Monday, August 17, 2020

By Frank Taaffe

MIKE Robinson, born in this parish 77 years ago and now a long-time resident in Australia, sent me an email on 7 June which read:- ********** ‘Today is the 60th anniversary of my daring escape from Athy in June 1960.’ ********* What followed was an account of that ‘escape’ which brought him to England and then a year later to Australia by way of an assisted passage scheme. With Mike’s permission I have edited his account and hand over this week’s Eye to a former classmate.

“Back in those days I was working in the offices of Smiths of Cavan, a car/tractor dealership next door to the IVI in Leinster Street. When I finished work on Saturday June 5th I had a blazing row with my mother ….. in my anger I jumped on my NSU auto-cycle and headed for Kilrush, County Clare ….. John Purtill, who used to be the garage manager at Smiths of Cavan in Athy, returned to his native Clare and opened a garage in Kilrush ….. in my blind faith and ignorance I was sure he would give me a job ….. the trip to Kilrush turned out to be an overnight one. The top speed of the NSU was about 25 miles an hour, and after an hour or so riding at top speed the tiny engine overheated and had to be rested for half an hour. By nightfall I was still in Tipperary and less than half way to my destination. Around 11pm I pulled over and slept in a ditch while a gentle summer rain pitter-pattered down on me ….. around midday on Sunday I reached Kilrush. I asked around for John Purtill and was told he had gone away for the weekend ….. I turned the bike around and headed back towards Athy. Sunday night was again spent sleeping in a ditch in the middle of nowhere ….. I decided early on Monday morning to pack my bags, meagre as they were, and leave Ireland. England it would have to be, but I didn’t know anyone there except my uncle John, and I had no idea where he lived in England ….. I went to my grandmother’s house to get uncle John’s address in England ….. she didn’t have his address ….. however, she had an address for an Irish woman she used to work with in years past ….. the address she gave me was in Surrey ….. I went home and quietly packed a few belongings into an old cardboard suitcase that belonged to my sister. Then I zipped down to the post office on my bike and cashed in my savings stamps, which amounted to about £12, giving me £18 to finance my new start in life. I hitched a lift to Dublin from where I caught a bus out to Dun Laoghaire to board the overnight cattle boat to Holyhead. The boat was packed with Irish labourers returning from short summer holidays in Ireland. Many of them were drinking heavily ….. at Holyhead the boat passengers disgorged into a waiting train that soon departed for London. It was a restless night for me surrounded by drunks. At Euston Station early on Tuesday morning I found scenes that were totally foreign to me. The scale of activity at the train station dwarfed anything I’d ever seen in my life and I knew I might never again live in a place where I knew everyone either by sight or by name.

[Mike safely reached the address given by his grandmother and there met her old friend and her husband who lived in the basement of a large house. Both were in service with responsibility of keeping the house boilers stoked with coal.]

For the next three months I slept on a sofa in the basement of that magnificent house ….. despite living in a sooty-black basement with my grandmother’s friend, her husband and an incontinent hen named Polly, things were looking up. There was a London Transport bus depot in Reigate so I applied for a job there as a bus conductor. What I didn’t know was that the minimum age for London Transport bus conductors was 19. I was only 17 years and one month old at the time ….. at this remove I can’t recall how or why I persuaded myself that I could get someone I hardly knew back in Ireland, a person of utmost respectability and public piety, to provide me with a falsified birth certificate. But that’s what I did ….. I wrote a short letter to the sacristan in Athy telling her the predicament I was in and asking her if she could get me a birth certificate stating I was born in 1941. The certificate arrived almost by return post and I became a London Transport bus conductor before the end of June 1960, probably the youngest bus conductor in the history of London Transport.’

Mike emigrated to Australia the following year where he had a successful career. That same June 1960 some of Mike’s former classmates sat their Leaving Certificate exams in the C.B.S. school in St John’s Lane. Many of them were destined to follow in Mike’s trail and take the emigrant boat.

FRANK TAAFFE

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