The Rocker from Limerick
Kevin had been a rocker with a cool Norton motorcycle and a leather jacket, but an accident at a plastics factory radically changed his life.
Kevin was admired In Arlington House hostel as a man of great courage and integrity. Despite the horrendous troubles he has suffered in his past life, he rarely complained; instead, he kept himself busy collecting bits and pieces of scrap metal in the Camden area.
In the hostel, he finally gained some peace of mind, and was more settled and content than he had been for many years. And nobody judged him on his past life — a worry which has prevented him resettling back in Ireland
Kevin’s life was dominated by his illness of 1956-’58, possibly caused by exposure to toxic chemicals, which has had a devastating effect on his life. Before his illness, he was a well-adjusted and ambitious young man; afterwards, he had behavioural problems and couldn’t settle. Confused and restless, he came in frequent contact with the police, with dire results. He has had, as he says himself, “a bit of a rough time”.
I come from a small town near Limerick. I come from a family of ten children, with six brothers, and three sisters. I had a brother wounded in the Korean war, in 1950. I have a brother an engineer in the GPO in Dublin, forty years; retired now. Another brother is in Chicago, an accountant. And another brother is in Boston. Two other brothers are in England, since 1947; somewhere in this country. One is Timmy, whom I never met. Another is Patrick, who I met in 1961, while hitch-hiking. In Leicester. Just bumped into him by chance, and said hello and goodbye. Haven’t seen him since. So,…
I left Limerick in 1954. I emigrated to Preston, in the North of England; and I worked in a college, which was Cromwell’s headquarters in the 16th century [sic]. I was a kitchen porter.
That was the summer of ’54. I worked in the college six months, got a month’s holiday, with pay, and I decided to… I got a letter from a school-friend, saying he had accommodation, and a job waiting for me, so I went to Croydon in Surrey, in that same year. I worked in a plastics factory for a year, and then I collapsed with pleurisy-pneumonia. I lost my job. Had to sell my motorbike. Was two years bed-ridden.
And as regards that two year I was in that chest hospital, I was told that I was very ill. I was two years paralysed. [Pauses]
That’s a long time.
Someone told me, that if I’d seen a solicitor I could have sued the company I worked for; that probably the plastic pipes I used to make gave off a toxic gas and poisoned me…. and I could have drawn a lot of money in compensation. It would be too late now. Is the factory still there? I know the location of the factory, even now, in my head. It would be too late to claim compensation now.
Someone said that it could have been the plastic pipes that affected me. I couldn’t prove that.
I come back one morning — I’d done a night shift — and it was the month of June, very hot weather. I didn’t go up to bed, I decided to go in the back garden, take a bit of a tan. My landlady was an Indian lady, so that was different. An English landlady probably wouldn’t have wanted me as a lodger.
So she noticed the sweat pouring off me, so she called the ambulance, and that’s what happened… I was taken away, a bad attack of pleurisy-pneumonia.
I was away for two year, then.
I was released in ’58 from the King George V sanatorium, down in Surrey. Then when I came out, I thought I could get back in the same position as I was when I got sick, get started work again. But I just kept drifting, drifting about.
I used not to sleep a lot.
Before, I was steady at work. I liked my job. I used to start at ten in the night, work till six in the morning. I’d jump on my motorbike in the morning and… I think what happened there, a lot of times when I’d come back in the morning, instead of going up to bed, I’d have something to eat, some breakfast, and I’d put on my leather jacket and end up in Brighton, lie on the beach, doze off for an hour on the sea-front. I think I did that too often. Working all night and I wasn’t sleeping enough, and I ran myself down.
Rockers — I was something like that. I used to like riding the old bike to the West End. I used to come into Hammersmith — I didn’t have a good knowledge of inner London, then. Croydon is outer London, on the outskirts. I used to come into Hammersmith and park my bike, and get an underground train to the night-clubs. Every Saturday night, I’d go to a night-club, and the next morning, Sunday morning, I’d get an underground train back, and jump on the bike.
That was my lifestyle, then. There were a lot of nice women there, drinks all night, a band playin’. You’d get some Irish night-clubs, but this one was a foreign night-club, in Wardour Street. I used to end up there, every Saturday night. Leather jacket, I always used to have a nice leather jacket.
I regretted it after, after that illness happened, because I was in for a good future; I was saving money, having a good time, liked my job. Even the plastics factory manager, a Frenchman, he admitted it:
“ You’re a good worker”, he says.
I tried to do my best.
While I was in the sanatorium, some bloke bought my Norton off me. When they came in visiting, like, I told him I had a Norton, and he bought it off me. I knew I wouldn’t be able to use it, because I was two year in there. So, I got rid of it. To have that now [sighs] … And I had an old Ariel, yeah, before that. The Ariel was a big one. Very heavy when you kick it, it fires back. You’re got to be careful of an Ariel. High compression single cylinder. The Norton was a single — five hundred [cc]. Quite powerful enough, five hundred. Aww, she could move !
When I couldn’t get a job again, I kept drifting. Then I met a Carlow bloke, and I decided to go hiking with him. He was a restless man. If he stayed in this house tonight, d’ye know where he would be tomorrow night? He’d be in Birmingham. And the next night, he’d be up in Manchester. They nick-named him ‘the Long-Distance Kid’. He liked that, kind of. He wouldn’t settle nowhere. He wouldn’t stay more than one night in any one place.
If I’d gone to Australia with Pat, from Belfast, I reckon I’d be better off today. All that [illness] might never have happened. He asked me several times to go with him, to Sydney. He was a good fella, Pat. In his day off, he used to go into the gym, he was a big fella, and a good boxer. Liked his gym, like.
Then I came out of the sanatorium in 1958. It was near Guildford, King George V sanatorium, Godalming, three mile from Guildford in Surrey. I was discharged from the sanatorium and I hiked all over the country for about two year.
The bloke who I was hiking with [the Long-Distance Kid], he came from a different county to me. He was a bit of a highwayman. An outlaw. What he did for a living was, the first cathedral he came to, he’d bust the [poor-]box. He had some weapon [special tool], and he’d just clean the box out. He’d buy me food. He couldn’t resist that. He didn’t want me to get involved. He’d say to me:
“ Wait around the corner, leave it to me”.
He was that type of man. I don’t know why he used to do that, but he did. He used to keep me going then.
I travelled all over England, many times. There was no motorways then. We’d go up to Watford, thumb a lorry. Another time, we’d go to St. Albans, and we’d come back after a month, three weeks. We travelled the most of the country: West Country, South Wales, South East coast, North Country; mostly all over the country, right up to Newcastle-upon-Tyne, and back. We used to stay in the Salvation Army one night, in any town or city we’d come to. We’d stay one night and then move on the next day. Sometimes, there was a town there, Walsall, and the police, they’d give you a letter, getting you bed and breakfast. Just for one night. You couldn’t go the next night. We wouldn’t want the next night, anyway, because next morning we were gone. I kind of enjoyed that hiking. I seen places, towns and cities, which I’d never have seen if I hadn’t done that. I don’t know whether I’d enjoy doing it, now. We went to Ireland a few times, went hiking there as well; stayed in Limerick a few nights, Dublin a few nights, then came back on the ship. He even hit the cathedral there — £200. That was big money, then.
But…. I don’t know whether you’d approve of that.
His father put him [the Long-Distance Kid] out when he was only 13, y’see. He was sprinkling holy water on him, calling him Satan.
“ Satan”, he said, “ get out !”.
He crossed the border into Belfast, and he got a ship to Stranraer. He had an aunt in Maryhill, outside Glasgow, and his aunt kept him for three year, from 13–16. When I met him, he had hiked from Glasgow to London. Where I met him was in Gray’s Inn Rd; he was queued up for the social security.
And he started talking to me, he says, “ do you want to sling along wi’ me?” . So, I did. And we went hiking together. But he’s gone back [to Ireland], a long time now. He doesn’t live here anymore.
One day, I got fed up with hiking, and I decided to join the army. I signed for nine years. Done three weeks in the army, and I was x-rayed and uh, they decided I was unfit, and discharged me. After three weeks training. That was in 1960. Then, I decided I had no future after that, and I just kept drifting about.
After I stopped hiking, I settled down in the London area. To tell you the truth I stayed in nearly every part of London.
I got into trouble with people, as a suspected person. CID officers grabbed me and said I was stealing from cars, which was a big lie.
I didn’t steal.
I was framed up for it, and I got six month.
I used to travel on the underground all day, mostly. And I came on the last train, one night. I got off the last train, and I got off at the Salvation Army, Waterloo Rd., St. George’s Circus, down from the Elephant & Castle. Well, I got off the last train — it was about half twelve. And there was two young fellas across the street that whistled, and I thought it was somebody I knew.
But they said, “ we’re CID, where are you living?”.
I said, “ I’m living just down below here”, which I was.
One of them said, “ where are you working?”.
I had a card which proved I had a job and I was going to work in the morning. But I could see one of them winking to the other. He took me down a side-street and he took the numbers of about, oh, a dozen cars. They fingerprinted me, and photographed me — the CID — in Lambeth North. It’s two o’clock in the morning. They put me in front of the judge that morning, Judge Birt, and he wouldn’t let me say a word. I was trying to tell him that I’d done nothing. They told the judge that I’d been trying [to break into] all these cars, and that I was taking a rope out when they arrested me. He passed sentence, six months. A suspected person. The wrong place, the wrong time. I’d just got off that last train, and they had wanted someone. They see me coming…
I had a false record. I done the time, but I didn’t do the crime.
Then I come out. And a woman called the police for me again, in Willesden. She said one of my buttons was undone on my trousers. I was done for indecent exposure, and I got another six months. The woman sweared on me [gave evidence against me].
And after that, I started messing with motors. I got several sentences for driving offences, just drunken driving, no insurance, no tax…
So, I went to Ireland to see my mother. And I was in Dublin; I was sleeping rough. I went to the back of these houses on the South Circular Road, one morning, about two o’clock — I think it was in 1965 — and a Guard [policeman] decided I wasn’t looking for a toilet, he told the judge I was going to break into these houses. And I got six months in Mountjoy, which…
I didn’t commit the crime. But I got six months for something I didn’t do.
And I went back to England, but I came back to see my mother the next year. I asked a man for the loan of a screw-driver, and I had a knife in my hand; he thought I was trying to rob him, and I got another six months.
After I got out, I got the St. Vincent de Paul [a charitable society] to buy me a ship ticket back to England. I got into trouble again. I was walking along Cricklewood, and uh, alongside these prefab houses and these two English guys hit me over the head with an iron bar. They mistook me for someone else. They were calling the police.
“ What for,” I said,” I haven’t done anything !”.
“ Oh,” they said, “ you were looking at my wife undressing “.
“You’re a liar,” I said. “ I’m just going home from work “.
I was working in the Strand, near Charing Cross, washing up, in a tavern. I was arrested, and the guys testified, and I got another six months.
I went up to Birmingham, then. I was offered a job up in Birmingham. I couldn’t make time. I used to stay up all night, at coffee stalls and coffee bars and all that, night-clubs. I couldn’t go to work. I wasn’t able to work. So, I was arrested in Birmingham, I was pulled up and arrested for breaking deportation. I got six months in Winston Green, and I was deported to Ireland. Why they arrested me was, I had been deported the year before that, after doing six months in Wandsworth. I broke deportation. So that was the second deportation to Ireland.
Prison. It was bad. You’re confined, you’re locked up. And then it plays up on you, for you’re in there for no reason. If you were in there for some reason, you’d probably take it easy. But it plays up on your mind when you’re in there and you didn’t commit the crime. You’re an innocent man, but you’re still doing the time. So.
Winson Green was the worst. I did sentences of only six months all the time. Pentonville, six months; Scrubs, six months; Wandsworth, six months and a deportation; and Brixton, Winson Green, the Mountjoy in Dublin.
I went home to see my mother after that. And I was arrested in my own house; they said I was going to use a chain on someone, which was a lie.
And I was held for two year in a mental hospital.
I was knocked out [tranquillised]. Got electric shock a dozen times. I couldn’t refuse it. They, the doctors, said you had to have it, and they were the law. You were knocked out. First, you had to fast, and then you got knocked out by a lady doctor. Your head was wired up.
I escaped twice, but I got brought back. One time, I was gone for a week.
During the summer, we were all taken into a big field, for an hour or two hours, and we all sat inside in the field. When it come to the time when we had to come out, to come back to the hospital, we would be all queued up, and I was always the last in the queue. And I got a chance to slip back without being noticed. I dived over a wall, y’see, and I kept going. Legged it. I didn’t go far enough, for I stayed local, and there was somebody told them where I was.
The grub was bad. You only got a few cigarettes every day. And you were locked in, kept under observation. I mean, the food was… was bad [pulls a face], very low class. Ohh, I was glad when I got out of there. Oh, yeah.
Yeah, I was bitter about it. But I was still glad that I got out, like. For if anything had happened my mother, when I was in there, they wouldn’t have let me out. They’ll hold you in there, till you die in there. Mind you if I had did anything… People made out that I was dangerous, that I was carrying a weapon. But I never used a weapon on no one.
The food was bad. I found it very difficult to eat the food. It was slop; very, very bad quality. You were locked up all the time.
My mother released me after two years. She signed me out. My mother, before she died, she came with my first cousin, who drove her. And they released me. The law over there — if my mother had died… my father was already dead. If my mother had died when I was in there, I’d never have come out alive. They wouldn’t release you.
So, anyway, I came back on the ship [to England] again. Went on from there, and I done a job in Holborn, kitchen portering for a year. Washing up, in the Royal hotel. I boxed about, but I could never settle anywhere. What I wanted to do, when I was in Croydon, when I had that job [in the plastics factory], was to settle down and build myself a future, stay in one town. I never wanted to move about.
I crossed the Irish sea a lot. But I couldn’t face settling down there, considering the circumstances. When things went wrong, I couldn’t face it. If I’d done alright over here… ooh, yeah, then I’d love to go over there, settle there, if things had worked out. But to go over, in the circumstances I’m in now, I wouldn’t like to face relatives, sisters, brothers.
You would agree with that.
I slept out on Hampstead Heath, one bad winter. Under a tree. Heavy rain, frost. I’d always get the last train. At that time, they’d give you time [prison] for sleeping rough. If they found out that you’d nowhere to stop, there’s a name for that — vagrancy. So, that’s why I used to hide on the ‘oul Heath. I think that was 1960. Very bad winter. Heavy rain and thunder. I’d come out of there like a drowned rat. Soaked. I couldn’t dry my clothes anywhere. I’d just board an underground train, and with the heat down there, the clothes would dry on you. That wasn’t good for a bloke that had nearly lost his… who had been so severely ill. I’m glad I escaped that.
So, all along the line, I had a bit of a rough time.
When I stopped hiking. I took up casual work, kitchen portering. I might get a few days work… Then I started collecting scrap. There was more money in that. I made a few bob collecting scrap.
I stayed one winter with the Salvation Army in Great Peter street. That was alright. Then, I stayed in St. Mungo’s for seven months, near Charing Cross. You got your meals and what have you.
I moved into Arlington House about six months ago. Before that I had an old truck, a camper, that I lost. It was up in the Rainbow centre [a community squat in a disused church] in Kentish Town, near the Forum theatre and the Bull ’n’ Gate pub. I had my truck in there. They were living on drugs — they were all on drugs in there. They even took all the windows out of the church — that’s why they put them out, and sold it.
They kept moving me around a lot, people complaining. On the camper, I had no tax nor insurance. I couldn’t afford it. I was taking a chance. I stayed in Holloway over a year, in the ‘oul truck. I had television and everything in it. The only problem was getting a safe place to stay [park], where you would be legal. And that, I couldn’t find. I bought the truck off a man from Westmeath, about 12 year ago, £250, and every giro I got, I give him £50. That’s how I bought the truck. I used to get moved on a lot. I lived in so many places in that truck; they keep moving ye, y’know, and then the next place you go, you might be there a few weeks, a month… The next thing, bang on the door, and it’s the local copper, because people have been complaining. That’s the trouble about living on the road. If you’re not legal and if you haven’t got a ‘patch’, it’s a bit of a headache. But if you’re legal…
I’m a banned driver. I lost control of a Vauxhall car in Hackney four year ago. I hit a lamp-post. I couldn’t remember being arrested. And I ended up getting four month in Wormwood Scrubs prison and a five year ban. So, my motoring days are over, [laughs] that’s for sure. And in Ireland, in ’74, I was arrested. I was driving while disqualified. I had been disqualified for three years and I went back to driving after two year. I was arrested for breaking the ban, and the judge extended the ban to TWENTY YEARS.
“ I’ll ban you for twenty years,” he said, “and you’ll have to do three month in Limerick gaol”.
And I did it.
I got the St. Vincent de Paul to give me the shift back, the ticket over here, and some clothes. They gave me a ticket to Euston, and maybe £10. I came back here in ’74. I can remember accurately because the Turkish commandos attacked Cyprus; it was on the radio over there.
I went back to Ireland in 1979 when my mother died. I stayed for three months. Stayed with a friend of mine, a bachelor man. He’s well off. He kept me there. I had my own room and everything. It was alright there. I came back then after three months, and I’m here since.
Oh, this house is alright. You’ve got a nice room, you’ve got clean. There’s nothing wrong with this. I mean, if I had a job to go to now, this would be super. It’s a nice place. I could get up in the morning and go to work, back in the night, and have my supper. There’s a laundry there and everything.
I would go back to Ireland, if it was to live in another hostel like this. The same kind of place. I lived in a house in Dublin for a little while. It’s called the Ivy Hostel, not far from Dublin Castle. You can get onto it from Grafton Street.
That’s really the story of what happened me.
Note: this interview was conducted in Arlington House hostel in 1998.