Globe photo/Debee Tlumacki
PLYMOUTH -- The post-condo era has created something of an identity crisis for Boston's famed, close-knit Irish neighborhoods like South Boston and Dorchester, where an earlier generation recalls the living was affordable, children were everywhere, and neighbors knew your business, for better or worse.A half-century later, part of that old world lives on. But it's not in Boston at all. It's 40 miles away, in Plymouth. In a trailer park.
It's called Ellis Haven, the traditional summer getaway for the city's working-class Irish, a "poor man's Cape Cod," as they say, set inside a 200-acre campground where the speed limit is 5 miles per hour and the biggest danger on the roads is the peacocks that prance about.
The campground has a clear pond for swimming, a petting zoo, and two other ponds frequented by frogs and turtles (no nets allowed; if you want to catch it, you're going to have to bare-hand it). For kids used to city streets, it's safe and even exotic. For adults, many who vacationed at Ellis Haven while growing up, it's a chance to reminisce about the old neighborhood.
There's another appeal, as well: It's affordable -- $2,700 to park your trailer for the entire season.
This unlikely marriage began in the 1950s, when the Cahill family from Southie bought a small place for $250 as a way to get their nine kids out of the housing projects on the cheap, "from the bricks to the sticks," as the Cahills like to say. The Cahills are your classic Southie family – lots of firemen, lots of kids – and soon their genealogical tree spread through trailers all over the campground.
On a given weekend, they estimate there are between 40 and 50 of them walking barefoot on the campground's dirt roads or plying their luck at the Friday night meat raffle.
With the Cahills, the word spread and soon the families of Southie and Dorchester began buying up places, turning campfires into street-corner reunions.
But like many of Boston's old-school Irish families, the Cahills aren't exclusive to the city anymore; many have moved down the Red Line to the suburbs. And that, many campers say, is both the catch and the charm of Ellis Haven in 2009: the old neighborhoods have changed, been invaded by newcomers, and lost that feeling of being one big family.
And Ellis Haven is a symbol of that in reverse: it's Southie people who don't live in Southie anymore, but who find, in the unlikely setting of a Plymouth campground, a connection to the old days of the Irish neighborhoods.
"It's a lot like Southie used to be," said Jamie Cahill, a 32-year-old Boston fireman from Southie and one of 62 Cahill grandchildren (he will soon expand the genealogical tree when he marries Erin Gallagher, part of a large Irish family from Somerville and Arlington that has been camping at Ellis Haven for nearly as long).
"You can't do anything without your parents finding out about it within an hour. It takes a village to raise a child, and that's something you see in Ellis Haven that you don't really see in Southie anymore." David Carreau, who owns the campground, estimates that at its peak in the '80s and '90s, people from Southie and Dorchester accounted for half of the 600 campsites. "I've got Southies that have been coming down here for 25 years," Carreau said, "but they don't live in Southie anymore."
Lynn Myron is one of those people. She grew up in South Boston and married a neighborhood guy, and they've moved on to Braintree. But on Saturday, as she sat on the packed beach along Ellis Pond watching her children swim, she could point out a half dozen different groups from the old neighborhood sitting close enough to kick sand on.
"Everyone's gone their own way," Myron said. "You come down here to catch up on the gossip. It's kind of like Facebook, but in person."
Ted Toland, a retired Boston police officer from Southie who lives in Florida now but still spends his summers at Ellis Haven, said: "Back in the day, it was like going to another country for the kids. They'd go out in the morning and come back filthy at night, and they can't get into too much trouble."
Trouble at Ellis Haven can still be had, kids and the owner will tell you. But it's a more subdued trouble than the kind that seems to find kids on hot nights in the city.
Sure, teenagers might dip into Dad's cooler. But instead of running from the cops, they run from the campground's own patrol car that makes the rounds at 11:00 p.m., when children must be on a campsite.
And with the kids relatively safe – the campground is fenced in, and all visitors must go through a guarded gate – the parents are free to relax. They have corned beef and cabbage dinners for a 100, big Hawaiian luaus, and a Labor Day Whiffle Ball tournament that floods the place with old friends from the corner.
"At home, it always seems like there's something to do," said Sean Copney, a Boston fireman who grew up in Southie and now lives in Dorchester. "It's a good place to unwind on a working-class man's salary and hang out with the people you grew up with."
Copney is an example of a cycle that is familiar at Ellis Haven. His parents had a place there when he was a child, then sold it when he and his two younger siblings grew into adulthood. But Copney is 32 now and has a son of his own, so, this year he returned to "the Haven" to give his child the same experience he had.
And when his son Jack grows up, he will no doubt grab a couple of quarters and dad's cologne and head off to the public showers (where a quarter gets you a couple minutes of hot water) to get dappered up for what has become a right-of-passage for the city's Irish kids – the Saturday night Ellis Haven dance.
If you grew up in Southie or the Irish parts of Dorchester, there's a good chance you went to an Ellis Haven dance, maybe even had your first kiss there, even if you didn't camp there (the campground allows campers to bring in guests for a fee).
The younger kids dance starts at 7 p.m., but as night falls and the chicken dance crowd gives way to the teenagers, the Southie crew will take their position on the side of the dance floor and do their thing.
"They stand there and make fun of all the kids that are dancing," Lynn Myron said with a smile. "Southie kids."
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