Any of you who grew up in Limerick in the 40’s and 50’s will remember, like me, some of the “characters” that were to be found on our streets. These were people that maybe had fallen on hard times or as they say today ” were socially deprived” or had experienced physical or mental abuse at some time in their lives. But, these “characters” were not mean or vicious and certainly did not take out their personal hurt or pain on the population of Limerick. They only filled our minds with the diversity of living together with a tolerance for the ‘different’ types of people living in our community.
For instance, there was “Penny Bun” she is the one I best remember and maybe some of you do also. A large framed woman, always dressed in black and carrying numerous bags in which all her worldly possessions were kept. At a certain time each year she appeared in Limerick and made her way out to Rosbrien where she would make her home in the hedges of ‘Father Molloy’s Boreen.’ She always looked clean and tidy, but, used to talk to herself as she walked along the roads, that’s what made her a character and what fascinated us as children. What was she saying? Who was she talking to? We would follow close behind her as she walked in order to hear what she was saying. The trick , of course, was not to be seen by her as we followed along. Looking back at how we did this, I am sure the woman knew we were close on her heels. But she never pretended to hear us, never turned around or shouted at us, but then maybe she didn’t hear us or even know we were there close behind her – perhaps she did live in a wonderful world all of her own making.
Another “character” I recall seeing was the “Nurse” that is what I remember her being called. My father, who worked in Widdess’s Chemist in Roche’s Street knew her and told me that she had served in the First World War and had been shell-shocked. As a result she would occasionally stand at the corner of either Roche’s Street or William Street and start ordering the passing people to the nearest “shelter”.
I also remember a “character” we called ‘Mad Sean Kelly with the rubber b?.!’, that was the name we put on him. The reason we thought he was ‘mad’ was, because he had long grey shoulder length hair together with a full flowing grey beard, he wore a full length black coat, a woollen hat pulled down over his ears and always had his hands dug deep into his pockets.
He constantly shrugged his shoulders as he walked each day out to the Pike River at the end of the Ballinacurra Road. There were no houses, Shopping Centre or businesses beyond that point back then, only fields with the occasional farmhouse. I remember gathering wild irises and meadow sweet, picking blackberries and mushrooms in the rushy field across from the Crescent Shopping Centre. I also remember Mrs. Nolan’s kiosk, just at the bridge over the Pike. There you stopped for a two-penny or four-penny ice cream, which had been carefully marked out on the ice cream block with the aluminium divider. Or, maybe you bought a penny bar from her wide selection laid out on the shelves, Giftie, Pixie or Cough-No-More bars, Cleeve’s toffee squares (two for a penny) or ‘fat-meat’ (marshmallow strips).
Further out that road you had McDonnell’s shop, this was at the junction at the beginning of Dooradoyle and the Father Russell Road, as it is known to day. I seem to recall this road was originally known as the Mungret Road, which was renamed for Father Russell, a great Redemptorist priest who was knocked down and killed off his motor scooter at that spot.
‘Mad Sean’ on reaching the Pike Bridge would sit down there and pull out his lunch from the depths of his coat pockets and eat it at his leisure, this food was always wrapped many times in newspaper pages. The man was absolutely harmless and was known and helped by all the local residents.
There were also characters like Mad Johnny, Mary Ann and a few more that I remember seeing on the streets but did not have a name for them. All these people seemed to have a regular routine which had to be performed each day, this routine never interfered with the normal humdrum lives of the people of Limerick.
But, not all the “characters” were to be found in Limerick. I remember a friend telling me about ‘Bang-Bang’ a “character” who lived in Dublin. Now this “character” was a little different, he used to board the CIE, double-decker buses, with the kind permission of the conductor. He would then apparently hang off the pole at the entrance to the up-stairs of the bus and while the bus was travelling through the streets of Dublin he would, with an imaginary rifle, pretend to shoot the passing pedestrians while shouting “bang-bang” at them. Businessmen in striped suits with briefcases were seen to take their umbrellas and shoot back at ‘Bang-Bang’ from the footpaths. I can only imagine the joy this must have brought to the spectators while adding a little sparkle to their day.
These individuals were the “characters” of my childhood that I often think of to day as I walk into town, I must say I miss seeing them around. They added variety and interest to our lives then and were something to look forward to seeing, much as children to-day look forward to seeing their favourite cartoon or ‘soap-opera’ characters on TV.
Perhaps you can recall some lost “characters” from your childhood days?