We are delighted to present an extract from Books from the Attic: Treasures from an Irish Childhood by bestselling author Alice Taylor, published by The O'Brien Press. 

In Books from the Attic, Alice Taylor takes a look back at the well-used schoolbooks she used in her youth in the 1940s and 1950s. Flicking through the pages of the books and recalling poetry and prose she learned at school, Alice reminisces about these texts, how she related to them and how they integrated with her life on the farm and in the village.


A Hoarder's Haven

Welcome to my attic! A family of old friends lives up here. Over the years they crept silently up the steep, narrow stairs, gently eased open the creaking door and slipped in quietly. They made themselves comfortable and now have earned their right of residence. When my life downstairs was frantic with the demands of business and small children they reached down with welcoming arms and raised me up. Up here in the restful silence they fostered and encouraged my first tentative steps into the world of writing. These comforters were handed on to me by family hoarders who had cherished and loved them for decades.

My mother was a hoarder and kept all our schoolbooks. My husband Gabriel was another hoarder who kept his schoolbooks. My cousin Con, who became part of our family, was an extreme hoarder and brought all his old schoolbooks with him when he came to live in our house.

So a deep drift of old schoolbooks was building up and would eventually swirl in my direction.

In the home place, my mother stored all our old schoolbooks up in a dark attic that was christened the 'black loft’ because in those pre-electricity days only faint rays of light penetrated its dusty depths under the sloping roof of our old farmhouse. Gabriel stored his in a recess under the stairs, which he had cordoned off from our destructive offspring.

You entered his mini library via a handmade little door secured with a bolt above child-level access. An adult gaining entry to this literary archive then had to genuflect and go on all-fours to reach the shelves in the furthest corners.

Con stored his books under his bed and on shelves all around his bedroom, until the room resembled a kind of beehive of books. When these three much-loved family members climbed the library ladder to the heavenly book archives, I became the custodian of all these old schoolbooks.

My sister Phil sorted out our mother’s collection of a lifetime, brought them from the home place and landed a large box of books on my kitchen table with the firm instructions: ‘You look after these now.’ We went through them with ‘Ohs’ and ‘Ahs’ of remembrance. In the box was a miscellaneous collection of moth-eaten, tattered and battered-looking schoolbooks. Amongst them was a book that had belonged to our old neighbour Bill, who had gone to school with my father. It was somehow uncanny that here was a reminder of Bill, who, every night during our childhood all those years ago, came down from his home on the hill behind our house and taught us our lessons. He was a Hans Christian Andersen who loved children and had the patience of Job, so he was the ideal teacher and we loved him dearly. He spent long hours teaching us our lessons; one night he spent over an hour patiently trying to drum the spelling of ‘immediately’ into my heedless head. All the books eventually found their way up into my attic with promises of: Some day, some day! Isn’t life littered with good intentions!

For many years all these old books remained stored away in the attic, gathering dust. Occasionally when I was up there rummaging through miscellaneous abandoned objects looking for something else, I would come across one of them. Planning just a quick peep inside, I was still there half an hour later, steeped in memories. These impromptu sessions transported me back into the world of To School through the Fields.

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That first peep into a book sometimes led to a search through others along the shelves, looking for another where a half-remembered poem or some lessons I half-recalled might be hidden. Having found that other book, the nearest chair was sought and a journey back down memory lane ensued. This sometimes provided a welcome break in a then busy schedule downstairs and there was deep satisfaction in these stolen moments.

There and then the promise would again be made that one day all these old schoolbooks would be gathered together and sorted out. I owed it to my mother, to Gabriel and to Con, who had all so carefully preserved them and entrusted their future to me. Unfortunately, it never happened. But lodged at the very back of my mind was the thought that one day when I too would climb the golden library ladder all these old books could well finish up in a skip! A terrible thought! But if I, who knew and loved the history of these books did nothing with them, how could I expect someone who had no nostalgic connection with them to do what I had failed to do? But after these episodes it was back on the conveyor belt of a busy life, which flattens us all. But sometimes life has a funny way of working things out in spite of us and as time evolves it comes up with its own solutions. And so it was with this collection of old schoolbooks.

On recent long car journeys, my grand-daughter Ellie, aged seven, and I are back-seat passengers, and these journeys invariably evolve into storytelling sessions. And one day I said to Ellie: ‘I think that I have become your Gobán Saor.’

‘Nana, what’s a Gobán Saor?’ she inquired.

Now, there are many stories about the Gobán Saor, I told her, but probably the correct one is that he was a very good mason who worked for free or very cheaply, was skilled at building, and always managed to get his due, whatever the circumstances. But my favourite story about him is this. And so I told her my version of the Gobán Saor story, in which he is a man who loved storytelling. She loved it.

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Long, long ago there was a Gobán Saor who had a large kingdom and three sons. He had to make a big decision. He had to make up his mind to which of his three sons he would leave his kingdom. This was a very big decision. So one day he took the eldest son and some of his courtiers on a long, long journey and when they were all getting weary he asked his son: ‘Son, shorten the road for me.’ The son looked at him in surprise and protested: ‘Father, how can I shorten the road for you? I cannot cut a bit off it.’ So they continued on in silence.

The following day the king took his second son and as they walked along he said to the second son: ‘Son, shorten the road for me.’ And the second son made the same response, so they walked on in silence. When they came home that night the queen knew that the following day it would be the turn of the third and youngest son. This son was kind and wise and would make a good king, and she wanted him to inherit the kingdom. So that night she whispered a secret in his ear.

The next day as the father and son walked along, the father said to his youngest son: ‘Shorten the road for me, son.’ And the son began to tell his father a fascinating story to which the father and all the courtiers listened in awe. The time flew by and they never noticed the long journey and arrived at their destination in no time at all. And so the youngest son inherited the kingdom.

When Ellie heard this story she absorbed every last detail and demanded that it be retold many times, precisely as she had first heard it. The Gobán Saor led on to other old stories and she was completely fascinated by the stories, myths and legends that I had learnt in school. A visit back up to the attic was necessary to re-familiarise myself with these stories.

Many had totally faded from my memory and rediscovering them was like meeting up with old friends. I decided now was the time to rescue the old books.

Books from the Attic by Alice Taylor (published by The O’Brien Press) is out now and available to purchase here