Trench warfare

An Irishman’s Diary about the men who dug up Britain

‘They came from every Irish county. But the shock-troops were the “heavy-diggers of the West of Ireland”. These were the men who worked on the hydro-dams, the extensions of the London Underground, the Channel Tunnel (above), and countless smaller projects in between.’  Photograph:   Ros Orpin-Rail Link Engineering/AFP/Getty Images

‘They came from every Irish county. But the shock-troops were the “heavy-diggers of the West of Ireland”. These were the men who worked on the hydro-dams, the extensions of the London Underground, the Channel Tunnel (above), and countless smaller projects in between.’ Photograph: Ros Orpin-Rail Link Engineering/AFP/Getty Images

Sat, Nov 16, 2013, 01:01

With the second World War safely won, Britain in the 1950s was nevertheless the target of a belated, large-scale invasion. The country’s economy had to be rebuilt, and this would take an army of sorts. So as a new oral history of that period explains, the invasion was mostly peaceful. Instead of gun-wielding Germans, it comprised “Paddies with shovels”.

They came from every Irish county. But the shock-troops were the “heavy-diggers of the West of Ireland”. These were the men who worked on the hydro-dams, the extensions of the London Underground, the Channel Tunnel, and countless smaller projects in between.

The quasi-military aspect of their work would be pithily summed up in Dominic Behan’s song McAlpine’s Fusiliers, with its jaunty opening: “As down the glen came McAlpine’s men/with their shovels slung behind them”.

But as the darkly comic lyrics reveal, the campaign was often as grim as it was heroic. The hard work was usually accompanied by hard drinking: often to the point where each became the reason for the other.

Also, as in actual wars, many sacrificed their health – and their lives, occasionally – to the cause. Like Behan’s “the Bear O’Shea”, who fell (literally and metaphorically) in the conflict, individuals were expendable.

Historian Ultan Cowley has spent 20 years researching the lives of “The Men Who Built Britain”: his 2001 book of that title probably the definitive treatment. That was based in part on 40 hours of recorded interviews during the 1990s. Now, Cowley has produced an accompanying CD, in which a selection of those interviewees – including, sadly, several who have since died – tell their own stories.

In a patchwork quilt of accents, ranging from the lilt of Cork and Kerry to the glottal stop of north-east Ulster, they describe epic feats of excavation, and of inebriation as well. Some of the voices are cheerful, some gloomy. A few are angry, or at least tinged with bitterness about their treatment in Britain, or the circumstances that forced them to leave Ireland, or both.

They weren’t all forced, of course. For many, post-war Britain was a welcome liberation. There was plenty of money to be made there, if you were smart. And there were other heady attractions too.

The CD wittily counterpoints Percy French’s Mountains of Mourne, wherein the exile chastely abstains from the painted beauties of London, with the reality of such dance halls as the Buffalo, in Camden. “If a man couldn’t get a woman there,” it was said, “he might as well lie down and die”.

But there also were many who didn’t want to go to Britain. Unfortunately, in the cosy homesteads of rural Ireland, the harsh reality often was that only the eldest son could stay. “The home nest for one, the hard road for the others,” was the phrase, and even this sometimes masked uncomfortable truths.

One of the CD’s edgier sections concerns a subject they probably don’t teach in Harvard Business School: “dry money”. Well known in the west of Ireland, apparently, dry money is the stash secreted away from the prying eyes of pension means-testers and then handed down from father to son.

It might also sometimes be unknown even to other siblings. So when emigrants returned with bulging wallets and, as expected, bought drinks for everyone in the local pub (“shtandin’ to the house”, they called it in Mayo), they were sometimes acting the big shot to people, maybe brothers, who had more money than themselves.

Although unsung by Official Ireland, the Paddies in Britain did at least inspire some classic songs, including Behan’s, which punctuate the interviews.

They include Ewen MacColl’s brilliant Tunnel Tigers, a ballad contrasting the poetically-deserted landscapes of Carlow, Longford, Wicklow, etc, with a chorus evoking the relentless, mechanised progress of the migrant diggers: “Up with the shields and jack it! Ram it! Drive a tunnel through the London clay”.

But in fact, MacColl’s vision of Carlow and Longford was songwriter’s licence. Most of the tunnel tigers came from a few areas on the west coast: most famously the Aranmore Seagulls (so-called because they turned up everywhere in flocks). And theirs was the most glorious chapters in this saga: along with the Poles, they set world records for tunnelling.

Most migrant labourers weren’t tigers. They were just “skins”, in the term used by some contractors; or more humorously, they were “1RBs”. The Lincolnshire firm Ruston & Bucyrus became synonymous with digging machines known variously, depending on power, as the 17RB, or 22RB, or 43RB. By deduction, a 1RB was a man with a shovel.

For many 1RBs, emigration to Britain meant loneliness, alcoholism, and an old age – if they reached it – of ill health, physical and mental. Quoted by Ultan Cowley, the founder of a counselling group for elderly Irish emigrants spoke of finding “deep wells of sadness in ordinary lives”. Those too were a by-product of the digging.

fmcnally@irishtimes.com

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