A story with thermal contrasts
Being a child in a large, cold house in rural Ireland in the winters of the 1940s meant wearing several layers of clothes. Before the arrival of the Rural Electrification Scheme our lighting was by paraffin oil lamps or candles. My father considered himself 'progressive' so we enjoyed bottled propane gaslight in the kitchen and sittingroom. Cooking was done on a large cast iron range that devoured wood and peat at an amazing rate. This range also heated water to a half-hearted lukewarm for the kitchen sink and bathroom.
Beds absorbed moisture from the high humidity of the West Cork air and there was a belief that some dire malady could be contracted by sleeping in a cold, damp bed, hence a variety of hot water bottles were employed every evening. We had three or four rubber ones, one scalding hot shiny aluminum one and two heavy earthenware ones that woke everyone and set the the dog barking whenever they crashed heavily onto the wood floor in the small hours. To protect feet and other anatomical parts from burns thick, knitted hot water bottle covers were employed, some mundane, some in teddy bear style. Throughout cold winter months the daily evening chore of filling the hot-water bottles from two large kettles was a task stoically undertaken by my father.
He appreciated the comfort of his armchair beside the blazing open fire listening to the radio, reading a newspaper or playing Lexicon with my mother. Finally he would retire to the generously hot-water-bottled, pre-heated bed, something he considered to be a necessity rather than a luxury.
My father was manager of Warners Cash Warehouse, a large shop in the sea-side town of Bantry. It stocked the products of the firm's bakery, a wide range of groceries and it also had a hardware section. In addition, the enterprise supplied any visiting ships, a position that gave my father, known to everyone as 'Jimmy-in-Warners,' considerable stature in the town and his maritime contacts occasionally led to some very exciting adventures for our family.
In the years immediately following the end of the Second World War, Bantry Bay was visited by some interesting ships. Minesweepers were active in the shipping lanes off the south coast of Ireland and in the Atlantic and some called to Bantry. One very large visitor was the British destroyer HMS Devonshire and thanks to my father's contacts our family was invited on board the warship; it had several shell-hole patches after its wartime sea battles, a really memorable adventure for this seven-year-old.
A year later a very different type of ship arrived in the harbour and my father's status once again came into play. This time the Harbour Master and Jimmy-in-Warners had each received a formal invitation to visit the Phanthome on a fine Sunday afternoon.
This was a magnificient three-masted, luxury Tall Ship, owned at that time by the Guinness family. It had been hidden away somewhere during the war and was at last able to enjoy its post-war freedom.
The Phanthome in Bantry Bay
We arrived at the appointed time at Bantry pier where we boarded the most pristine motor launch I had ever seen; all shiny varnish and polished metal glinting in the sunshine. The ladies of the party kept expressing amazement at how clean everything was.
We had an excellent view of the fresh black and white paint-work and the three graceful masts as the launch circled the Phanthome. The smartly uniformed sailor in the bow did clever things with a boat-hook and soon we were alongside the ship's gangway. More pristine varnish and gleaming handrails led up to the main deck, where, after a tour of the profusion of sailing ship fittings and much neck-straining while staring upwards at the soaring masts, we were welcomed into what I believe was called The Wardroom. There I drank my first sample of green fizzy lemonade while the grownups drank other stuff and seemed to like it a lot.
Afternoon tea was served on plates, cups and saucers, all of which bore the image of the Phanthome in full sail. We had nothing like that at home; not even one plate with a picture of our house on it! I was disappointed with the fancy cakes. They were exactly the same as ones we had at home sometimes, supplied by Warners bakery, of course.
The ladies were then wafted off to see feminine things, like the library, paintings, photographs, private cabins with their beds and bathrooms.
The three men, (that included me), were escorted down steep companion-ways to see the engine room where a powerful diesel engine drove a generator 'that could supply a town with electricity.' Valves, gauges, dials knobs and pipes were everywhere and green paint dominated the scenery with highlights of more shining brass and polished copper. On either side of the centre gangway stood a pair of huge and silent marine engines. That's cheating, I thought, this is supposed to be a sailing ship!
On returning to The Wardroom I noticed my mother was, for once, speechless. Having examined various display cases and paintings of sailing ships, mostly of Phanthome, we prepared to leave and my mother managed to find her voice and asked our host, "Please show my husband that bed."
"But of course. This way."
The cabin we entered wasn't very big and it contained one single bed, neatly made up, ready for its occupant. My father was propelled towards it and my mother pushed his hand beneath the bedclothes. He lingered there for what seemed a needlessly long time, slowly moving his hand from side to side, grinning in amazement.
"Luxury! Oh, what utter, utter luxury!" he declared, "No need for kettles and hot-water-bottles."
It was twenty five years after that visit to the tall ship that Ireland's Rural Electrification Scheme connected my parent's house to the National Grid and the power was switched on for the first time on one cold winter's day. The first electrical appliance they purchased wasn't a kettle, a washing machine or an iron. That night my parents enjoyed the luxury of an electric blanket.
"Now we're as comfortable as they were on the Phanthome!" was my father's comment.
Over the intervening years whenever I found myself in a cold bed, my thoughts would flash back to that first encounter with an electric blanket on board The Phanthome. Luxury! Utter Luxury indeed.