Donall MacAmhlaigh was one of those tens of thousands who took the boat to Holyhead during the 1950s. Born in Knocknacarra, Galway, in 1926 into an Irish-speaking family, he worked in a series of jobs after leaving school aged 15, before joining the Army in 1948. Unable to find work after three years in the Army he emigrated to Britain where so many of his friends and neighbours had gone before him. His first job was a live-in stoker in a hospital in Northampton until low pay tempted him to swap security for the higher wages of life as a navvy.
Work as a labourer on the construction sites of post-war Britain was difficult and casual. Like other navvies, he had to follow the work, so he never put down roots in any one city, setting up temporary home in a succession of digs and camps. *
The navvy’s life contrasted with that of most Irish emigrants to Britain, who lived a more sedentary existence working in factories and hospitals.
The navvy life was tough. But the wages were decent and the camaraderie among the Irish ex-pats was one of the things that kept the men going. So too was the social life around the Irish bars and dance halls of the various cities and towns.
Donal kept a record of his time as a navvy in England, which was published as Dialann Deoraí in 1960, and was translated into English four years later. It is a vivid, engagingly written, and often moving account of the experience of being Irish in Britain during that pivotal period.
Here is an extract:
...’I then went over to the dance at the Shamrock and met plenty there. They’re all Connemara people that come here and it would go hard with you to find a word of English there...I left the dance a bit early as I had to go and find a night’s lodging for myself. I made my way down Harrow Road until at last I found a place to stay. I felt like going down to Ward’s in Maida Vale but at the same time I was a bit reluctant to do so as his wife Maire had thrown me out the year before for taking Packy out drinking.
‘Up I went to the bedroom that the landlady offered me. But I found a man in the bed already and damned if I knew what on earth to do Anyway, he told me to get in beside him which I did as I didn’t think I could get anywhere else at that time of the night.
A bloody big fellow he was and I nearly fell out of the bed as soon as I got into it. Talkative, too, he was and he told me that he spent most of his life over in Boston. He lost his wife a long time ago and had one daughter. This girl was responsible for his leaving America. She had been bad with asthma ever since she was born and he had spent years taking her from place to place hoping the poor creature would improve. He had spent everything he earned doing this; and isn’t it strange that, in the end, she didn’t get her health until they ended up here in this foggy city. So they’ve been here ever since - the daughter working in a hospital and the old man out navvying.
‘After I got his life story - a Murphy from Cork he was - he started giving out the Rosary and I answered him. I must say that this amazed me for long as I have been in this country this is the first time that I have come across two strangers in the same bed saying the Rosary together.’
*I am taking this piece from an interesting new book We Declare - Landmark documents in Ireland’s history, by Richard Aldous & Niamh Puirsell, published by Quercus, and on sale €27.60. Illustrated at times by the original documents, it brings history to life.