Tales of My Father

Big Gerry, my old man, is getting on these days. Though approaching eighty three he’s young at heart and full of joie de vivre but the body is not quite as sprightly as it once was.

He came to England from Ireland in 1956 as a fresh-faced eighteen year old and headed for Birmingham first before settling in Bolton. Initially working on the railways he then went onto work in the construction industry up until retirement in 2009.

My father is a natural story teller, my mother once said that ‘he did not kiss the Blarney Stone, he had a full blown affair with it.’ For many years I’ve listened to his stories to the extent that I nearly know them by heart but lately I’ve taken to either recording them or transcribing whilst he chatted away. It’s fair to say that I’ve spent a bit of time with him this week so I have taken three very short stories from his early days in England in the 1960s. Maybe it’s because I’m a historian but I feel it’s important to capture these tales.

Windy Arbour

In the early 1960s my father worked on opencast coal sites. He wasn’t a miner but his job was to cart away the earth above the coal seams that lay close to the surface in large dump trucks. There were quite a few such coal sites around the Bolton and Wigan area. He also worked on them in South Wales.

“In December 1961 I was working for Tarmac on an opencast coal site in Windy Arbour, between Wigan and Billinge, driving a dump truck. It was mostly young Irish lads on the job working twelve hour shifts, six days a week. Christmas time came and half the lads went home to Ireland for a fortnight. The foreman Johnny Stanton, a Mayoman, decided to make up for the others being away somewhat by putting the rest of us that stayed on 6am to midnight shifts. Eighteen hour shifts for two weeks. I’d be driving home to Bolton, having a bite to eat, a few hours sleep, and then back to work again. No opportunity for rests on those sites. All go. Great times.”

When JFK was shot and my stitches burst

My father has a large scar running vertical on the left side of his belly. It’s about 250mm (approximately 10 inches in old money) and every time someone asks about it this is his reply.

“It’s an old war wound. No, I’m joking. I got that the day President Kennedy was killed in Dallas in 1963. I’d just had my gall bladder removed and was in a convalescence home in Bolton recovering. The food was terrible and there was a painter on site that lived near my father so I passed the painter a note to give to him. The next day my father turned up with a large bread loaf, a load of thick ham, cheese, butter, a pint of milk and a big cake. I was that hungry I ate the lot.

That night I woke up with crippling pains and I looked down and my stitches had burst open. I spent the whole night with my arms around my stomach trying to keep it together. I was fearful of telling the on duty matron as she was a real nasty piece of work.

At redressing the next morning my secret was finally blown. The matron was informed and stormed over in a foul mood.

‘You Irish! You come over here expecting everything for free.’

Before she could finish I cut in.

‘Now you hang on a minute! How much did that operation cost?’

‘About £60.’ She replied.

‘£60. Well I’ve been here six years and paid into this system every week since. I’ve paid for this operation, in fact I’ve probably paid for it twice over. You probably owe me!’

She stormed off and the whole ward cheered me.”

Skeeth and the Old Morris Car

From the mid 1960s onwards my father moved on to work on the motorway and bypass projects that were cropping up all over the northwest. From 1967-72 he worked on the M53, M56, M61, M62 and the Edenfield and Haslingden bypasses. He drove a grader which was a large coat hanger-looking machine that was used to level out the stone that provided the foundation for the motorway surface. He always describes this work as ‘mighty craic’ and ‘pure devilment’ because the primary motivation was to break the heart of Ted Whittle, the site foreman. He has so many stories of this time but here’s one.

“I was working on the Manchester end of M61 and I had an old Morris car. A few days before the day in question I drove it through a large puddle and both mudguards flew out sideways like the wings of a bird. It was done for and I wanted rid of it. Now there was a dump truck driver that was a complete head case from Laois (a county in central Ireland) called Malcolm Skeeth and we arranged that I would park the car on the haul road and he would crash in to. Skeeth was jacking that day so he didn’t care if he got sacked.

I was driving a grader and Skeeth would pass me driving like a lunatic on that haul road and then this one time he passed me, gave me the thumbs up and I knew he’d go for the old Morris.

Now Ted Whittle, the site foreman, was constantly endanger of blowing his own head gasket, emotionally if you know what I mean. He came roaring over in his Land Rover and got out.

‘Have you seen what that mad bastard Skeeth has done to your car? He’s destroyed it. It’s in pieces. Get down to it quick.’

Whittle brought me down to it and sure enough Skeeth had absolutely obliterated it. Smashed it to pieces. The poor old Morris.

‘Don’t worry though’ said Ted ‘I’ve been on to the Black Gang (the haulage contractors) and they’ll see you right. They’ll pay you out for it.’

I was over the moon. Skeeth got a job working for his brother-in-law driving a wagon and turned up on the same site that very afternoon which did not impress Whittle one bit. Poor Ted.”

*

In search of Kevin

As far as graveyard settings go the one in Baltyboys, Wicklow certainly takes some beating. On a peninsula that juts out into Blessington Lakes the cemetery is situated amongst farming land that gently falls down to the lake shore. The rising Wicklow Mountains form a majestic and breathtaking background.

My family hails from the west of Ireland so on holidays we disembarked the ferry at Dublin’s North Wall or Dún Laoghaire and headed out ‘Beyond the Pale’ as quickly as possible. The little time I had spent in Wicklow was in the coastal town of Bray where, most notably, in 1988 I threw a message in a bottle out to sea and a few months later it was picked up by a young lad on an Isle of Man beach. A few years ago I found out I had cousin, Dan, that lives in the Blessington area and as mentioned in a previous blog post we ran last October’s Dublin Marathon together.

For many years my father ran a construction company and most of those he employed were Irishmen that, like Big Gerry, had emigrated to England during the 1950s or 1960s and found their home in the building trade. They were grafters and in most cases hard drinkers (not Big Gerry, he took the pledge). Most had families but a few were lonely souls. There were many characters. People like John ‘Connemara’ McDonagh who had a tendency to trash dump trucks, Dick Dunphy who swore blind he’d fought during The Aden Emergency and the loveable Gaeilgeoir Sean Costello who spoke very little English when he arrived here. I’ll not even get started with my uncles Joe, Curly, Ivan, Brendan, Ronnie or Billy as they’re a whole bloody series of blog posts in themselves.

Wicklow native Kevin Clarke was one such character. Born in Ballinahown in 1938 his early life was filled with sorrow and upheaval. Kevin’s mother died when he was an infant and a few years later the family had to vacate the home place before Ballinahown was submerged during the construction of Poulaphouca Reservoir or Blessington Lakes as it is commonly known. After completing his schooling he headed for the boat, like many of his generation, and emigrated to England finally settling in the East Lancashire town of Waterfoot.

In the late 1980s Kevin found his way into my father’s employment. He was a great worker and also fantastic craic. Always one for a tale you never quite knew if he was telling the truth or spinning a yarn. It didn’t matter however because the tale was always compelling. As a youngster I spent weekends and school holidays working on my father’s building sites. It was a great time and Kevin featured prominently. His wild tales, he told me once that he and Gerry Adams were best friends, and funny demeanour always made me laugh and feel happy even on the most wintery of winter mornings laying concrete slabs or working in some trench. If I had a choice to work alongside anybody it was always Kevin.

Kevin possessed a unique sense of humour. During a break time whilst working on a job in Crawshawbooth he engaged in conversation with a quick tempered subbie joiner whose daughter owned horses. After asking a long sequence of seemingly interested questions Kevin, straight faced, said ‘so Jack, now tell me, do the horses actually talk to you?’ The brew room erupted in laughter and how Kevin escaped without an absolute throttling from Jack is still unknown. Kevin also convinced a guy that lived locally to site that he was going to move in with him and his wife. He stretched the joke to the point where he turned up one morning at their doorstep with his suitcase in hand.

In the early 1990s Kevin rather abruptly left my father’s employment. That was like Kevin though, ever the enigma. You could never quite gauge his thinking. There was always the feeling that there was a troubled interior masked behind the jovial exterior. Kevin crossed our paths only a handful of times thereafter until a few years back my father heard that he had passed away. His wish had always been to return home and so was brought back to Wicklow for burial.

On the day before the Marathon Dan picked me at Dublin Airport but there was one extra thing I needed to do as well as run the 26.2 miles. Knowing that Dan lived nearby I had to go to Baltyboys Cemetery and pay my respects to Kevin.

Though a small graveyard it took an age to find his grave as the headstones confirmed that Clarke was a common surname in the area. I’d been told that he’d been buried with his parents and after searching for some time Dan and I were about to admit defeat but one particular grave, of Patrick and Annie Clarke, kept calling me back.

I approached the grave and noticed a thin, rectangular piece of black plastic lying at the base of the headstone. It looked like rubbish. I bent down and turned it over. It was a plaque, Kevin’s plaque, and his name was written in fading pencil onto peeling bronze foil. Thinking of him and corresponding that memory to the rather pitiful memorial before me brought a tear to my eye. I quickly composed myself and then wedged the plaque to the headstone with the piece of timber it was originally affixed to. How long before that plastic would’ve blown away for good? A sad thought is that it now might well have despite my best endeavours.

Someone once said that it’s not dying that’s the most tragic part, it’s being forgotten. Although he may have neither a grand memorial nor headstone Kevin Clarke will live long in my memory and hopefully others too.

Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam