man from the Royal County - February 1946
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;
Im a Donegal Man; Im 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, "Whats the grub like; if were
going to work hard we'll need the fuel," he said with
"Theres a subsidised canteen," I replied,
"so meals are cheap and you'll get enough of whats
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. "Hes from
County Meath; he wasnt 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
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 youre 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 dont 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 its 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; Im 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-arent
you're the boss-man here?"
Prinny stared contemptuously at Joe and was about to say
something when Joe half whispered. "Its 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,
"Dont 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 cant
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."
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 fines; 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.