Part Of My Heart Lives Here Margaret Casey

Dear Diary,

My decision to leave at the age of nineteen was not an easy one. My home in Connemara was – literally – a dozen feet from the Atlantic Ocean in front and about as close to a lake in another direction. However, it is not possible to survive on the beauty of a location. My father had been a boat builder, part of a family well-known for the quality of its workmanship, until his death about four years earlier. By this time my mother and one of my older brothers did what farming was possible on the almost barren land. My other older siblings had gone a variety of ways – two sisters to America where one had died in the flu following the First World War; a brother did brilliantly at university in Dublin while another sister went to teacher training college. I had not finished school due to my father’s failing health. There were two younger siblings and while, for a short period, I had collected and written down local folklore, once that task dried up so did any possibility of further remuneration. Hence, when an opportunity of paid employment came along, you might have thought I would have jumped at it. Life is not so simple. Fresh in people’s memories were the “Black ‘n’ Tans”. Ireland sought its freedom from England at the same time as the First World War was being waged so, short of manpower, those sent from the UK to hold the position sometimes behaved in ways which brought themselves, and therefore the British as a whole, into disrepute. That being said, there wasn’t really a choice. With two younger siblings at home, I decided to go.

The mental hospital in Claybury turned out to be very different to what I had anticipated. I lived in a time when mental illness was greatly feared – which probably accounted for the authorities having to go so far to find recruits to work in the hospital. However, working with the patients changed everything. I found many of them to be kindly, friendly people from the East End who mostly seemed driven to breakdown by abject poverty. It made me wonder where all the money Ireland was paying to England ended up – obviously it was not being used for the benefit for the people as a whole. 

Living in the Nurses’ Home had its compensations – company, for one. Some people at the hospital played hockey and I found I really enjoyed it. I also befriended two girls from Ireland, in England for much the same reason as me, and we enjoyed on our times off going to the Irish dances held at the dance halls in London. It was at a Tea Dance that I met the man I was to marry. Tea Dances were popular as at this time many places, including Nurses’ Homes had curfews. So a dance in the afternoon took some of the tension out of trying to get back in time. While my husband was from a place geographically close to my own, his circumstances were different. His people were farmers and, strangely enough, the reason he eventually came to England probably originated in him being left handed. It was still a time when the right hand was considered the only acceptable one. He told me he was never hit at school and his beautifully formed writing gave no indication of the difficulties he must have had. He did say he was clumsy around the farm and, having brothers who could do the work, when a job in a beet factory in a town about 10 miles away came up, he took it. That turned out to be the first time his health broke down. The conditions in the factory led to a breakdown and, as I have said, this wasn’t a time to wander outside the boundaries of physical illness. However, when he recovered, as he was strong he decided to join his uncle working on building sites in London. One day, while singing as he was working, someone tossed him some money. He laughed when he told the story but nobody else was surprised. He had a lovely singing voice and in company would often be asked for a song.

As well as the Irish not having the best view of the English, the English also held a very dim view of the Irish. The English thought the Irish to be dirty and notices such as “No Blacks, No Irish, No Dogs” could be seen where there were rooms to let. However, when we married we found a place in Camden. I was now working in a different hospital and he was working at a printers. He had given up working on building sites when he fell two floors. The job at the printers ended up being a life saver. He had joined a print union and, as a result, was later able to get a job at the Mirror, working in building maintenance. At that time, there was a “closed shop”. Certain jobs were only open to people in the union. Being in the union mattered because, within months of me giving birth to our first child, he fell ill. The union helped him keep his job.

The illness was the first of recurring bouts of endogenous depression which were to plague him all his life. In those times, when mental illness was barely understood, the best thing seemed to be to keep it to myself completely. So, when he was ill, I struggled in every way. To see someone you love suffering so greatly is totally agonising and there was nothing I could do. I prayed they would admit him to hospital but, too often, he was almost dead before this happened. I could not ask for help or talk about the situation to anybody. Would I and, more particularly, my children be ostracised? I couldn’t let it happen. The good part was the union. In more recent times, people have criticised unions. They have no idea.

I have mentioned the illness at length because when it happened it was as if life was put on hold and there was no mental space for me to deal with anything else. However, most of the time life was more normal. When we had money, we went “home” to Ireland. It wasn’t always that easy for a variety of reasons – families are never uncomplicated. Also, our own growing family here made me realise that ambitions at one time to return would not be realised. Money was not the biggest reason. The place I had come to with such misgivings and reluctance had, in the end, been the place I met my husband and raised my family. I am Irish and proud to be Irish – we have faults but so does everyone. Now, though, part of my heart lives here.

Diaries 5