June 30, 2020

Family Fortunes (Irish Times) My mum's smoking ban

When I read about the anniversary of Minister Micheál Martin's (now our newly-elected Taoiseach since yesterday) smoking ban in Ireland, I was prompted to write the following little memoir piece:


My mum's smoking ban: she could smell cigarettes at 100 paces


My mother issued a smoking ban in our house when my eldest brother Liam was young. When he got off the bus, returning from an Under 14 football match, she could smell the smoke from a hundred paces. The minute she got him home, she turned on him.

“Tell me the truth now, ‘cos I’ll find out. Do you smoke?”

Quick as a flash, he said, “I’ve given them up. I used to, but I don’t now. I swear.”

“There’s no need to swear. That’s good to hear. I know you’ll never take them up again so,” she said. And, to the best of my knowledge, he never did.

My older sister Aileen was next to try them out. She arranged with two of her friends in 6thclass to meet down one of the laneways to have a smoke on their way home from school. They saved until they had enough money to buy a packet of ten. Aileen went into a small newsagents in town.

“Can I have ten Silk Cut for my mother, please?”

“No problem. Is that all? Any milk or bread?” he said, acting totally normally, according to Aileen’s account afterwards.

“No, that’s all she needs. Thanks.”

As soon as she left the shop, he rang our chemist shop. He called, he said, just to check if my mother had ‘taken up the smokes’ recently. When she answered that she hadn’t, he said:

“Well, I’m just letting you know that Aileen bought ten cigarettes for you while ago. I’ll be happy to take them back, of course, if they’re still sealed.”

When Aileen arrived home, there was a Seize and Search operation of her school bag. The open packet, with seven cigarettes inside, was ceremoniously thrown into the range. It was a long time before she got any more pocket money.

I decided to bide my time until I got to boarding school to give the fags a twirl. I reckoned the reach of my mother’s law wouldn’t get that far. We were allowed to walk up the village in Rosscarbery at weekends and an older brother of one of our classmates was persuaded to buy us a packet of Consulate. They were, apparently, “as cool as a mountain stream” and we were very cool! He bought a packet of Benson and Hedges.

“There’s no way I was going to make a show of myself by buying Consulate,” he told us.

Later, after study, we climbed out a window at the end of the boarding corridor, ducked down behind a wall and lit up. I hated the throat-grating effect, but naturally didn’t let on to the others. It became a regular event. Four of us went in and out the window two or three times a week during 2nd and 3rd year. I never smoked at home during the holidays and never really enjoyed the sensation of smoking, but I loved the adventure and the camaraderie. On returning to school in September to begin 5th year, the very wise and kindly nun in charge of the boarding school called the four of us together.

“Now, girls, I don’t want you climbing in and out that window anymore. One of you will get hurt one of these nights. Instead, after study, you can go down to the cookery room and smoke down there for ten minutes before lights out. Just make sure you leave a small window open when you’re leaving.” Then she ushered us out of her office.

In the cookery room that first evening, we were a subdued lot. The fun and craic was gone out of the whole endeavour. I lasted about a fortnight in the cookery room before I gave up the cigarettes.   

My late mother was proud of the fact that none of her children ever smoked in her house and was even prouder when the government extended her anti-smoking ban nationwide in March 2004.


The link to the original published article in the Irish Times is at