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All you need is Love - A (true) Celtic Fairy Story

by Leanne Meyer

     Angela's Ashes, the autobiographical novel by Irish writer Frank McCourt, was a runaway bestseller; McCourt told of the terrible misery and suffering of his childhood in the poor district of Limerick; but was it really as bad as that?
   Here writer Leanne Meyer tells the true story of another large Irish family, and how they coped with life.

     The first thing you notice is the fire. And then you realise that this has more to do with the family than the outside temperature. Their father used to stoke the fire each morning to warm them up before school, and this was also where he would toast the bread which would blacken their faces and taste like charcoal.

       Sadly, their father died a year ago. But as we speak "Mammy", at sixty-five, is walking to town to buy the goodies her boys need for the weekend.

      What makes their mother remarkable is that she bore six boys, four of whom still live at home, along with 12 girls, two of whom are also still at home. Yes, Mammy was pregnant for 18 years of her life and almost produced a child a year. All the babies arrived naturally with the smallest weighing a good seven pounds and Owen, the biggest, registering a whopping 13 pounds on the scales.

     After the birth of Susie (the youngest) however, Mammy moved out of the marital bed and into the "girls room." As committed Catholics, who ensured that their family went to confession every Saturday and mass each Sunday, this was the right and only way.

Mammy & family     All eighteen children still live in Waterford, Ireland. Not one child has been lost. Twelve of them have their own families, making Mammy a grandmother forty-eight times over, with three great grandchildren as well. One daughter-in-law claimed that she would break Mammy's record. Not surprisingly she gave up after the birth of her tenth child.

     Mammy on the other hand revelled in raising her brood with not even the assistance of a disposable nappy.  Meals were cooked in a pot "big enough to bath a baby in", using all four plates on the cooker. The twelve girls shared a room and the six boys shared another. Each room had a double bed, where on average six kids slept. If you were small enough you slept in the chest of drawers which has only recently been sold. Otherwise you had to find your own spot somewhere between the bed and the chest. When it came to personal hygiene, you just made sure that you got into the bath or sink (depending on your size) first. Understanding the scale of what it means to have twenty people in the house, had to lead to the question, "How did your father afford it?"
    This stops the conversation immediately.

     "Daddy was a block layer (a builder) which was a very good job in those days." 

    They truly believe that they were blessed; that they did not want for anything. Yet they tell stories that fellow countrymen have written books about, lamenting the conditions in which they grew up.

     Firstly there was the food. They reminisce about how their father used to make the most delicious chicken soup. But how all that changed when Carole found the rabbit carcasses in the shed. Their father also later admitted to using sweetbreads when no rabbit could be found. "You know testicles form part of sweetbreads."

      Then gales of laughter are the only response to what some would consider a gourmet horror.  Then there had to be the pig's head. These girls, however, are quite practical about how pigs tongue really tastes like corned beef, and then proceed to tease Susie because their father used to give her cooked pigs tails to suck on as a baby, and she apparently "loved it".

     Even in midwinter when building work was scarce and there often wasn't enough money for electricity, they spent time in the upstairs room telling ghost stories, which in retrospect, they point out is quite silly as they would all be terrified but could not switch the lights on. When sleep came there was always a fight about who would sleep in the middle, as this was the warmest place to be.

     The only thing the children say they missed while growing up was being Mammy or Daddy's "pet." There was never space for one child to be treated differently from another; but that, no doubt, was actually the key to this abundant family's remarkable coherence..

      All this joy in living may sound the stuff of fairy tales; but this is the story of a real family that is solidly anchored in reality, with moments of drama and pain.

     Often the children missed out on school trips as there was not enough money to pay for the outing. In fact, daughter Carole was once so keen to go on a trip that she encouraged her teacher to come and speak to her parents. Proud Mammy told the teacher that Carole was ill and would not be able to attend; but. unfortunately for Mammy, Carole was listening upstairs and shouted down that she was not sick. She went on that trip and still remembers it as "one of the best days of my life."

    Susie is still recovering from the loss of her fiancé at sea. Carole can recall the horrors of the convent she was sent to when, unmarried, she announced that she was expecting a baby. Yet it seems that it is all a question of attitude and approach to life. It this family, it was all a matter of love, with no room for self-indulgence and self-encompassing privacy. All you need is love.

Copyright notice.

This resource is © copyright Linguapress 2001 - Updated 2015.   Originally published in Spectrum magazine.
This text may not be reproduced on other websites nor in printed form without written permission from the publishers. Reproduction is authorised exclusively for personal use by students, or for use by teachers with their classes.


Student worksheet
Mammy's Family

1. Comprehension questions:

Students can either answer these questions in writing, or the teacher can ask them orally, for oral answers.

1. How old was Mammy when she spoke to the writer?
2. How many children did she have?
3. How many grandchildren does she have?
4. How many sons does she have?
5. Who is the youngest child?
6. How heavy was the heaviest baby at birth?
7. What town does Mammy live in?
8. How big was Mammy's cooking pot?
9. How many bedrooms did the children have?
10. Where did the smallest kids sleep?
11. What was the father's profession?
12. How do the children feel about their childhood?
13. What did their father make his so-called "chicken soup" with?
14. What did Susie do with pigs' tails?
15. Why did the girls tell ghost stories in the dark sometimes?
16. Why did they fight after telling ghost stories in the dark?
17. What did the children miss most about their childhood?
18. What else did they regret?
19. Why did Carole ask her schoolteacher to talk to her Mammy?
20. What did Mammy tell the schoolteacher?
21. Why was Carole sent to a convent?
22. What tragedy affected Susie's life?

2. Grammar
Replace the missing relative -or nominal relative - pronouns  (that, which, who, whom, what, how) in the following sentences. These sentences are very indirectly modeled on examples in the article.

1.    My brother is a computer expert, _________ is a well paid job.
2.    I told them about __________ we found our way home again.
3.    Many Irish writers are among the great names of ________ is known as “English�? literature.
4.    They could never agree about ________ would use the bathroom first.
5.    __________ I can’t understand is ________ he made chicken soup using rabbits.
6.    I have four brothers, one of _________ is in the navy.
7.    This is an exercise ________ is not very easy.
8.    I told them _________ I thought about their ridiculous proposals.
9.    Read the instructions if you want to know _________ to do.


Advanced level English resource

A selection of other resources in graded English
from Linguapress
Selected pages
Advanced level reading :
America's bald eagles
Mississippi Music
Tea and the British
Advanced level short stories:
Blue Gum Tree
Lucky Jim
And lots more:  More advanced reading texts  
Intermediate resources :
The Beatles
The Loch Ness monster; is it real?
Sport: Sports, American style
Life in the country; the good life?
USA: Winter sports, USA
USA: Close encounters with a Twister  
And more:  More intermediate reading texts  
Selected grammar pages
Online English grammar
Nouns in English
Word order in English
Reported questions in English
Language and style 
Themed crosswords for EFL
The short story of English

This resource - text and photos - © copyright Linguapress  2001 - 2020.
Updated from an article originally published in Spectrum magazine,2001.
Reproduction is authorised exclusively for personal use by students, or for use by teachers with their classes.

Multi-copying of this resource is permitted for classroom use. In schools declaring the source of copied materials to a national copyright agency, Linguapress advanced level resources should be attributed to "Spectrum" as the source and "Linguapresss France" as the publisher. -
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