“Did Your Mother Come from Ireland?” goes the first line in the song by Jimmy Kennedy — inspired by a question overheard on a train to Dublin.
Like millions of Irish, my mother emigrated. She lived for 60 years in England where she gave birth to eight children in as many years. I popped out in the middle — a dark-skinned souvenir donated by an American serviceman. This was war-torn England, a time when homesick soldiers were comforted by more than tea and crumpets.
In addition to doing her part for the war effort, Mother enjoyed criticizing the Royal Family, placing sixpence each way on a horse race, and puffing on her Woodbine cigarettes.
Mother’s half-brother, my Uncle Jim O’Toole, had also emigrated and lived a bachelor’s life in London — less than two hours away by train. Every visit he carried a battered leather suitcase with the middle tied with string and stuffed with clothes for Mother to wash. One afternoon, Uncle Jim asked me to iron his laundered shirts. He chose me, an 8-year-old, over my two older half-sisters.
The flat iron was heated on the gas stove in the kitchen. To test the temperature, I would turn the iron upside down, and spit on the bottom — just like Mother did. But unlike my mother, I couldn’t judge the iron’s heat.
I scorched Uncle Jim’s shirts. Scrubbing the collars only worsened the brown streaks; my dripping tears didn’t help. When my uncle got ready to leave, he pressed a half-a-crown in my hand. Hadn’t he seen those shirts, I wondered? The next time he came to visit, he again asked me to iron his shirts.
Between my uncle’s visits, we’d make room for lodgers. There were nights when unfamiliar voices drifted upstairs. In the morning I’d kick away the rubber hot water bottle, now cold, and push off the coats Mother had piled on the bed to keep my sisters and me warm. I’d shiver my way downstairs praying the coal fire was lit and curious to know what face would appear from under the rumpled covers on the living room couch.
“Top of the mornin’” was the usual greeting. My stepfather, Harry, had brought another grateful young Irishman home from the pub.
At times we’d have as many as three Irish lodgers, 13 people sharing one bath, and one toilet, an inconvenience I credit with expanding the size of my bladder. I still remember some of their names. There was Gus, who after taking his Friday night bath, slipped on the cement floor and knocked himself out. As he fell, his foot opened the tap on the gas copper releasing scalding water. Harry smashed the bathroom window to get in and rescue Gus. The hole was later plugged with a rag and stayed that way for years. Growing up bathing in teeth-shattering cold, in a bathroom with a cement floor and the wind whistling through a window, guaranteed I would be forever grateful for the current comforts of my foothill home.
Two of my favorite Irish lodgers were the brothers, Tom and Jerry. One brother would bang out a tune on our beat up piano, while the other piped along on a penny whistle. No surprise these recitals happened after a long night at the pub.
“If you ever go across the sea to Ireland,” began one of their favorites. “I’ll take you home again Kathleen,” began another. I still love these mournful Irish songs.
The best looking lodger was Augustus Arthur with his coal black curls and mischievous light eyes. But he didn’t stay long.
Through the window of the outside toilet, I overheard Mother talking to our neighbor, Mrs. Cook, over the privet hedge.
“He was arrested for carrying an iron pipe,” I heard Mother say. I was hoping she wouldn’t speak any lower or I wouldn’t be able to hear who “he” was. “When Augustus went in front of the magistrate, he was asked why he was carrying an iron bar. ‘Your Honor,’” Mother reported, imitating an even thicker Irish accent between bouts of laughter, “‘there are some violent people on the streets, and you need to protect yourself.’ The judge agreed and Augustus Arthur was sent packing back to Ireland,” she told our neighbor.
I was reminded we had relatives in Ireland when the postman delivered parcels stamped “Eire” a few days before Saint Patrick’s Day. Nestled between the butter and cheese would be sprigs of shamrock and miniature plastic harps. Mother would fashion a brooch and pin it to my jumper. I doubt there was a less Irish-looking kid in the whole school.
But if anyone asked, “Yes,” I’d answer proudly, “my mother did come from Ireland.”
Pauline Nevins is author of the memoir, “Fudge, The Downs and Ups of a Biracial, Half-Irish British War Baby” and a member of Auburn’s Gold Country Writers. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.