I knew that my father, James Mc Fadden, ran a travelling picture show in Donegal in the 1950s but I was amused recently to hear a story from someone who worked with him at the time. Apparently the generator which ran the projector would often break down and consequently it would become necessary to offer a refund. On one occasion, however, the power failed just ten minutes from the end of a John Wayne film. Concerned at the prospect of losing all his night’s earnings, James was having none of it. Jumping onto the stage he announced “I’ll not be offering any refunds tonight. There’s only ten minutes to go and all that happens is he marries the girl.”
James McFadden, known locally as Bradley, a nickname that derived from a particular employer, was born in Dungloe, Co Donegal in 1919. He was the third of Charles Patrick McFadden’s five children. His mother, Hannah Reilly, originally from Belturbet in Co Cavan (also known as O’Reilly and born Hannah Maria Fitzpatrick), was a thirty-four-year-old widow with two small children by the time she married CP in 1916. CP was twenty-six.
CP had been born in 1890 in Dore, in the heart of the Gaeltacht, one of ten children. His father was a farmer and by virtue of the fact that their thatched house had an extra window in the front it was considered to be of the second highest category in the neighbourhood. CP was bilingual and in the 1911 census, when he was twenty-one, he was still living at home.
At the time of his wedding CP was described as a “traveller” but other documents describe him variously as “a carter”, “a merchant” and, on James’s birth certificate, rather obtusely, “a motor car owner”. In short, CP was what we’d call today an entrepreneur. As a young man he travelled around the county selling anything from Oatfield sweets and bread to Singer sewing machines.
Family stories say he met Hannah when she was working in her father’s shop. By the time they married, Hannah’s father had died and left her a small inheritance. During the 1930s CP continued to work as a travelling salesman and Hannah opened a small café-cum-shop on land owned by the church providing refreshments to those attending Mass and youngsters going to dances.The business thrived, with the children helping out in the shop.
At the start of the war, with an embargo on petrol and no cars on the road, CP saw an opportunity to sell bicycles and began trading them outside the family shop. Before long he had a contract with Raleigh and imported them by the lorry-load where they were snapped up by the locals for a deposit of half a crown. The story goes that when the bishop attended the parish for confirmations he spied the untidy mess of bicycles outside, evicted the family and put the site up for sale. Thankfully they raised the funds to buy the land, where later they founded the Rosses Cycle Depot.
Over the years CP’s business went from strength to strength and after the war he was joined by his son Johnjoe. Together they expanded to selling radios and later renting out televisions. Their modus operandi was to leave a TV set at a remote farm house, mentioning no money, and return a week later when they knew their potential customers wouldn’t be willing to part with it. By the time CP died in the early 1970s the business was one of the most successful in the county.
James McFadden went to Dungloe National School and was an average student, leaving at fourteen. His mother was anxious for both her sons to have a steady trade and so James was apprenticed to a tailor in the town whilst Johnjoe, his older brother, trained as a shoemaker. Their sisters, Kay, Mona and Frances, all won scholarships for secondary education. Mona studied law and became a well-known solicitor, going on to become county coroner, Kay worked in the civil service in Northern Ireland and in the 50s emigrated to America, Frances trained as a radiographer. Rose and Patrick, Hannah’s children from her first marriage, worked at various jobs, Patrick joining the Free State Army machine gun corps in 1922 and Rose working as a domestic. Both emigrated to America in the 1920s.
James was an outgoing, gregarious character who often took the lead role in local amateur dramatics. He was a good singer and played the piano. He was community-minded and was among the founding members of the local fire service. His photograph is currently on display at the new fire station in Dungloe. In the late 40s, in an effort to supplement their incomes both boys branched out to run a travelling picture show across the small towns and villages of north Donegal. There are many stories of his life at this time but one of the family favourites is of when he turned up one winter night to show a film in some remote spot of Donegal. For several hours he had battled through the snow but on arrival was dismayed to discover he had left the first reel of the film at home. He only had the final reel but quickly came up with what he thought was a plausible solution.
“Ladies and gentlemen I can show the end of the film now and bring you the beginning next week”
His audience was not impressed.
“Could you go back now and get the beginning?” someone shouted from the front row.
A vote was taken and it was agreed to send him on the long journey back to fetch the missing reel. An hour later he re-entered the hall to shouts of joy, quickly dampened when he announced he’d been stuck outside in the snow and needed a push.
James McFadden met Hannah Josephine Boyle, always known as Nora, when he was showing a film at the local parish hall in Loughfad, Co Donegal. They were married on Boxing Day in 1951. James’s occupation was given as tailor, and Nora’s a housemaid. He was thirty and she was twenty-eight. I was born in August 1952 after my father and mother made a harrowing drive to Dublin to see a specialist for a heart condition my mother had been told would probably kill her and the baby. Thankfully I was delivered safely and she went on to have a successful heart operation.
In the early fifties the family lived in Falcarragh, a beautiful town nestling in the Derryveagh mountains, bordering the Atlantic. Following her operation Nora had four boys, Patrick, Johnjoe, Charlie and Michael, in quick succession and James combined tailoring with the opening of a cinema for the town. My early childhood was spent watching cowboy films in his cinema while my father operated the projector and my mother manned the box office.
Tragically, James’s partner in the cinema, John Sweeney, died very suddenly of cancer. He was the businessman of the joint project, James being more on the practical side. Without John’s financial expertise, the profits collapsed. To make matters worse, James’s other main source of income, tailoring, was also in decline. Cheap, factory-made suits were flooding the market and it seemed there was little demand for the handmade bespoke suits he specialised in. Something had to be done. Hearing of their troubles, Nora’s sister, in Coventry, offered a lifeline. She wrote to suggest that the family come over to the city where opportunities were opening up, with plenty of jobs available. As a result, he applied for a job there as a postman and was very pleased when he got it. It meant he had to go to England on his own, but at least there would be some money coming in at last.
Over the period when James was away, Nora did her best managing five young children but found her health was suffering. After thinking long and hard they made the difficult decision to emigrate with the whole family to Coventry. In 1959 they took the ferry from Belfast to Heysham and went to live in a small terraced house with an outdoor toilet and a yard at the back, in Hillfields, one of the slums of inner city Coventry.
The family found it difficult to adjust to life in the city but no one more than James, who always missed Donegal desperately. Nora had imagined that by moving to England she might get him away from the drinking culture that existed in Ireland but found to her dismay that his drinking became even worse. James was homesick and gradually the gregarious fun-loving young man turned inward and became bad-tempered and remote, except when he’d had a drink. Then you could see glimpses of his old self. Part of his legacy of those boozy days was a room named after him in the Coventry Transport Club.
In 1960, Nora was hospitalised for a year when she became pregnant with twins. During this time the family were split up, with three brothers placed in an orphanage and myself and my brother Patrick living with my aunt and her family. James continued to live in the family home with a series of lodgers. Nora survived the pregnancy and twin daughters, Mary and Carol, were born, making us a family of nine, still living in a two-up-and-two-down terrace, with the front parlour doubling as James’s tailoring workshop and a bedroom.
Coventry was then a boom town. The car industry was in its heyday and immigrants flocked from around Europe. The Irish community was growing rapidly, and with each passing week more and more people were arriving from Donegal. At weekends, like many other immigrant families, there were parties when friends and relations came together from across the city. At some point in the evening James would be asked to sing a song, and like a shot he’d be up, whiskey glass in hand, singing his party piece, Paddy McGinty’s Goat.
Around the end of the decade James became a bus conductor which he combined with tailoring in his spare time. He laboured long into the nights, cutting out and making suits for friends and neighbours after his shift at work. He even made matching suits for his sons, which unfortunately my brothers considered old-fashioned and hated wearing.
Throughout the sixties and seventies James and Nora concentrated on raising their family. By now they were firmly part of Coventry’s Irish community and, inevitably, their lives centred on St Mary’s church and the St Finbarr’s social club, where they spent many happy evenings. Sadly, through those years Nora’s health grew increasingly frail and in 1982 she died, aged 59. After her death James carried on but his health too began to collapse. He suffered a series of strokes which gradually incapacitated him. In 1983 his son Johnjoe took him on a trip back to Donegal. For most of the trip he was in bad humour, impossible to please. Eventually his sister, Mona, took him on a car journey to his old haunts, including a drive across Gweebarra Bridge, where the wild Atlantic ocean meets the Gweebarra river, his favourite spot. He turned to his sister, his voice choked with emotion saying “You live in paradise.”
James died in 1987, of a stroke, he was sixty-seven. He had spent almost thirty years in England but in his heart he never left Ireland.
Ann Garratt’s memoir The Road Taken is available to order from bookshops and on Amazon as a Kindle and in paperback.