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Boyhood in 1940/50s Ballinasloe by Declan Burke - chapter 5


 Damian Mac Con Uladh

Boyhood in the 1940/50s Ballinasloe

Chapter 5 - Future prospects in the 50's

by Declan Burke


I was coming up on twelve years of age as 1950 dawned and I was only dimly aware of the bleak economy. I am reminded of those years by Dermot Bolger's article in the Irishman's Diary in the Irish Times that I read recently.

My family was not full of competing siblings like his. Death took care of that as two sisters and a brother died of bacterial infections that relatively unsophisticated antibiotics cure routinely nowadays.

I was aware of money being tight and a government that every year increased taxes on many commodities with the annual budget. (If we leap ahead for the moment, I recall bitterly the advent of VAT in 1963. The Government promised solemnly it was just 1.8% and it would last only 18 months.)

At 14 years of age often children would legally "leave" school and join the workforce. That is if there were any jobs available. They (jobs) were 'thin on the ground'.

Dubarry, the Quarry and Burnhouse

Dubarry was the only factory in town and it competed against outfits like Clarkes shoes, which was international. In fact, right now, as I write I am wearing a pair of Clarkes, 55 years later.

The old "DuBe" sputtered on. The Scott's were in charge and I feel they did yeoman's work keeping the enterprise going as long as it did.

But it was the virtually the only game in town and I recall seeing, at least twice, people going past the Boys' School with bleeding hands when they carelessly (or from fatigue) let the cutting die take a finger. I remember someone saying that they got a 20 pound note shoved into their pockets and were sent to the hospital for dressing. In any event I recall several local men who were missing fingers.

There was some work to be had in the quarry, but not a whole lot. Almost anything else had to be agriculture and that tended to be part-time, arduous and seasonal. Nothing seemed to get built and the only construction I remember from that era was the Harris Road, known to old-timers as the Burma Road, in recognition of that famous road of World War II. (It was mostly constructed with manual labor but I recall the mechanized Stone-Crusher with its extreme noise level and the unusual odour of fresh-crushed limestone, as those long ago creatures petrified within its matrix released one last emanation to the world.)

I don't think you can call Burnhouse a factory but it did supply some employment in the rendering of basking sharks harvested off Achill Island and I recall trucks bringing their stinking carcasses down Brackernagh and on by Dunlo Hill and out to Pollboy where the plant was located. In any event it did not last all that long.

In my situation, my brother Fintan got a scholarship into secondary school (Garbally) and my parents took in lodgers to pay for our education.

Taking the boat to England

We had many cousins in England, one of whom became the youngest Matron ever in a major English hospital.

Around then, a relative of Joe Beirne the butcher on Dunlo Street came home from America on holiday. He had made it so well that he could afford to bring his Pontiac V8 with him. I remember being fascinated by the Indian's profile in the bonnet. And such a big car. As big as the (less glamorous) Ford V8s the taxi men drove, but a lot more colourful.

At that time, Kilduffs had a hand-powered petrol pump and it took ages for that Pontiac to fill up. There was an instruction on the pump to fill the 'sight-glass before pumping'.

Methinks, this "States" must be quiet a place. Certainly, nobody came back from England equipped like that. The main problem seemed to be cost and distance.

After all that, I went to England for a few summers and the cattle-boat from Dún Laoghaire to Hollyhead was less than one pound and ten shillings. (One way passage to America was at least 70 pounds and took eight to nine days at sea.)

Of course the seasickness was something else again, especially the stormy night I first took the trip, helped along by the faecal incontinence of the frightened cattle below decks.

Most of my contemporaries worked the summer holidays either in Walls Ice Cream in London or as bus conductors. Me, I worked in a mental hospital near Leeds as a 'gofer'. They called me a nurses aide but I did nothing as sophisticated as today's nurses aides. But I did a fair amount.

My brother Fintan was on staff at that hospital, so I suppose our parents were happy with that situation.

Back in Ireland, the formula to get work was written on many doors. It was 'PUSH' and 'PULL', the latter being far more important.

The only job I ever held in Ireland was as a deliveryman (boy) for Damian's (the webmaster) great-uncle, Andrew Jennings, for one summer.

I think he employed me out of a sense of charity as there were absolutely no jobs available in those days for teenagers.

One contemporary was lucky enough to have become a qualified carpenter and he got good work in England during vacation time, mainly in Whipsnade (Windscale) nuclear power plant which was being constructed then. It put him through medical school and he is now a psychiatrist in St. Louis.

Things were so bad that when a woman got married, she automatically lost her job, so that some other woman could inherit that position. This hit the nursing profession particularly hard and had adverse effects on the country as well as some very unhappy people were moving up the ladder of nursing, in my opinion.

And nurses were paid a pittance because if they didn't like it, there were a dozen qualified women waiting to take their place. The only male nurses then were psychiatric ones.

Many of the ladies in nursing were on the look-out for 'cream-like' farmer's sons (rich and thick), as husband material.

Sadly, I agree with Bolger as only a small fraction of my contemporaries managed to stay in Ireland. Both my brother and I eventually wound up in the United States.

One illustration of the slow economy was our dog Laddie who used to take his afternoon nap in the middle of the road on Dunlo Hill and only rarely would he be disturbed by traffic. When that rare event occurred, he would slowly get out of the way and giving the driver a dirty look, stalk deliberately to some other spot to continue his interrupted nap. Such offended dignity and hurt feelings you never saw.

The Virgin Queen

Some of the motion pictures of the time were The Ten Commandments, The Last Angry Man (i.e. Paul Muni) and The Virgin Queen.

Regarding the latter, there was a great conversation going in one of the local pubs about the merits of the "Virgin Queen" by the habitués who were accustomed to solving the entire world's problems before going home for supper.

They debated at length the virginity of Elisabeth I and were inclined to come down in favour of the motion.

Nicholas H. was a teacher in the Technical School and a highly educated one as he had a Ph.D. in history – English history – and he was having his 'usual' in a snug corner of the establishment

Nicholas's job in the 'Tech' was in part due to his friendship for Arthur* and his friends.

Anyway, he really wanted nothing more than to sit quietly and imbibe his drink and say nothing.

But now, they were invading his territory!

He endured the uninformed comment and overblown opinion as long as he could before making known his view in as fine a Cork accent as Ballinaslovians ever heard:

"Kerrriost, there are more fingerprints on her arse than they have on files in Scotland Yard".

The rest of them finished their drinks and went about their business in a cowed silence.

* Arthur Guinness of Brewery fame.

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