Donall Mac Amhlaigh was born in Galway and grew up there and in Kilkenny. He left school at 15 and worked in various jobs before joining the Irish speaking Regiment of the Army. When he left the Army in 1951, he emigrated to work as an unskilled labourer in England. His book in Irish covering this experience was translated by the diplomat and writer Valentine Iremonger as An Irish Navvy, The Diary of an Exile. This excerpt is an entry for Monday,12th March 1951, the day he emigrated.
This morning I signed on for the last time and then carried a hundredweight of coal home for my Mother. I have everything done for her now, the garden planted and cleaned and the old house spruced up a bit on the outside. I’ll be able to help her a bit more than that from now on when I’ll have a few pence to send to her from England. I spent the day putting some kind of order into the old box I keep my papers in, and then went around saying goodbye to the neighbours. Peter’s wife was very sorry at my going, the creature. She was kindness itself always and, as for the other people in the district, it would be hard to surpass them. I’d have liked nothing better than to have visited my relatives and old friends back in Galway but, alas I’ve only enough to get me across the water with a bit to spare.
The old lady kept her courage up wonderfully until the time came for me to set off. The tears came then. I didn’t delay too long bidding her good bye.I hugged her once, grabbed my bag and off with me. Indeed you would think even the cat knew I was going for she followed me out mewing piteously. I stood at the head of the boreen to look back at the house, and there I saw my mother with her left hand up to her mouth as was her habit whenever she was worried about something.
Who did I meet then as I was crossing the bridge, but Sonny Cambell. Sonny spent a long time in the British Navy and anyone would think he gets money from the British Government for sending people over from Ireland to join up. He’s always running down this country, saying that it’s ridiculous for people to stay here seeing the good wages to be had beyond. Some of the lads have a bit of devilment with him, rising him and quizzing him about life over there, but I’ve noticed that Sonny himself shows no sign of moving across. He paused when he saw the bag that I was carrying “are you crossing over” he enquired, I am brother I said, Good man he replied rubbing his hands together, “ it won’t be long till there is nobody left here at all”. They are all going. What is there for them here? You’ll never regret it. It won’t be long till I’m crossing over myself. Well good luck to you. He shook hands with me and took himself off , as pleased as if I had pressed a half sovereign into his fist.
As I went onto the platform to get on the train, my old dog Toppy was at my heels, however the devil he managed to follow me without me being aware of him. He looked so lonely sitting there on the platform that a lump came into my throat as the train pulled out. I kept my nose to the window until Three Castles, Dunmore, and Ballyfoyle were out of sight. I sat back then and wasn’t interested in anything else.
There was a good crowd on the boat with me. The Princess Maud we were on and my courage came back to me quickly enough once I found myself amongst them. Before I had been two minutes aboard, who did I meet but the big fellow from Tooreen who had come into Renmore last year to enlist, and a girl from the same place with him. They were off to London and another girl from round about Oughtereard with them also. We got together straight away and I didn’t feel at all lonely while I was with them. The Irish of the girl from Oughterard wasn’t as good as the Irish the other two spoke but there was nothing wrong with her apart from that. I met many people from those parts who hadn’t any Irish at all.
We only had time for a drop of tea when the boat started moving and before we knew where we were, we were edging away from the quay. I got well to the back of the boat to have a good gander at Ireland and the bright lights North there of Dun Laoire, and suddenly I felt lonely all over again. I started thinking about the old house with the pots of tea we’d drink before going to bed and my heart felt like a solid black mass inside my breast. I didn’t leave the place until the last light had sunk out of sight. Only then did I go looking for the other three.
I stood on John Bull’s territory for the first time in my life on Tuesday morning when I got off the Irish Mail at Rugby. I didn’t count Holyhead for that’s really Welsh and there was as much Welsh spoken there as there was Irish spoken on a fair day in Derrynea.I lost my friends in the Custom Hall and I never saw them again.
I slept most of the way from there to Rugby and, when I left the train I had a two hour delay before I caught the train to North Hampton. My heart sank all together then as I stood and, looked around the dirty ugly station. Everything looked so foreign to me there. Round about six o’clock hundreds started pouring into the station, pallid pasty faces with identical lunch boxes slung from their shoulders. They were all getting the train for work and their likes were getting off the train at the same time coming for work in Rugby, I suppose. God save us I murmured to myself as I thought that nobody in Ireland would even be thinking of getting out of their beds for another couple of hours yet.