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Michael

I was born in a small town in Southern Ireland… a place called Dungarvan. I was born there in 1940. My first memory must be the German planes… I remember seeing the planes coming over the chimney tops… moving down low to avoid the fighters… two Lancaster Bombers after him… I must have been only three or four years old… and from that memory I can’t remember a single day I was happy as a child. From the time I was born until the time I was 16 I was getting the shit knocked out of me by my old man for nothing more than robbing apples and stealing sweets. There were seven brothers and three sisters. I had two sisters who died but three alive. John, Billy, Paddy, Kevin, Dick, me… I was the sixth one of the whole lot… we never got on with one another… not in a big family… we very rarely got on… just about… it was nothing… we weren’t close.

I got on with my sisters better… and I was close to my brother Jimmy… he had an iron on his leg… an iron clamp… he had a withered foot… he slipped on the garden gate… injured his leg and infection set in… so he had an iron on his leg to support the weight… but he always had that limp… he was a cripple all his life. It was a small house… 1, 2, 3 rooms. There wasn’t very many big houses at that time in Dungarvan… small houses all together. You didn’t have much room to move… it was a flat with three bedrooms on the ground-floor… all cooped up together… four or five to a bed… back to back like in the army… my mother kept the whole family going… that was her belief… her religion… My mother’s name was Margaret… a lovely woman… smashing… absolutely a diamond. Looking after 12… practically 14 kids… a small woman with no mothering techniques or anything like that. She was doing all the washing by hand, all the cooking by hand… she was a fantastic lady… oh boy… very pretty… I would say she was very, very pretty. Most of my family took after her… all my family are all good-looking guys… they took after our mother… and… well… my father… I didn’t like that bastard… he used to beat me.

My father’s name was Bill. “My name is Bill. How do you fucking well do?” He was a right bastard… he was a deliveryman… a drayman for the outlying pubs… he used to unload the barrels… he never used to speak to me… he never used to speak to anyone… all he was interested in was the beer and the horses. His father was a bastard as well. He used to have a big pear tree… huge, about forty foot. When I was a kid I asked him for one pear and he said, “Come down at Christmas and I’ll let you pick them all.” Typical bastard. Did I say he was in the army? The Irish or the British army… a small guy but rough. If he saw you walking down the road with your hands in your pockets he’d be, “Get your hands out of your pockets… get your head up… get your chest out.” He was a bastard as well. You’re not born like that, you make yourself like that… or the army makes you like that. “Get your chest out and your head up,” that’s the first thing they tell you in the army... and at that time the IRA was running rife. He taught my father… he knew no fucking difference. When I was caught robbing sweets or robbing apples the English cane came out… the army cane… he lashed the shit out of you… you didn’t get one bit of sorrow… he just lashed into you… but not to my brothers… I was the troublemaker … looking for money… climbing over the wall of the orchard… getting a shirt full of apples… go in at night, get a jacket or a jumper full and sell them next day on the street corners… my father didn’t like it at all… the police never stopped being round our house… my mother was always protecting me… “Leave him alone… don’t hit him… don’t hit him any more… don’t hit him.” Because he used to lash into you… he was a vicious, mean fucker.

They’d lock me in my room and I’d be out the window in no time… it never entered my head what was coming… I knew if he caught me or people reported me for robbing apples… he’d have beat the shit out of me… I think I was too young to worry that my father was really going to kill me but he could have done… she would try to protect me but he was nearly six feet tall… what could she do against the violence with the cane? She’d try to come in between us to stop him from killing me… he punched and kicked… and he killed the dog… he did it when he came in from the pub and left it there for us to see the next morning… he came in from the pub with a hatchet… that dog would always follow me… and we all loved that dog… Rex I suppose we called him… one time the dog got blamed for chasing sheep… he came in one night with a hatchet and cut the dogs head off… and God I loved that dog… and he knew it… a wicked, wicked thing to do… he was a wicked, wicked bastard… I wouldn’t say he got pleasure from it… but satisfaction… he got satisfaction… and he liked the neighbours to know you didn’t mess with Bill Higgins… he was left handed and he’d fucking give you a left hander… I’m not sure if he’d been a boxer or what he was… he was just vicious… he was too busy beating me to show any affection… even as Irish boxing champion I’d never have dared hit him back… I really think he would have killed me… I was twelve years old.

It’s hard to say what my mother saw in him. In Ireland in those days there was no such thing as a divorce… separation… you didn’t separate… you stayed with one another whether you hated each other or not… you didn’t want the neighbours knowing what was going on… but that doesn’t help a woman stuck with a man she doesn’t like… it’s hard to say what she felt about him… I think she was frightened of him… but she was a hard little woman herself.

He drank like a fish as well. With all us kids the first thing dad would do for us when we were five or six years old was take them to the pub… introduce them to his mates… “This is my son, he’s going to be this or that”… forgetting that when you get the taste for drink no matter how young you are you can’t help but start to drink… the first time I was drunk I was just twelve years old… there used to be this pub and at the back of the pub was this shed and they had all the beer in there… storing it in there… I used to go in at night… no locks or anything on the thing… Bulmer’s Cider… sweet cider… fuck me it was lovely! I got fucking pissed out of my head… my dad couldn’t figure out what was wrong with me… he never said, “Are you drunk?” or something like that… I suppose he couldn’t understand it… Bulmer’s Cider… it was lovely not like the cider now… When dad was pissed he’d get some of us to go down to the fish and chip shop and buy fish and chips… that was his way of saying, “I’m not a bad dad am I?” But as far as I was concerned he was a bad dad… violent… terrible, vicious temper… that’s the problem with all the family, we all have a terrible temper when we start… I’ll say the first thing that comes into my head… I do what I like and I like what I do.

The schools were fucking terrible. Only Gaelic spoken and no Gaelic spoken at home… how could I be expected to learn? And the Christian brothers were bastards. They gave you a rough time… they were a law unto themselves… even the police wouldn’t interfere with the Catholic Brothers… but I couldn’t run away… where would I run?

There was no escape… none… you were in a cage and you stayed in that fucking cage… because you weren’t allowed out.

It was tough… specially when you’re just twelve years of age… they’d come up behind you and bang! Smack across the ears. One time I remember they stuck a pencil clean through a kid’s hand… nothing was done to them… Christian bastards… never had a woman… I remember Father Columbus… when I was in the approved school … and Cundry… Father fucking Cundry… another vicious bastard… he used a leather strap on you… a leather strap with coins stitched in… very hard to explain such cruelty…  my brother was awarded 100 grand compensation because he’d been there six years… in Green Mount in Cork. If you wet the bed they’d line up all the schools… St Mary’s, St Joseph’s, St Alphonsus… all lined up… and they get the kids to come down carrying the wet mattress on top of their heads… they had to carry it through the ranks to shame you… well that was something fucking cruel, wasn’t it? I didn’t have to go … but my old man was beating me so much I wanted to go away… he was killing me… you could never believe how cruel that man was… but every chance I had I‘d dodge away from school… I wouldn’t go into school… I’d dodge away from it… there was no way of teaching me… it was an impossibility… I only spoke English and all the lessons were taught in Gaelic… so how the fucking hell do they expect you to learn? I taught myself to read… I used to break words up… I always wanted to read a book… I was determined to learn to read properly… I still am to this day… but those Christian Brothers… they weren’t human beings… they never had lives… never even had a woman… what did they know about life?

If there was any break-ins or robberies anywhere I was the first one to be blamed… before they had proof I’d done anything at all… well, I had my mother’s heart broke by the police coming… it was worse in the school with the Christian Brothers because the police used to come into the classroom… and pick you out… I was always being blamed for things I didn’t do… I’d still get the beating… it made me very angry… he would never believe me… I was about seventeen by the time he stopped beating me… I can visualise it in my brain… the first beating I had… coming in a vision… he would come in from the pub… he wouldn’t ask how did you do it or what did you do it for… he’d just lay into you… terrible… at the end I didn’t feel the blows.

I was completely wrecked and ruined by my father and the Christian Brothers… my whole personality was changed… after a while I didn’t even feel any pain… the same as I don’t feel pain now… I took up boxing, which helped with getting rid of a lot of stuff that was being thrown at me … you could grab it… hold it… and give it back to the guy… saying here you are buddy, you have it… even the beatings my father gave me didn’t effect me in the end… my mind blocks it off. I’d started boxing in the approved school… just joined up… and the good thing was I won the Irish title when I was in there… I went up to the All-Ireland in Dublin to fight for the title and, when I won, everything in the school changed… it was given to me free… I got away with murder… if you had a stocking we used to say and you were walking in your stockings and made a hole… boy… you’d be sent down to the office with the straps on the hand… well when I won the Irish title the guy was all, “You’re fine Michael… you’re OK… you can go.”  I got away with all these things.

The only amusement people had was the local dance… on Fridays… and my father could get free tickets to go into the dance… the people that owned the dancehall owned the place my Daddy worked… the brewery… so you looked forward to it every week… you looked forward to when the dance would start… there was very little entertainment… I used to love the modern rock and roll… Elvis was our idol… there was nothing around to look up to so we used to look up to Elvis Presley… I wanted to do my hair the same but my father had an account with the local barber and he used to pay up at the end of the month… one month none of us wanted to go… we all wanted to grow our hair like Elvis Presley… “Fuck Elvis Presley! Get your hair cut!” So that was it.

The IRA were in the Curragh… they woke us up four o’clock in the morning one time… the IRA had escaped from the Curragh internment camp… trying to fight the British one way or another… when the IRA was mentioned everything went in a whisper… the walls have ears… nobody spoke about the IRA… So the whole battalion was out looking for these guys… four o’clock in the morning they got us out of bed… that was a cold fucking morning… and they lined us up about a hundred yards each along the road and gave us a gun… they said if you see someone coming and you say halt three times, then shoot… but we never had no fucking bullets and I’d never shot a gun in my life.

When I left school I started working in the glass factory… and I worked there for two or three years… I didn’t have any mates… I never spoke to no-one… I was more of a loner than anything else… I was a runner. When they blow the glass… you have a bloke up top doing the blowing… I’d have a fork wrapped in chord… you run over to the furnace and put it in… if you were anywhere near late the glass would break… so you were back and forward back and forward… bloody hard work… you never stop from one end of the day to the other… hard work, but I was fit… I’d been doing the boxing so I was fit anyway. I started drinking properly when I was in the glass factory… I had my first real drink there when I was getting £2 12shillings a week… I used to drink the twelve shillings and give the rest to my mother… Guinness… I loved the Guinness… I had an argument with a German guy and well… I came out on top because I was a boxer… it ended up outside the gates… well the firm was run by Germans… The guy who was running the factory was German… the recipe for the glass came from Germany… they couldn’t get rid of the German so I was suspended… well they said I could have my job back but I’d get no compensation… I told them I don’t want the job, I’m going to England.

I came over here, I got the first job I found… straight away at Paddington Station… as a porter… it was pretty good… the money was about £9 a week but you get at least £3 or £4 in tips from the passengers for carrying their luggage… and you could get a meal then for about one and six… you met people… chat to them… never had much problem getting women… you’d go to the station… pick the women up… they’d be coming into London with nowhere to stay… pick them up at the station… take them back to your place… it was pretty easy… as I said I was good looking so no trouble… I had three or four offers of marriage… they wanted to stay with me… but on the wages I was on there was no way. 

So I fought for money… outside the pubs round here… the Portman Arms… you’re surrounded by pubs… the Duke of York… the Duke of Clarence… the HMS Flagship… about five pubs in a ten-minute walk… but I only remember one fight I ever had… a guy called Paddy Delaney… I stripped to the waist… it was beautiful … I always hated guys holding me… they’ll smash your face in… this guy and his mate had given me an awful beating… the pair of them… one holding my arms… I’d lost my confidence and didn’t go back the next day… I was bewildered that someone could do that… my face was disfigured… so I met him one day outside the pub… I said get all the people down… and I had a secret… I’d covered myself in Vaseline… he couldn’t hold on to me… I gave him such a beating… an awful beating… and two days before I’d given his mate an awful beating as well… got away with it… that time the police were never round to nick us… I’d fight outside… what’s called a street boxer… but the pubs didn’t mind, it was always, “Here’s Michael.” We used to have what we called the Monday Club… everyone was in the pub… nobody went to work… there was plenty of money about… drink for about 14 or 15 hours… have a sing-song and a game of cards… I got away with it for 30 or 40 years.

I met my wife in a pub in England… upstairs was a room that they used as an Irish Club… it was Cork mostly… mostly Cork people… well I met my wife there… she was going with her boyfriend… she took a fancy to me… I knocked out the boyfriend and she started coming with me… and we’ve been going with each other for forty years now… an unusual woman… my wife stuck with me… and I now have three children… not children now… all grown up… I’m a great-grandfather… my first child was Mary… I didn’t feel anything at all when we had her… I just carried on working… I didn’t even come up to see her… but I’m very proud of my children now… they’ve all done well for themselves… Darren has two daughters and I love him… he’s a diamond… he wants to be a carpenter now… and he loves football which I love so much… he’s a good kid. He got burnt a few years ago… depressed… tried to kill himself … poured a can of petrol over his head.

If I could relive my life over again I’d hope to have been a better father… because I didn’t see my kids when I was young… I was always drinking… they’d never see me from one end of the day to the other… and they didn’t want to see me either because I was always drunk… but all good things come out of bad… I learned from my father never to hit my kids… and I never did.

I didn’t start to get into trouble until I was about thirty I’d already been drinking for near enough twenty years… there was no such thing as the dole at that time so I was robbing and stealing… the dole only started twenty years forward… I had no stockings or anything on me… couldn’t afford stockings… I was doing odd labouring jobs… giving most of the money to my wife and boxing for beer money… then I ended up in prison… I was living in Coventry… we were standing outside this bus stop after the pubs closed… and there was six Irish guys… and they started taking the piss out of a woman… we said leave her alone… so… we started taking the piss out of them… they started following us… we went around the corner and landed there next to a milk float… we broke the bottles and stood wall to wall and let the six come running at us… we cut them up… well the guy who got most stabs… when it came to court… he didn’t testify against me… he said, “I don’t want to know”… the bastards who got cut and ran away… leaving him on his own… were the ones who gave evidence… I got 18 months for every offence… in the prison… the Scrubs was the worst… fucking filthy! They wouldn’t let you clean the cell out… the lads were alright… some of them you’d see crying… but I was relieved… everything was over… I was quite happy to go in… stay there… two of my mates ran away… escaped… but they only got brought back again… there was no point trying… there never is.