It was a very special gathering in the Carranstown Lodge in Duleek on Saturday June 11th as Tony McMahon returned to his native land to celebrate his 90th birthday.
Having left for Bristol many decades ago, Tony still considers Drogheda his home, and his family and friends here welcomed him back with open arms, and a wonderful party in his honour, with music provided by his own grandson Danny McMahon.
“It was terrific, really magnificent, and it was wonderful to see the whole family there, everyone enjoyed it” says Tony, just the faintest hint of his Drogheda accent peeping through his Bristol burr. “The best surprise of all was to see my bridesmaid from 63 years ago Moira O’Leary, and her husband Michael there – I couldn’t believe it and it brought back so many memories.”
Although born in Dublin in 1932, John Anthony McMahon was sent to school in Drogheda as a very young boy, attending the Sisters of Charity in Fair Street when he was four years old.
“I was sent with my brother, and my first memories of the nuns were of the big white bonnets they wore, like butterflies, which I’d never seen before.” recalls Tony. “I remember in 1941, Belfast was bombed and we had to give up our beds for the children coming down, and we had to sleep in the hall downstairs, which we were actually delighted at!”
Tony made his communion and confirmation in St Peter’s Church, and recalls what it was like in Drogheda during the war.
“When the war broke out, we all got gas masks, and even though we never wore them, we had great fun trying them on,” he says with a laugh. “The nuns had a residence in Termonfeckin and we would go there for a month in the summer, and they were so enjoyable, with trips to the beach.”
One vivid memory when he was young was a visit to the beach, when they were all evacuated suddenly.
“Two of the young nuns drowned – I will never forget that – it has stuck in my head ever since,” he says. Tony made a great friend when he was in the school, Frank Eivers, who would stay his pal for many years.
“Frank was an orphan and slept in the bed next to me, and we left Drogheda together at 10 years of age to go to the industrial school in Dun Laoghaire,” recalls Tony. “We both learned tailoring and I have been a tailor all my life now.”
The school was run by the Christian Brothers and brought difficult times for the boys.
“I didn’t like that, and it wasn’t easy, but we survived and when I was 16, I was sent to live with a relation in Trim for my first job in John Harnan’s tailors,” says Tony. “I was only getting five shillings a week, but I was very happy.”
Tony lived in a little room at the back of the shop in Emmet Street but he had an early start in the mornings!
“I had to get up at 5am to milk the cows in the field behind the shop before going into work for the day until around 7pm,” he says. “They were long days, and you wouldn’t get a 16-year-old to do it now!”
When Tony was 18, he found out his mother was living in the Isle of Man and lived with her for six weeks, before settling in Bristol with his wife of 63 years, Dublin girl Rosaleen, and the couple had four children – three boys and one girl.
“It was at that stage I caught up with what Frank Eivers was doing, and he had moved to Paris, could speak six languages and was a writer for the Irish Times, becoming great friends with Samuel Beckett,” says Tony with pride. “I only met my sister when I was in my 40s, and I found out she had married a farmer and lived in Julianstown, so I had a whole load of nieces and nephews I didn’t know about!”
Even though he has made England his home for decades, Tony’s early years in Drogheda, as well as his extended family in the area is one of the main reasons he came back to mark his 90th year.
“I have a niece Maree Fox in Ballsgrove in Drogheda and I’m staying with my wife’s niece this time near Kilmoon Cross,” explains Tony. “Drogheda has certainly changed a lot over the years but I will still always consider it my home.”