Carlow County - Ireland Genealogical Projects (IGP TM)
Pat O'Mahony Memoirs
By Pat O’MahonySource: Michael Purcell & Transcribed by J.J. Woods 2009
The above nomenclature epitomizes our Celtic propensity for jingoistic insularity — which is a high falutin’ way of saying that we tend to call “a bloody shovel a spade” and not vice versa as most other do. When the rest of the world chose to refer to the events that took place between 1939 and 1945 as World War II we persisted in regarding it as a mere local nuisance. After all, it wasn’t our schmozzle and, apart from the tragic events at Borris, Campile and North Strand and, of course, Belfast, we remained comparatively unscathed. On the other hand, virtually everyone living in Southern Ireland (we hadn’t yet declared ourselves a Republic) was affected, to a greater or lesser extent, by the conflict. The following reminiscences are an attempt to record how it impinged on my own way of life.
I knew, of course, that there was some sort of international nark in the offing for a long time before hand but gave little heed to it. The day war was declared I happened to be cycling down through County Clare on my way from Galway to Cork when a local yokel shouted the news. My reply, which was probably typical of most young people at the time, was, “I couldn’t care less” — or words to that effect. This was strictly true and my attitude hardly changed throughout the period in question, although my life style, in common with everyone else, was changed considerably.
Shortages of essential commodities began to manifest themselves as time went on but I doubt that anyone could honestly claim that they suffered any real hardship as a result. They were largely a minor irritant. Here are some examples:
Tea. The half ounce per week left me totally unaffected. My first son having been born about that time entitled us to 1½ oz. every Friday which was adequate for our needs. His staple diet being mother’s milk and my liquid refreshment being cocoa and coffee (bottle) left my wife with an ample supply of the precious leaves even to the extent of occasionally making it in a cup.
Sugar. Although I have a sweet tooth I had given up its use many years before, for Lent, and never went back. Our half pound, or so, per week was quite sufficient.
Bread. Believe it or not, I actually liked the so-called ‘black’ bread and now realise that it contributed in no small way to the health of the nation. On the other hand, most people hated it and did a bit of illicit sieving from time to time. The guests at my wedding breakfast wolfed into the plates of white bread provided, illegally, by the caterer and largely ignored the other goodies. I also remember returning from the North with a boot full of white loaves as gifts for friends and relatives.
Fuel. I cut turf in Rossmore for three seasons and timber in Herondale for two more and can honestly say that I was never as physically fit before or since. Furthermore, the work kept me warm long before the fuel saw the fireplace. Hard coal slack was also available for the making of ‘bombs’ which provided an excellent and lasting fire provided one used the poker sparingly.
Food. This was generally no great problem. I grew all our own vegetables, kept hens for eggs and shot rabbits for the pot. Our garbage was almost negligible. What we couldn’t eat we fed to the birds or burnt, ash went into the garden for which the hens provided excellent manure and even the few bottles, jars and tin cans were recycled.
Clothing. My wife made most of her own and those of the children. My wedding suit, a black pinstripe, lasted me for the duration although as time (and the knees of the trousers) wore on, I had to resort, in the end, to blackening my kneecaps with boot polish to prevent the white flesh from showing through.
Furniture. I was in the happy position of being able to make much of our own in both wood and metal and repairs, of course, presented no problem.
Transport. Not having a car of my own at the time, petrol rationing did not affect me but I had to go to the ‘black’ market for a set of bicycle tyres. We travelled to Cork by public transport but this often involved a 15 hour journey, 9 a.m. to midnight and with young children it was no picnic. Eventually I found it more efficient and comfortable to cycle down, return with a borrowed van, load up with all our goods, chattels and children, and drive south again. This process was repeated in reverse at the end of the holiday. I considered it worth while to do the 125 miles by road, six times, rather than the 130 odd miles by rail, twice.
Entertainment., We provided our own entertainment to a very large extent and I rarely knew us to be bored. My income at the time was just over £4 per week of which my landlord got £1. The remaining three quid left little room for riotous living and we were all the more healthy mentally as a result. By comparison, the amount of money spent on entertainment today is positively obscene.
Cigarettes. I used to smoke in those days, about 20 per day, but I was rarely without a fag. The late Aidan Murray, God bless him, saw to that. On the other hand they were generally pretty scarce at times and some weird and wonderful substitutes were tried with varying degrees of success, e.g. dried beet pulp, used tea leaves, dandelion roots, straw and even brown paper. Incidentally, the shortage nearly killed the sale of “Sweet Afton” of which there was no real shortage being wholly manufactured in Ireland. The frequent answer to the query “any fags?” was “sorry, only Aftons” which clearly indicated that the bottom of the barrel had been reached.
On a wider scale the emergency brought some hardships and not a few blessings. Road traffic, which was beginning to be a problem in urban areas, could now be numbered in units rather than in tens or hundreds. Pollution was a word understood by few and mentioned by fewer still. I am convinced that illness was much less prevalent. The demand for hospitalisation was far less and the medical needs of people were catered for by a few doctors and nurses. In my opinion the widespread use of chemicals in every walk of life today has created problems which were unheard of half a century ago.
I suspect that the general public regarded the military aspect in a sort of flippant way. No doubt some took it very seriously but I don’t think anyone really believed that our puny efforts at defence would prove the least obstacle to potential invaders. Whenever we discuss it today we tend to treat the whole thing as a huge joke.
I joined the L.D.F., not from conviction but as a sort of gesture to patriotism and good example. I took little active part in the activities however, because my night classes prevented attendance at lectures and our long summer holidays precluded much in the way of field activities. Sporting activities, I must confess, occupied my winter weekends. I did however attend a series of lectures on explosives and took part in a demolition exercise in preparation to the building of the dam for a small hydro-electric scheme at Killeshin. This project, incidentally, fizzled out through lack of funds and the fact that the E.S.B. subsequently ran a power line to Rossmore via Killeshin.
In 1940 I was privileged to be appointed to the teaching staff of Carlow Technical School which, at the time, had a staff of five of the most dedicated, and truly vocational, teachers I have ever met. Mr. B. O’Neill, C.E.O., a man of letters and an educationalist to his finger tips; Mr. J. A. Merne, one of the traditional and sadly a dying race of true craftsmen; Miss M. Mullally who worked wonders with the few commodities then available and who even made soap and candles which were in short supply; Mr. A. J. Crotty who laid the foundations for hundreds of successful careers in the business world. He was later appointed Principal and subsequently C.E.O. of Co. Wicklow V.E.C.; Mr. B. A. Kiernan handled languages and later became Principal of Rathmines College of Commerce.
Under the guidance of these dedicated teachers, students were trained to make do with whatever happened to be available and at time rose to heights of improvisation that would gladden the hearts of Thomas Edison (or Heath Robinson). Things made in the school, frequently from scrap or discarded materials, include wind chargers, beehives, beds, gates, playpens, tractor cabs, cupboards, manure spreaders, cots, chairs and tables and, even, a coffin.
During harvest time our students were released to help local farmers and the workshop was always available to carry out repairs or make otherwise unobtainable spare parts for farm machines. Therefore, it could be truly said that Carlow Technical School pulled its modest weight to alleviate some of the hardships of the times that were in it 50 years ago.
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