Athlone in the 1950s – Guinness barges steam up the Shannon with their precious cargo; turf boats chug along the canal towards Dublin; markets bring life to the streets as the farmers sell their livestock and vegetables while their wives barter eggs with the snooty shopkeepers. It is the era of Éamon de Valera and Archbishop McQuaid, when ‘fallen’ women are condemned to the Magdalene Laundries, and droves of hopeful emigrants are making their way to Kingstown Harbour, on their way to far-off lands.
But for young John Killeen, Athlone is a whole world in itself, full of opportunities for adventure and colourful characters who take him away from hostility of home. There’s no-nonsense Mrs Webb in her crumbling mansion, whose love of horses and indomitable spirit are infectious; the Crotty sisters, who oversee the moral standards of the town; Mr Foy, whose toyshop inspires envy and hope in every child; and the seventh son of a seventh son, whose powers of healing are liberally applied.
Most important of all, there is Peggy, the Killeen’s housekeeper, who is John’s constant source of affection as he navigates a childhood that is at turns both magical and threatening. She is there when his father turns violent, when he falls for young Steffi next door, and whenever he needs his faith in humankind restored.
One for Sorrow, Two for Joy is an enchanting and searingly honest memoir of an Ireland long gone but well remembered, of a time that remains both part of what we are and part of what we left behind.