By Gabby Roughneen

After the war in the 1940s, there wasn’t the same huge commercial pressure to be in fashion as there is now, so we were reasonably content with what we had. School uniforms obliterated any teenage competition in dress: a navy blue, heavy gymslip, white blouse and blue tie lessened couturier distractions and modesty ruled.
Our hems had to reach the ground when we knelt, and if we ever chanced wearing a short-sleeved blouse, then the sleeve couldn’t be shorter than half ways between the elbow and shoulder. We had to keep the gymslips ironed, and I hated it, because ironing them gave off a dusty smell.

I often wondered, too, why  couldn’t we wear something other than a masculine tie? We were amazed one September when we returned to school to see the new Physical Education teacher, a dramatic redhead, who taught for a morning a week at the school, present herself in a green gymslip, way above her knees!

It was a curious thing for us, that her outfit was accepted by the nuns – one of life’s mysteries back then!

But thinking about the nuns who taught us, it was actually much harder on them. How did they cope with the habit that kept hair under layers of fabric all the time, enclosed their face, thus affecting peripheral vision and hearing, and, as one nun told me years later, for her, causing constant headaches; and for years, before the modification of the habit, it was impossible for them to raise the arms above the shoulders.

I used to wonder why priests or monks didn’t have to wear such things if it was a matter of holiness?

The black shawls that were part of the religious habit too, had an echo in the dress of poor old women in the village – the ‘Shawlies’. The assumption was made that they couldn’t afford an overcoat – and that may have been true – but the large, square, fringed shawl had the advantage of versatility. It could be used as a combined coat and ‘hoodie’ in cold weather, or a rug to sit on, a blanket on the bed, or a wrap for carrying a child, or anything else.

But there was a stigma of poverty attached to it.

My most vivid recollection of it was that of a poor old widow in the village, with the shawl around her shoulders, carrying a ‘brosna’ (stick) on her back coming down from the woods. I think that she was the last woman I ever saw wearing the authentic shawl.

I say ‘authentic’ because any time I saw the shawl after that, it was in encounters with actors, costumed for historical presentations. It wrenched my heart to see them and I wanted to say that I remember the real thing and what it meant.

Other feminine cloak-like garments that were quite different appeared occasionally. The women in the Children of Mary wore light cloaks, the colour of a summer sky, for special religious occasions and similarly, the nuns, wore beautiful creamy cloaks over their habits for the same events. But I think that like the old shawls, those lovely cloaks are all now part of history.

We had yet another uniform to cope with. As young Girl Guides, we wore dull brown dresses and we were tormented by having to fold an elaborated beige tie that was straight across the bottom and tied at the back of the neck. Our hats were pulled down over the head with as much elegance as a brown paper bag.

Senior Guides wore brown too, and Patrol Leaders wore a suit of a military design, with a leather belt and a lanyard to hold the commanding whistle. An attempt was made to train us in marching for the processions, by a member of the Local Defence Force – which emphasised the military dimension of things even more.

This soldier took his task seriously. He marched up the road to the school in full uniform and directed us in clipped, abrupt orders. One of the girls, who was tall, gangly and loose-limbed, with long black hair, was related to him, and couldn’t take him seriously. I recall her buckling at the knees, laughing helplessly and that set us all off. But the nun in charge, who walked around the periphery of the schoolyard saying her rosary, was oblivious to the comedy.

We were useless, and he eventually gave up, but he never stepped out of character. When finished trying to train us, he said goodbye to the nun, turned smartly on his heel, and marched home down the road, displaying a determined discipline, which he could never get us to emulate.

A clothesline of memories indeed, and the unforgettable people who wore them!

Read memories like these every week in Ireland’s Own