In 1935, the Public Dance Halls Act banned the practice of house dances in Ireland. The Catholic Church considered them immoral. These private ‘at home’ dances essentially consisted of sets (four couples) or half-sets (two couples) dancing to quadrilles, a lively and intricate dance introduced to Ireland by veterans of the Napoleonic Wars and adapted to Irish music over the course of the nineteenth century. Indeed, if you were looking for love before 1935, then a house dance was probably the best place to go.
Not everyone kowtowed after the ban. House dances continued during the Emergency Years of the Second World War and it was at one such dance that Cathy Murphy met Billy Dowling, the father of her four children and her husband for fifty-seven years.
‘There used to be nothing only dances in the houses,’ she laughs. ‘We had some neighbours and great friends, two girls, who worked in Dublin. When they came home, they’d have a dance and we’d go all night. The two girls got married on the same day and there was a fierce crowd in the house, fifty or sixty people. It went on through until five or six o’clock in the morning. I don’t know how people had the energy. There was no drink at that time. It was just an accordion and a violin and the people dancing on the cement floor.’
Cathy was born in 1917, the second in a family of five. Her father, Dan Murphy, was a young man when his father died, leaving him a forty-acre farm at Collin, just south of the village of Moone in County Kildare. Dan’s grandfather had leased the land from the Leonard family of Hill View. During the 1930s, the Land Commission appropriated the farm and offered it to Dan. ‘He was a terrible honest man and he said he didn’t make much money and he’d never be able to pay for it,’ recalls Cathy. ‘My mother was raging with him! She was very industrious and hard working!’ One way or another, the Murphys secured the land which Cathy’s only brother, also Dan, farms today.
Cathy’s mother, Kate Murphy, had a sister who lost her husband at an early age. With only one young baby to rear, the concern was that Kate’s sister would become lonesome. Kate’s solution was to send her eldest daughter, Molly, to live with the widow. And Molly remained with her aunt ‘all the time until she grew up and got a job’. Despite the fact the house was only a few fields away from the Murphys, Cathy came to see Molly more as a cousin than a sister ‘because she was always over there’.
Cathy herself spent four of her earliest years living with another aunt at Talbotstown, near Baltinglass, County Wicklow. ‘Everyone was very poor at that time,’ she explains. ‘There was no money and people had to work hard. They only survived, that’s all. Still everyone was happy. They had no money. But, now, they all have money and maybe they’re not as happy.’
When Cathy was ten, her younger sister contracted measles and died. ‘When people got sick that time, there was really nowhere to go. We had the doctor come but there wasn’t the medication for her. She was always very delicate. And you couldn’t have the doctor coming all the time. He lived a long way away from them. People wouldn’t be using doctors either. They’d be going to different people for different things. Like if they had shingles, they’d go to the quacks who’d try and cure them.’
Life expectancy was very different then, says Cathy, and ‘seventy [years] was the best you’d hope’for'. ‘But there were the odd ones who lived a long time.’ Her neighbours included a couple called Mr and Mrs Dunne who lived to be ninety-three and ninety-four. ‘I knew them from the time I was a child, so they must have been born in the 1830s. They were a great old pair, very light-hearted. They’d sit by the open fire and he’d be tormenting her about being such an auld woman – and the two of them the same age!’
Cathy’s childhood was fundamentally cheerful. Her mother taught them card games and took them to whist drives. Her uncle regaled them with stories until midnight. Her father played fiddle and explained the rules of the GAA. Much to his delight, Kildare reached the All-Ireland football final five times between 1926 and 1931 – and won twice. Cathy often accompanied her father and brother to the teacher’s house in Moone where they would huddle around a wireless, listening as the points and goals clocked up. ‘And that was nearly eighty years ago,’ she marvels.
By day, Cathy helped her parents on the farm, tending to the pigs and crops, ‘a small bit of corn, a few potatoes and some turnips’. When her mother prepared the donkey for the weekly shopping trips to Moore’s grocery in Grangecon or to visit the fair in Baltinglass, Cathy and her sisters would leap up on the cart alongside her. ‘It was all donkeys and ponies and traps then,’ she recalls, ‘or else you walked.’ For a long time, the priest was the only man around who had a car. Even Mr Leonard of Hill View travelled by bicycle. When one of her uncle’s had a sick cow, his only option was to walk all the way to the town of Athy to inform the vet, a five-hour round trip.
Cathy was in her early twenties when she became the proud owner of her own black High Nellie bicycle. ‘That was a great gift!’ she says. ‘God, I often cycled down to cousins in Tinahely and I used to stay there a couple of days. There was no traffic on the roads. No cars. A few bicycles and people walking and maybe the farmers would be taking the cattle into the market.’ Much as she loved cycling, she cannot recommend the busy roads of modern Ireland as a sensible place for bicycles. She does, however, favour the commendable proposition to reopen the country’s disused railways as bicycle tracks.
Cathy was thirty-four years old when she met the late William ‘Billy’ Dowling of Ballyhade, County Carlow, at a house dance. They were married in Moone in 1951. In the absence of her father, who died in 1934, she was given away by her brother, Dan. The newlyweds duly purchased a forty-eight-acre farm at Ballyburn and set up a clever and somewhat pioneering business, growing top-quality vegetables – ‘carrots, potatoes, cabbage, scallions, onions, strawberries and all’. Assisted by their three sons and one daughter, they would gather, wash, weigh and pack the vegetables at the house and then Billy would drive them into Carlow where he stocked eight shops. ‘He worked hard at it, but he made good money,’ says Seamus, Billy and Cathy’s eldest son. The house where the Dowlings raised their family stands behind a modern bungalow where Cathy lives today. Billy passed away in 2008 at the age of ninety-two, leaving her with ‘many happy memories’.
WIth thanks to Seamus Dowling, Liam Dowling, and Donal Murphy.
NB: The photos of Cathy Dowling from 'Vanishing Ireland' apparently inspired the dress and character of a devious murderer in Pat McCabe and Kevin Allen's 2012 horror film "Flat Lake".