Unforgettable Characters

Vol. Vol. 8 No. 2 - 2003

Unforgettable Characters

by Mary Jensen

Most of us, but perhaps more especially those of us who are born and bred in the countryside, have special people - some simple folk, others more sophisticated - who we will remember all our lives. They were characters - just that - but different from the rest of us and very memorable.

Joe Derry was my father's best friend. He was a small man, not much over five feet, but with broad shoulders, hands like shovels and a fringe of tight black curls. I don't think the term 'baby sitter' had been invented then, but that is what he was for me. If my parents had to go out somewhere - a rare enough event - Joe came down to our house to look after me, He had a foolproof way of putting me to sleep. I lay on his knee with my ear to his waistcoat pocket and listened to the big watch which lived there. I can't recall ever knowing that my parents had come home and put me to bed, so the watch charm must have worked well.

He also played the part of Santa Claus for my numerous cousins and me at the parties my mother organised. The 'Christmas Tree' was a large holly branch and, as we had no

electricity in the countryside then, the lights were candles placed in special holders with a spring clip for attaching them to the branches.

I remember one memorable occasion when Joe became a bit over-enthusiastic and, with some child in his arms, leaned too close to the tree and his luxuriant cotton wool beard caught fire! My mother had made the Santa Claus outfit and kept it from year to year in a wardrobe in the spare room. This was out of bounds to me, but once I slipped in to see what was so secret about this wardrobe. Imagine my horror to see hanging therein what to me appeared to be a goblin or a dwarf from one of the fairytale books I so enjoyed having read to me. I was afraid to go into that room for some years to come!

A Great Story Teller

Joe had spent his early years hiring himself out to farmers at the hiring fairs and had worked on many big farms in his time, He had many stories to tell in which he - small man that he was - always ended up the hero of the tale. The telling of Joe's stories was a long drawn out business. He smoked a pipe which had to be prepared before he started. This entailed cutting slices of tobacco from a plug of 'War Horse'. This was rubbed between his big calloused palms to shred it, then mixed with the ashes and embers of the last pipeful, packed into the bowl of the pipe, stamped down with a big forefinger and even-tually lit with a match. As the story unfolded, the pipe would be neglected and go out, so a long yarn could take half a box of matches in the telling. On one or two occasions the pipe went into a pocket still partially alight and started a fire in Joe's coat!

Joe's hobby was breeding birds. He made cages in which he captured wild finches - highly illegal, even then - and cross-bred them with canaries to produce colourful song birds. He was also expert at certain gardening techniques, such as budding roses and planting trees and bushes. He could build a tall well-pointed cock of hay, or a large, well-thatched stack of corn. I can still see him propping his big bicycle against our house for one of his frequent visits and remember the happiness we all felt to see him arriving.

Thankfully he lived long enough for our children to have known him too and to remember him with affection and with laughter.

The Country Rector

There can't be rnany country rectors who are remembered and spoken of with affection by all creeds and classes long after they had gone to their reward, but the Rev. Francis Hallaghan was one such. He had been a curate at Drumcree before going off to serve in the 'Great War'. When the war was over, he returned to the Parish of Drumcree, which is the first church I went to as a small child with my aunt. So, although we were Methodists, the Rev. Haliaghan often visited us, as he did many people of all denominations in the parish.

He was an educated, genteel and beautifully spoken man, on a different sphere from his parishioners, but never above them and always approachable and available. In her old age and her dotage, when she no longer knew us and thought we were keeping her prisoner, my mother threatened us daily that she would send for Rev. Hallaghan to rescue her and to sort us out! It was funny in a way, he having been dead for many years, but it spoke volumes of the power he had in the minds of those to whom he ministered. There are not many of his ilk around today.

The Belle of Ballintaggart

Emma Tinman was known as the 'Belle of Ballintaggart' and rightly so. She was quite beautiful, with the most luxurious fair hair that sat in waves, not curls, close to her head. My father told me that she was one of those women who, because so many young men were killed in the Great War, never met her 'Mr Right'.

I don't know what she worked at in her younger days, but she had been involved for many years with St John's Ambulance Brigade and had a good basic knowledge of nursing practice. She was therefore called upon, often on a fairly long term basis, by various people in the neighbourhood to look after family members who were ill or aged.

She played the organ in The Dobbin church for many years and was greatly respected throughout the countryside. I used to meet her frequently in neighbours' houses and she had a sparkling wit and great sense of humour - one of those people you don't forget.

Funnily enough, I also have a strange recollection of her father, who must have been an old, old man at that time. He would have done bits of work for local farmers, the sort of things that were beyond the range of machinery and way below the consideration of young fellows.

In any event, one farmer had a very steep slope of a meadow and Bill Tinman was sent every year to mow it with a scythe. He came through the lanes and past our house with his scythe over his shoulder. For some years I was quite sure that Bill Tinman was none other than 'Old Father Time' - the old chap with the beard, the long white shirt and his scythe over his shoulder who strode across New Year cards in those days!

Fast Walking Teacher / Much Loved Neighbour

My middle child was more attached to her Grandad and, although she loved Miss Conlon dearly, perhaps didn't have just such a hands-on relationship. However, by the time number three came along, my mother was well into her dotage and unable to help me with child care, so into the breach stepped Miss Conlon. She more or less reared my youngest child. I could leave her over the bridge, watch until I saw her being taken indoors by Miss Conlon and then forget about her for most of the day.

Ever the teacher, Miss Conlon taught her to read and write a little. She made all kinds of things with match boxes, orange sticks and various odds and ends which she collected. In fact they played school the day long! They loved each other like granny and grandchild and my daughter had an idyllic childhood.

A nosy neighbour once asked my father what age Miss Conlon might be. His diplomatic reply was that she was probably well into her eighties, "but when she is up the lanes with our child, gathering primroses or eating blackberries and vetch peas, she isn't more than seven or eight!" Miss Conlon was a much loved character who passed down through three generations of our family and will never be forgotten as long as our children are alive. Indeed, our grandchildren know about Miss Conlon too from their mother, and her old Welsh dresser, dickied up and repainted, is a cherished part of their kitchen.

Miss Conlon was our nearest neighbour, living just over the bridge, a few hundred yards from our house. She was a teacher in Corcrain school and well known as a very fast walker. I dreaded meeting up with her on my way to school. By the time we got to the Hart Memorial my short little legs were aching, trying to keep up with her! She and my mother were great friends, but strangely, they never addressed each other by their Christian names - it was always Miss Conlon and Mrs Dunlop!

She got her milk at our house and, in return, we had the use of her field to make hay. This arrangement, I'm glad to say has continued through the generations and my daughter still has the use of the field today. That brings me neatly to the fact that Miss Conlon was not only my parents' neighbour and friend and mine also in due course, but became a sort of surrogate granny to our children.

On Saturday nights we always had a 'fry-up' and each week my son would carry two large fries comprising bacon, eggs, soda, wheaten and potato bread - all the things we're not supposed to eat nowadays - up the lane to Miss Conlon's, where she would have the table set and the pair of them would have a rare old Saturday night together.