Gold in Them There Tills

Mark McGaugh
My father Mick with his mother and brother
Mark McGaugh
The McGaugh clan in 1963. From left, Maureen, Tom, Margaret, Eamon, Mary our mother, and Mark
Mark McGaugh
The Ower Pipe & Drum band. My father Mick McGaugh is pictured front row, extreme left.
Mark McGaugh
The McGaugh family home in Glassvalley, West of Ireland
Mark McGaugh
Many happy years were spent at Kilroe National School, Shrule, Co. Mayo
Mark McGaugh

Extracts from Mark McGaugh’s memoir Gold In Them There Tills (2018).

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This is a story about a teenager who emigrated from Ireland in 1960. Although the book has a commercial sound to the name: ‘Gold in Them There Tills’ this memoir might be considered a story of ‘from rags to riches’. To give full credit to my late mother, she ensured our family of five were never clad in rags. Quite the opposite was true, because our family took great pride in our dress, which in the forties and fifties was mainly our Sunday best. During the week when we worked on the farm, we relied on practical working clothes.

At this stage in my life – my late seventies – I am mindful of the need to put down on paper the experiences, the low and the high spots of a life which occurred when I left Ireland over 58 years ago. It is a story about memories of a journey through life one I do not look back on with any sense of regret. On the contrary, it has been a rollercoaster where my social life has connected with my business experience and where my personal and family life has been incredibly fulfilling.  I am cognisant of the fact that what I am writing about is in many ways a mirror image of the hundreds of thousands of not only the Irish diaspora, but of other nationalities who have moved around the world in the last century, and are still on the move in the early decades of the 21st century.

This movement of people who are desperate to find a new home and put down their roots, has never been more evident than the current time when I am putting the final chapter to the memoir. This story which stretches back over seven decades addresses post-World War Two in Ireland, and the social, political, and religious influences of the time in Ireland.  My memoir looks at the emigration problems in Ireland and the effects felt in the United Kingdom from receiving hundreds of thousands of immigrants into their country.

I will look back at the employment opportunities which were available in the UK, and the prejudice ‘real or imaginary’, which existed then and in the current climate of 2018 prejudices is still a reality.

I will look at my business life and all that entailed for over 40 years, and my retirement at 60 when I sold my business. In the 18 years I have been retired, my wife Helen and I have been able to visit some of the most beautiful places in the world, and since we married 52 years ago our life has seen its highs and its lows, with the high moments vastly outnumbering the low. But I can honestly say that we have had a great deal of highs. We have three children, five grandsons, and are fortunate enough to live in a beautiful part of the Home Counties in Surrey. We have also kept connected with our family in Ireland over that period of time since I came to England in 1960, and I have witnessed the ups and downs of Ireland’s economic progress.

There were periods during the so-called ‘Celtic Tiger’ when I wondered if the Ireland I had left in the early 1960s was losing touch with its heritage, its history, its principles, and, most importantly, its ability to welcome visitors to its shores. I have also seen the new emigrants settling in Ireland, being accepted, and integrating into Irish society, but not without creating waves. Even the Irish who returned from enforced emigration felt they were being treated as blow-ins. All through my business life I have kept a daily diary and since my retirement I have continued to keep one, which I refer to regularly. It has been of tremendous help in filling in some of the memories across six decades. My time since I retired has been occupied by being involved in various charity work, voluntary organisations as varied as spending eighteen months training to be a lay magistrate, but for various reasons which I will not go into I did not pursue, as I did not find the work conducive to my plans. I then spent a number of years with the Citizens Advice Bureau, (CAB) which was a very enjoyable and fulfilling experience. I continued with my golf on a regular 2/3 times a week, and finally I went to St Mary’s University in Twickenham to do a degree in Irish Studies, with the major subjects being Irish Literature and Irish and British History. In November 2014 I completed my Master’s Degree in Irish Studies, and I was conferred with my Master’s Degree on March 6th 2015.

Some might describe this memoir as an almost completed autobiography. I lay claim to having a very good memory, but I also accept that memories are subject to all kinds of influences of memory lapse, or in seeing things 58 years later as a compensation for what they might appear like today. A memoir is best summed up by quoting from the work of Liam Harte, a leading expert on memoir/autobiography: “We change ourselves by narrating ourselves, and we narrate ourselves in dialogue with others, whether in spoken or written forms, such that every autobiography sustains an intricate interplay of factual and fictive elements.” [1]

The end product of this memoir is intended as a social history not only of my experiences, but also as a result of research work which I have carried out during my four years at St Mary’s University in Twickenham, and I can vouch for the fact that the university represents large sections of the Irish community in Britain.

I was first reminded of the need to write this biography when our eldest grandson Alex asked me to tell him about my early days growing up in rural Ireland, and his delightful reaction to the memories I shared with him. Alex is the son of our eldest daughter Michelle who is married to Simon O’Brien, whose grandfather grew up in Tipperary. Michelle and Simon met at university. I was equally influenced by my daughter Stella who now lives in Australia, when she encouraged me to record memories of my lifetime in Ireland prior to emigrating, not alone for her to understand and have first-hand knowledge of my life there, but also for her to share that story with her two young sons, Jake and Leo. Stella is married to Max, and he shares the desire that their sons should know as much as possible about their grandfather’s background. Max also lost his father before he was 50 years old. He and I have shared similar memories of not growing up with a father figure but agreed that our respective mothers more than made amends in preparing us for life.

Our son, Fergus, who now lives in Nantes in France has a great interest in things Irish and I know he will also wish to share this autobiography with his French partner, Helene, and their two sons, Aidan and Thomas. Aidan proudly donned the Irish rugby and football jersey at the age of two. It is my greatest wish that this story is an honest and true reflection of my life from childhood across the seven decades.

I genuinely believe that the morals and principles of those early years when growing up in the rural West of Ireland have been the basis of my whole life. I have often over the years quoted from the ‘Desiderata’ but there are a few lines that have always been very important to me, and if in some future time my epitaph is to be written I would ask that they be quoted:

“Be yourself. Especially do not feign affection. Neither be cynical about love; for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment, it is as perennial as the grass.”

Furthermore, I hope to finish the book in the same vein in which I started it. It must always represent the truth as I saw it.

Chapter 4: Growing Up In the West of Ireland – The Early Years

Although Ireland had remained neutral along with a number of other European countries during World War 2, it still suffered from many of the problems experienced Great Britain. There were many shortages in the necessities of life, and there existed the dreaded but essential rationing book. I might be too young to remember all the details associated with the rationing book, but older members of the family, especially my older sister, Maureen, would vouch for the fact that we never went without those necessities in our younger days.

We had, like most of our neighbours who lived on small farms, a very good supply of milk from the cows, and a plentiful supply of eggs for our own consumption, as well as being able to sell some eggs to the local shopkeeper. We also had our own supply of fresh vegetables, plus we reared pigs on the farm, and had a pig killed twice a year, which provided delicious meals all the year round. It was a common practice to have chickens and ducks from the farmyard served up as a tasty meal on the Sunday. It was not always easy to come to terms with the fact that what we were now eating at Sunday’s dinner had been running around the farmyard 36 hours earlier. It was into this background that I was born in 1940. The youngest of three boys in a family of five, with the boys sandwiched between an older and younger sister, namely Maureen and Margaret respectively. My two older brothers, Tom and Eamon, were my mentors when growing up, and generally looked after me.

A serious tragedy struck the family in March 1946, when our father died from meningitis. But what the records did not show was the cause of death – a clot on the brain. Without doubt, his premature passing was due to an unprovoked attack by a neighbour some months earlier. Our father received a blow to the side of the head from a large blackthorn stick. The occasion was the fair day in the local town which was held every month so that farmers could buy and sell stock.

I was far too young to know the detail at the time, but later in life I got a detailed account from someone who was present at the incident. The witness explained how he and my father were standing at the bar of a local pub when the assailant came up behind my father and without warning brought the full weight of the stick down across the side of his head. He fell to the floor and the witness could not recall if a doctor attended or not, but according to family stories, my father never recovered from that incident. Afterwards he had constant headaches and blackouts that ultimately led to his death. The assailant was never charged, and he continued his style of living without any public sense of regret.

For many years afterwards, and especially when I returned to Ireland for family holidays, it was difficult if not impossible to meet him on the roadway, and mentally not accuse him of being a murderer. This event happened over 70 years ago, and it is said that time is a great healer, and although I’ve forgiven the perpetrator, I’ll never forget the sadness and sorrows he caused to my late mother in particular, and my siblings in general.

Shortly after the incident my mother met the aggressor on the road. She challenged him over the incident and he said if she wasn’t a woman, he would do the same thing to her. My mother’s response was to throw a bucket of the precious water she was drawing from the well at him.

They say that opposites attract, and such was the case of my parents. My father, Michael, was easy-going but hard-working, had no enemies and his major interests in life were his wife, family and a love of music. He was a member of the local Ower Pipe and Drum Band. The McGaughs were also quite religious with three nuns and a priest in the family. Two of my aunts emigrated to Australia in 1929, where they joined the Presentation Order, and one became an English teacher, while the other became a mathematics teacher. Another sister emigrated to the US and also joined a religious order. The McGaughs lived on an average-size family farm, and my father was one of four brothers. One brother, Thomas, had gone to a seminary in Dublin where he joined a teaching order. The eldest brother Jack joined the Irish State Army, leaving my father and another brother Patrick at home on the farm. Our grandfather, who was called Thomas, had left the farm to Michael, with a few acres left to Patrick with the intention that he would at a later date build his own home there. As my parents were now married, my mother moved into the farmhouse with Michael’s parents as was the tradition in Irish farming families. According to comments made within the family, this arrangement did not work out. It was alleged that the two ladies, my late mother and grandmother, did not hit it off, and by then two children had arrived, my older sister, Maureen and my brother, Thomas.

Thomas McGaugh senior changed his will at the behest of his wife, leaving the farm to Jack – who by now had apparently been thrown out of the Irish State army – and had returned home to the welcoming arms of his mother. My parents and their two children then went to live in Tuam in Co. Galway where my father found work and they also got accommodation for their family. Another child was born in 1938 and christened Eamon, the Irish for Edward. According to stories handed down within the family, my father and mother were not happy in a town or city environment.  Michael’s brother, Patrick, handed over the few acres of land to my father who then built a modest house there in 1939. That was the spot where I was born in January 1940.

The youngest of the family, Margaret, was born at home on June 3rd 1944 and when her father died in March 1946, she was still under two years of age. My mother was one of eleven children, and my father was one of nine.  My mother was born on the 25th of March 1912. My grandfather (Edward) on my mother’s side was very political, a staunch follower of Fianna Fail, and had immense admiration for De Valera. His love for De Valera and a united Ireland was equalled by his hatred for all things British. On one occasion my grandfather gave the official welcome in the Irish language to Eamon De Valera, who was making a special visit to the town of Tuam in Galway. My grandfather told me stories of being on the run from the British Army of occupation (as he would describe them) and also how he hated the Black and Tans. Living as he did on the shores of Lough Corrib, he and his colleagues within the local old IRA used the many islands on Lough Corrib to escape the clutches of the feared and hated Tans. Edward was also a fluent Irish speaker, loved his fishing and shooting and he introduced me to an exciting new outdoor world, and also a world where books, reading and education formed a very important part of life.

He was also the leading influence in making me aware of the great divide between those who had and those who had not. He took time to explain that having material things, without having liberty, justice, freedom and the right to self-determination, was a burden without values. At the age of 10 I was given books on the great Irish liberation heroes such as Daniel O’Connell and Charles Stewart Parnell.  Edward O’ Donnell was especially dedicated to the actions and objectives of the 1916 leaders who had their young lives taken away because they dared to speak the words of freedom.

It was appropriate that the O’Donnell US family tree was released on the centenary of the 1916 rising, but unfortunately I was unable to attend. A great deal of work was done on producing the family tree over a long period, and many people attended it in St Paul, Minnesota. When our grandfather, the late Edward O’Donnell, spoke of 1916, he did so with an emotion which reverberated throughout his body, and which emanated deep down in his soul. The emotion showed in his voice when he explained the circumstances of the shooting of James Connolly, who had been seriously injured in the shooting at the GPO, and was unable to stand before the firing squad. Connolly was physically lifted by prison officers and taken in a chair to face the firing squad.  I was made aware by my grandfather that for over 800 years Ireland had fought its nearest neighbour and greatest enemy, Great Britain, for the right to be a free country and become a nation once again. My grandfather Edward O’Donnell talked eloquently of Robert Emmett, Theobald Wolfe Tone, Charles Stewart Parnell, Patrick Pearce, Daniel O’Connell the liberator and he seldom brought the religious divide in the North of Ireland into the conversation. He was not an over religious-minded man, but he held the strongest views that  all people were born equal, there should be no prejudice against any shade of colour, creed, and nationality.

The right of self-determination, self-expression, and the democratic right to follow one’s own destiny was above and beyond all other considerations in the opinion of my grandfather. However, his love of freedom was not exclusive to Ireland, as one of the first books I got from my grandfather was ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin.’ This was heavy reading for a 10-year-old and the bits I could understand remained with me for the rest of my life. I have re-read and studied that book over the years, with the resulting lasting impression that slavery has no place in our society.

When I visited my grandfather to take him his state pension, he would often question me on certain aspects of the book, and this became part of my learning culture in later life. The detailed questions, fired in quick succession, were not meant so much to find the answers to the questions themselves, but to provide the broader picture of my knowledge on the subject. Thus grandfather represented to me and my brothers and sisters the father we had lost at a very young age, and he also drummed into us the need to be confident, to respect others as we would expect them to respect us. This era of the 40/50s saw an Ireland suffering from growing pains, it had been just 20 years earlier that the seeds of independence were sown and many mistakes would be made before the winds of change circled through the countryside and brought about the desired changes.

Those of us born in the forties hardly noticed our economic situation in Ireland, as we had no comparisons to make and hardly recognised the theory of social division. When one looks back now, it is easy to see how we appreciated our standard of living, as it was no different from all the families in the neighbourhood. The grandmother on my mother’s side was not political, and came from fairly well off parents, and indeed in later life she and her husband Edward did not have the most wonderful relationship.

They both lived with a son and daughter-in-law and it would not be an exaggeration to describe them as a family at war. I mentioned earlier that my grandfather also had a great interest in the outdoors. Their land circled round Lough Corrib’ where he learned his fishing, shooting, and he was always accompanied by his two dogs, one an Irish setter, and the other a retriever. On the occasions I took him his pension, he would often offer to bring me home by boat. The ‘round the lake trip’ took about 40 minutes on foot, but the journey by boat could be done in 10 minutes. It seldom was done in that time, as my grandfather invariably took his double barrel shotgun, a fishing rod, a net, and his two dogs plus me on the boat. His 24-foot boat was berthed on the edge of the Black River which slowly weaved its way through the rushes into the mouth of the Corrib. There were no detailed instructions on safety, except on the operation of the gun, which although loaded with two cartridges, was always kept in the safety position, and pointing away from the boat.

My grandfather pointed out the need to respect the water, and not to take any risks. I recall having to carry the fishing rod and the net from the house to the boat, and then going through the process of emptying the boat of excessive water, but the excitement and anticipation of fishing on the lake was beyond my belief. It was on my first trip alone with him that I was also introduced to rowing the boat. I was given the opportunity to do that once we got through the six-foot high rushes. I had seen my grandfather row the boat, and realised the importance of coordinating the action of both hands to avoid a zig-zag journey.  He used my time rowing to fill and light his pipe with his favourite Garryowen tobacco, and at the same time to watch out for any wild duck or widgeons that might be passing near the boat that he could have a pop at. His main objective was to catch a nice fresh brown trout and have my mother cook it for us for dinner. We were only 10 minutes into our crossing when I felt a tug on the line. I’d already been told what to do in the event I got a bite, ‘this is fishing language for hooking a fish’, and I raised the rod slightly and then gave some line to the fish to swim away. My grandfather held the philosophy that people learn by their mistakes, and he allowed me to continue to play the fish for another 20-odd minutes.

Occasionally the fish would come to the surface, and this enabled me to judge how big he was and to assess if he was close to giving up the battle. The wild brown trout of Lough Corrib will battle forever to get away and many succeeded in doing so much to my disappointment. However on this day, when I was not yet 11 years of age, I had the wonderful experience of landing my first trout. The setter and the retriever were not used on that day, but I have a few memories of seeing a wild duck being shot and the retriever going overboard to retrieve the bird, and bringing it back to his master.

They were truly memorable events for me but with my grandfather’s death on December 17th 1959, so many great stories also died with him. I had not previously considered the influence he had on me until he passed away. For many years afterwards I thoughtfully concluded that his departure from this world and my emigration were linked in a very positive way, and as I write this memoir half a century later, I have no doubt that it was the case.

I had left the family home within four weeks of his death. I will never know the full extent of my grandfather’s influence, but I will admit to it being a constant thread throughout my life. I can still picture him coming across Lough Corrib, pulling the boat up on the shore at Ballycurran and tying it with a rope and chain to the nearest rock. He had a blackthorn walking stick, as by then arthritis had attacked his knees, and he walked with a limp. His hard hat was placed upright on his head, and the rim of the hat served to hold his various fishing baits and flies. Although not very tall, it was the stature of his character which endeared him to all who knew him.

Chapter 5: Ireland After The Second World War

We secured independence from Britain in 1922, and under the leadership of Eamon De Valera the state maintained political neutrality during the Second World War – yet thousands of Irishmen died fighting with the Allies in that war. The building of a nation’s status after 800 years of British domination was never going to be easy. The country had fought for centuries for independence, with countless rebellions against a cruel British tyrant. Even when partial self-determination arrived, there was still one green field under British control in the north-east of Ireland. The politicians in the Republic were no better prepared in political and economic terms to cope with the aftermath of WW2 than their counterparts all over the continent of Europe.

De Valera’s vision of Ireland was not the Ireland which would improve standards of living, provide education and employment and have a reasonable health service. It was an Ireland still embedded in old and outdated policies. This was not because he did not care, but he was generally against change. It would take the arrival of Seán Lemass in the early 1960s when he formed a new Fianna Fail government before real progress took place in education and economic terms. Lemass also made efforts to create a closer working relationship with the then Northern Ireland leader, Captain Terence O’Neill.

The Catholic Church had a vice-like grip on its congregation and also on the political leaders of the time. One needs to go no further than to refer to the ‘Mother and Baby Act of 1949’ when the then Minister of Health, Dr Noel Browne ultimately had to resign his post because of the intervention of the Catholic Church in political matters.

It was Browne’s intention in the ‘Mother and Child Act’ to bring about ‘mind changes’ in the way mothers were treated in both anti-natal and post-natal treatments in order to achieve a reduction and ultimately the elimination of the passing of tuberculosis from mother to baby.

However, the Catholic Church saw the act as the State meddling in what was a family responsibility. Indeed some critics at the time went so far as to accuse Dr Browne of taking on board the awful practices of England and one critic compared it to communist practices.

Despite all the objections, Dr Browne managed to rapidly increase the number of beds available for patients in Irish hospitals, but it was a sad reflection on the power of the Catholic Church at the time that he failed in his ultimate objective in aiming to prevent the disease from spreading. Dr Browne was not helped either in the stance taken by the Irish doctors, who somehow felt their financial rewards might be devalued in allowing State intervention.

Dr Browne had a spell working in a hospital in the Newcastle sanatorium in Dublin and while there, he saw the incredible and unacceptable conditions which the patients endured in the hospital. Tuberculosis was rampant at the time in the British Isles and also in Ireland.

The experience gained while he was assistant medical officer at the Cheshire Joint Sanatorium in Shropshire in England was of immense value to him when he returned to Ireland. That period, coupled with the time he spent in hospital being treated for tuberculosis in Midhurst in Sussex, was also a salutary lesson in how patients should be treated for the dreadful disease.

Being a child of the forties, I can remember local villagers contracting tuberculosis with one dying. There was a sinister air of not discussing the problem, and a similar reactions occurred in the 1980s when aids became the scourge of many nations. The cost of visiting a doctor or having a doctor visit one’s home in the Ireland of the 40s and 50s was very high, and in many cases people were unable to meet those costs. Consequently many suffered unnecessarily, rather than ask for charity for the doctor to visit them. However, I would also add that many doctors gave their services free to those who could not afford to pay.

That time there existed a certain fear of the doctor visiting the house, and I recall that for a number of years after my own father’s death, every time a doctor called at the house to see our mother when she was not very well, we assumed she was in danger of dying. My association came from seeing my father being taken away in an ambulance never to return. The other unspoken problem of the time was mental health, which was considered an ‘out of bounds’ subject. The general diagnosis was ‘he or she was not all there’ and in our local villages we had a number of people who suffered from some form of mental illness. These people were not considered to be in any way a danger to themselves, or to their neighbours, but they would occasionally be removed to the local mental institution for interim treatment.

The economic situation in the Republic of Ireland was dire with unemployment and emigration the eternal scourge of the nation. I saw most of my football friends and neighbours leave home and I saw my football team in Shrule being denuded of its sporting talent. What work was available was badly paid and I can recall working for local farmers who paid the princely sum of two shillings per day or twelve shillings for the six day week.

Some employers would keep the workers waiting until the Sunday morning after Mass at the local church before paying them. Some farmers did it this way to show their superiority over workers but many farmers paid as much as they could afford as they didn’t make too much money themselves in that period of economic stagnation.

If one never had money, one did not miss it, and if that applies to all the people around you, there are no comparisons to be made, and no sense of jealousy enters the mind. I always looked for ways to make money and at the age of seven, I recognised you could do so by selling empty jam jars. I collected them both from our own house and neighbours and after washing and cleaning them, then sold them to the local travelling shop. The going rate was a penny for the two-pint and a halfpenny for the single-pint jar. That lesson taught me not to waste something which could be turned into cash. However there was a much more effective way of making ready cash which my brother Eamon and I did in the month of May for a number of years. The family were lucky enough to live on the doorstep of the second biggest lake in the British Isles and Ireland, Lough Corrib, which stretched for over 16 miles from Co. Mayo, through Co. Galway and into the Atlantic Ocean in Galway Bay. Each year from the first week in May, the Corrib was visited by hundreds of anglers from all over Europe and America. The month of May is called the dapping season, when the trout enjoy their greatest delicacy called the Mayfly. The anglers required boats which were supplied by the local boatmen, and the anglers also needed fresh mayflies each day. I put the emphasis on fresh because the average lifespan of this little creature is approximately 24/36 hours.

This was an opportunity for Eamon and myself to catch the mayflies, and put them into boxes and sell them to the anglers. We knew where the anglers would be catching the boats in the morning, where they would be having lunch at midday and we would be there in the evening when some of them would give us their boxes to fill for the following morning. This way we would not lose out to other competitors who were also selling the mayfly.  A lot of the boatmen trusted us to provide good quality mayflies and occasionally we would hitch a lift on a boat to get to a particular island which we knew from the way the wind was blowing to be a good place for the mayfly. In 1952, Eamon and I sold £50 worth of mayflies – at a penny each, that meant collecting over 12,000 of the species.

That same year we began building a large family bungalow – a laborious exercise took four years to complete. It is worth mentioning that had work been available to me in Ireland, and if it paid a reasonable liveable wage, then I would have stayed at home because that was where my heart was. That said, I must state that once I arrived and settled in England, I never had any regrets about my decision to relocate.  Often, I’m upset when I hear fellow Irishmen and women complain bitterly about having to leave the country of their birth, but more often than not these were the same people who also found reasons to criticise their adopted country. I will also add that in the last decade especially during the so called ‘Celtic Tiger Days,’ when I heard Irish people at home criticising the wave of foreign migrants arriving in Ireland, I also felt ill-at-ease. I think it is safe to say that those criticising the new arrivals probably never tasted the empty feeling of being alone in a foreign country and being shunned and hated.

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