‘My grandmother felt culture shock in Ireland. People here were far more status-conscious than she was used to’

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The stroke had taken her consciousness before I got home. I sang to her, having heard that music can reach parts of the brain when words no longer can

Ireland joined the EEC, as it then was, in January 1973. This is one of a series of articles exploring our evolving relationship with the European Union – and its past, present and future

“I can remember looking out of my bedroom window, and it was just one mass of yellow, red and yellow, from fire,” my grandmother told me in one of our talks that I recorded before she died.

She was remembering the bombing of London that she lived through as a child.

“You could see the whole sky which was full of the red of bombing, of the flames.”


My grandmother was born Pamela Addison in 1935, arriving into the world along with her twin sister Yvonne. “I’ve always been a ‘we’ instead of an ‘I’,” as she once put it.

The twins grew up in north London with their older sister Daphne, and from the age of five saw little of their father because he was drafted to fight in the second World War.

“We did have all these things you read about. Gas masks – you went to school with that hanging off your neck,” she said. Yvonne remembered rushing to the bomb shelter next door when the sirens sounded, and “eventually” managing to fall asleep under the table.

It was a “disordered” period. The twins were evacuated repeatedly to different places – sometimes separated from their mother and from Daphne, sometimes together, once for a memorably happy period to live in the rambling family home of the editor of a newspaper called the Congleton Chronicle.

When things seemed to have quietened down, the family would venture back to London again. The local children adapted to the strange normality, collecting shrapnel as a hobby, prizing interesting shapes. Items broke in the house due to the bombing, and the windows were smashed.

When the war cut close, the adults began to talk of leaving again. “You know, if somebody they knew had been bombed out or lost their leg,” Yvonne said. A row of houses at the end of their street “disappeared” in a huge explosion one night.

“And then we had another time when there was a stray German bomber, and he had gone across London ... and he had shot at people down the high street,” Yvonne said. “We were walking home, and he shot at us, so we fell on the floor. I think then my mother probably said: we’re off. It’s getting too close.”

For one period they lived in a house that had been requisitioned by the state as accommodation for evacuees. It was an unhappy period. “We were in Cheshire, and so it’s a different accent,” my grandmother said.

They were resented. “Simply because we were foreign, if you like,” she said.

“Some local children put dead frogs through the letterbox, and slit their tummies and things,” she said. “I discovered at a very early age that it doesn’t take much to be different.”

The twins credit their happy memories of the time to the creativity of their mother Margaret. “She was very gifted,” Pamela said. They would create model shops and theatres “out of nothing” and invent stories about them. Margaret had collections of scrap and cloth to work with: she was a top tailor on Savile Row. The two picked up her sewing skills “though osmosis”.

Some time after peace was declared their father Leonard, a figure who for half their lives had featured in the form of letters and packages arriving from afar, returned one day in a taxi to their London house.

Pamela said she watched him bend down to pay the fare.

“The back of his neck. He was just so thin. You could see this ...” she broke off, gesturing with her hand. “It was the bone structure.”

She was 10. The feeling of shame she felt about being nervous of her father stayed with her all her life.

Of the twins, Pamela was the outgoing one, said Yvonne. Both were creative; Yvonne spent the early days of the pandemic lockdowns trying to capture the vivid sunsets in paint. Pam tended towards the written word.

“Little stories and poems and things. She was always writing,” Yvonne told me. “Her headmaster was telling her she should try to do something with the writing ... when she left school, she wanted to get into Fleet Street.”

Possibly due to a letter of recommendation from that headmaster – the details are lost to time – Pamela landed a role as secretary to an editor of an exciting magazine called Everybody’s. Her dream, she once told me, was that by the age of 21 she would be working as a journalist and driving a convertible MG.

She went on to get a role as an editorial assistant on an interdenominational Christian publication. The Addisons were not a religious family and had little record of churchgoing. But Yvonne pinpoints this as the moment Pamela began to develop her deep faith.

One evening, a schoolfriend phoned up Pamela and suggested they go to The Royalty dance hall that Saturday. It wasn’t my grandmother’s favourite – she found the crowd a bit older and standoffish – but she agreed.

Many decades later she still remembered what she was wearing. It was a dress of shot silk taffeta, that shimmered between red and green as she moved – her own creation, like all her evening clothes. She wore two earrings “both on one ear”, and velvet shoes that “tipped up at the front a bit like an Aladdin lamp”. She was 19, and it was 1954.

My grandad remembers that it was about 8pm when he saw Pamela across the ballroom. “There was Pam. It was like a light across a room,” he told me. They were engaged six weeks later.

Raymond Klimcke, carrying the surname of Silesian immigrant ancestors, had grown up not far away in north London, where he had lived un-evacuated throughout the Blitz.

By being the youngest he had escaped the fate of his brother, father and uncles who had all been sucked into the machinery of European war in the preceding decades, many dying, others coming back deeply traumatised.

Called up for national service in the air force and discharged to peacetime, Raymond found work as a civilian pilot.

This was an era when Aer Lingus was expanding into transatlantic flight. And so it came to be that, at a time when so many Irish people were emigrating across the Irish Sea, my grandparents came in the other direction.

They settled in Howth, which was close to Dublin Airport, and looked so beautiful from the air. They were to raise four daughters there, my mother among them.

Pamela remembered experiencing unexpected culture shock in her new home. People in Ireland were “far more status-conscious” than what she was used to – something that continued to surprise her years later. She was struck by the authority held by priests and nuns, noticing how they were given preferential treatment in public spaces. “It was expected that that person, who happened to be a nun, would jump the queue,” she said.

The social strata of the London she had come from had been profoundly disrupted by the two World Wars, she explained. Women were in the workforce, people of all backgrounds served together. “Everybody got mixed up,” she said.

The young couple decided to find a local church to attend, and after trying out a few, settled on Sutton Methodist Church as the one they liked best.

Pamela was taken aback to discover her children would be attending a different school to their friends, the O’Reillys next door, because the Klimckes were not Catholic.

A number of people did get letters saying: get out of here and go home. We never did, and I put that down to Pam

—  Ray

“I thought that was very sad, because you’re immediately dividing people up from a very early age,” she told me. “They get these fixations about each other. Either side, they think they’re another species or something.”

School in London was “just a school”, she said. “Catholics, Jews, whatever.”

Was it difficult living in Dublin in those days with north London accents?

“Originally no, we were just funny strangers who came along and worked for the airline,” my grandfather remembered. “But it became a bit different when things got very difficult up in the North.”

In the immediate aftermath of the massacre of unarmed protesters by the British army in Derry on Bloody Sunday, my grandmother remembered feeling an atmospheric change in the supermarket when she spoke.

“It’s a sensation, and you know that suddenly, you’re the baddy,” she said.

There were tensions locally at the time.

“A number of people did get letters saying: get out of here and go home,” my grandfather said. “We never did, and I put that down to Pam.”

Specifically, my grandfather believes that the family were accepted because of a fundraiser that Pamela organised.

It was to raise aid for famine-stricken Biafra – a breakaway Nigerian province mired in civil war, whose aspirations for independence and predominantly Catholic faith had struck a chord of solidarity in Ireland.

Sponsored walks were a new concept in 1960s Ireland. Pamela started with Burrow National School, the Church of Ireland primary that her children attended. Her idea was that all the children of the area could walk together around Howth hill.

“She went down to the priest’s house in Howth and knocked on the door, and talked about this walk she was organising in aid of Biafra. The priest took it on completely, and all the Catholic schools joined in the march as well,” my grandfather said.

“It was a very early example of ecumenism,” he remembered. “Because of her we weren’t really seen as quite British, half and half or something. Acceptable anyway. So we never got any threatening letters.”

The Ireland of the time did not have the kind of opportunities for a young mother that Pamela had once dreamed of in London.

The Marriage Bar that obliged women to leave their jobs upon marriage was in place until 1973, along with the cultural beliefs behind it deeply embedded.

“When our family were a wee bit bigger, I thought I really would like to do something separate,” she said. “It was extremely different. Various things I tried. Mostly you ended up doing voluntary work, because it’s really what you can do, without anyone being overly critical.”

“If you were looking for a job, if you had children,” the attitude was: “what are you doing looking for a job anyway?”

The Methodist church hall in Sutton was to become an important resource, a portal to the wider community, and in time to the wider world. It started with childcare.

“We had the church hall, there. Somebody said: why don’t we have something where the children come in for one day, and the mothers could go off,” she said.

“It started very basic, and we charged two and six. Me and one or two others, we brought our own toys down.”

Reaction could be disapproving. “It wasn’t seen as anything that people should be doing,” she explained. “Women were there in the home, and should be looking after the children.”

Local mothers dropping off their children were encouraged to take turns on the rota – an opportunity to learn about how the different activities encouraged childhood development.

Contraception was not legal in Ireland at the time.

“I remember being with women who were in tears because they had six tiny children, the oldest was seven, and they just couldn’t cope,” Pamela said.

They wouldn’t acknowledge that some of the mothers might need some help, because ‘that’s what women do’

She discovered the existence of the Irish Preschool Playgroups Association (IPPA), and began to attend meetings at St. Brigid’s Day Nursery on Mountjoy Square.

“We were trying to get the government to see that preschool childcare [was important]. They said it’s nothing to do with us. Nobody would claim any responsibility for small children,” she said.

“They wouldn’t acknowledge that some of the mothers might need some help, because ‘that’s what women do’.”

In June 1976, the byline “Pam Klimcke” appeared in The Irish Times. The pitching process had been difficult, she told me.

“The query was: what is a playgroup?” she said. “They thought it was something to do with drama.” She set out to answer that question under the headline “Playing is Learning”.

“Each child will be encouraged to talk, to move freely from one play area to another, perhaps to touch a real spider, to water the seedlings, or smother paper with thick paint, putting colour on colour, and so through all these simple pastimes unconsciously learning,” her article explained.

“Learning that the spider did not bite, that the seedlings will die (as Joey’s did) without water, that blue paint on yellow paint turns into green paint! So through play we are learning – learning in our homes and in the playgroup, where too, we learn to cope with sharing, taking it in turns, and being part of a society.”

A playgroup itself can unite the wider community, she continued. “A cross section of people come together, the parents with each other, with the public health nurses of the area, interested teachers, the doctors, social workers, young people, old people, can come together, united instead of being separate units in the same community.”

Securing and retaining funding from the government was a challenge, said an arti

cle that ran in The Irish Times in 1981, alongside a piece about early childhood development credited to “Pamela Klimcke of the IPPA”.

“We set up playgroups in different areas, in Ballymun,” Pamela said. “So many of those playgroups became private playgroups, and then they became expensive.” The shortage of childcare in north Dublin continues to challenge the ability of her granddaughters to retain paid employment today.

Pamela was looking out over a river in then-divided Germany, about to take a photograph, when she noticed a figure in the frame.

“I saw this person right out on the edge on this sort of strip of wood. It didn’t look very safe,” she said in an oral history collected by the World Federation of Methodist Women (WFMF) soon afterwards.

The woman on the river’s edge was crying. “You could tell from the attitude of her body,” Pamela said. “I waited for her, and in fact she was very distressed.”

Between her tears, the woman disclosed that she had “acted in the past as a person who had helped people come out of Germany, escaping from East to West,” Pamela said.

“She was remembering all sorts of pain ... She was remembering the pain that s

he had also experienced, through those people’s experiences. She shared that with me.”

The encounter happened during Pamela’s journey into Potsdam in East Germany for a gathering of the WFMF in 1989, a trip that involved passing through Checkpoint Charlie to go beyond the Iron Curtain.

This was one of the group’s international gatherings of Methodist women, which Pamela was to attend and sometimes organise, holding a series of senior roles in the organisation including editor of its newsletter and president of its Britain and Ireland section. Travelling independently, she was to attend Methodist church summits in locations as far-flung as South Korea, Kenya and Brazil as a delegate for Ireland.

WFMF was a progressive force within Methodism, pushing within the Church for greater representation of women, the promotion of girls’ education, an end to domestic violence, care for the environment and an understanding approach to tackling HIV/AIDs.

In Potsdam, local women delegates presented a film they had made expressing their frustrations about gender inequality. The Soviet Union had allowed them to take on traditionally male labour roles, they outlined, but when they came home, they were still expected to do all the cooking and childcare work.

“They found that what was meant to be equality was not equality,” Pamela said. “Actually the women were doing twice as much as they had before ... I think that applies not just to Germany.”

I think you’ve got to come together, you have to see what you have in common, and to my mind it was a disaster

—  Pam

She was invited to lunch at the home of a local family, and with the help of dictionaries, they exchanged “all about their lifestyle” and introduced Pamela to their children. “Everything was very restricted,” Pamela said, describing the shortages, economic controls, and uniformed Russian soldiers who were never far away.

“It was the first time I would have met women from that part of Europe, and it was difficult to share verbally. There was lots of hugging,” she said. “Sometimes you don’t need the language.”

A few months later, the Berlin Wall fell.

Back in Ireland she was to make her biggest splash the same year, when she was invited to speak at the Glenstal Ecumenical Conference – an inter-denominational gathering aimed to bring the Irish churches together.

The topic was the ordination of women, an issue of contested debate in the Church of Ireland at the time. After interventions from a theologian, a priest and a prominent Dominican nun, Pamela gave a speech arguing in favour. “I quoted from all sorts of sources, including the Bible of course.”

Methodists had long had women ministers, so supporting ordination “seemed like the obvious thing to me” she explained. “I thought it was the normal thing.”

She remembered her “shock” when, as the interventions concluded, journalists seemed to swarm towards her. She hadn’t realised her comments would be newsworthy. “I was quoted on the radio and also on the TV.”

When we spoke, my grandmother revealed she had recently caused a stir in the local post office by producing a bulky envelope addressed to the Pope.

She had sent Pope Francis a copy of the speech she had given all those years ago arguing for the ordination of women, which had later been published in a church magazine.

“Because it dawned on me – it’s 30 years!” she said. “Nothing, in that respect, has changed. Now, it was a very polite letter, and I was very careful in how I worded it. But I sent the magazine to the Pope. You have to start at the top, you know.”

My grandparents were deeply disturbed by recent political events. They were horrified by Brexit.

“I think it’s a detachment from Europe which to a degree – and hopefully it will never happen – has meant that the kind of conflicts that we lived through and our families lived through are more likely to come back again,” my grandfather told me after the vote.

Pamela saw it similarly. “We lived through war periods, and our families have been involved in wars over those generations, in memory. It just struck us that this wasn’t taken into account at all,” she told me.

“I think you’ve got to come together, you have to see what you have in common, and to my mind it was a disaster.”

When Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24th this year, it brought back vivid and disturbing memories for them.

Amid the exchange of photographs of great-grandchildren reaching their milestones on the family WhatsApp, Pamela and Raymond shared their distress.

She loved colour. She loved flowers. She loved the garden. She painted lovely pictures and made lovely clothes

—  Ray

“Has Europe been down the Munich road?” my grandfather wrote on the day of the invasion, referring to the appeasement of Adolf Hitler before the second World War. “After Ukraine, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania?”

He despaired of the ability of the West to meet the challenge. “What chance against Russia,” he wrote. “It’s terrible to see all the human stories unfold again, and to feel helpless.”

Pamela shared a viral appeal for everyone to switch off their lights in the house “showing Putin we’d rather sit in the dark than buy his gas”.

“All too familiar and so horrific. I remember my mother saying that before the war began in 1939 ... she felt the war was inevitable,” she wrote.

“My father thought differently, trusting that it would be sorted out by talking. Sadly he was wrong. I cannot express how I feel looking at another dictator who has become obsessed with his own power.”

Yvonne saw the images of fleeing Ukrainian children and remembered her own evacuation. “I look at the children in Ukraine and I see their faces. You’ve had a lovely little comfortable life. And all of a sudden, people are worried, and they’re taking you somewhere else,” she told me. You feel “bewildered”.

One weekend in May Pamela had dinner to celebrate her 87th birthday with Raymond and my parents at a hotel in Wicklow. The next morning at breakfast she fell to the floor.

The stroke had taken her consciousness by the time I had made it back from Brussels to see her in St Vincent’s hospital. But I said the Lord’s Prayer as I held her hand and sang hymns to her, having heard that music can reach parts of the brain when spoken words no longer can.

It may seem strange to say of a man nearing 90 but when I saw my grandfather, he looked old for the first time . At Pamela’s funeral, he spoke of her rich life and the artistic talents she had passed down to their children and grandchildren in his eulogy.

“She loved colour. She loved flowers. She loved the garden. She painted lovely pictures and made lovely clothes,” my grandfather said. He described her tireless community work.

“The time and involvement she applied to those roles was endless. She also did an art degree part-time. I’m immensely proud of her.”

Pamela Klimcke was carried one last time through Sutton Methodist Church on the shoulders of her grandsons, as another grandson played a lament on the uilleann pipes.

At the head of the church hung a simple blue altarpiece with an embroidered white dove, carrying in its beak a St Brigid’s Cross. The cross was a gift from a neighbouring Catholic church, given in the wake of the Enniskillen Remembrance Day bombing. Pamela had sewn it into the dove’s beak.

Before she died, my grandparents had made efforts to claim Irish citizenship but were defeated by the paperwork required to prove their long years of residency.

“I’ve become part of it here. And I’m very happy to be here. And I love it you know, I love everything about it,” Pamela once told me. “Ireland is a beautiful island. My biggest sorrow is that the people have become fractured.”

Naomi O’Leary

Naomi O’Leary

Naomi O’Leary is Europe Correspondent of The Irish Times