Happy Father’s day to My Old Man, Bernard Caldwell.
He was a refugee at the age of 10 from the Blitz in Coventry in November 1940 when his family home and business were destroyed and over a thousand lives lost in one night. He spent the war in poverty in Tipperary Town in a cottage owned by distant relatives where they had to move out the animals for his family to move in. Their family house and guest house business in Raglan Street in the centre of Coventry was destroyed. He had barely survived the night being moved out of a bomb shelter in the Stevengraph Works at two in the morning to a deeper shelter. They had sheltered in the temporary shelter in the basement of the Stevengraph Works (Thomas Stevens had set up a silk manufacturing business) in Cox Street but were removed to a more secure shelter. The next morning they walked past the ruins of the Stevengraph Works, it had been destroyed in a direct hit. Anybody sheltering there would have been killed.
He recalls an Air Raid Warden trying to pull a person out of the rubble and the whole arm coming away. Their home and business was destroyed in the firestorm along with most of their belongings. They had no help or assistance and their only option was to get travel warrants to travel to distant relatives in Tipperary, Ireland and use their old cottage from which the animals had to be moved out for them to be moved in. When I ask my father what he did during the war he says mainly they starved leading a hand to mouth existence as his father got seasonal work cutting turf on the bogs. Ireland had to improvise as it had no coal imports from Britain in war time. He had witnessed things no 10 year old should ever have to witness.
Tipperary Town then was a desultory place. It had been a British Army garrison town and under the Irish Free State it was largely left to rot. At the age of 14 he got the first scholarship in Irish for over 20 years at the CBS School in Tipperary Town. In 1947 he was lent a shirt and train fare by the Parish Priest to do the Civil Service interview and exams in Dublin and got a job at the lowest entry grade. The rest of his family moved back to Coventry and at the age of 17 he found himself alone in Ireland. As he was fluent in Irish he was posted to Glenties in Donegal as an “Assistance Officer” for the Gaelic Grant which was given to Native Irish speakers along with a host of other pork barrel subsidies. After six months there being abused in fluent Anglo-Saxon by chancer ” Gaeilgeoirs” he developed a contempt for them and their dependency culture and never used Gaelic again unless he had to.
In 1948 for his two weeks leave he had to take, he cycled from Ennis, Co. Clare, where he was stationed, to his family in Coventry, Warwickshire and back again. In 1955 when I was born he and Phyllis set up home in a rented two room (with kitchen and bathroom on the return) hall floor flat at 15 North Richmond Street in Summerhill in Dublin’s North inner city. James Joyce had lived at No. 17 and used the street for the first line of his short story in Dubliner’s “Araby” –
“NORTH RICHMOND STREET being blind, was a quiet street except at the hour when the Christian Brothers’ School set the boys free. An uninhabited house of two storeys stood at the blind end, detached from its neighbours in a square ground The other houses of the street, conscious of decent lives within them, gazed at one another with brown imperturbable faces.”
When I was just five and with my younger brother on the way and Bernard getting a promotion in the Civil Service we left Summerhill and moved to a new house on the Northside of Dublin in Ballymun which cost them £1,900 – the builder had to lend them eight pounds, three shillings and sixpence in cash to make the closing statement to sign the sale contract. For £150 extra they could have had a four bedroom house but they didn’t have £150 extra. The previous week he had lost out on a large four bedroom house in Clonskeagh behind UCD’s Belfield campus which cost £1,750 as he went in the afternoon to put down a £50 deposit and it had been sold that morning. He had new furniture for the house made in a workshop behind our flat in Summerhill, a mahogany table and chairs, a china cabinet, a bookcase and a sideboard. All this and their other possessions were transported from the flat to the new house in a VW pick-up van with the four of us in the cab, Mum, Dad, me and the driver.
The mum’s relatives told him they couldn’t understand how he paid a fortune to live in a house so far out in the country. His brothers who worked in the car industry in Coventry told him he was getting above himself with his “big job” in the Civil Service as only “management” owned their own houses and their houses were “Council.” At the time their take home pay would have been more than twice what my father was getting. Indeed as a Civil Servant he was able to get a (rare even then) fixed rate mortgage at 3½% from an insurance company at sixteen pounds four shillings a month. When he paid the last payment in 1984 he hardly noticed it, in 1959 when he took out the mortgage it was over half of his take home pay. By then the Ballymun he had moved to had miraculously morphed into Glasnevin North after the building of the huge public housing scheme at Ballymun.
When he retired from the Irish Civil Service in 1987 he was Director of the Comptroller and Auditor General’s Office, the Government’s auditors and spending watchdog.
Happy Father’s Day to Bernard, my Dad, My Old Man, a refugee from war and an immigrant, who will be 86 next month and is the reason I have both a British passport and a real one!
See: Coventry’s ” Moonlight Sonata”