Paddy & May
(Photo: James Fennell)
‘The children today are like how Kings and Queens used to be years ago,’ says May Morris. ‘They are brought to school and picked up after. They wear lovely clothes and they go to lovely schools. I don’t know anything about the teachers now but they used to murder us!’
May and her brother Paddy attended a mixed school in Castledermot, the agricultural town on the Carlow-Kildare border where they both live.[ii] It was a roughshod building; plaster fell from the ceiling while they studied. Their teacher was a vicious old woman who never went anywhere without an ash rod. ‘She had a way of hitting you on your knuckle that’d make you nearly faint!’ says May, protectively clutching her hand ninety years later.
‘I was always getting into trouble,’ she says. ‘Especially trying to read from the big old Bible. If there was a word I couldn’t make out, she’d call me ‘The Great May Byrne’ and hit the knuckles again. The rod was so long that she couldn’t miss us! But that was life. If a teacher hit a child today they’d be summoned. In them days it didn’t matter if they killed ye.’
May and Paddy were the second and eighth of eleven children born to James and Rosanna Byrne, a farming couple from Graney Cross on the road between Castledermot and Baltinglass, County Wicklow.[iii] It was and is a quiet place although in October 1922, nine-year-old May heard the shots of a Republican ambush on a Free State convoy at nearby Graney Bridge which left three soldiers dead.[iv]
May is still in awe about the generations before her. ‘I look back on our mothers and fathers and I think ‘God they were terrific people’. The patience and understanding they had with us children. We worked hard, but the weather had a lot to do with it. If it was a lovely day, you’d be out weeding, thinning turnips, picking spuds, all them sort of things. If it was miserable, we might be inside helping our mother make the butter which she sold on to Cope’s. Or sometimes she gave us four needles and a bundle of wool and told us to knit our winter socks.’[v]
There were also animals to tend– four or five cows, a couple of pigs and a clatter of hens. To acquire fresh stock, the Byrnes would go to the market in Baltinglass.[vi] ‘Those were great days’, she says. ‘All the cattle grouped up on the street and all the children running free at the fair.’ Young May once purchased ‘a pair of the finest chickens you ever saw’ for five shillings from the ‘higglers’, travelling itinerants who specialized in poultry.
Castledermot had its own horse fair back in those times and Paddy remembers how the schools closed on Fair Day and ‘the town would be black with horses from all around and everywhere.’ There was generally no problem selling them either. ‘During the war years, they’d sell them all because they needed horses in England to work down in the mines and things. Everything happened on the street at that time, no matter what town you went to. There were fairs until the time they got the marts. That closed up the trading on the street.’
Life was hard but, like most of their generation, the siblings agree that people were happier than they are now.[vii] ‘And then we grew up and everything changed,’ she laughs. ‘Half the country was gone to England and the other half went to Canada and Australia!’
In early 1942, an Englishman appeared in Castledermot and recruited twenty women from the area to work in a munitions factory near Birmingham. ‘And with ten shillings in my purse, I was the richest of those twenty,’ says May. ‘Honest to God, some of them hadn’t a shilling.’
May didn’t enjoy her first voyage across the sea. ‘I was as sick as could be but, when the boat arrived, they gave me a cup of Oxo and a rope ladder and told us the to get way onshore. I was a good-looking lady in my day. A golden haired beauty! But when I arrived in Birmingham, I was a skeleton, scared to death. Nobody knew what the future would be because the war was only at the start.’
She went to work at Guest, Keen & Nettleford’s factory in Smethwick. ‘It was huge,’ says May. ‘Every day we got lost going into it. They started us off making very small screws. Then we were making stuff for airplanes. And then we were making bombs, filling old cans with whatever scrap we could find.’[viii]
The reality of war was never far away and whenever the air raid sirens sounded, May and her colleagues hurried underground. ‘You lived on your nerves,’ she says. ‘But there was always some singing and dancing downstairs. People were paid to keep the spirits up.’[ix]
May’s personal spirits took a dive when the authorities intercepted a parcel from Ireland. ‘My mother, Lord have mercy on her, sent me two slices of ham wrapped up in The [Carlow] Nationalist. When I got them, The Nationalist was in ribbons. They had everything cut out of it! I was summonsed and told, “if that happens again, you’ll go to prison.” The worst thing was I didn’t get the ham.’
May stayed on at Nettlefold’s after the war but several of those she worked with emigrated farther afield. ‘Australia was just beginning to waken up and they were taking on anyone who could work in agriculture and building.’ Amongst those who headed down under were four of Paddy and May’s brothers. Three have since passed away including Myles Byrne, who co-founded the Irish Club in Sydney, while another brother Larry still lives on the Gold Coast. During the 1950s, it was very cheap to get from Birmingham to Australia and May visited her brothers ‘umpteen times’, whenever they ‘were having babies or getting married.’ However, she found the Queensland climate too humid for her to consider settling.
May remained with Nettlefold’s for twelve years before she transferred to a factory where she spent her days making tarts. ‘We wore gloves made from sacks so we could take the trays off the conveyor, turn around, drop down, pick up the next one. The heat would kill you! My brother Anthony was there as well. He was a baker by trade and made lovely plum puddings. He had to start at half five in the morning. He would give the old ladies a little drop of rum on their tart but then the word got out and he had to stop. I remember the day he left for Australia, they all came out to wish him well.’
Meanwhile, May married an English war veteran called Joe Morris who worked in Mitchell & Butler’s in Birmingham (where her brother Paddy would later work). Many of Joe’s former army colleagues had returned from the war crippled.
May returned home to see her parents occasionally but ‘all we ever got was a week and that was never enough time to go home and enjoy ourselves.’ However, as her parents grew older, she realised they needed her and she moved back to Ireland in 1980. [x] ‘I loved every bit of my life in Birmingham but it’s all brand new now. All the old buildings are gone. I was back there in 2006 visiting some of my friends, although a lot of them have gone as well.’
While May was making bombs in Blighty, Paddy was back in Ireland, working on the home farm, as well as on other farms around Graney Cross. ‘It was a terrible wet time during the war years,’ he says. ‘We started in the fields at eight o’clock in the morning. We went through the wheat, pulling out the thistles with our hands. Then we’d cut the wheat and stook it into little hand-stacks. And then we would draw them into sheds, or make them into ricks. We’d have brown bread or black bread for breakfast. And we wouldn’t eat again until teatime, around four. They were long, hard days. All work and no play. It was horrible.’
On one such day, the men in the fields looked up to see a dogfight overhead. ‘I never saw such a display,’ says Paddy. ‘A German bomber was going 200mph or more with the British fighters right behind him. They went on towards Wexford and the German crashed somewhere down there.’[xi]
During their childhood, Graney was a small but compact community, with a Catholic church, a blacksmith’s forge, a pub and a shop. [xii] When the latter closed, Cope’s of Castledermot became the only shop around, operating as a grocery, bakery, hardware shop, veterinary service and animal feed provider. The town was booming in the late 1940s when Paddy secured a job with Cope’s as a deliveryman. ‘We took a truck to Dublin or Waterford nearly every day, moving cement bags, hardware stuff, offal, the whole lot. We delivered oats to every stable on the Curragh.’ Goods often arrived by train and Paddy would duly drive a horse and cart to the station, now closed, on the Mageny Road, 3km west of Castledermot.
‘When I started at Cope’s there were only five motorcars in Castledermot.[xiii] Even the priest went about on a horse. And it was a big day when I saw my first V8. But then the traffic began to get heavier every day and it took longer and longer to get anywhere.’
In 1960, Paddy sailed for England where he spent the next twenty years working alongside Joe Morris at Mitchell & Butler’s brewery in Birmingham. ‘You had to take your turn at everything but I was more or less a racker. Filling the barrels. It was bloody hard work. You had got to be on your mettle all the time, up and down, up and down, like a hare. You couldn’t let any of the beer go to waste.’[xiv]
Paddy says he did not have a hard time being an Irishman in England. The street where he lived in Birmingham was exactly one mile long. ‘All kinds of people lived on it, all colours and all types, and they’d all say ‘Good morning Paddy’ or ‘Good evening’ as the case may be. I never had a wrong word with anyone because I was there to earn my money and that was it.’ His co-workers were mainly Irish, Indian and Jamaican and ‘I made friends with the whole lot. Then automation came in and there was a lot of them let go.’
Paddy is a forward-thinking man.[xv] The bright blue Adidas trainers he wears are emblematic of his quiet, unassuming individuality. He was never a big drinker but enjoyed his bachelordom in other ways.[xvi] He regularly attended the races at Ascot and Cheltenham, and he was an ardent supporter of West Bromwich when Johnny Giles was manager.[xvii] He also enjoyed watching the brewery’s cricket team play. ‘The drink was free so long as we clapped every few minutes.’
But Paddy’s greatest passion was travel. ‘I was born under a wandering star,’ he says. And while he has explored most parts of Ireland, it is the wider world that appealed to him most. ‘I’ve watched them dive from the Acapulco gorge, I’ve visited the Temple of Artemis in Turkey and I’ve travelled to Australia four times. But the loveliest country I have ever seen was Switzerland, a beautiful land.’[xviii]
Paddy returned home in 1980 and secured a job in Castledermot with Kelly’s Coachbuilders. He and May live together in a roadside cottage in Castledermot, not far from the place where they were both at school a long time ago. The town was beset with trouble when the main road from Dublin to Waterford ran through it. The jury is still out on whether a recent bypass will be of benefit but, with a round tower, two high crosses, an abbey and a popular annual threshing festival, there is certainly scope for positive evolution.[xix] ‘Castledermot has changed one thousand per cent’, says Paddy. ‘But this is my roost now and this is where I will stay.’
With thanks to Hazel Dickinson and Sharon Greene-Douglas .
[i] May Morris was born on 23rd May 1913 and Paddy Byrne was born on 10th March 1924.
[ii] The children brought their own lunch to school, bread and butter sandwiches, a bottle of milk, and maybe a bit of ham or bacon. In the summer, they picked gooseberries, blackcurrants and sloes from the bushes. There was also parsnips and rhubarb and, come the autumn, apples and hazelnuts.
[iii] ‘The farm. was in family ‘for ever and ever,’ says Paddy. ‘All the land was owned by Leonards.’ Paddy and May’s brother, who inherited the farm, passed away in 2009.
[iv] While his own family managed to avoid the conflict, Paddy Byrne still shakes his head angrily at the folly of civil war. ‘A good lot of men were killed. And for what? For nothing only stupidity.’
[v] ‘We were good neighbours too. If there were five or six children and the man was working and the mother was at home, we would think of nothing of bringing over a cake or a jug of milk. In the evenings, our mother might play the melodeon to us.’
[vi] ‘Baltinglass was a great place for the market for chickens and pigs. Everyone had a pig or two, no matter where they lived. And young calves. That was life in them days. And plenty of milk. People would keep four or five cows. The dash, the churn … and our mothers made the lovely butter and took it and sold it to Cope’s as part of their livelihood.’ If everyone was making butter, I wonder who was buying it? ‘The poorish people who had no land’, says she.
‘The poor postmen suffered dreadful in those times. They used to be drowned to the skin. And then if it was very bad, someone with a car would maybe help them around. I remember the poor man coming around half eleven at night at Christmas on his bicycle. It was hard work’.
[vii] ‘The people were fairly healthy,’ reckons May. ‘Mind you, there was still the hooping cough and the flu and the measles.’
[viii] The money was good because they took into account how long it took to learn how to do it.
[ix] ‘We used to go to the Royal Show in Coventry where Lady Godiva rode through the streets. It got bombed out of existence nearly. That big cathedral took fire and it was a beacon to the German planes. They wanted to bomb the factory but they missed most of it.’
She also made a pilgrimage to Rome. ‘An Irish priest gave us a year to get ready. We put a few bob in every week. We had a lovely time. They showed us the Valley where all the people were shot. They emptied everyone out. And then the Valley where they bombed the soldiers and all that. We got back safe and sound and never forgot it’.
[x] James Byrne lived to 97 and died in about 1990. ‘A good innings, as the Englishman would say’. His wife Rosanna passed away aged about 78.
[xi] ‘I worked on the farm at home but we had to go and do emergency work for other farmers because it was a terrible wet time during the war years. The army were around everywhere helping to save the harvest. We would go from Graney to the big farm nearby where there was a lot of wheat and thistles … the thistles grew along with them and you had to stuck them and make them into hand-stacks, then we would draw them into sheds or make them into ricks … there’d be as many men and women as you could get … pay was little but we got tea at four o’clock every evening while the harvest was going on. Things wasn’t very plentiful then. ‘
[xii] The forge was run by the Halligan family who later made their way to Lisnavagh and Rathvilly in County Carlow. There was also apparently a hang-house in Graney which I presumably connected to the 1798 Rebellion.
[xiii] The cars belonged to Mr. Cope, Dr. Farnanae, Mr. Hennessey, George Cope of Graney and someone else.
[xiv] ‘It was Brew II. There was plain beer as well. I drank very little beer because, honest to God, you were being watched so closely you couldn’t let a drop go to waste. Then automation came in and there was a lot of them let go. It was a huge brewery. There was Irish, Jamaican, Indian. They wouldn’t hire Pakistanis. I made friends with them all. The Jamaican people is good, you know. They were unpredictable with drink. They had their odd ways of going but you took no notice. Today would be a different day to tomorrow and the next day, you did your work and that was it, no complaints. I made friends with the whole lot. I was only there for my wages, not to please anyone else. ‘
[xv] James and Rosanna Byrne were a deeply religious couple. Paddy is warier of the subject, noting religion’s formative role in most of the world’s wars. ‘If it’s not religion, its oil or land or pure, plain greed.’ He is religious up to a point but believes everybody is ‘of their own making.’
[xvi] Paddy still can’t get his head around those who used to spend all their days and money drinking.
[xvii] Although he had been a Gaelic footballer as a boy, he passionately followed West Bromwich soccer team. It was managed by Johnny Giles in those days and Paddy speaks proudly of how, on the day Johnny left, ‘they got down on their knees and asked him to stay.’
[xviii] ‘I have been to Ireland, England, Scotland, Wales, France, Holland, Belgium, Spain, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, Turkey, America, Mexico, Canada … we had relations in Canada. I just liked to see the world. I always loved to travel. I was going with a Scotch girl for years but things didn’t go right’ so I never married.’ He has wandered through the silver mines of Mexico and watched men dive from the Acapulco gorge, , eaten turtle soup once in America and stood at the Niagra Falls, visited the Temple of Artemis in Turkey (one of the ‘Seven Wonders’) and voyaged to Australia four times (to climb the Grampains and watch the kangaroos skip amid the gumtrees). He is angry that child labour still goes on in the world.
‘Paddy and I went to see relations in Canada’, says May. ‘I was dying to see the Niagara Falls but God I was never so disappointed! It was horrible! We were one side of a bridge an old tree had blown into it.’
[xix] Paddy and May’s house beholds a housing estate that used to be a field with a big stone wall running along the front of the street. The town’s abbey is discreetly smothered by Keightley’s farmstead and some houses. The round tower is also easy to miss.