Two little “Aussies”

A short extract from Against the Wind: Memoir of a Dissident Dubliner

At the end of the war Da was home once again from England. He had got a job with a small builder doing mainly repair and maintenance work on some older houses in New Street.

Ma was very happy to have him home once more and sang as she went about her housework. She could even laugh when the clothesline broke and the clean washing fell to the ground. “Blast it, the bloody nuisance of a thing,” she said under her breath. “Ah sure Pat will fix up a new line when he gets in.”

Nothing was a worry to her then. “And it’s great to be living a natural married life again,” she confided in Mrs Foley across the fence as they both hung out the Monday wash. Mrs Foley laughed and said, “Now Kath, just remember what they say, ‘If you can’t be good, be careful.”’ And they both laughed together as women do in each others company when there are no men to overhear.

But though Da was happy enough to be working steadily he was thinking of the uncertainty of the ups and downs of the building industry and wondered if it would always be so in Ireland. He read the newspapers avidly to keep informed of the trends that were possible indicators to the economy and the foreseeable future for tradesmen like him.

“How would you like to go out to Australia, Kath,” he asked my mother one Sunday, as he looked up from reading one of the English Sunday papers. For the next few days the talk was all about Australia and we kids got in on the discussions and dragged out our school atlases to look at where Australia was in the world.

On the way to school as we walked up the Rathmines Road my younger sisters Mae and Doris and I chatted about “being Australians” and were overheard by a young woman walking with her newly commissioned soldier fiancé. “Oh are you little Australians?” she stopped to ask the girls.

“No. Not yet anyway. But we might be someday. If our Da can stay home from England and save enough money for us to go there,” Mae said innocently.

“So your Daddy can save more money here than he can when he works in England?” she asked. “I thought there was great money to be made in England the way everybody goes there.” She looked at her officer and smiled smugly. “So the streets are not paved with gold in London after all, darling,” she smirked.

Even at our childhood stage we had an understanding of the economic conditions that prevailed in the Ireland of the forties and fifties. We had heard Ma talk of how when men were away they had to keep “two homes” on one wage. I wanted to tell this smug bitch some of the realities of life and how the country could never survive without the emigrants remittances that came back delivered by the telegram boys each week.
I had heard the discussions in our house and in the homes of our relatives many times and over the years had come to understand more of the “grown-ups” talk. I looked up words like “emigrants” and “remittances” in the big dictionary that had been in our family “for generations” Ma had said when I asked where the “big book” came from.

But instead of confronting this woman who was after all only a few years younger than my parents I took my sister’s hands and walked away. When I told Ma what had happened and what I had wanted to say to the couple she just smiled and said, “One half of the country doesn’t know how the other half lives. Probably her officer fella is just back from Sandhurst”. This made my Da laugh and he explained that even those that managed to stay at home and did not have to “take the boat” would have relatives in England or America or Australia. That emigration was “a curse for some and a safety valve for others.”

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