Farewell to May Morris, one of the loveliest women in all Ireland, who passed away on Sunday last in her 107th year. I believe she was the second oldest woman in the country. James Fennell and I had the pleasure of meeting May and her late brother Paddy who both featured in the third volume of the Vanishing Ireland series. This is an abridged version of the story I wrote about her.
‘The children today are like how Kings and Queens used to be years ago,’ says May Morris. ‘They are brought to school and picked up after. They wear lovely clothes and they go to lovely schools. I don’t know anything about the teachers now but they used to murder us!’
May attended a mixed school in Castledermot, the agricultural town on the Carlow-Kildare border. It was a roughshod building; plaster fell from the ceiling while they studied. Her teacher was a vicious old woman who never went anywhere without an ash rod. ‘She had a way of hitting you on your knuckle that’d make you nearly faint!’ says May, protectively clutching her hand ninety years later.
‘I was always getting into trouble. Especially trying to read from the big old Bible. If there was a word I couldn’t make out, she’d call me ‘The Great May Byrne’ and hit the knuckles again. The rod was so long that she couldn’t miss us! But that was life. If a teacher hit a child today they’d be summoned. In them days it didn’t matter if they killed ye.’
May was the second of eleven children born to James and Rosanna Byrne, a farming couple from Graney Cross on the road between Castledermot and Baltinglass, County Wicklow. It was and is a quiet place although in October 1922, nine-year-old May heard the shots of a Republican ambush on a Free State convoy at nearby Graney Bridge which left three soldiers dead.
May is still in awe about the generations before her. ‘I look back on our mothers and fathers and I think ‘God they were terrific people’. The patience and understanding they had with us children. We worked hard, but the weather had a lot to do with it. If it was a lovely day, you’d be out weeding, thinning turnips, picking spuds, all them sort of things. If it was miserable, we might be inside helping our mother make the butter which she sold on to Cope’s. Or sometimes she gave us four needles and a bundle of wool and told us to knit our winter socks.’
There were also animals to tend– four or five cows, a couple of pigs and a clatter of hens. To acquire fresh stock, the Byrnes would go to the market in Baltinglass. ‘Those were great days. All the cattle grouped up on the street and all the children running free at the fair.’ Young May once purchased ‘a pair of the finest chickens you ever saw’ for five shillings from the ‘higglers’, travelling itinerants who specialized in poultry.
Castledermot had its own horse fair back in those times. Schools closed on Fair Day and ‘the town would be black with horses from all around and everywhere.’ There was generally no problem selling them either. ‘During the war years, they’d sell them all because they needed horses in England to work down in the mines and things. Everything happened on the street at that time, no matter what town you went to. There were fairs until the time they got the marts. That closed up the trading on the street.’
Life was hard but, like most of her generation, May felt that people were happier than they are now. ‘And then we grew up and everything changed,’ she laughs. ‘Half the country was gone to England and the other half went to Canada and Australia!’
In early 1942, an Englishman appeared in Castledermot and recruited twenty women from the area to work in a munitions factory near Birmingham. ‘And with ten shillings in my purse, I was the richest of those twenty,’ says May. ‘Honest to God, some of them hadn’t a shilling.’ May didn’t enjoy her first voyage across the sea. ‘I was as sick as could be but, when the boat arrived, they gave me a cup of Oxo and a rope ladder and told us the to get way onshore. I was a good-looking lady in my day. A golden haired beauty! But when I arrived in Birmingham, I was a skeleton, scared to death. Nobody knew what the future would be because the war was only at the start.’
She went to work at Guest, Keen & Nettleford’s factory in Smethwick. ‘It was huge,’ says May. ‘Every day we got lost going into it. They started us off making very small screws. Then we were making stuff for airplanes. And then we were making bombs, filling old cans with whatever scrap we could find.’
The reality of war was never far away and whenever the air raid sirens sounded, May and her colleagues hurried underground. ‘You lived on your nerves,’ she says. ‘But there was always some singing and dancing downstairs. People were paid to keep the spirits up.’
May’s personal spirits took a dive when the authorities intercepted a parcel from Ireland. ‘My mother, Lord have mercy on her, sent me two slices of ham wrapped up in The Carlow Nationalist. When I got them, The Nationalist was in ribbons. They had everything cut out of it! I was summonsed and told, “if that happens again, you’ll go to prison.” The worst thing was I didn’t get the ham.’
May stayed on at Nettlefold’s after the war but several of those she worked with emigrated farther afield. ‘Australia was just beginning to waken up and they were taking on anyone who could work in agriculture and building.’ Amongst those who headed down under were four of her brothers. During the 1950s, it was very cheap to get from Birmingham to Australia and May visited her brothers ‘umpteen times’, whenever they ‘were having babies or getting married.’ However, she found the Queensland climate too humid for her to consider settling.
She remained with Nettlefold’s for twelve years before she transferred to a factory where she spent her days making tarts. ‘We wore gloves made from sacks so we could take the trays off the conveyor, turn around, drop down, pick up the next one. The heat would kill you! My brother Anthony was there as well. He was a baker by trade and made lovely plum puddings. He had to start at half five in the morning. He would give the old ladies a little drop of rum on their tart but then the word got out and he had to stop. I remember the day he left for Australia, they all came out to wish him well.’
Meanwhile, May married an English war veteran called Joe Morris who worked in Mitchell & Butler’s in Birmingham (where her brother Paddy would later work). Many of Joe’s former army colleagues had returned from the war crippled.May returned home to see her parents occasionally but ‘all we ever got was a week and that was never enough time to go home and enjoy ourselves.’ However, as her parents grew older, she realised they needed her and she moved back to Ireland in 1980.
‘I loved every bit of my life in Birmingham but it’s all brand new now. All the old buildings are gone. I was back there in 2006 visiting some of my friends, although a lot of them have gone as well.’
Prior to Paddy’s death in 2013, May lived with her brother in a roadside cottage in Castledermot, not far from the place where they were both at school a long time ago. May then moved to the Hillview Nursing Home in Carlow where she swiftly established herself as an icon and was reportedly ‘flying around the place’ until recent times.
With thanks to Hazel Dickinson, James Fennell and Sharon Greene-Douglas.