Diary of an Emigrant
Lord Tennyson once wrote that ‘all experience is an arch where through gleams the untraveled world’. A half century ago I negotiated that arch and turned emigrant for a few years. In my early-20s then, I was determined to discover if our closest neighbour ‘pagan England’ was truly pagan. Stories arriving back on the backs of colleagues who had emigrated a few short years before spoke of a way of life far removed from that lived in a small country town in the west of Ireland. Like Robert Service’s story of The Yukon, ‘money was just like dirt there, easy to get and to spend’ and the jobs were a dime a dozen. Like many before me my destination was the city of London and to a place with the fairytale name of Swiss Cottage.
The train journey to Dublin that day was a memorable one as I ended up in the company of one John McGahern, the writer who happened to be travelling the same afternoon. John and I had known one another since our secondary school days with The Presentation Brothers in Carrick-on-Shannon and we hadn’t met since those halcyon days of enlightenment and literature. In the course of the three-hour train journey we did a post-mortem on the old Alma Mater recalling the professors, their moods, their eccentricities, their teaching skills and the disciplines of secondary school life of the time.
We bared our souls as we sat in the old Pullman dining car drinking tea and eating Kimberley biscuits. Brother Francis was one of nature’s gentlemen, a teacher with a keen sense of humour and generous to a smile. Tom Mannion, our English professor, was a soft spoken methodical character with a love for prose and anything written by Hazlitt, Johnson, Lambe or Thackeray. The others we left to time and eternity. We laughed about the lunch room, the old fashioned kitchen with a Brooks/Thomas range stuck in one wall and a tall dresser in the other that was used by the country lads to store their lunch boxes and flasks of milk; there was also the facility to make your own tea. Tom Mannion often joined us near the range drinking strong tea. Then there was the lunch hour banter with fledgling comedians competing for the number one spot. John recalled the ten-kilometre journey by bicycle in the morning from the Garda Barracks in Cootehall where his father was Sergeant in Charge. How could you forget the back roads with clumps of grass growing up in the middle and potholes half hidden and innocent looking ‘til you hit one of them? The end result could be a puncture or a change of trousers before going into class.
At Westland Row (Pearse Street Station today) we parted company and hoped we’d meet up again in the not too distant future. Destiny, however, would decide otherwise. Thirty years went by before we met again at the Boyle Arts Festival when John read extracts from a selection of his works in The Forest Park Hotel and again some years later at a similar event in The Church of Ireland on Green Street. The third and last was a much more sombre occasion when I saw him laid to rest alongside his mother in Aughawillan Cemetery.
Back to real life and the lonely trip on the ferry from Dun Laoghaire! The sea that evening barely raised a ripple as I stood on the deck with a group of fellow travellers watching a blood-red sun go down behind Howth Head. Looking back at the harbour receding in the distance I thought of past generations of emigrants who would have witnessed a similar scene and pondered if they’d see ‘Kingstown Harbour’ (as it was then known) ever again. For many of them it was a one way ticket. Ten hours later, with land and sea behind me, I dismounted at Euston Station mentally and physically drained. The goodbyes were well and truly over and visions of a new life were beginning to unfold.
The time read 6.30 a.m. on the face of the giant Smith’s clock overhead as I sat on my old leather suitcase with its metal buttons shining, waiting for my friend John to arrive. The numbers of people moving about were mind-boggling and, stranger still, no-one saying hello or goodbye. For a brief moment I had forgotten I was now in ‘the heart of the empire’ and not some friendly little railway station in the west of Ireland. The seething mass of humanity brought back to me a line from John Milton’s poem on ‘His Blindness’ when he said “Thousands at His bidding speed and post o’er land and ocean without rest, they also serve who only stand and wait”, and here was I sitting and waiting. I was happy to see John suddenly appearing from out the crowd. It now read 7 a.m. on Smith’s clock and I had begun to fret a little. Maybe he had forgotten about the young greenhorn just let loose on Greater London! “No way old friend,” he commented in his best west of Ireland accent, “‘twas the train came in early” (which happened to be true!). His address in Swiss Cottage meant a journey on the underground to Piccadilly Station, a change to the Bakerloo Line and travel a further 15 stops.
My maiden voyage was quite a baptism of fire as this high powered underground train travelled through a maze of tunnels at what seemed like 90 miles an hour. My eardrums, being more accustomed to the quietness of a country town, blew all of a sudden and everything around me went silent. I looked across at John for a kind of explanation and was more than relieved to see an index finger stuck in each ear. Fifteen stops later we dismounted on a platform a world away from Euston. This was Swiss Cottage, my new address for the time being at least. What a transition! It could have been Boyle station on a Saturday afternoon.
I was happy when he said we were only ten minutes walk from his bedsitter. An average sized bedroom with adjoining toilet, a cosy kitchen and living room combined, it also had the luxury of a little carpet of grass outside the kitchen window that reminded me a little of home. Within minutes he was in the throes of cooking a fry; Sainsbury’s bangers, rashers and black pudding crackling on the pan brought back memories of breakfast at home on a Sunday morning after Mass. With the pangs of hunger gone I fell into bed. ‘Oh blessings light on him who first invented this same sleep it covers a man all over thoughts and all like a cloak’. Like Sancho Panza I fell unconscious for eight solid hours.
John eventually had to waken me up and with a wry smile inquired if I’d fancy a pint of Guinness. “It’ll help you to sleep tonight,” he added. Where in God’s name would you get a pint of Guinness in London in ‘62 I wondered? In the local down the road, he informed me; it’s called ‘The Swiss Tavern’ and it’s one of only three drinking houses in the whole of North London that sells the black stuff. The Tavern was old world and boasted a thatched roof. An array of tables and chairs situated on a patio outside was new to me and it radiated a cosmopolitan look that wouldn’t be seen in Ireland for a further ten years. John seemed well got there as Niamh the attractive young blonde hostess rushed over to greet him and his friend from back home. He was hungry to hear the news from Boyle town, the Abbey Cinema, the Snooker Club, the dance hops in the Tennis Pavilion, the swimming pool we broke our backs selling tickets for (and still a work in suspended animation in 2015 A.D.) and lots more. As we strolled back to his apartment at our leisure an hour later he stopped suddenly and politely told me not to be nodding to every passerby. It’s not done over here you know, they’ll think you strange; remember you’re only one of eight million people. And there was I thinking I was being sociable!
The following week I made my way to ‘Emerald Agencies’ in Kilburn, an employment agency known to countless Irish emigrants. I had with me what today is known as your ‘Curriculum Vitae’. It consisted of a character reference from my Parish Priest, my Intermediate and Leaving Certificates, a certificate of a 12-month commercial course in Rosses College, Dublin under the guiding hand of Professor Sparkhall Browne (a name that would surely enhance the value of any certificate), and finally a letter confirming three years office experience with C.I.E.. The interview took place in the head offices of Blue Star Garages in High Street, Hampstead. The Personnel Manager informed me they controlled 400 garages around England and kindly offered me a cup of tea. I then handed him my Curriculum Vitae. Robert Barton had all the looks of a military man, wore a heavy military moustache and had been a British Army major in Northern Ireland during the Second World War. Are you from Northern or Southern Ireland he asked politely at the outset? From the West of Ireland I said promptly and innocently. He paused for a moment and rephrased the question; I meant Northern Ireland as part of the U.K.. For a moment I wondered had I shot myself in the foot with my slightly ambiguous answer; would he interpret it as a spot of petty arrogance? He carried on with a range of questions about the type of office work I did, book-keeping, stock control, telephone experience etc.. I got the job, starting the following Monday.
Hampstead was a beautiful part of the world. The area then was suburban and the office was just five minutes walk from the beautiful Hampstead Heath. When I walked it during my lunch hour I couldn’t but think of John Keats sitting in some quiet valley glade writing ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ or ‘To Autumn’, or waiting for the spark to fall that powered many of his wonderful poems on summer and nature. Hampstead had been his home for the last few years of his life before he died at the very young age of 26. The King of Bohemia restaurant was just doors away from Blue Star Offices and it was there I had my first experience of a carvery in action. Back in Ireland if one had the occasional Sunday lunch out, the food was selected from the ‘A La Carte’ menu and it was served up from behind closed doors; this however was very different. A chef dressed in a long white apron and tall hat (like the guy on the chef sauce bottle) stood behind the carvery counter. You took your place in the queue, made your choice, paid three shillings and sixpence at the cash desk and carried it to the table yourself, all very neat and satisfying. It was like the eighth wonder of the world.
I began walking to work when I discovered a shortcut through Belsize Park, Fitzjohn’s Avenue, Old England’s Lane, Haverstock Hill and Hampstead Village; 20 minutes on foot, 45 minutes by bus. Fitzjohn’s Avenue was residential and extremely upmarket, the Shrewsbury Road of London I would have imagined. Some mornings I’d pause to watch the Bentleys and Jaguars been chauffeured from the grounds of the ivy-leaved mansions with the owners sitting back very important looking and wearing that ostentatious look so beloved of ministers and moguls. It brought back memories to me of Sir Cecil Stafford King Harman of Rockingham Estate being driven to (Boyle) town in his Bentley by his chauffeur Christy Dolan. Christy seemed to be forever dressed in his navy blue uniform, peaked cap and polished high legged leather boots that reflected in the door of the Bentley as he held it open for Sir Cecil or Lady Stafford. He then entered our shop for the morning newspapers for Rockingham and 20 Players Navy Cut cigarettes for himself, shades of the ‘Upstairs Downstairs’ television series of the 1970s. For a Walter Mitty moment I was a millionaire, the owner of a Rolls Royce and living in an ivy-walled mansion. Then Blue Star Garages loomed up in front of me.
The month of October ‘62 found me wondering would I see home for Christmas. The Cuban Crisis was at its height and had reached a frightening level with the imminent threat of a nuclear war. Over a period of 72 hours, America and Russia rolled out a devastating show of military power. Negotiations had reached an all time low and the world was literally holding its breath. Bertrand Russell, a world renowned philosopher, pacifist and anti-war activist, raised his head above the parapet to send telegrams to both Kennedy and Khrushchev personally pleading with them to consider the future of mankind. The alternative was the beginning of the end of the human race, an end to civilisation. It succeeded and the world drew a huge sigh of relief.
Jobs were plentiful in Britain at those times and the swinging ‘60s had just hit London with the force of a tornado. Pop groups were sprouting up like early morning mushrooms and were vying with each other for the Number One spot in the charts. A new group calling themselves ‘The Beatles’ were leading the field in popularity and were about to be christened Britain’s latest secret weapon by no less a person than the Prime Minister himself, Sir Alec Douglas Hume. Their music and lyrics were sweeping Europe and America with the speed and power of a tsunami. The ‘peace people’ were singing their new anthem, ‘make love not war’. Mary Quant was about to launch the mini-skirt onto the ladies fashion world and ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’, the book that had been banned for a hundred years, was for sale in every bookstore. Feeling like a free spirit I went into my nearest library in Hampstead and asked for a copy of James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’, a book that had also been banned for over half a century but was now available as well. The librarian informed me that the three copies in stock were out on loan but she had a copy of ‘Finnegan’s Wake’ if I’d like it. I took it, spent half the night struggling through 20 pages of this masterpiece and decided it would have been simpler to translate Homer’s ‘Iliad’ or Caesar’s ‘Gallic Wars’. When I returned it the following day the librarian didn’t seem overly surprised; she just smiled and asked me if I had an enjoyable night’s reading! That ended my brief love affair with James Joyce.
Around the same time John Profumo, the ‘War Secretary’ in Harold MacMillan’s government, lost his way somewhere between Christine Keeler and Mandy Rice Davies and ended up making a fool of himself in the House of Commons. The ignominy of it all was too much and he took early retirement soon afterwards. A short time later Harold Macmillan, his boss, tumbled off the wall like Humpty Dumpty and they failed to put him together again. They were never heard of again.
Some Sundays after Mass in Kilburn High Road (there were 12 of them) I’d pay a visit to Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park for a spot of light entertainment. On a Sunday this famous corner of the park became a hotbed for homespun philosophers, stand up comedians and religious fanatics pontificating on everything from the Creation to the Apocalypse. Freedom of speech was sacrosanct here and took precedent over everything else. An atheist in one corner proclaimed there was no God, that He was a figment of the imagination, a fairytale. A guy across from him quoted chapter and verse from the Book of Genesis to prove God created everybody and everything, including his nemesis opposite. A short distance away again a chap climbed into a wooden pulpit and ranted about Christmas being a pagan festival until the Christians stole it and put Christ in its place. The (Irish) Diaspora present were outraged and shouted ‘blasphemy’ back at him. Even the royal House of Windsor didn’t escape the lash of some of these demagogues when they were in top gear.
June ’63 saw President Kennedy visit Ireland and the Irish around the world stood tall. The grandson of an emigrant had become the most powerful man on the planet and suddenly we Irish were six foot tall. Five months later we shed tears when we heard the dreadful news that he had been assassinated in the city of Dallas. Television networks around the globe interrupted programmes with newsflashes reporting the terrible news. It made such a profound impact on people that many were able to remember exactly where they were and what they were doing when the awful news broke. In June the same year the grand old Pope John the 23rd died and England, the bastion of Protestantism for centuries, mourned his death in a very special way. As I walked across Westminster Bridge I thought it extraordinary to see the Union Jack flying at half mast over government buildings in tribute to the man’s memory. An extraordinary gesture from the people of Great Britain and little wonder they christened him Good Pope John. He had done more in his few short years as Roman Pontiff to repair the damage of The Reformation than any of his predecessors had done in the previous four hundred years. A few months later the new Pope Paul VI was elected and he continued the work of the Second Vatican Council with limited success.
Cocooned in my humble little bedsitter I’d meet with a few friends on the weekend for a drink in one of our preferred watering holes in North London, the Swiss Tavern, the North Star, or Mooney’s on The Strand, the landmark pub run by Dermot Gray a native of Boyle. On a Saturday night Mooney’s in the heart of Piccadilly could be classified as Ireland Inc. with accents from the four provinces mingling with those of inner city Dublin or The Pale. As the night progressed our attention turned to Charlie Mack’s (family run) dancehall off Victoria Road. On a Saturday night Charlie Mack’s was akin to a nurse’s training college packed with young trainee nurses from the four corners of Ireland. It was a special place, a place where moods and matters of the heart were listened to with a caring manner that only young trainee nurses are possessed of. At the early stages of ‘getting to know you’ a young nurse might seek a second opinion from her nursing colleague that might leave you dangling on life support ‘til the end of the dance. To aggravate matters further the last tube ‘for home’ left Victoria Station at midnight which left little time to deal with matters of the heart or make arrangements to meet again in Charlie’s or elsewhere. When men make arrangements they say The Gods smile! My friend John, who was a steward with British European Airways, had become a close friend of Charlie and would bring him back a bottle of the best wine when in Rome. As he entered the hall Charlie would politely ask if he had anything to declare. “Nothing but my genius” John would say, “and this little parcel”.
In rounding off on the extraordinary chain of events that came so closely together over a few short years it would be remiss of me not to mention the winter of January/February ‘63. The newspapers of the time recorded it as the harshest winter in Great Britain for 120 years (i.e. since records began). Millions of households lived a Spartan-like existence for several weeks with household gas and electricity cut to a minimum in the evening time. A half an hour to boil a kettle wouldn’t be an exaggeration, more like a bad dream. Electricity was also reduced drastically in the evening time, making London a twilight zone. A number of older Londoners I happened to work with drew comparisons with the war years and the darkness that accompanied the nightly bombings during the Second World War. Add in the occasional bout of smog, ‘the scourge of London’, and there was little room for joy. To see a bus conductor at six o’clock on a November evening leading his driver and bus to the nearest bus stop with the aid of a powerful torch was the stuff of fiction, laughable but true.
A day of reckoning arrived for me unexpectedly when a big decision had to be made; return to a small family business back home with potential as they say, or set down roots in London permanently like many of my friends before me. Playing around with the old proverb that man fulfils his destiny best in the place that gave him birth I packed the old leather suitcase with the metal buttons and headed back to the west of Ireland with my mind a mixture of hope and confidence. The economy of the country was still in the doldrums and would remain so ‘til the end of the decade. It would take the genius of men like Sean Lemass, Ken Whittaker and a small band of young able economists to carry out the miracle of the economic recovery that took place. Ireland was on the up and the rising tide was about to lift all boats. John (of the Wildean wit) came on holidays a few years later and as we walked along the railway platform he looked round about and smiled as he said: “Well old friend, it’s not Swiss Cottage, Piccadilly or Hampstead. But God I still love every inch of it.”