My mother was born the oldest of seven children (like me) and she lived for laughing, singing, and having a bit of fun wherever it was to be found. Only in a few respects were my mother and father similar in character trait; they had both been born into a hard life, lived a hard life and, despite their many rows and quarrels, they loved each other and their children.
Whereas both mum and dad were religious enough to observe ‘The Ten Commandments’ which were handed down to Moses on Mount Sinai by God, my father’s observance of religious principle went much farther than my mums ever did. Dad’s religious principles also extended to strict observance of Canon Law in the Catholic Church. Church Canon Law is a system of man-made laws and legal principles made and enforced by the hierarchical authorities of the Catholic Church to regulate its external organization and government and to order and direct the activities of Catholics toward the mission of the Church.
In short, dad believed that whatever came out of the mouth of the parish priest was the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth! Every subject the parish priest expressed a view upon from the Sunday pulpit ‘was Gospel’ to my father; even if he was giving his parishioners a tip that the grey gelding, ‘Go With God’ was bound to win the Grand National the following Saturday afternoon! Thus, was the Pope’s ‘infallibility’ extended as far as our Irish parish priest’s mind was capable of straying. For all my father knew, our parish priest (who was probably as good a person as the next man in the bus queue) could have been either a happy saint or an unrepentant sinner! For all my father and the rest of the church congregation knew (because there was no mention of it in the weekly parish bulletin), the parish priest might have been abusing altar boys for decades; he might have been having a steamy and torrid twenty-year affair with a wealthy widow in the parish, or God forbid, he might even have secretly married his housekeeper during a Las Vegas holiday and have fathered a child that is being raised by Aunt Aggy (as its natural mother) in Arklow, Southern Ireland!
Dad would always be in his front pew seat at church half an hour every Sunday before the 10:00 am Mass started, giving him time enough to say the rosary; whereas mum (we lived 2 miles away), would get on her bicycle at 9:55 am, and always arrive in church ten minutes after the service had started. Mum would always sit near the back of the church so that she could nip outside to smoke a cigarette when the priest’s back was turned as he consecrated the sacrament, ten minutes before the Sunday service ended!
The parish priest loved the sound of his own voice too much and his weekly sermons were usually moral marathons; they just went on and on! Most Sunday services lasted almost an hour and a half. My mother’s bicycle journey to church was 2 miles downhill, all the way. I would naturally be left to push mum’s bicycle all the way back home, uphill! I once asked mum why she deliberately arrived ten minutes late for Mass every Sunday as well as leaving ten minutes before the service ended. She simply said, ‘I’ll give the priest one hour a week maximum to have his say, Billy, but not a minute longer. An hour’s long enough to listen to any man, whether he’s wearing a frock or making the sign of the cross.”
My mother was a good woman in every sense of the word but she had sufficient imperfections of character to make Saint Peter consider her suitability for heavenly entrance as being ‘probable’ as opposed to ‘automatic’, whereas my dad would have been hurriedly waved through the Pearly Gates without a second thought.
My mother was a traditional Irish woman in every sense of the word. She thought too much of herself to not write her own character reference. According to my mum’s imaginative account of her own background and development, she was the most attractive of catches for any female fisher in the whole of County Waterford. She said that she was a woman of high intelligence who was never afforded the opportunity to pursue a distinguished academic career because she had to leave school to enter the workforce before she was fourteen years old. She said she was the most beautiful woman in the village of Portlaw who could have had her pick of any man and chose dad before she knew him well enough and had given all the other male suitors a fair chance to win her heart. She described herself as being a virtuous woman who once considered becoming a nun.
Whatever I was prepared to believe as being accurate about my mother’s background, there was simply no way that I was believing ‘the nun’s story’. There was no way that my mother could ever develop the habit of living within high walls or willingly wearing a veil of feminine restraint and regret that did not show off the red lipstick she wore. Besides, my mum liked being in the company of men, hearing the sound of music, smoking forty cigarettes a day, and drinking her favourite tipple of rum and black currant juice far too much to ever seriously consider becoming a Bride of Christ.
What I did believe with 100 percent conviction was mum’s ability to tell a tale and to make it credible. I have not the slightest doubt that she provided the impetus for me becoming an author of over five dozen published books in my adult life. Mum was without a doubt, a born storyteller who could stretch the truth as far as a gigolo’s roaming eye might travel. I was never sure whether mum was speaking the truth when she gave me a personal account of a part of her life or whether she was simply telling a tale in the most believable and entertaining way she could.
Dad was a miner who got up for work each morning at 6:00 am. He would go to bed early on a night-time to compensate for his early rising the next day. Dad’s work would start at 6:00 am and end at 4:00 pm, whereas mum’s work as the mother of seven children was never done. I would sit up with her many a night past midnight as she got things ready for the next day and stitched and ironed any clothes needed for school.
I loved spending this private time with mum. It was the only time of the day that I could have her all to myself, and being her firstborn of seven children, our relationship was always close. It was during these wee hours of the morning that mum might reveal some family secret that I otherwise might never have learned of; some secret she had not even told another. She often told me about the peculiarities of village life in Ireland where incestuous relationships were not unheard of and where too few boundaries were never drawn between cousin and cousin and even uncle and niece. She used to laugh as she said, “All the Fannings and Lannings were much closer than their surnames suggested, Billy!” I often recalled my dearly departed uncles, Willie, Johnny and Tommy teasing each other mercilessly. Uncles Willie and Johnny would attempt to get uncle Tommy annoyed by joking that he had a different father to them. Of course, he didn’t (or I don't think he did), but having been born the youngest of seven children, he would have been the last one to know, even had his brother's jibes been true!
Mum was always able to talk about all manner of subjects to me and there wasn't anything which she considered taboo. I was never sure whether it was a liberalness of her nature or merely her tiredness of mind at midnight that loosened her tongue to reveal some secret family history more spontaneously. When I was a teenager, I once asked, “Mum, all my friends know where they were born but I don’t know anyone of them who knows where they were conceived! Where did I first happen, Mum?”
Having dared to ask, she told me that it was in a farmer’s field near the base of ‘The Metal Man’ in Tramore. Mum told me that when she was courting my dad (behind her parent’s back), that my father who lived 33 miles away in County Kilkenny would cycle across to Waterford and back twice weekly, and they would meet by the base of ‘The Metal Man’.
‘The Metal Man’ was erected in 1823; seven years after the transport ship ‘Sea Horse’ foundered in Tramore Bay. 292 men and 71 women and children perished. From the sea, the sheltered yet treacherous Tramore Bay can be easily confused with the traditional safe haven of the Suir estuary. After the sinking of the Sea Horse, its insurers, ‘Lloyds of London’, funded the building of piers and the erection of pillars on two headlands as a visual aid to prevent similar calamities from happening again. The pillars, three on ‘Newtown Head’ and two on ‘Brownstown Head’, were erected in 1823. The town's connection to the tragedy led to the image of a Seahorse being adopted as a symbol of the town of Tramore and later adopted as the logo for ‘Waterford Crystal’. in 1955.
It pleases me immensely, to know that a towering symbol which marked the tragic deaths of 363 men women and children almost two hundred years ago also heralded the life to come of ‘yours truly’ on November 10th, 1942.
Growing up as a war baby, I naturally formed an instant attraction about learning everything I could about British history thereafter. Indeed, during the very week that I was accepted onto a course in Newcastle-upon-Tyne to train to be a Probation Officer in West Yorkshire, I declined a university place at Bath to take an honours degree in British History.
There was none of the modern gadgetry during the 1950s that society is accustomed to today. Most households did not have a telephone and the only source of home family entertainment came from the wireless (the radio to all you youngsters). The family would nightly gather around the wireless to hear the news, listen to ‘The Archers’ soap serial daily, or listen to one of the many plays. All music that we didn’t hear being played by brass bands in the park on a Sunday afternoon came from the wireless.
There was, however, one singer who my mother would make us all be as quiet as church mice whenever she sang on the wireless. It was mum’s favourite singer, the nation’s wartime favourite and ‘Force’s Sweetheart’, Vera Lynn. Whenever Vera Lynn’s voice came over the wireless, mum would instantly hush us all until her song had finished.
If only my dear mother had known then, that within ten years of her own death in 1986, her oldest child would become good friends with Vera Lynn and remain friends with Dame Vera for over 30 years, she would have been so proud. She would have been proud of me and also proud of Vera reaching 103 years of age so far. (read about my contact with Vera Lynn below)
Today, I sing one of my mother’s favourite songs, ‘The White Cliffs of Dover’. Every country bordered by sea has its own recognisable landmark which represents a visible entrance to its shores and symbolises ‘coming back home’. Just as the Americans have the welcoming sight of their colossal neoclassical sculpture on Liberty Island in New York Harbour, the ‘Statue of Liberty’, and the people of Brazil have their ‘Christ the Redeemer’ statue towering above the skyline of Rio de Janeiro, so the English feel ‘The White Cliffs of Dover’ as symbolising ‘being back home’.
In this Vera Lynn song, there is a line, “...and Jimmy will go to sleep in his own little room again”. While I knew that these words in the song meant that things would return to normal after the war was over, I did not know who this ‘Jimmy’ was that the song mentioned by name. I asked my mum. I will never forget her answer, “Billy, 'Jimmy' is every boy and girl in England today, whatever they are called.”
Today mum, on the 34th anniversary of your early departure from this life, I remember you for your life with us, not your death. I remember how it never bothered you not being able to sing one note in tune or remember the lines of any song, and yet you remained determined to sing your songs all day long. I will never forget you telling me once after I had berated you for not being able to sing for toffee, that everyone who had a song to sing had the right to sing it! I will never forget you telling me, “Billy Forde, I sing for the very same reason as the birds sing. I sing because I have a song to sing!”
I remember your Irish tales of superstition and romance; many of which I borrowed from when writing my own novels. I remember you being a fearless, loving, compassionate, generous, fun-seeking woman who was as popular as a flowering buttercup who was able to brighten up anyone’s day by just being you. I remember you taking me and my sisters Mary and Eileen off on a two week’s holiday to Ireland on no more than a spontaneous Friday evening ‘I’m fed up whim’, with no money in your purse other than what you could borrow from the electric metre and hold back from the rent man and tallyman. I remember that we would arrive at my grandparent’s house in Portlaw with you telling Willie Low (the village taxi man) that you would pay him the taxi fare before you went back home. Poor Willie must have died with the weight of your debt! Then, we would stay with my grandparents until we had eaten them out of house and home. Meanwhile, you would be writing letters home to dad daily, asking him to send you more money asap, unless he wanted us to be left stranded on the wrong side of the Irish Sea.
I remember all these things mum and the most important thing I will never forget is that I never experienced one day in my life when you did not tell me that ‘I was special’. I never once got up on a morning, went out to either school or work, came back home, or went to bed at the end of the day, when you failed to kiss me and tell me, “I love you, Billy Forde!”
I love you mum and still miss you lots. Billy xxx
Love and peace Bill xxx