"Had my dear father still been alive, he would have been one hundred and one years old today. He was born on the first day of spring in 1916 in one of the most impoverished areas of County Kilkenny, Ireland where daffodils did not grow. I spent most of my lifetime putting my father on a pedestal. I believed that I'd be well satisfied if I finished up half the man he was, but by the time he died in 1991, my reappraisal of him and myself had been readjusted more realistically the more I came to know him.
In many ways my father was one of the most remarkable, the most modest, the most stubborn, the most independent, the most secretive and the most enigmatic men I ever knew or didn't know. He was born into the poorest of circumstances where there was a constant shortage of food to eat and clothes to wear, and where formal education was never considered an essential ingredient of survival. Before he was thirteen years old, my father left school and was put to work. The harsh conditions he endured in early life hardened him well before his years, making him an impenetrable fortress of stone emotions. He expressed himself in the extreme emotions of anger and love, but in between, few ever knew what went on inside his head.
My dad was born in the year of the Easter Rising in Dublin, 1916. The Easter Rebellion was an armed insurrection mounted by Irish republicans to end British rule in Ireland and to establish an independent Irish Republic. Though a mere month in age at the start of the Easter Rising, had my father been able to have held and fired a rifle to rid Ireland of the English, I feel sure he would have been found in the midst of the battle.
Being short of work in Southern Ireland prior the war years, dad fortunately found his salvation through soccer. Football was the one area in the whole of his life in which he excelled. Indeed, it was the only area in which he received public recognition and admiration. Before his early twenties, my father was playing soccer for his county and even went on to play for his country! My dad was so modest that I was almost eleven years old before I learned that he had once been an international football player. Even then, the information didn't come directly from his lips but from an Irish newspaper cutting in 'The Kilkenny People.' At the time, my father had taken one of his rare holidays back to Kilkenny on his own. It transpired, as recorded in 'the Kilkenny People,' that upon his arrival at the train station, dad was met by a brass band and was triumphantly marched through the town to the home of Micky and Ann Brennan where he was staying. Needless to say, dad said nothing about this marvellous welcome upon his return and had it not been for the news cutting, later sent by one of the Brennans, I might never have known until later years. Mum rarely spoke about my father's football years and I suspect that having to cope with her first three children on her own in Ireland in poverty, besides being a football widow, created some ill-feeling by her towards the sport.
During his early twenties my father and mother started courting and though their respective homes were thirty five miles apart, they maintained contact by means of my father being prepared to cycle from Kilkenny to Waterford. Now, whereas many folk naturally know where they were born, few like me know the precise spot where they were conceived! Being so secretive by nature, whilst my dad wouldn't rarely confirm anything, my mother was a much different person and all I had to do to discover anything she knew was to ask her.
My mother told me that during the spring of 1942, near the base of the Metal Man in Tramore (a high pillar constructed in 1824 designed to warn mariners of the dangerous sea waters of Tramore Bay) I was conceived. I was born on the 10th November, 1942 and it was only after seeing my birth certificate and my parent's marriage certificate for the first time as an adult that I realise my conception must have occurred in the early summer of '42 and not the spring! Either mum was never any good at arithmetic or she was determined never to make me feel unwanted because of a few months here or there!
As I grew up, I quickly realised how strict and disciplined my father was. It wasn't that he beat us; more that he was unwavering in all he said and did. Once he threatened to do something, neither hell nor high water would stop him doing what he said. Were he ever to withdraw a privilege from us as a punishment, he never relented until it had been fully served. If a punishment of one week's grounding was imposed, he meant one week and not one hour, nay not even one minute less than a week! Had the house caught fire one hour before the end of your punishment deadline, I swear he would not have allowed the firemen to remove you from the premises until 'you'd served your time!' My dad lived the whole of his life on the maxim that a man is only as good as his word and once given, one's word should be kept, and under no circumstances, ever broken.
The only reading my father ever did was to read the church leaflets and paperback cowboy books. His hero was the late film star, John Wayne, his favourite film was 'The Quiet Man' and his most quoted saying was from the film 'Custer's Last Stand' when John Wayne pronounced, 'The first is first and the second is nobody!' I might add that this was a saying that I may have repeated many times as a growing child, but thankfully it was one I never came to believe.
I recall during the 50s when my father was a miner, he was the only man to dare cross a picket line at his colliery in Gomersal when his work mates took industrial action. Whilst his work comrades took their strike action, dad insisted on following his own conscience. Such action was virtually unheard of at the time and any working man crossing the picket line was seen as being no better than crossing enemy lines during the war to join the enemy camp instead of fighting them. I never doubted his action then as being anything but brave and an action that was borne out of conviction to put food on the table for his wife and children.
He did this because he viewed his first duty as standing by his family of wife and seven children, even if it meant crossing his work comrades' picket line. He was offered a different pit to work in after the strike had ended, but refused, saying he had done nothing to be ashamed of that might lead him to avoid the ill-will of his work comrades apart from looking out for his family's welfare. Dad continued to work alongside his comrades after the strike and though he was undoubtedly 'sent to Coventry' by most of them as a consequence, a few admired and respected him for what they might had done but had feared to do. Indeed, when it came to 'solidarity', for his entire life he remained a loner. He was always his own man and was respected by all whom he ever allowed close enough to know a part of him.
This incident of him crossing the picket line became all the more pertinent to me in my eighteenth year of life when I became the youngest shop steward in Great Britain and brought the textile firm where I worked out on its first strike since it came into existence, 120 years earlier!
Throughout his life, my father stuck to his beliefs, even when to do so hurt the feelings of both wife and children. Being brought up Catholic in an Irish household, I always found this religion the most natural to follow, yet unlike my father, I couldn't always adhere to Roman Catholicism unquestioningly. For instance, dad would not hear a bad word ever said about the Roman Catholic Church and unless the church clearly sanctioned something, it wouldn't be done by him. To him, every pope since Peter was innocent of all sin and never did wrong.
Hence, when I got remarried outside the Catholic Church after divorcing my first wife, dad wouldn't come to the wedding ceremony, even though I knew that it hurt him not to attend. His only concession was to courteously accept the woman I'd married into his home whenever we visited. With regard to wife number one whom I had married in the Catholic Church, she could have been the most wicked woman who ever walked the face of the earth; she could have become a mass murderess and had gone on to commit the most heinous of crimes against innocent children and harmless widows, and she still would have remained my only wife in my father's eyes! 'Those whom God has joined, let no man put asunder.' Whenever I hear these words, I think of dad and not the priest conducting the marriage ceremony.
Religion was to cause a number of disagreements between me and dad. Being a history buff, I knew of the cruelties committed in the name of God by the Roman Catholic Church in centuries gone by and of a few Popes who clearly were not holy representatives of the Church. I'd also heard the rumours about many Catholic priests who had behaved sexually inappropriately towards many children over the years in Ireland, England and America. I sensed there to have been too many alleged incidents for none of them to be true. The fact simply was that my dad's lack of formal education and book reading had never led him to learn of the bad Popes. Even had he done so, his unwavering belief in the Catholic Church to do no evil would not have let him believe such men of the church to be capable of existence. His blind faith that all priests were men of God who could do no wrong, always made religion a subject that we both avoided in each other's company in order to maintain the peace as he grew older.
In later years, one of the church pamphlets said 'that parents should not fail to attend their children's wedding, even when that wedding was not performed in a Catholic Church, and when not to attend would risk family rift.' Only then, as he showed me the church pamphlet with a tear in his eye, did my father say, 'I should have attended your wedding to Fiona, Billy.' He felt able to have permission to say this, because the church pamphlet had said he should have attended! Only then, could he accept it had been wrong to stay away.
There are numerous incidents that I could cite to show the goodness of my father as a person as well as to reveal some of his failings in his roles as both father and husband. There was never a time in our lives when I did not respect him; never a time when I stopped loving him, though I did not always like him or understand him as I did my mother. I also believe that there was never a time when dad did not love any of his children. Unfortunately, he was never an emotionally expressive father with us and though a good man he remained throughout his life, I now accept he was far from being either an perfect dad or husband!
I know that there are many of my father's traits that I possess and also many of my mother's. While I draw my determination from my dad's character, I have never been rigid in the application of my own actions. I accept one hundred per cent, the worth of following one's own conscience along with the merits of not breaking one's word and standing up for what one believes in. While these traits I inherited/adopted from my father have undoubtedly made me a man, it was my mother's liveliness, openness of expression and her fun loving and generous nature which helped make me a 'good man' and a more balanced person.
I now know what it was in mum that made my dad cycle thirty-five miles daily during his courtship days from Kilkenny to Portlaw for little more than a kiss and holding hands........that was until that sunny Sunday afternoon near the base of 'The Metal Man' in Tramore, County Waterford.
It is hard for a boy to follow in the footsteps of his father, even when such a father figure is greatly admired by him. Over the years I have come to believe that when a son has a strong willed, determined and successful father, that he only comes into his own and truly becomes his own man after his father has died. I love you Dad. Happy hundredth and first birthday. Your Eldest son, Billy." William Forde: March 21st, 2017.