The Digs In Dublin 1945 by Geoff Cronin
It was in the autumn of 1945 when I set out for Dublin where I was to work at The Swiss Chalet Bakery and learn the confectionery trade. I was to do a year’s stint, without pay, and my father would pay for my board and lodgings – thirty shillings per week.
So it was that I arrived at teatime in the “digs” at Mespil Road by the canal in Dublin. It was an old Georgian house with ten granite steps leading up to the front door. The door was answered by Mary, the maid, a good-looking dark-haired girl with a complexion so pale it suggested prison pallor. I waited in that lofty hallway, which had a faint aroma of polish and boiled cabbage. Mary went to call the landlady.
Dublin landladies of that time – it was known as “the emergency” here, or “the war”, in other countries – had the reputation of being somewhat less than generous. In fact, it was jokingly said that you could tell a landlady sitting on the beach because she would pick up pebbles and squeeze them and drops of blood would come out. The truth was that they had a very difficult time catering for their guests, because all staple food was rationed – tea, butter, sugar etc. – and anything not rationed would be at black market prices.
Now the landlady emerged from the nether regions – she lived in the basement with a flock of cats, her husband Peter, and Mary the maid. Peter had the same prison pallor as Mary, and was tall and thin, so thin, in fact, he looked as if he had been ironed. I only saw him twice in the year I spent there. His wife, Mrs. Keller, on the other hand was the complete opposite. She was no more than five feet tall and weighed in at around eighteen stone. Her complexion was ruddy, her black hair was parted in the middle and disappeared down her back, and her fat face was adorned by a black moustache. An imposing figure, no doubt about it. She was a pleasant enough lady and my briefing was concise. Rent was thirty shillings weekly, payable every Tuesday; I got a key for the front door and could come and go as I pleased as long as I made no noise at night. Mary would show me to my room, and tea (the evening repast) would be in the dining room in fifteen minutes.
The bedroom was upstairs. It contained two beds, one large wardrobe, which could be locked, a tallboy with two drawers allocated to each inmate, a large window which overlooked the garden and also Iris Kellet’s Equestrian School. The ceiling was lofty as befits a Georgian house, with an ornate centrepiece and the floor was covered with the coldest lino I ever experienced. The room was unheated!!
Having put my case under number two bed, I checked where the bathroom was – there was only one – and went down to the dining room. Nine men were seated at the table having their tea, and I was appointed to the tenth place with my own sugar bowl and butter dish. The ration, which arrived on Thursday, was half a pound of sugar and six ounces of butter. Mary, with something resembling a flourish, presented me with a plate bearing a rasher, egg and sausage, noted by all the company. I was to learn later that this was only an “introductory offer”, and the standard tea was egg on toast. Breakfast was one boiled egg and toast, and lunch was the main meal. Supper consisted of one glass of milk – watery!
The personnel were a mixed bag consisting of one civil servant (Land Commission), one book-keeper (Johnston Mooney & O’Brien), one High Court clerk, one thirty-two year old chronic medical student, four divinity students (Protestant), one trainee radio officer, and myself, trainee confectioner.
The guests had the use of the drawing room, which had a piano but no fire after about nine o’clock in the evening. This was no big deal in the autumn, but as winter set in, it was a different story. Still it didn’t affect me too much as I went out most nights to attend dance classes, which was my thing at that time, and because I had a bicycle!
Because of my bicycle, I got a key to the side door of the house, which gave access to the downstairs hallway where I could park my bike. The side door was situated under those imposing granite steps which led up to the front door but in addition it also gave access to the turf store, which filled the space beneath the front steps.
One night I came in about ten o’clock. There was a heavy frost and the house was freezing, so much so that the few guys in the dining room had been burning their evening papers to try and keep up the temperature. I, on the other hand, decided that enough was enough and taking the empty bucket, I went out the front door, down the steps and in the side door where I quietly filled the bucket with turf and made a triumphal re-entry to the dining room, where we soon had a roaring fire going. A second bucket was filled, and as more guys came in and shared the welcome heat, the atmosphere became positively convivial.
About midnight, the main topic was how we might continue our new found comfort, when one of the divinity students produced a large waterproof cape of the type supplied to the Local Defence Force. It was big enough to double as a ground sheet for camping out. This was carried out the front door and returned full of turf. This supply was stored on top of the large ornate cornice over the sideboard, two further cape loads were carried upstairs and stored in the wardrobe in my room – all the clothes having been removed and hung up all over the place. By one a.m. everything was secured and all concerned sworn to secrecy. We were all tired, but warm and happy.
Now there was a “houseboy” employed in the digs who did all the cleaning and polishing. He was a diminutive little fellow whose name was Willie, and he was “a couple of bricks short of a cartload”, so to speak. However, he stopped me in the hall one lunchtime, saying –
“Tell me now, Mr. Cronin, you’re an educated man who would know the answer to this puzzle. How is it that one bucket of turf can produce two buckets of ashes?”
I was taken aback and decided to blind Willie with science, and I answered “Well, Willie, it has to do with the inverse ratio between the height of the chimney and the shape and size of the bucket.”
He went off muttering something about education and I guessed I had put him off the track, at least for the moment.
The following evening, however, all hell broke loose. Willie had had an accident and suffered a cut to his face and had been to the hospital for attention. Apparently Willie had succeeded in unlocking the door of the wardrobe in my room, and when a couple of hundredweight of turf fell out on top of him, he fell over and struck his face on the corner of the wardrobe.
An inquisition was to follow that night, and a rapid whip around the lads produced the story that collectively we had bought a couple of bags of turf to try to keep ourselves warm, and smuggled them into the digs, and we felt sure Mrs. Keller would not want any publicity about the sad plight of her guests.
My roommate and I made a big fuss about invasion of privacy in having our wardrobe broken into. Well, the store of turf was confiscated, but we still had the lot we had hidden over the sideboard in the dining room, and we did get an extra bucket of turf per night thereafter, also every man swore to be on his best behaviour in future.
There was, however, another dark plot being hatched. My roommate, who had a good job in the Four Courts, bought a small electric fire in a pawnshop down town and it came in a little attaché case with a comparatively stout lock. He reckoned, in any event, that Willie’s career in lock picking had come to an end. Well, the luxury of being able to warm pyjamas with the little fire was almost unbearable. In fact, after a while we were having visitors from other rooms coming stealthily in for a warm, and there would often be six or seven “warmers” in the room at a time. Next there was the mystery of the escalating electricity bill, and operations had to be curtailed for a while until it was announced that the mystery couldn’t be solved! Anyway, we survived the cold weather rather well, one way or another.
As with any male household where there is always a “wild card”, we certainly had one in the person of Joey, the Radio Officer. On the day Joey got his remittance from home, he would pay for his digs and get well and truly drunk on whatever was left. He would roll in at midnight singing at the top of his voice, and be threatened with expulsion the next morning.
During the week he made regular visits to the pawnshop, where his watch, his camera and everything else in sight would be pledged. On one particular night, we were warming ourselves at our private electric fire, when Joey arrived. He burst into our room singing, took off his shoes “not to be too noisy”, and announced that we were to have a Céilí. He cavorted about the room doing his version of a “one handed reel” and in the process shed his jacket, his shirt, and then his trousers, all to great hilarity.
Suddenly, we heard Mrs. Keller’s voice, as she puffed up the stairs and arrived on our landing, calling out “Mr. Tyler (Joey), is it you who’s making all this noise?”
Joey, by this time down to his underwear, whipped off his shorts and rushed out onto the landing shouting “Coming my love!” The landlady disappeared down those stairs like a rabbit into a hole!!
Joey did everyone a great service on another occasion. It was generally known that the medical student was “a toucher”, i.e. he had borrowed money from all and sundry and had not repaid any of his debts. He was living well beyond his means and among other things, he went horse riding and had a very nice pair of riding boots for that purpose. Well, one Saturday when “the Medical” was out, Joey went around all the guests and took notes of what each person was owed. Then he disappeared and reappeared just before teatime, and ceremoniously paid off all “the Medical’s” debts.
Before we could ask for an explanation, “the Medical” burst into the room red as a turkey cock, shouting, “My room has been burgled and by good riding boots are missing.”
Joey immediately took him by the arm and shepherded him to a chair. “Relax, man, and don’t be getting so excited. Your boots are not missing at all, they’re quite safe.” “The Medical” was open-mouthed.
“Well, where are they?” he said belligerently.
“I’ll give you the address,” said Joey smiling indulgently as he fished a pawn ticket out of his pocket and handed it to “the Medical. “You can pick them up there any time you like.”
There was a spontaneous cheer from the assembled gathering, and “the Medical” slunk out of the room, his face ashen by this time. A week later, he was gone from the digs, and meantime Joey was a hero, especially as he admitted he had made a small profit on the transaction.
Another “event” which happened in the digs was when Mary, the maid, got a brainwave. She confided in me prior to making the suggestion to the landlady. The weekly ration of butter and sugar came on Thursdays and Mary was going to suggest that since “all the gentlemen were out of rations by Tuesday, the landlady should get the rations on Wednesday!”
On the same subject, I noticed that my butter ration began to diminish rapidly at one stage, and it was obvious that someone was helping himself in my absence. My problem was that I was out of the house first every morning, as I started work at eight o’clock, and everybody else went out about nine or later. This fact gave the thief ample opportunity to raid my butter dish.
At that time my elder brother, Dick, was working in a Chemist’s shop on the other side of Dublin, and we met at odd weekends. I was telling him about my problem and he said –
“I’ll give you some extract of malefern, which you can mix with some butter and leave it as bait for your thief.”
When I asked what exactly this stuff was, he answered cheerfully “It’s what they give to racehorses for constipation.” I took it and baited my butter as instructed, and told only one person about the trap. My butter was never touched again! The person I told was my roommate. He left the digs soon afterwards. This ended my stay at the digs in Mespil Road.
The next digs I found myself in, was at the top of Harcourt Street, and the rent was now two pounds a week. It was another Georgian house on the side of the street, and was run by a maiden lady in her fifties.
Miss Ruttle was an imperious lady with jet black hair (dyed), tall and large bosomed, and obviously wore a bullet-proof corset which just about enabled her to get into the rather garish dresses she wore. She was militantly religious and just before we finished our evening meal, she would sweep into the dining room, preceded by her very pungent perfume, and order us all down on our knees to say the Rosary, followed by “the trimmings” which consisted of three Hail Marys for each of her special intentions, e.g. the souls in purgatory, propagation of the faith, girls who were keeping doubtful company (all named), etc. etc. etc. The trimmings took longer than the Rosary, and the whole performance was devoutly to be avoided. This we did, most of the time.
One night, it was someone’s pay night and some of us went out for a drink – this was daring stuff – and returned about ten o’clock, to find “herself” straddling the welcome mat with arms folded.
“I’ve only one thing to say to you gentlemen,” she said icily. “If you don’t come home at a reasonable hour in future, you will not be allowed to join in the family Rosary.”
One night, when Miss Ruttle announced that she was going out for the evening, four of us ventured into her drawing room, which was totally ‘off limits’. The room was Victoriana personified, with hand painted cushions, a red plush chaise-longue, footstools, a sampler fire screen, bric-a-brac all over the place, and beautiful upright piano in an ebony case with matching stool. I promptly sat down at the piano, at which point the rest of the “guests” joined us, and in no time flat, we had a right royal sing song going.
We were in the middle of “You must have been a beautiful baby…” when everything went suddenly quiet, and when I looked up from the keyboard – there she was, in the open doorway. I remember thinking of the scene in the sorcerer’s apprentice when the wizard appears and stops the flood. The temperature in the room dropped to zero, and there followed a tirade of rhetoric that would have done credit to Hitler himself.
Well, we just about managed to maintain speaking terms – in a monosyllabic manner – for the remainder of my stay, which fortunately was only a few weeks, as my time in Dublin had run its course.
I made some friends in that place and in fact I still meet one of them for a drink every year since I came to live in Dublin permanently, nearly forty years ago.
©Geoff Cronin 2005
About Geoff Cronin – 1923 – 2017
There were few jobs that Geoff could not turn his hands to, and over the years he mastered an impressive number of professional undertakings. Master baker and confectioner, mobile cinema operator, salesman, band leader, senior executive and master wood turner, storyteller and writer.
Geoff Cronin published his first book in 2005 at age 82. The Colour of Life is a collection of stories of life in Waterford during his childhood and early adulthood in the 1920s, 30s and 40s. This was followed by two further books that related tales of further adventures in Waterford and Dublin.
Thank you for dropping in today and you can read the previous chapters of The Colour of Life in this directory: