Monday, December 18, 2006

We were travellers too.

My elderly mother comes from the small Mayo town of Crossmolina. She recently told me a story, originally related to her by her sister, about a school-friend who worked as a nurse in post-war Newcastle, England. Sometime in the 1940’s the nurse was dating a young English doctor who asked her to marry him, but she turned him down. She confided to my aunt that she couldn’t marry him because she couldn’t bring him home to meet her parents. They had no toilet in the house and, although she loved the young doctor, she was too embarrassed to let him see her home place.

The nurse was from a reasonably well-off farming family, at least by Mayo standards. All the children had received a secondary education, even though it was neither compulsory or free. Only the eldest would inherit the farm, but all the rest were educated to enable them to pursue other trades and careers.

This story caused me to reflect on the stories of prejudice in post-war UK, with “No Irish” signs in the windows of boarding houses in the 1940’s & 50’s.

This nurse’s background was significantly more comfortable and enlightened than many poor small-holdings in the west of Ireland, where twenty acres of rushy land , part bog, part rock, didn’t provide much of a living for any family. Most farmhouses had no electricity until the rural electrification scheme, no running water and certainly nothing like an indoor toilet, never mind a bathroom. You’d have to wonder what exactly were the personal hygiene standards of the occupants of such households.

Many children in such households received no secondary education or training for some trade, but only the eldest would inherit the farm. In such poor surroundings, it would not be surprising if social skills were very limited indeed.

Once the 2nd, 3rd, 4th etc sons reached maturity, they were no longer welcome to support at home and were expected to find employment elsewhere. How many thousand of these ill-prepared young men took the mail boat to England every year?

So, to the landladies of England, these coarse, red-haired young men, with poor personal hygiene, rough clothing, thick accents and little or no social skills were the equivalent of our travellers now. Would we want to let them into our own homes?

Some of these emigrants got on well, some didn’t. Some eventually came back to Ireland, many didn’t. Many of the emigrants were related to people who have prospered in later years in Ireland but who now have no recollection of just how poor and backward were their own forbears, going back only a couple of generations.

Some of these descendants now look down on travellers, just as the English landladies looked down of their grandfathers, granduncles, fathers etc..

We’ve come a long way in the past 50-odd years. We have achieved a national confidence and relative level of sophistication that is our due. But, when we write off the tinkers, we should never be allowed to forget that, for many of us, our relatively recent ancestors were travellers too.

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