'We worked from 4am to 9pm, sending all our wages home'

Angelique Chrisafis
Saturday November 6, 2004
The Guardian

Mary Caffrey, 83, from Achill Island, Mayo, recently returned to Ireland from a high-rise in Manchester:

"I left when I was 13 to go into domestic service in Hampstead, London. I had never been out of the village, and never left Achill Island. My parents and six children lived in a two-room thatched house with two beds.

"As soon as I heard mention of London, well, it was like Judy Garland going over the rainbow. The lady from London sent clothes and shoes. It was the first time I had worn shoes in my life.

"When she saw how small I was she nearly fainted. I was a kitchen maid, the lowest of the low. I got up at 6am to light the fires, and worked until midnight washing pans from dinner. Some of the pots were so big I could have taken a bath in them. It was like Upstairs, Downstairs. I had one day off a week but they were good to me. I sent my wages home.

"At 15, I went with my mother to Scotland, to work as a tatty-hoker, digging potatoes, for two years. My mother would dig and us smaller ones were down on our knees in the earth picking the potatoes, cold with dew dripping on us.

"Thank God I have my health. I wonder how our generation is not crippled with arthritis. The Irish workers slept on a stone floor in the cowshed. We worked from 4am until 9pm sometimes, sending all our wages home. They badly needed the money here, they were destitute.

"When I married in Glasgow, I would work 16 hours a day, starting cleaning at 5am, then in a biscuit factory or firelighter factory, then cleaning at night. My husband drank, I was in Scotland, I had no father or mother to run to. I had to protect myself for the sake of my children.

"In the 1970s, when there was [sectarian] trouble in Glasgow, I moved to Manchester alone - the 12th floor of a high-rise. At first I was frightened to go out on the veranda. When my children were grown and happy, all I lived for was returning to Ireland.

"People like us that had to leave at 13 made Ireland what it is today. I left an awful lot of broken hearts in Manchester - a lot of Irish women my age would love to get back home but will probably never make it."

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