The summer of 1941 was an important time for me, it was the time that I left the restrictive confines of school and made my first stab at trying to make a living. Of course in the grand scheme of things, my own trials and tribulations didn’t matter that much at all. The whole world had been gripped in war for nearly two years. Most of Europe was under the grip of the axis powers, the Nazis were still poised for their big offensive against the Soviets, and the Japanese were running riot against the Chinese.
Of course we didn’t know any of that at the time. Old Dev had declared Ireland as strictly neutral. This meant that there was censorship of the newspapers, death notices were edited to remove mention of the war, the army was called up, and ‘dissidents’ were interned in the Curragh. Though we weren’t at war, we were in a state of alert, a time we all came to call the emergency.
Because of the general mayhem going on all around us, shipping coming in and out of Ireland became more and more infrequent. That meant, that food, fuel and other essentials were in increasingly short short supply. Rationing was on the cards for all of us and our use of everything from electricity to transport heavily regulated. One of my many duties around the house was to keep watch for the ‘glimmerman’ a studious bollix who would check in the windows of the house to look for the tell tale blue glow of a gas hob in use outside the permitted times.
Because life at home was in many ways even worse than in the countries at war, many young people at that time took the boat to Britain. The pay was better over there for the skilled industries and you could get some decent grub if you worked in a protected industry. I could see hundreds of people getting on the mail boat, sailing over to a new life. Four of my Aunts were among them at the time, all getting jobs serving the British war effort, three never returning. Although Ireland stayed neutral, and some may have called you a traitor, during the war there was no prohibition on going over to fight. It was a simple manner of going to the appropriate foreign mission and joining the British, or if you preferred, the German army. Both of these factors meant that I entered the workforce into a severely depleted labour market.
With most of the young men and the like gone, this meant that there was plenty of vacancies for a young gurrier such as myself to find a decent job. It was kind of a win-win really since as I was so young, it meant that I would get some paid employment and that whoever I was working for could get someone to do the job at only half the cost of the people that I was replacing. I think that everybody was happy with this arrangement.
I was told by my Granddad within only three or four days of finishing school that I was to attend the GPO in the morning the next day to be inducted as a telegram boy. Induction as they call it now, or showing the ropes for you more modern people. The job didn’t need much in the way of training, we were there to bring telegrams and post orders to houses all through the Dublin area.
I was assigned to the Liberties, over in the southside, on the off chance that I wouldn’t know anyone there. That was high hopes at the best of times. It turns out that there were seven distant cousins on the route of my first delivery. They made sure I bowed to the request of everybody else on the route for certain ‘concessions’.
That basically meant that if it looked like money or a way of getting money, like the western union money orders, then we were to rush it to the recipients. If on the other hand, the letter beared the post mark of the council, the tax man, or any of the other likely sources of bills, then it would be expected that we would look the other way if they were to fall off the bicycle, under the nearest tram, then got eaten by a dog, while it was raining. If you kept your side of the bargain, then you were virtually guaranteed a good tip from each of the houses you visited. It came to be that Bills would only get delivered when they were at the final demand, last notice, the bailiffs are ready to knock down the door stage, these had to be delivered by courier, harder to bribe them. Of course the lads running use knew exactly what we were up to, but sure they did the exact same thing when they were our age. So they never said a thing.
Of course the powers that be did have to look like they were doing something about the blatant corruption so we were regularly shifted to different routes. I must have delivered to all of the houses in the city. I have to say that I rather visited the more modest regions of the city, you got better tips from the Liberties or out around Inchicore, than you ever did from Clontarf or Sandymount. I think they appreciated us more. The little money order from England or the States was often the only lifeline a young mother or ageing widow had.
It wasn’t just cycling around delivering post that we did though. There were other duties for young lads in the office. Our favourite had to be collecting the post from the mail boat. There were all kinds there, husbands and sons preparing to travel to England, and potential danger, some even to go to war, mothers and wives waiting for news, sometimes a body. All of that over the realisation of all entering the boat, that the U-Boats were still on patrol and they never paid heed to the Tri-Colour on the stern of the boat.
David, his real name, but he insisted on being called Daithi, was the Van driver who would bring me over to the Dock from home early in the morning would point out all of the subtle interplays happening underneath the scene. He would point to a woman saying goodbye to a young man and say “See her. That is the fifth man that she has waved goodbye to this year. She has another too on the go in the city, one a Guard and the other a pilot in the Air Corp. I drink in her local. I don’t think they know what she does with the others. A right slut she is!”
He would also point out to me two shadowy figures who would wait in the alleys by the boat, “That there is ‘Gunther’, the other is ‘Klaus’. I don’t know their real names, that is just what everyone here calls them, they’re Germans, up to no good.” Gunther or Klaus would be there nearly every morning we were. Often they would meet someone who would get off the boat, or hand over packages to other shady characters before they got on. Once or twice there would be someone new with them. Someone we had never seen before.
I always thought that it would be wise to not say anything but not Daithi. He didn’t give a shite! I remember him once calling over to one of them, Gunther I think it was, while he was leading this other lad to the gang plank. The waved at them shouting “How is it going Lads! Guten Morgan! Heil Hilter!” Gunther just stopped and stared while the other man stood to attention and nearly raised his arm. Daithi wasn’t phased a bit, He finished what he was doing, and came back giggling to himself. “You should have seen Gunther’s face after your man went to salute!” He said to me “He’s not going to last long!”
Of course the war didn’t just intrude with that kind of closed-door intrigue. Sometimes it came very close to us. The German bombers sometimes got lost and dropped their bombs on us. I remember the raid on the North Strand, I was only a few weeks in the job and still tired from the change in the routine. I was waked by loud bangs like thunder. We all went outside, still in our pyjamas, and watched the flames coming from down the road. I knew a few people who died that night. Some of them had worked with Granddad.
Still we did not get it as bad as those up the North. We had all heard the stories from the Fireman who had gone up to help in Belfast, about how bad it would get. We knew how lucky we were. Others also knew how comparatively safe Dublin was. Soldiers stationed in the North started to cross the border, to take advantage of the peace. While we were neutral, if they took off their uniforms, the authorities had no problem with them. You could still spot them in the crowd. Especially the Canadians and later, the Yanks. They were so much better fed than us, built like they could win the grand prize in the spring fair. There wasn’t very many of them, but if they more than made up for it with the impact they made.
My mother got to know a fair few of them. She did better with then than she ever did with sailors. She would come home with gifts from them, nylon stockings, fancy clothes, even, lord oh lord, chocolate. I never had chocolate much when I was young, even in peacetime, I made out like a king. In the winter of 1944, she met one fella, a bit older than the rest. He took a real shine to her and asked her to wait for him. I don’t know what came over her, but she agreed to it. She quietened down a lot and stopped most of her wanton ways. At the end of the war she got a letter, asking he to join him in Canada. It also had some money for the trip. Now Mother loved me, I know she did, but she hadn’t raised me, she knew I was better with my grandparents. She left in the night, bound for Cobh and the boat to America. We hardly heard from her again. I thought I was going to cry more, but I was growing up, and I just took it with typical Slavic stoicism.
With the war over the shipping lines reopened and things got back to normal, or about as normal as they could be here. By then I was fifteen, turning on sixteen, getting too old to work as a telegram boy. It was time for me to get a real job.
I should have expected it when Granddad came in a announced that he was going to get me in as a trainee driver down the docks, so I could follow him, like a son should. I should have been polite, refused gradually, or even took the job and treated it like a stepping stone, but I wasn’t like that. I had spent all my early years learning about this big, wonderful world and I could just sit there and let it slip by. Adventure is in my blood and I wanted to make some of my own.
I told him then and there no and before he could argue, I marched out of the house and down to the docks, to find a ship, a job and a new direction in my life.
And that, is the next part of my story