• Andy Robson

Patrick Monaghan's Story - An Irish Emigree

Updated: May 20, 2021

To mark St Patrick's Day this week, I thought I'd share with you the story of one Irish Emigree - my Grandad Patrick 'Pat' Monaghan. Fortunately my Aunt Sheila had a great interest in the history of the family - must be where I get it from! - and was able to supply a lot of biographical information about him which I was later able to confirm through my research.

My Grandad was born in the rural Township of Knockshanbo, lying on the Mullet Peninsular in the north-west of County Mayo, in Ireland. Sheila supplied this invaluable piece of information; without it I’d never have been able to track him back across the Irish Sea.

She said that it was poor land and that the family struggled to make a living. In later life, after he had moved to England, my grandad gave lie to the popular image of the maudlin Irishman pining for his homeland. Although he was from a very close, loving family, he described life at Knockshanbo as one of “grinding poverty” and felt himself lucky to be out of it.

From what I’ve read, I know this description is sound. T. Jones Hughes’ paper ‘Landlordism in the Mullet of Mayo’ describes the 16-mile long Peninsular as comprising a strip of fertile land, suitable for arable or pastoral farming, bordered by the uninhabitable peatland and mountains of Erris on the landward side and by the rough-hewn coastline on the other three. No point on the Mullet is more than 2 miles from the sea and the soil is a thin mixture of sand, peat and clay covering the underlying rock. The farming land is universally flat and as such is subject to driving winds and rain that sweep the Mullet at all times of the year. An unappetising picture indeed!

Despite all this the Mullet remained densely populated - the 1841 Census recorded a population of 9,400 for the Parish of Kilmore, which was coextensive with the Mullet – with the result that the land was divided up into woefully small individual plots. To make matters worse, the inaccessibility of the Mullet – a road to link it to the mainland was not built until 1824 – meant that although it was subject to the Crown Confiscations of the 17th Century, native tribal organisation, and with it inefficient land usage, continued until the early 19th Century.

Two John Monaghans appear as small holders in Griffith’s Valuation Rolls for Knockshanbo in 1855 and I believe one of these was my grandad’s grandfather. Both were Tenants of the Bingham family, who held the largest estates of the second generation of colonial Landlords on the Mullet.

Sheila named my Grandad’s parents as Thomas Monaghan and Sabina Barrett and I duly found the record for their marriage at Binghamstown RC Church in 1871.

John Monaghan is recorded as deceased so presumably Thomas had by now inherited the family farm. This also suggests that he was John’s oldest surviving son, since the ruinous Celtic tradition of dividing a deceased man’s land equally between all his sons had by now been ended and replaced with the English practice of keeping a family’s lands intact in the hands of the heir. It is impossible to be sure, however, as the Parish records at Binghamstown do not go back beyond 1860.

Thomas ‘Tom’ and Sabina ‘Sibby’ Monaghan had 7 children born at Knockshanbo between 1872 and 1887 who grew to adulthood. Sheila had correctly named them to me, in order, and she also correctly told me that there were a further 2 children who had died as infants; though she was unable to name these. Grandad was the youngest of the children and, as the baby of the family, was completely spoilt. By his own admission he was wild as a child and something of a trial to his parents.

Sheila told me that at some point the family had been able to buy their farm, something that was only possible because the land was so cheap. This was certainly true as in the 1901 Census Thomas Monaghan is recorded as being the owner of the land on which his farmhouse stood.

Agrarian agitation in rural Ireland had errupted into the so-called Land War in 1879. The aim of the organisers was to achieve fair rent and tenure terms for tenant farmers (like the Monaghans) and ultimately peasant ownership of the lands they worked. Hoping to prevent the unrest being highjacked by the Irish Republican movement, the Government responded by passing the Ashbourne Act of 1885 which opened the way for large-scale agreed transfer of freehold farmland from landlord to tenant.

Grandad lost his mother, Sibby, in 1901 when he was just 13. Apparently, he was devoted to her and was utterly devastated by the loss.

The 7 surviving Monaghan children were all stillliving at home at the time of the 1901 Census; ranging in age from 12 to 23. The farm is described as a solid building with stone/brick/concrete walls and a thatched or wood roof. However, the family lived in just 2 rooms, each with a single window at the front of the building.

The whole family is described as being bi-lingual in English and Irish and, interestingly, literate despite the fact that Thomas Monaghan had signed his marriage record with an ‘X’ 30-years before.

Most of the children dispersed over the next decade, Sheila reporting that they made their way either to Scotland or the United States. My grandad and his brother, Tommy, crossed to Scotland. In the 1911 Census they are living in lodgings in Airdrie in North Lanarkshire and are described as being ‘Surfacemen’ for the Caledonian Railway. This fits with Sheila’s description of the pair working as eponymous Irish ‘Navvies’ or Navigators; cutting transport networks by road, rail or canal all over the English-speaking world.

The great days of Scottish railroad construction were already done. The major part of the network had been built in a single generation during the second half of the 19th Century, much of it by two major Companies, the Caledonian Railway, which had built the rail network radiating out from Glasgow, and the North British Railway. At the time of Tommy Monaghan’s marriage in early 1915 he is described as a Foreman Platelayer, having presumably found work in Glasgow’s bustling wartime Shipyards; the First World War having broken out in August,1914.

Grandad appears as a Witness on the marriage record so was presumably still living in Airdrie at the time.

The British Government was remarkably reluctant to introduce conscription during the War, feeling that British men should not need to be compelled to fight for their country. Instead it introduced a series of initiatives aimed at encouraging men to join the colours instead. There were never enough recruits to meet the needs of the Western Front, however, and in January,1916, it finally bowed to the inevitable and introduced Conscription with the Military Service Act. My Grandad joined the Army just before the Act was passed, but I’ve no idea of his motivations in doing so. Certainly, I imagine that the Army would have been glad to have him for he must have been prime raw material; in the peak of life, he was then 27, accustomed to hard, manual labour and life outdoors, and with that ‘make-do’ attitude that came from an upbringing on a small family farm. Perhaps the only thing that counted against him was, so I am told, a fiercely independent streak.

I’ve seen Grandad’s discharge papers but sadly they were lost at some point, presumably during a move or house clearance, and all I have is the transcript I made when I was about 13 or 14. Unfortunately the papers were very faded and I didn’t take the time to wring as much information out of them as I perhaps could have; something I will regret to my dying day as they were irreplaceable. The transcript I made was:

Discharge Papers, Patrick MONAGHAN Private, 20364 Enlisted, 7 January,1916 ? Dragoons South Irish Horse ? Lancers To Reserve, 4 March,1919

Given his upbringing, the 1901 Census recording a Stable on the family farm, it is perhaps not surprising that Grandad served in the Cavalry. His Service Record is missing and was presumably one of those destroyed by German bombing during the Blitz. But Aunt Sheila told me that he was one of the lucky ones to see out the entire War on home service and the fact that he does not seem to have received any Service Medals bears this out.

At some point Grandad decided to try his luck in England and Sheila recounted how he moved to industrial Tyneside with a friend, Charlie Murray. I’m not sure when this happened, but I think that the most likely time was just after he was discharged from the Army in March,1919.

He must have met my grandmother, Mary Alice Havard, at some point in 1919 or 1920. At the time she was in service with a Mr & Mrs Cunliffe in Jarrow.

Back in Ireland unrest had erupted into the War of Independence (1919-21). According to Aunt Sheila, Grandad’s eldest brother, Johnnie, had taken over the running of the family farm as their father was by now in his 70’s. When Johnnie was interned for membership of the IRA, grandad had to go back to Knockshanbo to stand-in for him. Gran was obviously not going to let him forget her and she followed him across the Irish Sea! There have been a host of Records released by the Irish Government in recent years but I have yet to find any proof to this story. The IRA was organised along territorial lines and Belmullet was the HQ of the 7th Battalion, West Mayo Brigade. I have not found a reference to Johnnie in this unit, but that is not such a surprise. The active service strength of the IRA was only a few tens of thousand soldiers, whereas there were huge numbers of active supporters who provided food, shelter, hiding places and intelligence to these units. If Johnnie was active in the War, and I have no reason to doubt Aunt Sheila’s story, then it seems most likely that he would have been one of the latter.

Gran and Grandad were married at St. Bede’s RC Church in Jarrow, County Durham on 21 January,1921. Gran was a few months pregnant so I suspect that this locates their stay in Ireland to the Autumn of 1920; when the War was at its height.

It caused a bit of a stir in the family when I found my Grandad’s birth record and revealed that he was 12 years older than my Gran. He had always claimed that he didn’t know exactly how old he was but believed he was only ‘a few’ years her elder. Now it’s true that the rural Irish of the period did not celebrate their birthday and so I fully believe that he didn’t know exactly when he had been born. However his correct, or nearly correct, age had been recorded on several documents prior to his marriage and so I think he was being a bit economical with the truth in this case. At the time of his marriage he had actually been 33 while Gran was just 21.

They were to have 7 children born at Jarrow between 1921 and 1937 of whom my mother was the youngest, and my aunt Sheila the second youngest.

Sheila told me that at some point Grandad became a Blast Furnaceman at Jarrow Steelworks. A Furnaceman is responsible for all the individual processes by which raw lumps of iron ore are converted into steel in the Work’s huge Smelters. It is hot, dirty and dangerous work performed around the clock to maximise production. After a mini-boom during the First World War, the Steelworks entered a long period of decline before finally closing in 1931. It therefore seems most likely that Grandad worked there in the years immediately after arriving on Tyneside.

According to Sheila, Grandad was a Foreman Ganger during the building of the iconic King George V Bridge over the Tyne. The construction project lasted from August,1925 until October,1928 and Grandad was involved in laying the foundations for the 4 huge concrete piers which support the structure on both banks of the river.

As was then normal, wooden pit-props were discarded in favour of compressed air for supporting the roof of the workings, but since the foundations were dug deep this created problems for the men as they had to be brought back up to the surface in stages to allow them to acclimatise to the changing air pressure; a similar situation to that experienced by deep-sea divers to avoid them getting ‘The Bends’.

Sheila was told stories of how the men in Grandad’s Gang were frequently to be seen bleeding from the nose and ears as they climbed out of the workings. And though it was proudly boasted that the Bridge had been built at the cost of ‘only’ one fatality, a Scaffolder named Nathaniel Collins, she was also told that within a few short years all of Grandad’s gang had gone to early graves except him. He didn’t escape the workings unscathed, however, for he was involved in an accident that left his right eye permanently damaged; you can see the effect of this in the above photograph, his right eyelid is visibly ‘drooping’. In the days before strong Union representation his compensation for this injury was just £20.

The Company responsible for building the Tyne Bridge was Dorman Long & Co. Ltd. This had won the contract for building a new Sydney Harbour Bridge at the same time as it secured the Tyne Bridge project; which is why the two structures look very similar to each other.

After completing its work on the Tyne, its workforce shifted to the Tees to build the Newport Bridge. Grandad again appears to have been involved in constructing the Bridge foundations and I presume this article from the Northern Daily Mail, dated 8 August,1931, relates to him.

The Great Depression hit Jarrow harder than most towns; when she published her story of Jarrow in 1939, crusading MP ‘Red Ellen’ Wilkinson called it ‘The Town that was Murdered’. Jarrow’s boom-years had been built on heavy industry including the Steelworks and Palmer’s Shipyard, and the global slump saw all the town’s major sources of employment close. In 1930 the unemployment rate among Jarrow’s working population stood at 75%. Sheila told me that Grandad spent 7 years on the Dole and that these were hard times indeed for the family.

Unemployment Benefit was means tested and they were forced to sell-off almost everything in the house before becoming eligible. The one bright spot was that Grandad had an allotment and was able to supplement the family’s diet with fresh vegetables, eggs and meat; according to Sheila he kept not only chickens, but pigs and a goat! Apparently, Grandad was deeply religious and according to Sheila he attended Mass every day that he was unemployed. This was a great comfort to him during those difficult times.

The local economy did not recover until the outbreak of the Second World War. At the time that the 1939 Register was compiled, Grandad was shown as working on one of the Public Work Projects aimed at providing employment for those on the Dole. Note his assumed birthday of 17 March – St Patrick’s Day!

Grandad was employed at the re-opened Steelworks and Sheila said she can remember the kids taking turns to bring him a hot meal in a can, his ‘bait’, at lunchtimes. Pragmatism was the norm and, as the breadwinner, Grandad was given the best of whatever food was available; Sheila said that she couldn’t remember ever getting meat to eat except on a Sunday.

I remember once having a good chat about Grandad with my Uncle Pat, something he didn’t talk about much. He said that my Grandad was small and wiry, but very sharp witted. In fact, his abiding memory was of how good Grandad was at reading people and talking them into doing what he wanted.

He also liked a drink, one aspect of the stereotypical Irishman that he did follow. This was hardly untypical for industrial Tyneside, but must have placed a strain on the family’s finances. Sheila remembers that his 2 sisters in the States would send over clothes and little luxuries to help the family out during the 1930’s. They once sent Grandad the boat fare so that he could come over and visit them, but apparently he drank it instead!

In the end it was the drink that was his undoing

. He and some of his mates had fallen into the habit of sneaking out of work at lunchtimes to have a few pints. On this one occasion it seems he had overdone it and fell as he was climbing over the fence that surrounded the works. He either knocked himself unconscious or simply passed out, and lay out in the open for the rest of the day in heavy rain. As a result he contracted pneumonia and died soon after. His death certificate records his age as 47 – presumably that’s what the family thought – but he was actually 57.