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The Facts of Life (Irish Style)

Would I want to eat sweets all the time? A tricky question.


Woman's Way, 27 July 2020

When the going gets tough the cooks get going. A challenge is better faced on a full stomach, I always think. Though hazards abound for those like me with a sweet tooth, running the risk of cake-retention. As I go about the day, buffeted by the odd wave of worry and boredom, I’ve an overwhelming urge to tear into a fit of home baking. I’m no Catherine Fulvio or Mary Berry, but I did once have notions of being a Domestic Science teacher. Sion Hill loomed large on my teenage horizons. But that all went out the window when I figured sewing entered the equation. 


Deep down I know all that lies between me and the road to perdition is one freshly baked fairy cake. Perhaps I’m old-fashioned but I just can’t bring myself to call them cupcakes. Even memories of home baking are comforting. I’m not talking about any old baking here, but the traditional type. Who remembers delights such as rock-buns, Viennese shortbread, and the glorious Victoria sponge? The likes of which were described in easy-to-follow picture panes in my first ever cookbook, My Fun to Cook Book. 


As I recall, it was on the back of one such page with its step-by-step instructions for coconut slices, that my mother had a first attempt at explaining the facts of life to me. Why that day, and why the urgency, I have no idea. She was always a lady in a rush with lots to do and lots of places to go. I can only guess that someone had spotted me talking to boys at the bus-stop on my way home from school in O’Connell Avenue. 


In this her first sketchy attempt, armed with a pencil in one hand and no doubt the car-keys in the other, she drew some very peculiar diagrams. I think they had only a passing acquaintance to human anatomy as perplexingly for me, there were crucial missing bits of information missing. In my mother’s defence, I don’t think she wanted me to suffer an information overload. 


Later, she sought to remedy this vague explanation at another remove a year or so after. This second, more detailed explanation coincided with the arrival of a handsome new lifeguard to the dune-side hut on Barleycove Beach. I have the distinct if bizarre memory of my mother following on with advice for the future, describing a birth-control method based on abstinence. We were standing in the tiny hall of our holiday chalet in front of a hot-air drier stuffed with eight pairs of swimming togs and eight damp towels. 


In this explanation, she used the analogy of a sweetie shop. She put it to me that would I really want to eat sweets all the time if they were available to me 24/7? A tricky question. I and my pals had been in charge of the lunchtime tuck shop at school the previous term and had done precisely that. Stuffing our Clearasil-drenched faces with Marathon bars and Toffos, until we were green and queasy back at our desks every afternoon. I was deeply sceptical such a method worked, given the groaning timbers of neighbouring chalets straining against the size of holidaying families inside.


Along with diagrams on my cookbook and the abstinence talk, my facts-of-life education was crowned by one of the most exciting episodes in my all-Irish convent school. As I recall it now, I vividly see our Inter Cert biology book ‘as gaeilge’, Bitheolaiocht Beo. The first few chapters of the primer had descriptions of simple life forms such as the amoeba, the hydra, and the worm. But it was the section on ‘An Coinín’ which caused the greatest murmurs of excitement. For it was this specific chapter that went into detail about the reproductive system of none other than the humble rabbit. Lest the school be held accountable for any loss of innocence to our young minds, all pupils were obliged to get a signed note from parents or guardians to attend this class. I look back in pity at the poor male teacher who had to deliver this lesson to a class of giggling schoolgirls.


No doubt today’s savvy kids would fall around in gales of laughter at any talk of ‘birds and bees’. Indeed the expression might elicit nothing more than a bemused stare of how things were ‘back in the day’.  For the moment, life as we knew it has changed and many of us have paused for thought to indulge in the safety of nostalgia. When my family accuse me of staring vacantly into space, I tell them I’m researching and plotting in my head. ‘Tooling around’ as Ann Enright so accurately calls it. Sitting outside on a break, I listen to the sounds around me. Despite all the awful news, life goes on. I listen to the birds and the bees. 

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