A new memoir tells the remarkable story of a rural Mayo family in wartime England
When The Mayo News first calls Christine Knox in the UK, she can’t talk. She is getting her hair done. Quite right too. A person in their 80s should always feel their best. And particularly this octogenarian, whose life has been so full of dramatic twists and turns, and equally dramatic contrasts.
Born Annie Christina O’Brien in 1937 – in ‘a tiny cottage set within eight acres of rocky land’ close to Kiltimagh – she has been known as Christine for most of her life. Her first name, Annie, fell out of use after she and her siblings moved to the English city of Coventry in 1940, to join their father, John Patrick O’Brien. He would call his then youngest child ‘Chrissie’ – perhaps to help avoid confusion with his wife, whose name was also Annie (née Mullaney).
Now, many decades later, Christine has written a fascinating reflective memoir about her childhood, from her earliest years to the age of 12.
The first lines of the first chapter set the scene: “I was a Catholic, Irish child before I was an immigrant – at least for two and a half years I was. Three miles from the one road town of Kiltimagh, amidst bleak fields, in the county of Mayo, on the far west coast of Ireland, there stood in 1937 (and still stands today – though home to hay for cows, and not to people) a little stone cottage with a living room warmed by a great turf fire … beyond, through a narrow opening, a bedroom for a bed … and in that bed, beneath a cracked window, I was born.”
Christine’s toddler years in the quiet Mayo countryside – the memory of which is augmented by conversations with her mother – could not have been more different to the busy, industrial, war-era world into which she and her siblings were thrust. A culture shock that was to be dramatically heightened by that city’s sudden status as a prime target for the ravages of Hitler’s brutal blitz.
“One aspect of the memoir is the inner life of the child,” Christine tells The Mayo News, “but it’s intermeshed with the family, and how much the family relied on their faith to get them through the trials of war, being evacuated and adapting to life in wartime Coventry.”
She adds that while there’s ‘a historical side to it, a sociological side’, the story is also one of thoughtful introspection, and an exploration of how faith has been her ever-present companion.
Family and faith
The little cottage where Christine was born was also the house in which her ‘soft, pretty, brave’ mother, Annie, had grown up.
Annie’s own mother had emigrated to Philadelphia to join her husband when Annie was just a babe. Annie was sick with scarlet fever and had to be left behind, and family circumstances meant she was subsequently reared in Kiltimagh by her adoring auntie and uncle, never meeting her father her whole life.
She was 21 when she married John, who was 20. When Christine – John and Annie’s third child – was born, John was away working in construction in Coventry, visiting home when he could. Annie eventually took her three children to the UK in 1940 to join John, and more siblings were to follow. They had 12 children in all.
World War II was raging, and John began working at car factories, helping to convert them into the munitions factories that were needed to make weaponry for the war effort.
“He got lots and lots of overtime,” Christine recalls. “I remember Helen [her older sister] and I sitting up with my mum, and us writing him little letters for him coming home – he would not be home till perhaps ten o’clock or something. So he worked very, very hard. He was a very hard-working man.”
For this large Irish family so far from home, faith remained a vital constant.
“The whole family had the faith, but my dad seemed to have the strongest … You had the Rosary – and it didn’t matter whether you were 18 or three, you joined in the Rosary. When a girl came home, like me, with a non-Catholic boyfriend, he knelt down and said the Rosary with us whether he liked it or not!” she remembers, laughing.
“I remember my mother often had a baby to look after, and so [my father] was the one who’d take us to Benediction. He always sat us on the front row… it was lovely, because I loved sitting up where I could smell the incense.”
Reunion and reflection
Christine’s memoir goes on to explore how as a child she became very conscious of an inner spiritual life, and how she started to long for intellectual development and education.
She looks at wartime schooling ‘with all its limitations’, as well as ‘the emotional upheavals accompanying the Scholarship system and the challenges of Grammar school for children of immigrant status’, and ‘the problems and pains of identity’.
Fascinating wartime anecdotes are of course also included. At one point, a remarkable reunion occurs: “…an unknown young American soldier arrived at our house in the blackout of a dangerous night to introduce himself to my mother as her brother Michael, born in Philadelphia! Now a bomber pilot, he was helping to rescue us from a terrible defeat by the Germans.”
Christine went on to study history, qualify as a teacher at Manchester University and have a long and successful teaching career. She has five children and ten grandchildren, and a lifelong love of literature and poetry. She lives in Coventry, and visited the cottage near Kiltimagh four years ago.
This singular woman, with her admirable capacity for reflection and introspection, will turn 84 this Thursday. “I’ve been telling people I’m 84 for a while now,” she laughs, “because my mother used to say, when you’ve passed five and you become six, you’re in your seventh year. So I’ll soon be in my 85th year!”
Christine, may you celebrate many more happy years, sustained by your treasured spirituality and buoyed by your many cherished memories.
‘Chrissie O’: The Story of a Catholic, Irish, Immigrant Child’, by Annie Christina Knox, is available to buy on Amazon (£12/€14.07).