Bill is ninety-something. Born before the end of the Great War, the 1930s were working years for him, no matter what the job may have been.
He sat in his armchair in the corner reflecting on the arrival of the new government. ‘Things are bad, but not as bad as they were’.
‘You had to take whatever came, whatever work there was. If you were sick, you could get a ticket to get assistance, but otherwise if you had no job you had nothing. The ticket was for five shillings – there would be women who would have set every penny of it out in little piles to make sure there was money to pay for things – tuppence in a pile for this, a penny-ha’penny in a pile for that’.
It was hard to imagine such circumstances. After independence, Ireland had grown progressively poorer; the 1930s were disastrous years economically, people would travel to an impoverished Britain in the hope of a better life.
‘There was work at the quarry – there was always work at the quarry, and the pay wasn’t bad, if you lived long enough to spend it’.
‘It was a dangerous place?’
‘It was. I remember a Saturday lunchtime – we had to work half a day on Saturdays. There was this man working on a bench halfway down the face of the quarry’.
(I assumed ‘bench’ referred to the ledges cut into the quarry).
‘Anyway, he was going to the bog to cut turf that afternoon and wanted to get home and went to climb up the rope when the rope snapped and he fell onto the bench down below where he was working. He would not have been too badly hurt, but didn’t he get up dazed and step off the bench and fall down onto the rocks at the bottom of the quarry’.
‘We got down to him and he was a dreadful sight; his head was all covered in blood. We got the doctor to him and the doctor said to call the priest. The blood was pumping out of him and some of the men said that couldn’t the doctor do something to stop it. The doctor said the man’s skull was shattered and if he tried to move him at all, the splinters would go into his brain and he would die immediately. The doctor said that as he was he might last an hour’.
Bill told the story in as matter of fact a way as if he had been talking about the weather. Maybe, given the horrors told to him by his father’s generation, and the horrors that were to come in the 1940s, the death of a worker in a quarry was a passing incident, a memory triggered by the need for people to find work.
Bill is right, things are bad, but not as bad as they have been, yet do we judge the present by the past? Do we somehow excuse what happens now by a process of regression to former times?