From Harrods to Cork: a small boy’s journey with a pet mouse

An Irishman’s Diary: 1950s summer trip remembered

The MV Innisfallen plied between Cork and Fishguard in Wales, a journey I made as a child every June or July during the 1950s. My parents had moved to Cork from the UK, so mother would take me across the water to keep in touch with my grandparents and other relatives. In a way we were a mirror image of Irish emigrants – they came home from England to visit family at Christmas, we made the reciprocal journey in summer. Mum would take rashers and other produce concealed in her case, bringing gifts to ration-struck England. Was this allowed? Presumably my very respectable mother knew she could get these "through customs on the other side", as the phrase was.

Departure from Cork was stately and scenic. At six o'clock the Innisfallen left Penrose Quay near the city centre, and for the first hour of the voyage moved down the harbour to the sea. Past the Ford and Dunlop factories, next between the tree-lined marina on one side and the high slopes of Montenotte opposite, leaving Blackrock Castle abeam at Mahon, then through the channel at Passage West, followed by a wide sweep at Haulbowline and Cobh before threading the Roche's Point narrows and setting course east on the open sea.

Best of all, comics like the Beano only cost the actual '4d' printed on the cover, not the sixpence exacted at home

After that it was down to our cabin for a half-night’s sleep as the engines pummelled the ship along and fittings and fixtures quivered around us.

At 3am a steward would knock with a wake-up cup of tea, the pummelling and quivering were stilled, and we disembarked at Fishguard. Down a proper gangplank we went, through the ritual of the customs hall, cases getting the all-clear when marked with a chalked hieroglyph – bringing home the bacon OK – and straight out on to the platform where a GWR steam locomotive waited to haul the boat train on the six-hour journey to Paddington.


Mother's family lived on the other side of London in Hornchurch, where Essex and the greater conurbation overlapped. During the fortnight there, I noticed differences: the oily waft from English chip shops smelt strange, unlike that in Cork chippers; shops displayed produce and hardware out on the pavement; and Wall's ice-cream came in cylindrical blocks. Best of all, comics like the Beano only cost the actual "4d" printed on the cover, not the sixpence exacted at home.

Day out

There was always a day in London, a treat from my delightfully eccentric aunt (who had very conservative leanings and – to her chagrin – a very Irish name). She could get tickets to a rehearsal of trooping the colour, or to the Royal Tournament at Earls Court where the armed forces would display their prowess, racing with field guns, riding eight to a motorbike, playing military music. Field Marshal Montgomery was the honoured guest on one occasion, and I stood by the red carpet as he made his entrance, nodding to onlookers.

My seven-year-old self gathered there was a problem, if not the precise details, as mother tried to cope with my dismay

Another outing was to Harrods department store and its (now defunct) pet department where tortoises, rabbits, reptiles, bantams, little monkeys, and colourful caged birds were displayed, with larger more exotic animals available on order. My aunt, a fan of Beatrix Potter, bought me a white mouse, to be called Timmy Tiptoes. Although more challenging than bacon to transport, my mother gamely undertook to bring it to Cork in its wooden, glass-fronted box which had a wheel and feeding bowl.

All was fine until the customs shed at Penrose Quay. The mouse was to go no further. Something about not importing live animals without a permit. My seven-year-old self gathered there was a problem, if not the precise details, as mother tried to cope with my dismay and the intransigence of the regulations. The impasse was lifted with an arrangement for Timmy to be taken back on board the Innisfallen while “the matter was looked into”. Then we could leave with our case chalked.

Over the next week my parents were in contact with the Department of Agriculture seeking clearance for the mouse. The department was understandably nonplussed. They had regulations and procedures for the importation of livestock like cattle, pigs, sheep, even poultry – but mice?

Meanwhile, Timmy Tiptoes made several return crossings of the Irish Sea aboard the Innisfallen, by all accounts being well looked after by the galley staff.

In the end, the department relented, perhaps deciding that the law doesn’t concern itself with trifles – de minimis non curat lex, of the lawbooks – or else just feeling that there were weightier concerns. Timmy Tiptoes was allowed in. I suppose the confinement to his box was a sort of quarantine. The whole episode shows that, decades ahead of the Northern Ireland protocol, when Cork had to deal with a border in the Irish Sea, a satisfactory solution could be found.