Mom was born Kathleen (Kitty) Shaughnessy on January 12, 1928 in Corofin, County Galway, Ireland, a farming community seven miles outside of the town of Tuam. In the 1930s you either walked or you drove a horse and trap to travel into Tuam. Going into town and back was a day long journey. Kitty’s father, Martin, asked his sister, Colleen, who witnessed Kitty being born if she would register Kitty’s birth when she returned home to Tuam. Colleen forgot. When Martin found out he went to Tuam and made the registration himself. To avoid paying the fine for not registering a birth within the time limit Martin put Kitty’s date of birth down as February 10th. In a way Kitty had two birthdays but she always celebrated her birthday on January 12th. Kitty was the seventh of nine children. No matter how many times I say it I have to count on my fingers to name her brother and sisters. Starting with the oldest they are May, Delia, Nell, John, Josie, Nora, Kitty, Rita and Gertie.
Kitty’s mother Julia (Mammy they called her) was widowed for the second time when Kitty was six. Kitty didn’t understand what dead meant. She thought Daddy had gone away for a while and was coming back. Evening after evening she sat in the trap at the front of the house and looked down the road into the sunset to watch for him. She knew the direction he would come from walking up the road. Kitty thought the world of her Daddy and she wanted to be the first one to see him return. I don’t know how long she waited but each evening Kitty would watch the sun set. When darkness came she had to go inside. I suppose that’s why the house Mom lived in had to face west and why she never liked dusk. It was always a forlorn time for her.
Mammy never married again. She chose to raise her children and run the farm herself with the help of her first husband’s father, Grand, who lived with them. A fatherless family with a farm meant they would have to struggle to make ends meet. Mom‘s older sisters remember not having much. “But neither did anyone else,” they added. To Mom they lived in poverty. Living on a farm may have been a saving grace. There was always food. Grand worked a patch of land which grew most of their vegetables. They had hens for eggs and a cow for milk. Even with food within arm’s reach Mom remembered going to school hungry because there was nothing for breakfast.
They also had a skinny pig, a sow, that could run like a race horse and jump fences. Despite all their attempts to fatten her up they could count her ribs. Everyone hated the job of making sure that the pig didn’t get into the adjacent field and root up the neighbour’s crops.
Each year sows were taken to a nearby farm that kept a boar to have them serviced. The Shaughnessy sow didn’t wait. When the time came she jumped the sty and trotted down to see the boar herself. Mammy was sent a message to inform her that her sow had just been to see the boar. Even though she was skinny she produced a good litter every year which provided the family with much needed income. Mom tearfully told me stories of hardship growing up, but she laughed when she talked about their pig.
All children were required to attend national (grade) school in Corofin for basic education. It was funded by the government. One of the teachers, Miss O’Dell, lost two brothers in the Irish war of independence from Britain. She had an intense hatred of the British. She told her students, “Burn everything you get from England but their coal.” She looked at the soles of the children’s shoes to see if they were made in England. If they were, as was often the case, she would hit the student across the shoulder blades with a cane. Every day the children went to school in fear of what would happen to them.
As Mom was finishing national school her teacher, Miss Reilly, implored Mammy to send her to secondary (high) school in Tuam. She only needed help financially for the first year. After that Mom would earn her own way through winning scholarships. Miss Reilly thought her pupil was that smart. Mom wanted to go but Mammy didn’t see the value in anything more than a basic education for girls. Girls grew up to get married, have children and take care of the house. Secondary school was not funded and finding the money to send Mom to school in Tuam would be a hardship for a family struggling to get by. So Mom never went to secondary school.
In the 1930s Ireland was economically depressed having just fought a war of independence from Britain, then the Irish civil war and then the great depression hit. Young people were leaving Ireland to find a better life. Families were forced to go their separate ways. Mom’s oldest sister, May, joined a convent in Drogheda, north of Dublin. Delia and Nell went to France. John and Josie moved to England. Nora left for Athlone in central Ireland. Mom in her turn would leave home as well. Only Gertie stayed on the family farm.
When Mom was 16 she got a job as a chamber maid at a hotel in Tuam. She saved up the money for her fare to England and the tuition to attend the nursing school at Hillingdon Hospital in London. Mom lied about her education when she applied because completion of secondary school was required for entrance into the nursing program. Once she was at Hillingdon not having a secondary school diploma didn’t hold her back. Mom won the awards and scholarships Miss Reilly said she would. When she graduated Mom was a Registered Nurse and Midwife. She continued to work at Hillingdon.
During her training Mom was called back to Ireland. Her sister, Rita, had contracted tuberculosis which was running rampant through Ireland. Rita was close to death when Mom arrived. One evening Mom with her sisters and mother stood around Rita’s bed as she peered out at them. She brought one hand out from under the covers and feebly waved with her fingers. Rita could barely speak but the words, “Bye-bye,” were on her lips as she waved. Rita passed away shortly after that. Rita was buried in the family plot in the Corofin cemetery. Mom returned to England soon afterward. Rita’s death was hardest on Mom. She and Rita had been best friends growing up. Mom recounted to me many times how she and Rita played tea. Mom played the part of a poor woman who had left Ireland and come back from America to show off her wealth. She laughed as she told me that she milked the cow so they could have a proper tea.
Many years later Mom asked her sister, Gertie, if she had a picture of their Daddy. Gertie sent Mom a picture of the man she was sure was their father. Mom took one look at it and said, “That’s not Daddy.” The man in the picture didn’t match the image in her mind. The image of Daddy in her mind’s eye and the memories she had of him are all that Mom would ever have to remember her Daddy by.
“I know he was tall. He was strong and gentle,” Mom said, “and I know I loved him.” Her voice trembled as she wiped tears from her eyes.
Growing up without a father and in poverty haunted every aspect of Mom’s life. Foremost in her thoughts was the fear of being poor again. Right up to the end of her life, in her heart, Mom was a little girl waiting for her Daddy to come home.