My Father Built England
‘Show me your hands.’ It was the only question
The foreman asked. They were your references
And your scholarship. That is why my father used
Piss to harden his schoolboy hands, as was custom
When blisters set fire to the skin, an ancient trick
Shown to him by a Meath man who died beneath
A truck, sober in Kilburn. In 1939, England needed
A solid Paddy full of gristle, to be counted on,
Semi-British for the duration. You supply your own
Sweat and wellies but could pick a white virgin
Shovel from the Gaffer and return it sharp, shined
By gravel. Only once was he broken, when black
Winds blew down the scaffolding; its tubular legs
Dancing across the unfinished airstrip. As he lay
Dead, a Geordie Tea-Boy nursed him well.
Wet Time was a bloody nightmare; always under
The Landlady’s feet and once he was thrown
Out of digs in a row about Rex’s favourite chair.
It was 1942 before he could pin fifty pounds to
The inside of his overcoat and take himself home.
Then, while German bombs fell on England,
My father built Ireland for Hogan and Son.
by Ron Carey
from Southward Journal