chock full of exotic characters; Little Orphan Annie. Lil Abner, Henry, Mutt and Jeff. They cerainly gave me early reading practice.
Mrs Hearty had "the cure" and was regularly patronised by mother bringing children with childhood ailments. When I developed mumps my mother took me for the cure. Although I was no more than four or five at the time I remember how miserable I felt with my sore throat, high temperature and swollen neck glands. The "cure" consisted of me being paraded three times between the house and the byre, wearing a set of horse winkers, while a decade of the rosary was recited. Clearly the woman had the cure because I got better.
Mrs Hearty had two sons, Francey and Tom. Tom and I were of an age and were friends. He, and some other boys in the school had a completely shaven head except for a small fringe. Everyone wore short trousers and boots. We played marbles on the road with no fear of traffic since that consisted mainly of bicycles and carts. Given petrol rationing and the general poverty of the area, there were very few cars on the road. Willis' Bakery in Newry had a van that came round several days a week. The bread, plain and pan loaves were set out on wide trays that slid out of the back and dropped down for access. The breadman had a long paddle to bring the bread from the back of the tray. Other trays had scones, and buns, and cakes. The plain unsliced loaves were baked in batches that had to be pulled apart. They were still warm from the baking and when we were sent to the top of the lane to buy them we would pull off and eat the flakes of bread as we took them home. Often this mining left holes in the loaves before we got there.
There were few tractors in the 1940s and early 1950s and horses did most of the work. There were many blacksmiths in the area; at Creggan, a mile down the road, in Crossmaglen on the Monug Road, one at Ford's Cross near Silverbridge, and my Uncle Mickey Boyle's at Legmoylan, just off the Newtownhamilton/Dundalk Road. I was fascinated by the smiths and the by the sounds and smells of the forges (smithies); the dark interior, the dull glowing fire on a plinth which flared to white hot when powered by a large long handled bellows, the sweating muscular blacksmith creating a horseshoe from a bar of metal by repeated heating and hammering on the anvil, the sparks from the fire and from the metal being hammered flying up and fading, the red light of the fading fire reflecting from the sooty sweat on the smith's arms and face. Each smith had his own rhythm on the anvil, a pattern of allowing the hammer to bounce on the metal before smiting the iron being shaped. The rhythm would repeat until the metal was too cool to shape at which point it was returned to the fire and the bellows applied until it was again glowing red. At various points the hot shoe would be applied to the horse's hoof, to check for size and the provide a snug fit for the final product. The smoke from and acrid smell of burning hoof filled the smithy. I was constantly amazed that the horses seemed unconcerned by this apparently cruel process.