The vanishing Irish of the 1940's and '50's

And it's a-
Goodbye Mike and a goodbye Luke
And goodbye Kate and Mary;
Your bags are packed; the gangway's up;

You're gone from Tipperary".They left in their thousands in search of employment abroad, our Seans, Philips, Frances's, Mollies and Katies to name but a few. In England they were sometimes referred to by the derogative collective title of "the Paddies and the Biddies", a title which dented their already dwindling self-esteem. During the period 1946-1956, the number of them emigrating from Co. Cavan alone exceeded eleven thousand, as against registered births of 12,481. Children "Born for Export" was a concern expressed by anxious mothers of the day.

It was a different world then; the great technological advances in travel and communications were a long way off; the few phones in a town were confined to the garda barracks, the post office, and the priest and doctor's residences. Communication with relatives abroad was by letter and post took a long time; urgent communication was usually by dreaded telegram delivered by a fast peddling telegram boys during office hours; outside office hours, urgent messages were phoned to the garda barracks and delivered by an obliging Guard. Emigrants to far-away places like America were regarded as "gone forever."

The majority of our emigrants were ill prepared for their departure to foreign climes; our social fabric, education and living traditions, reinforced by the songs, dances, poems and art of the period, had given them a deep sense of national pride and belonging; all this made their enforced departure more difficult as well as adjusting to environments abroad. Down through the years they never lost their national pride and love of their homeland; their hard-earned remittances contributed in no small way to the upkeep of out economy. Politicians were muted about our growing numbers of disconnected exiles: what harm if the world thought our haemorrhage of youth had been stemmed or was non-existent.

The 1940's, and 50's were tough times for everyone, young and old, not alone in Cavan but in the whole country. Job prospects were virtually nil. A bright young lad leaving national school at the age of 14 or 15 would be lucky to start work as an apprentice shop-boy in a local grocery shop: his wages, if any, no more than a few shillings a week. There, he would join the other shop-boys, some 40 to 60 years of age, all bachelors; they couldn't afford marriage on their meagre wages; older ones were sometimes castigated for their long engagements to local girls; "he's going out with her for the past twenty years", was often a side comment on a long courtship; long courtships were the butt of jokes and frowned upon because in accordance with religious teaching, a boy and a girl, of whatever age, couldn't "go" with each other unless they had prospects of marriage within a period of six months, and they had no prospects. Living together without being married was out of the question; "living in sin" it was called; such couples would be ostracised or run out of town; there was no such thing as divorce or separation; the only way to get separated from a spouse, no matter how difficult a marriage, was by death.

The odd bright girl with a few years in secondary education might obtain employment "serving her time" in a local drapery store or hairdressing "salon" (shop); her parents might have scraped together the fee of £60 for the privilege of having her work for nothing for a six month period, "to learn the trade"; that transaction classified her job as "respectable", and having a respectable job put her in a higher category than the rest; there was a lot of so called respectability around, all of it at a price. It was also respectable to train for nursing in Ireland for a fee, rather than in England where according to rumour, essential training ingredients were scrubbing floors and emptying chamber pots. "Respectable" catholic parents regarded England as a Den of Iniquity, they said " a child", could get led astray over there, might even stop going to Mass or worse still, might marry some heathen in a registry office and be dammed for ever; that would be nearly as bad as staying at home and marrying a protestant.
In some families there was great striving towards the community's perception of respectability. It was the height of respectability to "have a priest in the family" or "a daughter a nun"; mothers prayed for their offspring to enter the religious life; "one of them is going for the priesthood" or "one of them is joining the nuns" or "entering" (the convent) would be whispered in awed reverence concerning a family having a son or daughter with a vocation for the religious life. Family pride, community pride and national pride all blended to keep everyone on the straight and narrow.

Cavan youngsters of those days knew everybody in their communities. Everyday they experienced life because every day they lived a life; young lads arose extra early some mornings to walk a mile to serve Mass; they then ran home and gobbled down a quick breakfast before heading off to detested school and receives a share of the cane. They escaped for school at 3 o'clock and bolted out the school gate, full of joy, all punishment forgotten; arrived home to do their share of jobs; town children ran for messages, drew pails of water from the well, gathered sticks or collected a bag of shoves from the flax mill (price 6 pence) for the fire.

On Sundays, young lads played ball in someone's field before being chased out by the irate owner to continue the game in someone else's patch. Depending on the season, they fished for perch or roach from the lakeshore with a rod cut from a hedge or for pike with a homemade otter board; they played handball against a gable wall and stopped occasionally to allow an odd car or lorry to pass; some evenings they rested on windows sills and watched passers-by and grown-up boys and girls standing in doorways talking to each other, the odd schoolgirl of their own age running for messages. On free autumnal days they earned for their parents three shillings and six pence a day picking spuds or gathering blackberries.

Children grew up fast then. They did their best to drown their fading hope of job prospects in the prevailing atmosphere of conviviality, laughter and song and football rivalry. Most seemed happy enough taking the rough with the smooth and just existing, daring not to look far ahead, until inevitable, things got desperate and their reservoirs of hope dried up and they "took the boat". The force of many football teams declined as young talented players were lost to emigration. Abroad, they worked hard to survive and send much-needed money home, some ultimately prospering, some not so lucky and now indigent in London, Manchester and other cities, their once proud bearings showing signs of isolation, loneliness and despair, - our generous country youth in the past now striving to survive in an urban world.

What keeps them going? Nobody really knows! Perhaps its hope; hope that they're not forgotten by their Roisin Dubh now that they have nothing left to give; or perhaps it's the old national pride of their youth and their struggle to survive and help others, and recalling brothers and sisters and fathers, packing their cardboard travel cases for the lonesome trip down the long stoney road to "God knows where" to earn a living and help support those at home, hoping to return when things got better; images stored away in the sanctuary of their minds and souls with the loves, laughter and song, cheers and tears, and lights of home, and perhaps, the remembered few lines of a song learned at school.

"Bheir mi o, oro bhean o,
Bheir mi o, oro bhean i,
Bheir mi o, oro
Is me ta bhron, 'stu mo chroi.

And in spite of all the pelted patriotism and "do your duty" attitude of the odd self-promoting "god", where did some of these obident, dutiful and loving childlren with no prospects in their "rich and rare" fatherland end up? Far from home, on fields of war or in the factories and construction sites of the old hated enemy? Or worst of all, as tail gunners in fighter planes with a survival rate of one or two trips, some scraped or hosed out of them if they returned.
Many of them never saw Ireland again; an odd one was never heard of again, nor seen again; lost forever; where? Nobody knows! Not even their mothers.

An bhfaca tu mo Sheamuisin
Mo storin og, mo bhuacailin
An bhfaca tu mo Sheamuisin
Ag dul sios an bhothair
Grath mo chroi, mo Sheamuisin
Mo storin og, mo bhuacailin
Grath mo chroi, mo Sheamuisin
Ag dul sios an bhothair
Sean Abhran

Some were last of their family line; the odd derelict house bears witness. Yea! Let's fill our glasses and drink a toast to them all, all the Seamuisins and Bridins, and Mikes, Lukes, Kates and Marys. And let's have three cheers for those who survived. God bless them all!