Oral History Interview - Martha Feleppa

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Oral History Interview - Martha Feleppa

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Audio recording of an oral history recording with Martha Feleppa (some records give name as Martha Philippa), who was born in Carlow, Ireland 1933, and moved to Hackney in 1956.

She discusses her Irish background and multicultural Hackney.


Transcript of interview with Martha Feleppa

MP: Well, my name is Martha Feleppa, it is an Italian name but my maiden name is Walsh, and I came from County Carlow in Ireland, Southern Ireland, that’s about 50 miles south of Dublin.

I spent perhaps the first 17 years in Carlow, where I was brought up with my grandparents who were teachers in the local school. I was brought up by my grandparents because probably my mother had too many children and I was the weak one. So the grandparents took me over. So I spent my time fishing with my grandfather, a wonderful way to spend your time, however, it was great and in many ways it didn’t prepare me for life in Hackney, certainly very far flung from Hackney.

However, I went to Dublin in 1951, I think, so I spent about 5 years there and lived in a lovely part of the City which I didn’t realise at the time how wonderful it was, the place where the embassies are and that didn’t prepare me for life in Hackney. Anyway I was a window dresser in a large store there, I don’t know what happened but I found myself out of a job. I think I was probably too cheeky with the manager and I said I couldn’t do the windows any other way so I’m going. Which wasn’t a good idea but I suppose we grow up and have different ways of coping.

Anyway I couldn’t get another job because they were very selective in Dublin at that time; one of the requirements to work in an ordinary general drapers was that you spoke fluent French, and fluent Irish, that’s Gaelic as well as English and so my French wasn’t good enough and I found myself out of a job, which I didn’t like and I stayed on the dole for about 6 weeks or so and couldn’t stand it any longer. So I decided I would have to move, and I knew there were plenty of similar stores in London, so I came to London but I came away in tears really.

I think I travelled overnight and I arrived in Stoke Newington with some friends and while I was there, when I arrived where I should stay, the person who was there said, ‘Oh you must go to bed, have a rest.’ But I said, ‘No I can’t, I must go and get a job.’

So I went out looking for this job straight-away and I arrived at this large general drapery, similar to the one in Dublin, and I asked to see the manager. And he came down and I showed him my reference, as we didn’t have CVs in those days, we had references, which you carried around with you and they got tatty by the month. He looked at the CV and said, ‘Oh we’ve had many from this place. We’ve had dozens from there’ and I wouldn’t take any more.

Well I wondered what was happening, this was my first shock in England and I said to him I had said good-bye to my friends in that shop yesterday and none of them had ever left and I was the first to leave so he didn’t have to tell me that. He didn’t have to give me the job but he didn’t have to tell me lies about it. And I stood for about 5 minutes giving him a good ticking off and however I said, ‘I’m going now’, and I left and as I was going down the stairs he put his head over the stairs at the top and said, ‘Excuse me Miss, you may start on Monday for seven pounds a week.’ That was in 1956 and seven pounds a week was rather good then because I found out when I came in that the other people were getting six. I am not suggesting that cheek pays off, but maybe it was the honesty.

However that was that, but that experience sort of set the tone for Living in England because I realised that I had arrived in a country where obviously someone had arrived before me that had given a very bad image and I tried to think back how this had happened and I remembered that people from my childhood who had left Ireland. There were several categories of these people. Some had left because they wanted to find better jobs and do well for themselves and some people left because there wasn’t enough work but some people left because they had got into trouble in Ireland and they would leave Ireland altogether and they would look for a job in other countries. And it was obviously these people that had arrived ahead of me among all the other nice people who had come and these people had given the wrong impression and so I had arrived to a bad press and consequently I think I had to spend, or I still have to spend, the rest of my life doing the best I can to prove that not everyone in Ireland would come under a bad press and that there would be mixed people in every race. And that has helped.

Q. Would you care to tell us more about your life with your grandparents and your fishing expeditions and so forth, and your school?

MF. Well school was great, there was one of the nuns, I went to Brigidene Convent in Tullock, and one of the nuns there was absolutely wonderful. She put on all these brilliant shows and plays and whatever for the people of the town. And she was doing ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarves’ and they were looking for someone to play Grumpy. She went through all the children and they were to say, ‘Ghastly, this chair has been dusted.’ And the children were saying, ‘Ghastly, this char has been dusted.’ So anyway when she came to me, I said,’ Ghastly, This chair has been dusted!“ as though the chair needed a good wipe, so right, I got the part. Apparently my aunt said, ‘You got it because you were typecast as Grumpy!’ Well anyway, however that was the beginning of many plays and I spent my childhood being in drama.

Q. What age did you start school?

MF. Well, I was at school at six. I think children who lived in the town started at four or five, but I lived a bit outside so it was normal for children coming in from the suburbs of the town to begin at six. And you started in the babies class and there was ‘infants’, and there was ‘senior infants’ and you thought you were up at the top when you were a senior infant. So I probably began in the senior infants and I didn’t go to the babies.

Q. Until when. What age did you leave school?

MF. I left school at 18. But that was…The school had a secondary school attached to it so you moved from the National School to the secondary school. I probably should have finished earlier but I had a lot of asthma as a child, probably spent most of my time out of school, though I managed to wind it up eventually at 18 and got a job in a local drapers.

You didn’t get a wage then, you got... you really had to pay the shop to tell you how to serve the customers and how to know about the stock. You know, how to take care of it.

Q. Did you learn Gaelic and French, because you said you needed Gaelic and French?

MF. They taught through the medium of Gaelic at school, but then French was taught at secondary school so I would have done French there but it would have needed to have been...

Q. Do you remember any Gaelic?

MF. Oh yes

Q. Do you want to say something in Gaelic?

MF. [speaks in Gaelic]

Q. So how many plays in all?

MF. Oh numerous. I am sure they were more than one a year. So that was like a hobby but as I say, I lived outside the town right up on the hill, overlooking the town, a wonderful view. I heard the adults talking about this beautiful view and only now I say, yes what a wonderful view it was, with the town and the church spire and the mountains in the background. And there was a river a half a mile by the side of the house which led through the town, or rather ran through that town, and it was in this area where we went fishing and walking from the house on the hill down through the valley and by the river. It was great fun.

Q. It sounds idyllic.

MF. I know. And the children of the town would come out through this area as well, to play and those days the boys played Cowboys and Indians. They loved it, and of course we took part as well, using any of the horses around.

Q. What, just horses in the field? Farmers horses?

MF. Well no. We had horses around and we had a donkey but the donkey never liked to be…

Q. Shod?

MF. No. He would lie down when we got up on him.

Q. That sounds lovely. Could you tell us about the trips with your grandfather?

MF. Oh yes. Well, during the fishing season, he would get his fishing box out, and that was a nice, you know, square box. It contained lots of feathers and things like that, and different coloured threads which he would wind around a hook and make his own flies; and he was able to know, he was quite a good fisherman. He was able to know the sort of fly that the fish would jump for on that particular day. So he would go home and make the fly, tie his own fly. He didn’t like me sitting beside the box because I would sort of cough or something over it and the feathers would go all over the place.
We would set off with the fishing rod and the dog and anyone else through the rocks we would call them because it tumbled down to the river. The rocks were a wonderful place to play and it was quite exciting you know catching fish. But in a way you could only have a little bit of it because he might never get fed up with it but I would. So I would want to do something else, like play with the dolls. I had dozens of dolls.

Q. You were more or less brought up by yourself?

MF. Well, I had a cousin as well.

Q. Who lived with your grandparents?

MF. Yes. But I had great fun with those dolls. They would sit along the top of a flat roof which I would get out on from the back of the house onto the flat roof and this was my area. And one night I left the dolls out all night. I forgot about them and they were about a tonne weight the next morning where it had rained and soaked into them. When I look back I think, ‘Oh my word’ - all those beautiful dolls are now in the Bethnal Green Museum and I had all those. The rain ruined them. There you go.

Q. Did you have a radio?

MF. Only a radio in those days. I was born in 1933, the end of 1933. But we had a gramophone and apparently we were one of the only people around who had this wonderful machine. So we would wind it up and listen and my aunt would have her friends in and they would waltz around the kitchen.

Q. Did people drop by all the time?

MF. Well they did in many of the houses but in our house they didn’t seem to because, I don’t know, probably my grandfather was a widower by that time (my grandmother died when I was 6) so I don’t think he encouraged a lot of people to call in so we only had relatives come in, and of course my playmates and my cousin’s playmates.

And yes, I know many of the houses in Ireland they had what we call an open door and anybody passing by came in and sat down and you made them tea. This did happen in our house but it didn’t happen as often as it did in other people’s homes.

Q. Did you find that doesn’t really exist in this country?

MF. Well, the funny thing is that I think it does exist. I mean, I still do it, nobody passes my door without coming to say, ‘Hello’ and I make tea, and I have friends who I drop in on without telling them I’m coming. I have somebody who comes who once passed a remark on this, I think a West Indian person, they said, ‘It seems that the bell on the door is connected to the kettle’. However it is a nice way of sitting down and making people feel welcome.

Q. I find it doesn’t exist so much in this country.

MF. No, you’re right, it doesn’t exist. But for those being brought up like that, you don’t lose it. You continue doing it, you couldn’t do otherwise and in a way you try to pass it on to your children and hopefully it catches. I think over the generations it will be lost, sadly.

Q. A big difference between here and back home, being a child and being over here, bringing up children over here.

MF. Yes, bringing up children over here is totally different. I took them back to Ireland every year, let them have a feel of the freedom of the fields and the culture of the country, which is important. And you, know, when I came I did, I have, some Irish friends and they suggested that we go to Irish centres and various Irish bits and pieces that had been put on for people who had come. And I did go for a while and then I realised that, if I couldn’t go back, and at that stage I couldn’t because there was not enough work there and by then I had a boyfriend and I was going to get married, and I couldn’t see my way to getting back…

So I decided that I wouldn’t go to Irish centres either because it was not real. I would prefer to save up and go back for a holiday. And it was not satisfying enough and I also decided not to go because I knew if I had to Jive in this country, I must settle in this country and accept the people of this country and not try to make them Irish, but, at the same time, not lose my identity; but be myself in a country where, I feel if you come to Jive in a country you abide by the laws and ways of the country you come to. And I think that is right. And by doing that, then you… in a way it’s like a little plant. If you transplant it, and pick it up from one place and put it into another - it may not like its new place, but it will begin to bloom there. But whereas if, well I’m not sure what would happen if you didn’t transplant it, but however, you have to bloom where you’re planted, is what I’m trying to say and so that is what I’m trying to do. I’m still trying to.

I’m still affected by my experience of when I arrived and the, that reaction, although I have forgotten it now and it doesn’t happen anymore, because Irish people have proved themselves acceptable in the country and so... but you still have to be an ambassador in the country you come to.

You are not at home, even after, how many years did we say - 38 years? It is a long time. When I go home, I say I am ‘going home,’ but by rights I should say, ‘I’m now visiting the country of my birth.’ But you don’t. You never lose that. That is your home - that is where you come from, it’s got that pull.

Q. Why Hackney? You knew people here in Hackney?

MF. I knew people in Stoke Newington and I was there in that store for about a year and then I moved to an office and worked there until I got married. And I mean, I didn’t marry a millionaire so life was not easy and, in fact, twice I think I was put out twice in the road. I mean, St Paul was shipwrecked twice and it didn’t do him any harm.

I do remember walking along around Dalston with a pram and a two week old baby and all the cases and possessions we had piled on the pram looking for a new place. And we found it, we didn’t stay out all night.

Q. Why were you put out?

MF. Oh, my husband left is bicycle in the house, instead of outside the house. It sort of touched the nice new painted wall - so out we had to go. And that’s life, that was life in those days. That was the second time we had to hit the road.

Q. The first time?

MF. The first time, this lady said, ‘No you’ve got to go’. I think she had other plans for the room. So I came home and found all my books on the pavement. A great big pile of them, sitting on the pavement waiting for me. But, there you are, it didn’t do me any harm and I’m still laughing.

Q. That’s good that you have no resentment about it.

MF. No. Because they didn’t know any better, they didn’t know, that was their understanding at the time. I suppose, you know, that was accepted at the time. It probably wouldn’t be accepted today. But, truly, it didn’t do me any harm. It sort of strengthens you to be able to cope.

Q. You have to be hardened?

MF. You have to be toughened. But, as I said, my life catching trout on the river didn’t prepare me for any of this.

Q. Did anything back home prepare you for this?

MF. Well, life in Dublin, Dublin was a formidable city at the time. You know in the ‘50s. But then I had a nice cushy number you might say, I didn’t have a rough time there. I had a wonderful time there. Really wonderful. I’d better not go into all the things we did.

Q. A good social life?

MF. A brilliant social life. And I still see Dublin as the nicest place in the world, but I think everybody would look back on the place they were from 17 to 23 as the nicest place in the world because that was a good time. So Dublin was great, but it wasn’t easy for many people. It was a city with slums in the Inner City and that’s all gone now. It’s been improved many times since.

Q. Some ways similar to Hackney?

MF. Yes, some ways similar to Hackney. And it seemed I managed to settle in Hackney. I didn’t really have the opportunity to... I think circumstances, you know? You get married, you have your children and there doesn’t seem to be an opportunity to go somewhere else. And then finally you decide that, well, there are so many lovely people here, I can’t leave it. So. And I was heavily involved with the Church and you don’t want to leave because you are running the Girl Guides.

Q. The Church provided a focal point?

MF. Yes, well, yes.

Q. For many Irish people?

MF. That’s right.

Q. When there was no community?

MF. But you have your own community there. The good thing about the community there is that they are a community of all races. You’ve got Irish, Italian, Nigerian, West Indian and all these people are there. So you mingle and become part of the community. And I think it is important to mix with everybody rather than have little groups where you are only mixing with your own people. I think that’s disastrous, because out of that will come, I mean you are really sheltering yourself and it is living in a false image of your own…

Q. The role of the Irish worker has been hard in some ways...

MF. Yes. If you arrived on a bad press and you… I mean, I never went out of my way to prove that some things people thought about Irish people were untrue. I just behaved normally and they soon discovered that you were putting in a decent days work for a decent wage.

Q. Did you come across much racism against the Irish?

Yes. It did exist. You would see signs that said, ‘No Irish need apply’ and sometimes in shops there were signs saying, ‘No Irish and No Dogs’

Q. How did that make you feel?

MF. Well actually, at the time, I didn’t understand it, I didn’t quite get it. But yes, it makes you feel that they don’t understand the Irish people and they haven’t met enough honest Irish people. When they do they will not be hanging these signs up, they will be asking people to come and work in their shops because they know they won’t be having their hands in the till or anything else; and they put a good days work for a good days pay. I mean none of my friends... I don’t know any... none of my friends have ever been in trouble with the law. They’ve always done a good fair days’ work for their wages.

Q. Did that have a lot to do with your upbringing... Catholic upbringing?

MF. Well, I suppose certainly my faith always helped me. It has helped me to see things as I do - to thank God in all circumstances. Just see a day at a time, get on with your life and not moan when it is bad; but more or less thank God when it is good and thank God when it is not. It gives a positive start to your life and it gives you something to live for in a way. Because at the end of the day, where are we all heading for? We are not going to live forever. So we are obviously looking for life everlasting.

As a Catholic I am seeing life as a journey. Like the Israelites through the desert, hey were heading for the Promised Land. And that’s where I am heading for but at the same time, I’m not looking at that as the kingdom I don’t get until I am dead. I see it as the Prayer of Our Father says, ‘Thy Kingdom Come’. And for me, that means the kingdom should come into my life today and tomorrow and as I live and not only when I’m dead.

Q. So everyday is a reflection of your belief Honesty and decency come across here, in life and work.

MF. Yes I suppose it does. You automatically try to live by the Gospel and I think if we try to accept that, then we are thinking of our neighbours and not thinking of ourselves and we are putting our neighbours first . And we are doing the best for our country, our family. It is not, ‘I’m alright jack and blow everybody else’ - that is not the philosophy of the Irish, well perhaps the Irish that I know.

Q. Have you noticed the difference in the generations, the people coming over?

MF. No. in fact I’m still seeing exactly the same as when I grew up. When I see them there, I see young girls at the hospice I see them there, I see them arriving and I’m listening to them and many of their ways are just like it was when I was growing up. A lot of it has been saved, but naturally people are beginning to be more careless perhaps, about their beliefs.

I think the TV does not do us a favour. I mean we’ve come on with all these mod cons and it is rather shocking to turn on the TV now and see what’s arriving in our living room when we are not asking for it. The only answer is to turn the darn thing off altogether. And I think what a pity, there is so much you can put on it, so much good stuff you could put on. I turned the TV on recently and it was just a parade of male nudes. And I thought its just 9 o’clock in the evening and this guy was hyping up the audience to think it was wonderful and I think, ‘My God, these poor people’ I rather pity them, because they are missing life.

Q. Materialism doesn’t always bring a higher quality of life.

MF. No it doesn’t. No it certainly doesn’t.

Q. Have you noticed that in the difference in bringing up your children here, rather than back home?

MF. The children here, I think the difference with my childhood is that I wasn’t subjected to newspapers and TV. With newspapers I’m thinking about News of the World and stuff like that, you didn’t have that floating around your house. But here, I’ve never let that paper in my house, but here your children could go to the newspaper shops and just buy this rubbish and see all sorts of really pornographic magazines that should not be on the shelves and should not be sold. And so you are battling, really battling, bringing up your children in a country that allows such trash to be shown.

Q. There has been a marked deterioration in the quality of life?

MF. Oh yes. I mean the standard of life was higher in Ireland when I was a child, and that was a culture shock when I came to London, where people lived in maybe one room or a couple of rooms. And you never saw that in Ireland, although there was not enough work for everybody, for too many people. But nevertheless, it was very difficult living in a small little flat rather than a house, and sewing your own vegetables.

Q. A marked contrast between country life and city life?

MF. But even city life in Dublin, most people had a back garden and they always had a vegetable end to the garden, and where the flowers came first and the vegetables at the top end so nearly everyone had a garden. In fact they all did, except the flats of course.

Q. Have you ever felt like throwing it all in and going back home?

MF. Oh yes. I go home every year and sometimes twice a year, when I can afford it. But I think once you have children, you know, first of all you wait until they do the next exam, you wait for this, that and the other and there has never been an opportunity and now there are grandchildren. So I could never bear to leave them, as much as I love Ireland, I could not leave my grandchildren, because I love them too and my children. And I wouldn’t see them as often, so that’s it.

So you become happy where you are. I think happiness is not about money or getting on or having a house a different size or whatever it is, detached or whatever. Happiness really comes from within and you, either condition, or conditioned to be happy and contented, or you decide to be a moaner; and if you decide to be a moaner, you have had it, because you won’t like it if they shift you from hackney into the most gorgeous place, it won’t make any difference because you take your misery with you. So you can be happy anywhere.

Q. You wouldn’t look forward to retirement in the West of Ireland?

MF. Wow. I would love it, but I would want to take half of the people of Hackney with me. Not necessarily the borough, but just the people. I’d leave the Housing Department behind, but I would take the people.

Q. Do you find it a good community, Hackney?

MF. I think it is very split. I think people in Hackney tend to get together in little groups. They sort of group together and want to identify with their own people. And I find that sad because I think it’s like, if you have a boat and you get all the different people in different corners of the boat, but after all, the boat has to carry along and if they all worked together the boat will run nicely through troubled waters - but if they go into little bunches, well then you are liable to sink.

Q. Do you find the Irish community is quite spread in Hackney? More so in Kilbum or Hackney?

MF. Irish people tend to be a little bit like I am. They don’t necessarily join just Irish groups, but they settle into the community they live in and they don’t lose their identity, but they just settle down where they are, whatever their neighbours, and they are their neighbours and they get on well with their neighbours, hopefully. Those who I know do.

Q. Have you noticed any increase in Irish events over the years?

MF. There is a wonderful thing goes on in Finsbury Park, the Fleadh.

Q. Do you think that is because people being more positive, second generation people being more positive?

MF. I notice my boys go to that and they were born here. But they don’t miss, they wouldn’t miss that Fleadh. They love the music. So, you know, they do appreciate going to Ireland as well and soaking up the Irish culture and it is something they like doing.

Q. It’s still very important.

MF. As they get older, they appreciate it more.

Q. Did they have much confusion over whether they were English or Irish?

MF. Did they have any confusion? Yes, they did because their father is Italian. So that makes it a bit complicated and so they sort of, I think, they all identify themselves as being sort of Irish - that is their root. They have chosen to identify with, I think. But who knows? They may change that.

Q. Are they English?

MF. They’re probably still wondering what they are.

Q. I think that has happened to a lot of people, second generation people. Do they take part in much Irish events, apart from the Fleadh?

MF. I don’t think they do, but they do enjoy a trip to Ireland. They really do enjoy that and, of course, if anyone comes to visit me from Ireland, they visit to coincide with that and so they keep in touch.

Q. Especially with things like the success of the football.

MF. Oh yes, absolutely.

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