Remembering Mary Owens 1923-2022 (Part 3 of 5)

Continuing my recent interview with 99 year old Blantyre resident Mary Owens, following on from Parts 1 and 2 earlier this week. This part is about Mary growing up and as a young woman, her thoughts and comments preserving Blantyre’s history. Mary told me:

Speaking first of Christmas celebrations, Mary told of modest celebrations as was the tradition for many in those days (1920s and 30s) saying, “There wasn’t much to give others. An apple or occasional orange.”

Conversation then got round to the loving bond between Mary and her mother. Mary continued, “In the Blantyre Co-Op window was a big, lovely doll. I used to look at it every time I passed the window and it was there for nearly 2 years. I had a surprise one Christmas when I found my mother had saved up and bought it. I unwrapped it for Christmas day and was delighted. We put up decorations throughout the house, only having a quiet family celebration. We weren’t a party family.”

“In summer, we would go for long walks up the backroads to East Kilbride. We would make sandwiches and walk in the sunshine. My brother would buy some milk in the Co-op on the way, usually a 2-pint bottle. The family would sit at the edge of the road, eating our picnic and drinking our milk. We had no money to eat out. Not in those days.”

“I learned to swim in the river. Before the war, I would swim in the river Avon. I initially wasn’t very good but one time when I was alone and swimming, I suddenly realised that I had moved along through the water. Now I knew I could swim. In summer, we were taken to the seaside once a year if we were lucky.”

The family would also sometimes go back to Ireland on Holiday. Remembering back Mary added, “We didn’t swim in the sea back in Tramore but my mother would swim in the ‘Ladies Cove’ which was a place for female swimmers. We loved going to Tramore. There were races in August and people would come from all over see the races on the sand. Sometimes a horse would run away and the crowds would scatter. Then there was this one man who knew some rocks would fall, so he started telling people to clear the beach and saved people when the rocks did eventually fall.”

Mary’s Grandfather, a fisherman, James Keohan was a folk singer and the local gentry used to visit to listen to him, giving the children, including Mary some coppers on the way out. There was a trend for collecting Irish folk songs led by Yeats. This was possibly part of a continuing upper-class interest in traditional Irish tunes.

Higher Education and Wartime

In 1939, at the age of 16 years old, Mary left school, just as war broke out. Of this, she remarked, “I was intending to go back to school, but the war started, so I thought it best to progress and go to university as quickly as I could. I travelled each day to Glasgow University by bus from Blantyre. Buses were always very crowded. You had to fight to get on them. The strangest thing, sometimes they were empty, other times full.”

Mary was only 16 when she started her higher education. That was certainly unusual and not just for somebody from Blantyre. When asked if she encountered any romance whilst at university, she replied, “Men were generally off fighting in the war. One time, there were some men from Blantyre who stood opposite me and my female student friends, but the men stayed away from us. For whatever, there was no chance of a pickup!” This did make me wonder if this was related to religious divides, shyness or for other reasons. After all this was Glasgow.

Mary quickly found she was good at English and had in total, 7 different subjects to study for. She tells a story of sitting at the front in a lecture theatre when a cat strolled in to much mirth, then promptly jumped into her lap! Intelligence shone brightly and she accomplished a Masters of Arts degree, graduating in 1943, a proud date she clearly remembered. Towards the end of the war, a further year of teacher training at Notredame put her on a path for her chosen career. Jim, her older brother learned to drive when he went to the army. He was given a job which kept him from going away to fight, staying nearby. He had an important wartime job, working for the government with radar, then a new technology.

With exception of Rose, the other siblings all went to Glasgow University. Unfortunately, her sister, Rose aged around 12 in immediate post WW2 years, developed a spinal condition and spent a long time in hospital lying on her back.

Mary added, “Nurses were usually nice. One used to take her false teeth out to let her see her toothless and make people laugh.” When she recovered, she attended the Dalton School. She sat at the back of the class with a pile of books, and the teacher told Kitty that Rose knew more than she did! Rose despite her disability, attended night school and became a secretary.

Brother Hugh was a remarkable individual. He went to university even earlier, aged 15 during the war. Avoiding a mining life like his father had in the pit, he had very poor eyesight and was never conscripted. He would get on the train with a piece in his pocket, attend lectures then spend lunchtime in the Kelvingrove or Museum of Transport. He was very technical and built a small steam engine that could pull a ton of coal that was exhibited at the Great Empire Exhibition. Later, he built a small tv for the family to enjoy before anyone could afford one and it was a lifelong regret that he didn’t open his own TV shop. His son, Eddie, is a professor in engineering-related subjects at Heriot Watt.

Rosemary is a teacher of Additional needs. Claire is an Architect who works for the Scottish Fire Service and Katrina, who worked as a teacher at Craighead school, is now a contract technical author. Success came quickly to this hard-working family. Mary’s siblings James and Hugh both became teachers. James was the PT of Maths at St Aloysius but also ran the St Vincent de Paul in the west of Scotland. For many years he balanced the bishop’s books. Hugh eventually became Head teacher of St Patrick’s in Shotts.

We stop for a short break, whilst Mary gets more comfortable in her chair and has a sip of iced tea. An hour into questions, it was a reminder that such interviews will be tiring for somebody who is almost 100 years old. I set myself an earlier revised time for the remaining session.

Continued on Part 4 tomorrow…..

Mary is pictured in wartime years as a young woman, this photo representing her academic higher education years.

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