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subfield code a C46-000022 USFLDC DOI0 245 Michael "Mike" Breen oral history interviewh [electronic resource] /c interviewed by Erin Chisholm.500 Full cataloging of this resource is underway and will replace this temporary record when complete.1 600 Breen, Michael7 655 Oral history.localOnline audio.local700 Chisholm, Erin710 University of South Florida.b Library.Special & Digital Collections.Oral History Program.773 t Celtic Heritage oral history project4 856 u http://digital.lib.usf.edu/?c46.2
xml version 1.0 encoding UTF-8 transcript
text Michael Breen (MB): My name is Michael Breen, M-i-c-h-a-e-l B-r-e-e-n.
Interviewer A (IA): Okay. Hi, Michael Breen. So we have a few questions for you today, and we would like to start off with where and when were you born?
MB: I was born in Ireland, a place called County Fermanagh, on December 10, 1940.
IA: Okay, and how many years did you live there?
IA: Eighteen. What was your hometown like? When you were growing up, what were some of your experiences?
MB: It was very wild country, you know, with heather and all that. But it was fun. There was a lot of us, nine in my family, and they were all large families in the area.
IA: Have you been back since leaving?
MB: Yes. Oh, yes.
IA: Has it changed at all?
IA: And how, would you say?
MB: Dramatically, every way, its more modernized now. Its the same as this country. I guess the global economy; they have everything that we have here now.
MB: I came with my younger sister.
IA: Your younger sister, okay. Can you remember why you decided to move here?
MB: Yes. No employment, you know, other than working on a farm for God knowsin 1957 I worked on a farm, and it was like five English pounds for a six-day workweek on a farm, from dawn until dusk. It really wasnt what I wanted.
IA: Did you sister move here for the same reasons, or did you bring her with you?
MB: I brought her with me because she had no opportunities either.
IA: Okay. And how old was she?
MB: Seventeen. I was 18. Nineteen fifty-nine I came here.
IA: Can you remember why your family decided to move here?
MB: It was just her and I.
IA: Was it hard for you to leave your family and your friends in Ireland?
MB: No, not really, because we were coming to the jet age, so you could always come back again. But my grandparents and all that, whenever they left, you never saw them again because it was just impossible to come back to Ireland.
IA: Did you write a lot of letters?
MB: Yes, yes.
IA: Yes, thats awesome.
MB: Yes, when my parents were alive.
IA: Can you tell us a little bit about your family history in Ireland?
MB: I told you, we were born in a thatched cottage that had no electricity, no water, no facilities whatsoever. And torch fire was what we used for cooking and stuff like that.
So in the wintertime, because youre up further north, it gets dark at about 3:00 oclock in the evening, and the sun doesnt come up until 9:00 oclock in the morning. But then in the summertime, its the complete opposite. The sun barely sets; its almost like a twilight.
IA: So could you tell us the story of how your parents met? We would like to know.
MB: Oh, I dont really know. They never discussed that.
IA: Oh, okay. Thats fine. Thats fine.
Mary Anne Breen (MAB): You should tell Maggies story about how when he was supporting her
MB: Oh, yeah. (laughs)
MAB: Aunt Maggie.
MB: They got into a little tiff, I suppose. My dad said, Goodnight, and hardly that. (laughter) But no, they didnt discuss stuff like that.
IA: Okay. How would you say that your family influenced your Celtic pride, both in Ireland and in America?
MB: Oh, with their music. We were always singing, you know. We were a musical family. Nearly every one of us played some instrument or another. I play the bagpipes, by the way.
IA: All right. And did you play those in Ireland too?
MB: No. I played them when I came here. I was starting to learn them in Ireland, and then I came here. Originally, I was going to Australia with a group of us; about six of us guys were going to Australia because it was easy there. It was something like ten shillings for the paperwork, and you just had to sign up for a two-year stitch in their army, so we figured it was worth it.
But at the last moment, they all backed out. When Dave and I came home, there was a letter from my older sister who was living here, she had come out a couple of years before that, saying that she would sponsor me. So I took that. This was 1957. It took me two years to get everything ready, and I came here on April 24th, 1959, at 10:30 in the morning.
Interviewer B (IB): Could you tell us a little bit about what that was like, first arriving here?
MB: Oh, on an airplane? It was a four-propeller, you know. And it was about 10 feet above the clouds. It went over the Atlantic, and youd hit the air pockets. And so, for about a week later, when I was walking around, Id feel thiswhat do you call that again? When you have that weightlessness or whatever it is.
IB: What city did you arrive in?
MB: It was called Idlewild Airport, now JFK Airport in New York, New York City. And I remember it had automatic doorsyoud walk over and it would open automaticallyand staircases that moved, which to me was like I was on a different planet, really. But the thing that got me was the jet fuel smell in those days.
IA: How long did you stay in New York after you arrived?
MB: Forty years.
IA: Oh, really? In the city?
MB: I worked in New York City for 40 years.
IA: Wow. What did you do?
MB: I started off on building maintenance on one of the big skyscrapers. I was a porter, washing. In those days, they had no carpet in those buildings, so you had to scrub the floors and wax. And so, that was my first job. No it wasnt, sorry.
MAB: That was later.
MB: All right, right, right. (laughter) Sorry.
MAB: You guys dont remember elevators being operated by a man standing in there and closing the doors with that accordion-type thing?
MB: Well, in 1959, they changed them all over, but some people would not ride the elevator unless there was an operator in it, right? And I got a job as vacation replacement. You know, the operator would get off two weeks, so Id do that job. That kept me busy for it.
But I thought it funny, like, when the elevator was automatic, and all you had to do was, like now, push the button and push door close, and it took you up to it. And I thought it strange. These people wouldnt ride without an operator; two weeks prior, I was driving a tractor. I had never seen an elevator. You know what I mean? Yeah.
IA: What made you want to move away from New York? Did you move here right after?
MB: When I retired.
IA: Oh, okay.
MB: To sunny Florida.
IA: Oh, okay.
IB: Right place, right time.
MB: Yes, yes.
IB: What other jobs did you have while you were in New York?
MB: Oh, after that, I got a job scrubbing the floors, right. I talked to one of the maintenance guys that run the air conditioning and heating, and he saidI realized I had to get more education, and he pointed out the schools to go to. So I went to HVAC, High Velocity Air Conditioning. And the funny part of all the teaching, the teacher started off talking about heat and boiling stuff and this whole thing.
So I thought this was good, but I was interested in the cooling bit. So I reluctantly put my hand up and said, Excuse me, when do we start talking about the cooling? He said, Breen, I have bad news for you. Theres no such thing as cold. Theres no unit of cold. Theres no means of measuring cold. Theres only heat, more heat or less heat. Whether thats true or notit is, because you couldnt measure cold.
And that was my introduction to that. So I got a refrigeration license because, in New York City, the building I was working in or eventually worked in, we had two 1900-ton air conditioners driven by steam turbines. The city required you to be a licensedthey called us engineers, you know, because we belonged to Local 94 International Operating Engineers. And that was about it for the maintenance part.
IB: Was there a union?
MB: Yeah, Local 94. Thats why I was fit to retire.
IB: Its one of the things weve just been talking about in the classes, labor, discrimination, also unionization. Did you find either discrimination coming into the workforce, or were you aided by other Irish in the workforce?
MB: Oh, yes. Relatives. Because when I started off with the bagpipes thingwhen you go to a different countryI mean, if you went to Russia, you wouldnt look to move in with Russians; youd look to move in with some of your own people, right? So I was no different. We got together, and you share information, and you find out that virtually the education is free. I just had to pay a permit.
What do you call it? Whats the word again? Tuition fee? It was ten dollars or something like that. So, I learned all of that, and then I went back to school for repair of air conditioners. I took a plumbing course, electrical, and air conditioning, of course. And that served me for 40 years. I became an engineer, then chief engineer. And then the next stop was building manager, and I retired a building manager.
MAB: And chief engineer. He stayed chief engineer.
MB: Oh, I stayed both, yes.
MAB: You stayed in the union, which was a big, big
MB: They called us super chiefs. (laughter) Two hats, you know.
MAB: big plus because he did not lose his union pension, and we are living in a nice retirement thanks to his union pension.
MB: Paid five and ten cents an hour into it, and we reinvested it.
MAB: Without that pension we would not be two happy campers.
MB: I think that was nearly all of my employment bit, right.
IA: So would you say that your religion aided your immigration to America?
MB: Yes. Because in the north of Ireland, you would often hear them talking, Protestants and Catholics fighting each other. And youre totally discriminated against because I was Roman Catholic, and all you could get is a job on a farm. You had no hope of ever getting anything other than that.
IA: When you got to America, then, were there priests and stuff to help you like?
MB: No, I didnt search them out.
IA: No? I dont know, Ive seen the movies, so I didnt know if it was, like, the same.
MB: No, no priests or anything like that. I wasnt interested at the time.
IA: Oh, okay. So you said you had an older sister here when you first got here?
MB: Yes. She worked for New York Telephone. Thats as big a thing that Irish women did when theyd come over. They were either maids or whatever. She worked for New York Telephone.
IA: Okay. Did you have any other relatives here when you got here?
MB: I had an aunt who lived near Yankee Stadium, an older aunt.
MAB: (whispers) Cousin Mary.
MB: Oh, my cousin Mary, yeah. I stayed with my sister until I got the job, and then I got my own apartment.
IB: Did any of your younger siblings follow you out after that?
MB: No, no. The rest of them, things started improving. I dont know if it was me holding them back, but they improved after I left.
MAB: One of the biggest things was the accord between Sinn Fin and the British government because they took away the guards at the border. And that was very spooky because the first time we went over to Ireland, we came to a checkpoint. It was actually a checkpoint with armed guards with blackface and holding big rifles pointed at you, sitting in the car.
Its very intimidating to have a rifle pointednot a rifle, an assault weapon staring at you in the eye. And they were all in khaki uniform and their sewed Xs with the barbed wire all around it. And you have to show your ID to go through. Its very intimidating
MB: This was afterwards. This was after I had gone back.
MAB: That was afterwards, after you left. But I think it improved after that accord.
MB: Before I left, wed go to the movies, or the pictures as wed call them, on bicycles of course. And they had, like, a local militia, and they would stop you on the road, and they could hold you there for hours, make you sit on the road. You know, that kind of stuff, intimidation.
IB: Did that happen frequently?
MB: It did, yeah, way back in 1959 because there was a lot of fighting going on.
IB: I imagine thats something you could just never get used to happening.
MB: No, because there I was, on the peaceful countryside one night, going out to the movies. And I loved to play the harmonica when I was a kid, when I was 16 or 17, something like that. And a beautiful moonlit night, and I dont put my hands on the handlebars. Im playing away.
And the next thing I see, a car coming around the turn and pop-pop-pop-pop, with the guns. And you could hear one whizz right past my head like that, you know. That was a big incentive to move.
IB: But that had declined a bit for your younger siblings?
MB: Oh, yes. It died down, and then it flared up again in 70s. You could see it on TV all the time. That was very, very hard.
IB: What did that feel like to you, knowing your family was back there?
MB: Well, you are apprehensive because they did the same thing to my brother, and they beat him, my oldest brother. And they knew him. Theyd ask you, Whats your name? You could be working with the guy the next day, and once they put the uniform on, you know, then came the silliness.
They asked him whats his name, so my brother was, You know what my name is! You know, dying with the rifle and that kind of stuff. So it was very rough, very, very rough. So I came to the land of the free.
IB: Did you feel that way about America as you prepared to?
MB: Yes. Yes. I knew Id succeed, too. Failure was never an option, never an option. What fascinated me my first day at work, or my first day coming or going from work, these fruit stands. Apples, you name it. I had never seen that in my life because wed get an orange maybe once a year.
Apples we would pick from orchards and stuff from around, but to see them all there and people walking by not even noticing. All the abundance of food and everything was phenomenal, totally phenomenal.
IA: How would you say that your heritage has affected and shaped your life in America?
MB: It was good. It helped me a lot. I think being Irish helped a lot, especially in New York City.
IB: In New York, were you part of any fraternal organizations like the AOH?
MB: No. In my county they had their own pipe band. Thats how I got started on it. I wasnt really that interested in the bagpipes, but it was nice. Youd meet together, and we used to play at parades and whatnot.
And Im still doing that. Now I play with Tampa Bay here. The bagpipes was a big, big thing. My older brother plays the button accordion. My sister Eileen is in Wales; she plays the accordion and the guitar, very talented. But none of us ever went professional.
IB: I was going to say, family band it sounds like!
MB: You found we couldve been a family band, thats right. But we didnt.
IB: So you said you started with the bagpipes pretty soon after moving here?
MB: Right. Yeah, within a couple of weeks after because I met a lot of people that were from a couple of villages away from where I was born. I never knew them, but, you know.
IA: Can you tell us a little bit about your involvement in the Celtic community in Tampa area and your bagpipe bands?
MB: Yeah. Its a Scottish band Im with. Thats why its called Saint Andrews Pipe Band, patron saint of Scotland. But yeah, were all Celtic, so we have some people from Cornwall, which is Celtic also. We have a great time, a lot of fun, a lot of fun. I met a lot of famous people when I was playing bagpipes. I dont know if you want to hear that.
IA: Yes, yes.
MB: I played for Fred Astaire and a guy called Tommy Steve. You probably wouldnt know of him. On Broadway, it was called called Finney and Drimble [sic] way back in the 60s somewhere. Roy Rogers, Dale Evans out in Penn Station, New York, I think it was. Mclean Stevenson, Tanis Day, I dont know if you even know any of these people. Malcom Forbes, I played for his birthday. Stuff like that.
IB: Didnt you play with Rod Stewarts concert recently?
MB: Oh, I wasnt in on that. I was up north, thats right. Yeah, yeah. Right. We were up in New York. I couldnt make that, so it was the rest of the band that did that.
IB: And do you generally find in this area that the entire Celtic community kind of participates in the same activities together? I tend to see that its less Irish, Welsh, Scottish, and all of these people now do the same activities together.
MB: Yes. The same activities, thats it. Back when I came, it was more we had just Irish pipe bands, Scottish pipe bands and whatever else. But then we just all mingled together. Whoevers good playing and enjoying together, and away we go.
IA: We were just curious how you met your wife, the story behind that.
MB: Well, theres two of them. My late wife died. I dont know if you want to hear about her first.
MAB: Of course, of course.
MB: I was 19. I was playing my pipes for some nuns or something. It was down Forest Avenue. I forget what their names were. And this nice, blonde, young girl, also 18 going on 19 was helping them because they were going to give us beer and hot dogs, right? So we hit it off.
She was born in Michigan, and she was a foreign girl, so I had a lot of interest. And we got married after two years, I suppose, in 1961, I think it was, and had four kids, two boys and two girls. And then she developed lung cancer in 81 and died in 1986, twenty-five years after. So that was wife number one.
IB: Was she Irish American as well?
MB: No, no. She was Croatian and Polish and German.
MAB: And she was a Trekkie.
MB: Oh, Star Trek, yes. She loved Start Trek.
MAB: And she got the whole family into reenactments.
MB: Yeah, we did that reenactment thing.
MAB: And she got the whole family into camping.
MB: So about three years after she died, my kids say, Dad, youve got to get out! Oh, God. I hated that, the dating scene. So I joined an outfit called Together. Not computer dating. Youd go down there, and youd fill out the type of person youd like to meet, and then they dont send you that person.
So I had went through aboutwhat did they give you, about three names per week or something like that? Two or three names per week. And I had had it, you know.
MAB: By this time, he had been doing this for a year. And he met some really lucky, interesting people.
MB: Oh, that could be a book in itself.
MAB: Then he met me, and he was going to stand me up.
MB: Now, I got her
MAB: He got my name, and he was going to stand me up.
MB: What they do is, in those days, they sent you a little postcard type thing with all of her information on it, you know, phone number, address, which is kind of silly, I thought. So I called her up, and what you did was you met in a public place and had a cup of coffee. Youd discuss your lives or whatever it was. So I said, Okay, Ill be there at noon at the Astoria Diner, was it? What was the name of it again?
MAB: Yeah, Astoria Diner.
MB: So that night was on Saturday, August 26th, 1989. And that morning, Im out mowing the lawn, and my daughter comes out, and she says, Dad, what are you doing? I lived on Long Island. I dont know if you know where that is. What are you doing? Youre supposed to be meeting that person. And I said, Im not going again. Im fed up. And she gave me a big lecture. So then I met her, and we hit it off. And now were coming into our, what, 26th year?
MAB: I had the audacity to go to this Together thing and joined up. I had only just joined up. And I had said, No Irish, please.
IB: No Irish Need Apply, huh? I was just telling my students about that today.
MAB: No Irish please!
MB: And she had the nerve to tell me that, too! (laughter)
MAB: The first thing I said to him on the phone, Im listening to this voice, I said, Are you Irish? I couldnt believe they sent me an Irish person. That was the only thing Id said, no Irish, please!
MB: Does it matter, I said, Is it a problem?
MAB: And I said, Oh, no. I figured Id meet him at least. The first two dates were so terrifying, I figured a third one couldnt be worse than that. Â And thats what happened. We met and hit it off right away.
MB: So that was our courtship.
IB: So why did you say, No Irish Need Apply to your dating?
MAB: Well, I had only met two Irish people in my life. And the first one, really, she broke my heart because she was a little girl that lived in my neighborhood, and she came from just the saddest family situation you ever heard of.
Her mother had been put away in an insane asylum, and she graduated high school, and she was taking care of her younger siblings. She couldnt work. A few years later, she got pregnant out of wedlock, and she gave it up for adoption, and that really did her in. She ended up dead by 24.
MB: Of alcoholism.
MAB: Alcohol and drugs.
MB: That was one. Who was the other one?
MAB: So the other person I had met, it was just a friend of a friend, but I had heard him talking, and he hated his parents so much. I found out why he hated them: because they were so much in love that they ignored all of their children; they only had eyes for each other.
And I thought, Okay, the Irish are wacky. I dont want to meet any Irish. And then I met him, my angel. So that was a strange thing. Irish. Blue eyes, too! I had never dated anyone with blue eyes. I just didnt have an affinity for blue eyes.
IB: You know, I was a little curious about when you went back to your hometown in Ireland and how it had changed over time. Is it a tourist attraction at all at this time? What did you feel like when you went back there?
MAB: Mike, describe what it looks like now, where you were born and raised.
MB: Oh, yeah, thats all gone. The house, everything is gone. They planted pine trees on it, so theres no beauty anymore. I left a beautiful, beautiful area.
MAB: When we went there, there was just like the shell of the old thatched cottage and just a little shell left of where the cows barn was, and really it was all just overgrowth and nothing left.
MB: The woman that bought that little 40-acre farm with a lot of, I imagine, bog land here, but its not a bog that youd sink into. You know, Irish peopleif you ever need to know more on this Irish bog or something like, type in turf cutting in Ireland in YouTube, and youll see what Im talking about.
Look for the one that has the three men; one guy cutting it, the other guy filling itthat was my job, filling, when I was a kidand the other guy wheeling the stuff away with a wheelbarrow. You might find it very, very interesting. But anyway, all of those farms where we lived and all the roads are just all a big forest now, of all pine trees.
MAB: Do they know what you did with the bog, with the turf that you cut?
MB: Yeah, it was used as fuel, you know. It dries real hard, and youll see it, if you do that on YouTube, it explains the whole thing for you.
IB: Lovely smelling, too, I imagine.
MB: Oh, it is nice, yes. It is nice. But I lived in a place near Loughrea, and when you come up on the top of the hill of our place, the panoramic view, you see all the lakes because we lived on a higher area. It was very, very beautiful. I Google Earth it all the time just to see it. Very wonderful, too, its a great place to visit. Mary liked it. I took her there.
Northern Ireland, I had never visited. I never went more than 20 miles away from where I was born, and then I went to the United States here. And Ive seen Ireland when I went back again. But all my brothers are doing good, doing very, very well. Of course, were all up in age, in our 70s, 80s.
IB: And they stayed there throughout your whole time. How did they feel as the town changed and the farm was?
MB: Well, theyve moved into their own places and built their own houses because they work for Clark. Its a stone quarry. Its a little fit to get building blocks and materials, and it didnt cost them a whole lot of money. My brother Will has a beautiful house, which he built.
My younger brother, Eugenetheres nine of us, by the way; I have four brothers, four sistershes doing very, very good. Hes putting in water works and all that, has his own helicopter. Yeah. But no, I still do like the (inaudible) when I come back here, I kiss the ground. Oh, God, I love this country.
IA: Now, have they ever visited?
MB: Oh, yes, yes. My brother Willy, or Liam as he prefers, the Gaelic version, him and his wife visited us last year for a week, was it not? About a week. My brother John has been out, my sister Rose, my sister Eileen and her husband are coming out in thanksgiving. They are very nice. She married an Englishman, a physicist, wonderful, wonderful man.
MAB: And they live in Wales.
MB: Wales, yes. Gorgeous place, Wales. I dont know if you knew that Johnny Cash sung a song about Ireland, Forty Shades of Green. Have you ever heard of it? Well, I was in Wales, and I was saying to him, Wow, this is almost like Ireland, which it was, with the green field. But he says, Yes, but we have only 39 shades. (laughter) Anything else I could tell you? Maybe I didnt even tell you anything you even wanted to know.
IB: No, this has actually been wonderful.
MB: Was it?
IB: Yes, yes. I have one more question, just, about your siblings that remained in Northern Ireland. Were any of them involved in politics through that period or they tried to stay out of it?
MB: No, we all stayed out of it. It was useless to try and fight back anything, you know. But luckily, theyve reached an agreement, and everythings been going along very, very nicely. Thats why it started to work because everybodys working together, now, you know.
IB: Do you follow the politics there now?
MB: No, no, I dont.
MAB: Not anymore, but he was following it quite closely when all that was going on with Sinn Fin and whats his name that finally brokered the deal between England and them?
MB: Bill Clinton.
MAB: No, the Irish guy.
MB: Oh, Gerry Adams.
MAB: Yes, Gerry Adams. And it made quite a difference, what a difference it is.
MB: Well, I was telling her, like, growing up as a kid in Ireland, that was fantastic. We had no electric, no radio, didnt have radio until 1956; I think thats when we got a radio. Didnt have television until I came to this country, and we would
MAB: Oh, and tell them about your
IB: Yeah, would you mind telling us a little bit about your childhood, what that was like? Because this is something that we dont hear very often, and its a unique experience, really. If you could tell us a little about what it was like.
MB: Well, I guess youd have a hard time understanding how a house full of kids like that with no television, no phones, right? But we did. We would recite poetry, sing songs, what were some of the other things I was telling you I had?
MAB: You churned butter a lot.
MB: Oh, yes, yes. We made our own butter, our own eggs, our own rabbits; we lived a lot on rabbits and chickens and whatnot.
MAB: Tell them a typical day. You getting up in the morning, on your way to school, what would happen and et cetera, et cetera.
MB: Oh, in the summertime. Well, bringing in the cows, you had to milk them by hand in those days. They didnt have the milking machines. But churning the butter, my brother Willy and I, we were probably 6 and 8 years of age, something like that. We churned, I dont know, I thought it was this high, but it was probably this high.
I remember I had to stand on a little milk box type thing, and the churn wasI dont know if you know what a churn looks like. Its like a womans form dress type thing, the way its designed. And it had a lid on it with a hole in it and a pole down with an X on the bottom of it. And you churned it up and down, and up and down like this. It was tedious, right?
And my mother would touch it and take a look at it, Okay, its ready, shed say. How she knew it was ready, I dont know. And shed have a pot of boiling water, and she called it scalding the churn, and she would run it around the neck of the churn, and all the butter would come to a big clump in the center of the churn.
When she took that all out, shed part it and she had little paddles with designs in them. And shed made little bricklets out of it, and then shed give us a big mold, the butter mold. It was delicious. Out of this world. Never had anything like it ever again. It was delicious. And she baked her own bread. We had free-range chickens.
MAB: All of her cooking was in the hearth.
MB: Yeah, a hearth fire. She would cook chickens in that. She would put the lid on itI dont know what youd call it; she called it an oven. But it was about that depth, cast iron, round like this here and it had a lid on it. And she put the chicken, or bread or whatever it was, in it, hang it over the coals and take some live coals and put them on top of the lid. And she didnt have a timer or a watch or anything.
There was never a watch in our place, or a mirror or anything like that. And she would, Oh, its done. It would be delicious. That was some of the things. Going to school. In the beginning, we walked to school. And youve heard our parents say, It was uphill both ways. But it was about five miles to school, but we would go through farms and stuff like that and over the bogs a little bit.
Wed take our shoes off and put our socks over our shoulder and go in our bare feet, sometimes even with the ice, until you get out onto the country road. Then youd put the shoes and socks on and walk the rest of the way to school; do the same thing coming home. Then later on, we got a school bus. We only had to walk a mile to get the school bus, and that was a big, big help.
MAB: Can you see the kids around here walking a mile?
MB: Oh, walking was nothing to us. We would walk 10 miles, bicycle riding 20 miles no problem, everywhere we went, because there were no cars. It got at a point that we could, especially in the summertime when it was daylight until 11:00 oclock, and youd hear a car because the sound would travel. And youd say, Oh, thats so-and-sos car, by the noise of it.
IB: Was there a strong community attachment there?
MB: Yes, yes. All of them, they would get together. My mother would have whats called a Ceili, spelled Gaelic, C-e-i-l-i but pronounced Kay-lee, which means a visit or a get-together. and she would make her own nonalcoholic wine. I helped her make it, but I have no idea how to do it anymore. My sister does, so Im going to get her recipe. It took browning sugar and stuff like that.
She would bake her own fancy bread with raisins and eggs and stuff like that, which was very, very nice. Her sisters and her husbands would all come over. Somebody would break out a violin or a harmonica or a trumpeh, t-r-u-m-p-e-h, not the guy whos running for office. Some would call it a harp, a mouth harp or something like that. You had to click on it like this, breathe through it.
But most of the time, somebody would show up with an accordion. Then my aunt that lived in New York sent us over a gramophone. You take it, you wind it up, right? And a whole bunch of Irish records, and that got us into the Celtic bit because that had all died away in Ireland up until now. Its unbelievable.
Little kids are playing a concertina. But we made our own music and artworks. It was great. And the birds I loved. At night we had grouse, beautiful bird, the grouse. We have grouse here in upstate New York called ruffed grouse, beautiful little bird too. We had grouse, we had curlew, snipe, and all the little birds. I knew every bird. I was a great naturalist.
Us boys, all the same age, around 10 or something like that, wed go around looking for birds nests. This was to entertain ourselves. Wed never damage any of them, you know. Wed go, and wed look, and we knew they amount of eggs they laid. The cuckoo was the bigger surprise. A cuckoo comes from Africa to all over northern Europe. It comes from Africa and itd land on the bog, the heather and all of that.
So the lark builds its little nest right on the ground, and it has two or three little blue eggs. Two blue eggs I think it is, if I remember correctly. And the cuckoo will watch and wait until the lark leaves to get food or something, and she will come and lay her egg in it, which as big as a pigeons egg, much bigger than her eggs.
And that little egg will hatch before the larks will hatch, and the firstI have watched this personallythe little guy, hell take, and hell roll around in the nest until that little egg is on his shoulders. And hed pop his shoulders up like this, and theyd rip and throw it out of the nest.
I went, and I picked it up and put it back in on the other side. And hed go around, and hed do that and pop it out again. And those two little larks, because theyre like little sparrows, they will work night and day feeding that bird until it grows up to be like a big pigeon. And then that cuckoo, in August, theres a caterpillar that comes out that none of the other birds eat, but the cuckoo feeds on it.
It gets nice and fat, and he flies back to Africa. Its true. Little things like that I loved. The lark, by the way, would rise up from its next, straight up, singing until it disappears out of sight in the sky. Why it does that, I have no idea. And then it would come back down and land on the nest. I had a very wonderful childhood is what Im trying to say.
IB: Yes, thats what it sounds like. In many ways, that world is becoming eclipsed. Everything is becoming so developed.
MAB: But when he was born in 40, the war was going on over there, and the warplanes would be going right overhead, and they would bomb.
MB: This must have beenI was born at the end of the year, as I was told, in December. So this must have been just before the war ended in 45, right?
MAB: Yes, around August.
MB: So this must be just before it. I remember this one, I had to have been four years of age, but I remember it. I had seen an umbrella. Im out with my mother. I dont know where the rest of the family was, but I was out with my mother, probably helping with the hay or whatever it was.
And I hear this roaring noise in the sky, airplanes. I hear the machine guns, you know, pop, pop, pop, pop! like that. I see it coming and its the Luftwaffe, right. And it was a big bomber, and there was smoke belching out of it. And the next thing you see, five or six or four parachutesor umbrellas, as I thought they were.
They land a couple of feet from where we were standing. My mother invited them in for tea. (laughter) But at the foot of our farm, the United States army had come over, and they were doing their basic training in that area. They were watching it too by the end of this tea and biscuits.
But thats the only thing I know about the war. Although my mother told me another time, like I told you, they were training and their supplies would be dropped by parachute. I dont remember any of this. But she had, usually, a gross of eggs every week, I suppose.
But a guy would come and pick up, you know, thats what she made her money on. But the nice American soldiers, they had these powdered eggs, which they were more than glad to swap with her. So I remember her telling me about that. Apparently, all you had to do was just add water to them or something like that.
MB: Yeah, delicious! But I thought that was cute. That was it. As a matter of fact, Ive pretty much covered everything.
IB: Did you have any more questions that you wanted to ask before we go?
MB: If you think of other stuff just give me a call, you know.
MAB: Well, a typical morning. Tell them about a typical morning when your mom would wake you up, and then what would precede going to school.
MB: Oh, right, right, right. She found this interesting. (laughter) We all lived basically in the one room. It wouldnt have even been as big as this, I suppose. But it also was like, you know, when youre little everything looks real big. I was small at the time. I was eight, I suppose, at this time.
She would reach out of her bed and tap me on the head, and Id get up and get dressed, put the kettle on; we had a big black kettle to put on full of water. Id go out and get the cows, and the cows see me come and theyd come and meet me, and wed go all into the cow barn. You just tied them up by the neck or the chin, get some little bit of hay, and then Id come out.
The kettle would be boiling, Id get the tea going, wake my mom up, and her and I would have tea and then go out and milk the cows because my father did everything manually. Cut the hay with the scythe. God, nobody could do that. So he would be tired from working like that, and then the turf cutting, that was back breaking work. But that was the little bit she wanted me to tell you.
IB: Thank you for that. That sounds lovely.
MAB: And then right off, and on the way to school, hed be setting snacks.
MB: Oh, for the rabbits, yeah. We had tons and tons of rabbits, and England was in dire need of meats and stuff like food.
MAB: They had very little food over there.
MB: So my older brother rigged up a car lamp and a battery, put it on his back, and we had a little terrier. Wed brighten the evening when it got dark, and wed shine the light around the field until youd see the rabbits two little eyes shining, and the little terrier went there.
Wed get maybe a 100 rabbits a night. Wed prepare them, and the guy would come along on Wednesday or maybe twice a week, and give us a shilling per rabbit, which was phenomenal money. And we did very, very good that way. We didnt have to havewe had ration books.
Everybody had ration books way back in those days, but we didnt need them because we could give them food. My mother would give their butter, trade the butter for tea, dry tea. Wed get a big box of it, and it would give us nearly a whole year. That was the other thing, yeah.
MAB: And Sammy the horse.
MB: Oh, my poor horse. In Ireland, you had two doors on your house. You had the big front door, and then when you opened that, there was a half door; that was to keep the animals out. He would come up to my mother. My mother would always buy him, in the shop when shed go shopping, little sugar cubes.
We never used them. We used the regular, raw sugar. That was for the horse, Sammy. Hed come up, and hed give a little thing that youd come over and give him a piece of sugar, and away hed go.
IB: And you say your whole, so, eleven-person family lived in a single room cottage?
MB: Yes, but not all at the same time because my older brother John and Rose and Maureen, like I said, they had moved on, so it was never that crowded really.
MAB: It was probably only five kids, at the most, at a time.
IB: Thats very interesting. Thank you for sharing that with us.
MAB: And they had no running water at the house. He would get up in the morning and go and get pails of water.
MB: Well, not every morning.
MAB: How far did you walk to get that water?
MB: Dont you remember I walked it with you?
MAB: Yeah, and I felt like it was forever.
MB: About a mile, I suppose. Yeah.
MAB: A mile, then youd carry the pails back full of water. She had nine children without having running water in the house.
MB: Also, she was telling me about, this was after Pearl Harbor, the United States went over to Northern Ireland, especially to our place. And she was coming down what we called the lane to tie hedgerows on both sides. And she met the United States Army going out and full of breath, Where are you going maam?
She was in some old, Wellingtons rubber boots. She said she was going to the well, told the whole guys all around, brought them back down; they filled their canteens and everything. They were trying to find a well. We relied on rainwater for washing clothes and stuff like that.
We only used the well water for drinking basically. But it was fun trying to make up, in the wintertime, trying to make up a story, any kind of a story. You got good at it after a while. Oh, by the way, person thats a good storyteller is called a shanicky.
IA: Do you speak the language?
MB: No. Little pieces of it here and there. Â I was looking at your little drawing, where was that? Did I bring it with me? Of the guys by the fireplace, and you was telling them to come over. Theres only one word in it I know: a-g-u-s, agus. That means and. So lets get away from the TV and come over here, right?
I took my kids, and we started to learn Gaelic. Unless you speak it all the time, its of no use. But its making a major comeback in Scotland. And Wales, they speak all Gaelic. Television, everything is Gaelic. Kind of like French Canada, they know both languages. So I think that was about it.
Oh, the big oranges. I was an orange freak. When I first came here, God I loved them, I lived on oranges. Until, one time, I saw these big oranges. They were way, way cheaper, and I got a big bag of them. I went to bite into it; its a grapefruit. (laughter)
IB: Oh, thats disappointing. Were you surprised, when you came to Florida, to find the Celtic community here that we get?
MB: Not really, no. I knew there were bands and that stuff. I wasnt reallylook, after my first wife died, I had given up altogether. Your whole life changes, type of thing. Until
MAB: Me, I opened my big mouth.
MB: We went to the highland games in Dunedin, and one of the pipers was there. And she had to go and say, Oh, he used to play the bagpipes! So then they invited me into the band, and I got back into it again. That must have been about ten years or more ago?
MAB: More than that.
IB: Oh, actually thats very interesting that you just happened at the Dunedin highland
MB: Yeah, right?
IB: And thats what sparked it for you again.
MB: That sparked it for me again, yeah.
MAB: In fact, you were watching the Irish dancers, the little girls, and he recognized the teacher from back in the Bronx.
MB: Oh, yeah. When I first came here and I joined the pipeband and they give you what you call a practice chanter. Its like a little flute. That was in a little purple container, a little varnished leather case. I was on the subway, and I see another young girl, and she had one of them. And so I said, Are you in the band? Yeah! And we got together, and we were practicing. Something happened and she left. But that wasGod I forgot.
MAB: Sheila or something?
MB: Sheila Butler. That was 1959. A couple of years ago, Im at the Dunedin games, again, and they said, The Shiela Butler School of Irish Dancing. And I said, No, it wouldnt be her. Right? because this was three or four years ago, I think. And it was her.
MB: But she didnt recognize me.
MAB: Hes very modest. He doesnt tell you that he was also teaching bagpipes, and he taught a lot of young kids and everything, and one of them was
MB: Oh, yeah. Tommy Broncella.
MAB: Tommy Broncella. He rose to detective in the New York City Police Department. He was in their band.
MB: He was a pipe sergeant.
MAB: He was in their band. He was a very, very good player.
MB: He died two months after retirement from cancer.
MAB: As a matter of fact, everywhere he goes, if theres other bands around, somebody comes over and knows him from way back when. Mike Breen, Ill never forget you! Thank you for teaching me
MB: And, Who are you, again? But its a lot of fun, a lot, a lot of fun.
IB: Yeah. Thats amazing. That also really speaks to the connectivity of the Celtic community through time and space. People keep, you know, it is a kind of really unique community.
MAB: But he was in the band up in New York also. In the union band. Its the National Union of Operating Engineers. UOE Local 94. They had a bagpiper that was African American, and he used to pass out his cards to everyone, calling himself The Chocolate Piper.
MB: I still have it in my wallet!
MAB: And we all went to Ireland together. Nobody blinked to look at this dark man, like the color of the table. And he just loved playing the bagpipes. He was so proud.
MB: And good at it, yeah.
MAB: It was really amazing. What is the song? (singing) Sylvest, Sylvest.
MB: His name was Sylvester.
MAB: His name was Sylvester.
MB: Sylvester Harris.
MAB: And theres a song, My brother, Sylvester.
MB: Weve had a few drinks(laughter)
IA: Do any of your kids play bagpipes?
MB: Yes, my oldest son does, pretty good at it too. Hes living up on Long Island.
MAB: His name is Michael Breen.
MB: Michael Breen, yes. And I have a grandson Michael Breen.
MAB: And a nephew Michael Breen.
MAB: And an uncle Michael Breen.
MB: Yes. Ah. But luckily they didnt call any ofwell, my son Steven, he lives in North Carolina. He didnt call anybody Michael. But he did call his son Steven.
MAB: You should tell them something about how, back in Ireland, how funny that is. All the nicknames they give each other because everybodys named after their grandfather and great
MB: But you have that in the south of this country. You know, Billy, Bob, John
MAB: Everybodys got the same name! So they start making up nicknames for them, to differentiate who youre talking about.
MB: Yes, because you have Johnnys John. We had, Michael, you know, Mick.
MAB: Go ahead with all those nicknames for Mick.
MB: We had Wee Mick, Big Mick, and Mick the Stick. (laughter) Unbelievable.
IB: I read that was very common on heavily Irish workforces, too, because they all have the same names, so they have to have the extensive nicknames.
MAB: Everybodys Michael or Joseph or Patrick.
MB: Well, because my name is Michael Joseph, they called me Joe. I didnt like the name Joe. Neither did my late wife, so we changed it to Mike. Actually, it was my first paycheck; they paid you the little package of cash way back then. And he was handing them all out, and I said, Where is mine? He says, Whats your name?
He knew my name. I said, Joe Breen. He gasped, We dont have anything for Joe Breen. But Im Michael Breen, yeah. From now on, he says, your name is Mike. Mixed up. I like it.
IB: Well, Michael Breen, I cant thank you enough.
MB: Oh, I hope I helped a little bit.
IA: Oh, you helped a lot. We got a lot of information.
MB: Did I? Oh, thanks, thanks.
IB: It was just a pleasure to sit and speak with both of you. We really cant thank you enough.
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