By Michael O’Brien
The 22nd of November 1963 was the day the President Kennedy was assassinated. It was also the day I was laid off from my building site job, not the best news a young man could receive just a few weeks before Christmas. However, come the new year I got a starter job in Tallaght. The foreman told me that they would be moving to a different site out west of the city. That would be a difficult commute for me as I would need to be on site by 8am. However, I needed the money and so I took the job.
I was getting tired of the commute when a workmate, John, informed me of a vacancy in his lodgings if I was interested. The lodging house was down in the north inner city, near to a well known location known as The Five Lamps and which is not more than 100 paces from the edge of Portland Row where the recent Olympic boxer, Kellie Harrington, hails from. I met the landlady and we agreed terms.
At the weekend I informed my parents that I would be moving out and taking lodgings in the city, whereupon my poor mother began to weep. I had to assure her that I was not boarding a prison ship bound for Van Diemen’s Land and that I would be back home in 5 days complete with dirty washing. It was very late on a Sunday night when I presented at my new abode. I tiptoed up to the bedroom to find that the other bed was occupied. I slipped from my clothes, eased into bed and, with my slim wallet in my waistband, I waited for the sandman to arrive. I could hear the rumblings, gruntings, purring, snoring, and some gut wind from the other residents, who probably had a few plus one over the weekend. I eventually drifted off to sleep. Tomorrow would be the first day of my new life.
Next morning the residents arrived down for breakfast in dribs and drabs. I suspected that they were all involved in construction. The breakfast was the standard fare of porridge followed by a grill. There was little by way of conversation as the men finished up and headed off to their jobs, each with their lunch sandwich under their oxter. I too got a carryout. I was pleased enough with the breakfast but the carryout was straight out of “Dickens” comprising of two slices of Buttercrust bread, threatened with margarine and adorned with a sprig of lettuce. Not inspiring.
In the evening the men drifted in and sat down to dinner about 7pm. There was little attention to pre dinner ablutions, the facilities being sparse. There was a flush toilet but no bathroom or shower facilities. Each room was equipped with a stand, a wash basin and a pitcher of cold water just like a bunkhouse scene from one of those yesteryear western films. The dinner was standard fare – spuds, veg and a different meat each evening. It was just about sufficient. After dinner, the men sat in the same room, pulled on their tobacco and relaxed with low key chat. There was Kerry Tom, Donegal Tom (who blamed his poor hearing on the noisy excavators he had operated across in England) and John from Kerry who was about my own age. He promised to introduce me to the many dancehalls in Parnell Square.
I shared my room with Willie who was the odd man out through the fact that he was not a builder, he was a barman who worked for one of the bigger chains in the Dublin of that time. As the days and the evenings passed Willie and I shared a little of our personal stories. He was born into a Protestant family, converted and married a Catholic. Eventually, the marriage failed. Willie got merry on his day off, snored in the bed beside me, or read from his book of prayer. Even at my tender years, I thought his life and the lives of the other middle-aged residents were sad as, here they were with their best years behind them, living in the no man’s land called digs.
They talked of shifting and mixing muck for Murphy, Laing or Wimpy. Kerry Tom had given 23 years across. I felt that he had put a bit aside as he dressed well and neatly when going out to his preferred local, The Shakespeare Bar, a Kerryman’s haunt. I did wonder why he did not purchase his own house but then I think that he liked the company of other people. Tom was affable but he could wag his finger my way when I messed up at our card games of Forty Five. He felt that I was better at the dinner table than the card table. How right he was.
John did indeed introduce me to the many dancehalls in Parnell Square. Now, an imbalance in demographics resulted in a paucity of females in the countryside. However, the dancehalls in the city were overflowing with girls, several of whom, I felt, wished to bite my leg. In those early days and weeks I felt the pull of home twenty five miles away. My lonesome moods were eased by the sound of the horse that pulled the early morning milk float up our street, or the clip clop of the heavier horse that hauled the laden carts out from the C.I.E. parcel depot beside Portland Row.
It was comforting too when I heard the mooing of cattle being herded probably on their penultimate trip to the cattle boat down at the North Wall. It was often on that same boat that the disposable “Paddy” departed in a search for a better life.
I knew I was settling in to my new life when I began to miss out on the odd weekend going home to the country. I brought my football boots to the new abode as, on several evenings, the nearby Fairview Park beckoned. In early1965, Donegal Jim joined the community. He too had a deep interest in sporting days and dancehall nights and we became firm friends. Now, all these years later, we are both grandfathers and still meet up every so often.
While our conversation roams here and there, it still often embraces our young days down by the Five Lamps and Portland Row. Through the summer of 1964 I roamed the city, slowly observing it’s social mix, its accents and the importance of addresses. I was on a learning curve with much more to consume.
But that is a story for another day.