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Lorna Hoey: the day that I first saw the light

March 14, 2010

It’s a line from a corny old ballad that my father used to sing around the house: Come back Paddy Reilly to Ballyjamesduff. But although it’s my birthday this week, it’s not that light that I’m thinking of.

I’m thinking back to a summer afternoon in 1958. All of us – my brothers, parents and a couple of neighbouring farmers – were gathered in the kitchen with the curtains drawn tight, faces turned upwards to a brand-new lightbulb. We waited. The kitchen clock tick-tocked slowly. It must be soon, somebody muttered. They said it would be about now. And then all at once we were in the middle of an astonishing white glare. We screamed, whooped, clapped. I think somebody burst into tears.

The electricity had come.

My brothers and I ran from room to room. Everywhere was lit up with the same glittering brilliance. We saw cupboard knobs, keyholes, the crack in the fireplace that we’d never really noticed before. Now the possibilities were endless. My parents were talking excitedly of a pump that would lift the water from our well at the flick of a switch, putting an end to the hours of hand-cranking. My brothers and I looked at each other, our eyes shining, thinking only of the dazzling possibility of a television. We had never seen a television, but we had seen pictures of one. Wouldn’t that be grand, we whispered gleefully.
After a day or two we began to notice headaches. And how quiet it was in the evenings, doing our homework; there was no hissing of the old Tilley lamps. My mother began to fret. The wallpaper was grimy, curtains seemed drab and colourless, the carpet worn and dull. We too thought the walls looked different without the long flickering shadows from the fire.

Out of the blue we had a phone call from England. Posh Uncle and Auntie would shortly be travelling to a holiday place on the coast near us; could they call in on the way? My mother looked around the sitting-room in despair. On the day they were due to arrive she was in a panic. She had dusted and swept and tidied, but there was no denying it, the place didn’t look great. My father glanced around the room and then sprang up from his chair. He got out the step-ladder and solemnly climbed it to the meter-board. We watched in wonder as he pushed the big switch upwards to the OFF position. He put a finger to his lips. Shhh, he said.

That evening he and Posh Uncle sat in opposite armchairs, the softly-glowing room quiet except for a gentle background hissing. Posh Uncle leaned forward, warming his whiskey at the fire. Ah, it’s hard to beat the old Tilley lamps, he said, sighing contentedly.

Indeed, said my father.

And still no sign of the electricity coming?

No, said my father, stretching his legs towards the warm blaze, never a word.


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