My sister Betty died this year.
At the time I could not bring myself to write about it but today, the 23rd of December, is Betty Casey’s birthday and I feel the need to comment.
Betty was the eldest of six children, I came in the middle, number three in line.
There was something magic about our childhood. We were reared in the Phoenix Park a vast enclosed piece of country located in the heart of the city of Dublin. Our father Harry was a gate keeper and we lived in a gate lodge.
While I was young the universe was packed into that small lodge and its environs. What a universe that was! It extended only in one direction and that was up the park–past the married quarters of the Garda, past the depo, over to the People’s Gardens through the Hollow and of course, on into Dublin Zoo. This was our turf and the six of us and the other kids, friends and neighbours, were free to play, roam, explore and experience the world.
Here was the jungle where battles were fought and monsters lurked. Over there you could catch a whale in a pond. That’s the triangle where we played football. This is the tree I swung from.
On a path near the zoo I learned to ride a bike. It was a big black ugly ladies bike. I could not sit on the saddle I was too small. Reassured that my father had a good grasp of the back of the saddle we were encouraged to peddle away. Betty shrieked. The cycle wobbled and she was away The first to ride the bike. That was what big sisters did. They led the way.
There were mysterious stories from the zoo. Betty already had a job in the shops we were in awe. I couldn’t wait to get my chance and not long after my ninth birthday I was in as a pony boy. My job was to manage a queue of children waiting to ride the ponies. Fanny, Bubbles, May Blossom, Blackberry, Old Silver, Young Silver and the stallion Commando–these were now part of my life and would remain so for more than a decade.
Weekends would never be the same. At various times all six of us were working in the zoo. I was charging around with two ponies on a trap. Betty and others were in the shops or Pet’s Corner. On Sundays in the summer the zoo was packed and we were earning our keep. On a summer’s day the shops by the lake were “black”. Crowds needed to be catered for and despite the wasps, the cramped conditions and the spoilt kids we delivered a service. We were kids and it might be tempting to suggest that we were exploited but it was the very opposite. We loved every minute. We loved the responsibility, the social life, the animals, the notoriety and the money. The trailblazer of the Casey kids in the zoo was Betty. She led the way.
Years later each one of us travelled. Mainly to the UK but for me much shorter stints and much further away. My drive was wanderlust but for others, especially Betty, it was survival. In Ireland and in England Betty reared her family. It was never straightforward, like the bike there were wobbles, but she was in control and she knew what mattered. Betty’s kids, my nieces and nephews, are testament to her spirit. They are leaders like their mother.
In recent years Betty’s life became more complicated. She found happiness but perhaps it was too late. We are all vulnerable. Occasionally, in those last few months there were fleeting glimpses of the Betty we knew from childhood but in truth her spirit had faded. In the end it was sad and protracted.
It’s tough having your birthday just two days before Christmas. Presents get merged and the general festivities overshadow the specific. Many times I forgot to call, wish her a Happy Birthday, say that I was thinking about her, after all it was Christmas and we would all get together soon.
So Betty, Happy Birthday this time. You were a leader, a trailblazer and my big sister. I was proud to know you.