Sunday, 27 December 2009

Joan's Journey Chapter I. From Dublin to Birmingham

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Pop Lawlor, Granny Whelan, Elizabeth Lawlor and baby Joan Lawlor

My mother and father were immigrants from Dublin, the Irish Free State as it was then known. They eloped to be married, I say they eloped, but in fact the ceremony took place in a church just a mile away from their own parish and they had two friends as witnesses. Immediately after the wedding, they left Ireland and sailed to England on the first boat that left from Dun Laoghaire. They then informed their families back in Dublin. The Lawlors received the news very well, but the Whelans, my mother’s family, were very unhappy about the match—believing she had married beneath her.

The Whelans were a very well to do and influential family, in fact Granny Whelan was sometimes referred to as ‘Lady Whelan’ by locals in Dublin as she was often seen being carried around in a pony and trap, collecting rents from her properties. The family also owned a clothes store in a suburb of Dublin, known as Ringsend, which catered for both ladies and gentlemen. I believe my mother must have had some experience in the Whelan’s retail business, as years later she retained the ability to fold and pack garments properly. I do know that her brothers and sisters spent time working in that shop. It was obviously a family owned business, but from which my mother never gained any financial legacy.

At that time, the Lawlor family on the other hand, was comparatively poor. So when the news of the marriage reached Dublin, the Whelans for a time disowned my mother. However as the saying goes “time is a great healer”.
Elizabeth Lawlor's travel permit



I was born 12 months later in Birmingham; my Granny Whelan came over to look after my mother and myself. I believe they were living in ‘rooms’, as accommodation was called in those days, and also, so I understand, the Irish were not welcome in England. This prejudice was displayed in boarding house windows with signs of “No Irish”. So I am sure it must have been a very worrying time for them, living in a country where they did not always feel welcome.

With a new baby, my mother would have found life very difficult. Her family had servants back in Dublin and she had no idea regarding domestic matters, let alone taking care of a new baby’s needs. My parents found rooms with a family who owned a house on Soho Hill. Mother told me that on one occasion they asked her to look after their children, while they were out. One of the children asked my mother for “a piece”, and she just could not understand what was meant by a piece ...a piece of what? Eventually the child got my dear mother to understand what was required. In fact the child was asking for a slice of bread and butter. So my mother’s education and knowledge of the local dialect, and her catering skills began.



I was born on the 23rd February 1939, the Second World War started in August 1939, I must emphasize though that I claim no responsibility for this at all! I was baptized at the church of St Francis, Handsworth where my parents had been attending mass. Years later, I recall my mother telling me of an unpleasant experience she had, while attending mass. She was most upset when the priest interrupted the service and asked for the child (myself), to be removed from the church. Apparently I had been making child-like noises, as babies do. My mother seldom visited a church again and only then on special family occasions. From what I understand, I was an evacuee at an early age; my parents thought it safer to send me to Dublin. In fact, they left me with the Lawlors in Walsh Road; who were thrilled to take care of me. My stay could only have been for a few months, as I am told I was back in England in time for the birth of my brother Kevin in May 1940.


Once again Granny Whelan had come to the rescue, and she came over to England to take care of us. In a short while, after Granny had performed her valued services, she was more than happy to return to Dublin. A short time later our family moved to other accommodation in the Hockley area, on Icknield Street, opposite the cemetery. It soon became apparent that we had chosen the wrong area in which to live, because the night time bombing of Birmingham by the Luftwaffe had just begun. I was later told that a bomb had fallen very near our house and blew out all the windows. After this, my mother thought it best to move while the bombing was still at it’s height.

Mother, Kevin and I went back to live in Dublin. We found accommodation somewhere along the Drumcondra Road by the Royal Canal. The Mount Joy Prison was not too far away. I don’t have any memories of our short life in Dublin. I do know that both the Whelan and Lawlor families welcomed us and enjoyed having us back in Dublin. After a short while it was decided to re-unite the family. My mother always regretted having to return to England, to the hard life and poverty she then had to endure.

My earliest memories of my life start from this time. I suppose Kevin and I were about three and four years old respectively, when the three of us arrived back at the railway station in Birmingham. I can not remember if the station was New Street or Snow Hill, I honestly could not say, but my father was there to meet us. He took us into the café on the station, where we had a cup of tea and a piece of fruitcake. I can remember that very well and yet do not have any memories of that return journey or the life we had just left behind. We were very well dressed; my Mother was a smartly dressed lady. She wore a hat, and a fox fur around her shoulders. This I imagine was later sold or went into the pawnshop and never redeemed.

The only special items of clothing I can ever remember Kevin and I wearing were very luxurious dark blue velvet cloaks. I cannot remember how we reacted to seeing our father again, or recall how long it had been since we had last seen him. Our return must have been a period approaching the end of the war, as I do not remember hearing bombing on our return to Birmingham. The family were however still being issued with gas masks, black ones for the parents and red Mickey Mouse pattern for the children.

Joan, Kevin and Elizabeth Lawlor

My father had found us a house in Small Heath with a very distinguished address, number 1 Berkley Square on Coventry Road. Unfortunately from the day my poor mother walked over the doorstep she detested it and, as time went by, she had every reason to hate it. Quality of life had deteriorated, things became difficult for mother and our family became more impoverished.


Dad, his father Dennis Lawlor and me (baby Joan)

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