It was a late summer’s day in 1970. Deirdre and I, our toddler strapped in the back seat of the Renault 4, were house hunting around Cork City’s north side. With a second baby on the way, the pressure was on to move from our small but picturesque flat on the river’s edge at Sunday’s Well. We had already been savagely outbid on a few crumbling and damp bungalows off the Sunday’s Well Road. We drove more in hope than expectation along the narrow artery from St Luke’s towards Montenotte in the parish of Mayfield. Montenotte (Mountain of the Night) was named after a small hill town in Italy and scene of a fierce battle in the Napoleonic Wars.
The road was bounded by the sandstone walls of grand merchants’ estates. Many of these estates had been converted to nursing homes, convents or outposts of COPE. COPE is a foundation dedicated to the care of physically and mentally handicapped patients. Then the road broadened, and so did our destiny.
To our left was a fine green lawn, dressed with old trees, behind which we saw the skeletal beginnings of a housing estate. This was no show-house, just a few bare walls and gables. The houses (Tracton Avenue and Place) were being built in the grounds of Tracton House, leaving wide lawns in between. The young foreman on site was Pat Hegarty, instantly recognised as a Cork hurling star of the time. He showed us around and gave us a small black and white brochure. We stood together in the frame of an unfinished doorway, baby clutched on one arm, looking lordly over the Lee valley and eastwards as far as Aghada. Without saying a word, we knew that we had arrived at our destination!
Hold on! What about the mortgage? In the weeks that followed, I trekked around the banks and building societies of Cork, seeking the daunting amount of £5000. This represented 250 times my weekly gross salary of £20. We had not impressed the lenders, although we had cobbled together the balance of £1500. Most of this came from the gratuity Deirdre received when she was obliged to leave her civil service job on marriage in 1968.
Despite our deposit, I was rejected even by my late father’s bank manager! As a final throw of the dice, I made an appointment with the manager of Irish Permanent Building Society on Winthrop Street. Never mind that we did not have a single penny on deposit there. Dressed in my best (actually my only) suit and tie, I clenched my clammy palms as I was ushered into his office. He seemed incredibly old to my eyes, seated at a large mahogany desk. He must have been fifty at least! Behind him stood a massive brass safe, the door of which was open. I could see nothing inside; it looked like an empty tabernacle. This was a bad omen indeed. However, previous rejections had strengthened my resolve and sharpened my technique. I managed to steer the discussion away from my current salary, to describing my ambitions, my prospects and my future solvency. Was it a trick of the light, or did I see a slight gleam of hope behind the manager’s half-frame gold-rimmed spectacles?
Weeks of waiting followed, and our hopes receded towards resignation. Finally, the postman brought not another overdue gas bill, but The Letter. Yes! The mortgage had been approved, and we counted every block, batten and slate of that house still in construction. We haunted the site. The baby crawled up the open staircase. We marvelled at two toilets, two showers AND a bath! No more body scrubs at the sink for us. In March 1971, the house, still reeking of fresh paint and uncarpeted, was ready for occupation. I was dissuaded from moving our things in the Renault 4, and sent to work while the removal men got on with the job. To their credit, they did not break a cup (we had only four), or scratch an armchair (we had two of those).
It was a rough and ready start, despite all the extra space. The roadway in front was still an earthen track, the floorboards remained bare for many months to come, but we were happy here. The communal green lawn beckoned invitingly to the first steps of toddlers. The trees burst into glorious pink and white blossom in May. To the rear, COPE provided a well-groomed vista of gardens and flowers. If you looked over the builder’s rubble, you could claim it as your own domain.
So we joined the informal Tracton commune of shared tea bags, nappies, baby medications and self-help. Maybe it is just another housing estate, satirised in Malvina Reynolds’ song with these lines:
Little boxes on the hillside
Little boxes made out of ticky-tacky
Little boxes, little boxes,
Little boxes all the same.
But as proof of our content, I am still here, thirty eight years later, proud to claim it as Gort Álainn (The Beautiful Field), our May Field.