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Neal Dempsey, My Life Story

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The Formative Years

In 1931, my parents married in Aldershot. Patrick, my younger brother, was born ten months later. My father was born in Fermoy, Ireland, and grew up in a large family. His mother had not seen any of her grandchildren because most of his brothers and sisters had immigrated to America and had not returned to Ireland. During World War I, my grandfather served in the army. He had worked as a Platelayer on the railway both before and after his military service. His foot had been crushed when a rail was dropped on it, and he had been invalided out of the Railway with a pension as a result.He then established a small market garden, complete with a donkey and cart to transport his produce to the market for sale. My grandmother also used the donkey and cart to get around town and go shopping or to church. She was an ardent Catholic. My Grandmother longed to see at least one of her grandchildren. To make amends, my mother began to take an annual vacation with her to allow her to enjoy ‘Paddy.’ She was able to get there because my father was a member of the Brigade of Guards.

My father, Cornelius (Con’) John DEMPSEY, was a member of the Irish Guards’ 1st Battalion. My mother, Lucy Edna (Powis), was born in Lancashire on March 1, 1911, but spent her childhood in Yorkshire, where her father (Grandfather- Charles Powis) worked as a coalface miner. She had been a nondescript Christian who had not yet become a Roman Catholic. There were bitter divisions between the English and Irish cultures in Southern Ireland at the time, resulting in the bloodshed and experiences visited upon the Irish by Winston Churchill’s ‘Black and Tans’ in the 1920s, which were still fresh in the minds of the Irish people.The result was the division of the country into what is now known as Ulster and Eire. They were enraged by my mother’s presence and staged several public protests, even scribbling “English protestant go home!” and other less memorable expressions across the road. The irony is that the majority of the income of the town’s older men (including my grandfather) came from English army pensions, and the Parish Priest was the recruiting officer for the Irish Guards, the fifth most senior regiment in the British army.

On the 15th of June 1934, during my mother’s second visit, I was born in the home of my paternal grandparents in Fermoy, County Cork, Ireland, in a cottage known as ‘The Grange.’ I had a cleft palate and a harelip, but no soft palate. I was unable to suckle, which could and frequently was fatal in those days. Southern Ireland was and still is a very devout Roman Catholic country, so my grandmother baptised me right away, taking me to the town church the next day, Sunday 17th June, and having me baptised again by the priest. Despite being a healthy weight at birth, I began to lose weight, causing great distress to my mother.Ironically, this attitude is consistent with old Jewish Biblical beliefs, which they (the townspeople) would have been unaware of. The only difference was that the Jews believed the afflicted (myself) was the one who had fallen out of favor with God, not my mother. My mother tells me that she was unable to feed me, so she went to the Fermoy hospital and saw the Geriatrician, who examined me and told my mother to bring me back in 12 months and they would try to operate. My mother predicted that at this rate, I’d be dead long before then. The doctor simply nodded and led her to the door.

As soon as my mother felt well enough, she returned to our London home and drove me to “Tite Street” children’s hospital in Chelsea, where she introduced me to Mr Jennings-Marshall, the specialist Paediatrician. Despite my mother’s obvious concerns for my survival, let alone my well-being. Mr Jennings-Marshall was able to reassure her that everything would be fine. He admitted me to the hospital and began the first of what would be a lengthy series of operations to reconstruct my face.He joined the two edges of the gum margin, made a partial repair to the palate, and made a partial repair to the lip; enough to allow me to eat and thus improve and gain weight. Unfortunately, while it improved my ability to talk over time, conversation was extremely difficult and relied entirely on translation by my brother Paddy. Pad’ apparently understood every utterance I made, and he became a vital link for me for many years, at times in the most perverse of circumstances.

My earliest recollections were as a little boy in the late 1930’s, probably aged 4 years old. We were living in a flat at No 13 Q Block, Peabody Avenue, Victoria, S.W.1. I recall playing on a carpet in front of the sideboard quite vividly. Pad’ and I had been given a bus conductors set, which included a hat, a clip board to hold tickets, a bag to hang over one shoulder for the money, and a sling over the other shoulder to hold a ticket punch. My uncles and aunt, dubbed “brothers and sisters of my father,” were strictly instructed not to throw away bus tickets, but rather to add them to our collection.Everyone who stepped on the carpet was on our bus and had to pay the fare. I am certain I was duped out of large sums of Ha’pennies and Farthings in bus fares. Pad and I valued pennies and ha’pennies at the time because every Saturday morning we were taken to ‘Nellie Dunn’s,’ a sweet shop and general store at the end of the ‘Avenue.’ Nellie Dunn used to give me a generous supply of Jelly Babies and Dolly Mixtures for a quarter a quarter. Pad and I had enough sweets to last us until the next Saturday for 1/2d each.(This generosity was apparently too much for Adolph Hitler, who sent a squadron of bombers to destroy Nellie Dunn’s shop in 1940.) I recall my father standing over me. He appeared to be quite large and tall. Surprisingly, I don’t recall ever seeing him face to face. I’m sure he picked me up and made a big deal out of me at some point, but I can’t recall a single instance. I can still see him waiting for Pad’ to tell him what I said in response whenever he spoke to me. Surprisingly, that seemed right and proper at the time. It now bothers me to recall it.

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