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Theresa Pontillo | The Irish Experience - oral history project | Birmingham City Council
Photograph of Theresa Pontillo

Theresa Pontillo

I was born in Dialcross, Sainfield, which is in County Down, Northern Ireland. I was the 2nd eldest in a family of 11, 7 boys and 4 girls. My father worked in the building trade, my mother looked after the home. When she was younger, she was a waitress. We lived in a cottage known as Tradesman's Cottage; it was allocated to my grandfather. He found water for people and bore wells. It was a 3-bedroomed cottage. We had a coal fire and a range, and a primus stove which we all used. We had a pump in the back garden and a barrel with rainwater if the pump ran out. We had to carry the water about 2 miles.

I was about 31/2 to 4 when I started school. It was just down the lane, about 5 minutes' walk. We all went to the same school. It was a long room; one side was for the infants and the other side for the older children. You didn't have a favourite subject, you just learned. It was a church school, only Catholics went to it.

When I think about it, we never had time to play. Mother always looked after the new baby, but with children coming every year there was always plenty to do. It was either errangs, going for water or washing hair. I used to get what I thought were nice jobs, like going into town for a birth certificate or to an office. I was entrusted to do that. I did that for the whole community.

I passed my 11 plus and went to grammar school; it was 40 miles away. The local authority paid for me to be a boarder. We were never allowed to study politics in Northern Ireland, we couldn't question anything like that. I decided when I was 14 I wasn't going back. I told my mother I was going to England with my dad. My father was working in England; he used to come and go. That was usual for people in the building trade.

So I came to Birmingham with my father; he paid my fare, it was a couple of pounds. We came over on the boat; it was like a cattle boat. Then we got the train to Crewe, then came from Crewe to Birmingham. It was the most dismal journey I have ever known. I had never seen houses all on top of each other and people living like that. We came out of New Street into Corporation Street and got the 5A to Witton Road. My dad had been living in Trinity Road, it was a boarding house for working men, but I lived as family with the lady.

I never felt any discrimination for being Catholic, which was what we were used to. There was anti-Irish feeling, but that didn't bother us much, we lived in our own community. We had come into the country and it was not going to change for us. We had to change our ways to adapt for them, and that's something we have always done. I didn't have a Sunday when I didn't cry and cry after Mass. Sundays after Mass were horrific; it was a very long day. I always rang my mother on Sunday, about 8pm.

You saved up enough money to go to the Saturday night dance, and buy a pair of stockings or something like that. The girls would go about 8pm and the boys would come in around 9:30pm. There was the Burlington in Aston, next to the Hippodrome, and the West End. We didn't drink, only orange juice, we went for the dance and the show-bands. We walked home at night.

My family all came over to England to live, my parents bought a house here and my mother loved in here. We are Irish people out of our country, and even though we are happy here we still have an allegiance to Ireland. I like to think we are in Birmingham by choice, but I think you always remember where you were born. I've spent more time here than I have in Ireland. In my case it wasn't mainly my choice, but I felt I had got to help, when there were another half dozen coming behind you. I still wonder to this day how my mother ever managed.