Things that were big in my childhood but mean nothing to my children

Mary Minihan: So many things that dominated my childhood are meaningless to them


My children are young, aged five and seven, and like me to talk about “the olden days” (the 1980s), when we had to bring a stack of coins to arcades to play computer games and Disney movies were not available on demand. During this pandemic I’ve been struck by the number of things that dominated my childhood but are next to meaningless to them. Here are just four.


Unthinkable for most adults who grew up going to Catholic school in Ireland, but my boys have only a very hazy idea about nuns. We had our Perpetuas and our Bernadines, some of whom we feared, and we might even have had a bit of a crush on a rare young nun, though we pitied our Christophers and our Aloysiuses seemingly stuck with “boys names”. Or did they choose those names themselves? We never dared ask.

To this day, whenever I see a silver Ford Fiesta Steel or Nissan Micra GX I struggle to resist the temptation to draw close and check if a Sister of Mercy or Daughter of Nazareth is silhouetted behind the wheel.

When we were kids we used to know all the Sound of Music songs because we had the “original soundtrack” on vinyl LP, although we had to wait until Christmas to see the film on TV. Things are different now, and we’ve watched the movie a number of times at home recently. The questions come thick and fast: What are those things on their heads? Why do they call each other Sister? How did that one (the Reverend Mother) get to be the boss? Mum, do you have to be a girl to be a nun? Why?


We were having our usual discussion the other Saturday evening about what we’d buy if we won the Lotto, and I said a snooker table. “What’s snooper?” asked the youngest. The older boy has a sketchy idea it’s a game involving a table, sticks and balls. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to describe snooker to someone who has only been on Earth for a short while. It’s not that easy.

But I’m away, back in the late 1980s, the BBC’s Pot Black theme tune jangling in my head, thinking about Dennis Taylor, a guy from Northern Ireland who looked like he could be your uncle, wagging a chubby finger, eyes twinkling behind enormous upside-down spectacles, having crushed his “boring” English opponent.

And the darker character of Alex Higgins, a blur around the table as he trounced 20-year-old Jimmy White, then bawling crying as he was handed his baby daughter. I’m not sure if I have a genuine memory of that, but they were still talking about it for years afterwards. You only saw men crying back then when the world was really falling apart.

My Dad and brother played in the Pot Black snooker hall behind Derry’s walls. I was never asked along; that was their thing. But our cousins had a full-size table around which I posed, clutching a little blue cube, chalking my cue with all the studied finesse of a cellist applying rosin to a bow before a career-making performance.

Can’t say my game ever improved much, but I loved the little rituals.

The Troubles

Somehow I thought this would have entered their consciousness by now, but thankfully it has not. Just as well, because I’m not ready for that yet. I switch off RTÉ’s Reeling in the Years when any Troubles footage is shown. Apart from the obvious carnage, the worst part is the pinched wee faces of the children who knew – and had seen – much too much, much too soon.

One night recently we were watching Mark Davenport’s excellent BBC documentary, Spotlight – A Contested Centenary when the seven-year-old, who couldn’t sleep, came downstairs, heard some of the voiceover and asked: “What’s the IRA?”

And yet, I hear them repeatedly asking Alexa to play Come Out Ye Black and Tans, because they once saw Bart Simpson dancing to a version in a doctored online video. They innocently sing along to the rebel ballad with a weak approximation of the lyrics, and I know if I get cross they’ll just want it more.

What must the neighbours think of us?

But long may the meaning behind the sinister acronyms that darkened our childhoods remain a mystery to them.


In the 1980s we had sweetie cigarettes with red tips in narrow push-out packs with collectable cards featuring superheroes. After a while the red tips disappeared and the cigarettes were rebranded candy sticks, and then the superheroes abandoned ship. Superman himself popped up in a government-sponsored health promotion, decrying the product he once promoted, declaring “I never say yes to a cigarette”.

Adults smoked around us, though, because they were addicted. Big Tobacco got its claws into them early, and society was set up to perpetuate their addiction, as if sucking nicotine into your lungs was something normal. There were ashtrays everywhere: in cars, in cinemas, on public transport, in homes. Our living room featured a particularly stylish one encased in leather of a deep red hue, and when you flicked a switch the glass top glowed.

Smoking captured so many of our parent’s generation, cruelly conditioned as youngsters by advertisers to think it made them look sophisticated, or that it was just something adults did. Then they got lung cancer and died too young to see their grandchildren, who barely know what cigarettes are. That’s what happened to my Dad, anyway.

Sometimes life really is as simple and as brutal as that.