I was privileged to interview a number of former employees of Shaws over the last two years while working on a history of that firm. One of those interviewed was a lady who started to work in Shaws of Athy as World War II entered its final phase. Her story was typical of anyone employed away from their home town or village in those war-torn years. The memory of those difficult times is now fading, but accounts such as that of the County Tipperary lass brings home to later generations what life was like in Ireland of the 1940s. Seventy-two years have passed since my interviewee spoke of her journey home on Christmas Eve 1945 but let her take up her story.
‘I left my home in Co. Tipperary in 1944 to take up my apprenticeship with Shaws in Athy. Being the war years there were no trains, no petrol for cars, so I set off on my high nelly bike for the neighbouring town from where I continued my journey by bus to Naas with my bicycle safely on top. I reached Naas at 3 p.m. with a ten shilling note in my pocket. By this time I was hungry but could not afford to spend money on food, as my ten shillings had to last a long long time. I would need money for a stamp to write home each week, and a penny for church on Sunday mornings and another penny for the Methodist Church on Sunday evenings, which as a staff member of Shaws I had to attend. I had to wait in Naas ‘til 6 p.m. in order to continue my journey to Athy on the Dublin bus. Alas, when the bus did arrive, it was full up. A man who had seen me waiting there for so long, came and told me that a hackney was coming to Naas from Athy to collect some people and he would ask the owner if he had room for me. The man was Tommy Stynes who kindly brought me to Athy, and I didn’t have to give him any money.
My first Christmas 1945 I worked ‘til 10 p.m. as some customers seemed to get joy from coming in five minutes before closing time. Between chatting and browsing, they wouldn’t leave til near 10 p.m., never giving a thought as to how far the staff would have to cycle home. As I worked in the cash desk, I would be almost the last to leave, so it would be 11 p.m. before I could start my journey home. As it was the war years street lights and directions on sign posts were not allowed, in case of a German invasion. The roads were not tarred, except the main roads from Dublin to Cork and Dublin to Limerick. I knew I had to cycle through Maryborough (as it was known then), Mountrath, Borris in Ossory, Roscrea, Dunkevin and then home. In Mountrath, I turned right, instead of left and went on to Ballyfin, where I met a man “full of Christmas cheer.” He told me to go back to Mountrath and turn right after the church. On reaching Roscrea I was so tired I lay on the frosty grass for a while, and then walked ‘til the numbness left my legs. I arrived home on Christmas morning at 7.30 a.m., spent Christmas Day at home and then cycled back to Athy on Saint Stephen’s Day. Oh was I tired? Some of the staff cycled to Gorey, some to Inistioge, and others to different destinations, just to be home for Christmas. We had no other option. For three years this was the way we had to go if we were to see “Home Sweet Home”.
It is understandably difficult for anyone accustomed to modern motorways and motorised travel to imagine how important a bicycle was in the life of Irish folk during the war and indeed for many years after it ended. I remember my father cycling to Tullow, Co. Carlow where he was temporarily filling in for a local sergeant who was indisposed. Those were the days when the bicycle was the only mode of transport for most people as car ownership was the preserve of the rich and the professional classes.
Last week when writing of past Shackleton Autumn Schools I overlooked the contribution of Liam O’Flynn, Ireland’s foremost piper who performed at two Autumn Schools. Another omission was the absence of any reference to the Autumn School journal, ‘Nimrod’ which has been produced every year and this year reaches its eleventh edition.