Thursday, March 3, 2011

Mizen's Wicker Hamper; by Victor Sullivan

© 1, November, 2010

Kindness during hard times recalled

Mizen Head, the wild, windswept, most south-westerly extremity of the island of Ireland, juts out into the vastness of the Atlantic Ocean at Latitude 51º 27' 01" N Longitude 9º 49' 07" W. Surprisingly, it does not boast a lighthouse but the array of radio masts and the rusting remains of their predecessors bear witness to the former importance of the place as a navigational aid for the ships that ply the busy sea-routes. Modern satellite-aided navigation has resulted in the downgrading of the former radio station and it is no longer manned. A fascinating Museum informs tourists about the life and duties of the men who served on the many Lighthouses around the coast and at the Marine Radio Station at Mizen Head.

In the Summer of 2007 I joined the line of visitors from Britain, America, Europe and elsewhere and entered the Museum. Inside, a cut-way model of a Lighthouse tower soars up to the roof and beside it a large wicker hamper rests on a simulated jetty. I recognised that hamper instantly and I was whisked back to a moment in the 1940s, a time of rationing, hard times and shortages of almost everything, including sweets, cigarettes, sugar and tea, thanks to World War 2.

Warners of Bantry had the contract for supplying Lighthouses around the south-west coast of Ireland and my father, (known as Jimmy-in-Warners), was the manager of that establishment. On seeing the large hamper I vividly recalled sitting on the shop counter watching my father packing that very same woven willow king-sized hamper with the supplies for the men who manned the isolated Marine Radio Station at Mizen Head.

Jimmy-in-Warners personally packed the hamper while the shop-assistant ran to and fro fetching the items on the list. On the counter between me and the hamper was a shining tin canister of sweets, rare treats in those harsh times. I watched hopefully as my father carefully pushed the sweets and a few cigarette packets into gaps between the packages in the basket. Gradually the contents of the hamper rose until a final sprinkling of a few more sweets terminated the operation, the lid creaked shut and the two leather straps were buckled.

My father replaced the lid on the tin of sweets and returned it to its appointed place beneath the cash till. Then the shop assistant lifted the heavy hamper from the counter revealing just one precious 'forgotten' sweet ... for me.

Four or five years after that experience, with the war over and sweets and other luxuries once more readily available, my father suddenly announced that he had received a very special invitation to visit Mizen Head on the following Sunday. Sunday afternoon drives were part of the family's normal routine but on this occasion my father seemed to be suppressing great excitement. On reaching Mizen Head he led us down the many steps to the spectacular bridge that spans the yawning void separating the last tip of Ireland's main land from the Marine Radio Station on the rocky island. The gate was locked but a man in uniform came towards us from across the bridge. He unlocked the gate and welcomed Jimmy-in-Warners, my mother, my younger sister, Audrey and myself to Mizen Head Marine Radio Station.

And what a reception we received! Jimmy-in-Warners was clearly a very popular VIP visitor. We were taken on a guided tour of the Radio Station, watched the automatic Morse code transmitter tapping out its monotonous string of dots and dashes and we were entertained with tales of wartime convoy attacks, of passing ships on fire, U-Boat conning towers, low-flying aircraft dropping depth charges and stories of the arrival and subsequent unpacking of the hamper of goodies with the ever-welcome 'off-list' sweets and cigarettes. All the men remembered the sweets.

We were treated to tea and cakes (from Warner's bakery) and there may have been other hospitality provided for the grown-ups while Audrey and I were taken to see how the explosive charges were set off as a fog signal.

Eventually the visit ended and we were escorted back across that scary bridge. As we climbed the steep steps a lone voice called after us: "Thanks for all the sweeties, Jimmy!"

If you don't believe my story, ask that hamper, it was there on that day also.

1 comment:

  1. I believe you. And I’ll bet that wicker hamper had some pleasant aromas.

    This is an extremely heart-warming remembrance of the strength of family and the circle of giving during very tough times.

    Your superb writing creates powerful images in my mind. Thank you for the enchantment.