(Photo: James Fennell)
‘My mother told him not to go. Every night something awful happened and she knew how dangerous it was. “Paddy, don’t go down tonight. They’ll kill you.” But my father said, “Ah sure, I’ll manage.” He went on then, down to the level crossing. But he came back on a trolley with a white sheet over him. We still don’t know what happened. My mother wasn’t able to talk about it. He was found dead on the line with his skull split.’
Ellen “Nellie” Shortall was six years old when her father Patrick Fitzpatrick was killed in 1919. Paddy was employed by the Great Northern Railway as a gateman on the Meigh level-crossing, a border posting on the line between Newry, County Down, and Dundalk, County Louth. Precisely why he was targeted is unknown but perhaps his service with the Irish Guards, a British regiment, during the First World War stood against him.
Nellie remembers her father as ‘a very tall and good-looking man.’ Born in Grangemockler, County Tipperary, he was a champion ploughman in his youth. However, when the farm was seized for non-payment of rent, the family fragmented. One of his brothers became a policeman in Australia while Paddy joined the Irish Guards. In about 1910, he left the army, returned to Ireland, married Nellie’s mother and settled outside Clonmel where they had five children.
With the outbreak of war in 1914, Paddy rejoined the Irish Guards. Over the next five years, he bore witness to the terrible carnage of the Western Front. ‘He was the last man to stand on the battlefield,’ says Nellie with unmitigated pride. ‘They were all dead around him and he was only wounded in the right wrist. He would have got the Victoria Cross but there was nobody to witness it.’[i]
After the war, Paddy returned to Grangemockler, hopeful that the changing political situation in Ireland might lead to a re-grant of the family farm. [ii] With his military pension he secured a house in Marlfield village, just west of Clonmel. Marlfield House was owned by John Philip Bagwell, General Manager of the Great Northern Railway Company. And it was presumably Mr. Bagwell who secured the 47-year-old war veteran his fatal posting at the Meigh level crossing.
‘My mother loved it at Marlfield and didn’t want to go, but my father loved travelling. Working on the railway was a good job with a free house, free travel, free education for us, free everything. And so we went. Unfortunately the country was at loggerheads at that time and we weren’t long up there when the sadness struck.’
Mrs Fitzpatrick was 42 years old and heavily pregnant at the time of her husband’s death. ‘The company wanted to keep her there and give her my father’s job. But she said, “how could I? Look at the ground with all that blood from where my dear husband was killed.” All she wanted to do was to get back home to Tipperary.’
The widow and her family returned home shortly before the birth of her youngest son Tommy.[iii] Nellie went to school in the Presentation Sisters Convent in Fethard where the nuns taught her the basics of ‘domestic economy.’ She became highly adept at baking, butter making ironing and sewing. ‘I made my own Child of Mary cloak and my own dresses.’[iv]
During this time, her youngest brother Jimmy died of typhoid fever aged just seventeen. He was taken away to hospital in an ambulance and his family was prohibited from visiting. The news of his death was give to them in a telegram. ‘That was a very sad part of my life,’ says Nellie. ‘He was a very talented young boy, over six foot tall, great at sport. He could play the button accordion beautifully. My mother never got over his death.’
Meanwhile, Nellie started working as a cook in Rocklow, the Carroll family home outside Fethard, where she dazzled them with her culinary repertoire. During the war, she worked in Maynooth from where she would cycle into Dublin to buy tea from Findlaters, returning with the valuable commodity, then rationed, strapped to her bicycle. She also went to County Clare and worked in a guest house in Lisdoonvarna and a pub in Kilkee. ‘I wanted to open my own guesthouse,’ she explains. ‘So I learned all about cooking and house-keeping and bar-work and cleaning toilets and whatever else I could learn!’
However, by 1945, she was plagued with a debilitating illness. [v] What she initially thought to be a toothache transpired to be a serious thyroid problem. ‘The operation I was advised to take would have left me with big raw stitches on my neck. I was a young woman and I didn’t want that.’ But then she learned of ‘a new way in London where they could clip it instead of stitching it.’ It occurred to Nellie that if she found work in England, she would be entitled to free health care. She decided to go to London and began scanning the Daily Mail for jobs.
In early 1947, her intrepid pursuits paid off when she secured employment as a cook in St. John’s Wood, London. Her employer was the writer F. Tennyson Jesse, a great-niece of the poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Considered one of the more remarkable criminologist and journalists of her age, Tennyson Jesse was amongst the first to report on German atrocities in Belgium at the start of the First World War. Her husband Harold Marsh Harwood was a cotton merchant and manager of the Ambassador’s Theatre in London’s West End.
‘My mother was very frightened about me going to London,’ says Nellie. ‘But Tennyson Jesse and Harold looked after me and they became great friends.’ Tennyson Jesse later gifted Nellie a copy of her book ‘Sabi Pas or, I don’t know,’ inscribing the book, ‘For Ellen Fitzpatrick whose name is like a lovely chord on an organ. Mine is an old name and a good name but it does not sound so beautiful.’ Nellie keeps the book in her sitting room as a reminder of her London years.
From St. John’s Wood, Nellie made her way to Newend Hospital in Hampstead where she had ‘a most beautiful, successful operation,’ followed by four weeks convalescence in Margate.
It was still Nellie’s plan to move to New York, where her sister Jo lived, and open up a guest house. [vi] However, during a visit home in 1947, she met Larry Shortall, the son of a farmer from County Kilkenny who had lately set up a business distributing coal, timber and turf from premises on Fethard’s Main Street. Nellie told Larry of her plans to open a guesthouse in America. ‘If you marry me, you’ll have America at home,’ he replied.[vii] The offer was accepted and the Shortalls were married in 1949. Three children followed, John, Marie and Anne.
Larry and Nellie duly set up “The Valley Stores” on the outskirts of Fethard. ‘People used to come from all over the country for our cabbages and carrots and potatoes.’ These were grown in a long garden that Larry created behind the shop and which he regularly ploughed with a horse. Nellie also sold blackcurrants and other fruits, grown in the garden, as well as jams and home-baked bread and tarts.
Nellie kept the accounts for Larry’s fuel and second-hand furniture business. ‘He had the turf and the timber and he got coal in from England. It was hard work. He’d break up the coal and saw the timber, weigh it all up and put it into bags. Then they’d put it into lorries and bring it off. Our son John also worked with us over the years and helped develop the business.’
‘We were always working,’ she sighs. ‘The only time I got out from the shop was when I went up to Mass. But I always loved my holidays. We would go to Tramore with the children. And I regularly went up to Dublin, to Arnott’s and Switzer’s, so I could keep up with the fashion! I still go up whenever I can.’
The Shortalls continued to work together until Larry’s sudden death in 1978 in his seventieth year. Nellie closed the shop soon afterwards, removing the counters and converting the space into the living room where she spends much of her time today. ‘It was the right time to close,’ she says. ‘There were shops all over the town at that time. But by the late 1970s, the big supermarkets were coming, the VG shops and Five Star and Dunnes Stores.’
Nellie has never been inclined to rest her feet for long. Indeed, she still appears on the streets of Fethard on a motorized scooter. ‘I keep myself busy all the time,’ she says. ‘My brain is always working.’ Her desire to keep learning remains fundamental to her being. After Larry's death, she became actively involved with the Hogan Musical Society, singing with the cast in many of their shows. She took up the bodhran at the age of 85 and played the violin up until recently. She has won endless cookery contests. She was also a regular at the Dublin Horse Show, winning a prize as Best Dressed Lady which earned her an appearance on the Six O’Clock News. In recent years she also joined the Irish Countrywoman’s Association and began painting and making pictures from scraps of tweed. Some of these works now hang on the wall of her living room, the former shop, alongside photographs of her extended family.
She is in the process of reorganizing her photographs when we visited, preparing to write a caption on the back of each one. ‘The young people don’t bother much about old things but I kept everything! When I’m gone, they’ll know nothing about who any of these people were unless I put the names on the back of the photos.’
With thanks to Jasper McCarthy and Anne & Michael Heverin.
[i] ‘They wanted to make him an officer and they offered him a field commission which would have allow him to return home as an officer. But he declined the offer.’
[ii] ‘In the olden days you were evicted when they couldn’t pay their rent. My father’s father died when the children were young. When he died she wasn’t able to run the farm. Her children were very young so it was very hard. So my father’s first cousin paid the rent to the landlord. [who was landlord?] and when she had the money collected from the pigs and the eggs, she would pay him. He was a big farmer. He had a hundred acres but in those days land wasn’t much good. There was no money. So she went up this day to the landlord who said ‘Mary, you’re late’ but she paid it and she was able to keep the land. She went off then to some place around Wexford or Kilkenny.
‘My father wanted to go down there and get back his land. So he came back and he had a big pension and we lived in Marlfield for a while. My father loved travelling. We loved Marlfield. It is a mile outside Clonmel, a beautiful place, near Glenconnor. General Kellet and Mr Bagwell lived there.’
[iii] ‘Initially we lived in the countryside but my mother couldn’t manage all of us walking three miles in and out to school in Fethard every day so we moved into Fethard to be near the schools.’
[iv] ‘We did our own baking and all that. Everyone had to. Now you buy it all in Dunne’s Stores. I’m not much good at it now because the life has gone out of my fingers.’
[v] ‘Unfortunately then I wasn’t so well for years. I was going to a lovely doctor on Lower Leeson Street for my teeth and he said, “It isn’t your teeth at all, Miss Fitzpatrick. You’ve a beautiful teeth. It’s your health.’ So I went to a surgeon and he told me I had internal, chest thyroid, and he said if I didn’t have an operation for that, it would choke me. That was back in 1945. He wanted me to have an operation but I knew that would mean they’d put big red raw stitches across you. I was young and I didn’t want all that across my neck! Someone, but you’d have to pay for it. So I got the Daily Mail and I watched for a job in London and I got one with the crime writer Tennyson Jesse. I had beautiful references so they gave me the job and paid for me to travel over.’
[vi] Jo Crowley who was still alive in the Big Apple in 2011 at the age of 99. Their brother Tommy had been based in Washington DC during the war, working with the US government, and also lived in America.
[vii] During the war, there was no English or Welsh coal in Ireland, so Larry had begun distributing anthracite around the country.
‘My sister came back from America then. My mother had kept lodgers but she had to get rid of the lodgers when my sister came home. And then I came home to be with my mother. I was still working with Tennyson Jesse and I was engaged to a boy in England. And that’s when I met Larry. He had been coming from Castlecomer during the war with all the anthracite. There was no coal coming from England then. He was from Gowran, where the races are, and he came up here to Fethard. He had a lot of men working for him, sawing timber, bringing lorry loads of turf up to Phoenix Park … when all the coal started to come back in, he went up to the Golden Vale and opened his business in Fethard.’
‘I never had trouble getting men,’ says Nellie. ‘I had five or six offers of marriage. But I though Larry was a nice, sound man, and so I married him. I had to write to the fellow in England [to whom she was engaged] and tell him I was going to marry someone else. He wrote back and said, ‘do three things for me now Nellie, before you get married; keep the engagement ring, write me a few lines before you get married and write to my mother in Stradbally and tell her you are marrying another.’ He told me that would be the last time he’d ever bother a woman.’