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My Time in The Building Trade

After my experience of baking, I returned to London the following year and decided that it was time for me to put my muscles to a real test and join a navvying squad. This year we were a little more financially astute and brought enough financial resources to tide us over for a fortnight. In addition, we had pre-arranged digs with Paddy Joe and Babe Anne Leahy in Vange. They were a lovely couple ,originally from Kerry and we had made contact with them through an uncle of mine. PJ was working in the building trade, and he knew the ropes. Now the lodgings were not the most salubrious. Paddy Joe was fond of his few pints and when he was short taken during the night, he could get bladder relief on the floor or wardrobe which often caused problems. In the end Babe Ann locked the wardrobes but you could still get wet patches on the floor in the morning

He arranged work for us with a builder. He told us where the pick-up van would be at 5.45am.And so we were there at the appointed hour and brought to the site. We were introduced to the ganger who was a big, dog rough man from Mayo. He brought six of us, raw recruits and told us to get the f… down the trench. They were laying sewerage pipes twelve feet down and we were to join, seal and test them. The big digger dug the trench. The next crew dropped big steel pile girders with axles to keep them supported and kept apart and then the huge pipes were landed down on top of us. There were no health and safety rules here only the abusive bellowing of the ignoramus from Mayo roaring orders from on high. We were working in terrible conditions with the constant danger of the tunnel collapsing in on top of us. I did not turn up to be collected by the slave collection van on day2.

That night we went to the working men’s club in Billericay for a few pints of light ale. There was great camaraderie there and in no time, I was at home singing The Rose of Tralee and The Wests Awake. We met a man named Piker from Tipperary who had spent his whole life working on the buildings. His great party piece was his rousing rendition of the song “Who fears to speak of 98”, hence his nick name.

This singing reminded me of my own primary schools’ days. Our history lessons were always anti British. We were taught to sing such songs as Kevin Barry, The Wests Awake, Boolavogue, Who fears to speak of 98,Rosc Catha na Mumhan and of course Amhrán na bhfiann. These all had to be sung with passion. We were ready to march out of our classrooms to save old Ireland at the end of our Friday afternoon singing session.

I was not affected by all this anti-British singing that was promulgated on us in our primary schools. Our man Piker was still spewing out the stuff he learned in school. He was part of that uneducated cohort of young Irish people who left Ireland in the 50s and early sixties to join the rough and tough Mc Alpines Fusiliers. As the song goes “McAlpine's God was a well filled hod, your shoulders cut to bits and seared, and woe to he who looks for tea, With McAlpine's fusiliers

Piker and many more like him were criticising the British system and the money with the Queen’ image. Yet here they were earning their living in England, but they did not like to have the queen’s face on the money in their pockets. Regretfully they spoke disparagingly about royalty.

Our man Piker was in his fifties, unmarried and had never been home to Ireland since he left on the boat so many years ago. His big treat was a visit to the Galtymore in Cricklewood or to meet his mates from Kilburn. Anyway, he told us that they were putting a crew together to do footings on this new building site, and he knew the gaffer. We were asked if we had any experience in the building trade and we replied in the affirmative.

I had never heard of footings, but I was soon to find out. There was a huge building site in Basildon in Essex where they were building a new town. The brikkies were laying the blocks and we followed after them laying sewage pipes .We also followed with chisel and hammer inserting a pipe through the appointed measured place for gas and electric wires etc. It was tough enough work, but it was all above ground and the pace was steady enough, so we stuck it out for a summer’s work and the money was good. We were earning far more here than we were from teaching at home. The collection van here was picking up at the more respectable hour or of 7 am.

A bonus here was that there was ‘The Barge” a big tavern where most of the workers went for a sandwich and a pint of light and bitter at lunch time. I will always remember the man driving the dumper truck. His lunch consisted of 5 pints of light and bitter and his whole break was spent in the pub.He generally consumed 22 pints a day, he told us, and his driving of the dumper was rather erratic, frequently knocking down foundations. Lunch was always a Shepherd’s pie. Those were the days.

At weekends we visited some places where Irish people frequented. It was sad to see so many older Irish people living in abject poverty. Their only source of pleasure seemed to be excess drinking. The Irish centres were doing great work in helping, particularly the older spun out older Irish men finding them accommodation and providing meals.

I have been back to London several times over the years, and I remember in 2013 visiting some of the same areas I frequented in the late sixties. The Irish are still there but not in the same numbers. There is now a younger more ethnically diverse group residing there, some living rough. Drugs and their abuse have taken the place of the demon drink. It is so sad to see scenes of young people lying under bridges wrapped up in sleeping bags begging for the basics of food to keep them alive.and to think that they are the sons and daughters of some fathers and mothers.

It is so heartening nowadays to see a well-educated confident Irish cohort of young people voluntarily emigrating to England and taking many high-profile positions in business and finance, but we must still acknowledge our difficult years in the 50’s and 60’s.

I leave the last words to the Dubliners in their rousing song Mc Alpines Fusiliers

“They sweated blood and washed down mud with pints and quarts of beer

And now we’re on the road again with Mc Alpines Fusiliers. Mick O Callaghan 03/07/21

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