The Irish hands that helped make Britain what it is today

Photo project in Reading tells the stories of older Irish women who made England home

"My friends call me Sparkling Rosie, because I love wearing sparkling jewellery": The Hands of Time calendar project has gathered photographs and interviews telling the stories of the women who gather for a weekly lunch at The Hibernian Society in Reading.

"My friends call me Sparkling Rosie, because I love wearing sparkling jewellery": The Hands of Time calendar project has gathered photographs and interviews telling the stories of the women who gather for a weekly lunch at The Hibernian Society in Reading.

 

I was 18 when my family emigrated from Westmeath to Berkshire in 1960. I’d imagined England would be very drab and industrial, but I couldn’t believe the beauty of the place.

I got my first job in Underwoods’ Typewriters in Reading. After tax I took home £3.04 a week. I then worked as a copy typist for the BBC, and in 1961, got a job in Westminster Bank. I met my husband at a dance in Reading and we married in 1965 and had four children. I returned to work part-time at the bank in 1978, where I remained for 30 years.

Struck by the diversity of music on the radio, in 1995, I contacted our “local” BBC Radio Berkshire, and suggested a radio programme for the Irish community. Irish Eye became the most popular weekend show on local radio. I also contributed, reading stories, poems and listeners’ requests.

A few of us, including my brother and nephew, started to talk about the elderly Irish in our community, a lot of whom live in isolation and loneliness. We established The Hibernian Society in 1995, with the aim of improving their quality of life.

Anne Morris: ‘I want to make a difference to other people’s lives. If I don’t succeed, I don’t succeed. But life is so short, isn’t it?’
Anne Morris: ‘I want to make a difference to other people’s lives. If I don’t succeed, I don’t succeed. But life is so short, isn’t it?’

Our first Lunch Club at the local church hall had 22 attendees. It consisted of a hearty meal, a raffle and bingo. To celebrate, we had a glass of sherry for everyone, a tradition that continues today thanks to a very generous but anonymous local Irish gentleman.

We moved to Reading Irish Centre in 2007, and now, The Hibernian Society Lunch Club caters for 80 elderly people every week. We provide hot meals, seated yoga, bingo, films and quizzes, and services such as chiropody and hairdressing. A lot of Lunch Club attendees are Irish, but we have people from across the UK and further afield.

We try to make it special. Someone asked once, why wouldn’t I use paper plates? I replied that I wouldn’t give my own mother dinner on a paper plate. The way I see it, these people have worked hard all their lives; why wouldn’t they have proper plates? It’s not really about food or drink, it’s about people coming together and meeting their friends. Why should they be forgotten? They’ve worked hard, and they deserve the very best.

Once, Daniel O’Donnell was playing in the Albert Hall in London. Judging by his show dates, I estimated he might be free on the Wednesday, so I wrote to him and invited him to our Lunch Club. He visited, and was incredibly generous with his time. Val Doonican and Dominic Kirwan have also visited.

The Hibernian Society gets some money from the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs’ Emigrant Support Programme, and from Reading Borough Council. But we have to fundraise to continue to offer our service and combat social isolation among the elderly, a group of people who have given so much, and who have paved the way for others.

I had the idea of a fundraising calendar featuring the hands of some of our members. As I see it, hands tell the story of life - of laughter, of longing and of love.

Nora (November) - “I was born in Kerry in 1927. I left school at 15 and worked in Killarney. I came to London in 1947 and after a few months decided with friends to go to Butlins in Skegness. We worked in coffee bars. I met my husband in 1947 in Skegness and got married after three years. We lived in Essex and had two children. My husband worked for Ford in Dagenham. He died at the age of 72. I moved to Reading in 2010 and found the Hibernian Society Lunch Club at the Irish Centre I was made so welcome and got my life back.”
Nora (November) - “I was born in Kerry in 1927. I left school at 15 and worked in Killarney. I came to London in 1947 and after a few months decided with friends to go to Butlins in Skegness. We worked in coffee bars. I met my husband in 1947 in Skegness and got married after three years. We lived in Essex and had two children. My husband worked for Ford in Dagenham. He died at the age of 72. I moved to Reading in 2010 and found the Hibernian Society Lunch Club at the Irish Centre. I was made so welcome and got my life back.”

Our next task was to find a photographer. I broadcast a weekly radio show from Reading College studio called A Little Bit of Blarney (check out the programme Nansheen on Soundcloud.) Jonny Cunningham at the college was very interested in the project and we arranged “sittings” for our “models” with photographers from the work preparation course, which provides support for students with learning difficulties.

We interviewed the women to write a short biography, and with the photos, created a beautifully-produced keepsake The Hands of Time calendar for 2018. Each month introduces a new “model”, and tells us a little about her life - some stories more revealing than others, but none unimportant. Those hands worked hard in factories across Britain, rearing and educating families, making Britain what it is today.

Rita (March) - “I was born in 1926 in Belfast. My mother died when I was very young and we moved to Ballyshannon in Donegal. My father died in an accident and we moved back to Belfast to be with my grandmother. My first job was at the Admiralty Office in Belfast. I got married in Manchester in 1952 and we moved 17 times due to my husband’s job. We had three daughters. I worked at LLoyds Bank in the City for 10 years, commuting from Essex. When I retired, I lived in Banbury, then moved to Southampton. In 2008, I moved to Reading. I love going out, gin and tonic and Jim Reeves.”
Rita (March) - “I was born in 1926 in Belfast. My mother died when I was very young and we moved to Ballyshannon in Donegal. My father died in an accident and we moved back to Belfast to be with my grandmother. My first job was at the Admiralty Office in Belfast. I got married in Manchester in 1952 and we moved 17 times due to my husband’s job. We had three daughters. I worked at Lloyds Bank in the City for 10 years, commuting from Essex. When I retired, I lived in Banbury, then moved to Southampton. In 2008, I moved to Reading. I love going out, gin and tonic and Jim Reeves.”
Betty (August) - “I was born in Highgate in 1927 and I have one brother. My school was in Wood Green. During the War, I was evacuated to Reading in 1939. After school in Reading, I got a job at Reading Library. I loved dancing, especially tap dancing! I even met my husband at a dance at the Reading Agricultural Hall. My husband was a Japanese Prisoner of War. We lived with my parents until we could afford to buy our own house. I was the Mayoress of Reading in 1998/1999, when David Geary was Mayor. I have had a good and full life and I live with my family in Reading.”
Betty (August) - “I was born in Highgate in 1927 and I have one brother. My school was in Wood Green. During the War, I was evacuated to Reading in 1939. After school in Reading, I got a job at Reading Library. I loved dancing, especially tap dancing! I even met my husband at a dance at the Reading Agricultural Hall. My husband was a Japanese Prisoner of War. We lived with my parents until we could afford to buy our own house. I was the Mayoress of Reading in 1998/1999, when David Geary was Mayor. I have had a good and full life and I live with my family in Reading.”

Maura from the Glenties came to Reading when she was 20. Norah, from Kerry, is now 89, and attends the Lunch Club three times a week. Betty was evacuated to Reading from London during the war, and subsequently became Mayor of Reading. Sheila from Killorglin emigrated to Reading in 1947. Eileen from Liverpool won the Victor Ludorum Medal for Sports in 1946, and lives by the motto “never say you can’t because you can”. Lil from Ballymore Eustace worked in Kardomah restaurant in London where she met a lot of celebrities.

I want to make a difference to other people’s lives. If I don’t succeed, I don’t succeed. But life is so short, isn’t it? I recently celebrated my 75th birthday. I think it’s up to all of us to do what we can - you’ve got to have the courage of your convictions. If we’re given the gift of communication, whatever it is, we should use it positively. And I think I’ve got that gift, because I can talk for Ireland and every inch of Great Britain too.

The Hands of Time calendar 2018 can be ordered from the Hibernian Society Reading website thehiberniansociety.co.uk

Phyllis (January) - “I was born in 1942 in Barbados. I started school at four and left at 14, then I was instructed in needlework for one year and after that, shorthand/typing. I came to England in 1962 and began working at Krimpy Krisps in Winnersh for two years. I lived in one room and was very homesick for Barbados. I then met my husband in Reading and was married in 1964; we had three children and bought our first house around that time as well. We moved in 1972 to my current house. I returned to work in 1981 to work at Marks and Spencer until retirement in 2002. I enjoy bingo, listening to music, supporting my local church, and walking, which is why I have my trainers in the photo!”
Phyllis (January) - “I was born in 1942 in Barbados. I started school at four and left at 14, then I was instructed in needlework for one year and after that, shorthand/typing. I came to England in 1962 and began working at Krimpy Krisps in Winnersh for two years. I lived in one room and was very homesick for Barbados. I then met my husband in Reading and was married in 1964; we had three children and bought our first house around that time as well. We moved in 1972 to my current house. I returned to work in 1981 to work at Marks and Spencer until retirement in 2002. I enjoy bingo, listening to music, supporting my local church, and walking, which is why I have my trainers in the photo!”
Sparklin’ Rosie (December) - “I was born in Shoreditch in 1929 and when I was six weeks old, my grandmother and auntie came and took me with them to Reading. I went to Katesgrove Junior School at 15 and worked in the GPO. I met my husband Tom in Reading and we married in 1950. We had three children. I looked after my bedridden grandmother for seven years. In 1960, we all went on holiday to her village Senerchia in Italy. We stayed for two months. My husband was a wonderful man; he was a naval commander in the Second World War. My friends call me Sparkling Rosie, because I love wearing sparkling jewellery.”
Sparklin’ Rosie (December) - “I was born in Shoreditch in 1929 and when I was six weeks old, my grandmother and auntie came and took me with them to Reading. I went to Katesgrove Junior School at 15 and worked in the GPO. I met my husband Tom in Reading and we married in 1950. We had three children. I looked after my bedridden grandmother for seven years. In 1960, we all went on holiday to her village Senerchia in Italy. We stayed for two months. My husband was a wonderful man; he was a naval commander in the Second World War. My friends call me Sparkling Rosie, because I love wearing sparkling jewellery.”
Barbara (June) - “I was born in 1934 in Reading. My mum died when I was five and we lived with my grandparents in Kidmore End. Dad went to the war and we did not see him for five years. When he came back, he married again. My stepmother was very cruel and we were all filthy with no clothes, no blankets, not even a comb. Neighbours reported neglect and one morning the house was surrounded by police and the NSPCC. My stepmother was jailed and we were taken to the workhouse in Henley. We then went to Shillingford Children’s Home. Eventually I trained as a pinner, mending nylons and worked in a big store. I came to Reading and met my husband and married at 20, having three children and a very happy marriage!”
Barbara (June) - “I was born in 1934 in Reading. My mum died when I was five and we lived with my grandparents in Kidmore End. Dad went to the war and we did not see him for five years. When he came back, he married again. My stepmother was very cruel and we were all filthy with no clothes, no blankets, not even a comb. Neighbours reported neglect and one morning the house was surrounded by police and the NSPCC. My stepmother was jailed and we were taken to the workhouse in Henley. We then went to Shillingford Children’s Home. Eventually I trained as a pinner, mending nylons and worked in a big store. I came to Reading and met my husband and married at 20, having three children and a very happy marriage!”

Photographs by Shane Bartlett, Alfred Crowl, Lucia Fouwels, Ethan Law, Zoya Mansur, Tiffany Noakes, Jessica Povey-West, Charlotte Robertson, Nicola Shankaradasan, Melissa Still, Rajivir Thaman and Mia Walton.

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