Thursday, June 21, 2007

The past is truly a foreign country

I was reminded this week of a book I read many years ago, with the intriguing title Three Lives. It was the book’s title, rather than its contents, which came to mind as I reflected on the happenings of a week that saw three unconnected lives touching my consciousness in different ways. While the men involved never met or knew eachother, they had shared youthful experiences which were common to those born in Ireland in the late 30s or early 40s. These were difficult times, created in part by the economic war of the 1930s, but prolonged and exacerbated by the Second World War. Poverty was everywhere. Not the genteel poverty of today, but the raw uninhibited poverty of an age when children went hungry and families often had to rely on their own remedies to cope with illness because there wasn’t any money to pay a doctor.

As childhood gave way to adulthood, many young boys and girls had to forgo the chance of further education and take up menial dead-end jobs in order to help the family finances. Even for those fortunate enough not to have to do so, the prospect of a job after leaving school was never more than hopeful. These were my thoughts when last week three hitherto unconnected lives became linked, two in death and the third by association with a period in our country’s history where all three shared in the difficulties created by a lack of opportunity.

My brother-in-law, Thomas Spellman, just two months short of his 65th birthday, died alone in his apartment in Neasden in North London. A Connemara man who spent his teenage years shooting and fishing in the fields and lakes of Connemara, he became an expert falconer by dint of his association with the late Ronald Stevens of Fermoyle Lodge. He grew up in the Ireland of the 1940s and ’50s and, as might be expected, wanted to widen his horizons when he reached his majority. Emigration, especially to America, was the normal route taken by young Connemara folk, but Thomas Spellman followed his older brother to London. He settled in Neasden and it was there more than 40 years later that he passed away. He was part of several generations of Irish folk for whom the emigrant boat offered the only prospect of escape from the economically backward and church-dominated society that was post-war Ireland.

John B Keane in his book, Self Portrait, recounted his journey as an emigrant to England in the early 1950s and his account simply but vividly captures the scene at the mail-boat. “Dun Laoghaire for the first time was a heart-breaking experience - the goodbyes to husbands going back after Christmas, chubby-faced boys and girls leaving home for the first time, bewilderment written all over them, hard-faced old stagers who never let on but who felt it the worst of all because they knew only too well what lay before them.”

Thomas Spellman made his life in London, a city cosmopolitan in nature but for all that a lonely city at the edges where so many Irish men and women of my generation and older are still to be found. He died last week, a relatively young man, in the same city he had emigrated to in the early 1960s, far removed from the sights, sounds and smells of Connemara where he was born and had spent his youth.

Joining him in death that same week was another child of the hungry ’40s, Mickser Murray of Athy. Mickser never seized the opportunity to rise above the despair and despondency which once characterised life in Ireland. It is often claimed that our best young people took to the emigrant boats, making their mark in America or Great Britain, where the opportunity to do so did not arise in Ireland. Mickser, I believe, was born in the Barrack Yard, that early 18th century building complex, now no more, which once filled the Athy skyline with its near neighbour, Woodstock Castle. I knew Mickser quite well and felt keenly the many missed opportunities he felt unable to seize which might have allowed him to have a better life. He did not take the emigrant boat, lacking maybe the drive or the initiative, even perhaps the desperation that drove others to make a new life for themselves across the sea. Mickser met a sad death last week in Carlow, after spending some time homeless in our neighbouring town.

Like Thomas Spellman, he was born in an age when dreams of a Celtic Tiger were unknown. Theirs was a generation where privilege was measured in terms of ability to get employment in your own country and where the majority were in those terms underprivileged.

But an even greater loss of privilege was to befall so many of the young Irish men and women of that period. For many of them, indeed the majority of them, the right to an education was denied for one reason or another. I recall many school mates of mine who left school to take up messenger boy jobs, simply because their families needed the small wages which such work offered. Young boys just over 13 years of age decamped from school even before reaching the minimum school leaving age so that an extra few shillings could be added to the family coffers at the end of each week.

I was reminded of this last Tuesday when I enquired of a local who was sitting at Barrow Quay how he had done in his recent university examinations. Retired a few years ago, I knew he had undertaken what for him was a huge leap into the unknown by first sitting his Leaving Certificate examinations and then enrolling in a degree course in University College, Maynooth. He was of the same generation of Thomas Spellman and Mickser Murray, but in his case he was obliged to leave school at 13 years of age after his father died leaving a widow and three young children. As the eldest of the family, my friend had no option but to go out to work and forgo whatever ambitions he might have had for his future education. He was one of the more lucky ones. He did not have to emigrate and managed to have a job in his home town throughout his working life, retiring a few years ago at 65 years of age. Recovering the lost educational opportunities of over 50 years ago is a wonderful personal achievement for him and one that tells another side of the story of those Irish men and women of an earlier generation.

The emigrant, the unfortunate who spent his last years living rough and the scholar of advanced years shared early years in a country that was socially and economically deprived. Their lives never connected but their stories tell us all that was wrong in an independent state which for decades failed to provide the opportunities that we have now come to expect as our right. Thomas Spellman had to leave his beloved Connemara and spend his life working in London. Mickser Murray slipped through the education and welfare nets which might have given him a more meaningful life, while my retired friend is only now reliving the dreams that should have been his over 50 years ago.

The Ireland of today is surely unrecognisable from the country into which we were born.

1 comment:

dmurphy said...


Had a few hours to spare this evening and while browsing the internet came across your Blog and was blown away by some of your stories.

The stories are wonderful and bring to life some of those old faces / places that I remember so well.

Keep up the fantastic work.


David Murphy - formerly Sunnyside, Athy.