When you have nothing, you make your pleasures out of the air and memories…life for the Irish on the Bank in Victorian times. Annabelle Harper knows…
When I was a lass, every Saturday night was the old tunes, the ones Sean Doughty had learned when he was a lad and brought over from Ireland with him. Half of Leather Street would get together. We all went, from tiny babbies to the old women with no teeth who could only sit in their chairs and drool and smile. Folk would bring something, if they had owt. There’d be a bucket or two of beer, maybe summat to eat, then Sean would tighten up his bow, tuck the fiddle under his chin and put it in tune. He didn’t play well and time hadn’t made him any better. But it didn’t matter. Everybody loved it. He had his fast pieces for dancing, and it felt like all the heavy boots and clogs crashing down would go right through the floor. Then he had slower ones for singing. I can still hear the way all the voices used to grow more and more drunk as the night went on.
I must have gone there when I was still in my mam, but the first time I remember was when I was three. Martin O’Leary pulled my braid so hard that I cried. I was so proud of my hair back then, a right little madam. I’d get me ma to brush it every night and watched meself in that little scrap of mirror we had.
He tugged it; I thought it had come off in his hand and I started to scream. The music stopped and everything went quiet as death. “What’s got into you?’ me mam said, but I was crying so hard that I couldn’t tell her. When it all came out, she gave me a clout for interrupting things, and there was a harder one for Martin.
Like it or not, we were dragged there every week. Probably the same on streets all over the Bank. Happen it was just a chance for everyone to forget that none of them had a pair of ha’pennies to rub together. Maybe for one night in the week they deserved a good time. Even us young ‘uns had fun when we weren’t chafing to be somewhere else. The grown-ups used to talk about Ireland. Not that half of them had ever seen it, or ever would. Most of them had grown up over here. But that was how it was. From the moment we were born it was drilled into us: Ireland was paradise itself. It was the promise of heaven. Erin. Green, beautiful fields. Waters. Mountains. All those legends of the past: Finn MacCool and Brian Borru. We took it in with our mammy’s milk. Wise men and great warriors, and Ireland done down and brought low by the English. Me, I didn’t care. Leeds was my home. It was all I knew. All that mattered. Who needed the Rock of Cashel when I had York Road, the Headrow, and Hunslet? This was my world, the only one I was ever likely to know. As far as I was concerned, I’d be lucky enough if I ever made it off the Bank, never mind some other town or country. I knew exactly where I was headed: Black Dog Mills. Same as every other lass at school. Didn’t even need to be told. Mills or maids – that was how life was. Mills or maids.