I also wish a happy birthday to my Facebook friend, Catherine Bailey who lives in Haworth, West Yorkshire. I hope that you enjoy your special day, and thank you for being my Facebook friend.
My song today was my father’s favourite song, ‘Sweet Sixteen’. Today was my father’s birthday and had he been alive, he would have reached 105 years of age. Dad had two favourite songs; in fact, these were the only two songs he ever sang to our knowledge; ‘Sweet Sixteen’ and ‘Some Enchanted Evening’. Today, I dedicate ‘When You Were Sweet Sixteen’ to my late father. Happy heavenly birthday, dad. All your children love you: Billy, Mary, Eileen, Patrick, Peter, Michael, and Susan xxx
Today’s song is ‘When You Were Sweet Sixteen’. This popular song was written by James Thornton and was published in 1898. Inspired and sung by the composer's wife, the ballad quickly became a hit song in vaudeville. It has a long recording history that includes numerous popular singers.
James Thornton was a vaudevillian who was best-known during his life for his comedy monologues. However, he composed numerous popular songs, especially in the 1880s and 1890s. ‘When You Were Sweet Sixteen’, published in 1898, was inspired by Thornton's wife, Bonnie, when she asked her husband if he still loved her. Thornton replied, "I love you like I did when you were sweet sixteen." Bonnie Thornton, a popular vaudeville singer who sang many of her husband's compositions then introduced the song in her act. ‘When You Were Sweet Sixteen’ sold over a million copies of sheet music, which was a fantastic number of music sheets for its time. The song has been covered over the past century by many artists.
It is not often that the popularity of any song endures from one century to the next, but this song has so far been in existence for 123 years. In my youth, all the nation whistled while they relaxed, and they also whistled while they worked. The postman, the milkman, and every other man I ever met as a boy whistled as they walked and worked through their day. Indeed, one of the most popular wartime radio programmes was called, ‘Whistle While You Work’.
My father was no different where the love of whistling was concerned. Indeed, dad loved to hear the world’s greatest whistler, Ronnie Ronalde making his wonderful bird noises over the radio and whistling and singing his beautiful songs. Ronnie Ronalde’s combination of whistling and singing was simply marvellous. Dad would have been so pleased to know that Ronnie Ronalde was to become a friend of his firstborn during the early 2000s. Ronnie sent me and Sheila an autographed biography of his life as my wedding present in 2012, plus one of his signed CDs. I was initially introduced into his social circle by a friend of mine, but sadly he died a few years later in 2015. His whistling imitations of bird song led to his greatest hits like ‘If I Was a Blackbird’ and ‘In a Monastery Garden’.
I was born the oldest of seven children. My father was a relatively uneducated man and had been born into abject poverty in County Kilkenny, Ireland. Dad was only 12 years old when he was obliged to leave his school life behind and join the ranks of the workers. My father was a simple man who kept his own company and never drank alcohol; presumably, because his father had been an alcoholic. Dad was the most independent man I ever knew, along with being the most modest man I ever met. He was strict in discipline and was one of the most stubborn men alive.
Dad had also been an accomplished footballer at both county and country levels of participation. Dad played soccer for County Kilkenny before he was twenty years old. He then went on to play soccer for both the first and second soccer squad of the Irish national team. I had often seen a framed photograph of a football team in the lounge. We would pass it twenty times a day as we walked in and out of the front room, but it was never specifically discussed in the family until my tenth year of life, and my mother never once mentioned the importance the image held in my father’s football career. Her reluctance to tell us about the specifics of my father’s football career, was because it represented a lonelier period in her life when she was mothering three small children as a football widow. She would later complain that while my father was off kicking an old ball and chasing glory around some soccer pitch, she was left minding his children and washing his clothes for him to wear on his return home.
The unmentioned framed image in our front room was a photograph of the Irish National Second Eleven with my father seated at its centre, with the football between his legs (Captain of Ireland’s Second Eleven Soccer Team at the time). It was later revealed that my father also made it into the Irish National First Eleven soccer squad on several occasions. My father’s regular absence from home was a source of constant conflict between him and mum during their first four years of marriage. Being the wife of a man who played soccer for Ireland then wasn’t like being a football Wag of today, with all the luxurious trappings to boot.
First, the national soccer players for Ireland in the late thirties and early 1940s received no wages. The only money that they ever received came in the form of recompense and not remuneration. These were travel and out of pocket expenses. Such financial circumstances would prevail in Eire until after the ‘Second World War’. My mother would not have minded being a football widow for the first four years of her married life had her husband been receiving a significant wage and a commensurate standard of living like the soccer wives of professional footballers earn today, but both situations held no similarity. My mother found herself parenting three children under the ages of 5 years and living in an overcrowded and cheap rented flat. She was in fact a soccer widow half of every week of the year; a situation that was nothing to cheer or write home about as representing an indication of the family’s increased prosperity since leaving her parent’s home in Portlaw after her marriage to my father. Half of the week was reportedly spent waiting for the other half the week to arrive with a bit of money to buy feed the children and the equally hungry gas meter.
My dad played football for the glory of the sport and his reward was the pride of playing for his county and country. He was not as bothered about the lack of wage as my lonely mother was about his constant absence from herself and their three children. Consequently, my father’s footballing career was always a bone of contention between them, and this was the reason it had never once been spoken about in front of myself and my younger siblings during the early years of our development. Indeed, had my father not gone on one of his rare holidays back home to County Kilkenny, his soccer skills may never have come to the attention of his seven children.
One year, my father went back to Kilkenny for a rare holiday break. I only knew him to return to Ireland twice since we had arrived in West Yorkshire in 1945. On this occasion, he went to look up the site where his father had been buried and he intended to stay with the Brennan’s, who had always treated him as though he had been born into their family. Dad was utterly surprised to be met at the railway station when he alighted the train, by a welcoming brass band that greeted the return of a ‘football hero from Kilkenny’. According to the Kilkenny People’ newspaper, the brass band reception then led the parade of people who cheered dad as they walked through town. My father was triumphantly marched through the city centre, up to the Brennan household where he would stay until he returned home to England. Dad had gone on that holiday alone, and we never would have known of the soccer hero’s welcome he had received, had not a Kilkenny family friend sent the newspaper cutting to my mother a few weeks later after dad had returned from his week’s break in Kilkenny.
By the age of ten years, I had become an excellent football player, and I was even selected to play in the school adult team with boys aged 13 and 14 years. Our school soccer team at ‘St. Patrick’s Roman Catholic School’ in Heckmondwike had just obtained a new team shirt. Its pattern was one in green and white chequered squares, and the cost of purchasing a shirt was £2: 10 shillings. The fifty shillings cost of the football strip might as well have been £50, as such a sizable sum was an impossible amount for my family to purchase on my behalf. £2: 10 shillings represented one-fifth of my father’s weekly wage as a miner. Naturally, I was disappointed not to be able to purchase a shirt in the school’s colours, especially as I was honoured to have been accepted to play in the big boys’ team as I turned 11 years old.
Before dad left for work that day and knowing that his oldest son would be embarrassed to be the only player running around the football field in a green T-shirt instead of the official school soccer strip, he presented me with an old football shirt that he had used in his twenties. The shirt was the team shirt he had proudly worn when he played soccer for Eire (Southern Ireland). Its size naturally buried me, and its hem fell far below my waistline and reached halfway down my legs, but it made me immensely proud to wear it. I was the happiest and most envied player in ‘St. Patrick’s School Football Team’ that memorable day in 1952. Unfortunately, I did not score, and we lost 8-0.
Blood, flesh, and bone, banded by strands of strictness and streaks of stubbornness, religiosity, and discipline made up my father’s body from head to toe. Dad was also as stubborn as an ass who refused to pull the cart a yard farther unless he wanted to walk the road ahead. As for being single-minded, once he made a decision, he never changed it (even when he was wrong). When he shook hands with another man and gave his word, he kept it, whatever the cost. Despite being a strict Roman Catholic, dad displayed a strong Protestant work ethic which was nothing short of ‘Calvinistic’ in the significance he placed upon the value of being industrious. He had no time for the merits of education, and he considered any education inside the school classroom to be far less important than what one could learn at the workbench of any factory or on the streets of life. Dad believed that ‘hard manual work’ carried out through the sweat of one’s brow and the aching of one’s arms, was the surest way to guarantee oneself a place in heaven. He had been brought up indoctrinated and inbred with the strictest of work ethics that stated no type of work was beneath the dignity of any good man. He believed vehemently that the first duty of every married man and father was to provide food for his wife and children. Dad believed that serving his family, his employer, his principles, and his God was all there was for any good man to live for.
My father worked hard all his life from boyhood to his retirement age. He was a miner for twenty years after the family first migrated to West Yorkshire, England for a more prosperous life in the mid-40s. I will never forget when I was a young teenager, and the pit my father worked at went on strike. The strike was supported by the entire workforce, except for one person, my father. Dad was the only man to walk through the picket line. Such a lonely act took great courage for any worker to do at the time and would always result in the strike-breaker being sent to ‘Coventry’ when the men eventually returned to work and their normal roles in the pit were resumed. Being ‘sent to Coventry’ resulted in being shunned by all of one’s workmates and having nobody speak to you all shift long. Any worker who spoke to any worker who had been ‘sent to Coventry’ was also shunned and given the ‘silent treatment’ in a similar manner.
Surprisingly, this industrial penalty did not occur in my father’s case, presumably because of my father’s principles of supporting his wife and children at all cost were generally respected among his workmates. However, he did not remain scot-free for having crossed the picket line, and when the miners went back to work after the strike, some of the men did not want to allow my father to get off so easily for daring to ignore the strike.
After the strike ended, one huge-sized man around six feet six inches tall called Horace Housecroft, attempted to physically assault my father. My father was a broad-shouldered stocky man of small height. Dad stood no taller than 5 feet and seven inches and weighed five stones less than Horace in weight. However tough dad was, one of Horace’s punches would have knocked him out for certain. When Horace moved to physically attack my father, my father saw the rage in Horace’s eyes and could see that he was determined to do him damage. With no chance of outmatching Horace in physical combat, my father took the only action he could think of on the spot. Knowing that he hadn’t a cat in hell's chance of fighting off his huge opponent off long enough to prevent himself being beaten to a pulp by Horace’s shovelled-sized fists, dad raised the pit shovel he was holding, and with one heavy blow to Horace’s head, he flattened this giant of a man to the ground.
Horace was rendered unconscious and taken to hospital with severe head injuries, and although Horace didn’t return to work for two months, by the time he did, dad had left the mine and was working in a foundry, having been tactfully ‘laid off’ meanwhile. Paradoxically, Horace (whose house on Seventh Avenue was visible from our kitchen window) and my father had not only been workmates, but they were also close neighbours on Windybank Estate. Before Horace returned to work, he and my father had become the best of friends, and they remained friends for the rest of their lives. For many years after, whenever the residents of Windybank Estate mentioned my father in passing, dad was regularly referred as ‘Paddy Forde, the husband to Maureen on 8th Avenue who flattened Horace Housecroft of 7th Avenue with one blow to the head!” Occasionally, added to this description of dad might be “with a pit shovel”. Either way, nobody ever messed with dad again!
As the father of seven children, dad never had a choice of how he responded to either going or not going on strike as a miner. For dad, putting food on the family table and in his children’s bellies came first. Dad used to say, “Principles are a luxury of the rich, Billy. They never filled a poor man’s belly or the stomachs of his family”.
When dad came home from working at the pit face after an 8-hour shift, he would be as black as black could be, covered and caked in coal dust. After he had taken off his clogs, he would go upstairs to spend half an hour luxuriating in the bath. Dad would often joke that no matter how hard any miner scrubbed his skin, he could never get rid of all the coal dust in the paws of his skin. As for the parts none could see (the miner’s lungs) a lifetime’s coal lodged there would see most miners die long before their time with what was commonly called ‘back lung’), and silicosis.
Dad loved the new council house on the council estate. It had flushing lavatories inside and outside that need not be shared with one’s neighbours, and the luxury of a ceramic bath. We all loved it! It was far better having a ceramic bath anchored to the floorboards of its own private room that accommodated it, instead of the previous bathing receptacle that the entire family used in rotation; a large tin bath that hung on the wall between use and which would be filled with a dozen kettles of boiled water instead of the mere turning of a hot water tap!
As dad bathed in our council house bathroom, I and sisters Mary and Eileen would listen outside the door and giggle as we heard him quietly sing. The bathroom was the only place in the world that anyone ever heard my shy father sing. Dad might be heard whistling often, like all the men of the time did, but he only ever sang two songs, and the only place he sang was in the privacy of the bathroom. Dad’s two songs were, ‘When You Were Sweet Sixteen’ and ‘Some Enchanted Evening’.
In loving memory of your heavenly birthday, Dad, I sing you one of your favourite songs, ‘When You Were Sweet Sixteen’. Love from Billy, Mary, Eileen, Patrick, Peter, Michael and Susan xxxxxxx
Love and peace