CROSSING THE BAR by Myles Vincent Mezzetti
One Mill View Cottages, Inchicole The first eleven years of my life were spent in a part of Dublin, Inchicore. It was a relatively poor section of the city and it still is to this day. My oldest sister, Terrie, brother, Liam, and two
of my younger sisters, Fran and Maria, and I were all born in that little house, One Mill View Cottages.
I still remember the name “Coolaflake” that my father had gilded on the glass panel of the front door. My ma’s father, Myles Richards, was raised in a house that was called “Coolaflake” in Ballinaclash, Wicklow. He died at the age of 70, the year I was born. This was a way my da had of keeping him in their memory. Gilding the name Coolaflake and naming me Myles.
Our home was rented, situated on a small block, facing what they called the Second Lock of the Grand Canal. There were two cottages: they called them cottages because they looked like one-story cottages from the roadway, but they really were two-story houses that you entered from the second floor level. Ours was a very tiny home, with two bedrooms upstairs, and a small stairway leading down to the ground floor. There we had the kitchen and a pantry. That was the total size of the house—four rooms plus hall and stairway.
At the cottages, the ground fell away from the Canal, so they built the two houses down the slope of the ground rather than up like a normal two story house. We would enter our home by going down the lane beside the house. There was a little backyard with a lean-to shed against the red brick wall of the lane and the house. We would go through the shed where our bicycles were kept to enter the kitchen/”family” room through the backdoor. We also needed to go back through this shed to get to the toilet, which was about 10 feet beyond the shed in the corner of the back yard. There was no running water in the house.
It is only looking back now, that we realize we grew up poor, especially in our early years just after “the Great War,” WWII. (I was born in 1942.) But we were as happy as could be because our parents provided everything we needed. Life was beautiful for us. There were bicycle rides along the canal, blackberry picking, parks and fields, rivers and ponds to explore, and our freedom and joy seemed endless. There was always music and singing. Me da had a beautiful tenor voice and seemed to know the words to every song there was. We entertained each other and always enjoyed being outdoors in the sun when it was shining. We didn’t like the rain so much but if there wasn’t rain how could you learn to appreciate the sun? We had no television or radio. We had each other, and our friends. We believed everyone did the same things to play and enjoy life. But it was our da and ma who made the world a wonderful place for us.
How Our Family Began
Both of my maternal grandparents died while we were still living in Inchicore. As I told you, my mother’s father Myles Richards passed away the year I was born and my parents gave me his first name. My middle name was Vincent, and I was always called Vincent—never Myles. I guess my mother thought it was a better match-up with the last name of Mezzetti very Victorian, stately, prim and proper. When the Italians said, “We want something to attract people brightly colored. We want pictures of pie-men and dancing girls.” he would paint caricatures for them on the walls.
There is some debate about where the original Italian Mezzetti family was from. My sister Angie, our family historian and a journalist, continues to do research into the origins of the family which we were always led to believe came from Palermo in Sicily. The first member of the family was Elio who arrived in Dublin in 1871 as a statue maker. His first child was William Leopold, my grandfather. There is a branch of the Mezzetti family in Scotland, descended from John Mezzetti another son of Elio.
One story Angie told me happened after I left for America. My sister Fran made contact with a member of the Scottish Mezzettis. She met them when on a visit to Scotland and a few years later William Mezzetti a grandson of John came to Dublin for a visit. When my mother opened the door, she thought she was looking at me—that I was making a surprise return visit home. The resemblance was that close and we were also the same age, but his Scottish accent tipped her off.
My mother, Frances Mary Richards, was from Avoca, Wicklow. One of my father’s cousins used to date one of my mother’s sisters, Essie; on weekends the two young men would ride their bicycles to visit the sisters. That’s how he met his Frances, my mother, and they fell in love. My father was born in 1911, my mother was born in 1916, so there was five years difference in age between them. He was so smitten by her gentle, caring, and fun-loving ways that it was the beginning of an incredible love story that lasted 66 years. Only death could part my beautiful ma and da.
After they met, he would cycle down every single weekend no matter what the weather. From my ma’s home on the hill above Avoca she could see him coming from about three miles away as she anxiously awaited his arrival. From Dublin to Avoca is about 40 plus miles each way. It’s a long bike ride. I know—I have done it many times myself.
Avoca was made famous by the lovely song “The Meetings of the
My paternal grandfather William Leopold Mezzetti died from lead poisoning when my father, James Joseph Mezzetti, was 12. There was lead in the oil paint he used as a painter, and my father always told me that you have to be very careful when working with paints—he was always very scrupulous about handling paints until the day he died. Even after they stopped using lead paints, he would still make sure that his hands were washed very carefully after work. And although he had used lead paint for a very long time he fortunately never was affected or contaminated by its use; he lived until he was 90.
There weren’t many Italians in Dublin. But my father would tell us all about the other Italian families in town. Da had gotten himself quite a reputation as an artist and sign painter with the Caffolas on Dublin’s main road, O’Connell Street. They had an arcade building, a huge entertainment center in the middle of town with all sorts of games. They also owned many fish and chips shops. My father would do all the mural type decorations on the walls in what he called the “Italian style.” In Ireland everything was decorated in a very “British” way, Waters” by Thomas Moore. There is a YouTube video of Maureen Hegarty singing this wonderful song about the beautiful Vale of Avoca. Tom Moore’s tree, at the meetings of the waters where he reportedly wrote that poem, became a shrine. Maybe that is why my ma was always very interested in poetry, especially Tom Moore’s poetry.
Ireland has a legendary reputation a nation of storytellers, authors, playwrights, and entertainers. They all love to entertain one another. Since the houses there are usually very small, people would meet up at different pubs or halls and everybody had to have a “party piece” to sing or recite poetry, perform their own little shtick. When you would show up for an evening, only the really creative people would have a different routine each time. People would wonder: what is himself or herself going to do this week? My mother had an entire repertoire of poems and songs that she did, including those of her favorite, Thomas Moore. She used to write poetry, too, and would send us little notes in rhyme. I still have some of them. him to the big city, to Dublin, to be with him.
In Dublin she worked in housekeeping, as a service person. They got married in Corpus Christi Church in Griffith Avenue and lived in an apartment for a short time, until they moved to One Mill View Cottages. Ma was never employed after she married Da. Her job was raising the six of us and she lived until she too made it to 90. My parents had a wonderful long life together.
My mother did not have any secondary education. Back then, in Ireland there was no public school secondary education for girls. Education or no, she certainly loved her poetry. Poetry or not, she was a country girl which was one of the reasons my father loved her, and she followed
Daily Life at One Mill View
When Da had work, he would leave very early in the morning and come back very late in the evening. Da was a bug blinder at the time, the nickname they gave to a house painter. They used the term bug blinder because some of the painters would paint over bugs and everything else that was on the walls in their haste to get a job done. His jobs included the homes of the affluent people as well as churches that needed re-decorating.
When the journeymen painters were on a job they would take a break at 10:00 a.m. and again at 3:00 p.m. every day for tea, which they made in their “billy” cans. The apprentice painters would make the tea. Then they would return to work for another hour or so and quit about 5:30. It was the job of the apprentice to do the scrubbing up of all the brushes and equipment—and so they were nicknamed scrubbers. Da spent four years as an apprentice, from the time he started working at age 12 until he was 16. From then on he was a journeyman, a fully- accredited bug blinder.
On days when my father was working, dinner would happen whenever he returned from work, usually well after the 5:30 p.m. quitting time. What we ate depended on the household finances at the time. And my mother was the one who often, literally, found the food to put on the table. She was a great provider in that way. Sometimes she went down to the fields and collected nettles, a green plant with stinging hairs on it—well—nettles. Sometimes we called them thistles. She’d pluck the nettles and made a dish that tasted like spinach when cooked. When we found out it was nettles, we were like, “Gah!” because they were the things that stung us when you touched them. I have to laugh now because some people think nettles are a delicacy, rich in vitamin C and minerals, and write about making them with pasta or gnocchi—gourmet meals. But Ma could do creative things with wild plants and always knew how to prepare or buy the least expensive things so we could get good nutrition.
And she made sure we had treats, too. One special favorite she used to call “sometin nice.” For the longest time, I didn’t know what it really was and it turned out to be Bird’s Custard. Bird’s was the brand that she would use to make custard-like a dessert (like My*T*Fine vanilla pudding). We would ask her, “What’s for dessert?” and she would just say, “sometin nice.” My father loved custard so the big deal in the house was . . . who was going to get to lick the pot? We would have a mock fight over whose turn it was. One would get the spoon, another would get a fork, and someone else would grab the pot. Invariably, my father would be given the pot because he loved it so much and Ma knew he loved to play with us with it. He would sit down there with the pot and we would all sit around and stare at him because we knew he would give us all a little bit and we knew he would scrape it better than we would, even though we would still try to stick our fingers in it.
In those early days, during the war, when the economy was still bad
in Ireland, my father was often unemployed. But being very artistic and creative, he would often spend his free time working on wood carving. I especially remember carvings of two old women. He carved one woman when my mother was pregnant with my brother and the other when she was pregnant with me. That was 1941 and 1942. The detail that he could get into these wood carvings always mesmerized me. My father taught me his whittling and carving methods and I spent many hours in my teenage years whittling and carving. It is one area I was, and am, most proud of: being able to use this artistic expression of working with wood.
As an artist, Da loved to point out the beauty in everything. He taught us how to draw and paint pictures. He was a tremendous reader too, devouring everything he could get his hands on, because, like my mother, he didn’t have any formal education. He would spend a tremendous amount of time browsing bookstores, and he would read any subject, it didn’t matter what it was. So, as a result there were few subjects that he didn’t know something about. The books he bought were mostly used, though, and usually had to do with art, art history or the great artists. I spent many a Sunday after Mass visiting the art galleries with Da and he would point out the differences between the traditional artists and the impressionists, which he loved. When each of us left home he gave us some of his sketches. He gave me one of his very special books of sketches of Dublin. Later on when we would come home from America he would give us finished paintings. Da—and Ma too—made sure all of us took advantage of educational opportunities they never had, right from the beginning. Early School Days
In Inchicore, across from the canal, and beyond it was the beginning of a housing area called Crumlin. Crumlin grew from that time and now it is probably 10 square miles. It is huge. You’d get lost in there if you didn’t know where you were going. The whole population was 100 percent Catholic and the Christian Brothers ran the only public schools in the area, so very few lay teachers worked in the schools. It was the nuns who ran the lower schools, the elementary schools.
At first, school seemed like it was a very, very long distance away but it really wasn’t—it’s just that we were so small when we first went to school. For my first two school years, I went to Low Babies (what they would call kindergarten here), and then to High Babies for first grade. The school was in Goldenbridge Convent and was run by The Sisters of Charity.
At home, mornings would start at 8 o’clock, when we would have porridge or oatmeal for breakfast, and everyone would get dressed for school. We were always wearing short pants—only the big boys wore longers. We didn’t get to wear longers until we got to go to St. Michael’s run by the Christian Brothers. Even there you were in for a couple of grades before you would start wearing long pants. St. Michael’s was an all-boys school. Girls were sent to a separate school, also run by the Sisters of Charity.
Classes would start around 9 o’clock and last until noon. Sister Charlotte was my favorite teacher and she was the kindest person I had ever met in my life, but of course, I thought she was very old. She must have been at least 30 at the time! She was a big person and she always had sweets in her pocket. I must have been one of her favorites because she always gave me one. After school, before we rushed home, Sister Charlotte would take us out to the convent grounds where there were turkeys and guinea hens and a peacock roaming around. I had never seen live turkeys and birds like these before.
The sisters would always give us a very good lunch at school, but it cost a penny, which Ma always provided. After school my mother would have a cup of tea or milk for us. There was a small farm on the opposite side of the canal, maybe a quarter of a mile away, and my brother and I had the job to go down to the farm to get fresh milk in the milk can. We would have to make that can last us for a few days and then we would go back and do it again. Religion has always played such a very important role in my life and as a teenager, I believed being a priest was the plan for me. My parents were devout Catholics and we went to St. Michael’s Church in Inchicore each and every Sunday and all the holy days of obligation. St. Michael’s Church is still there today and it seems that it has not changed at all.
Neighborly Mrs. Noble
Mrs. Noble lived in the first house of a block of five red brick row houses next to the Mill View Cottages in our neighborhood. If you faced our house, along the canal, it was to the left. She was the midwife for the neighborhood.
Women in those days didn’t go to the hospital to have their babies. Mrs. Noble was called and she would come down and they would “bring” the baby. I don’t know about any compensation for her, whether she did it out of the goodness of her heart, or what it was. We kids didn’t get informed of any of the finances at all; we just knew that when a lady in the neighborhood was arriving at her time, Mrs. Noble took care of it.
She delivered Terrie, Liam, me, and Fran, and, to this day, I don’t know Mrs. Noble’s first name.
She was a very kind person. We would go down to her house and ask her for cookies and she would make scones and always give them to us. She had a particular affection for us, maybe because she delivered us. That bonding seems to occur between women and babies.
Maybe that’s also the reason she would always defend us. The small piece of ground beside her home probably belonged to the other four houses. They were supposed to use it for a garden but the kids used to play on it all the time. It became a place where the bigger kids on the street would play marbles, or pitch pennies against the wall. When disputes arose and the boys got into fights—which happened quite often—she would come out and settle everything down. For a long time I wasn’t big enough to participate in those games and would stand around watching. Liam, the Locks, and Me
Our favorite place to play, for Liam and me, was near the canal. Every few days a barge would come and go through the locks and we would be fascinated. Larry-the-Lockman always shooed us away in case we would fall in between the barges or whatever. Two mischievous, young boys always gave him a hard time. He was always yelling at us, but I tried to get friendly with the crew on the barge.
One of them was particularly friendly and used to let me ride on
the barge from the second to the third lock and then I would walk back home. I did this during the summer months. I would talk to the man and he would tell me about his flute. It was actually a fife. He said that I should learn how to play it and brought it from home one day to give it to me. That is when I started to play my first musical instrument.
Liam and I loved to play in and around the lock, even though we were always chased away from it. Finally, my father got so worried that we might fall in and drown that he made sure we learned how to swim. His methods were a little unorthodox but they worked. What he would do is take the belt off his pants, wrap it around our waist and hold us in the water. He would slowly release the pressure on it so that we would literally sink or swim. It didn’t take us long to learn how to swim and this way, at least, he was assured that if we accidentally fell in, we were going to be okay. We loved nothing better on a nice day than to go for a swim, diving and jumping from the top of the lock gates, with or without permission.