John Masterson has packed a lot into his 94 years

In 1909 as Ireland struggled for nationhood and independence John Masterson began a unique existence.

Born in Doughill on the border of Ballycroy and Burrishoole he has enjoyed a life full of history and endeavour. He has witnessed at first hand the struggle for freedom, the scramble for land, the blitz of London, Dublin’s building boom and the Celtic Tiger. He has left his mark on some of Ireland’s best-known buildings and this week he talked to Michael Gallagher about his amazing life, his memories and his one regret.

Life in Mayo in the early part of the 20th Century was tough. The economic outlook was bleak and the country was in the grip of a revolution. John Masterson lived in the shadow of Claggan Mountain, only yards from the lapping waves of the Atlantic. He loved school and absorbed every shred of education possible but it made little difference, as there was no prospect of employment locally.

John was one of a family of five sons and one daughter born to proud parents Jack and Bridget. They had many times and memories of days spent saving turf in Achill, boating it to Mulranny and burning it in their home in Ballycroy are still vivid. He was very close to his father and on the last Saturday of every month both of them would go to the fair in Mulranny to sell sheep or cattle or just meet friends. On one of these trips Jack bought John a horse and he felt as if he was the most special boy in the world. Life was peaceful in Doughill but then the war of independence began an the dreaded Black and Tans come to the area.

“We would hear them coming down the road on their way to the centre of Ballycroy and we would hide as quickly as we could. I was only a boy at the time but I can still remember the fear I felt when they were around.”

As Independence was achieved and the civil war tore Ireland apart the Mastersons and their neighbours joined the struggle for a better life.

“We all banded together and entered the estate of the local landlord to take over the land. I was there with my father and we got a fine 14-acre field. We worked hard in the field for the next three years tending crops, saving hay and grazing the cattle but when the land was being officially divided by the powers-that-be we were forgotten, we got nothing. Even then, at the formation of our state there was corruption, someone with pull got our field and we were cast aside.”

There was little to keep John in Ireland after that so he packed his bags, got on the train at Mulranny and headed to London. There was plenty of work there and it wasn’t long before the young man hand learned the art of plastering. Life was good and soon John met the love of his life.

“Lots of Irish dance halls was springing up around London and the first time I went to one of them I met a girl called Bridie Murphy from Derrynameel near Belmullet. We courted for six years and got married in 1936. In 1939 our first daughter Pauline came along and a few months later the Luftwaffe started dropping bombs on London.

“We spent many nights under the stairs as the bombs rained down on the city. Pauline would be pushed in the far corner in her pram and we would crush in after her. It wasn’t long before I was conscripted to go to war but I had no intention of picking up a gun to shoot anybody so we packed out bags and headed for Belmullet”.

There was alot of work to be found back in Ireland but little money. John cut turf in Ballyveeney with Sonny Harry McManamon for the County Council for a shilling a yard and then cut hay with a scythe for £1 a day in Mulranny and Achill.

It was hard to make ends meet but then in 1943 a new convent was being built in Belmullet and he got the plastering contract. He worked there with Jim Connolly and Pat Gaughan and remembers the big ceilings and the beautiful rooms. His next project took him to Bangor where he worked on a shop and house for the Reilly family before his trade took his east.

“The building trade in Dublin was beginning to take off so I went along to see what it was like. There was lots of work and it wasn’t long before we could afford out own house. Our second daughter Maureen came along soon after so between work and the family we were kept busy.”

John then came into contact with the Doyle family who would become well known in the hotel business. They became involved in the construction industry and progressed quickly to the hotel business. Throughout their successful journey they were accompanied by the plasterer from Doughill.

“1 started working for the Doyles when they were dairy farmers building a few houses and was still working for them when they ran all their big hotels. I worked on the Burlington, The Berkley Court, The Green Isle and lots of other famous buildings. I continued working for them until I was 77 years old when I decided to take it a little easier.”

Bridie passed away in 1990 and John spent his days cutting hedges and mowing lawns for his daughters as well as driving all over the country visiting family and friends. He loves to drive and can still recall his first car trip in the twenties.

“My cousin Michael was getting married to Penelope Keane from Tullaghaun near Geesala and he asked me to be Best Man. Another cousin John had an old Ford car and he drove us. We had to go to Ballina to meet the Bishop first and then back to Bangor again for the marriage. After the wedding we had a mighty party in Ballycroy and a few nights later we had another celebration in Phelim Henry’s Pub in Doohoma so my first car trips were very memorable.”

John is a happy man. He is enjoying life as he has always done, surrounded by family and friends. The man from Doughill has packed alot of living into 94 years and is looking forward to many more funfilled days in Dublin and Mayo. He is happy with his lot but has one major regret nagging away at him.

“I was born too soon. I should have been born now, life is better these days and I would love to be young again. There are so many opportunities for people of today compared to when I was young but I an having a great life and have some great memories,” he added.

Courtesy of the Western People
By Michael Gallagher