Those of us in Kilkenny who have lived longer than the one-time biblical expectancy of life – three score and ten years - are often amused when we hear young people complain about how difficult life is now. We’ve all had it so good for many years that anything less seems dreadful. But no matter what austerity those who govern us impose – be they German, French or the Irish ‘muppets’ we elected -- we are still far better off than most people were back in the late 40’s and early 50’s.
In the mid 50’s there was a weekly procession of half-hungry youngsters trailing across the city towards the railway station. These young men and girls were heading for places like London, Manchester and Birmingham seeking work. But the difference between then and now is that our young people are currently well educated, much older when emigrating and almost always leaving Ireland with enough money in their pockets to tide them over for a few weeks. The emigrants of the mid-1950’s, many of them schoolmates of my own, had seldom more than the primary cert, were barely 15 or 16 years old and very little money left in their pockets after paying the rail and boat fare.
I recall a childhood friend of mine leaving McDonagh station with a battered suitcase held closed with the belt of an old raincoat. Inside that suitcase was a change of underwear, a shirt or two, a few socks, a patched overalls and a pair of well-worn FCA boots. Having accompanied him to the station that Friday afternoon I insisted on giving him the loan of a red ten shilling note. That ten bob note was about one third of my wages as an apprentice in the ‘Kilkenny People’. I had a bit of difficulty explaining to my late mother why my contribution at home was less that week – but she eventually understood.
My departing friend was about 15 years old, heading to Manchester with only the faint hope of getting a job in Salford where a Kilkennyman was general foreman. Incidentally, this young man returned home on holiday to Kilkenny three years afterwards and made it a point of handing me back the few bob I loaned him. He had a few nightmarish times at first, including sleeping in a Manchester doorway. Fortunately, he did eventually find permanent work, married a nice girl he met in England and was living comfortably in a Council house on the outskirts of Manchester when I heard from him last.
There were very few jobs in Kilkenny at that time, some work was to be had as messenger boys and shop assistants – almost every shop in the city had one – but they only paid a pittance and the hours were very long. Servant girls were also employed in the houses of the better-off class, but again wages were virtually only pocket money.
There was the brewery, the boot factory and a couple of mills in Kilkenny – but wages were very small with ‘short-time’ and ‘seasonal work only’ all too common. Some wealthy farmers treated their workers like animals, many agricultural workers at the time were forced to sleep in haybarns, work from dawn to dusk and almost beg for their wages at the end of the working week. Tradesmen such as carpenters, plasterers etc. found work difficult to get and when they did find any – had problems getting paid.
Families were generally large and many children – especially in urban areas - had barely enough to eat. Only those in the professions such as clergymen, doctors, solicitors etc. owned cars and it was a luxury for a working class man to have a decent bicycle.
Housing in both rural and urban areas was deplorable, outside toilets, no bathrooms, no hot tap water or central heating. In rural areas it was often worse, with families of perhaps eight or more existing in a two-bedroomed cottage with a ‘dry toilet’. In summertime the rivers Nore and Dinan were nature’s playground for everyone, spots such as ‘Sandy Banks’, ‘Greenvale’, ‘The Rock’ and ‘The Metal Bridge’ were thronged at weekends with adults and children alike. It cost nothing to enjoy sun-bathing or swimming and at least one family I knew had only one swim suit between three brothers. When the eldest brother had his swim he dressed and gave the wet ‘togs’ to the next fellow and so on.
Compare this with what we have today? – most families own a car, many go on a couple of foreign sun-holidays every year, houses have more than adequate space and facilities and I don’t believe that there is anyone hungry in Ireland today. OK! There might be an isolated case when someone may not have enough food – but that’s mostly because they foolishly spent their money on alcohol or cigarettes etc. The Social Welfare payments nowadays are just about adequate for someone to live on, if they budget wisely. Back in the ‘50s a tradesman who was out of work told me that what he collected at the local ‘Labour Exchange’ paid for a bag of coal, the rent on his Corporation house and very little else to live on for the week. In the next breath he continued by telling me that no matter how badly paid or difficult a job was, he made sure to be employed by the following week -- at anything – even a few hours casual work.
So if you feel deprived because you haven’t had a decent annual holiday, can’t afford to change the old car, or buy that designer dress – well times were far worse 50 or 60 years ago . . . believe me when I say that those of us who lived through the ‘hungry 40’ s and 50’s knew the real meaning of austerity.