1954 was an uneventful year in the town of Letterkenny, County Donegal in the North West of Ireland. Even by world news values, nothing of any great note or news value actually happened in that post-war year in Ireland. It is therefore very difficult to associate great happenings with the year of my birth unless we look further afield to the wider world.
Some of the worldwide events that did happen in 1954 were of little relevance to our own quiet existence at that moment in time, but these events would certainly play a larger role in our later lives and influences, and would pave the way for our later journeys and experiences of life away from the Emerald Isle.
In the United States at that time, Hollywood actress and ‘Sex Goddess’ Marilyn Monroe was married to American baseball hero Joe DiMaggio. The very first nuclear-powered submarine was launched. Food rationing had just ended in post-war England, and Burger King opened its first outlet in Miami Florida. Elsewhere, North Vietnam was overrun by the South Vietnamese and the new Boeing 707 Jet airliner was making its maiden flight.
Of course, none of these events were to influence my life in any big way, and my innocuous existence would certainly make no big contribution to world events either then or in the future. No famous people shared my birthday, and that was okay with me as I would never want anyone stealing my own little bit of thunder, if I was ever to possess some in the first place. The most boring day in history also occurred sometime in 1954, when newsmongers around the world struggled to find anything of interest to report. In short this was a pretty non-descript year for anyone to be born into.
Apart from all that, 1954 saw the birth of the Rock n Roll years with ‘Bill Hailey and the Comets’ releasing ‘Rock around the Clock’. A young unknown singer named Elvis Presley was also starting to build a career for himself, and what was to follow became the ‘stuff of legends’. This was an era of change, the war was behind us and the world was awakening to a new age of enlightenment. The baby boom was in its early years and I was to be a product of that. I was not destined to be famous or infamous. I was not going to be making a great impact of my own, or changing the world in any great way. I was however, about to embark on a life’s adventure that would ensure a lust for knowledge, a suspicion of authority, and a mischievous irreverence that even to the present day, has occasionally surprised or shocked the people around me. Someone once said that “the boy is father of the man” and it has taken me most of my life to make sense of this revelation. Indeed I now have no doubt that the influences and experiences that we are exposed to in our very young days certainly do shape and colour our future experiences and make us into the people we become. The person that I was to become was certainly not being shaped in my native Ireland, as any cultural development would take place across the Irish Sea in England. London would feature very large in my future, as would the rural back drop of Hertfordshire. England would give me a lot of opportunity and a lot of varied career paths, but most importantly, it would provide me with the ability, opportunity and stamina to change career directions almost as much as I changed my underwear.
We were living in a small housing estate called Mc Mahon Villas, but I don’t believe that my birth heralded many celebrations on that cold January morning within our humble household. I arrived at a time when my mother and father were facing real personal and financial difficulties. These difficulties were compounded by a later pregnancy which produced a ‘stillborn’ child who my parents had named Brendan. Severe post-natal depression followed, and resulted in protracted hospitalisations for my mother. All of this was to take its toll on our family and, under advice from our family doctor, an old chap named Mc Ginley, we would soon be emigrating from our native shores in search of a brighter and, hopefully, happier future.
My father’s hardware business had boomed during the war years; he, and his brother Patrick, had enjoyed great commercial success as they travelled the length and breadth of Ireland plying their trade. So successful was their business that they also traded with Northern Ireland and exchanged steel and iron with the British Government for allocations of aluminium which was fabricated into various household goods and exported abroad. Their bonded van would cross the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland several times a month and the profits of their labour were reinvested in the business of Ruth Brothers. Unfortunately the post-war years saw the economy of Ireland stagnate and my father’s business went slowly downhill to a point where it could not sustain itself any longer. This was exacerbated by a few inter-family disputes between the partners in the business which were never resolved.
Our family of five was in crisis and the only choice for survival was emigration to another country. My father had very little choice in the decision to emigrate and while he, at that time, described us as migrants, we would, today, be better described as ‘economic migrants’, the term now given to such things. The truth was that in the late 1950’s we were just another group of Irish immigrants seeking, not necessarily fame, but certainly a little fortune in another country. It had always been a sad part of Irish existence that most of its young people would emigrate; in fact, it was said in ‘jocular’ circles that “the reason the grass was greener in Ireland, was because we were all abroad walking on someone else’s”.
Ireland’s population had dwindled to less than four million, which had a massive influence on emigration, especially when you consider that prior to the famine of 1800’s it had possessed a population of over six million. A nationwide potato blight wiped out most of the crop which was the staple diet of the Irish people at that time, and any of the crop that had survived the blight was sent by the British overseers back home to England. Inevitably, starvation, poverty and a few pyromaniac landlords drove the Irish population away from their native land, with many of them ending up in America. Many of these perished on the long sea journey across the unforgiving Atlantic Ocean, but those who survived, became the building block of, what is now, the most powerful country on the planet. The population of Ireland has never recovered to its previous numbers, even up to the present day, and one wonders how differently Ireland may have fared had it retained its larger population moving into the twentieth century.
John James Marion Ruth entered this world on the 26th of January in that year of 1954, there are no photographs of either my arrival or my christening, so I can’t even lay claim to being a beautiful baby. My mother assures me that I was a beautiful baby, and that up until the age of three or four, I possessed a head of golden curls which all around me admired. For some obscure or unknown reason, my parents must not have possessed a camera at the time, although, I have pretty vivid memories of my father wielding a box brownie on various occasions since then. The same lack of photographs also applies to my brother, there is not one snap of either of us until the age of about five, we jokingly, claim to have been so ugly that my parents didn’t want pictures of us around the house, and mum would put a string of sausages around our necks so, at least, the neighbourhood cats and dogs would come and play with us. My brother was quite a poorly child having been born with some kind of vitamin deficiency, and while he enjoyed a fair deal of bad health, he also nurtured a habit of sticking knitting needles into electrical sockets for reasons best known to himself. Needless to say even at that young age, I never made a habit of holding his hand while he was engaged in such activities.
The other strange thing that I can find to complain about in retrospect, is the fact that my chosen names were never used, and I inherited and answered to the name Seamus. This is not unusual for children born in Ireland – parents christen you with names derived from past relatives or grandparents, and then end up calling you something completely different. I have always wondered at this strange phenomenon which seemed to occur a lot on Erin’s Isle, but it can be ‘hellishly’ difficult later on in life, when teachers, doctors and other officials require an explanation for the non-use of your given name. My names were going to cause me just a few minor problems in my future life for that very reason.
The addition of Marion was an even more unusual choice of name to give to a boy child, but it was given to me anyway. The explanation for this was that the Vatican under the leadership of Pope Pius the 12th allocated 1954 as a year devoted to the worship of the Virgin Mary. As the first child born to our Roman Catholic family in our town in 1954, it was thought appropriate that I should have the name Marion added to my christening names. This was always a cause of consternation to me, especially as I already possessed a female surname. I felt much better, when in later years, my father advised me that the other person that shared the name Marion with me was a famous Hollywood actor named John Wayne; The subject of my name was also to be taken up by a distant aunt of ours, named Essie, who was living in Phoenix Arizona at the time. She wrote an article in a Phoenix newspaper explaining the origins of her most recent nephew’s chosen name, and we always joked in later years, that I was already enjoying my fifteen minutes of fame in the United States. In fact, this same aunt, was later sponsoring all of our family to go and live in the United States, and plans were already well advanced in this venture.
When Johnny Cash penned his famous song “A boy named Sue” he was blissfully unaware that the song applied equally to me and my brother, we became known as “two boys named Ruth”. We were to receive plenty of ‘stick’ about our surname in years to come, and many a playground brawl would result in the possession of the name Ruth and its female connection. They say that ‘whatever doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger’, and I think we have proved this theory to be quite correct over a few decades now. The nickname ‘Ruthie’ was quickly applied to me, and I have carried that ‘tag’ right up until the present day. It has always been a talking point wherever I have travelled or interacted with people, and it has also been the cause of just the odd derogatory remark, when less tactful people have impinged or remarked unkindly about my two feminine given names. My attitude on all of these occasions was ‘bollocks’ to them!
I know nothing much about the day I was born, except that the weather was cold and my Mum was very ill. We lived in our grey-rendered semi-detached house in the town of Letterkenny, county Donegal. The house had 3 large steps leading up to the front garden, and I recall some very tall conifer trees that were fun to both climb and hide in. The importance of the three large steps in the front garden became clear on my second Christmas on this earth when my Mother and Father purchased two second-hand tricycles for my brother and me and placed them under the Christmas tree. I recall the smell of fresh paint emanating from these two cycles, evidence of the loving care that my father had taken in their restoration. When we discovered them on Christmas morning, we were elated and excited beyond measure. My Mother had saved her money over the preceding weeks and months, and I have no doubt that her labours were well rewarded by the excitement of two small boys waking up to their presents on that joyous Christmas morning.
One of the big problems with using my first tricycle was those three big steps leading from the front garden on to the pavement below. As a mere toddler, they seemed like a massive hurdle in being able to reach the pavement, they might as well have been the edge of a cliff. I realised that the only way for me and my tricycle to reach the pavement was to ‘tumble’ it down the steps, and this was the ‘modus operandi’ that I employed on every occasion thereafter. Needless to say, my new bike didn’t remain new for very long. Its shiny, bright paintwork would soon show the scars of several somersaults down the front steps and on just a few occasions I managed to accompany it on its way. I, nevertheless, spent many happy hours riding up and down the street at the front of our house on that special little tricycle, at least, that is, until it fell apart from all of the abuse.
As the fourth child of our family, I wasn’t exactly a new experience in childbirth for my mother, but her illness (presumed to be post-natal depression) was about to take her into a downward spiral of bad health that lasted for many months. She was eventually admitted to a mental institution for the treatment of this, then, common condition. She described, much later to me, how part of the treatment for this depression was electric shock treatment. This procedure was extremely painful and unpleasant for her as an electrode was applied to her head, and a large dose of electric current was passed into the brain. Today it is hard to imagine such barbaric and drastic treatment being administered to someone suffering from depression, but back in the 1950’s it was a common treatment for such illnesses. As a result of my Mother’s illness, part of my early nurturing was taken up by a maid that my parents had employed, her name was Mabel. Mabel made no great impact in my life at the time, and the only reference to her presence in the household was a little rhyme that we would recite to her, it went something like this: ‘Mabel, Mabel, set the table’.
It is thought my mother’s illness may in some way have affected the bonding process between her and I, but I can see no difference in my interaction with my mother when compared to my other three siblings, although in later life, I seemed to be the one that was always in trouble. My father claims that I was self-reared, that I only ever cried when I was hungry, and that he could sling a bottle in my direction and I would manoeuvre it on to the flat of my feet with my legs raised in the air, somewhat like a performing chimpanzee, and feed myself in this manner. Fortunately, I do not remember any of this time, and as my infancy has not been recorded in any other medium, I just have to accept the stories from other people around me at that time.
January, I believe, is not a good time of year to be born anyway, especially in this hemisphere where the weather is always freezing, and money is always a bit short. Birthdays are largely ignored because of their close proximity to Christmas, and people have an annoying habit of combining your Christmas and birthday presents into one. As a baby born in these winter times, you tend to spend the first few months of your life trussed up like an oven-ready turkey in order to keep warm. I have no vivid recollection of my own childhood at that early juncture, but I recall that my elder brother had, as a result of his previously-mentioned ilness, been required to receive regular injections into his hip. Thankfully I was not required to take the same treatment, as I have always had a healthy fear of needles. He on the other hand seemed to have needles permanently included in his daily routines.
At one stage during my mother’s illness, my brother and I were sent to stay with an aunt, living not too far away on a farm in the little village of Glenties. We travelled there in a bread van, and the driver was a kind and funny individual whose mood was quickly changed when he found that on our arrival at Glenties, his two young charges had sucked the cream and icing off nearly every cake in his possession. We had also vandalised several loaves of bread, and anything else we could lay our hands on. I believe that money changed hands very rapidly upon our arrival, and the bread man was placated by my aunt Mamie who was not best pleased by her first experience of caring for two small boys. Life in Glenties was quite a lot of fun for both of us, as we raised havoc in every direction around the farmyard. Every morning I would pack up my little red suitcase and trundle down to the front gate of the farm, my Aunt would hurry after me enquiring where I thought I was going, “I’m off home to see me Ma” was the quick reply I would always give. Auntie Mamie would always talk me out of this with the offer of a treat, and for yet another day I was temporarily distracted from my purpose. The following morning would find me back down by the gate again, awaiting the arrival of the bread man. He never came. Perhaps he had remembered the little ‘bastards’ who had completely destroyed his stock on the journey from Letterkenny and decided that one experience of that kind was plenty for him.
We did eventually return home to Letterkenny, and all of the talk in our household at that time, was around our forthcoming emigration to the United States of America. Several visits to the American embassy in Dublin ensued, and, as previously mentioned, my father had been sponsored by his elder sister, Essie who was living in Arizona. We had all received medicals and inoculations for the trip, and our personal effects were being packed into tea chests for transportation across the Atlantic.
My early life in Donegal, was one of reasonable contentment and nothing of any great significance occurred during my early days on the planet. There were however, a couple of very serious incidents which were to threaten my existence in a very serious way. Both of these incidents occurred on the same beach known as Rathmullen. The first incident, as related by my mother was one which occurred while I was still crawling around on all fours. The whole family were spending a normal day at the beach, everyone was enjoying the warm weather, and a picnic was being spread out on the warm sand. They were all suddenly aware that I was missing from the family group, and the alarm was raised that a child was missing. No one had noticed my crawling away across the white sand and heading straight for the ocean. By the time the alarm was raised I was bobbing about in the waves about seventy yards from the shore and they could clearly see my golden curls as the current carried me gently out to sea in the general direction of America. Fortunately for me, my rescue was quickly and efficiently effected by a strong and very competent swimmer, who, after a great deal of effort to reach me, returned me safely to the beach.
On another occasion, and on the same beach, I was sleeping contentedly in the back seat of the car, and it was decided that I could be left there until I woke up. Nowadays, they always warn people about leaving kids and dogs shut up in the car on very warm days, as the outcome is often very tragic. For some reason, I was left in the car for a lot longer than planned, and by the time anyone had noticed, I had become very sunburnt and certainly dehydrated; it was kind of touch and go, and I was very ill as a result. I suppose I could be forgiven for thinking that given both of these incidents, my family were not exactly careful in the care of their youngest child, or is that just slight ‘paranoia’ on my part? I certainly wasn’t suffering from a lack of neglect, but maybe a little from a lack of attention.
It has taken a very long time to get around to sitting down and writing about my experiences as a young Irish immigrant to England. In fact 50 years have rushed by in a swirl of madness, mayhem and self-enlightenment, and these are probably the reasons that I had never thought to sit down and describe my life and times for others to share. I have just been too busy enjoying the things that I do, and making the mistakes that I have made along the way. I am fortunate that I am renowned for absolutely nothing, and this gives me the advantage of being judged by others merely for what they see and know about me. Fame, fortune and made-up reputations can easily distort the true image of a person.
Having spent, not a little of my life in the Newspaper and magazine industry, I am used to seeing my articles published. I have also watched as inconsiderate editors have spiked my writings and stories for their own ‘fiendish’ ends, or for the requirements of more space within a given publication. My ego, vanity and pride have all taken their fair share of big knocks during my varied careers, and I no longer bother to look back in either pride or anger at any of my accomplishments. I merely regard them as a disjointed group of jobs or careers that occurred during my search for my true forte or purpose. On further and deeper reflection, I realise that I am still seeking this particular grail. I hope I never find it, for I know that one has always got to have a goal to achieve, and the day I stop setting myself goals will be the day that I have finally tired of life.
I have never ever taken life very seriously, and this has earned me the sometimes undeserved reputation of being happy-go-lucky, self-indulgent and annoyingly outspoken. I can be highly-opinionated even on topics that I know very little about, and I am certainly no shrinking violet when it comes to a good argument or debate. Badges including ‘stubborn’, ‘self-centred’, ‘chauvinistic’, ‘head strong’ and ‘slightly outrageous’ have all been pinned to my lapel, and I willingly accept these labels without complaint, as I know that some, or most, of these analogies are, at times, perfectly true. I am often misunderstood in many of my motivations, because I always try to apply a nonchalant spin and happy-go-lucky tint to them, I would like to think however, that I also possess a sympathetic and understanding nature as well. These traits often manifest themselves in a more comical and light-hearted way. If, however, I feel that I am being impinged or undermined in any way, my ego and sense of outrage can sometimes result in a tirade of verbal abuse that given enough of it, would put the fear of God into anyone around me. I am not a nice person when such rare incidents occur. With stories and jokes alike, I have always tended to embellish, in order to make them more interesting to anyone who can be bothered to listen. In this rendering, and the fact that it is a written version of a true story, I am going to attempt to keep these embellishments to a minimum
I have written this account of my early years, to give an indication and snapshot of what life was like for, not only, a young Irish immigrant, but also, for a child experiencing the difficulties of settling into a new country and culture at the age of four or five. I want to share the experience of my becoming in later life the embodiment and product of the strict Catholic boarding school system as it existed in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. Some of my unhappy or sad memories have been diminished and understated, many of them have been coloured by my ability to turn serious situations into laughter or comedy. I know that things were a lot worse than this because of the recollections of my elder sister and brother, who also experienced those same times and events in their own lives.
My elder brother and sister both look back in anger and disgust at the treatment we all received at the hands of what they are quite willing to describe as tyrants, bigots, and hypocrites. Our collective experiences of boarding school life, have always been tinged with an ability to colour the most serious situations with comical undertones, and to take the relentless ‘piss’ out of all of the players within them. I know that my brother carries anger and bitterness within him, that even to the present day fuels a rage that has not diminished with the passage of time. He feels that every achievement in his life was fuelled by a need to prove himself against the negative predictions that were made of his future abilities at the tender age of six or seven.
He has proved every one of their predictions wrong, by working extremely hard at achieving goals that they had unequivocally stated he never would. His achievement of these goals has given him the pleasure and ability to stick two fingers vertical at them, but, of course, many of them are no longer around to witness his climb to achievement. His own self-belief and past endeavours will have to provide the catharsis that he has searched for, for over half a century. In complete contrast to my brother’s experiences, my elder Sister has literally forgotten most of what occurred to her during her boarding school years, perhaps because those times were so traumatic for her, that she has literally buried them somewhere in her deep sub-conscious. The mere fact that she has no memory of her time in either Ireland or later at boarding school, may also be an indication of times that she would prefer to forget.
I, for my part, take a different view of those days, perhaps because I was so much younger than my siblings. I do, however, share in the anger of my sister and brother, because I have seen the effect that those experiences have had on them both throughout their own lives. In many ways, their experiences are more valid than my own because I have managed to put a more light-hearted and positive spin on these happenings. Being the youngest of our family, I guess that I had more opportunity to adapt to the new situation that we all found ourselves in the late 1950’s. My memories of the time have not left me with the great regrets experienced by my siblings, but they have certainly influenced my trust in authority and my interaction with certain kinds of people. My experiences have carried me on a totally different journey from my brother and sister and have not affected me in the same way. They, however, continue to live with a regret that may never go away, and I can only begin to imagine how hard that must be for both of them to live with. On behalf of my brother and sister I would like to shout a big ‘Shame on you’ to all of the people who contributed to any of the misery in their young lives.
This account does not intend to be judgmental, nor does it seek some big retribution from either the characters or places involved. It is merely a narrative of events and happenings, and the incidents that influenced my personal actions and opinions as a result. It is certainly fair to say that we were not unique in these experiences, although school children and teachers of the present day would probably shrink in horror at the mere thought of any of these incidents happening in the politically correct and more liberal institutions that now exist. The dictum in those not so far off times was “children should be seen and not heard” and it was this that drove much of the misery into some of the lives of children growing up at that time. Here is an account of my own personal experiences, seen through the eyes of the immigrant schoolboy. All of the places and incidents are actual, but many of the names have been changed to avoid individual embarrasment and for legal expediency. Enjoy the read.