Paddy O’Regan has lived in London for almost 77 years, arriving at the age of 25, just before the outbreak of the Second World War.
The Cork man has seen many changes over both his native and adopted homes over his 101 years, and has lived through all of the most iconic events in history over that time.
Paddy has remained in West London throughout the entirety of his life in the capital ‘I’ve never lived outside of W2, W11 or W1’ and remains moderately active, still faithfully attending his ’25 drive’ card nights with friends at the British Legion Club every Friday.
His memory of his time in both this country and Ireland is almost flawless, and his quick wit, his friends assure me, is as evident as ever, not least when he tries to get the upper hand during his card nights.
When he first moved to the city with his wife Catherine and went on the inevitable hunt for work he was met by ‘No Irish’ signs in almost every window he visited and ended up working in a pub.
When the war began Paddy secured a job in the Fire Brigade, an occupation which was reserved from conscription.
It was a job that he held for ten years, where his first position meant getting to the scene promptly to put out fires and address bomb sites during the blitz.
“I didn’t really know the city back then, but it was a good way of learning. We just got taken where we needed to,” he says.
“It was a really bad time. You couldn’t even show a light in the window at night time.”
During this time, Paddy still remained working in a pub, finishing his shifts once his day with the Fire Brigade was over.
The pub, then called the Masons Arms, was just off of the Edgware Road on Titchbourne Street.
“The couple that ran it were both Cockneys; Ernest and Betty Johnson. He got called up for war and joined the RAF. He made me and my wife promise that we would live with Betty until he returned.
“Unfortunately, he never came back from his first mission and we ended up staying there for 17 years, until she died in 1956.
“It is remarkable that the pub completely escaped the Blitz. We used to run downstairs and sleep in the cellar sometimes, but it didn’t so much as get a broken window or anything.
“It’s called The Heron now, and a while back my nephew brought me in there. There was a Limerick girl behind the counter and when she found out I used to work there she said that she had heard of me and gave us two pints of Guinness on the house!
“It was strange to see the place so quiet. There’s not as many Irish about now, but in our day it would be packed.”
How did he find working long hours in two jobs?
“My wife got work in hotels, and she was nearly better paid than me! She would get half a crown an hour whereas I would get 30 shillings for a week in the Fire Brigade.
“We were always working though. I enjoyed meeting people and listening to their stories and complaints!
“There was no music in that bar, which suited me well. I was never much of a dancer, but my wife used to like it.”
Paddy then went on from the fire brigade to a job for the Ministry of Defence where he would deal with incoming missiles and tanks that were seized.
The site was in Greenford, and he used to cycle there and back for his 12 hour shifts. He then went on to work for Royal Mail, but he retired from the in 1975 after 25 years service, hoping to care for his ill wife.
The couple couldn’t sustain him staying out of work though and he eventually got a job in Selfridge’s mail room.
“It meant that I could come home for lunch time as it was so near and look after Kathleen.”
She passed away in 1980 at the age of 75.
“It was a hard time, but what can you do? You just have to get on with it. We had a good life. We never had a lot but we enjoyed life. We always had a bed and never spent a night in the street.
“We had one holiday a year, back home or the Isle of Wight or somewhere. She was slightly older than me and I remember thinking if I lived to see 75 I would be happy.
“But now I’m 101. I’ve always been lucky with my health, and have never spent much time in hospital, apart from a hernia which put me in for ten days.”
Paddy lived through different monarchs over here too, what does he think of the royal family?
“I never had much of an opinion really, I didn’t know too much about them as was always working. I’ve always had respect for them though. I met Princess Margaret once, she shook my hand. I haven’t washed it since!” he jokes.
It’s a sentiment that his mother didn’t share, when Paddy signed up to join the British Army from home.
“My family had land and we worked off of that, but I was the second youngest and that wouldn’t have kept me going later on in life so I had to move away.
“The Irish daily newspapers would have adverts to join the Irish Guards in the army and you could get £4 a week, free clothing and shoes. I thought this is bloody great! I applied and when I got the letter back, my mother got to it first! She warned me off that I would never join them! So when I eventually moved over here I couldn’t tell her!
“I hated school, but I stayed until I was 15 and then put to work. My father said ‘You’ve left school, you’re a man now’ and put me in charge of a couple of horses.
“Working at home we never got paid, save for a bit of money to put on the church plate each week. But we were always well clothed.
“My nephew has that farm now. We used to have ten cows but they have 150 now over that 30 acres. A couple of years ago he and his wife used to breed and sell geese, they’d have a couple of thousand of them.”
And what is the biggest change Paddy can see from Irish migrating to Britain back then to now?
“It seems so much easier nowadays, it doesn’t seem as far away. You can get flights whenever you like, which wasn’t always the case. I have nieces that frequently visit London just for the weekend. That was unheard of in my time.
“When I first moved it cost me 30 shillings to get from Mallow to Paddington, flights are much cheaper for people now.”
Paddy and his wife went on to have a son, Patrick, who has given Paddy a granddaughter and two great granddaughters.
His son, now 75, followed him into the post office, and in his own 43 years of service was caught up in his own taste of history.
“Patrick’s claim to fame is that he was on the train during the Great Train Robbery of 1963. At that time he was working on the mail trains, and while him and his workmates were playing cards all of a sudden the train just stopped.
“They thought it was great as had finished their shift and knew any delay would put them in for a bit of overtime!
“It was only when the stoppage seemed for an unusually long time that they thought something was up. The guard went to investigate and came back to them saying the train had no engine!”
Paddy received a letter from the President after reaching the 100-mile mark last year, along with his Centenarian Bounty, and after turning 101 in February received a silver medal.
He had also received the British telegram from the Queen and a letter from Iain Duncan Smith this year which he sent to his son ‘as he hasn’t seen it yet and thinks of himself as English moreso than me’.