MY YOUTH

 

      Dunleath Cottages at Kingshill, Waringstown, County Down, Northern Ireland were built by the very old titled and respected Dunleath family of Ballywalter, Co Down,  in order to help the poor of County Down and I was born in one of those cottages on 22nd October 1913.  The cottage I was born in was one of a pair and as there were two pairs at Kingshill, ours would have been No 1 or No 4, depending on which way they were numbered (if they were numbered at all). 

     I don’t know how long my father and mother lived at Kingshill, but my first recollection of the family home was being in a cradle under the window in the kitchen and I was told later that I was very ill at the time.  I remember that everything I saw, or imagined I saw, was very, very large and I suppose, in retrospect, this was as a result of my being feverish.  

      I have no recollection of ever having seen my mother, but on the day she died, she was laid out in a small room that led off from the kitchen and I remember some person saying that they would have to use pennies, which puzzled me somewhat.  However, I found out in later years, that using pennies was a method that they applied to people who had died with their eyes open i.e. they put some melted sugar round the eye lids, closed them and then placed a penny as a weight on each of the closed eyes.  Unfortunately I cannot recall anything about my mother’s funeral. 

     Our cottage had a kitchen, a room off the kitchen, a scullery with an outside lavatory (dry of course in those days) and two bedrooms upstairs.  There was a large area to the right of the entrance porch, which housed two hand weaving looms, one for my father, who I used to see weaving and one presumably for my mother.  My father made part of the weaving area into a ‘huckster’ shop, selling bread, tea, salt, sugar, eggs, flour and all the very basic items that the local population needed for day to day life. 

     My first school was at Corcreany and the head master was Mr Reid.  I don’t remember much about the school, except for one very stormy day when the fir trees were swaying in the wind and we all had to go outside and sing ‘Hush a Bye Baby on the Tree Top’.   The headmaster had a son in the Air Force and he used to fly his plane over his family residence (which was just beside the school) and this very exciting. 

     My brother Bob was two years older than me and he had to stay longer at school each day.  I used to get home to Kingshill after about a mile and a half walk.  On the way home, I often called in at my grandfather’s thatched cottage, where I’d frequently be given a mug of liquid, which they called ‘Beer Plant’.  This beer plant was kept in a glass container filled with water and fed, as I understand it, with sugar, although there may have been other ingredients.  On a very hot day, my Aunt Sarah would go out to the well and bring in a pail of extremely cold spring water, which tasted delicious. 

     When I arrived home, my father would have a plate of mashed potatoes for me, with a big nob of butter in the middle and the cross of St David cut into the mashed potato surface.  Sometimes my father would mix eggs into the potatoes and that was lovely too.   My brother Bob always got his share when he arrived home later. 

     I recall that my father always had boiling beef with vegetables on Sundays and I used to love this.  I remember pulling apart every piece of beef that I received and eating it very slowly, so as to make it last as long as possible. 

     The Gregson family lived just over the road opposite Dunleath Cottages and Mr Gregson’s father Ned lived further on down the road towards Waringstown.  Ned had a very bad stomach and used to suffer from some very painful attacks.  I recall that if he ever had one whilst visiting us, my father would get a tin mug of buttermilk and a spoonful of baking soda, mix it up and after Ned had drunk this, the pain seemed to go away. 

     Because Maggie Gregson was about my age, we used to play together and whenever I was over at her house, I used to get tea, home baked cakes and apple bread.  Being farmers, the Gregsons kept cows, pigs, horses and grew potatoes, wheat and corn.   Whenever pigs were slaughtered, my father used to get some of the liver and when this was fried, we regarded it as a delicacy. 

     My father also got freshly milled wheat and it made lovely porridge and bread.  The latter was baked by Annie or Mary Lavery (next door neighbours), who were daughters of my Uncle Robert and were weavers as well.  Their mother had died many years before and that is when Uncle Robert had married Mary Ann Dupre. 

     My Dad smoked a pipe and I remember one day when I was tempted into smoking it.  But after I managed to get it lit somehow and inhaled some smoke, I was violently sick and I am sure that it was this experience that put me off smoking for all time, because I never felt tempted to smoke again.

     One of the other two cottages was occupied by my Uncle Tom Cairns, my mother’s brother and he was a weaver too.  He and his wife had a daughter and a son Jimmy, who was later sergeant in charge of the RUC police barracks at Portadown, Co Armagh.   When his first wife died, he married Annie Lavery and they had one daughter.   

     The walls of the stairway leading up to the bedrooms in our house were papered and my brother Bob and I used to draw on them.  When someone spotted our rather messy drawings on the walls, they said to my father: “Why don’t you bate them ..... that will stop them”.

     “Och, what’s the use,” he replied, “sure the world will give them a big enough bating soon enough”.  That story was related to me by my Aunt Maggie, who was a sister of Mary Ann Dupre and wife of Uncle William, my father’s brother.  Uncle William and Aunt Maggie occupied our cottage after my father died.  After they died, their son Johnny lived there and his son Lloyd Lavery was at one time headmaster of Lurgan College. 

     My Uncle James Cairns was an egg tester with Armour and Co of Lurgan and he once demonstrated to my brother Bob and me how he operated.  He could pick up four eggs at a time, two in each hand, and after placing them in certain position behind an electric light bulb, he could see if any of the eggs contained blood clots.  

     Each Sunday night, my father, brother Bob and I used to go and visit Aunt Mary Alice and Uncle James Cairns at ‘Woodview’, a little distance beyond the cottage occupied by my Uncle Robert and Aunt Mary Ann.  Once there, the grown-ups would catch up on all the local news and then finally it would be time for tea and Aunt Mary Alice’s home baked bread and cake.  I used to love those Sunday nights and when it came time to go home, I remember getting under my father’s overcoat and walking back to Kingshill. 

     I had two uncles called James Cairns and one of them Uncle James Cairns (1) lived not far away with his wife Mary Cairns, who was my father’s sister.  They had 3 children, two sons and a daughter.   With regard to my Uncle James Cairns (2), he was my uncle because he was married to my mother’s sister Mary Alice.   However, he was also my cousin on account of my father’s sister being married to Uncle James Cairns (1).  These Cairns were also hand loom linen weavers and lived in a detached cottage of a similar design to my father’s. 

     There were 12 residences on the Clare Road between my Uncle James Cairns (1) and my Uncle James Cairns (2) and of these 12 homes, 4 were occupied by farmers, with 7 of the remaining 8 being occupied by the Laverys or Cairns.  So we were a pretty closely knit community. 

     Uncle John Lavery, who was one of my father’s brothers, owned a small shop in Avenue Road, Lurgan and he and his wife had one daughter.  For some unknown reason, my brother Bob and I were discouraged from ever calling at their house and, as a result, we never did.  Uncle John had an egg collection business and he was out every day with his horse and van, collecting in most areas around Waringstown.  He called with my Daddy twice a week and brought in supplies for my father’s ‘huckster’ shop. 

     Another relative was Uncle Willie Cairns, my mother’s brother, who lived at Derriaghy near Lisburn and was married to Aunt Fanny, who was from County Wicklow, Eire.  They had no children and were both very nice gentle people.  Uncle Willie played cricket for Derriaghy and was a very fine bowler, who, on one occasion, took all 10 wickets in a match.  Aunt Fanny was a little absent minded and one time when I visited them, she made tea, but couldn’t remember where she had put the cakes and biscuits.   Poor thing spent a long time going through all the cupboards and boxes, until she eventually found them. 

     One day, my father went to Lurgan to do some shopping and a few days later he suddenly died, although I never knew the cause.   One of the items he had bought was a pair of hair clippers, which he was going to use to cut our hair.  However, he never got to use them.  In later years, I was never tempted to purchase hair clippers to cut my children’s hair. 

     On the day of my father’s funeral, the mourners came back to our house at Kingshill for refreshments.  I remember I cried and although someone suggested that I should be given some sweets to pacify me, I refused them.  I don’t know what happened to all my father’s possessions, but no doubt they were sold to pay for the funeral expenses.  One of his things which I liked very much was a silver carriage clock, but I never saw it again. 

     After the funeral, my brother Bob went to live with Uncle James Cairns (1) and my father’s sister, Mary Cairns.  As for me, the original plan had been for me to go and live with my Uncle Alec and Aunt Minnie in Belfast, where Uncle Alec worked in Ewarts linen mill.  However, they were still in the process of trying to find a house and so, in the meantime, it was decided that I should go and live with Uncle Robert and Aunt Mary Ann in a cottage of the same design and size as my father’s, situated just off the Clare Road and at the junction with Annaghanoon Road.  

     Because Robert and Aunt Mary Ann had 3 sons and 4 daughters, there were 10 of us including me and it was a bit difficult to fit so many people into a two bedroom cottage.  As a consequence, I had to sleep in what was called a ‘Settle Bed’, which was a large wooden chest beside the fire and which was also used as a seat.  My main problem was actually getting to bed each night, because I had to wait for all the other family members to go to bed, before I could climb into my ‘Settle Bed’.  During the winter months, we all sat round the turf fire and baked potatoes in the hot turf ashes and they were very nice with butter and salt.

     The one and only Christmas I spent with Robert and Mary Ann, the other children (who were all much older than me) induced me to hang up my stocking to see what Santa Claus would bring me.  I did as they said and on Christmas Morning, I found a baked potato in my stocking. 

     The water supply for all these weavers’ cottages was by well and hand pump.  I never remember them ever going dry and the water was beautiful in the hot summers, as it was so very cold. 

     During the time I was with Uncle Robert and Aunt Mary Ann, I went to the Church of Ireland public elementary school in Waringstown.  In summer it was bare feet and in winter boots.   Bare feet were not as bad as it sounds because the sides of the road had grass verges, which made walking much easier.  However, now and again, I had the misfortune to ‘crigg’ my toe, which could be very painful. 

     I also attended the Sunday school classes each Sunday at the church in Waringstown.  The Sunday school sports day was held on ‘The Lawn’ (Waringstown cricket ground) and I was fortunate enough to win those races I was eligible to run in.  On another occasion, when I went on a Sunday school outing to Warrenpoint, I had my first tomato.  It looked so lovely on the fruit stall that I had to have one.  However, I was bitterly disappointed at my first taste. 

     The girls in the family all worked at the linen mills situated at the bottom of Clare Road, Waringstown, and they rode to work by bicycle.  Cousin Willie also worked in the linen mills, as did Leonard until he went off to join the Church Army.  Willie liked the odd Woodbine and whenever he wanted a smoke, he would say to his mother Mary Ann: “Give us a ‘Willie’ ma.”  She would then take a packet of 5 out of her overall pocket, break a Woodbine in two and hand a half to Willie.  As for Jimmy, he used to go to ‘Johnny's Turn’ (a road junction on the Gilford Road about a mile away) to play cards.  Mary Ann always referred to the cards as the “devil's cards”. 

     In 1920, the ‘B’ Specials were formed and recruitment took place for the Waringstown Unit.  Jimmy and Willie both joined and were soon strutting around in their uniforms and carrying their 303 Lee Enfield rifles. 

     Mary Ann chewed gloves continually.  She had a really exacting life, what with having seven children to rear and money always being rather scarce.  But as a wife, mother, weaver, housekeeper and cook, she did very well to keep the family together and reasonably well fed.  The Orphan’s Allowance she got for me also helped I suppose. 

     When living with Uncle Robert and Mary Ann, I was taken to the annual 12th of July Celebrations and that’s the first time I ever saw a revolver.  While we were walking to ‘the field’ (where all the Orange men and bands etc were congregating), we came across a car that had broken down and there was a man kneeling at the rear of the car, with a revolver in a holster that could be seen dangling from his waist. 

     At ‘the field’, there were stalls selling sandwiches and tea and I remember getting a lovely big ham sandwich and a mug of hot tea, a real treat.  Also whilst I was with Uncle Robert and Aunt Mary Ann, I used to help Uncle Robert in the garden and he said of me to a passer-by that I “worked like a black”.  Uncle Robert had a shotgun and was a very good shot.  On one occasion, he took me with him, when he had to go to Johnny Levinson’s to shoot a dog.   After Levinson had tethered the dog to a post in front of the house, Uncle Robert judged the distance, put up the gun, fired one shot and the dog fell dead. 

     Then there was Miss Emma McCaw, who lived in a rather nice imposing house just below Kingshill Orange Hall on the banks of a small river, which at one time had contained trout.  Unfortunately the house had been neglected and was in a very poor state.  I remember on one occasion seeing a goat looking out of a glassless upstairs window.  ‘Missemma’ (as she was referred to) lived alone and at one time owned horses, goats and other farm animals.  However, she became so attached to them all, that they all died of old age, apart from one goat which ate a £5 note and had to be killed, so that she could retrieve it. 

     I remember on the day after Christmas, a number of local men digging a hole in the middle of the field and dragging her last horse to its resting place.  It was then covered with soil and for quite a long time afterwards, I could see the evidence of where her last horse had been buried, as I went to school along the road. 

     ‘Missemma’ got all her supplies of food from my father’s ‘huckster’ shop and she always had to have loaves of bread with an outside crust.  I do not know when exactly she died, but my Uncle Robert purchased the farm after she had gone.  Further up the road from ‘Missemma’s’, about 1/4 of a mile away, was where my Uncle James Cairns (1) lived with his wife and 3 children. 

     When my Uncle Alec and Aunt Minnie eventually got a house, I headed off to Belfast.  I can’t remember when it was exactly, but I do recall being taken by open horse-drawn trap to Lurgan station, where I joined the train from Lurgan to Belfast.  On arriving in Belfast, I found that my new home was 27 Brookland Street, Lisburn Road, which was in a row of back-to-back houses.  

     The house was small, with a sitting room, a kitchen and scullery and two bedrooms upstairs, one of which I occupied, because Alec and Minnie had no children.  Off the kitchen, there was a small enclosed yard, with an outside toilet with a concrete floor.   It was a very nice little house, which was heated by a coal burning range, on which Aunt Minnie did all the cooking and which kept the house warm during winter. 

     Shortly after I arrived, Uncle Alec bought me a little male Kerry Blue puppy.  I was extremely pleased and was able to take him for walks in Marlborough Park, which was only about 1/2 mile away.   However, one morning when I went out to look at the pup, I found him lying dead.  He had been poisoned, probably by someone throwing poisoned meat over the yard wall.  I was terribly distressed and took the dog’s death very badly. 

     However, life had to go on and I went Ulsterville PE School, which was situated in Edinburgh Street, Lisburn Road and not very far from where I lived.  The headmaster was a very nice gentleman called Mr Lamont, who lived near Marlborough Park.  My main teacher was a Mr Daly, who never stinted in the use of the cane and many’s the time, I had to hold my hand out.  But it never did me any harm. 

     When Mr Daly took the boys to Musgrave Park for football practice, he always had his cane with him and if anyone misbehaved or played badly, they were punished accordingly.  I went to Sunday school and church each Sunday morning and was the only member of the household to do so. 

     I was unfortunately bullied to such an extent at school, that I resorted to fighting to defend myself, which in turn led to my being punished by Mr Daly, which resulted in my having blue wealds on my hands.  So what with that, losing my puppy and missing my brother Bob, I must have become depressed, for that’s when I decided to go back to Kingshill.  

     I had saved up a few pennies and as the bus fare to Lisburn was only 2d, I set off for Lisburn one day on the bus, prepared, if need be, to walk the 12 miles to Lurgan and then the 3 miles to Kingshill.  I don’t remember much about my journey, except that I got a lift in a horse drawn van to Moira and then walked the rest. 

     I had no idea where I was going to stay, but I ended up with my Uncle Tom Cairns at Kingshill, a brother of my mother.  When his first wife had died, he had married my cousin Annie Lavery, a daughter of Uncle Robert from his first marriage.  I remember sleeping with Uncle Tom in his feather bed. 

     However, within a few days, my Uncle Alec arrived in Kingshill and I was soon on my way back to Belfast.  But apart from a severe talking to, I wasn’t punished.  When I went back to school, all the bullying stopped and Mr Daly was like a father to me.  He sat me next to a very nice girl called Muriel Chapman, who was the daughter of a dentist on the Lisburn Road, Belfast. 

     Everything went well and I was quite happy, especially as I had some young friends to play with.  On one occasion, two other young boys and I were playing up beyond the Windsor Bakery and were walking along one of the back entries, between two rows of houses.  I do not know what prompted us, but we looked into the yard of one of the houses and there was a man lying in a pool of blood, with a white handled open razor beside him.  We ran away in great fright!

     Gospel meetings were taking place quite a lot about this time and we used to go to them.  I remember one preacher outside the mission hall, who was giving his testimony.  He said that life was wonderful in his home – “Even the sewing machine was a Singer”.  Well anyway, we all got saved, whatever that meant, and took it so seriously, that we put our cigarette cards down the drain in Brookland Street. 

     Then there was the time of the Gospel Campaign and the threat of everlasting damnation!  The ‘hot’ gospeller said categorically, that the end of the world would take place in a few days time.  Being quite gullible at the age of 10 or 11 years old, my friend and I went into Musgrave Park on the day that the gospeller had specified to await our doom.  However, at the appointed hour of destiny, nothing happened!!!  So I lost all faith in ‘Gospellers’ after that!!

     The only name I remember of any of the boys and girls I used to play with was Freda Calvert.  Her family owned the little shop at the bottom of Brookland Street.  On Saturday afternoons, the Sandor Cinema in Sandy Row had a matinee for children and I used to go every week.  Admission was 2d or two 2lb jam jars. 

     Each Friday night, they used to show films for children only in the Grosvenor Hall at the bottom of Grosvenor Road.  It wasn’t a proper cinema and the screen was a large piece of sheeting fixed at the end of the hall and if you were a late arrival, you had to sit nearly up against the screen.  On one occasion, when a cowboy film was being shown and we were right up at the front, these horses suddenly came galloping up the screen.  We immediately took fright and fled out of their way. 

     When living at 27 Brookland Street (possibly 1924), I found that Uncle Alec had a camera and because I showed great interest in it, he let me have it and bought a film for it.  He gave me tuition on how to use it and also how to develop and print the film.  So after a few mistakes, I was able to take snaps and produce the finished pictures.  They weren’t very good, but were of great interest to me.   Alec also got a crystal wireless set complete with head phones and I used to have great fun adjusting the ‘cat’s whisker’, in order to get the station loud and clear, which wasn't too often.  I also used to go up to the top of Brookland Street at about 10 minutes past 5 some evenings to see the HMS Catherwood bus on its way to Dublin. 

     Sundays at Brookland Street were quite nice, especially if the weather was good.  Alec and Minnie liked to go out on the trams to a point near the Cave Hill in the Antrim Hills, overlooking Belfast.  It was a very nice walk on a good day. 

     When I didn’t have to go walking with Alec and Minnie, I usually found my way to the Belfast rubbish dump, which was quite an exciting place on a Sunday afternoon.  The cause of the excitement was due to the presence of some men with terrier dogs and ferrets.  The dump was overrun by rats and it was good sport to hunt and kill them.  One man would put a ferret into a rat hole and when the rats appeared, the terriers would be released.  It was very exciting to see how a good terrier could kill a rat and I remember that there were quite a lot of gangs at the tip with their ferrets and terriers. 

     I think it was in 1924 that Uncle Alec applied for and got the post of manager of Coulson’s Linen Works at Market Square, Lisburn.  After a little time travelling to Lisburn daily, Alec rented a very nice terrace house at 42 Llewllyn Avenue, which is situated on the Belfast Road on the outskirts of Lisburn.  The house was just opposite the gates to Wallace Park, which was a lovely big grassy park with trees, flower beds, tennis courts and a cricket ground in the centre (it was the home of the Lisburn Cricket and Lawn Tennis Club). 

     Alec applied and got me accepted into the Boys’ Cricket Club and he obtained a man-sized bat for me, which he shortened by cutting a piece off the bottom.  During the cricket season, the Boys’ Team used to go to play matches against Belfast Boys Clubs, of which there were quite a lot.  We also went to Lurgan, Downpatrick, Comber and Hillsborough.  I played with Harry Connolly, Ronnie Harvey and Harry Edgar, later a cricketer of great renown, who played for Ulster and who unfortunately died very young.  

     The Llewllyn Avenue house had a really nice kitchen, scullery, pantry, sitting room, three bedrooms and a bathroom (which was a real treat), yard and garden.  One of my jobs was to keep the coal burning cooking stove clean and every Saturday, I had to clean it and have it shining, using Zebo.  In the spring, I showed great interest in the garden and, using the little knowledge I had gathered from my Uncle Robert, I was able to plant seeds of various kinds, usually all vegetables. 

     Uncle Alec applied for and obtained permission for me to attend No 1 Presbyterian Church Elementary School, situated at Market Square, Lisburn.  I enjoyed my time there and made many friends: Ronald Harvey who lived with his family in Llewllyn Avenue and whose father owned a shoe shop in Market Square and Harry Connolly, whose father owned the newsagent shop at the top of Railway Street.  Sadly, both were killed when in the British Forces during the 1939-45 war.  Mina Dorman was one of my girlfriends.  She was a very famous character in the McCooeys, a radio series which was broadcast by the BBC between 1949-55.  I did very well at this school and won a place to Lisburn Technical College. 

     During the time I was living at Llewllyn Avenue, a detachment of the British Army came to Lisburn and camped in Wallace Park.   The troops slept in small bivouac tents and cooked food on oil burning stoves.  It was a great attraction and all the young people for miles around came to see them.  I was very interested and spent all my spare time there looking and listening, which is what may have inspired me to consider the army as a possible career. 

     We were all very happy at Llewllyn Avenue.  However, it is said that all good things come to an end and in my case, it was quite true.  Because of the Depression of 1929-31, Uncle Alec lost his job when Coulsons closed down and went out of business.  As a result, he could no longer afford the rent on 42 Llewllyn Avenue and that’s when he took possession of a very run down house in Castle Street, Lisburn.   This didn’t suit Minnie and she ‘took off’, leaving Uncle Alec and me to look after ourselves.  I don’t remember much about it, except that Uncle Alec was away a lot, doing odd jobs or looking for work and I normally had to prepare an evening meal, which was usually fried egg, bacon and beans.  Although we had it quite often, we never got tired of it. 

     At about this time, it was decided that I should give up school and look for a job.  So I applied for and got a job as an apprentice shop assistant with Andrew Harper Gents’ Outfitters at 11 Ann Street, Belfast, whose opening hours were from 8.30 a.m. till 6.00 p.m.  I quite liked the work, but Andrew Harper was a very cold fish and I wasn’t very fond of him.  

     I served in the shop for most items, but not for customers who required advice about what they should buy etc.  I also had to make deliveries and it was because of this that Andrew Harper and I parted company.  One day I was sent on a delivery and whilst out, I got the most awful wetting, due to the very heavy rain.  As a consequence, I was very sick with bronchitis.  

     Uncle Alec protested to Andrew Harper and wouldn’t let me go back there, because he said that I had been hired as a shop assistant, not a messenger boy.  As a result, I had to sign on the dole, but was refused benefit, because in their eyes, I had left my work voluntarily.  

     Uncle Alec took my case to some tribunal and it was decreed, that as Andrew Harper had not provided me with waterproof clothing, Alec was within his rights in refusing to let me go back to Harpers and, as a result, I received the dole, for the period from when I left Harpers till the tribunal gave its ruling and also thereafter.  

     I tried and tried again to get work and so did Uncle Alec, but times were very hard and we couldn’t find any.  As for Minnie, she was still away and would not consider coming back to live in Castle Street under any circumstances. 

     In 1930, in a bid to get Minnie back, Uncle Alec eventually applied for and got the tenancy of a new house on the Ballynahinch Road, Lisburn.  He couldn’t really afford it, but with odd jobs here and there and my dole money, we managed to get by and happily Minnie came back.  

     As a result of Uncle Alec’s efforts, I received 6/= per week dole money, which I duly handed over to Minnie, who always gave me 1/= back.  By saving my pocket money and little sums I was able to earn by doing messages and other odd jobs, I had the princely sum of just over £5 by the spring of 1931.

     Times were still very hard and because I felt I was a great burden to Alec and Minnie, I decided I would have to do something to make things easier for them.  So without telling Alec and Minnie (which I regretted very much later on), I set off for England on 30th March 1931, to go to either Aldershot to join the Army or to Newmarket to try and get a job as a stable lad, as I was very interested in horses.

     My memories of Uncle Alec and Aunt Minnie are that they were very nice, kind people and they gave me a lot of love, attention and good advice.  They taught me to be good mannered and considerate and encouraged me to help all those around me, who were in need of it. 

 

 

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