I Will Be Good by Peig McManus

Peig McManus shares an extract from her memoir, I Will Be Good

Mam said it was cold the day she brought me home to our tenement room on North King Street in Dublin 7. Gran, my dad’s mother, had the fire lighting. Mam sat in front of it, cradling me on her lap, heating her hands to warm my cold feet. Very soon I got the hang of things and stretched out my tiny feet o meet her warmed hands. This is an image I have carried with me all my life.

War was declared five months later, on Sunday, 3 September [1939]. I was asleep in my pram in Gran’s kitchen. The neighbours were gathered around the radio in Gran’s shop, listening to Britain’s prime minister, Neville Chamberlain, declare war on Germany. Until that minute, they had been hoping for a miracle, praying that somebody would intervene. Gran said that our prime minister, Eamon de Valera – Dev – would keep Ireland out of it. She was right, as usual.

As the war progressed, I played on the floor in the space between the fireplace and the door, watching the smoke billowing from the big chimney of Chivers’ jam factory, which loomed in the lane behind our house. I saw the sun making splashes on the floor and the dark coming on. I heard my dad’s footsteps creaking on the stairs when he came home from work. I also heard my new sister, May, being born in the summer of 1940. I heard the early-morning risings, slop buckets emptying, children returning from school in the afternoon. Babies crying, babies dying, hunger’s cry, love’s murmurs. Mam singing ‘Stormy Weather’.

The following year, work had become scarce, and thousands of Irish men and women went to England to find work or to join the British forces. My dad wanted to go. Mam said he was like a caged animal cooped up in that tenement room with two small children and another on the way. In later years Mam used to warn us, ‘When poverty comes in through the window, love flies out through the door.’

The prospect of war seemed glamorous and heroic. Many young men went, leaving their wives and children behind. The women were not so foolhardy. They didn’t want dead heroes.

My sister May and I lay at the bottom of the bed, listening to the whispers, pleadings and angry voices. ‘Please, Christy, don’t go,’ Mam kept saying. Funny how things stick in your mind, even after eighty years.

Dad went. Gran gave him the money. He got a job in a brush factory in London and found lodgings in a workingmen’s hostel called Rowton House.

You can now order I Will Be Good By Peig McManus online.

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