Years of separation

An Irishman’s Diary: Remembering a father who worked in England

‘I was just one of a cluster of generations of sons and daughters who grew from childhood to their teenage years having their father home twice a year, usually at Christmas and in the summer.’ Photograph: iStockphoto

‘I was just one of a cluster of generations of sons and daughters who grew from childhood to their teenage years having their father home twice a year, usually at Christmas and in the summer.’ Photograph: iStockphoto

Sat, May 4, 2013, 06:00

Back in the days of the purring Celtic Tiger, I suggested to a senior politician that it might be a good time to do something here to remember the enormous contribution of the Irish who worked the best part of their lives in England. His response was along the lines of “I don’t think so. Paddy digging ditches, the craic in Cricklewood and all that. It’s the past. We’ve moved on”.

His dismissive reply rankled with me. My own father had worked a big chunk of his life in England, helping build power stations and hydro-dams. The money he sent back was our lifeline as a family surviving on 16 acres of scattered, whin-studded land in Co Mayo. And he was by no means alone. Between 1939 and 1969 the Irish working in Britain sent home remittances totalling £3.5 billion to help bolster a stuttering young nation.

Of course, as a country we did move on. Then, a few years ago, we took a fierce lurch sideways. Now emigration is again siphoning off some of our best. The debates are interesting, nearly always about those who have to leave. Not a whole lot of attention about those left behind. My own experiences of emigration go back decades but scraps of them, I suspect, will for many seem like only yesterday.

I was just one of a cluster of generations of sons and daughters who grew from childhood to their teenage years having their father home twice a year, usually at Christmas and in the summer. Years back I met historian Ultan Cowley when he was writing his enduring book The Men Who Built Britain . What month was I born, he asked. Puzzled, I told him early October, 1954. “Ah”, he said, “so you were a Christmas baby”. If I had been born in the months of April or May I would have been a summer baby. It was as simple as that.

When Ultan asked what memories I had of those years of separation, a curious mix of emotions oozed out. There was the fixed routine to my father Tom’s annual journeys back home. We didn’t have a car, so once the date was set, Joe’s van from up the village was booked. My mother made sure her four children – three sons and a daughter – had their faces scrubbed to angelic brightness before we piled into the van for the trip to Castlebar railway station. Joe always drove, sun or blizzard, with the driver’s window down and his elbow struck well out.

My father’s first stop when he got off the train from Dublin was always Paddy Moran’s pub in the town. Many of the gathering there at Christmas were themselves just home from England. Men in wide pin-striped suits, faint hints of dialects from places such as Lancashire and Yorkshire creeping in to slightly distort the broad Mayo accent. We children sat sipping minerals as the talk swirled around us. It was of spiteful bosses, gangers who turned on their own, good and bloody awful digs, horses, pubs and the craic.

Those first few days with my father were always awkward, like having a stranger in the house. The routine we had followed week in and week out was disrupted. There was now a man of the house, a man encroaching on the bits of jobs I did every day around the house and farm. It never occurred to us back then how much of an outsider he must have felt.

And always it seemed that, just as my childish huffs had been overcome and we had melted into feeling like a complete family again, it was time for him to go. We came to know the tell-tale signs: A full array of shirts straining on the clothes line; mother and father talking in low, serious tones, clutching at words of reassurance . . .“The months will fly by”; the suitcase taken down from on top of the wardrobe.

And then he was gone. We stood in the middle of the road and waved and continued waving even after the bend at the church swept my father, the van and, lastly, Joe’s elbow from view.

So now, nearly 50 years on, here’s hoping that mobiles, e-mails, Skype, and all the other wonders of nearly instant communication, will help bridge that cold and confusing sense of isolation. Mind you, technology, no matter how new-fangled, can only go so far. So don’t be surprised if there are new generations of Christmas and summer babies.