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Brian McMahon | The Irish Experience - oral history project | Birmingham City Council
Photograph of Brian McMahon

Brian McMahon

I was born on a little farm in County Galway near Loughnea. I was the youngest of 5 children. My mother died when I was 2.5 years old, and I went to live with my aunt and uncle for about a year and a half. I was then taken back and looked after by an uncle who had a large family, and the girls would look after us until they were old enough to emigrate to America. This went on until my oldest sister, Mary, had left school and could look after us.

I started school when I was 6, I was always forward for my age in respect of reading. My father was a very talkative man; he had travelled quite a lot in America, he was able to tell us about life in other countries. I could read at a very early age and I was fairly good at numeracy. I stayed at school until I was 15. We didn't have any money and further education at that time had to be paid for. It didn't matter how clever you were, you didn't get to college or university if you didn't have money to pay for it.

My teacher, who I think liked me, got me an apprenticeship in a grocers in the local town. I stayed there for a couple of years, but never really liked it. I left and went to work with my uncle in building. When the war was on, things were very tight as far as building materials, and a lot of my friends had left to go to England, some in the Army and Air Force, some to work in the building trade. I was beginning to get disillusioned about Ireland, I was 24 and things weren't very good, so I decided to emigrate to England.

It was after Christmas in 1941, we had a contract to work for 6 months under the Ministry of Labour. We were allocated digs, some were camps on the site. You were allocated work, not always what you were used to, and the foreman could say "pack your things"; you had no choice but to go to Derby, Newcastle, wherever.

I was in York for 10 days, and then sent to Retford in Nottingham. We had to stay in a camp; it was just nissen huts. There were 60 to 80 beds with stoves down the centre. You had no privacy, just a small locker that anyone could open. It was now January 1942, there was heavy snowfall for about a week, and so cold we couldn't work. The food and lodgings were stopped out of your wages, which was about £5 a week. There was no income tax at that time. You were on a 6-month permit, at the end of which you went to the police who stamped it, and you could stay for another 6 months. If you had been in trouble you were sent back to Ireland.

I was then sent to Grantham where I met my future wife in September 1942. We got engaged the following year. I went to work in London repairing bomb damage. We decided to get married in June 1945 in Grantham. We went to Ireland for a month, there were no cars so we cycled everywhere. After our first son, Terence, was born, my wife Brenda contracted TB. When she was better and she came home from the hospital, we moved in to an old cottage that was derelict. We eventually id it up and stayed until I sold it to come up here.

I liked England. The first impressions I had of England was the courtesy of the people and the good manners. As far as I am aware, Irish people have no ill feelings toward English people. Maybe the establishment or the army, but not the people.

I went on to work for McAlpines, that was a different world, it was really rough. Eventually I became a partner in a small company and retired in 1982. We had a turnover of £1 million.

After Brenda died I moved up here to Birmingham.