(Photo: James Fennell)
Betty was born in Holles Street Hospital, Dublin, on 13th July 1921. Two days earlier, the British and Irish governments had agreed to call a Truce to end the Irish War of Independence. The docklands where Betty was raised remained the busiest part of the capital city. Throughout her childhood, the quaysides north and south of the River Liffey were overrun with people - the brave and the brawny, casuals and buttonmen, welders and carpenters, farriers and coalmen, gangers and tramps, alcoholics and shawlies, fisher-women, top-hatted gents and hordes of bare-footed children. Between them jostled pie-bald carthorses and skinny donkeys, rickety wagons, rusty black bicycles and the occasional spluttering truck. The air was frequently thick with cold, coal-hued smog. On the river itself, cargo ships, cattle boats, lighters and barges journeyed up and down, while deep voices bellowed out from the Hailing Station, directing skippers to the relevant berth.
Betty’s family lived at 1 Hanover Street, one of four terraced redbrick houses built directly behind T&C Martin’s Timber Yards. Sarah, her mother, had been raised in one of the tenement houses around the corner on Sir John Rogerson’s Quay. Michael, her father, trained as a candle-maker with Rathborne’s of East Wall which, founded in 1488, is Ireland’s oldest company. When Rathborne’s hit a slump in the 1940s, he transferred to Dixons on Harmony Row where he specialized in making church and festive candles. ‘The candles he made kept all the churches of Dublin going,’ says Betty proudly. It also meant the Dempsey’s living room was always nicely illuminated at night. And there were plenty of wax candle butts to get the fire flamed up.
Betty was the second youngest of ten children, six boys and four girls, all raised in that same small house. Her six brothers went to St. Andrew’s School on Pearse Street. Several were at St. Andrew’s School on Pearse Street during the 1916 Rising when it served as a hotbed for young Republican messenger boys. In the school’s roll books for 1916, the Rising is rather fetchingly described as the ‘Poets’ Rebellion’.
Betty was ten years old when her mother died and her eldest sister Rose duly took on the role of family matriarch. Gradually the boys drifted away. Three worked on the coal boats that berthed alongside the Grand Canal Quays. ‘They’d be down in the hauls, shovelling coal or copper ore into big iron tubs all day long. There was a crane up on the wall and they’d heave the tub onto it, get down another tub and fill it again. That all happened just outside the door from where we lived!’ Her other three brothers were carpenters – originally next door in Martin’s and, when that closed, across the river with W&L Crowe’s on the North Wall. ‘I’d watch them go off on the ferry, shovels across their shoulders.’[i]
Across the street from her old house was the gloriously named Misery Hill. ‘It was all fertilizer and timber yards in my day’, says Betty. ‘And very smelly’. The hill apparently derives its name from an age when the corpses of those executed at Gallows Hill near Upper Baggot Street were carted here and strung up to rot as a warning to other would be troublemakers.
Betty and her three sisters went to school on Townsend Street. ‘We walked back and forwards to school every day but we were only children and we didn’t mind. There were no cars then. If a car came into our area, that was a great excitement for us all!’
At the age of fourteen, she made her way to the Hilton Brothers mattress-making factory on Peterson’s Lane off Dublin’s Lombard Street. The company had lately developed a ventilated, double-sprung mattress, which was transforming sleeping patterns across the world.
Hiltonia Mattresses, made for repose;
Irish and excellent, everyone knows;
Lovely to rest on, and lovely to see,
They brag not and sag not, but please you & me.
Order one now and your future is blest;
Nightly you'll murmur, ‘ere sinking to rest :
Ireland has treasures, in cot and in hall
And Hiltonia Mattresses come first of all!
As catchphrases go, it’s a long one. For Betty, it was twenty-five years long. Betty was one of five women employed in the factory. Stitching and stretching all day long. ‘My hair was jet black in those days but there’s no jet and no black in it now,’ she laughs. Nearly sixty years later, she can still recall the precise motions of mattress-making
‘You stretch the canvas over each mattress, then catch each spring, lengthways and crossways. Turn the mattress over, get the next piece of canvas and do the same thing all over again. Then you box them all in with big nails and twine and send them off to the men who have a special machine that fills them with fibre and curled hair. Then it’s job done and off they go to the shops’.
As well as making parts for mattresses, Betty made special pillows for asthmatics who could not sleep on Hiltonia’s traditional down feather pillows.[ii] She continued to work there during the ‘rough years’ of the Second World War. By 1960, the firm employed 125 workers, men and women, and was making more upholstery than any other business in the country. The company also turned out upwards of 2,500 cinema and theatre-tip chairs. However, that same year 39-year-old Betty and several other women were told their services were no longer needed. ‘One day they just said, “We’re very sorry, we haven’t got enough work for you. Your cards will be ready next week.” That was it. No redundancy. No nothing. After 25 years and I had never lost a day!’
Being unemployed in Dublin in 1960 was not an unusual place to be. By the 1960s, the docklands were in decline. The coalyards had abandoned carthorses in favour of trucks and the city was turning its back on the river. Betty’s brothers and sisters were now living elsewhere. In fact, there was nobody around. ‘It was all owned by the Gas Company from Pearse Street to Rogerson’s Quay.’ The Gas Company had even taken over the timber yard behind her house where her brothers had once worked. They used it to store their coal. ‘I had to put up with all the dust and dirt’, she says. ‘You can imagine how hard it was to keep the washing on the line clean!’
As inner city Dublin became increasingly forlorn, Betty’s spirits waned. ‘I was left in that house on my own and I became very, very lonely.’ Her solitary relief was line dancing which she took up in her late 20s. ‘Old time sequence dancing – and its coming back now!’, she says, clapping her hands in delight. ‘I’ve medals and plaques for it and I would dance all day long if I could’.
In 1986, she closed the door of her family home and moved to more modern, drier quarters on Mount Street. ‘The old house is all offices now’, she says. ‘It’s all changed, just the same as Hiltonia where I worked is an apartment block nowadays’.
Although she still frequently returns to the Docklands, Betty confesses she finds it all rather disorientating since the landscape of her childhood became a sea of concrete and glass. ‘Ah it’s a different place entirely’, she says. ‘I’d sooner have it the way we were.’
Betty is a regular at the brilliant St. Andrew’s Resource Centre on Pearse Street which is committed to looking after the welfare of elders from the surrounding community. ‘Andrew’s is great for me’, she says. ‘They taught me how to use the computer, you know? I can send emails and everything. I can only type with one finger, mind you, but they call me a silver surfer’.
Betty passed away peacefully on Saturday 27th May 2012.
With thanks to Betty Ashe.
[i] One of the brothers used to watch the men going to and from the timber yard and he became friendly with them. ‘Then one of them asked if he’d like to work in there and that’s how it started’. And in time he got his two younger brothers in.
[ii] ‘It was a complicated business and each pillow took me an hour or more to make’, she says. ‘You had to stitch lengthwise and crosswise and place a very light spring. It took her an hour to make one. They got two pieces of material and boxed it lengthwise, stitched it up so it had pockets, and I used to fill those pockets with very soft [glass fibre? what was it?, I will have to ask Betty again!]
Betty Dempsey's brother Tommy played football for Holyhead and her grand-nephew is Kenny Cunningham.