|My father worked mainly on farms round Crossmaglen, although sometimes he would get jobs with road contractors or a local merchant, George McCullough, who had a shop at Creggan, a mile down the road.
He was never much of a scholar and, when a boy, was prone to mitching from school. He was caught several times by the Parish Priest who threatened to turn him into a goat if he didn't mend his ways. In those days priests were powerful local figures. They were regarded with a mixture of veneration and dread and were widely believed to have magical powers, so the threat carried weight. He and his friends believed that the gnarled stick carried by the priest was a magic wand and carefully avoided being touched by it, especially when it was being waved in anger at their truancy.
He left school at 14 and since he didn't have a trade he would have taken work wherever he could find it, mainly I suspect on farms since that was something he knew best. He told me that he attended hiring fairs and that at one in Newry he was hired to a farmer in Sheepbridge, which is between Newry and Banbridge. He seems to have been reasonably treated, in contrast to the experience of many; some were treated no better than slaves, worked all hours in all sorts of weathers, poorly fed, with inadequate shelter and bedding. I dont know how long he stayed with this farmer.
When he was 19 he emigrated to America. He landed at Ellis Island, New York, accompanied by his sister Christina and a cousin, Kathleen McCoy, on 1 November 1923. [Click here for information about family emigration.] He hinted to me at one time that his departure was in some way connected with the civil war that followed the Irish Treaty. There may have been more to it but the story was that he was at a dance just over the border when the IRA ambushed a patrol of Free State soldiers close by. After the firefight the Free Staters raided the dance hall and arrested everybody. My father spent a week in Dundalk jail before he was released. According to him his mother took food to the jail every day.
In 2004 the Creggan History Society's journal "CREGGAN" in an article "Incidents, civil war period, Creggan Parish" printed an extract from the Dundalk Democrat of 1 April 1923 which recounted exactly the circumstances described by my father. Click here for article
Maybe he would have emigrated anyway, and he did have three sisters and a brother, Patrick, who had preceeded him in 1920, but since I know that he had also been involved in smuggling cattle, it is possible that emigration was a good way to keep him out of trouble.
I know very little about his time in America. He got a job as a guard on the El, the elevated railway, and I have a faded photograph of him in his uniform. For some years he lived with his sister Alice and her daughter Anna, who remembers him insisting on her doing her homework. In May 1925 Patrick, who was a jockey at the New York Race Track, disappeared and Eddie and his sisters searched everywhere for him. Eventually a NY Police Captain who knew the family alerted them to a young man in a coma in Bethesda Hospital, who had been found severely injured after a mugging and who had no identification. It was Patrick, and he never recovered consciousness. Eddie took care of the funeral arrangements - his name is on the grave deeds and the Funeral Director's account.
According to his sisters, the death of his elder brother affected him badly. There was only a year between them and they must have been great pals as boys and young men. Although he had not touched alcohol until then, he seems to have turned to it for consolation. He left his sister's house and moved into a place in West 91st Street. His drinking increased and his sisters became concerned that he was "getting in with the wrong crowd". They arranged for him to return to Ireland and he arrived back in September 1932, accompanied by his sister Christina. There is a family photograph taken in that month, showing both him and Christina. Eddie is holding the dog, Christina on the extreme right.
He was a man of simple tastes. He liked a flutter on the horses and his bottle of Guinness and in the early 1950s I remember him playing pitch and toss at Creggan crossroads. Some of his friends would come to the house for a cup of tea and a craic - Patsy Pete and Frank "The Fep" Lavelle (so called on account of his habit of saying "fep this" and "fepping that"). My father was a little too fond of the Guinness and spent more in "Flints" (McArdle's pub just over the border in Rassen) than was good for a growing family, making it difficult sometimes for my mother to make ends meet. We, simple souls, would eagerly await his homecoming every Friday with cream biscuits bought for us out of his wages.
Although mostly even tempered, my father could get annoyed, especially if he thought he was being mocked or made fun of, although he was never aggressive. His fondness for the Guinness was well known and on one occasion, witnessed by May, who was put out by it, old James Burns, who was crippled with arthritis, said to him
'You were in Flints last night Eddie.'
He would take me fishing occasionally, mainly to the nearby Lurgan lake and sometimes to the adjacent Creggan river when it was in spate following heavy rain. The fishing pole was made from sally rods spliced together, with a worm on a hook attached to strong cat gut which was tied to sturdy brown fishing line, and weighted with a small metal nut. The method of fishing the river was to toss the line upstream and let it trot down on the current. A bite was answered by a sharp tug to set the hook firmly followed by a mighty heave which brought the gleaming trout out of the water in a soaring arc over the shoulder to land flopping on the grass behind. I still recall the exhilaration of my first catch. The trout seemed as long as my arm, silver and brown and spotted and beautiful. Although the thrill was tinged with sadness that such a lovely creature had to die, there was no question of returning it to the water; it was food.
He was a hard worker, well respected by his employers for his effort and diligence. Before I started in the civil service I worked on a number of local farms and the invariable comment was "... if you're half as good as your da you'll be a decent worker."
In the mid-1960s when my mother was in Belvoir Hospital having treatment for an inner ear condition, my father stayed with us in Belfast. I only took the odd drink in those days and since he was fond of his Guinness it must have been something of a trial for him only to get to the pub about once a week. This was before we had a car and he and I would take buses to and from the Hospital. On one occasion, a cold and miserable evening as I recall, I had a nagging toothache. He said that whiskey was an effective painkiller so we went into The Buttery in Chichester St. where he called a half 'un for me and a glass for himself. I had never liked the taste of whiskey (this is no longer the case!) so I swirled it round the sore tooth for a while. I then said to him "Should I spit this out now?". "Don't be daft" he said, "Swallow it - it only works from the stomach." He was right, but more than one was needed.
In his fifties he developed high blood pressure, effectively ending his working life. He and my mother moved to Preston, in England, in the Autumn of 1971. Shortly before he left I went with him to see his brother Gerry who was at the time terminally ill although cheerful enough propped up in bed. I listened in silence as they reminisced about their boyhood (as though they sensed they would not meet again) and laughed with them at their stories. So absorbed were they in the past that at one point when talking about a neighbour, old when they were boys, Gerry asked "Is he still alive?" To which my father replied "Sure he's been dead a lifetime."
Dedication: "The Old Man's Grave" by Lucy Maud Moontgomery
See Also: Eddie's Parents and siblings.
Eddie in the early 1930s
Eddie and Brigid at home in Creggan in the mid-1950s
Eddie with workmates- Northern Ireland Electricity Board - 1955
Pat and Sadie's wedding October 1961
With Eileen at her wedding in August 1966
Eddie with Kathleen at Dunluce Castle, North Antrim, in 1969