CORCRAIN AND THE FLEMINGS
Danny Boy’s Shop
Everything I know about my uncle Bill I learned from my mother. When he was about seventeen he emigrated to America. They were sure they would never see him again and as it happened they never did.
My mother described Bill as small like the rest of the family. He walked very fast and when he was young had a bit of a lisp
There was a wee shop in Corcrain called Danny Boys. Danny Boy or John McGonnell which was his real name opened his shop in the front parlour of the house he lived in, which was next door to where Gramma and my granda’s sister Lizzie lived.
When John McGonnell first came to live in Corcrain, which was years before I was born, he brought with him his wife, his sister Mary, his son Christie and his daughter Bridie. John was very lame and had a hump on his back. His son Christie was in bad health and Bridie had Downs Syndrome. His wife and sister Mary were the only ones who appeared in good health. The day they arrived in Corcrain, their belongings piled on a pony-drawn cart, all the neighbours were out watching them move in.
As soon as Bill clapped eyes on them, he remarked, ‘Danny Boy has arrived!’ So from that day on John McGonnell was known as Danny Boy! It was the name everybody called him by, from one end of Portadown to the other! But I bet very few knew it was Bill who had given him his nickname!
John’s wife died before I was born and I was still very young when his son Christie died.
John McGonnell was a very decent, respectable man. As a shopkeeper there were few like him. As my mother used to say – he was too honest for his own good! His shop was very small. On opening the latch on the front door you immediately found yourself inside his kitchen. There was always a good fire burning in the open hearth. There was a long wooden seat just to your left as you went through the door. If John was busy in the shop with customers, anyone else waiting to be served could avail themselves of the wooden seat. The shop, which led off the kitchen, held no more than two or three customers at a time.
His daughter Bridie used to spend all day playing the ‘clappers’ – two flat bones – which she held between her fingers and clapped together. She used to sway and move in time to her ‘music’. She was harmless, except if you happened to be waiting to go into the shop and she sat down on the wooden seat beside you. Even sitting on the seat, she would play her clappers and sway from side to side. Only, she had this habit, of nipping whoever she was sitting beside, in the arm or bum or anywhere she could get hold of. Sometimes it could be quite painful! But Bridie would just keep on playing and laughing at the same time – as if it was a great joke. You never liked to make a fuss, so the best thing was just to move away. But usually John’s sister Mary would catch on what was happening and would tell Bridie to stop.
There was a high wooden counter in the shop. Behind the counter was the window. The window had narrow shelves along it, which held all kinds of cardboard advertisements for such things as Bovril, Bibby’s Soap and Lipton’s Tea. And after the rationing period which was on during and after the war, was over, there were rows of sweetie jars. He kept a pile of cut-up newspaper sitting on the counter and when anyone asked him for a quarter pound of sweets, he made a poke from a sheet of the newspaper and emptied the sweets from the jar into that so he could weigh them. Oftener than not there was more than the quarter in the paper, but John seldom took any out, just folded down the top of the poke and handed it to you – only charging you for the amount you had asked for. In fact, it didn’t matter what you went in for, if John was weighing sweets up for somebody else, he would hand one to the rest of the customers waiting to be served. If anyone wanted spuds he had to leave the shop and go down the back to weigh them. If he was busy he would let his customers weigh up their own spuds and sometimes would slip them a turnip or cabbage for free, saying they were a bit off when maybe there wasn’t a thing wrong with them.
Many a time I got a lift on his float. He had a flat cart, pulled by a pony, which he used to deliver and collect the wares he sold in his shop. I would be walking along through Corcrain or maybe the Tunnel, when I would hear the clop of the pony’s feet. With a ‘Woa there!’ John would stop alongside me and invite me on board. I was always glad of the lift, whether it was on the way home from Town or heading towards it. Although, mind you, I did feel a bit self-conscious about sitting on the cart, maybe with my back leaning against a bag of spuds, my legs dangling over the side and me hanging on for dear life! Besides the bags of spuds there was usually big bunches of carrots or even on occasions – bags of coal – all loaded on the float. I always was a bit fraught with the notion that at anytime I could fall off. Still, on the whole it was an enjoyable experience and nobody every passed any remarks. It was a common enough sight – Danny Boy driving either in or out of Town with somebody he had given a lift to on the way, aboard his cart.
But to get back to Bill. Bill married an American girl called Louise Hood. It was through Louise that the family kept in touch with Bill. She wrote regularly, for as my mother used to say, Bill was like the rest of the family – he was no scholar and a bad hand at writing! Louise was a very kind lady. I can truthfully say that without ever having met her, for all during the war, when we had trouble getting food and clothes – Louise posted parcels of both to us. It was very exciting every time a big parcel arrived to our door, from America. Louise used to pass on all these lovely clothes her and her sisters had no longer any use for. They were lovely, if somewhat American, the likes of them never seen in the shops here. And naturally when a parcel was delivered to our door or anyone else’s for that matter, the whole of Corcrain knew about it.
My mother was fond of telling the story of how one day her and her brothers and a Roman Catholic friend called Gerald Foy, were gathered in their house, when the minister visited. The minister asked Bill why he hadn’t seen him at church lately.
Bill replied, ‘Please sir – I’ve no good suit to go in and I can’t afford to buy one.’
‘You tell me you can’t afford a suit?’ the minister said. ‘Well now, that is too bad.’ And he began to dig deep into his trouser pocket.
They all held their breath, waiting – all thinking the same thing – that the minister was going to give Bill the money for a new suit. Instead he pulled out a big white pocket-handkerchief and blew his nose.
After the minister left Bill called him every name under the sun – much to the amusement of Gerald Foy.
Another story about Bill and suits is one I was told often by Gerald Foy himself. Gerald used to laugh every time he told it to me. Apparently Gerald got this new suit and called in to ask the family what they thought of it. Gerald no doubt thought himself ‘no miss’ in his new grandeur. He strutted about, turning this way and that showing off his suit. They all admired it – saying Gerald was a great swank - except for Bill - who passed no remarks.
Gerald asked him, ‘What’s wrong, Bill? Do you not like my new suit?’
Bill looked him up and down, then said, ‘There’s nothing wrong with the suit, Gerald. It’s a great suit. It looks well. It’s the way you ass about in it that’s the trouble!’
My mother used to talk about the time Bill got his first pair of long trousers. Sunday arrived and my granny wanted to know was he not going to wear his new ‘long ‘uns’. So, Bill put on the trousers, but they had an awful job getting him to leave the house. He said he wasn’t going outside to have everybody looking at him!
Filling in the Football Coupons
A cross-eyed cyclist and More
Jimmy was the most colourful character in the Fleming family. He had thick, dark wavy hair and very bushy eyebrows. He had a habit of moving his eyebrows up and down, especially when he was excited. He didn’t have to say a word – just those eyebrows dancing up and down as if they were doing a jig!
Jimmy was very hard to get up in the mornings. Every morning it used to be a real pantomime. My granny would be bawling up the stairs, ‘Jem! It’s time you were up boy!’
‘I’m comin’!’ Jimmy would shout back. Next minute he would be snoring.
‘Jem! Are you not getting up the day?’
‘I’m comin’! I’m comin’!’
‘Jem! If you don’t soon get up you’ll be late for your work!’
‘I’m comin’! I’m comin’! Didn’t I tell you I was comin’!’ And finally the bedclothes would be flung aside and he would be dressed and down the stairs in a flurry, exclaiming, ‘Look at the time! Why didn’t you call me earlier?’
Apparently years ago Jimmy wrought in the Rope Works, but I never knew him to work anywhere except in Acheson’s Weaving Factory, in the card-cutting department. It was a good place to work when anyone was getting married. Different designs were woven into the linen. The designs were punched out first of all in cardboard. The tiny cut-out circles left behind after the punching were usually dumped. But if someone was getting married, Jimmy collected a bag of the cuttings. They made great confetti.
Jimmy had a quick temper. He must have taken after my granny. But like most people with a quick temper – it went off him as quickly as it came. Anyway, the same as with my granny – nobody took Jimmy’s flair-ups seriously. They all just laughed at him when he became riled.
He had a habit of working at his bicycle in the kitchen. He would give it the whole works in the middle of the kitchen floor - cleaning, polishing, oiling, and pumping up the tyres. One day he was bent over pumping the back tyre and my granda bet me I wouldn’t have the nerve to stick a pin in his backside. I quickly found a pin and stuck it in him. I won’t repeat the things he called me!
He used to have this cupboard next the fireplace where he kept things he didn’t want anyone prying into. I was fascinated by Jimmy’s cupboard. I think everyone in the house was – simply because none of us were allowed to see in it. He kept it locked all the time, so no one knew what it contained. I finally discovered that one of the things he did keep in it was surprisingly – a great thick book entitled The Complete Works of William Shakespeare.
Apparently years before I was born Jimmy kept pigeons. There was a girl in Portadown who had the same illness as Joss and was very interested in pigeons. A member of her family used to wheel her to Corcrain in a wheelchair to see Jimmy’s birds.
Jimmy’s passion was filling in his football coupons. It was serious business with Jimmy. Once a week he spent the entire evening pouring over the sporting pages of all the different newspapers – them spread out on the table – so he could study form – as he called it. He went over all the different teams – studying how well they were doing. After spending ages at that, he would then fill in his football coupon. But for all his studying he never won anything worth while. Not that I can ever remember, anyway! All the men in the Fleming family did the pools. My father did them as well, but there were very few wins. I remember once my granda getting me to mark an X on three different squares. The three draws, he called it. I won eight shillings! My mother told me that just after I was born my granda won twenty-five pounds. Amongst other things, he bought me a pram from his winnings.
My father used to say, small and all as Jimmy was, he wasn’t a bit afraid to square up to anyone. If somebody annoyed him, it didn’t matter how big they were – Jimmy would have been willing to take them on. I experienced proof of this for myself.
Jimmy hated to be interrupted when he was studying form and filling in his coupons. But one evening while he was busy with his newspapers I was playing outside when this big fellow who lived up the street from us – for some reason or other – started laying into Freddy. He was called Pat. All the young ones were afraid of him. In fact no one wanted to tangle with any of his family, which included his granny, who was a tough old veteran. Anyway, when I saw Pat thumping Freddy I ran into the house, shouting, ‘Pat is hitting Freddy!’
There was no one else in the house except Jimmy. ‘Can you not see I’m doing my coupons!’ he shouted back at me.
‘But Pat is giving Freddy a hiding!’
His eyebrows going up and down ninety to the dozen and him cursing like mad, Jimmy jumped up from the table in a temper. He had this wee limp, which was the result of an operation he’d had on his knee when he was younger. He went out onto the street, so fast he wasn’t just limping, he was hopping! I ran after him, my heart racing. Half the children in the street were gathered around Freddy and Pat. Not one word did Jimmy speak, but simply grabbed this big fella, who although he was very young, was head and shoulders bigger than Jimmy, by the scruff of the neck, pulled him away from Freddy and boxed his ears.
To my horror I saw Pat’s granny standing at their door, watching the whole thing. ‘Jimmy!’ I shouted. ‘Mind! His granny’s watching!’
‘I don’t give a damn about his granny!’ Jimmy yelled, gave Pat another thump for good measure and limped quickly back into the house again. Pat was so surprised at being taken on by wee Jimmy Fleming he didn’t even retaliate, but went back to his house holding his ear. The gathering of children looked on open-mouthed.
My father often told the story of how, the day before my mother and him were married, he and Jimmy were walking along Edgerstown. Jimmy was to be his best man and they were going out for a quick drink. The two of them were – as they thought – all dressed up! It was a summer’s evening and all the women in the street were sitting out enjoying the good weather. When my father and Jimmy walked past, the women started cat-calling and whistling after them. Jimmy kept turning around and making rude signs at them, all the time calling them all the names of the day under his breath. At the same time they were secretly pleased that all the women, as they thought, were noticing how well they looked in their good clothes. But suddenly my dad looked down to discover Jimmy’s long drawers were hanging down below his trousers. Summer and all as it was – he was wearing his long johns! Not a bit of wonder the women were whistling after them!
My mother told this tale about Jimmy. One day he was riding his bicycle along the New Road, when he met this other man cycling towards him. The man had a turn in his eye and as they drew closer for some reason Jimmy kept looking at the man’s eyes. The result was, Jimmy thought the man was going in one direction when he was going in another. There wasn’t another vehicle or bicycle on the road, but the next thing Jimmy knew the two of them had run into each other. Jimmy gave out to the man, shouting at him, ‘Why the divil didn’t you go where you were lookin’!’
Jimmy could take a good laugh. There used to be a song on the go called The Laughing Policeman. Every time it came on the wireless Jimmy laughed as much as the policeman did! It always set him off, his shoulders shaking and his eyebrows working overtime! And of course Jimmy laughing so much made the rest of us laugh!
Jimmy was a regular customer at Tam Gilpin’s shop. He was one of the crowds who used to gather in the evening in front of Tam’s fire to sit chatting and devouring lemonade and buns. But one evening in particular Jimmy was the only one there, when my granda’s sister Lizzie entered the shop. She used to get her groceries on a daily basis, as most did in those days, then pay Tam at the end of the week. Lizzie asked Tam how much she owed him for her week’s groceries. Tam went round behind his big wooden counter, picked up a scrap of paper and read out a figure. Lizzie paid him and left. Later Tam had to go out the back to weigh spuds, so Jimmy, a bit suspicious of this scrap of paper, leaned over the counter picked it up and had a look at it. The paper was completely blank on both sides! So, how Tam calculated how much his customers owed him was more a guess than anything else. Jimmy had a good laugh at this and of course, the way of things then, it never entered his head to question Tam’s method of book-keeping.
Jimmy married a girl called Ethel Connell, from Edenderry. I loved visiting Jimmy and Ethel’s house with my mother on a Saturday. Every Saturday my mother and I would go shopping, call with my Uncle Bob and Aunt Maggie, then call with Ethel and Jimmy. Along with a cup of tea Ethel always had lovely fresh white loaf, the kind you slice yourself – it covered in butter and jam. She made a good strong cup of tea. I could have devoured the entire loaf.
Ethel was very musical. She could sit down at a piano and play any tune you could name. Long ago we had a piano in the parlour and every time Ethel visited, she would play for us. One time she played tune after tune without stopping – all the familiar songs of that age – one after the other. At the end of her recital, Jimmy, who had no ear for music, said, ‘That was a long tune, Ethel!’
Jimmy was always tinkering at something. I have a tiny basket he made me out of a walnut shell. He carved out the basket, then varnished it.
Very often Jimmy joined the men at the bridge for a yarn. He came back one day and told us this tale about a swanky-looking woman in a fur coat, with a wee fluffy dog on a lead. Jimmy said he was sitting on the bridge eating a bar of chocolate when the woman came up to him and said, ‘Would you not throw my wee dog a bit?’ So, Jimmy lifted her dog and threw it over the bridge! I don’t think he expected any of us to believe that one. But that was Jimmy all over.
The Beggar Man
Getting a Fright
Reading the Tea Leaves
Lizzie – Brightening things up
Joe Hughes’ Clock
Growing up in Corcrain
Mrs. Montgomery Tam
The First Primroses
Walks around the Country Roads
Finding a Skull
The First World War
A Wee Drop of Drink
Attacked by a Bull – Saved by a Lighted Match
Dead but Wouldn’t Lie down
The Second World War
Ghosts and Lizzie Curry
The Country Fellas Come to Town
The Hay Shifter
The Christmas Rhymers
Maggie’s Birthday Parties
Chapter 9 Alex