A man from the Royal County - February 1946

The bus trundled out of Euston station en route to the construction site at Croydon Airport turned left into Tottenham Court Road and drove past Charing Cross and Trafalgar square where the statute of Lord Nelson looked imperiously down; on it rumbled past the houses of parliament and chiming Big Ben, past St. James's Palace,then left over the Thames by Vauxhall bridge, and right into the South Lambeth Road and right again onto Brixton Hill.

By Brendan Murray

The fourteen young Irishmen I had collected at Euston Station were a quiet lot; the crossing from Dun Laoghaire had been rough, the night black and cold. "The boat was crowded; we were like sardines in a tin," I overheard one lad remark. They were tense, over anxiety evident from their furtive glances through the bus windows at the passing scene - strange buildings, monuments, noisy traffic, people of various colours and dress all streaming by like pictures from another world, all strange to the eyes of lads travelling for the first time beyond their boundaries of their home townlands. Most of them were in their twenties, tiredness following their long journey made them look older. The lads from the Gaeltacht areas had worn labels showing their destination and our firms name; they looked lost and badly in need of some sort of reassurance. When we reached Purly Way the houses and traffic thinned; I stood in the isle between the seats and addressed them. "Good day men! May I have your attention please? I said 'my name is Bill Hodgeson; I’m a Donegal Man; I’m your new employers representative; I work in the Personal Department, and its my job to meet you and inform you of your arrangements and procedures of the construction site. I'll do everything I can to help you settle in. Now, as you may know, we're building a new runway at the Airport and you will all be involved in this major job; it'll be heavy work - no problem for strong healthy men like goodselves; now, in regard to pay and conditions - “I was interrupted by a tall fair haired fellow seated beside me, "What’s the grub like; if we’re going to work hard we'll need the fuel," he said with counterfeited cheerfulness
"There’s a subsidised canteen," I replied, "so meals are cheap and you'll get enough of what’s on offer; some things are very scarce; rationing here is worse then in Ireland"

"What's the bunks like; do we all get an O'Dearest mattress?" shouted a voice jocosely, adding "these young lads will need their beauty sleep." All laughed and relaxed as they turned to look at the speaker seated in the centre of the rear seat. He was a blocky man of medium build in a navy suit, older than the rest, reddish hair peeping under his grey tweed cap, tan skin tight over his high cheekbones. Pale blue eyes shone from his weather beaten countenance as I looked in his direction. "Joe Marry heah! Direct from the Royal County, Sah," he said in a snappy mock upper class English accent as he raised a huge hand to the peak of his cap in a mock salute. "Where's he from; his hands are like shovels" whispered the young lad seated near me to his pal. "He’s from County Meath; he wasn’t on the train; saw him walk in on the street and get on the bus," replied the pal.

“Okay men,” I continued, "Now, your sleeping accommodation and wash and toilet facilities are in Nissan huts; I've arranged for all of you to be accommodated in one hut, so, I hope ye are happy with that arrangement."

"Fine, as long as my pal here washes his feet," shouted one lad. "OK" shouted another in a Mayo accent, "as long as the Galway boys are muzzled at night, otherwise, they'll keep us awake with their blatherskiting." “Okay lads," I said, "I see everyone is happy with the arrangement. Now, I'll just say a few words about the construction site -your home for the next six or seven months; the site is at Croydon Airport. After active involvement in the war effort until 1942, the Airport then became a base for Squadrons of the Royal Air Force Transport Command. Now that the war is over, the airport is reverting to civil use, so we are in a transition period. You'll see men in the air force uniform around going about their business. Don't worry about them. They have nothing to do with you." “And they'll be no need for them to worry about us either," said Joe Marry, adding, "no need for them to salute us or anything like that, a-tall,a-tall."

The bus had now reached the road skirting the construction site. "We are almost there," I said “you can see the site on the right.” "All the men except the four Gaeltacht lads peered through the windows, some standing, and some wiping away the condensation for a better view. There was no comment; all of them relapsed into their initial state of silent apprehension.

"Right lads" I said, "we're pulling in at your billets; its hut no 7; ye can drop your bags there and then I'll bring you over to the canteen over there"I said, pointing to canteen buildings, sited about 60 yards away.

They dropped in to hut 7; some stood a little bewildered as their eyes rested on the neat row of bunks with bare mattresses and pillow cases along the walls. "Bed clothes will be issued to ye in the store adjoining the canteen; I'll take ya there when you’re ready," I said adding "then I'll show you the canteen for a meal free, you'll be glad to hear, on this occasion," and to allay any remaining anxiety, I jocosely added "to day, you are very important guests;" and continuing I explained: “Your individual numbers are on the lockers and bunks and the toilets and wash rooms are through the doors at the top there." Most of the men dropped there bags and went straight to the toilets, I sat on a chair beside one of the bunks while I waited. Some of them looked completely lost. When there where ready I told them to pin on their works identification badges I had given them when boarding the bus and to follow me to the store. The stores managers, Mr Prinny, bristling with his own importance, was looking through the documents at the counter. "Mr. Prinny," I said "these are our new men. I gave you a global requisition for their bed clothes this morning." "Oh! Yes, the Oirish chappies," he replied, quickly glancing over his reading spectacles at the motley recruits and continuing to look through documents. We waited silently. "This is called the Attractive Goods store," I whispered to the men as we continued to wait. As if I disturbed some hallowed silence, Prinny stopped, looked up and stared at me and casting his eyes towards the ceiling, said in his superior tone, "My assistant Robby will see them when he is ready." After a short delay Robby approached and I told him I had given a global requisition to Mr. Prinny that morning. There was further delay while Robby searched through the appropriate file. The requisition wasn't there, so he approached Prinny to ascertain its location. Prinny, ignoring him, continued looking at some document. Robbie waited respectfully. "Capeann se gur muidne ag iarraidh na deirce," (he thinks we're seeking alms) said one of the Gaeltacht lads gloomily. "Ceart go lear" responded Joe Marry, adding "Mr Prinny doesn't like us; he's away up there and we are away down here; thinks he's God Almighty."

Eventually, a pack of three blankets was issued to each of the lads; I then conducted them into the adjoining canteen for their meal. The catering lady waved to me and nodded towards a large table with newspapers neatly spread on it. I told the men to place their blankets on a small adjoining table before going to the canteen counter to select their meals. I excused myself saying I was going to the canteen ladies office to sign the necessary paper work. Through the open office door I observed the men returning with their meals and taking their places on the forms around the table. Some of them began reading the headlines of the paper covering the tables "Look! This is the News of the World; I thought it was banned," one of them remarked. Others responded with, "why's the table covered with newspapers? Is it because we're guests to day?," “Ara! We're getting special treatment-treating us like lords, they are,” Then Joe Maddy remarked “maybe its because they think we're sloppy eaters." There was silence as Prinny, bristling with his own importance, strode past followed by Robby; Prinny was carrying parcels of white material and Robby parcels of blankets. They went through a door at the top of the canteen leaving the door open behind them. One of the men said "look there's another canteen in there," "there's men in uniform eating in there," another said, "they've white table cloths on their tables here comes Robby he's closing the door.” As Robby was passing Joe Marry turned and said to him; "Excuse me; just a quick word if you don’t mind." Robby stopped and said, "sure, what can I do for you?" "Thank you for looking after us earlier, but, would you help settle an argument here." "Of course,"replied Robbie, "if I can and it’s not a state secret." "What was the white material Mr Prinny carried in there; was it cotton or linen? One of the lads here worked in a linen factory and he says its linen; the others say he's wrong." "He's right" said Robby, adding, "actually, linen sheets and pillow slips." "That settles it, thank you very much," remarked Joe, who then fell silent, stopped eating and glanced all around the room. Some of the others watched him and then one of them remarked, "Here comes Mr. Prinny." Joe stood up as Prinny approached and said "Excuse me Mr. Prinny, may I have a word with you?" Prinny straightened and with a haughty stare said, "Are you addressing me sir?" All the men stopped eating like frozen statues in various poses, paused waiting for Joe's response; some had forkfuls of food half way down their mouths; others holding knife and fork about to cut through a sausage, others about to scoop food onto forks with their knives.

"Yes; I’m sorry if you got the impression I was addressing someone else," said Joe. Prinny annoyed at what he considered an unnecessary interruption by a minion said, "Persons speak to one of my assistants concerning trivial matters; perhaps you'd be good enough to do that."

"The problem is extremely urgent, it can't wait-aren’t you're the boss-man here?"
Prinny stared contemptuously at Joe and was about to say something when Joe half whispered. "It’s about the safety of this place, Sir."

“About the safety, indeed!" said Mr. Prinny raising an eyebrow querulously, and contemptuously adding, "This place is quiet safe. Do you consider yourself some sort of safety expert? I see no problem." He turned and walked away. Joe spoke quickly. The place is in great danger, I know it."
Prinny turned and stepped up to Joe, "You know it; what is it?" he gritted through his handlebar mushtas.

"This is," replied Joe, pointing to the table. "Someone forget to cover it with linen tablecloth."
"Listen old chap'ie," replied an astonished Prinny, "Don’t you realise the scarcity that exists?"
Ignoring Prinnys remark, Joe replied, "My men also need bed linen; one sheet and one pillow slip per man will do." "One pillow slip and one sheet per man will do," stammered a flabbergasted Prinny, loudly adding, Listen,chapp'ie I must emphasise that a serious scarcity in commodities exists; the war, you know. Sorry, I can’t do anything for you." "The Scarcity exists for some and not for others; it doesn't exist for those fellows in there," replied Joe nodding towards the other canteen and adding, "We saw you bring them bed linen, and their tables are covered with white tablecloths.”

“But my dear chap, all those chappies are R.A.F.,” replied Prinny, adding in slow special English, "members of her majesty's Royal Air Force some are officers." "Well, I was an officer and I represent these men; all we want is fair play, not disrespect," said Joe. "The tablecloth and the bed linen right now otherwise," Joe paused and stared hard at Prinny. Prinny with disdainful look said, "otherwise what?" "Otherwise" shouted Joe as hitting the table with his fist, and embellishing his words with some unmentionable expletives, he roared, "Otherwise, we'll wreck this f*** place." He stood up and like a well drilled army, all the men rose in unison; there was a dramatic clatter as some of the forms they were sitting on hit the floor. Prinny looked at them, they now seemed a formidable lot; he saw determined eyes of various hues in young serious weather beaten faces awaiting Joe's signal. Prinny looked startled, lost for words; then ashen faced he whispered.

"Okay! Hold it, hold it; I'll have the tablecloth and bed linen issued to you immediately."
"Thank you"

Within minutes the table clad in a immaculate cloth and bed linen placed beside the blankets.
When the men had settled down and tucking into their meal, I emerged from the office and asked" Is the meal okay lads, any problems?”

“The meal fine’s; no problems a t-all” remarked Joe; all nodded their heads in agreement.
A metamorphosis had taken place. They were now a hard confident lot, ready to take on the World.