By Jack Holland
My aunt Martha was of the opinion that I received too many presents at Christmas, though, of course, I disagreed. But I had to admit that compared to her childhood experience I was indeed overindulged.
Martha was born in Belfast in 1910. Her father, William, was a Presbyterian from Portadown, Co. Armagh, and her mother Cathleen a Catholic from Rostrevor, Co. Down. He worked as a coach driver and later as a carter. Cathleen was a maid in one of the big houses in College Square North, near Belfast city center. Eventually, they had seven children — three girls, Eileen, Martha, and Agnes, and four boys, William, Stanley, Thomas, and Jack (my father).
For various reasons, some to do with the sectarian geography of Belfast, some with family dynamics, I was raised mainly by my Grandmother Cathleen, my Aunt Martha and my Uncle Tom.
We were what you could call, I suppose, upper lower class. That is, I never recall a time when either my aunt or my uncle were without jobs. Tom had two. During the day he was a milkman, and at night he drove a taxi. Martha worked all her life in the linen mills of Belfast. There was always food on the table, clean clothes on the rack, and coal in the fire. While we did not have much space — one and a half bedrooms, a living room, the “wee room” where we ate, and a scullery, to be precise — we had comfort. My aunt was immensely proud of her work, and devoted herself uncomplainingly (for the most part) to her job and then, after work, to helping her mother run our little home. But come Christmas, Aunt Martha would frequently bring up times past, when the family lived in Everton Street, near the Shankill Road. As I waited expectantly for Santa Claus to deliver a rather large bag of goodies, she would recount the Christmas morning when she woke up to find an orange in her stocking. She was only 5 or so when her father joined the army to fight in World War I. By then, there were six children to care for on the small wage that he sent home from the front. Oranges for Christmas were not unusual. Bad children received lumps of coal.
Martha was not a whiner. I never saw her exhibit a trace of self-pity in my entire life. In fact, she felt hers had been a wonderful, fulfilling life. But she was convinced that “children nowadays” were in danger of being ruined by the number of toys they were getting. Her philosophy was that of all poor people. It was that money does not make you happy. The rich are no happier than the poor. In fact, often they are less happy.
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The Catholic Church reinforced that belief. The lives of Hollywood stars helped sustain it, they being the prime example of what happens to people who have too much, whether it is too much money, too much beauty or too much sex. Less is better.
So when she beheld her little nephew unwrapping yet another gun-and-holster set, or unpacking yet another box of toy soldiers, she rolled her eyes to heaven and muttered a quiet prayer that he would not be spoiled for life.
My life did not conform to the pattern in which hers had been set. My less fortunate cousins, the Burns, all 11 of them, lived in a two-bedroom house, and had jobs by the time they 7 or 8. In the winter they would go from door to door selling bundles of sticks as kindling wood for the fire. That was the way Martha was reared. I, on the other hand, had no need to work. On Friday, my Uncle Tom handed me a couple of shillings without me having ever to lift a finger. Martha regarded it as amusing that I had the nerve to call this “my pay.” In the end, she mellowed somewhat, and on Fridays would pass me a shilling from her own pay packet.
To Martha, the idea of getting something for nothing belonged to another moral universe. In her moral universe, you had responsibilities, not privileges. The lower class that she had known was by the 1960s no more. Even though jobs were fewer, as the city’s main industries closed down, there seemed to be greater prosperity. Those people who had no jobs had the dole. A massive post-war slum clearance transformed the face of Belfast. The poor were moved into the suburbs and into more spacious homes with gardens, indoor toilets and baths. The Saturday night ritual of sitting in the tub before the fire while you were scrubbed down, so that you would positively shine in your Sunday suit, was a thing of the past. We read about it now in novels of working class life, such as D.H. Lawrence’s “Sons and Lovers.” and smile nostalgically.
It is not that Martha was a believer in “The Good Old Days.” She welcomed the extra comforts of the new homes — indeed, she spent the last years of her life in a little bungalow, with a garden, far from the grimy streets where she had been raised. But she remained convinced that because people were more comfortable that did not mean they were necessarily more happy. Indeed, what she saw around her as people became better off proved to her satisfaction that she was right. There was more money, but also more drunkenness. By the 1960s, even teenagers were getting drunk and defying all standards of decent behavior that she recognized. Before long, they were on drugs, sniffing glue in wretched corners and alleyways. Soon Northern Ireland was registering the highest rates of out-of-wedlock teenage pregnancies in the European Union.
Martha lived to see a society based on Victorian values transformed by consumer capitalism. The chief economic activity of the mass of the population, including the poor, was now consumption, not production. Needs dominated this culture, not duties. But duties were what Martha knew, and fulfilling them made her happy.
Children are conscious of being happy or unhappy, but they generally do not think about it. As I unwrapped my presents all those years ago, it would not have occurred to me that Martha’s life contained a recipe for happiness. But now that I do think about it, I must acknowledge that my Aunt Martha was one of the happiest people I ever knew.
(Visit Jack Holland’s website: www.jackholland.com.)