Henry Wymbs chats to ninety-year-old Kilkenny man, Michael Quirke, who was just one of countless Irish people who crossed the ‘Pond’ many years ago to make a new life for himself in England


They say it is proof of old age to look back in time and youth to look forward. Certainly, Michael Quirke has many years to look back on as he celebrated his ninetieth birthday in January this year.

“I was born in the small parish of Lisdowney, near Ballyragget, in Kilkenny in 1934, the fourth of seven children. The village school became famous as one of the pupils, Martin Grace, went on to be a stuntman in Milk Tray adverts.
“The thirties and forties were a time of the horse and cart, well water and turf fires, which many Irish will remember.”
I suppose the early years were spent in the throes of post war austerity and rationing books?

“That’s right, unless you were well connected you struggled as everything was rationed. My father smoked the pipe and in the absence of tobacco he dried the tea leaves from the tea-pot and smoked them.

“We were lucky and had a small bit of land to grow oats and wheat which was used to make porridge and bread.
“My father used to rear pigs and when one got to about sixteen stone, we killed it and it lasted for the year. Mother kept turkeys and any spare ones were posted to relations in England. They would take a week or longer to get there!
“My father died in 1946 when I left school and went to work with various farmers around the area.

“Later I got a job with the Electricity Board and was paid £3 per week. It involved digging 6-foot holes and hand carrying huge poles across fields.
“If we came across rocks, we smacked a hole in them with a hammer, put a stick of gelignite with a wire into it, lit it and ran like hell. I still have shrapnel in my leg from one that misfired.”

When did you cross the pond?
“In 1953 I met a mate who was back on holiday from Southampton. After talking to him I decided to make the leap.
“To get the money needed to travel I sold my new bike for £8. Unfortunately I had got fags on ‘tick’ and the night before I left, the shopkeeper came knocking at midnight to get his money or fags back. I had smoked a lot of them so had to give him £2 out of my eight!

“We took the boat to Holyhead and travelled to Southampton. I now had £3 in my pocket but luckily managed to get a job at the power station and stayed there for six months until I was offered £3 a day for laying pipes and digging trenches.
“Lodgings were hard to come by in the fifties and good ones even harder.
“One room in Poole was full of bugs so we left in a hurry and slept in the cab of the lorry for a while.

“We did manage to find a place in Reading, but had to be back in by ten. Turned out to be an old barn with a bit of the roof missing which let light in.
“There was a row of six beds on each side with lino down the middle with six enamel buckets if you wanted to use the toilet!”

Continue reading in this year’s Saint Patrick’s Day Annual