Working Class Life in Ennis in the Mid-Twentieth Century: Sean Matgamna Examines His Own "Roots and Branches"

Submitted by Matthew on 17 December, 2009 - 12:51 Author: Sean Matgamna

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Like many revolutionary activists over the ages, Sean Matgamna was an immigrant, someone shaped in his thinking by the shifts and contrasts from living in one culture to living in another.

The differences in the 1940s and 50s between life in Ennis, the small west of Ireland town I grew up in, and in a city like Manchester, were immense.

To travel from Ennis to Manchester was to travel between different worlds. Ennis then was nearer to Thomas Hardy’s mid-19th century England than to the contemporary English cities a few hundred miles away.

The miles of sea and land separating Ennis from Manchester were also a vast span of time. The trains and boats to England were social and economic time-machines.

Most industry in Ennis was artisanal, handicrafts. Apart from incoming newspapers and Radio Eireann, it was pretty isolated. Most of its network of social relations was still pre-capitalist. The small working class there still had some of the characteristics of a pre-proletariat.

In Ennis, we lived in a triangular street with a small patch of waste ground in the middle. The base of the triangle was the back of the shop fronts that faced the great cathedral across the road. The five houses in our row formed one side of the triangle.

The great gray spire of the Pro-Cathedral, visible for miles around the town, loomed close by, symbol of the true state of things: the Church — priests, nuns, Christian Brothers — dominated and shaped everything.

The Pro-Cathedral’s tolling bells, ringing out across the town, and the ceremonies there and at the friary chapel at the other end of the town regulated our lives minutely: mass on Sundays, the men’s confraternity on Monday evenings, the women’s equivalent on Tuesday evenings; saints’ feast days; the great ceremonies of Christmas and Easter and the lesser ones such as Corpus Christi and St Patrick’s day.

Our lives were organised around those events, and around the priests and nuns. They ran the schools as teachers or managers.

This account of things appeared in the journal of Maynooth, the main clerical college, in 1954:

“It has been said: ‘Ireland is one huge monastery’. In spite of exaggeration [this] correctly emphasizes the fact that religion and the supernatural are a vital element in Irish life. At every twist and turn of the day a man is reminded of the affairs of the soul. Thus he meets priests and nuns, he passes by churches and convents; he hears bells ringing for Mass, the Angelus, etc. The whole atmosphere is conducive to spirituality”.

That strike me as pretty accurate. At the same time, though, much of the mass culture in the town was curiously American. The single cinema had a staple of Westerns and Arabian Nights fantasies. We got American comics and film magazines and so on.

The pervasive atmosphere in the town — in the whole of Catholic-nationalist Ireland, I suppose — was one of loss, of living in a time of decline, of a better past having been lost.

My own strength of that feeling was no doubt rooted in family changes in my infancy, but everything worked to create and reinforce the feeling.

We heard of the old glories of Dark Ages Irish Catholics, of heroic wars and endeavours. We ourselves lived in an anti-climactic present. The town was stagnant, with half the population of a century before.

The nostalgic song of Thomas Moore summed it up for me: “Let Erin remember the days of old/ Ere her faithless sons betrayed her/ When Malachai wore the collar of gold/ Which he won from her proud invader.../ Thus memory often in dreams sublime/ Catch a glimpse of the days that are over? Thus sighing look through the waves of time/ To the long-faded glories they cover...”.


In the postage-stamp yard behind our house, you would hear from over the wall the hammering and bell-like clanging of “Blokey” Flannery’s blacksmith’s forge — alternating light and heavy strokes of the blacksmith’s hammer and his striker’s heavy sledge. In the ramshackle old wooden shed, iron was made white-hot and shaped and hammered into wonderfully intricate gates and many other craft objects by the versatile smith and his one labourer, my cousin Michael, who was something of an older brother to me.

I would sometimes after school go to “help” Michael, taking a spell at rhythmically pulling down the cross-beam that formed the handle at the end of the chain that inflated and deflated the bellows that made the little fire and the irons put into it white hot.

On Saturdays a lot of smoke would cloud the air, from a big circular turf fire built all around narrow tyres of steel. They were made red hot so that they could be put around the wooden wheels of horse cars, then shrink back to a very tight fit as they were suddenly cooled in a trough of water.

An incidental reward of helping in the forge was that big old pennies would often come out of old wheels, hammered in by countrymen to tighten tyres that worked loose on country roads.

On Saturday mornings, we would wake up too to the indignant screaming of bonhams, small young pigs. They had been brought to market in “creels”, boxes erected by slotting raised wooden walls, barred like gates, around the edges of flat horse cars, and were being roughly picked up and handled by owners showing them to buyers. That was another fifty yards on from the cathedral

In the market was a different sort of blacksmith’s shop. Outside his hut the farrier, Jack D’Arcy, would nail red hot iron shoes on the hooves of horses. With the horse behind him, he would hold the raised smoking hoof between his knees as he hammered in the nails. Twenty yards up a little hill was the saddler’s shop, leather horse-furnishings hung on the walls and outside.

A few doors further beyond the farrier’s forge was the cooper’s shop, the barrel-maker with his curved staves.

The “tinkers” and the “aristocrats”

In the early 20s, the government army of the newly independent Irish Free State had put three captured Republican civil war prisoners up against a wall of the military barracks and shot them dead. Now, the abandoned military barracks, fifty yards from the Cathedral on the other side, housed the town’s one factory. It made braid, employing 200 or more people, mostly women.

A lot of the traffic was still horse-drawn — working cars such as the creels, and traps to transport people. These were chariots with seats, curiously like a raised wooden cup on wheels, and built of lighter wood. Many pubs still had yards and stables where incoming customers’ horses could be cared for.

The triangle of which our houses formed one side had been used for public hangings in earlier times, and now often served as car-park for country people come in to mass. On Sunday morning it would fill up with traps and horses and old motor cars. Archaic old farm machines, great heavy metal things, would be left there for the blacksmith to repair.

Sometimes travellers, “tinkers”, would camp there, people in horse-drawn wagons and some of them with flat tinkers’ boxes of tools, like suitcases, slung over their shoulders. Narrow-minded neighbours of ours — an elderly unmarried woman, and her two unmarried brothers — would sometimes set the garda on them.

I remember standing on a table to look out of the window at big women in their plaid shawls — so my memory has it — fighting guards who had drawn their batons on them.

If the Irish are “the black people of Europe”, and in history surely we are, the “tinkers” (travellers is their preferred term) are the black people of Ireland. They are Ireland’s oppressed “racial” minority, lower by far than even the labourers of such a caste-ridden small town as Ennis.

Homeless “tinkers” were persecuted, driven from place to place, harassed and forever moved on, routinely batoned and beaten by the police, and sometimes by ash-plant-wielding vigilantes. They were jailed for two weeks or a month at a time for begging, for trespassing, for fighting, for being drunk — for being.

My parents were sympathetic. They had a strong fellow feeling with the “tinkers”, I suppose. Both of them easily empathised with people they felt were hard done by. I remember only that I didn’t like the garda.

On Saturdays and other livestock fair days, the normally quiet town would be thronged with people and traffic. In my memory the well-fed countrymen are slow-moving, heavy, black-coat-clad men with pipes in their mouths, hawking and spitting on the ground (something which also distinguished them from the townspeople, who didn’t spit repeatedly as the country folk did).

These were independent Ireland’s landed class come to town. To the town proletariat, they were the aristocrats, as the huckster shopkeepers were our big bourgeoisie. No love was lost between any of them and the town proles.

My father, who had dealings with some of the landed country people, would say of them: “Ah, they wouldn’t give you the haet of their shit”.

I remember traveller-tinker women street singers standing in the middle of narrow O’Connell Street on fair days, singing for pennies and selling “ballads”, single printed sheets with the words of a song on them.

I like to imagine that one of them might have been the great Margaret Barry, who then lived then in Cork and cycled around to fairs. I remember a visitor to my town from the Western seaboard area, where my mother came from, who paid for his lodging by sitting at the fire all evening and playing his fiddle for us.

In a cul-de-sac at the end of our row of five houses, less than a minute’s walk up the lane from the Cathedral, was a slaughterhouse. Each shop-owning butcher in town had his own. There, the kids of Barrack Street, having helped “turn” the animals into the cul-de-sac to meet their fate, could watch our big good-natured neighbour, Sean Brown, slaughter sheep and cows a couple of times a week.

Sometimes he would put a pistol to their heads and shoot a retractable steel bolt into the animal’s brain. Sometimes he would smash the sheep on the skull with a sledge-hammer — though it was illegal, that was cheap, because it saved bolt-gun bullets — then haul the creature, shuddering in shock, up on a pulley by its hind legs, and stick a knife in its neck to let the red blood come showering out, some of it into a bucket and the rest sloshing on the reeking, slippery floor.

I remember too — again, I must have been very small — watching through the door, frightened, as they slaughtered a bull with a spike-ended pole-axe.

I have no memory of ever finding it all as horrible as it was: it was what happened and what I’d known about and seen ever since I could remember. Reaction didn’t come until I was 16 and full of adolescent empathy and sympathy. Then I stopped eating meat or fish for some years in horror at the slaughter. (The SLL disapproved strongly of such “individualism”, and its pressure, forming an “unprincipled bloc” with my mother’s, persuaded me to give it up).

There have been a lot of academic studies made of Clare, including David Fitzpatrick’s very valuable account of what happened there in the revolutionary years.

Much of Clare was owner-occupied farms, employing relatives for labourers, and enterprises such as owner-occupied shops, employing relatives and “shop-boys”. Some of those would eventually go on to open their own shops.

The working class was a minority in the towns, and more so in the countryside. James Connolly in left-nationalist mode attempted to brand capitalism as alien to Ireland — “the English system”. Yes, but the most important “English system” in that Ireland was peasant-owned land.

In a profound “revolution from above”, British government — most importantly Tory-Unionist governments, though the Liberals had pioneered a variant of the approach — had financed the buying out of the Irish or Anglo-Irish landlords by their tenants, who became owner-occupiers.

For the most part the government gave the tenants the land on mortgages that were usually less than the rent they had been paying. The great landed estates were transmuted into their petty peasant spawn.

This was the main Irish bourgeois revolution, made from above in the half-century before a Dublin government was set up. The political revolution of 1916-22 had nothing like the social effect of the Tory-organised economic revolution that preceded it.

The town proletariat

The proletarian minority in the towns divided into two great segments. There were those with regular jobs and regular incomes — railwaymen, people employed in institutions like hospitals, permanent labourers in big merchant shops like Dan McInerny’s, which sold in bulk to country-people. These were the aristocracy of labour — not well-paid, but paid regularly.

My mother worked in the County Home. She got a ridiculously small wage for back-breaking work; but it was a regular wage. That stopped when I, her first child, was born on her 38th birthday.

The other segment, my father’s, were workers without regular employment, casual labourers, many of them illiterate, who eked out a living as best they could and relied on large extended families to keep them from starving in bad times.

My father and his brothers hire out as drovers at the quite frequent cattle and horse fairs, driving cattle for buyers. They would walk or, later, cycle up to 30 and more miles — to Gort, for example, from Ennis — in the hope of a day or two days’ work.

In some respects they were not full proletarians. In season they would go up the crags (woods) around the town and cut scallops to sell — supple hazel saplings, rods to form the frames and staples for the bundles of sedge that served as thatch on houses. Scallop-cutting was on its last legs by then, as thatched roofs were replaced by slate and corrugated iron.

In my early childhood, my father, Tommy, would cycle up the country each day and cut his scallops, using a fierce-looking scallop knife which the blacksmith had made for him (without charge, I expect) out of a bit of a scythe and a piece of a goat’s horn for a handle.

He would hide what he cut. Then on a Friday he would take out his pony and cart — the pony was “boarded” with a farmer called Mr Hogan, grazing in return for having the horse work most of the time for the farmer — and come back with a big load of large barths, bundles, tied with “gads”, loose “ropes” made out of hazel rods which had been twisted out of the consistency of timber but still retained great strength and could have loose knots tied in them.

He would haul the very heavy big bundles of scallops to the back yard, and then take the horse back to the farmer, cycling and leading it for the three or four miles, and then come back and “dress” his scallops, working as late as necessary.

Clearing the furniture to one side of the living-room/kitchen, he would cut the gad and break open the big barths. Sitting on the ground on an old coat, with the big opened bundle thrown against the wall under the window on his right side, he would twist a scallop into a gad and lay it between his legs. Then, one by one, he would take scallops from the big pile, slice off leaves and shoots, and put them on the ground between his legs, dividing his gleanings into smaller barths for sale on Saturday at the scallop market.

The “scallop-market” was held in the upper market on Saturdays. Bundles of “scallops” were propped against the high, back-leaning, yellow-ochred wall of the stableyard of Jim Daffy’s pub.

Sometimes I would be with my father trying to sell scallops. Standing there, he taught me to do mental arithmetic. Because Tommy never learned to write figures down or how to do on paper the complicated sums he did in his head, he was very good at it.

On the Saturday, the countrymen would view the scallops, bend to the oblique-cut white ends of the hazel rods standing on the ground, pull a handful forward and up to see that no too-thick rods were hidden in the middle, then let the springy scallops slap back into the bundle. After that they would start the bargaining. My father loved bargaining.

He would also cut “blocks”, wood for firing, and sell them for six pence a dozen. On the days he brought a load down from the crags, he would hand-saw the timber until late at night — midnight, perhaps — on a home-made wooden horse.

Branches to be sawed into usable, and saleable, lengths would be held in the upper V of the two Xs of the “horse”. I’d “help” by taking one end of the bow saw and pulling and pushing it as he pushed and pulled it back and forth, adding to the pile of sawdust on the ground.

I was very small, and I must have hindered more than I helped him in the irksome and hard work. But Tommy, who was not invariably a patient or long-suffering man. was always encouraging and full of praise for my efforts.

Some of my best childhood memories are from that time, like being taken on the cross-bar of his bicycle to the crag, up round old country roads in winter, the potholes filled with hard white ice. It was all over soon. Before I was nine, and my sister Mary seven, he was gone to work in England, coming back only for two weeks’ holiday a year.

Sometimes people would be prosecuted for stealing timber or scallops. At the British Newspaper Library in Colindale, seeking information about the Ennis labour movement, which in the 1930s went through a phase of great militancy, I found a report of my grandfather, Mike Mahony, in court on that charge during World War One.

A record of solidarity

Mike was not meek, not one quietly to bow to what he saw as intolerable treatment. He made a loud protest in court at being summonsed for trying to eke out a living.

According to the paper, he shouted in a loud voice: “In the name of heaven, what are we to do?” He had three sons in the war, he said, up to their knees in blood in the Dardanelles, he said, “fighting to protect the interests” of the landowner who had prosecuted him, and other such landowners; and here he was being prosecuted for trying to eke out a bare, miserable living.

They fined him, anyway. The proles weren’t expected to talk back. My grandfather was dead five years before I was born, and there are no photographs, so I can only imagine that he looked like my father and my uncles.

I imagine I hear what Mike said in that court in my father’s voice and manner. Mike’s protest against the world he had to live in and his place in it was, I think, in keeping with the spirit of the town working class. They were proud, often angry and quarrelsome, people, who had to submit to endless humiliation.

They lived in conditions in which furious competition for what jobbing work there was might have set them at each others’ throats. Conditions where, in James Connolly’s words describing the plight of Dublin workers before the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union organised and roused them up, there were “no other weapons of defence than the arts of the liar, the lickspittle, and the toady”. Yet somehow they created a tremendous class solidarity and relied on that to defend themselves.

The labourers organised a union in 1911, a one-town union of perhaps 500 members, without full-time officials, that expressed and organised and cultivated that solidarity. (I think the one-town union merged with the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union in the mid-1940s).

In the early 30s — the files of the newspapers record it — the union would organise pickets of 300 men and more, marching behind their band, to the road work or building site or quarry where there was a dispute, or to enforce the union rule that all workers so employed should be in the union, and that all such work in town should go to union members.

For instance, a half dozen or so workers engaged in digging foundations for houses at Ard na Greine, then at the edge of the town, struck work, and the employer shut down the whole job. A few weeks later, he started again, and a group of men were sent from the Labour Exchange.

The union insisted that the jobs belonged to the original group of workers. The new group, members of the union, accepted that. So did another gang sent by the Labour Exchange to replace them.

The issue was, essentially, whether the union or the Labour Exchange controlled the jobs. It led to a two-day town “general strike” which ended with the County Council accepting the demand of the union. A couple of months later the government overruled the County Council — that is, came to its rescue.

The question here, of course, is how did such solidarity of the underclass come into existence? I don’t know, but it was a powerful force.

Among the influences that created it must have been the example of the Land League, the peasant “trade union” that from 1879 welded the tenants together to fight the landlords. Its weapon was, centrally, peasant solidarity and its warlike expression, the boycott, wielded both against landlords and against tenants who, for instance, took possession of land from which the earlier tenant had been evicted.

The “hovels”

There was also, I suppose, generalisation from the solidarity of the large extended family clans of the workers in the proletarian parts of the town — the long streets of single-story 3-room thatched and corrugated iron roof houses stretching to the west of the town, Turnpike, Drumbiggle, Old Mill Street and its extension, Cloughleigh, and to the north, the Boreen, the small streets around the quays, and the people in the two old military barracks on the edge of the town.

The houses in those areas were again and again defined as “hovels” in annual reports by conscientious County Clare medical officers of health.

These houses had no running water, no sanitation, no cooking place but the open fire, only one main room and two tiny bedrooms. The houses in Cloughleigh and on the quays were, most winters, flooded by the rising waters of the river Fergus.

There were competing hurling teams in the different parts of the town — Turnpike, Market, Old Mill Street. There were street hunting associations whose members hunted rabbits and hares, following packs of beagles on foot.

The emigrants

Emigration more or less stopped in the slump-struck 1930s, when De Valera brought in a weak Irish version of what in the USA was the New Deal. When the Second World War opened up jobs in Britain — and a voracious demand for recruits to the British army — the town labourers began a stampede of migration, followed after a while by the country labourers. The tremendous solidarity scattered with the union members, but most of them, I think, would join the labour movement in England (my father, the GMB).

They took lowly places in Britain — but lowly places in a powerful working class and working-class movement, which would impose the welfare state on British capitalist society. My parents’ two children were labour movement activists — my sister Mary not for long. So is one of their two grandchildren, my son, Thomas Ruah Carlyle.

In many ways, it was a pre-literate society. My father’s story was perhaps typical. Tommy’s was a very big family, where the siblings and cousins learned to rely on each other. They cut and sold scallops and firewood; they hired out as drovers at fairs; they worked at building when they could. Sometimes, so the story went, my grandmother would go up the country, begging food from farms and, no doubt, sometimes stealing crops from the fields. My father, in his 20s, worked on building the hydro-electric dam, the so-named Shannon Scheme.

Such people would sometimes own asses or ponies and carts, as my father did. They had to be enterprising to stay alive. They would when they could travel for jobs, as far as England and Scotland, work six or nine months, then come home for a bit.

It was a 20th century version of the almost-landless Irish peasants of the 19th century who would flock to England and Scotland in the hungry summer months before the crop in their small potato gardens was ready to eat.

My father was enterprising and multi-skilled, if I can put it like that. He went to England to work before I was a year old — a 35-year old man who, like many of his people, could not read or write, moving into a very different world.

Hundreds of thousands went from a world in which at least they knew their way around, socially and geographically, to war-torn England (and many thousands of them into the British army), many of them unable to write their name. It took a courage I’m never sure I am capable of properly imagining. If that sounds pious, well, there is, I think, a lot for their descendants to be pious about.

My father would talk about the difficulties and humiliations of getting a letter home written for him. He was back and forth for a decade, sending money every week. Then he settled in Manchester, where there was already a big family of his brother’s children, and came back to Ennis only on holiday. Four years later the rest of us joined him.

That was the pattern for many families. Of the six families in the five Barrack Street houses, one consisted of 3 unmarried siblings. Of the remaining five, three whole families went piecemeal, like ours, and individuals from the remaining two.

A famous study of the town in the late 1930s by the American sociologists Conrad Arensberg and Solon Kimball found that the proletarians were the longest-established group in town. The upper layer — shopkeepers, etc. — were more socially mobile. After one or two generations, their children would graduate into the professions (a considerable proportion becoming priests or nuns).

My father’s family were long-time town proletarians, his father coming from Nenagh Town in Tipperary. My mother came of land-rooted people in Miltown on the West Coast. Her father was a farm labourer. She had been a spirited and very strong-minded young woman. Her mother died when she was about ten. When, not long after that, her father married again, she left home, putting stones through her stepmother’s windows as she left, and jobbed around the countryside, eventually arriving in Ennis as a servant.

She became a paid helper at the workhouse, one of the institutions renamed by the Free State as County Homes, which were simultaneously hospitals, pauper asylums, orphanages.

She worked in the laundry and as what would now be called a nurse’s aide. She had learned to read and write through the good will of an old lady, Mrs Lynch, on a farm where she worked for a while. The old lady died, and my mother moved on.

Because my father was enterprising, we were comparatively well off, never short of the basics. When times were hard, it was not the children who would suffer. We lived in not one of the “hovels”, but a two-storey house, in a street where skilled workers lived — tailors, in three of the five houses. The tenancy of the house had been passed on to my father by his aunt’s family, who were stonemasons, when they moved to Limerick.

Even so, we had no running water and no lavatory — and only a fire to cook on. At the worst end of our class, children would not have shoes, even in the winter. I saw my cousin Paddy Cleary get his bare toes stamped on in the playground.

The “intellectuals”

When I read through some of the files of the Ennis papers, the Clare Champion and the Saturday Record, at the British Library at Colindale, the thing that stuck me most about my parents’ and my own childhood world was that the comparatively isolated small town — the county town, which in its variety of functions and classes was in fact a small city — was a complete little world, a microcosm or perfect miniature of the relationships in class society in varying historical forms.

Every year in the 20s and 30s there would be a big demonstration organised by the labourers’ union to petition the County Council to give them a few weeks’ work so that their families “could have a Christmas dinner”. That formula about “a Christmas dinner” was always used. In 1928 some of them carried placards with the slogan: “Remember 1916? [the Easter Rising]. We’ll make you remember 1928!”

They, or some of them, would get one or two weeks on relief work. That was usually work breaking stones into chips that could be used in road surfacing. In winter weather, they would sit at the side of some road and with sledges and hammers break stones into small chips for road making. A bigger stone would serve as anvil. My father had a saying for work that was seriously obnoxious to him — “I’d sooner go breaking stones”.

There were a number of colleges in the town, including one where priests were trained and ordained. There were lots of teachers and other educated people. The proletarians were often half-starved, chronically short of work. The educated lived comfortably with that — a gruesome peacetime example of the truth in the saying: “It’s easy to sleep on another man’s wound”.

The educated people lived on top of that small society, knowing about it, reading newspaper descriptions of the hovels from the reports of the county health inspectors almost every year. They saw their impoverished fellow townspeople, many of whom they would know on some level as individuals.

They saw children without enough food, many of them without shoes or proper winter clothing. For instance, 500 children, in a total town population then calculated at five thousand, attended the Christmas party given by the St Vincent de Paul charity at Christmas 1953.

The people whose education supposedly gave them a broader and deeper awareness and outlook took it for granted that things were like that — as the upper layers in, say, India do today, and as such people — with some honourable exceptions — have done everywhere throughout history. So did the farmers. That was the real “treason of the intellectuals”, the foul treason to the mass of the people, that with individual exceptions you will find in every age and every society.

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