Church and State – John O’Sullivan
In the 20th century, a local post office was a crucial component of village life and during the First World War; women queued at its counter, hoping for news of husbands, brothers or sons at the Front.
Later in the century, post offices were places where villagers could collect a pension, open a savings account, and buy travellers’ cheques in addition to posting parcels and purchasing stamps.
21st century texting and emailing means that the arrival of a letter is no longer a source of excitement, but Borrowash Post Office owners, John and Marcia O’Sullivan still run a brisk business and appreciate village life, making friends as well as customers.
John’s hobby is astronomy:
The moon with a decent telescope – it’s amazing! You can see some of the moons round Jupiter and I find it humbling.
His sons don’t share his passion, but Gordon from Victoria Avenue can always be relied upon to lend a hand in the neighbourly manner that John considers is typical of his village:
He’s a very knowledgeable man and like most people I’ve met in Borrowash, very helpful. If you show a bit of enthusiasm for their subject or topic, they’re more than willing to share and help you
The O’Sullivans are keen to take advantage of the varied pursuits on offer in their local community.
For Marcia, it’s running:
My wife’s taken up running – we had a tragedy in our family two years ago – she did a run to raise money for cancer and she’s kept on doing it. She goes out running three to four times a week and tries to get involved in these marathons and half marathons. She’s met lots of people in the village who do it as well and there’s some nice little runs around Borrowash.
Sometimes she goes up to Ockbrook, sometimes down to Elvaston Castle.
When he’s not contemplating the stars or serving his customers, John has fallen in with the local football club.
He admits to not being a particular fan of the national sport, but there are certain compensations in spending his free time watching a ball being kicked from one end of a pitch to the other.
I like a beer and the Chairman is good company. I’ve visited lots of the local football grounds, and prior to moving here, they were just places I could dream of – Coalville, Shirebrook, Gladwell. But I’ve been to these places now and I have to say, it is delightful- they’re non-league football. If you spend five or six pounds, they are really pleased, you know – they all have nice cups of tea and cobs!
If you go to Derby and spend forty or fifty quid, they wouldn’t even know you’d been. So – I make my money out of the local community, so I do try and put some of it back, because I think you have to.
As a blueprint for running a business in a small locality, this seems to work for John and Marcia; formerly post office employees in Maidenhead who now own the post office in Borrowash and employ staff themselves.
The move was dependent upon fulfilling certain essential O’Sullivan criteria and was very carefully considered. John describes the decision-making process:
My Mum was still alive at the time, but very ill – so we decided we didn’t want to be more than an hour and a half drive away from Maidenhead. We wanted to be near an airport; reasonably good road links; more than one pub in the village so that if I got banned from one, I could go to the other, and walking distance to a school.
It was easier said than done.
Matlock, Melbourne and Derby failed the selection test, but after a thorough search over the course of two years, the Borrowash post office in Nottingham Road seemed to be the answer to a prayer:
We ended up buying the one in Borrowash – and never looked back!
My children are right next door to a Methodist church. They went to the Fun Club there – it taught them a bit of behaviour and rules – a soft bit of religion and God. Schools are at walking distance; a very fine local butcher’s. In Maidenhead there’s a population of 80,000 and no butchers!
The residents of Borrowash have turned out to be very good, ‘proper people’, not ‘plastic’ and certainly not short of the odd pound to spend at the local post office:
Borrowash is quite a prosperous village – most of the money seems to be in the hands of the retired or very nearly retired and they are – although obviously not being Northerners, certainly cautious people, which is admirable.
Above all, John appreciates a quieter life; away from the pressure of keeping up with the Joneses in Maidenhead:
Thirty minutes from the train to London and everything there is faster and quicker and it’s all ‘How much money did you make today?’ and ‘What’s your house worth?’ ‘Where are you going on holiday?’ ‘What school does your child go to?’
It’s not like that up here. It’s a little bit more about you and your feelings than you and your possessions – which I like!’
These are all credible explanations for the fact that John from Maidenhead has discovered a spiritual home in Borrowash, but the real reason may owe more to poetry than prose.
John O’Sullivan grew up in Maidenhead, but something about the Derbyshire village harks back to an earlier and stronger heritage:
In many ways, moving into Borrowash — it reminds me of my childhood in Ireland you know.
It’s another world.
John O’Sullivan’s grandfather, Bartholomew John O’Sullivan (‘BJ the DJ’) was born in 1888 and worked as a ditch joiner, cutting peat in the bogs of County Kerry.
John recalls childhood visits when he and his brother, Marcus would make themselves useful helping save hay, working in the local farms.
In the 1998 edition of the Kerry Association in Dublin Yearbook, John’s Uncle Seamus nicknamed ‘Jimeen’ ( nobody from Ireland is ever called by their real name!) captures all that is ancient and Gaelic and loveable about Ireland when he remembers the magic and mystery of mouth organ music:
When I was young, the mouth organ had great charm; and despite being modest, and uncertain on the key, it was eminently suited for many simple tunes and airs. I first heard one as a child with my mother when we were about to come home from the bog on a late evening in June. The tin-silvery sound trembled along and over the brown turf-banks and whispering heather. The wavering notes rose and fell in the purple gloom of departing light. I thought with my child’s mind it must be the fairies coming out to play and dance. My mother confirmed it, urging haste lest ‘they put their spells on us’. But they must have succeeded to some degree for I only had to read the magical words ‘Bothairin na Smaointe’ and though in a far off environment, I was transferred back to that haunting, twilight scene of early childhood on a wild and lonely Kerry bog.
But sagas of fairy land and romance were not the only stories to come from Ireland.
John describes his grandfather as a rather foreboding figure:
He was a tall man. Surly, pipe smoker, didn’t say very much …. Miserable, I suppose.
The inside of the house supplies a further clue, adorned as it was by a large bayonet hanging on the wall and a copy of the 1922 Treaty, and a curious John began to ask questions about his aloof and unfriendly grandparent , known familiarly in Kerry as ‘Marky the Tan’.
As a boy in the mid 70s, I asked the local doctor’s son, Jack Shanahan, why my grandfather was called ‘Marky the Tan’. Was it because he was a member of the Black and Tans, which was the Essex Regiment and they used a mixture of blue police uniform and khaki army uniform and they basically were a very unpleasant bunch. Their job was to terrorise Irish citizens who were believed to be either IRA, or sympathetic with the IRA.
And he said, ‘No, he wasn’t a member the Black and Tans. He used to shoot and kill the Black and Tans.’
John O’Sullivan, later to run the post office in Borrowash, was the grandson of a member of the IRA.
Marky O’Sullivan said little about a rather chequered past to his youngest grandson, but revealed more to John’s brother:
I had an older brother, Marcus, thirteen months older than me – he was a bit of a bad lad, went off the rails a bit and my grandfather saw a kindred spirit in him and would talk to him about some of the old things.
Recently, trying to piece together the truth about their grandfather, John contacted Marcus who provided a potted history:
Granddad was 19 when he fought in Kerry No 1 battalion against the Tans in the War of Independence; present at two ambushes and with the IRA against the Free Staters in the Civil War. He was on the run for a good while but became very upset when his mate Jeremiah O’Leary was shot outside the pub on the corner of the Limerick Road on the day of the ceasefire.
According to John, there were a lot of atrocities on both sides – some massacres and some killings.
The events leading up to the establishment of the Free State of Ireland in 1922 were bedevilled by turmoil, hatred and division, tearing friends and families asunder and the reviled Black and Tans were at the heart of it all.
Many misconceptions still surround them, including the suggestion that the vast majority were prisoners in England, unleashed to wreck havoc upon an unsuspecting and vulnerable Irish people.
From 1919 onwards, men were recruited to the RIC (Royal Irish Constabulary) from a London office run by ex army officer, Major Cyril Francis Fleming, but they were not jailbirds.
The majority had served in British forces during World War 1 and were now desperately looking for work.
Mainly hailing from the Home Counties and London, because of geographical proximity to the recruiting office, the irrational actions of a number would have appeared terrifying to a civilian population because the perpetrators had suffered extreme psychological damage due to their experience in the trenches.
Thomas Huckerby, a Presbyterian recruited in Somerset, was one of the former World War 1 soldiers who augmented the bad reputation of the Tans. He killed three civilians in cold blood in 1920 and resigned from the force at the end of that year, having been involved in the murder of two more
As a 19 year old serial killer, he proved that the evil learned in times of war is eminently capable of cheating a cease fire.
Marky O’Sullivan’s fortunes became entwined with those of Michael Collins, the big fella; enshrined in Irish history as Director of Intelligence for the IRA, Chairman of the Provisional Irish Government and Commander in Chief of the National Army. At the 1918 General Election, when the non-violent Sinn Fein triumphed in Ireland, Collins was one of their number; newly elected as the MP for Cork South.
Sinn Fein snubbed Westminster and set up an Irish Parliament in Dublin called the Dail.
On 21st January, 1919, (whether by accident or design, the date of first sitting of the new Parliament), the Irish War of Independence began.
Two members of the Royal Irish Constabulary were apprehended and shot dead by an IRA troop led by Dan Breen as they attempted to escort a consignment of gelignite to a Tipperary quarry. Collins implicitly accepted responsibility on behalf of the Irish Republican Brotherhood and John, believes that Marky O’Sullivan was involved in the action:
My grandfather was in something called The West Cork Flying Column; Dan Breen, I think was the commander of it.
Collins, an enigmatic West Cork man was a complex character. He was also a hero to Marky’s wife and John O’Sullivans’s grandmother who was proud to be a Cork woman and a staunch Collins supporter.
From the outset, the problems in Ireland were something that the British Government could have done without.
Collins masterminded a highly effective ground campaign, with a superb intelligence network, relying on ruthless guerrilla action led by regional commanders like Dan Breen.
Whilst Collins was tainted by association with the notorious ‘Squad’ – an assassination unit, primed to dispose of British informers and agents, Eamon de Valera, his colleague and rival, kept his hands clean and managed the politics, visiting America to lobby for funding and specialising in the dark arts of diplomacy.
John notes the difference between Michael Collins, the big fella, who was a bit of a bully, something of a ladies’ man, bit of a big head, good military commander and De Valera, the negotiator, more of a diplomat and a politician than an army man.
The relentless and continuous onslaught by the Collins raiders brought the British Government to the brink of the negotiating table in 1921, but it would be de Valera, the Machiavellian politician who, as President of the Irish Republic, would reap the rewards of the peace.
The Anglo Irish Treaty of 1921 made provision for an Irish ‘Free State’ with permission for counties with a large unionist population ( as in eastern Ulster) to opt out and remain under the aegis of the Crown.
Its inception was every bit as controversial as its practical application would remain for the duration of the 20th century.
In County Kerry, feelings ran high, not least in the ranks of the IRA where men such as Marky O’Sullivan had won their spurs:
When the Treaty came about, some of the people fighting in the Irish War of Independence were very upset with the way that it worked out. Some people wanted a whole united Ireland, some people were happy just to have a Free State Southern Ireland. My granddad was an anti- Treaty IRA man and they felt let down.
The proposals caused rancorous rifts between formerly close-knit friends and families and the O’Sullivans were in the thick of the controversy:
Jack Shanahan’s granddad was happy with the Treaty, whilst my grandfather wasn’t, so they ended up badly. They’d fought on the same side against the Black and Tans but then they turned from fighting alongside each other against one enemy to fighting themselves as a second enemy, which just shows some of the sadness of the Civil War.
While passions ran high at local level, de Valera was already ahead and dictating the politics. He declined to attend the controversial London peace conference, sending Michael Collins, the self-proclaimed soldier not a politician in his stead.
Collins, who had not wanted to go, did his best as a less than stylish spin doctor, proclaiming that the Treaty could lead to a united Ireland in the foreseeable future and that it offered Ireland the freedom to achieve freedom, but he had been outwitted and out-played by the fancy footwork of de Valera.
In John’s words:
De Valera didn’t want to sign the Treaty and sent Collins to London to do so. When he came back with the document, Collins predicted that he might be considered a scapegoat and so it proved, because a lot of people were dissatisfied with the Treaty and believed that it was a treacherous act of treason.
There is a time-honoured punishment for treason and Michael Collins was to die because he was a soldier instead of a politician and a big head instead of a shrinking violet.
Marky O’Sullivan, married to Margaret, a Cork woman with a soft spot for the ladies’ man was amongst the assassins who sent the big fella to his maker:
On August 22nd 1922, he went to Cork out on patrol. He’d come to a crossroads called Beal na Blath or something; it was the Gaelic name. He was recognized and identified partly because he used this armoured car – well, it wasn’t a tank exactly, it was just like a decent vehicle with a machine gun strapped onto it and, having let him pass through, the anti Treaty men that were around, organised an ambush in the hope that he would come back against that same day.
They knew their man.
Collins had been tipped off that he was unpopular and not to travel around that area, but, because it was so close to where he was born and raised, I think his own arrogance got the better of him and he decided to proceed with it.
The outcome was inevitable.
He got shot that day – we think that the machine gun didn’t work on the armoured car – my grandfather was present and a rifle was shot.
There was no investigation, no autopsy and those involved stayed silent:
My granddad never spoke about it – it wasn’t discussed openly in the pubs either.
Yet behind the curtains, shielded from public scrutiny, people were not afraid to vent their feelings about the slaying of one of the founders of the modern Irish state, amongst them, the wife of Marky O’Sullivan.
As her grandson Marcus would later say:
Nan never forgave Markey and his crew for killing Michael Collins.
The policy of not discussing deeds done under the cover of darkness was rooted in pragmatism. IRA activity was of necessity, secretive, but it dominated every aspect of existence, including choice of job.
Reflecting on his grandfather, John says:
He had an interesting, but quite a sad life in many ways. He worked on the railways which provided him with access to detonation caps for fog in trains and the old IRA as much as the modern IRA always struggled to find and locate weapons, so you would try and get people who worked in quarries, railways lines as I mentioned , or if you knew a local chemist or a physicist. Jack Shanhan’s father was the local doctor….
Many years later, when John and his parents were living in England, mention of any familial connection with the IRA was equally unthinkable:
At the time of the late seventies and eighties, you had the Birmingham Bombings, the Guildford Bombings and Hyde Park. My dad thought we’d have to up sticks and go back to Ireland to live. For a while, the anti Irish sentiment was very strong, so it wasn’t something openly discussed.
Back in Ireland, the IRA continued to protect their own; and the needs of those loyal to the cause would always be met.
Marky O’Sullivan and men of his era were ‘old school’ republicans. Ambushing, shooting and killing Michael Collins was regarded as a necessary act of war. John O’Sullivan’s grandfather saw himself as a soldier who fought against other soldiers, disapproving of the modern lot who blew up chip shops and innocent civilians.
The IRA, however, was not in the habit of splitting hairs.
Marky received an IRA pension up until the day he died – but so did Bobby Sands his fellow hunger strikers and their dependents and the supposition remains that the price of financial security was silence.
Growing up in a politicised household had a profound effect on Marky O’Sullivan’s sons, who would both dedicate their lives to an all-consuming cause although not that of the IRA.
Seamus has always been regarded by his nephew John as an interesting man.
His tastes are academic; he speaks fluent Gaelic and since the Second World War, has enjoyed a life of prosperity in Maidenhead.
However, as might be expected of Marky O’Sullivan’s son, there is more to Seamus (Jimeen) than could be surmised from his fondness for mouth organ music and poetry.
Uncle Seamus attempted to join the Nazi Party in the Second World War and ran away to Dublin when they wouldn’t have him.
So he joined the RAF and ended up on Gloster Meteors, the first ever jet fighter – he ended up in Air Traffic Control at West Drayton … he still favoured certain parts of German uniform.
Now in his tenth decade, all Seamus will say when asked what inspired him to apply to Hitler’s party is:
I wanted to prove how wrong they were.
It is an unlikely answer, but it is equally unlikely that he was aware at the time, of the Nazi programme of genocide.
Fortunately, he was never to acquire insider intelligence because he was summarily rejected, probably because the enemy suspected him of espionage.
John’s father, Bertie, worked at Nelligan’s bakery in County Kerry.
At 23, he was a snappy dresser, and succeeded in catching the eye of 16 year old Joanna Mary Foley, who accosted him in the street, glad to escape her dreadful job in a rendering factory and a working environment consisting of rubbish bits of old meat, food for pigs and animal waste products.
Either seduced by the aroma of fresh bread, or impressed by his taste in clothes, Joanna, from a large, poor, family in Tralee, set her sights on Bertie, married him and gave birth to baby Marcus.
However, the honeymoon period was abruptly terminated when her husband, a keen amateur boxer, became embroiled in such an explosive fight (over a girl, or possibly because of an insult to his father) that he was forced to flee the family home and seek sanctuary at the hearth of his brother Seamus who was living with his own family in Maidenhead, England.
Bertie got a job working at a Brylcream factory but soon moved to a clerical post at Heathrow airport.
It was bizarrely, about two miles away from Seamus at West Drayton.
He took a job with BOAC (British Overseas Airways Corporation, later to become British Airways) where he stayed.
The influence of his brother extended beyond choice of job as John recalls:
One evening, Seamus said ‘Come on – we’re off to the Kingdom Hall’ and that was it, he became a Jehovah’s Witness and life was never the same again.’
The fate of a Jehovah’s Witness is to be an uninvited guest on a global doorstep. It is usually easy (and fairly painless) to discourage the messenger.
However, the presence of Witnesses at the heart of a non-Witness family can be disruptive and if that family is steeped in traditional Irish Catholicism, nothing short of devastating.
John’s brother, Marcus, reflects upon the consequences of their father’s decision to spurn the time-honoured faith of his homeland:
Nana and Granddad disowned him because he became a JW.
By now, Joanna and baby Marcus had joined Bertie in England. A 22 foot caravan at the Bailey Site, Burnham Tatlow, would be home for the next ten years.
Until John contacted his brother Marcus to discuss the Unexamined Lives project, the full extent of the family rift had escaped him. The O’Sullivan boys visited their grandparents in Ireland, with or without their mother, but it never occurred to the youngest child to question why his father was rarely of the party.
I thought it was because they trusted us to visit on our own.
Marcus had no doubts whatsoever:
Bertie will never tell you anything, but he knows I know. That’s why he could never handle me.
You need to know that Mum’s mum, our maternal grandmother, Bridget Foley, came to England to get Mum to return to Ireland in the early 60s, to get her away from him and the JWs. She swore she would not return without Mum and us two.
Turns out, she died of a broken heart, was buried in Richmond and Mum was refused permission to attend her own mother’s funeral by Bertie!
Merc Foley, our grandfather, told the O’Sullivans that if Bertie was seen in Tralee, he would be shot.
Given the pattern of O’Sullivan history, this would not have been an idle threat and Bertie was not a prodigal son.
Nana and Granddad allowed us to go home with Mum so that we would have some memory of our heritage. Without her, he was not allowed to visit Anglore for a long time.
Bertie was a lost cause, but Marcus believed that his grandparents still had hopes of Joanna:
You may not remember Granddad staying with us at Bailey Caravan Site (I’d have been about seven or sight then) in yet another futile attempt to get Mum to leave him and return with us to Ireland, where a house had been sorted out.
The young Mrs O’Sullivan was at a cross road.
On the one hand, as she was frequently to say of life in England:
I don’t want to be buried in this heathen land.
In reality, as her eldest son observed:
Mum just decided to stick it out. You must remember how hard it would have been for a single woman with two children in Ireland at that time. No divorce then and not much hope of a father for us either if she’d left him.
Marcus and John came to resent the yoke, eventually broke away and John, like Marcus beforehand, views Joanna as the casualty of the family:
I don’t think she believed in it any more than we did. But she’d come over here because she loved him. She devoted her life to him – and that was it.
As Marcus said:
It explains a lot.
The fact that two sons of an early 20th century IRA family should espouse the Jehovah’s Witness faith is not incongruous, given the rigid discipline exacted by both creeds. They had merely swapped blind loyalty to one set of rigid principles, for unquestioning obedience to another.
For Seamus, who was not a fan of the monarchy, an added attraction might have been the Witness rejection of allegiance to state and crown.
Witness activity then, as now, was handed down from on high by Elders in a ‘Governing Body’ based in Brooklyn, New York.
The group developed from an American Bible Student movement of the late 1870s, when Charles Taze Russell formed the Zion Watch Tower Tract Society. In 1931, further refinements occurred and the name ‘Jehovah’s Witnesses’ was picked from an Old Testament text:
Ye are my witnesses, saith Jehovah, and my servant whom I have chosen: Isaiah 43:10
As small children, it did not occur to the O’Sullivan boys to question the teaching, because as John observes:
It wasn’t unusual for us, because I believed that what Mum and Dad were saying was the best for us, and of course, we only really associated with Jehovah’s Witnesses or their children.
Yet the core beliefs; the need for separation from an intrinsically corrupt secular society and the imminence of the end of the world meant that Marcus and John would find themselves increasingly adrift from the wider non-Witness community.
Jehovah’s Witnesses do not observe birthdays, Christmas or Easter because of the supposed pagan origins of these festivals. They refuse military service, and will not salute national flags. Regardless of medical need, a Witness will not accept a blood transfusion.
Amidst the circumscribed social circle of his parents, these prohibitions were not a problem for John, who remains uncertain about his own date of birth:
We never had Christmas or birthdays, but it didn’t strike me as odd because no-one I knew had Christmas or birthdays.
On a family outing to the cinema, differences became perceptible:
We went to see ‘Treasure Island’ and in those days, the national anthem was always played and people stood up. Except us. It was regarded as worshipping the Queen and we didn’t do that.
Not conforming to the behaviour of strangers in a cinema audience might be at most, slightly embarrassing – but at school, differences between the Witness children and their classmates were unavoidable.
Explaining why it was essential to reject all invitations to birthday parties from primary school classmates must have been difficult:
It got awkward at school because if you got invited to a birthday party, you wouldn’t go. And apart from Jesus, there’s only two birthdays ever mentioned in the bible; one is John the Baptist, the other is King Herod. On both those occasions, someone got killed, so the precedent was set that only bad people had birthdays.
At grammar school, the problem became acute:
When I passed my Eleven Plus and went to Grammar School that was awkward. At Assembly in the morning, there would be prayers; some sort of religious activity which I wasn’t allowed to go into for fear of me being perceived as participating in worship. So I used to have to stand outside and then, when the prayers and service were over, I would walk in to hear the day’s announcements – and 400 people would turn and look at you! It was wearisome – and in the end, one teacher gave me a detention because he believed I was late every single day and had just arrived —- which doesn’t say much for the way the school used to communicate what was going on.
In other respects, John enjoyed Burnham Grammar School, although living in a caravan and later, a council house, meant that he did not enjoy the moneyed lifestyle of some pupils.
In the late seventies, some of the kids could actually afford and did, drive to school in cars, which caused a problem for the teachers because the teachers couldn’t park up.
At one set of announcements in Assembly, we were told ‘If you’re coming to school in a car, you must have written permission.’
Some of the kids had motorised ‘fizzies’ – Yamaha FS1Es they were – and if you were really cool, you had to turn the handle-bars upside down; truly amazing!
So if you came to school in a car, you needed written permission and some of the lads had a laugh!
One person came to school in tractor! Someone else came in a horse-box and one lad came in a coach! His dad used to restore coaches – and that really did fill up the car park! And Assembly that day was great!
‘I little thought yesterday when I made you aware of the parking problems the school faced; the idea that you needed permission to come in a car would be an indication to some of you to come to school in lorries, commercial vehicles, and tractors!’
But it was good! We had some good fun at school!
Financial constraints stopped John O’ Sullivan from driving to school in style, but the Witness faith was a clog on his achievement once there.
He had passed the Eleven Plus but was never able to test his abilities:
Academically, I wasn’t under any pressure to be bright or anything, because in 1975, the world was meant to end and we wouldn’t have to be bogged down with documents and degrees and so on.
I couldn’t see any point in it. For the teachers, who wanted to make their careers on results, it was tough. And of course, 1975 came – and the world didn’t end! Or at least, it’s not ended in the way that was foretold.
Nascent sporting potential would be similarly untapped:
Sports-wise, I wasn’t allowed to participate because my mum and dad were Witnesses. Competitive sport was forbidden, so in truth, I wasn’t really allowed to do any extra-school activities because legally, you had to go there for that long – and then it was home to be part of the Witness brotherhood.
So there was a whole generation of Witness children who grew up really … I wouldn’t say under achieving exactly, but certainly not bothering too much.
I used to go around knocking on doors you know, with Mum and Dad and as I was older, on my own, because that was what you did…
The Witness ethos was as corrosive in John O’Sullivan’s house as the IRA must have been in the home of his grandfather, but there were some happier memories.
Money was scarce, but despite the fact that we were ever so poor, you didn’t know it because everyone was all in it together.
A nearby field, formerly used to house Italian prisoners in the Second World War became a venture playground:
It had a big barbed wire enclosure all around it, but we used to get cardboard packing boxes and slide them down in the summer. You got a really slick, fast ride down there.
Bertie O’Sullivan’s job at BOAC also came with some perks for a young boy who enjoyed plane spotting:
We were always seeing the aeroplanes going into Heathrow. I’ve flown on lots of really nice ones – Britannias, 707s, Viscounts, Vanguards … because of Dad’s job we could get free tickets – First Class upgrades and it was really quite pleasant.
The Heathrow job also meant the chance to rub shoulders with some interesting people and with the Wogans, it was the Irish connection rather than a Witness background that mattered.
My dad worked for BOAC at Heathrow, but never learned to drive. The A4 was the main road and he could stand there at the bus stop in his uniform and he was guaranteed a lift because it was obvious where he was going.
Terry Wogan lived up the road – he’d go in and out of London a lot and he obviously had his ‘Roller’. He stopped to pick Dad up a few times and he knew him – obviously, they’re both Irishmen!
Terry tended to come home on the M40 – not the M4 because I think he liked to stop and have a swift half in one of the pubs! The Bull in Beaconsfield I think was his preferred spot. He often gave my dad a lift.
His boys, Rogan and Wogan went to the local posh school, Claire School. Rogan has owed me a tenner since 1984. Don’t suppose I’ll get that back again!
When the Wogans bought a house in the village, unsuspecting Burnham seemed scarcely large enough to contain the reflected glory:
There was great excitement!
Would they become regulars at ‘The Oak and Saw’?
Would she shop in the local shop?
Terry and Helen Wogan were not the only newcomers to Burnham:
Mr Garawal owned the local shop; delightful man. He was a Ugandan Asian; he’d had to flee Idi Amin and just spoke very good English and he was a top man!
John remembers Terry Wogan’s wife as:
A good looking woman; I think she was a model.
Helen Wogan hailed from North Dublin and was not too proud to do her own shopping, or swap the craic with another forthright Irishwoman.
Helen was in the shop one day and my mum’s gone in and she’s looked at one of his tatty old bits of veg. She picked up this head of cabbage and then she showed it to Helen.
‘Jesus Helen – sure you’d be ashamed to stick a pig’s head alongside that!’
I imagine that Helen Wogan long years before had stopped boiling pigs’ heads and pigs’ trotters – but the Wogans were ok!
Even if the newly prosperous Mrs Wogan was tempted to turn a blind eye to reminders of a humble background (North Dublin is quite a rough area), Joanna O’Sullivan who had worked in a rendering factory, used the experience to demand value for money:
Mum was a tough shopper! I can remember going round to Mr Darawal with some new potatoes and I had to say ‘My mum says she wants to cook with them, not play marbles!’
Similarly, a visit to the pet shop owed more to the practicality than sentiment:
We lived next to a big farmer’s field and when they’re doing the combined harvesting and the baling and all that, we’d often get field mice come into the kitchen. And so Mum went round to the local pet shop and said, ‘Oh, what have you got for field mice?’
And it’s ‘Oh well, we’ve got this, it’s for hamsters really, or gerbils, but they’re sunflowers seeds and fennel. I’m sure they’ll like it.’
‘Like it? I don’t want them to like it! I want to kill them!’
John doesn’t supply the rest of the conversation, but considers it unlikely that on this occasion, his mother was a satisfied customer:
The pet shop wasn’t the ideal place to go to try and get stuff to exterminate animals.
The caravan site that was home during John’s early life was interesting in its own right:
I was born in Cliveden; that’s where the Astors used to live, so I’ve had a kip on the Keeler couch! I’ve had a dip in the Profumo pool!
By the time that John was getting to know the grounds, the protagonists of the Profumo Affair had forsaken Cliveden for the more salacious chapters of the history books – but the estate, at that time owned by the National Trust, continued to lure the rich and famous:
I was working there in 1977, in the sixth form or fifth form when you’re meant to do something worthy in the summer holidays and the Head Groundsman, Philip Cotton was a very nice man. So I went along there and I was meant to be working on the formal lawns, but he treated us – we knocked around with the bands.
Fleetwood Mac’s LP, ‘Rumours’ was out and it was played all the time. They had a bar – it was 27p for a pint of lager – I can remember that – which was a good price.
A hint of luxury was also on offer, courtesy of Joanna O’Sullivan’s sister Bridget who had come to England in the 1960s and had done well for herself.
She married a game warden, Leo Daly and they lived in a mansion in Richmond Park with deer in the garden!
Their neighbour was Princess Beatrice of Holland.
In 1971, Bertie and Joanna O’Sullivan had gone up in the world by exchanging a mobile home for a bricks and mortar council house three miles outside Maidenhead. It came equipped with central heating, but this was the extent of their ambition. The world was due to end in 1975 and in the meantime, they might as well be warm.
John left school in the Lower Sixth, without taking his A levels and embarked upon a series of unchallenging jobs, including part time cleaning at Marks and Spencer and working as an unskilled roofer.
Far from remonstrating at their son’s lack of ambition, Bertie and Joanna were pleased; more time could be devoted to knocking on doors and saving as many souls as possible before the end of the world in 1975.
A basic knowledge of construction could also assist the cause of Jehovah and John was soon adept at knocking up a ‘made to measure’ Kingdom Hall:
I got involved in construction work with the Witnesses and so I’ve done Quick Build Kingdom Halls where over the course of two days you could build a 300-seater, you know, from a concrete slab!
It was no mean feat, as he is quick to acknowledge:
They were very impressive and it was just like any society or religion that is prepared to co-operate together – you can achieve fantastic things very quickly. I was involved in one large project in Surrey for a year and a half – a twenty six acre seater where it was a massive undertaking.
By any estimate, the Witnesses aimed high and many a traditional church, beset by elderly congregations and a process of natural wastage would marvel at such visible, mouth-watering proofs of success:
The groups of congregations were circuits and then groups of circuits were districts and there’s probably only five or six districts in all of England. A circuit might be two or three counties; a district was a huge area.
The district assembly was wondrous to behold:
Our district assembly was at Twickenham which was quite perverse, because Twickenham Rugby Football Union is probably as much of a hotbed of conservatism as you can get – and yet they would rent out Twickenham every year , with all the car parks, to the Jehovah’s Witnesses. So the Witnesses would go in; they would clean it from top to bottom and then we would hold our conferences there. They were massively attended; 40,000, 50,000 people would sit there from nine in the morning till five in the evening. It was bible discussion; well, not so much discussion as lecturing. They were fabulously well behaved – it had maybe one policeman there out of all of it.
We’d do all our own cooking and make our own meals and I got involved in some of the administration side of that which again is interesting because much as you’re not supposed to be of this world, you still had to generate revenue and pay bills and how do you go about doing that?
As he grew up, the obedient child who had knocked on doors with his parents began to do the unthinkable and question the credibility of the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
The entire faith was built upon the premise that the ways of this world were so intrinsically and irrevocably tainted that only complete annihilation at the hand of God would suffice – and yet, in certain circumstances, the ways were manipulated to serve the means….
I had my doubts about some of it. It was very awkward for Witnesses. They were abandoned and persecuted in a lot of countries; lots of African countries, South American countries, Russia, China – and yet they still had to get funds in and out of these countries.
You could hardly go into Argentina and say ‘I’d like to open an account in the name of Jehovah’s Witnesses, Argentina Branch!’ So you had to get money in and out of places in a way that isn’t obvious to the authorities. And of course scripturally that would be ‘Cautious as serpents, innocent as doves.’ So you could manufacture ‘reasons’ for doing all sorts of things, because ultimately, you were doing God’s Will. And although it might not have been to the letter of the law, in the end, you see, you pay Caesar’s things to Caesar and God’s things to God.
I had lots of doubts in my mind about some of it.
The non-event of 1975 presented one severe trial of faith.
Some members of the wider Witness family left homes and jobs in Canada, scrimping and saving so that they could travel to England on a mission to rescue the souls of loved ones before the destruction of the world.
The world remained intact, but their savings did not and they now resembled beached whales; humiliatingly reliant upon the generosity of the Witness community to pay their return fare.
The Falklands conflict exposed further anomalies between theory and practice:
In 1981 the Jehovah’s Witness Year Book came out. The islands off Argentina were called the Malvinas and then the next year in the book, they were called ‘The Falklands’! It wasn’t consistent and I just thought ‘Why on earth is an organisation that supposedly has no real interest in earthly politics, changing the name of something?’
Whilst prepared to pander to expediency in some respects, in others, the Witnesses upheld the path of righteousness.
In short it was ‘no smoking, alcohol in moderation, no ‘flashiness’ and no sex before marriage.’
By now, Bertie O’Sullivan had risen to the eminence of an Elder; responsible for enforcing these precepts. Transgressors ran the risk of being disfellowshipped, the Witness term for formal expulsion and shunning, and the eldest O’Sullivan boy, Marcus, had already shamed the family by falling foul of the system.
John had never smoked and his drinking was not questioned, but he was sacrificed on the Witness altar of ‘political correctness’.
The way disfellowship works is that you’re reported for transgressions and then they had to hold a disciplinary body where you put your case and they decide whether to uphold a request to expel – or just let you off.
There had been about six in the district and they’d all been let off, so they brought in this external ‘enforcer’ whose job was to up the number of disfellowships. And my dad was actually on the judging panel when my case came up!
John had been denounced under the ‘sex before marriage’ criteria. He and his girlfriend had not been caught in flagrante, but the ‘nudge, nudge, wink, wink’ whisperings of a closed community and the voiced suspicions of the girl’s mother proved decisive.
He was arraigned, tried and found guilty as charged to the chagrin of his Elder father who refused to take part in the proceedings.
The serpents had triumphed.
The sequential expulsion of both sons from the ranks of the Jehovah’s Witnesses devastated the O’Sullivan family.
As an Elder, the extent of Bertie O’Sullivan’s embarrassment and humiliation can scarcely be estimated.
For Joanna, in a different way, the shame was equally unbearable.
Of course it very much upset my dad, but also my mum to be honest.
My mum loved my dad and whatever he said she would have gone along with.
I don’t think that she particularly bought into the religious side of it all, but she did have her friends and her associates and enjoyed the company.
Dad was in a senior position and I’d let him down.
The public implosion of their entire way of life in England was too much for John O’Sullivan’s parents, and Bertie, the black sheep of a Roman Catholic family, felt now compelled to return, cap in hand, to the land of his birth.
Dad was so embarrassed that they went back to Ireland for a while.
John remained in Maidenhead, feeling like a human firewall. His presence was now utterly repulsive to the very community he had served with such devotion to duty:
People who had known me for thirty years would not talk to me.
I was at home at the time. I can remember that there was very little food in the house. I’d lost my job, my friends, the people I knew as families wouldn’t talk to me and I had no money; nothing to eat and … everything I had ever known had just disappeared.
A distance of over thirty years has softened the blow; somewhat…..
John is now prepared to acknowledge that:
If you do what they say, the Witnesses will protect you through thick and thin whatever you’ve done. My dad’s old now and frail – and they keep an eye on him; see that he’s ok. But once you’re out, you’re out.
It was brutal.
Help was at hand from an unusual source.
The young man, who was prevented from participating in sport at school, had taken an interest in the local rugby club and became friendly with Neil Richardson, a public schoolboy.
As a result of their friendship, John decided that, as a former grammar school pupil, a job as a postman might be something that he could do – and it was certainly preferable to the casual roofing and labouring that had brought money – but no security.
So I went for an interview in Maidenhead and became a postman, and I met Marcia at work and we started living together.
Marcia Charteris Whiting and John O’Sullivan came from entirely different worlds.
John describes her parents as being happily divorced and her father, David, a naval architect by profession, had also worked as a postman.
Marcia’s arrival at the counter was untypical:
She’d got a law degree, but hated working in the law firm which she found really unpleasant in atmosphere and frankly, very sexist.
She wanted to pay off her student debt and needed work that would do that.
The post office was to be the foundation of a very different way life from that of former generations of O’Sullivans; concentrating upon the here and now instead of storing up riches in heaven or sacrificing the needs of a family unit to the greater good of a nation.
Yet John’s wedding was unusual – perhaps in line with another O’Sullivan trait of doing things his way.
We ran away to Gretna Green because her mum and dad were divorced and mine were Witnesses and wouldn’t attend a church wedding Because of my family background, most of them either lived in either Ireland or America and I could scarcely invite them over for a registry wedding, so we ran off to Gretna and it was really good fun!
The couple booked into a Scottish fishing lodge and won the hearts of the other guests:
There were quite a lot of elderly, well-to-do guests and when we explained to them why we were there, they were delightful.
Other arrangements, in particular, he bridegroom’s outfit, were less straightforward:
We got married on a Wednesday and my tie and shirt wouldn’t fit me – I hadn’t worn one for years, so I dashed into the local town at half day closing. There was a lady’s shop open, so I bought a blouse. I had to tuck the large sleeves in so they didn’t drape out and I borrowed a tie off the photographer.
The fact that John O’Sullivan wore a big girl’s blouse to his own wedding might account for his slightly sheepish expression in the wedding photographs, but sartorial considerations took second place to the wedding cake and champagne awaiting the newly weds in the lodge library, courtesy of a generous elderly couple.
They were also joined by good friends Neil and Julie and the absence of relatives did not detract from the happiness of the occasion:
There was no family or anything. We just thought that it was unnecessary.
Back in Maidenhead, John and Marcia started putting down roots; buying in the first instance, a two up, two down house in Grenfell Avenue.
Shortly afterwards, they took the opportunity to buy a larger property with an adjoining post office; Marcia became postmistress, employing the existing staff and then the children were born; Molly, Sam, Dan and Bill.
The desire to live and work in a close community rather than the impersonal environs of Maidenhead prompted the move to Borrowash where the O’Sullivan children are experiencing a very different upbringing to that of their father.
John, whose own educational and social needs were displaced by the heavenward ambitions of the Witnesses, is keen to encourage the personal development of his children:
My daughter goes to West Park which is in Spondon and it’s a nice school. I’m very impressed with West Park. They do a lot for the kids, but they also expect the kids to do a lot themselves, and I think, if you don’t push your children or don’t arrange for then to go to places and join clubs and societies, you can’t be surprised if they’re sitting in a bus shelter, having a can of cider.
He has gravitated towards football and rugby clubs as an adult and is pleased that the boys belong to local teams. John tries to achieve a parenting balance between pressurising his sons and mirroring the ‘hands off’ example of his own mother and father.
My boys play for Spondon Rovers. They’re a local team and are sworn enemies of Spondon Dynamos.
The first time I went along to my boys’ Sunday football, I’ve never seen so many children playing football in my life! It was at Macworth College and there must have been three hundred people there.
Yet the Witness principles, though largely suppressed, are still pervasive…
I have to say, I don’t agree with eleven and twelve year olds competitively. I would like every game to be three-all, so no-one’s won or lost! I don’t tend to go along too often, because I don’t want to take it too seriously. I want Sam to enjoy himself and have a good game, but I don’t necessarily want them to win.
I just want them not to be on the computer!
Some of the parents there can be a little bit precious about it. You know, there must be two hundred lads there – I wouldn’t be surprised if one of them becomes a Premiership footballer! Then, some of the expectations of the parents are wholly unreasonable. Partly because of the way I was brought up, so long as I was happy and not getting into trouble, I wasn’t expected to do much. I fitted into that a treat! I feel the same way with Sam.
Competition may be a double-edged sword, but in other ways, Marcia and John’s children are being given the opportunity to experience a range of activities.
Molly had a flying lesson for her third birthday and Marcia’s family offer other pursuits:
We go to Bruges every year. Marcia’s mum has a spare house there.
Bruges is delightful. We’ve been going there twelve, thirteen years in a row now so we know the area well. The bank manager and the builder just queue up every day and buy fresh bread. We go to the North Sea, it’s a ten mile drive and Molly’ll do four or five hours in the sea. Its good fun and the children pick up a bit of a foreign language.
John, who was drawn to Borrowash because it reminded him of Ireland, has also ensured that his children get to know the real thing:
I’ve got a lot of time for Ireland.
We’ve taken the children back there. Tralee; the Ring of Kerry – it’s beautiful; hauntingly so.
We went down to Valencia Island – the next point from there is America really, and sometimes the storms are fantastic. But the children did what I did as a kid, you know?
You go to one of the local streams or rivers, just build a dam, take it down, build a dam, and take it down. We’d go on the beaches. It’s all around you. It’s ‘Ryan’s Daughter’ kind of stuff. And it’s still slow over there and it’s pleasant.
The O’Sullivans took a ringside seat at some pivotal moments in 20thcentury history; from the Irish War of Independence to the Second World War and the end of the world that wasn’t in 1975.
The path that has led to a Derbyshire village called Borrowash has not been easy and the single-minded O’Sullivan fanaticism encompassing Roman Catholicism, the IRA, the Jehovah’s Witnesses and even a failed application to join the Nazis has had mixed outcomes for the protagonists.
Some influences run deep and John has found the process of examining them difficult:
I was talking to Marcus and we said that it’s affected four generations adversely. What would Mum’s life have been like if it hadn’t been for the Witnesses?
A blinkered devotion to a cause runs through it all. I can see it in myself and see that it’s still affecting the way I bring up my own children.
They don’t have the best birthdays and Christmases because that sort of celebration still doesn’t feel quite right to me.
I do fight against it, but it’s affected four generations and who knows how many more?
The O’Sullivan way of life may not have been easy, but as Molly, Sam, Dan and Bill forge ahead in 21st century Borrowash, they are also sustained by a rich and strong culture, expressed by their Great Uncle Seamus, quoting from Song of the Mouth Organ by RW. Service:
Ask the stoker and the sailor of the sea; ask the mucker and the
Sawer of the pine:
Ask the herder of the plain; ask the gleaner of the grain – There’s
a lowly, loving Kingdom and it’s mine.
Or as he also said:
There is no harm in dreaming anyway