(Photo: James Fennell)
‘Every second man you’d meet in Walsall that time was from Ireland. But there was no work here then. And what work there was didn’t pay. You might get £6 a fortnight working for the Council over here, but if you went to England you could earn £11 or £12 a week.’
John Abbott was just a few weeks short of his 23rd birthday when he first crossed the Irish Sea and made his way to the West Midlands town of Walsall. It was the spring of 1955 and the town was undergoing a massive facelift. Before the Second World War, Walsall’s 19th century streets had been one of Britain’s most notorious slums. By the time John arrived, scaffolding and concrete blocks rose from the ground in place of the Victorian tenements.
For the next seven years, John was amongst thousands of labourers employed to build a series of housing estates around the town. He was specifically involved in the construction of a ring of eleven-storey tower blocks around the town centre. The men worked six days a week, starting at seven o’clock on a Monday morning, ‘and maybe before it’, and knocking off at six in the evening. On Saturday’s they finished at midday and that evening all the boys would meet up for a few pints. ‘You’d want the drink horrid badly after the week that was in it,’ he grimaces.
John wasn’t in Walsall all year around. In fact, he was constantly ‘hopping and crossing’ the sea. ‘I used to come back to gather the hay every year’, he says. His father ran a small cattle farm in Drumderg, just north of the village of Ballinalee in County Longford. The Abbotts had been in that part of Ireland for a long time; Sir Richard Griffiths noted several of that ilk living locally when he made his Valuations in the mid-19th century.
John has hazy memories of his grandfather, another John Abbott, who was born in 1845, the year the Great Famine began, and died aged 91 when John was a small boy.[i] According to the 1911 census, the older John Abbott was a Church of Ireland farmer who could neither read nor write. He rented his land at Drumderg off the well-to-do Bickerstaff family of Liscormack and Lislea.
In 1871 John married Mary Jane with whom he had eleven children.[ii] ‘All eleven were reared in the same house where I was born,’ says John. ‘The eldest was a girl who went to America in 1901. Now, that’s a few weeks ago.’ By the outbreak of the First World War, another two siblings had emigrated, both settling in New York, while a third brother sailed south for New Zealand.
‘Two of my uncles stayed behind and worked in Guinness’s in Dublin,’ says John. Arthur Abbott worked as a motor driver, distributing porter all over the country, until his premature death aged 52 in June 1945. His younger brother Billy Abbott joined the brewery in 1911, aged 21, and worked as a Stillager in the Traffic Department, helping to unload casks from the drays and horse-drawn lorries as they went on the delivery rounds.[iii]
When Billy retired from Guinness’s in 1943, John’s father purchased him a farm in Ballinalee.[iv] The land sale was orchestrated by Michael MacEoin, the local auctioneer, whose brother was General Sean MacEoin, famed across Ireland as “The Blacksmith of Ballinalee.”
‘The Troubles?’ smiles John. ‘Jesus, there’d be n’er a word of them until there was an election and then, sitting by the fireside at night, you’d hear the whole lot!’
John’s father had been active during the War of Independence. He was an important figure within the County Longford branch of the Cumann na nGaedheal party which, with two other groups, was reborn as Fine Gael in 1933. ‘It was all Fine Gael around that part of the country where we lived. I think there were only two or three families that were Fianna Fail’.
General MacEoin was one of the new party’s political icons. He was a hero of the War of Independence in which he led a ruthless but extremely efficient IRA flying column in Longford. He subsequently commanded the Free State army in the north-west of Ireland during the Civil War. In 1932 he was elected to the Dail for the Longford-Westmeath seat and he represented Longford continuously until his eventual defeat in 1965.
John Abbott was one of General MacEoin’s most committed supporters.[v] He campaigned for him at both the 1938 and 1943 national elections. Although he was only a teenager, the tall young Longford farmer was a useful addition to the General’s canvassing team, standing outside the polling centre, paying his respects to voters as they went in. ‘I call it babysitting,’ says he with a wry smile.
MacEoin was the victorious candidate in both elections although Fine Gael had to kowtow to de Valera’s Fianna Fail party until 1948 when an inter-party government was formed with MacEoin as Minister for Justice. He subsequently served as Minister for Defence under two Fine Gael led governments. ‘The General was a big age when he died,’ says John.[vi]
When we met John to photograph him for the third volume of the ‘Vanishing Ireland’ series in February 2011, Enda Kenny’s Fine Gael party were but days away from the most successful election result in the party’s history. Anticipating this outcome, John had a spring in his stride and talked politics with sparkling eyes, regaling us with anecdotes of phone tapping and political suicides, of electoral high jinx and being on the campaign trail. When John looks at a map of County Longford, you sense that he knows exactly which townland, and possibly which house, opted for Fine Gael, which went Sinn Fein and so on.
By 1961, he had moved back to Ireland permanently and was helping his father on the farm, mowing the fields with a reaper and binder that required ‘three good horses to pull it.’ In 1963, he met Ruby Patterson, the daughter of a farmer from Carrigallen, County Leitrim.[vii] Ruby had spent the previous six months working at the Marlborough Court Hotel, next to the Pro-Cathedral in Dublin. Before that she had worked six months in the workers canteen at Luton Airport.
That winter of 1963 was the coldest since 1814. Bitter Siberian easterly winds pummelled the country, creating snowdrifts up to fifteen feet in height. Villages were cut off, roads and railways blocked, telephone wires collapsed, food stocks ran low and livestock froze to death in the fields. For those living in thatched houses with just a turf fire to keep them warm, this was a time to brace themselves. However, as Ruby points out, few houses had running water in those days and so, without the fear of burst pipes, the 1963 winter was much easier to enjoy than the unprecedented ice age which struck Ireland in December 2010 and January 2011. ‘You had to break the ice on the ponds for the cattle but when that was done, you could really enjoy a freeze up back then,’ she says. ‘Now it’s all pipes freezing up and bursting!’
Perhaps boosted by the cold weather, John and Ruby quickly hit it off. His mother was also from County Leitrim, one of five sisters raised in Aughavas. And it no doubt helped that Ruby’s family farm was only sixteen miles from Ballinalee. John had frequently walked his father’s cattle along these very roads in the spring-times of his youth.
John and Ruby were married on 3rd September 1964 and went on to have two daughters, Holly and Anna.[viii] The couple live now in the Patterson’s immaculate farmstead which was built in 1950, complete with steel windows. Beside them stand the rough stone gables of a much older thatched cottage that was already gone when they moved here.
In the past fifty years, John Abbott has not travelled far from his east Leitrim, north Longford stronghold. The quick-witted Fine Gael elder has greatly enjoyed a visit to Baltinglass in West Wicklow where the inappropriate appointment of a new postmaster nearly brought down the government in 1950. He has also ventured as far south as Oak Park outside Carlow for the annual ploughing championships. But by and large he is happy at home. He certainly has no desire to return to Walsall where the tower blocks he once built have long since been felled.
With thanks to John McCartin.
[i] ‘He was 91 when he died on 4th April 1936 and I was 5 ½.’
[ii] The children included Robert (b. 1886), James (b. 1888), William (b. 1889), Thomas (born 1891), Arthur Henry (b. 1893) and Alfred Edward (b. 1895).
‘I was born in Ballinalee, north County Longford, in the townland of Drumderg. It’s still there. They didn’t move it! There was eleven of them reared there with my father, his brothers and sisters. Three of them went to America. The first of them was a girl and she went to America in 1901. That’s a few weeks ago. Then two brothers followed her sometime after. They were in New York. I never saw them. The sister came back but I never met her. Another brother went to New Zealand. He came back and got married in Agahrvasse. Another two were in Guinness’s brewery, Arthur and William. They were delivering porter, I think. You had to be a certain height to work there. They lived on South Circular Road. The youngest brother went to work on a farm in Northern Ireland and then went on to Dublin.’
[iii] ‘Stillagers go out with the Company’s vehicles to assist the drivers in the unloading of the casks. They also accompany the drivers of hired motor and horse-drawn lorries to check the deliveries. The 2-ton cars require a stillager only at houses where delivery of small casks is difficult. When hogsheads have to be unloaded, 2 stillagers always accompany the load. One stillager goes out with every hired motor-lorry, and one stillager with every gang of three horse-drawn lorries. Any surplus stillagers are employed on the loading-lofts.’ Guinness Archives.
[iv] Billy lived there until 1959 when the son sold it. You could buy a 12-acre farm for £155 at that time. He raised four children then, one of whom moved to Australia to work with the Land Commission.
[v] ‘There was only three of us. I was born two days before St Patrick’s Day 1931.’
[vi] ‘He had no family of his own. He lived in St. Anne’s. It’s demolished since, I think.’ His brother Peter had a sawmill and he wasn’t married. Another brother Michael lived beside them and was an auctioneer. He had two or three daughters. John went to one of their weddings.
[vii] She is the daughter of Willy Paterson. Her relations lived in an old Godley rectory at Drominchin Carrigallen, which they are restoring.
[viii] Everyone married people from their own or adjoining townlands.