Saturday, 17 March 2012

My family in 1930s Ireland

As a child I always enjoyed the fact that I was a quarter Irish.  Born and bred in north London, it was one of those things to boast about in the playground to appear different, unique.  And who do I thank for my streak of Irish blood?  Well, that would be my maternal grandfather.  Grandad died in 1992 but I'll always remember him as a happy man with a smile on his face and a pint of Guinness in his hand.  I have fond memories of sitting in my Nan and Grandad's living room with my Grandad in his armchair talking nineteen to the dozen and, most likely, blaspheming his heart out.  We visited my grandparents every Sunday and for a small child who would rather be playing with her toys at home or watching the Sunday afternoon film on the telly, it was sometimes a bit of a chore.  Now I lament the lost opportunities to have drilled, interrogated and quizzed my grandparents on their lives and experiences.

In particular I would love to have known more about their early married life in Ireland in the 1930s.  My Nan was a Nottinghamshire lass but found herself working in Ireland as a lady's maid for the brewing side of the Guinness family.  It was in Ireland that she met and married my Grandad in 1929.  At the time of the marriage Grandad was a bus driver and family lore tells of how he took a fancy to my Nan and used to give her free lifts in his bus.  From pictures I've seen of him as a young man, I can fully understand why she would accept them!

My handsome grandad in his driver's uniform

A year after their wedding, their eldest child was born.  He was followed by four more children in the space of five years.  The three eldest, including my mother, Mary, were born in Longford, where my Grandad came from.  Their fourth child, my Uncle John, sadly died when he was a tiny infant.  He had been born in Carlow.  The youngest child was born in Dublin.  This was a family that obviously moved around a lot as it was a case of going where my Grandad found employment.

Russborough House
After his stint as a bus driver he stayed in the same line of work and in the 1930s became a chauffeur.  And it was in this capacity that my mother and her siblings found themselves living in the grounds of a grand Palladian style mansion, Russborough House, in beautiful County Wicklow.

Russborough House was built in the 18th century by Joseph Leeson, a property developer and important art collector, who later became 1st Earl of Milltown.  His art collection was so substantial that when it was bequeathed to the National Gallery of Ireland in Dublin at the beginning of the 20th century, they had to build a new wing to house it.

The workers flats at Russborough.
The house stayed the property of the Earls of Milltown right down to the 6th Earl's nephew, who then sold it in 1931 to Captain Denis Daly.  This is where my Grandad came into the picture as, for a few years in the mid to late 1930s, he was Captain Daly's chauffeur. My Grandad and his family moved into one of the worker's flats above the garage.  Russborough, at this time, must have seemed a million miles away from the troubles in Europe.

The Russborough estate and distant Wicklow Mountains
The house is set in a very quiet part of Wicklow.  With a view of the distant Wicklow mountains and nearby Blessington lakes it must have been a blissful place to grow up for four small children. My aunt's nickname, which has stuck with her to this day, is Trixie, due to her, then, tomboyish nature and the fact she got up to 'tricks' all the time.  What a lovely image to imagine these tiny terrors romping together over the estate, getting under the gardener's feet, hiding behind their mother's skirts when the master of the house strode into view, and generally getting up to 'tricks'.

But they weren't to stay in this idyllic location.  By 1938 most of the family had upped sticks and moved to Central London where they were to stay for many years to come.  The Irish accents that the children would have brought with them were to be sacrificed in an effort to fit in and not appear too 'different' to their peers (unlike me 40 years later).  The family never lived in Ireland again and its only in the last couple of years that I was to pay my first visit there.  I made sure I visited Russborough to see where my mother had spent her childhood years.  Rest assured, the quarter of me that is Irish is determined to go back.

Tiny terrors - my aunt, uncle and mum at the front

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