Oral History Interview - Irene Supka

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Oral History Interview - Irene Supka

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Audio recording of an oral history recording with Irene Supka, who was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland c.1950 and moved to Hackney c.1973.



IS. In a street called Wayne Tavern street, in Belfast just off between York street, and North Queen Street which are two main streets, I was born in a small, over a small chip shop.

Q. What was the house like?

IS. Well, it wasn’t, it was just a couple of rooms over this little shop, because in this particular area the accommodations was very very small and it just happened, my mother was there when I was born, but we had other premises as well but that’s where I was born in Wayne Tavern Street which ceased to exist before I left home.

Q. Why?

IS. About 23…well, the houses apparently it must have been they were very very old and
I think they were some of the first ones to get pulled down in the area where I lived. You know after the war had been, you know it took a lot of shaking ‘cos we had a lot of bombs near where they were, and they were taken down and they built these like town houses you call them now isn’t it? These new places so that disappeared even when I was young; I remember that being pulled down but our shop was on the corner and the went up in the street in Hanbury street I remember quite well.

Q. Right, when you were growing up did you have your own room?

IS. Yes, I always had my own room, I was very fortunate because you hear lots of stories about people you know didn’t have this and didn’t have that. With my mother being in business she used to buy everything on the black market. So we lacked for nothing when I was a child and I always had my own bedroom, ‘cos I only had one brother and my mother was very much a prude, you know, you had to be in your own room, so I was very fortunate that way.

Q. What was that like?

IS. What, growing up? Or my room?

Q. Your room, sorry.

IS. Oh, very basic you know there was no, it was just like the wardrobe, the bed and a carpet by the bed because you had, they call it in late lino now; it was linoleum was old oil cloth it was like, actually, it was like a very thick tar paper; you could tear up when you was in a bad mood you used to pick the corners off [laughter].

Q. Was it red?

IS. Well basically red, with like a zig-zag all round outside the edges then you had the narrow stuff on the stairs the same.

Q. Freezing cold to walk on?

IS. Yes, very cold to walk on and the walls were usually distempered because it was soon after the war and you couldn’t buy, today they’d call it emulsion but when I was a young kid growing up it was distemper, and it was basically white, yellow and pink those were the three colours they didn’t go in for all these fancy colours you get today.

Q. Did you have a garden?

IS. Well, we always had a country house, but when we lived in the town no, we never had a garden in the town but we had a back yard and when we had like, when we didn’t live over the shop, we had a back yard in the town houses but we nearly always had a country house as well.

Q. Which was in?

IS. Well, we had one, Lurging, then we moved to Balercary, then we lived in Carrick Fergus and where else was it? We had in the North, I think we had four country houses at different times we had Lurgin, Carrick Fergus, and Highgallent, that was another part of Lurgin, Highgallen ‘cos we move there because it was near the big church; although there was only one line of houses that was a very, very rural area but they had this huge church so we had to move near there because my mother was very staunch catholic so it was further to travel from church. Then we lived in the first house so we moved to a house nearer there so we had four country houses, two of them were in the one district. Then of course we lived in the South, off and on, as well. Well, like she was from the South.

Q. What did they do for a living?

IS. She owned Chip shops, I say she, because my mother was the worker and the one
with the money. My father tended to be too fond of the bookies and the beer.

So she was the business person and she was the one that controlled the money, and she was the one who always moved house. She could never really settle very long anywhere because we had four different houses within the area; although we had the living accommodation above the main shop where we mainly, we always ended up back there but we also had town houses round Belfast as well but I can only really remember one, because I can remember we were there for about three years, which was a long time and that was a place called Newington Avenue. It was off the top of the Duncan gardens going up towards Glengorn Lane I can remember that one quite well cos we were there three, four years was a long time and my young life I mean we had so many houses it was unbelievable but….

Q. Did you help out in the Fish shop?

IS. Oh dear, you had to I can never remember being idle because they even made me a box, so I could reach the sink to wash the chips and the plates, and wash the dishes in the Chip shop because you see you didn’t have baby minders’ then the kids went with you and our business was mainly from five o’clock cos they were in the poorer areas.

Our business was like they coming out of the mills and everybody bought fish and chips for their supper because that was cheaper than trying to buy meat and cook and a lot of people you know didn’t have much money where you could get six for the chips and around 2 or 3 kids with bread and butter; so consequently when we had these town houses I always had to be with her at the business, ‘cos my brother was twelve years older than me so he worked in the shop as well and he usually took over one shop, and I nearly always was with him that was the one in Little Patrick street, but they made me a box when I was about four so I could reach the sink to wash the dishes, and then as we got older in the country houses I had learned to make beds and we had, she always had visitors and I had to learn to empty other peoples’ commodes and things like that. We weren’t allowed to call them chambers, my mother always referred to it as the commode and I had to learn to do that, because when you invited people down cos she had a lot of influential friends like them; things they were done on the quiet when the visitors were out for a walk round the countryside.

So I’ve always had to work always, although she had money we always, we always had to earn our keep, my brother and myself, as I say he was that much older than me and he was mummy’s boy so I used to cop most of the flack at the end of the day. He got away with murder but we were very close, my brother and I very close.

Q. What about Education, did you go....?

IS. My Education was very poor because as I’ve told you I was Dyslexic and I was sent to different convents because they said that I was just I was a moody child. I was hard to handle child because nobody really understood the fact that I just couldn’t.

I was all right up until came to about seven because I was very clever, I had a good memory, I could remember things and I got away with it and I was very very good at arithmetic as a young child because they used to talk the arithmetic to you; it was all verbal, but when it came and I was seven and eight you used to get a book and you had to, you know, read the sums off. I was alright when it was visual and I could see you know like multiply and things like that but once it come to reading it, then they begin to notice that I was getting further and further behind.

And by the time I was twelve the nuns just give up, they said I was a hopeless case, my education was very poor ‘cos they said I was just a rebel just wouldn’t learn said I was stupid; actually they said I was stupid. From, I was twelve ‘til I was fourteen I got the living daylights knocked out of me [laughter]. In the end they just gave up, just left me I used to just sit there.

Q. Was there no particular teacher that could take your case?

IS. No no, no no they were very strict was basically I was taught by nuns and they just didn’t suffer fools or naughtiness, you know. And even once they, I don’t know what it was I think they read. I read a passage in a book or something, they took the passage, they took the book away from me ‘cos by then I was beginning to read from sight. I was beginning to recognise words, and I could read which I still do today. I read from memory and from sight, you ask me to spell a word and my mind is totally blank, it’s unbelievable, it’s very hard to make people understand.

And this particular nun, she was she was vicious, and she took the book away and she asked me to spell Apple. It was something about, you know, William Tell and because I couldn’t spell it she burnt my fingers over the candle and I had those three fingers particularly. I had blisters this one just scorched, and she said that was just a little taste of what hell was going to be like and I would spend my life my whole body burning like that.

And she stood me on the chair at the back ‘cos we used to, we didn’t have desks like they have today we used to have long, long desks and we used to have you know step over it, but it would be kids on one side and I was stood on the back and every time she come round she slapped me across the back of the legs with a ruler and I’d come out of school spelling apple and circle because I was made to stand for a whole day just spelling apple, and the next day I was made to stand the whole day spelling circle, and I can still spell them two words [laughter] but it’s just you know, like parrot fashion.

Q. Didn’t that make you angry?

IS. Well, it was no good getting angry ‘cos when I went home the first time that the nuns were really vicious to me. I went home and I said about the nun thumping me and when I say thump I mean they really thumped you, I used to have bruises sometimes and I got a wallop from her and she said “well, you didn’t get it for nothing” you were, so it was no use going home and saying.

I spent a very miserable childhood, you know when it come from school and then of course it used to carry on from school, they used to send notes home saying I was surly, I was naughty, they used to write much I don’t know what it was I couldn’t read the letters, and course it carried on from there then she used to be down on me all the time as well and that’s why I was made to work extra hard; because I was being punished if I couldn’t do the homework, I would do housework so that was how I was brought up.

Q. Between this did...

IS. Very hard, very hard

Q. Between this, did you have any life outside work and school?

IS. Very little, very little...

Q. Games with other kids?

IS. …and by the time I was fourteen, I was alright when I was behind the counter in the shop cos I ended up running one shop on my own at fourteen, and behind the counter I was quite lively and could speak to people but took the counter away and I couldn’t talk to nobody. I was pathetically shy and then when she died, she died when I was thirteen I was running the shop, actually I was behind the counter from what I can ever remember but she died when I was thirteen. So then I was kind away, I had a brother and a half-brother; my half-brother was twenty years older than me, and he didn’t really want me; my brother had just got married so there was a lot went on there, but the gist of it was I ended up going to work in the mills during the day because I thought that was wonderful because I mean I’d always been very well dressed I’d had the best of everything, but indoors I had, I’d suffered a lot of mental cruelty. When I used to think how lucky these children were, all my friends are from school. The few I’d met going and coming I wasn’t allowed to go out and play a lot, as I got older because I was being punished all the time but when I was younger and I used to be out playing in the evening with the kids that, you know, they’d be running about with their shoes hanging off their feet but they were such happy children and the mums used to run up and give their mum a cuddle and that; but I was never allowed to anything like that, though if their was company you was sent out of the room and I used to envy them such a lot.

But then as I say I got older, by the time I was fourteen I didn’t have any close friends at all when she died so I used to go off on my own. I used to go to the theatre on my own; I used to go to the pictures on my own because I had to go out in the afternoon, because I was tied to the shop from 4 o’clock on to 12 o’clock midnight and that was basically how it was until I was about nineteen. I was pathetically shy and I went off a friend talked me into going into the country with her, and that she had her dresses next door to us and away I went, and it was through her because my husband, she is my husband’s first cousin, and at eighteen I went off and they took me to a dance and I thought it was wonderful. And from then on I had a wonderful time till I was twenty-four.

But really my life seems to go in spasms, but it was a very very unhappy childhood, but I lacked plenty of clothes when they said they could make it this, and they could make it this she always managed that we never lacked we always had plenty of food, and we maybe sat down in the morning. My mother was very much a stickler, we had afternoon tea, but you weren’t, you didn’t have a cup of tea. You sat at a table with your bread and butter, plate your fork and your jam spoon and, you know, if you dared put the sugar spoon in your cup or wet it from the sugar bowl you just got rapped on the knuckle. She was very very strict, but it was, that’s a, help, a long story there [laughter].

I’m remembering things now that I’d blanked out, they had all come back.

Q. Yeah they often do, they often do. So when did you think about leaving home?

IS. Well, I’d thought about it for, since I was about twenty-one. I met my husband when I was just turned twenty-one, when I met John, and he lived in Glasgow but he came, he spent all his holidays in Ireland because his mother was from Ireland and his ties were very close and his father, although his father was Polish descent he loved Ireland and loved the Irish so they, any spare time they had they were always over there, and by this time I lived with my brother, who by then had seven children now between I spent, by this time the boys had argued over my mother had died, the money had drifted the shops had gone. We were down to the basic the large shop so the two brothers’ and their wives constantly bickered so it worked out that they worked the shop one week and we worked it the next week and they got a good living. It kept the two families quite well but being as I lived with my brother I had to do what I was told although by this time I was seventeen, eighteen, and I used to have to look after their children.

The week we were off the shop I was allowed out three nights a week, the week we were on the shop I wasn’t allowed out at all ‘cos I was either at home with the kids, or down running the shop so consequently, by the time I was twenty-one I thought, blow this for a party. I was thinking of moving but I was a bit too frightened of moving being Dyslexic, I was frightened to go off on my own in case I came up against problems because when I was twenty-one, you didn’t admit you had a problem because it was almost like saying you’ve got aids today; it was the same reaction, awe, you can’t read, you know it was a terrible stigma when I was young not to be able to read and write, you know, and I was far from illiterate. I was clever in a lot of other ways and I hid it well, but I didn’t leave home ‘til I was twenty-three because then John and I had decided to get married; my sister-in-law wasn’t very happy about that ‘cos she knew she was leaving; I’d have left her to look after her own family and do all of her own housework, and what have you, so I literally had to run away from home at twenty-three.

So we came over here, my husband met me at Crewe and I was one of the fortunate ones, I paid my own way over and I had myself a job in Hazelmere, in Surrey. I was a junior matron in a prep school but I wasn’t tied to the school like the rest of the Irish girls that came over here that particular time because these agencies used to pay your fare and when you went to work in these big houses and what have you, you had to work you had to work there for so long because they took so much back out of your wages, and you weren’t allowed to leave until you’d paid it all and of course the girls were coming over with nothing, but I paid my own way over so I was able to leave the job when it began to get on my nerves.

So we came to live in Hackney, I was twenty-three and I stayed with my sister-in-law for a little while, she wasn’t my sister-in-law then ‘cos we wasn’t married, we were still working out what to do and we eventually set the date and we got married in Saint Dominic’s at Hackney Wick and between, John was working, he worked for ‘Loths’ the painters at the time and I worked in the Metropolitan Police canteen’s for a while and then when I got married I got a job in the BBC in Bond Street. So my husband found me a room in Fletching Road and I still live in Fletching Road, 35 years later.

Q. What were your thoughts about England when you were setting off and coming to?

IS. Well, when we first came, you see we got off at Euston Station and we went into the West End and of course we’d been, I’d been travelling from the night before ‘cos it was a long journey, in those days, you were on the boat all night to the early hours of the morning then you had the train from Hasham or Red Cross, England and we got out at Euston Station about five past twelve. So we took off into the West End because he said his sister would be working, he had been here before so he was alright; we had an idea where we were going and I couldn’t get over the size of the buildings in Oxford Street and the pace of the people bumping into me, and I, do you know, I thought that I’m not going to survive here, I’m going to get trampled on underfoot before I get the first day over. I found it very very fast, god I couldn’t believe how fast it was, and you know the people and all the different accents, because it was in the West End there was lots of foreigners wasn’t there? But I thought that was England in general.

So when we came out here to Hackney I stayed in Bannister House, that was my first home and that, ‘cos we stayed with John’s sister ‘til he found me this room ‘cos as I say we weren’t married then. John got himself a room at the bottom of Glyn Road and it was much much quieter and this was a very very nice area, when I came here thirty five years ago much more, much quieter you know and you didn’t have lots of immigrants, like you have today and it was very nice. Bannister House was a lovely block of flats, beside what used to be the old Hackney Hospital, facing that, it was very nice there. I enjoyed staying with Kathleen but then when I moved to Fletching Road it was even quieter because it was all Jewish people and they were at business all day.

I was alright I was at work but then when I had my eldest son, I was very very isolated except for my landlady because I didn’t know anybody and it was only as he got older, he used to talk to people when he was little tot, that I got to know the neighbours.
Then I used to take him to these play groups, and one o’clock clubs and it was only then I began to get to know people and move round, but I used to walk all round Hackney actually I think I’ve seen more of Hackney than people lived in Hackney. I used to get around a lot, when they were little cos I liked walking, ‘cos we had greyhounds and I always used to walk them, we used to do a lot of walking with the dogs.

Q. Oh right, back in Ireland?

IS. Yeah, ‘cos the country houses we always had kennels, my brother was a breeder.

Q Right, how did your first contact with English people go at the beginning then?

IS. They couldn’t understand a word I said, that was a great difficulty, it was really really hard because I had to think all the time when I was talking, ‘cos I didn’t find out for about a month but my landlady was on holidays the day I moved in, her Aunt was there. She didn’t understand a word I said so I just put it down, you know, an old lady.

Anyway they came back, they’d gone to Devon and Cornwall. She told me about a month later, she said the first night I was talking to her, she said she didn’t understand one word I’d said, and that what I was trying to get through to her I was telling her I was a catholic, and did she mind me living in her house, because I’d come from an area, I knew they weren’t Catholics by a fortnight because nobody went to church on Sunday. And nobody knew where the Catholic Church was, because I went down I said to the old lady ‘Do you know where the chapel is?’ and she said, ‘Chapel?’ ‘cos apparently over here some of the Welsh people talked about chapel so I got used to saying church, she said ‘Do you mean church?’ I said ‘yeah’ ‘cos I showed her the prayer book, like I want to go to church, because my sister-in-law living down in Homerton wasn’t too sure about Upper Clapton but as it happened we had to go to up to a church up Kenninghall Road,

But when I, when she came back in I thought myself oh god, when she comes back off holidays, I understood her but they didn’t understand me, I thought there’ll ask me to move so I was, the first night I was trying to say to her, tell her like do you mind? And it afterwards we laughed about it for years, and years afterwards like, me trying to say tell her I’m not a catholic she said ‘What difference does that make?’ I said ‘Don’t you mind?’

Like when she begin to understand me, but her children used to interpret, they understood me quicker than she did, but I had to drop lots of words, you know like ‘small’ we used to say ‘little’ and when you were naughty you were ‘boll’ they always thought we were saying we were ‘bold’ and things like that ‘cos the kids used to laugh a lot at me and that was the reason, I suppose that’s why I got out of the words quicker, ‘cos the kids used to say to me, ‘No don’t say that, say this.’

Gillian was very good, we’ll still very friendly with them, but I was very lucky I feel, you know my landlady, we were very close friends for a long time, they were very good to me. I was, anybody I made, I always found that I got on very well with people that I made friends with. ‘Cos the next ones that I call really friends was the Jewish couple that I’d worked for, I’d done catering and I worked for him but I got around.

Q. So that’s it, so what about the differences in say, life in Belfast, street life, house life between here and London?

IS. Over here it was wonderful, because nobody cared who you were, what you were, what you done, what you’re religion was what your politics was, they just took you on face value, you know? And you went off to work and people didn’t say to you ‘what school did you go’ to when you applied for a job, you just went down and if there was a job you got it, and that was it and the girls you worked with, I mean when you’d say ‘I’m a catholic,’ they used to say ‘So what?’

Because I mean they had Church of England, Presbyterian, all different kinds of churches, and it didn’t bother them, so after about six months I never even thought about what religion I was. I just dropped it because I realised nobody thought it was wonderful, you know and you’d see Policemen that you could go up to and talk to, without, you know, being frightened of getting a cuff round the ear, ‘cos the Police weren’t above giving you a wallop if you went near them, you know if you asked something and they thought you were stupid, they’d give you a wallop and say ‘Don’t be stupid, away you go.’

But I thought it was lovely over here, I said I’d never go back, I didn’t go back for a long time, Tony and I went home when we were married because my father-in-law insisted that I went and visited my family, ‘cos we got married in October. We went to Glasgow for the first New Year cos we didn’t have no money for a honeymoon so we saved up what we had, and we went up to Glasgow for the New Year which is a big thing up there, and my father-in-law insisted and he paid our fares to go over to Belfast to see my relatives; which I wasn’t really too keen on but we only spent two days there, then I didn’t go back for ten years.

Q. So you were quite happy to escape then?

IS. Oh Yeah definitely, I had no, I was very very homesick the first Christmas, but not homesick for Belfast, homesick for the fact I had, I was bringing up six children, which were like my own, you know, I took them to school, I took them to the dentist I’d done everything. I’d done more than their mother ever done for them, and it was then, it was Christmas and the children that was was so, my landlady bless her heart, used, brought me down, she said ‘Oh, come and help me wrap up their presents’ and thats what got me through.

I can honestly I was homesick once and that was the first Christmas I was here, I found and it was a funny, I didn’t realise what it was, but she did she was very good that way and she had me down doing, wrapping up their presents and she said ‘You do Father Christmas’ so I was allowed to take the presents to their bedroom and that got me through.

Once I got over Christmas; I never looked back and I still don’t, but then I haven’t got anybody at home any more, I mean I still say ‘home’ but home’s here I just say ‘home’ because it’s the done thing with the Irish; if I said I’m going back to Belfast they’d look at me you know, what’s the matter with her but when I say ‘home’ really I mean Fletching Road, back home, they all go home there. They go two to three times a year, most of them do, I’m one of the very few people that doesn’t go back.

I might go home in the spring [laughter] I might go home in the spring to visit a friend, but I keep in touch with them on the phone but it would be just to go and see the places I, where I used to haunt if you know what I mean; although most of them they tell me are gone now; between the troubles and what have you.
Last time I went home was, how long have I been married now? Last time I was home must have been twelve years ago, like I lose track of time. I had to ask people, you know I’d lived there all my life I had to ask people how do you get to such, and a place ‘cos everywhere was so different, there was motor ways where there used to be just little streets and there was blocks of flats where they used to be, you know, rows of houses.

And you know first time I came from Antrim on the bus ‘cos I’d been getting taken around in a car, I was coming, one minute I was in Antrim next minute I was in Green castle and I come down the front of the bus and I said to the driver ‘Have I come on the wrong bus?’ He said ‘Aren’t you going to Belfast?’ I said ‘Yeah, but what am I doing in Green castle?’ and everybody on the bus, started, ‘cos all the country people all listen they all started to laugh, but they said ‘You’re on the motor way’
well I didn’t know because when I used to travel back and forwards we used to go down from that way, and Green castle was you know way down here there was that much between, and whatever way we come out of Antrim we ended up coming along the side of the water in Green castle, and I still haven’t figured out how we got there but I really panicked; I thought Bloody Hell I’m going the wrong way and I got my for everything I’m on the wrong bus because they told me what number to get on.

I thought like in England, when I first come to London it was right confusing, in Belfast you had the, funny enough it was 253, used to take me from the shop at night to where we lived out in Karls Glen, but when you were coming back from Karls Glen back to North Queens Street you had a different number, you maybe had 49, but when I come to London you had the same number going both ways and when I worked in the Metropolitan Police canteens and I lived in Bannister House, I used to have to start work at seven. So I used to be flying into Mare Street about quarter past six and I always run into Graham Road, got on the bus, I had to get off again because it was two way then, I used to have to get off about five stops up, run back down Mare Street because I should have been getting on the bus up the next street; but I used to just see the number and run and jump on the bus because there weren’t, you know, there were like platforms on the back of the bus. You used to just run on them while they were moving and I always got on the bus going the wrong way, I used to get on the bus going that way instead of that way, I had terrible difficulty with the numbers of the buses here to begin with.

It was even worse when I worked up in Great Bond Street, and the first time I got on the tube that, well that was an experience; it really was an experience. I got on, I was on and off the train because I was frightened I was going to pass cos I couldn’t see nothing, ‘cos I’d never been in a tube before and the worse experience I had on the tube was when my eldest son was ten months old. I decided to go up the West End for the day, I’d been on the bus but I thought I’d go on the tube and my landlady’s children weren’t used to the public transport cos they were taken everywhere by car. So Gillian bless her heart said ‘Can we come with you?’

And I was very fond of these two children ‘cos I’d taken to them right away, and they helped to compensate the children I’d left behind and Gillian, I think she was ten and Tony was seven, and my son was nearly a year old. So I said ‘Okay’ so off we go to the West End and we done a bit of shopping and when my children were small, you didn’t have these nice buggies you had these big town sods that fold over, but they still were heavy. So I got up the West End, we shopped around we had lunch in one of the big stores and these kids thought it was wonderful. We came back about half past four and we got on the tube in Oxford Street, and I’d never experienced a rush hour crush, you see on the tube, there was that many people on the tube. We just sat on the tube from half past four to half past seven on the circle line because we couldn’t get off it. I couldn’t get myself, my child in my arms, my buggy, my pram and these two kids and they thought it was wonderful, we had to sit on the tube I think for three hours, there was that many people we just went round and round and round the circle line. They thought that was wonderful but their mother was panicking ‘cos she thought we were a long time [laughter]. Because I mean, you had to get off at Bethnal Green, and get another bus to get home; but the children thought that was wonderful.

But I found that really hard, you know? With three kids because although I’d travelled into the West End before it was always on the 38 bus, which was bad enough, ‘cos the traffic conditions has improved a lot since then, ‘cos it was terrible, ‘cos we used to come down Mare Street which was two way street and we used to go along and up and through the Angel, and that was a nightmare, that was just constant traffic jams and Lee Bridge Road, there was no roundabout running there, there was just traffic lights and it was very very heavy traffic. And we used to get caught because I always used to get off at the synagogue, in those days, to go through end of Fletching Road, and when we used to get, coming between Dalston, and getting into Mare Street, it used to take sometimes half an hour, the traffic was so, it really was bad. I mean the traffic now flows beautifully to what it used to as I used to fill asleep on the bus and end up halfway down Lee Bridge Road [laughter]. I was a devil for doing that.

Q. Did you miss, was there anything you missed at all back, from back home?’

Just the social life, I had a wonderful social life when I left home, I was really having a wonderful time, but then I came to get married so I just left it all, stopped dead; but I did have a wonderful social life but it was mainly out in the suburbs and in the country, ‘cos they do have a wonderful social life even yet, even though all the troubles. We went home at the height of the troubles, as I say that was what Paul was ten, now he’s thirty, that was twenty odd years ago, it was really at its height that was when I was in this cross-fire business, and we went home for a fortnight, and when we came back it took us a fortnight to get over the holidays because we never got to bed, we were out dancing here, and all the big top stars used to come down, you know, to all these hall, hotels and we seen Slim Whitman one week and we seen, who was it we saw one week? Oh, all the big stars used to come over: we used to, we had a wonderful time and all the big bands used to come to the ‘Floreoval’ which was a huge hall up where the zoo is and we used to dancing there from midnight to four in the morning. Took me a fortnight to get over the holiday, even in the middle of the trouble, they still had a great social life because they just refused to lie, to interfere with their lives, ‘cos I thought you know it’s going to be very quiet but it wasn’t in Belfast it was different, but this was out in Antrim, down Antrim we had a wonderful time, but that was the only thing I missed the social life.

Q. So how did you find it? Did it take you a long time to get the social life going over here, and the Irish people over here?

IS. Oh a long time, I only just got in mixing with Irish people when I started going to St Judes, I met up with this girl called Breida and they started talking about the Irish centre and I said ‘Oh god I’d love to go there,’ Kayla, because by then the children were much older because I devoted my life to my two kids, because of the upbringing I had and the life that I had my children I done the total opposite with them. I took them everywhere I done everything with them, I mean I took them to museums I took them to clubs, I helped run a swimming club because they, he liked swimming the big fella so I was out four or five nights a week with the children. My husband helped down the Post Office, so my life was just with my two kids, I went everywhere with them I done everything with them, so consequently all the people I mixed with were English, and it was only when they started going a bit off their own, and I met up with this girl in church saying about going to the Irish centre; I said ‘Oh, I’d love to go’ you know ‘Kayla’ dancing and that was what started it, I went Sunday nights, I liked it and I went from there, so consequently then I started moving back into the Irish community, which was what? Paul was about fifteen so that must have been eighteen years ago, so from then on I have just been with Irish people, I didn’t lose, I’ve still got a lot of English friends but my social life was with the Irish community because we enjoy the same kind of things, you know, and our sense of humour’s different to the English, I mean mine’s warped, I have a warped sense of humour definitely, but my social life is only involved with Irish people.

Q. So what sort of things have you been doing?

IS. Well, I done a lot of dancing, I went and I learned, I took up Polka dancing and I used to go to this, up on the, it’s in ‘Dalawishes,’ on the corner of Saint Downs road. We had a class going in there for quite a long time, I learned to do Irish Polka dancing there, and then I used to go over, what do you call it, Paddington, I used to go over Paddington every Monday night, I joined the ‘Wax Bird Mammas’ and I’d done ‘Mum’ dancing which is an ancient Irish dancing and its a little bit like Morris dancing, but where the Morris dancers have bells on their legs, and hankies, you dance. I did know the story of it but I’ve forgotten it, you danced with wooden swords, and when your dressed, they’re dressed as Bishops, cos when we used to go into St Patrick’s day, March over here, we used to have to wear these Bishops, you know the big tall hats, I don’t know the proper names and white blouse and black trousers, we had to you know. You had to dress as a Bishop because it all came from there, but it was very much like Morris dancing but it was done with wooden swords but it was like Irish square dancing type of thing it was a mixture. I quite enjoyed that for a long time but I preferred the ‘Kayla’ dancing I loved ‘Kayla’ dancing, I loved Polka dancing, but that’s a lot faster and I can’t do that now, having bad feet.

Q. Did you find that flied in any gaps that you were missing, or noticed you were missing?

IS. Well as I say you know I’m one of these people well, I’m going to do something and that’s it, I do it. So when I came over here I was getting married, and I was going to have children, and that was it I just devoted my life to that. I didn’t miss it, but as the children got older my husband done evening work I begin to think there’s more to life ‘cos I went through a period where I done Crocheting and I made carpets, ‘cos I couldn’t bear to be idle. ‘Cos I had been brought up always earning your keep, always earning your living, and it became a way of life, I had to be doing something all the time.

I begin to slow down now ‘cos I’m older, but I used to think to myself there must be more than this. So then I used to run the Brownies & clubs with the kids. I used to take them to Judo, I used to take them to Cubs, then it was the scouts, and then I used to take them to these little Youth clubs, and play centres and what have you. So I was quite busy all the time, because I’ve always worked. I’ve never been out of work, ‘cos when I couldn’t go out to work when the first boy was born; I done homework. Then when he was older, ‘cos I’ve been a Home Help for twenty five years, but I’ve always worked and I used to work all day Sunday. I done Jewish catering because I couldn’t get out, you know? I couldn’t get a part-time, couldn’t get a job that suited the hours because that’s why I took a job as a Home Help, because I used to see my youngest boy into Nursery School, and used to pick him up, so I only worked part-time, and we were always there when the kids went to school. We were there to either take them, or see them then I’d either pick them up at lunch time, and the other one was there to make his lunch, because as I say when my youngest son was seven, they said he was mentally handicapped, and we had to go and see one of these people, and they went into my past, and their past and they said I was spoiling him because of my way you see. I’d done the opposite to them, I’d done everything for them, but that was all, it didn’t make much difference, I still carried on doing the same things, but when he was about fifteen and that, and didn’t want to go here, and didn’t want to go there, then I started to think there’s more to it than this, sitting in night after night, because John worked night work, you know evening shift cos he hated getting up in the morning.

So as I say it started off the first night was a Sunday night ‘Kayla’ in the Irish centre. I was very very tired, ‘cos I hadn’t danced for so long, it must have been twenty years since I’d been on a dance floor, but that opened up and I went all over the place. I danced seven nights a week, I even done exhibition dancing in the ‘Thatch’ we done exhibition for six Sundays, ‘Kayla’ dancing, eight of us went down and done it, ‘cos I had a dance partner, like it was my friends brother, him and I hit it off, we have our little but we understand each other, and he always partnered me so we took up Polka dancing and we danced, but I’m pretty fortunate I can dance with most people, but he got me going on the Irish dancing and that was it.

As I say we went seven nights a week, but it was, Irish dance halls, Irish people, although we were doing modern dancing, it was Irish Country and Western bands and all that, You know not Danny O’Donnel, and his sister Margot, we used to follow all the big bands that came over here.

Although I was out, you know we used to say we’re going Ballroom dancing, I mean Irish Ballroom dancing’s a joke we do our own thing, we just do whatever goes along, there’s no great. I also done Ballroom dancing because I used to come to this one in Mare Street; this, there was a dance studio there, and I have a friend who’s got every medal you can get. So she talked me into coming, and I done a bit of sequence dancing, but it didn’t make Ballroom dancing it was too, too strict and the people weren’t friendly, like the Irish so I gave the Ballroom dancing up, and went back to the
Irish Ballroom dancing [laughter]. I found that because they’re more relaxed and they’re more out for fun, and they’re not as competitive with each other, if you know what I mean, we got on much better.

So we went to the ‘Grecian’ but we didn’t like that a lot, but then we used to go round all the Irish pubs, ‘cos most of them you’re allowed to dance in them. Holloway Road, I don’t think there isn’t a pub we haven’t danced in, even on the Pool table, and then we ventured off, we got as far as, Kilburn and we used to do ‘Kayla’ dancing up there on a Wednesday night, we used to get the number 8 from Victoria Park Road and we’d go all the way on the number 8 to Kilburn, to the
Cracks Road for a ‘Kayla’ and we’d leave there at half past eleven, and we’d get on the last bus and we’d get back to Victoria Park Road about quarter past one, and I used to have to cycle on a push bike, from maybe half past one when I’d pick up my bike, cycled back home and we were doing that seven nights a week, you know going here, there, and everywhere.

Paddington, I mean that was a journey on its own, but my other friends, this was people I’d met in Cracks Road, they said about this, ‘Oh,’ I said ‘I’m free on a Monday night.’ So, I joined them [laughter] I was crazy, I never resent, out every night, but I still worked, and I still, if the children were going out, if they were, quite grown up by then, but I was always there. Their meals was always ready, because even yet, my thirty three year old who has two children of his own, walks in, and the first thing he says even if I’m out in the toilet ‘Where’s Mum?’ because Mum is always there, always at the end of the phone or something, I still haven’t got rid of my two kids; but you know this is it because, because I tried to do for them that I think I missed.

But as I say, I’m still very involved just with Irish people. I didn’t have much.

Q. I mean, did you, obviously you never, the prejudice over here was never as bad as back home?

IS. Non-existent, as far as I was concerned, there was no prejudice over here; except when we first went looking for, my husband first went looking for a flat, that’s why he found this room for me on his own; because when they heard the Irish accent they didn’t want to know you, and there was notices in windows, no blacks, and it used to say no Irish, no blacks, but apart from that, that was the only prejudice and then it didn’t bother me. I felt, that’s little to pay for the rest because I was totally free of religion, I was totally free of everybody talking about everybody else, you know because I don’t know it was like.

I got married in October and I had my son in December, and when I went back to Ireland, I took him home when he was ten months old, just to show him off and they said to me ‘When were you married?’ I said ‘In October.’ ‘Why is his birthday in December?’ I said ‘Yes,’ I got married in October, and I had him the next December, their minds you see they were very narrow minded. They would think ‘oh you’re only married three months,’ ‘No I said I was married a year and three months when I had him,’ you know because I knew how their minds was working but my landlady wouldn’t believe me until people started coming over to visit me; just what the prejudice, like all I told her was true.

‘Cos then she was very good because I had friends come over and she used to let me have her daughter’s bedroom; although I only had the one room, I you know used to cook, and have that hanging up with the cooker the same as that one over there, and she used to let me, if she was on holiday, she used to say ‘Bring them over while I’m away and you can use the, have full use of the bathroom,’ she was very very good to me, and if she was there you know they’d come over for a
few days.

We used to sit chatting, you know the way the Irish do we’d sit up all night talking and she used to be fascinated, and we used to tell her stories how it was like when we worked in the mills, you know what it was like about religion and you’d be working, be working with people all through the week, when I went there were certain mills that are mixed and coming up, once I’d started going, in July, everybody used to start segregating themselves, you wouldn’t talk to someone who wasn’t the same religion as yourself, and on the 12th July you just didn’t talk to nobody, but now later years, it paid them. What they’d do is they closed all the mills down, for two weeks in July, they found it was much easier, it saved a lot of trouble, it saved, cos there used to be a lot of fights, and I mean real punch ups.

We used to have lots of punch ups, you know one would start it and everybody used to get involved ‘cos that’s how we are, and they found them, this was by the time I’d left home they were beginning to the mills were beginning to disappear even then; but they found it was easier to close these places down. It used to be only that week in particular but then they found you know it wasn’t always convenient, so I used to have, they do it now for a fortnight, but they close, still close the factories, most of the factories are closed for a fortnight and they found that that saved a lot of trouble you know because; when there were factories like my friends sister works in a shirt factory, and there’re mixed because it’s on the out skirts and I think they make for Harrods and that, so it was an English based firm, or American based so they couldn’t segregate, they had to take them on their experience and, they found it was easier to close the firm down for two weeks. Two weeks holidays.

Q. So nothing could be worse than it was back there?

IS. Oh no, but once Seamus said about I can remember when the trouble started, and I have to laugh, ‘cos I grew up as I say with policemen walking about with guns with chains you know, chained to their belt, cos when I came over here, You know, I said to June I said ‘Oh your Policemen don’t have guns,’ and she said ‘They haven’t had for donkeys’ years,’ and I said ‘Ours have guns’, and you know they said they don’t! I said ‘Yes they do!’

Well our shop in North Queens street, at the end of it we had the main police station, it was a great, I suppose it would be like Scotland Yard is here, we had this at the end of our street there, and the back of that then was like a Victorian barracks, where the Americans and that were stationed. So I mean we always had police up and down the street and then of course they patrolled and our area was always Republican area; so we always did have the Police were always, you know on show, you always knew because there was, we had a lot of Republicans even in the block I lived in, I mean there were all Seamus Green, Fayland Green, and Fiona’s you know the real Irish people, and mean, as I got older I realised but I didn’t realise when we were a kid playing on the street, that these people were all involved, wasn’t just my mother that was involved, all the people in this block and the block I’m talking, was much broader. You know we used to have the lorries trundling up and down all night, down to the docks and that, and I think everybody, and when I got older and looking back now, I think everybody in this block was involved because we had the main, the big fruit store, he had other shops as well.

Then we had a large antique and high class furniture place that was ‘Gibbons’ Then we had, I mean there were three and four storey houses that this block we lived in because we had two storeys above the shop, that we had our living accommodation and there was, there was the three big houses, Nurse McCull, Doctor McKinley and somebody else I can’t remember who lived in that one. Then we had the big tobacconists that was the Brodricks, then we had two more private houses, then we had the big paper shop, then we had the Hairdressers, then there was us, then next door was a big shoe shop.

Then there was a house, the next one, had been bombed during the war so I don’t know, they turned it into a small house, then there was, it was a second hand shop that one, but of course it was better class, second hand you know you could buy fur coats and all in there and next to that, who was next to that? There was another Barbers, then there was another big sweet shop, then there was the big Post Office, that was just our block. These houses, you know there was no entries or nothing but when you got to the end of that, when you got to the Post Office there was like a big, looked like a big driveway, but it wasn’t we called it ‘The Piggy’ and you used to go up round this yard and then we had a big sheet metal works behind us because at one time these houses all had these great big gardens, but they’d give up the gardens when they built the Victoria barracks, when they extended the barracks and the parade ground. Then they took a bit of the parade ground back again, but the houses couldn’t have it back ‘cos they’d sold the land, so they turned it into a big sheet metal work place, where they used to do all the stuff for the ammunition factories and all, and they used to make.

I don’t know whether they made machines, I can’t remember but I know they always used to use these oxygen cylinders, because if we come out on our fire escape, ‘cos being as they were business places they nearly all had fire escapes at the back, and ours we had this big steel thing that we come out on, and you could see them welding and that. I can remember them doing that and they used to do things for my mother, because you know the scoops that you use, well when they broke you didn’t want to buy a new one, because metal was very precious, you used to take it round the ‘Piggy’ and he used to weld it for us; although that might look black, whereas these were silver, but they’d be black when they’d be welded, so I don’t really remember what they done, but I know that was turned into the sheet metal works; during the war.

And I remember the bombs. We got a terrible bombing through then, and we had smoke screens outside the door, that was like tar boilers, I was just, that thing there reminded me of it actually but...”

Q. What thing?

IS. You see, that thing with four thing with four wheels, like a carriage affair?

Q. Yeah, that’s an old fire engine, yeah.

IS. That’s what reminded me of the smoke screens but where you can see through that, they had like a big, I suppose it would be like a big barrel, but, then it had, a bit like the front of a steam engine, but they used to fire this thing up and then when the sirens used to go, they used to pull this plug and you used to get bellow of black smoke used to cover the whole, as I told you last time we had York Street Mill near us, we had the docks just down in front of us, we had Victoria barracks behind us. We had Mckeys Mill not that far away, I mean we used to feel the vibrations with the bomb. So they used to send up these smoke screens, we used to be blacked out. It was worse than smoke, we were killing ourselves with the smoke, really we were killing ourselves with the smoke. And then the next day everything had soot on it. But we had one of those outside the street door, and looking at that, reminded me of the smoke screen gadget, I don’t know what you’d call them, we used to just call them the smoke screen machines, but they used to send up smoke screens.

Q. You were evacuated during the war?

IS. Yeah. We were sent down to Toom Bridge, and the first two nights we were evacuated, we slept in a barn. And the barn we slept in was I think what the hens used to be on, you know? You had the floor but you had this little bit about this far from the ground and you just threw loads and loads of straw on it, and you had to sleep in that. Because that was where you were rushed to, to get you out of the city. But then over a period over a couple of weeks, there, all these farmers used to come up and you’d all be standing there in your little family groups, and they’d say ‘I’ll take them, and I’ll take them.’

But my mother was prosperous, so she was very lucky. The first farm she went to she thought she wasn’t having a bar of that but then once I was settled she come back and left me there, because she had to keep her business’s going. So I was left quite a lot in Toom Bridge on my own with this farmer, a farmer and his wife. But they were lovely people. And she was a faith healer. I can remember them bringing, I was only three, but I can remember them bringing cows in and she used to cure ring worm, but she was a faith healer for animals.

Q. Using herbal remedies and stuff like that?

IS. No, just laying her hands on them, and there used to heat from her hands, and she did, I mean I was only three, I mean you couldn’t say I was sceptical, or anything and I used to you know they used to bring these animals back. They’d bring them back two weeks running, and then they were healed, but she did use some herbs but it was mainly just she used to put her hands on them and there was something, I don’t know what it was, but I can remember them the old farmers bringing them on in the ring the ones that they couldn’t heal, and she healed it.

Q. That’s incredible?

IS. Now they were, they were very strong catholic people ‘cos even when you were evacuated, the Catholics went to Catholic families and the Protestants went to Protestant families. Even during the war you were still segregated, because the hatred is so, and this peace talks… But like I’ve always said if they made stale schools compulsory, take a long time but if they insisted on state schools that would go a long way to breaking down the barriers, because these children are brought up like I was.
We used to come out of our school and fight the Protestants on the way home but they were only school kids like us weren’t they, what was different about them? And it was brought home to me when my son started school.

What happened was I went round to Milford school and it was a Welsh Headmistress Miss William’s and I said ‘I’d like to put my boys name down for school,’ he was four. And she said ‘I think you’re in the wrong section’ I said ‘What do you mean?’ She said ‘Well, all the Irish children go down there.’ I said ‘But I don’t want, I said what’s down there?’ She said ‘Well you are catholic aren’t you?’ I said
‘Yeah,’ ‘Well’ all the catholic children go to that,’ they had a little tiny section, you know the school you might know it up Kenninghall Hall Road they’ve got their own Catholic school, but this was, they had then, I don’t know what they do now, but all the kids went to this little section up there now they’ve built Cardinal Hall, that was it ‘cos Cardinal Hall wasn’t built then.

And I said to her ‘Don’t you take catholic children?’ She said “Oh yes’, she said ‘But I just assumed being you were Catholic you wanted your child…’ I said ‘No, I said, my...’ (I had two boys by then, the other one was only a baby in a pram), I said ‘I’m bringing up Christians.’ And she thought that was really weird, and the Irish mothers’ shunned me because they knew I was Irish; although I was Northerners and they were all Southerners, but they just assumed I would bring my boy to school with them, but I was determined my kids wouldn’t grow up with the prejudices that I did because I thought if they don’t know nothing about it, they won’t accept it.

So Paul was about seven I think, and Tony was eleven, Tony was just ready to change schools, and that was my landlady’s son, he used to take Paul to school, and bring them home again, I used to see them across the road but he used to walk them up and he’d come home, and Tony said ‘He’s been fighting.’ I said to Paul ‘What are doing fighting?’ He said ‘We fought the Catholics.’ I said ‘What do you mean?’ The other little bit of the school they had a little section down the bottom, I said ‘But you’re a Catholic. What are you doing, what’s the difference?’ He said ‘I’m not a Catholic I’m a Christian.’ And I thought well that was really what I wanted, but I couldn’t believe that my kid has beaten up Catholics.

And it went to prove the fact that if they were all put in school together from three years old from Nursery school, they wouldn’t know any different. They’d all realise they’re just the same, and their religion is their own business, because over here you had to go to Sunday school so ancestor, my children both went to state school and when they got up ‘cos Michael could have went to down here, but the priest said to me about sending them to the one down Bethnal Green somewhere this Catholic school - is it Saint Congo or there is one down the Queen Elizabeth or something isn’t
there? A Catholic school, Secondary. I said ‘Oh no.’

Now he had, he could have went down to the one that’s just moved away, because Michael was very smart even at eleven, but I said Upton House was good enough for his brother it was good enough for him; ‘cos it used to be Upton House then, it’s now Homerton House, you know Homerton? Homerton House isn’t it? But that was Upton House when they went there, and they both done very well from it.

And they were never involved in religion or anything. When my son was old enough my eldest fella, and I had a friend that was a nun and she started chatting to him and he decided to take up religion. But it was his own choice.

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