My Unfinished Father – A Life Lived to the Full
A Life Lived to the Full
03/07/1938 – 18/10/2018
I was born in Belfast in Northern Ireland on 3rd July 1938, just fourteen months before the Second World War started for Britain. I don’t think the arrival of a small child in Belfast was a contributory cause of the War. At least, I think I was born then. My birth certificate states so and my mother always assured me that it was true.
My parents were Patrick Matier, usually known, unsurprisingly, as Paddy, or occasionally Pat. My Dad was a tall, well-built man, over six feet tall with dark hair and immediately before the War he wore a pencil thin moustache which made him look like Clark Gable. He had a very strange belief; that Jesus was exactly six foot tall and no one else in the world could be that height. So, it appears that all tall men were six foot one inch, or five foot eleven inches. No one else ever expressed this as a theory and I dismissed it as nonsense. And why Jesus should be working in Imperial measure could not be explained.
My mother was Agnes Fitzpatrick. She was sometimes called ‘Patsy’ by my father. I never knew why. She was quite pretty, to my eyes, and well, she was my Mum, so what else could I think. She was about five feet five inches. My Dad came from Lisburn, a town about eight miles south of Belfast, now elevated to the status of a city. He had been born on 17th March, St Patrick’s Day 1907. This may have been a reason for his being christened as he was. My mother was born in 1914, and she came from Anderson’s town, in West Belfast. They had married in September 1937.
My first memory was lying in my pram, placed at the front door of our house, with the breeze slightly fluttering the coverings. I suppose I must have been about twelve months old. Maybe I was. I have no idea why I remember this; I just do.
My next memory was, and here I can state the exact date, on the night of Easter Tuesday, 1941, the 15th to 16th April. That was the heaviest and most devastating air raid of the War on my home city. At that time I did not believe that any air raid shelters had been built on our street.
Before the War started, there was a belief, probably well founded, that the Luftwaffe did not have the range to reach Northern Ireland. With the surrender of France in June 1940, all that changed. Now they were flying from the Channel ports, in the case of Calais only twenty miles away from Dover. Again, I knew nothing of this at the time. This allied to the Luftwaffe’s practice of flying unhindered over the neutral Irish Free State left them with only a short hop of fifty miles to cover to reach Belfast. In many cases having over flown the neutral state they changed direction and attacked from the sea. At the time of the raid, I, of course, knew nothing of this.
My father and mother, my baby sister, Siobhan, and I, were gathered, sitting on the floor of the kitchen, underneath the kitchen table. Siobhan was sixteen months old, while I was about ten weeks short of my third birthday. My mother was constantly saying the rosary while my Dad was listening to the sound of aircraft engines passing overhead. At one stage he listened carefully to the noise from the sky and pronounced “That’s one of ours”. Several seconds later there was the sound of a large explosion, so his guess may have just have been wrong.
I do not know how long the raid lasted, but it was several hours and long after the War I learned that about 1100 people had been killed and about a quarter of the housing stock in Belfast was damaged or destroyed. I learned this many years after the War, because, as I now recall it, most people wanted to forget those years in the times after the conflict. We were not the only city ‘blitzed’ in this period. Liverpool, Manchester, Plymouth, Coventry, Birmingham and many others felt the weight of the Luftwaffe, especially London, which had suffered the ‘blitz’ for fifty seven consecutive nights in 1940.
Much later in life I read in Brian Barton’s splendid book, “The Belfast Blitz’, published in 2014, that there had been three major attacks on Belfast. These had been on 7-8 April 1941; the 15-16 April 1941; (the Easter Tuesday raid ) and on 4-5 May 1941. As we now know Hitler, in his wisdom, invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941 so his full attention was elsewhere. Between these dates and the end of the War there were only occasional Luftwaffe intrusions over Northern Ireland.
At some stage during the War, I remember my mother taking me into Belfast centre to look at a downed German aircraft. I don’t know if it had been shot down over Northern Ireland or not, but there it sat, somewhere in the city, amid the ruined buildings, black and squat with black crosses on it, and looking to my immature eyes, thoroughly evil. Later I was able to identify it as a Dornier Do 17. I do also remember the effects of the bombing with ruined and collapsed buildings everywhere.
We had a squadron of Hurricanes at Aldergrove, our local RAF station, but at that stage in the War they were not really suitable for night flying interception.
I remember having a gas mask, and apart from once, I do not remember ever wearing it. I also have this belief there were Mickey Mouse gasmasks for children.
The War affected everything we did in those years. It affected the adults more than the children, as they were aware of a different life prior to 1939 and could make comparisons. As a child, I could not remember anything else so had no comparisons to make.
I do recall, on learning that my sister, Siobhan, had ‘German measles’, now known as rubella, and that I was absolutely furious with her, demanding of my mother why couldn’t she have ‘British’ measles. Hatred of the Germans and Germany at that time was felt by many people, something that attached itself even to children.
We lived in a small lower working class house in South Belfast, number 118 Donnybrook Street. Not that I realized it at the time, but it was a fairly poor area but all the streets surrounding us were the same, We had two up, bedrooms, and three down, a living room, a ‘parlour’ only used on Sundays , and a kitchen. I think my folks rented all the time they lived in the house.
Our house was gas fired and we used to light the lights every might. We had a radio, or wireless as they were more usually called in those times. This was powered by a large rechargeable battery. As I grew older I was often sent on small errands, to pick up bits of shopping. This, in Ulster parlance, was called ‘running a message.’ Running was not mandatory and certainly no messages were exchanged. When the neighbours so requested, the ‘message’ was often rewarded with a sixpence, about two and a half pence in today’s money.
I was asked on one occasion to go shopping to the grocer’s at the ‘half’ for a gas mantle. I got it and then explored, taking it out of its container. Stupid boy that I was, I poked a hole in it, to my Mum’s deep annoyance.
Our street was a long one running downhill from the Belfast to Lisburn road. It was divided by a road which ran across at right angles about half way down. On one of the corners of this road was situated Tommy Clark’s grocer shop. Waitrose or Tesco’s it was not. Sawdust on the floor was what I remember. This was the ‘half.’’
On another occasion I was asked by my Dad to take the battery to be recharged. We sometimes listened to Lord Haw-Haw on the radio, not that I understood what he was banging on about. The batteries were exchanged for fully charged ones at premises, now long forgotten, about half a mile away for half a crown, equivalent to twelve and a half pence. I took off carrying what was a fairly heavy item for a seven or eight year old and on the return journey, managed to drop the newly charged version smashing it totally. Dad was not best pleased but probably blamed himself.
In 1947 all the houses in the street were switched on to mains electricity to my joy as i could now listen to the radio without too much fuss and to my favourite programme ‘Dick Barton Special Agent.’ This was subsequently replaced by ‘Journey into Space.’ The adventures we shared with the broadcasters! Despite the change, it was another year or two, from memory, that the street lighting stopped being gas supplied.
My Dad was a ‘handyman’, by occupation, and, it seems in his private life as well. When my sister arrived she slept in my parent’s room for a few years, before it became obvious she needed her own room. This was particularly so after the arrival of a second sister, Aileen, in 1944. My Dad’s solution was to break into the roof space and construct a third bedroom there. In later years he turned the ‘attic’, as it was called, into a double bedroom. This involved a loft ladder to give access. This provided much opportunity for fun on the ladder and for falling off amid gales of laughter from siblings.
We had a long uncovered back yard with a large bunker at the bottom for coal on the right hand side with the toilet on the left. Dad turned his attention to this and constructed, or had constructed, a glass roof over the whole yard. He then set about building a bathroom and transferring the kitchen and all its amenities into the yard. At the back of the yard was what we called an ‘entry’ a long alleyway through which the houses and those whose backs we ran up against backed, were serviced. The ‘bin’ Lorries used the back entry to collect rubbish as well as the pig food collectors of food scraps and rag and bone men.
The glass roof over the yard proved to be vulnerable to snow gathering on the sloped roof of the house and sliding off, when melting, on to the glass roof of the yard, breaking the glass. This my father overcame by constructing a baffle plate on the roof so that the snow built up against it and melted slowly.
Having acquired a lot of extra space, he later began to experiment by growing, successfully, tomatoes. Later still he changed to attempting to develop a small tobacco patch. I do remember the leaves which when ripe he would curl up and attempt to smoke. I never did know if this was successful, or if he enjoyed his new hobby. He was, by custom, a pipe smoker, while my mother smoked cigarettes. Just about everyone smoked in those days. The tobacco growing lasted for one year so presumably it was not a success.
In retrospect I realize that my Dad was a very remarkable man. I also think that perhaps my parents owned their house, despite my earlier comments as I cannot imagine a landlord permitting all these works to proceed otherwise.
We lived in Donnybrook Street, a street full of good honest God fearing folks, I am sure. During the War and for a good number of years after it, there were no cars in the street but there were a number of horses and carts. Milk, bread, coal and I suppose many other necessary items were brought to our homes by the good old horse. They continued to plod their way around until well into the 1950’s when electric vans eased these horses into retirement. I remember in 1956 when returning for Christmas leave I met our bread man at the top of the street and he gave me a lift on his bread cart to my house.
We had a very small postage stamp of a front garden which had an iron fence; in truth it scarcely qualified as a garden at all. At some stage a group of workmen came around and took down the fence and carted the railings away on the back of a lorry. It wasn’t just our house, but every house in the street.
“Why are they taking our railings?” I asked Dad.
“To make Spitfires” was his entirely satisfactory reply. As they might say nowadays, ‘other aircraft were available’ but my mind was owned by the iconic Spitfire.
From a very early age, I recognised the Spitfire as an iconic aircraft, even if it was many years before I learned the meaning of ‘iconic.’ As I grew older, I began to make model aircraft and the ‘Spit’ always featured high on my list. I made one splendid model of balsa wood and glue and covered in paper which was coated in resin. It was then decorated with authentic RAF roundels and markings.
This splendid beast was fitted with a propeller and a rubber band secured to a bar inside the aircraft to enable it to fly. I then told everyone that there would be a test flight at 2pm in the street outside the house.
Five or six kids gathered and I duly made an appearance with the aircraft. They all stood about 20 yards away, silent, and watching. I duly wound up the engine and let it fly. To my delight and anxiety, the Spitfire took off and flew at about four feet of altitude; it flew for about 25 feet before touching down and skidding into the watchers. I was overjoyed and the kids were silent. Then my sister jumped up and with both feet came crashing down on my beloved ‘Spit.’
I took off and hurtled towards my sister. We were close to home and if I had caught her I would have murdered her on the spot but she reached our front door before I did and slammed the door. This is the reason that Siobhan was not murdered and is still alive and living in Wales. She completely denies the story but I was there and put her actions down to jealousy.
Investigations long after the War indicated that much of what was collected could not be used, sadly. However, the exercise did give people a sense of being involved, in contributing to the war effort. Not that I understood any of that at the time. I had never noticed the railings before they were taken away, but making Spitfires was something close to my tiny heart.
As I grew older, I played with the other children in my street. We played out on the streets because there was nowhere else to go. We used the air raid shelters, now built in the streets, but largely unused for protection, for all kinds of things; pirate ships, tanks, and shelters from the rain. I do not remember using our model guns to play fighting between the British and our mortal enemies the Germans, as no one would volunteer to be German. Better to be a cowboy against the Indians, or vice versa, whom we all saw as savages and therefore worthy of destruction. Ah, the influence Hollywood wielded in those far off times. Indians were called Indians in the 1940’s and not Native Americans.
We painted cricket wickets on the sides of the shelters and played a strange form of the game, where it was only necessary to protect your legs from being struck by the ball. Scoring runs did not come into it. There were practically no cars around at the time and if you did have one, you couldn’t get petrol to run it. I think we called this form of cricket ‘French’ cricket. God knows why; the French did not play it.
As we grew older, after the War, we trekked the one mile to Windsor Park football ground and played the proper game in the car park, with wickets painted on the walls of the stadium. Local rules applied here with the primary one being any shots which went into the football ground counted six and out. This included a climb by the offending batsman over the wall into the football ground to retrieve the ball, exiting frequently being very much more a hasty exercise pursued by the grounds man.
Well, balls were expensive.
Meanwhile the War drifted on. I do not recall, and I was young, that anyone believed other than we would win the War. There was certainly much rejoicing when the USA entered the War in 1941. Better late than never, I suppose. Perhaps I am deluding myself here as I am sure that in Ulster many Nationalists would have been happy to see Britain lose. Their narrow viewpoint prevented any thinking about the consequences.
The next distinct memory I have was 6th June 1944 when early in the morning we were all awakened by a loud banging on the front door. The Allies had landed in Normandy, a great occasion for rejoicing. Further celebrations happened in May 1945 on the surrender of Germany and again in August of the same year with Japan’s defeat. The latter time was perhaps somewhat muted by considerations on the dropping of the two atom bombs. But it was not to me. I was seven and we had won the War.
At this stage I got involved in collecting things, much as all the other kids were doing. This included Dinky toys and stamps. Everyone seemed to collect stamps then, boys and girls. It is a hobby I continue to this day. Sometime in 1946 or 1947, a new set of stamps was issued featuring King George VI and included values up to sixpence. I remember trotting up to the Post Officer to buy them. That must have cost me a shilling! God knows where I got the money.
In September 1943 school intervened and would keep intervening for the next eleven years. Being a Catholic family, I went to a Catholic school, St Bridget’s. No thought was given to this, you just did it. The State schools were considered to be for Protestants and the very few Catholics who dared venture there. I only knew one family, the Browns, who were Catholic, and who lived at the bottom of our street, went to the local State school, Fane Street.
My mother took me to school for my first visits. I do remember that I embarrassed myself. There were double desks with lift up lids under which you kept your books and other bits and pieces. I got into my desk the wrong way round and sat facing the child behind me. Clearly I was a very stupid boy. Having adjusted the direction I was facing I settled down, but not for long. At some stage I explored my environment and lifted up the lid of the desk only to drop it again with a huge bang.
Not a great first day then.
Despite spending five or six years there, I do not remember very much about the place. It was built next door to a Catholic Church of the same name; St Bridget’s. Religion was very important in those days, really important.
We were required to bring some lunch with us to eat and when the war was going on, in truth, there was little enough to bring. Milk, in glass bottles, was delivered to the school and provided free for the pupils. In winter, the milk froze in the bottles which were one half or one third of a pint. For some reason we collected the milk bottle tops which were made of cardboard.
Lunch was simple, usually jam sandwiches, or occasionally fish paste. The height of cuisine it was not, but it was about all that was available. There was, of course, large scale rationing throughout the entire country and luxuries could not be bought except on the ‘black’ market. Whether my parents used the black market I have no idea.
I can remember some of the teachers’ names. Miss Mullan was headmistress. She was a large woman with the habit of sitting on top of a desk during her lessons, displaying her pink bloomers. She was ghastly.
Then there was Mr Gunning, a quiet introspective man who was deputy head and finally Mr Murray, quite a young chap. Towards the end of my time at St Bridget’s he was in charge of the football team. I think I played at least once, having discovered that there was a right way and a wrong way to head the ball.
There may have been others but I do not remember any of them. Between them they sought to involve their charges with the three ‘r’s and more or less succeeded because I left school in 1950 being able to read and write and do sums.
To get to school we had a walk of about two miles and had to cross the main Belfast to Dublin road. There were no motorways in those days. My mother took me for a short period and then, at age five, as I recall it, I walked on my own. A year or two later I was given the task of escorting my sister to school. It would not, could not be done today.
During the six years at St Bridget’s religion came to play a bigger and more intrusive part in the life of the school. The presence of the church next door was very conducive to this. We had a Monsignor as Parish Priest. His name was Ryan and he was quite handsome, for a priest. At least all the eleven year old girls had their hearts set afluttering.
No, I don’t know why either, but he was a frequent visitor. I cannot at this distance remember what he told us but I am sure it was how to be good little Catholics. These things all happened in the days before we were aware of the Church’s part in the child sex scandals of the 1960’s onwards when the Catholic Church, in Ireland, at least, lost its moral authority.
When I was older and looking back I understood that in rural Ireland, at any rate, most social affairs were controlled by a triad of the local parish priest, the local headmaster, or headmistress and the local Police or Garda sergeant. This did not work for Protestant Northern Ireland, but the Catholics tried even harder there to keep their flocks under control.
From time to time we were all harvested up from school to walk the few yards to the church to have things explained to us. This was done by Dominic, a very intense man, who clearly believed every single word he imparted to his young pupils. In turn, I recall believing everything he said at the time. I do not know what his job was but it was something along the line of church verger.
I remember one incident when he pointed out a lamp hanging from the ceiling of the church which, was, I believe, red and had a naked flame in it.
“This,” he said, “shows that God is present in this Church.”
I considered this for a moment. “And if there is no light showing, does that mean that God is not in the church?”
Dominic gave me a withering look. “No, it means that I have forgotten to fill it up with oil.” What a stupid boy I must have been.
My parents were Catholic, as I have explained previously. But, from a distance, it now occurs to me that they were different kinds of Catholics. My mother had a deep belief which seemed to accept everything without thinking about things or making up one’s own mind. My father generally kept his thoughts to himself. In later life I determined this was because Dad’s father was one of nine siblings, all Presbyterians.
Dad’s father had changed his religion to Catholicism to get married. This was what the Catholic Church did in those days. It was a form of coercion. The instruction was simple; become a Catholic and bring all your children up as Catholics. I think it would be very rare these days, but they got away with it in the early 1900’s. And not just then; when I got married in 1958 my wife and I had to make the same promise, without either of us intending to keep it. We never ever met or spoke about my father’s eight other uncles or aunts. I only learned about them and met with their descendents when I was in my sixties. God help us.
My Dad’s father had died in the 1930’s before I was born and his mother lived for another thirty odd years as a widow. Equally I never knew my maternal grandfather and always assumed he had died, again before I was born.
My mother decided to volunteer me as an altar boy, or altar server. I was not consulted and dutifully I turned up for some instructions in the noble art of serving at Mass. I cannot remember now at what age I started or when I finished. I was never sexually assaulted by a priest, but I was physically smacked across the face for laughing when a Father MacPhillips was reprimanding another boy. May God bless you, father.
In later life I worked out that this was part of Mum’s master plan to turn her first born into a priest. Many Catholic mothers adhered closely to giving their first born son to the Church. By the time I worked this one out I realised that I liked girls too much for this plan to work and that flying jet aircraft was the job option I preferred.
In those days the Mass was always in Latin. Even at my young age this struck me as being a bit perverse. The people spoke English; they did not speak Latin and most could not understand what was being said at Mass. As altar boys we were required to learn responses like “Et tu spiritu sanctum” and “Dominus vobiscum”. We did not understand Latin either, but we had been taught to repeat these meaningless phrases at given times and, like good little boys, we did as we were told.
The Latin mass has largely disappeared now, as far as I know and mass is celebrated in the national languages throughout the world. At least I think it is as I have long since stopped attending.
Apart from retaining such things in my mind for about seventy years, I received nothing from my time as an altar server. We did wear a black sultana and a white surplice while in church. This was very chic.
The best thing I can recall about this period was that at a wedding, when the happy couple decided to arrange a mass along with the marriage ceremony, the altar boys were always tipped a half crown each, by the best man, which was a considerable sum when one was ten or eleven years old. Today it is twelve and a half pence. And thinking about things, I suppose the happy couple did not have a choice about Mass; it was part of the deal.
In due course I sat for and passed the eleven plus examination. I cannot recall what the subjects were but I do remember that it was pretty easy. I can only suppose, this far removed from it, it was made easy so that all but the most unfortunate did pass. Well, good for me. This meant that I could progress my education by a further five years. The school my parents picked was St Malachy’s College, a Catholic, (of course) Boys Grammar School, on the Antrim Road in Belfast. I attended here from the autumn of 1950 until the spring of 1954.
I do not, at this distance, recall if the school was fee paying or part of the State system. I do recall seeing, when first I went there with my mother, that she was presented with a bill for four shillings and three pence, for books. Hmmmm. I do not ever remember seeing another bill. The first year involved a five and a half day week. Saturday morning was a total waste of time as far as I was concerned as it was taken up with non-subjects. By year two it had been dropped.
It was probably around this time that I turned into an ardent Nationalist. Don’t worry, it did not last long and no animals were hurt during the time it lasted. I think this happened because of the ‘pap’ I was fed at school and from my parents, especially my mother. Any reading material in the house was usually associated with the Nats. My mother used to take me to visit her mother, Mrs Fitzpatrick, a lady of whom I have no happy memories.
She was, I think, a widow with four grown up children. She was, to be polite, an old fashioned lady. “Hold your tongue” was what I can take from her and “Children should be seen and not heard,”
It was pretty boring, at whatever age I was, to sit down, doing absolutely nothing, listening to the two adults talking about people and things and folks of whom I knew nothing.
At different times, these visits coincided with demonstrations being held on the Falls Road, later to be known to the British Army as ‘Bandit country.’ The ‘demos’ were always policed by the RUC, the Royal Ulster Constabulary, but there was, in those years, no real violence. I do remember picking up a small Irish tricolour and carrying it home tucked up my sleeve. How brave I felt carrying it past all the policemen.
At that age, I had a vision of leading a wild, hairy Army of Republicans down from the hills, broadsword in hand and driving all the English out of Ireland forever. Somehow, by age nine or ten, this hatred of the English had been imbedded in a small boy by school, the church and my parents.
About the same time, I realized that the only English people that I knew were my next door neighbours, and I was related to them. My uncle, my Dad’s brother, Gerry, had been a professional footballer who had kept goal for a number of clubs, including Blackburn Rovers and in the course of playing sport had met and married a Lancashire girl, Edna, and had produced his first child, born in England.
Trevor was about a year younger than me and was a good guy. We were mates and I could not understand why anyone should hate him. He, and his mother, was also Catholic.
Gerry was, of course, a real hero to many in the family and Brendan, who lived in Lisburn, and whom I believed to be my uncle, kept a scrap book of his progress on the football field. I suppose it is safe to say that the best part of his career was before the war, playing for Blackburn Rovers, during which period they won promotion to the First Division.
After the war he returned to playing in England and I believe he was on Arsenal’s books for a period without ever making the first team. He retired about 1952 after spells with Plymouth Argyll and Torquay United.
I suppose the height of Gerry’s career was when playing for the Irish League side against the English League, which was won 1 to nil. The League sides were just one level below full Internationals. Something in my vague memory says that Gerry saved a penalty from Neil Franklin. Perhaps without the War he would have been capped by Northern Ireland.
Brendan lived in Lisburn in my grandmother’s house. I thought that he was my father’s younger brother. I called him Uncle Brendan. He was actually the illegitimate child of my Dad’s sister, Cissy. This was never spoken about. At that time families closed around unpleasant secrets and hid them. Cissy was a fat lady who sat very close to the fire, which left her legs mottled. Funny what you remember.
Sometime in the early 1950’s I fell in love with Princess Elizabeth. She was, after all, a very pretty lady in her 20’s. I had a photograph of her in my bedroom and my Dad always referred to her as ‘your girlfriend.’
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