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Mary Phillips | The Irish Experience - oral history project | Birmingham City Council
Photograph of Mary Phillips

Mary Phillips

I was born in County Limerick at a place called Castle Conell near the Shannon on 9 May 1912. There were 8 children. My father had a smallholding, we weren't badly off, and we had all our own vegetables. My father also worked on the Dublin to Limerick road for as long as I can remember. We all had to work, there was no fooling around then. I didn't go to school until I was 6, and left at 14. I had a very happy childhood, I enjoyed reading and writing, I liked geography but we only learned about Ireland. The teachers were very strict. From our school room we could look down on the Shannon and see the salmon jumping.

We lived in a long thatched house with a big open fire in the kitchen, which was the main part for meeting and talking. We had no bathroom; my father made a toilet for us in the garden. We had no running water, we had to go to the pumps along the road. It was a long walk with a bucket in each hand; we were only children.

We used to heat the water over a turf fire. We had all our own vegetables in the garden, cabbage, turnips, parsnips, potatoes, onions and lettuce. We had bacon and a lot of soup. My father would bring meat from town on Saturdays, which would last all week. Sometimes we had no meat, just potatoes and dripping. We had a big long table, we called it the last supper. We also had hens and ducks and one cow.

When I was 14 I went and worked in service, but I never liked it. I was high-minded and thought I could do better. My mother was very well educated, she used to write letters for people who couldn't read or write. My mother saw an advert in the paper for nurses in Surrey and I came over to England when I was 18. I went to Epsom. I came over on my own on an old cattle boat, there was no sitting room, it was all open. All the money I had was 8 shillings and sixpence.

Myy father was broken hearted when I left, he was a lovely man. He told me not to talk to anyone when I got to London, only talk to someone in uniform. I caught the train to Epsom, there was nowhere open and I'd had nothing to eat since I left home. I had a job waiting at the mental hospital there. There were 1,400 patients, it was after the Great War and some had been gassed or shell-shocked. Even thought I had no training, we were all called nurse. I was given a room, towels, blankets and sheets, and told to go to bed. We got about £2 at the end of the month. We lived in at the hospital and got all our clothes and food, and our washing done, so we were well off; we had a bit of money.

From there I went to Leavson, then the Isle of Wight, then Rubery Hospital in Birmingham. I hated it there and got a job as a barmaid living in at the White Horse Inn in Kings Heath. I was about 21 now and I went back in to nursing at Monyhull Hospital, where I stayed for 8 years.

Then I met my husband, he was a policeman; we went out for 5 years and married in 1941. We went on to have 7 children. My husband got a job in Canada, we sold up and took the whole family to Vancouver. It was very isolated, I was lonely; I didn't like it. My husband had signed a contract for 3 years but I came back after 10 months with all the children. I bought a house in Kings Heath and stayed there until my husband came back.

I never thought of going back to Ireland to live; there wasn't a lot of work there. It's a good place to go if you've got a lot of money. I like to go for a holiday, but not to live. My husband only wanted holidays in Ireland, he would take the children and I would go off with my sister all over Europe. I met Pope John at the Vatican.

All the children loved Ireland. I haven't got any time for all the fighting, Catholics against Protestants; everyone should go their own way with their own religion.