My runaway dad, and the long quest to understand why he fled
John Cushnan walked out of the family home in Belfast in 1960, leaving his wife to bring up seven young children alone. He went to England, but what sort of life did he live there until his death two decades later? His son, Joe, reveals what his search for the truth has uncovered.
The Sons of the Pioneers, at the beginning of the John Ford/John Wayne western The Searchers, the story of a troubled man on a long quest to find his abducted niece, sang: "What makes a man to wander, what makes a man to roam, what makes a man leave bed and board and turn his back on home?". It is a great film that covers years of searching for the girl and not giving up.
I too am a searcher, albeit more inquisitive than troubled, but just as determined as the film's hero to, as the Wayne character says, "put an amen to this".
For the past couple of years, I have been researching and writing a memoir about my father, who disappeared from our lives in the early 1960s. He died in 1982, leaving a two-decade gap in his story. Unlike the romanticism of the movies, this is real life.
Sometime in 1960, my father, John Cushnan left our Belfast home, his wife and seven young children and never crossed the threshold again.
I believe he went to live for a time with his half-sister, Brigid, in Maralin Street near the New Lodge Road. He was originally from Annadale Street close by, so he would have been back with his mates on his old stomping ground - as a single man of 35.
My mother was left with all the responsibilities and pressures of single parenthood, including emotional and financial strains. The kids' ages ranged from eleven to two. My father washed his hands of us and probably felt that he could just walk away and that was that.
But nearly three years later, he was tracked down by social services and charged with neglect. He appeared at Lisburn Petty Sessions court, with my embarrassed mother in attendance, and was found guilty.
He was fined £5, which he promptly took out of his pocket and handed to the magistrate. He was also ordered to pay his wife six guineas, around £150 at today's rates, and then he really did vanish from our lives.
I don't have to emphasise that he was lucky to get off so lightly.
My parents were born in 1925 and raised within a few streets of each other in north Belfast. They went to nearby schools and eventually found jobs in the textile industries.
She sewed and stitched for a few companies, including Mayfair in Athol Street at the back of the Grand Opera House. He became a tailor's assistant, a cloth-cutter, at one time working for a company on the Donegall Road that made police uniforms.
They most likely went to dances and the pictures at the same time, inevitably meeting, falling in love, courting for a while and then marrying in September, 1947.
She was a normal, fun-loving girl and he was a typical jack-the-lad, full of cheeky charm. At first they lived with my mother's parents on the New Lodge Road, before moving to an Andersonstown council flat in 1952.
Between 1949 and 1958, seven children were born, each child, in spite of family allowance payments, adding more cost to the housekeeping budget. Money was tight and made even tighter by my father's fondness for drink and gambling. Family needs were pushed down the agenda by booze and horses.
In those days of the late 1950s and early 1960s, many people were paid in cash at the end of the week, notes and coins sealed in small brown envelopes.
On Friday nights, men especially would leave work and go straight to the pub, where they drank a fair bit and then staggered home to give a share of what was left to their wives, keeping a little back for the bookies on Saturday mornings.
For my mother, a drunk husband and meagre housekeeping money in irregular amounts made for some desperately worrying times. For my father, the burden of providing financially for his family got too much and he took the easy way out for him. He walked away and left my mother to raise her kids alone.
My father probably left Northern Ireland altogether around 1963, taking the boat to England, most likely to Heysham or Liverpool. Through the rest of the Sixties he worked his way south, ending up in Clapham, south-west London, where he lived for the rest of his life.
He was not unique in abandoning his family. Irish husbands, north and south, who found it hard or impossible to find decent paying work at home, headed to England, where labouring opportunities were more plentiful.
Some of these men would have been honourable enough to send money back to their wives every week and others, like my father, would not have any intention of doing so. In fact, he hid his history as John Cushnan from Belfast and reinvented himself as John Kelly from Derry.
Belfast has never been a settled city with all its ducks in a row - religion, politics, economy, security, etc - and 60 years ago it was not overflowing with employment opportunities. This was a time when the husband was supposed to be the main provider while his wife ran the house and raised the children.
Sometimes, the only way to earn good money, especially in unskilled jobs, was to leave Northern Ireland and look for those streets of gold in what the English refer to, irritatingly, as the mainland.
Others cast their hopes wider, upped sticks and headed much further afield, with or without families, to new lives and prospects in America, Canada and Australia.
As far as my father was concerned, administratively, it was simpler to cross the water rather than get into passport applications and all the rest of the official processes. Besides, he didn't have the money to do anything extravagant.
In my research, some correspondents have provided a picture of life in the Irish 'community' in Clapham, specifically about the hub of their social world, the Rose and Crown pub.
It became an Irish pub, a haven for men to find a few hours of comfort and friendship each evening after a day's work. One of the correspondents who worked in the pub told me: "Many of the Irish men that were customers at the Rose and Crown in the '60s and '70s were complex characters. Most had left Ireland to make money in London, many on the building sites, but they usually spent it and had little savings.
Some came into the pub every evening as it was warm and friendly, as many lived alone in damp bedsitters. Not surprisingly, their physical and mental health deteriorated.
"I certainly heard of men changing their names and remarrying in the UK. These were bigamous relationships, as they had never divorced their Irish wives. I suppose it was expensive to do so, and not possible if you were from the South. If they were caught, they risked prison and any new children would be deemed illegitimate. Society was very different back then. Finding themselves adrift in a new urban culture was difficult. So many single Irish men hid their histories and noone asked probing questions. I heard they were surprised to find that your dad had another name, but may not have been shocked. Many Irish fathers who lived in London saw racing, drinking and gambling as their priorities."
My father lived in a one-room bedsit across the road from the pub. Late last year, I travelled to London to walk in his footsteps, envisaging him staggering down Orlando Road most nights.
Another contact told me that he was often skint by Saturday night, but through the generosity of the landlord with the odd drink on the house and spare change cadged from mates, he struggled on until the next pay day.
Apparently, he was handy with quick-witted one-liners and over time built up a new set of friends, but not once did he ever refer to a family back in Belfast.
He missed many birthdays, Christmases, the death of one of his children and the arrivals of several grandchildren. He died as a result of a brain tumour in 1982.
I located his grave in Lambeth Cemetery (section C2, plot 319) and stood there last December. It has no gravestone and looks like a patch of any field anywhere. I know where he came from and here's where he ended up, his last known address.
This is a story that has many layers of emotion and sadness, but it is not a poor Joe, boo-hoo tale. It is a mystery to be solved and my research over time has revealed a substantial amount of information about my father, his whereabouts and what kind of person he became after leaving Belfast.
I am still investigating a number of leads, but I do know this. My father was irresponsible, a weak man and a coward driven to do what he did through self-imposed pressure.
It is not out of the question that a number of other Belfast husbands over the years have fled and turned their backs on home and family to start anew in London, Liverpool, Birmingham, or wherever they felt safe from the authorities. Perhaps it still happens.
A couple of years ago, I started out with a small collection of items that belonged to my father; photographs of his Clapham friends, though strangers to me, a couple of letters and other bits and pieces, as well as a smattering of memories from family members. Now I know much more about his life in the 22 'missing' years and a clearer picture is emerging. The search continues.
My mother died in 2011. My gratitude for her love and admiration for her determination in raising us are limitless.
Will I ever feel any such affection for my father? As John Wayne says in The Searchers: "That'll be the day."
Joe Cushnan is happy to be contacted via email@example.com