I was born in 1920 in a three-storey tenement house in Waterford Street in the Monto area. I lived in one room to the front of the house with my mother and father, four brothers and two sisters. There was eight other families living in the house.
I remember the women had it very hard in those days. They stayed in their rooms and looked after their children while the men went out to work or to look for work on the docks. The women were trapped in those tenement rooms. If a woman was going to the shops for food she had to bring all her children with her. You couldn’t leave your children alone in the rooms because it was too dangerous. There were no locks on the doors except for a bolt on the inside of the door that you could push across at night. The windows did not lock right, the staircases were falling apart. The men of the house nailed timber across the missing handrails so the children wouldn’t fall through them. I remember a woman that lived at the top of our house, she had eight children. She used to run down the six flights of stairs with a baby in her arms. She would knock on the door of the bottom room and ask the woman to hold the baby while she ran back up the stairs and carried down her children one by one.
Everywhere the women went they had to bring their children with them. The men never minded children in those days; it was all left to the women. Nearly every woman I knew in those days had big families. In our house there must have been forty children. I remember in the night-time the screams of the young babies crying out for food was terrible. Their mothers knocked on the doors of their neighbours looking for milk. My mother used to give out whatever spare milk or food she had.
The man could go to the pub and have a few pints to get away from the house and the children for a while. The woman couldn’t do that. She had to be there for the children. She couldn’t go and ask a neighbour, who would have had a lot of children of her own, to mind seven or maybe ten children, while she went to the pub for a drink. So the women never went out to the pubs as much as the men did and if they did, they had to drink in the little snugs with other women.
They were not allowed to drink out in the bar with the men. At that time, the pubs sold food as well as drink, so the temptation was not to buy food, but drink. It didn’t matter to the publican what you bought as long as you spent your money, he didn’t care about your children going hungry.
In our room there was one bed for my mother and father. The rest of the family slept on the floor on straw, that was stuffed into a pollyass. That was a type of sack that we put the straw in to to make a mattress. When the straw went flat, my mother would go out and buy a bale of straw for sixpence off a man in Gardiner Street. Women and children carried buckets of water up the stairs all day from the one water tap out in the backyard where the two toilets were. We used to keep a bucket in the room for going to the toilet in at night, because it was too dark and dangerous to go down the stairs.
I remember in the morning time there would be an awful smell in the room from the shit bucket, even though it was covered by a board. Depending on who was up from bed first, my mother or father would take the bucket down to the backyard and empty it down the toilet pot, but more times the toilet pot would be blocked up by so many people using it. It used to be overflowing with shit, the stench was awful in the summer time. The men that lived in the house would go out the backyard and try unblock it. The landlord wouid not do it. He was what we called a ‘mystery landlord’. No one saw him, only his agent who came around for the rent. When people complained about the state of the house all he said was that he would tell the owner. I remember my mother complaining to him about the room but nothing happened. It was a waste of time complaining.
There was no water, toilets, gas or electricity in the rooms. The only light was from a paraffin oil lamp. The cooking was done on an open fire, which had to be kept going all the time as the room was freezing cold in the winter. I remember children coming around the streets in their bare feet with boxcars and selling two-penny small bags of cinders for the fire.
My mother and father sat by the fire talking at nighttime. We lay on the straw mattress looking at them, with one blanket and some old coats over us to keep us warm.
There was an old coat put down at the door to stop the draught coming under the door. Old newspapers were stuffed around the window frames.
My father worked on the docks but there was little work down there at that time. I remember he used to pace up and down the room. He was demented, the poor man, because he couldn’t get work to feed us. He would go out around the streets and look for pieces of timber for the fire. My mother done washing for other women in the area to make a few shillings to feed us. I rememberher arms would be red raw from her hands up to her elbows from washing other peoples’ clothes. She would goout around the streets with a pram and ask the people whose husbands had good jobs, did they want their washi_ng done or she would go down to the moneylenders in Gardiner Street, Railway Street and Corporation Street and ask them did they want their washing done. I knowmy mother got money off them, but she paid it back by doing their washing and ironing for them. They bled the people dry with the high interest rates they charged. If the people missed paying the moneylenders their money they would come around the streets screaming up to the windows: ‘Pay me my money back.’ They would make a holy show of the people in the street in front of everybody. They where vultures. They picked poor peoples bones clean, they did. They and their families went around in style and grandeur and we went around in rags.
Everyday Iused to see my mother and other women out in the back yard of the house scrubbing away in big tin baths on the washing boards; they had their children standing beside them as they worked. They had a big iron tub in the corner of the yard and they lit a fire under it to boil the washing in.
In those days people had to boil their washing because the rooms were infested with bugs that sucked the blood out of you. They only came out from under the floorboards at night, hundreds of them. It was hard to sleep at night with bugs crawling around the room. Everyone in the neighbourhood had bug bites on their faces, hands and legs. On top of that the houses were infested with insects I’d never seen the likes of before and rats.
There was an awful lot of sickness from the bugs and the open sewers out in the backyard and lots of people died. I saw lots of coffins coming out of the houses. You might see a neighbour one day and the next day they were being taking out of their room in a box. That was a regular sight in the neighbourhood.
My mother used to say when she would see a funeral going by the house in a horse-drawn carriage ‘Will ya look at the dead following the dead.’
She died a young woman herself in that filthy tenement house. My father could not look after all of us so he sent us to live with different relations around the area. He died himself not long after the mother.