CORCRAIN AND THE FLEMINGS
The War is Over
Smuggling across the Border
When the war started everyone had to collect their gas mask. I was given a Mickey Mouse one and as Freddy was only a baby; my mother was presented with what I can only describe as a sort of bubble-shaped apparatus. The idea was, should there be an air raid, the baby could be put inside it. At school when the teacher blew a whistle everyone had to get down under their desk for safety. This was a practice operation in case of an air raid. I don’t think we children realized the seriousness of the practice. It just seemed good fun, this whistle sounding right in the middle of a lesson, and us scrambling to dive under our desks!
I remember well the day the war went over. I was on my way home from school and Dick Lyttle’s wife, Lizzie, was standing at the door of their shop. ‘Run home and tell your mother the war is over!’ she called out to me. I took to my heels and raced the rest of the way home – past Tam Gilpin’s shop, past the end of Corcrain School wall, past the horse trough, across the road and up to our front door! I was out of breath I had run so hard and there was a great excitement in me. It was like everything in the world had suddenly changed for the better. My mother was on her hands and knees scrubbing the red tiles in our hall. ‘Lizzie Lyttle says the war’s over!’ I burst out. My mother left the dish of water, scrubbing brush and bar of washing soap, lying in the hall and ran into the kitchen, calling out to my granny and granda, ‘The war’s over! The war’s over!’ They put on the wireless and we all sat around listening to the announcement. I was only about eight or nine years old at the time
There was rejoicing everywhere after that. There was a bonfire in Corcrain, with buns and lemonade handed out, and everyone dancing to accordion music. Just after the war, when everything was still scarce, my mother and I were walking through The Tunnel to town. As we approached Woodhouse Street we met people coming along eating ice-cream cones. Now, I couldn’t remember what ice cream tasted like, it was so long since I’d had any. But my mother became very excited and vowed she would buy some as soon as she found out where it was being sold. We reached the town and saw a sign outside a shop advertising ice-cream cones for sale. Happy as anything, we entered the shop and my mother bought one for me and one for herself. After the way my mother had described it, I couldn’t wait for my first taste. But one lick and my face told its own story. It wasn’t ice cream in the cone, but a blob of what tasted like thick corn flour! My mother was very disappointed and kept assuring me that it was nothing like the real stuff. But one day, she promised, there would be real ice cream!
It wasn’t long after that, that the first ice-lolly appeared in Portadown. A woman, who had a wee shop on the corner at the end of West Street near the Brownstown Road, started freezing moulds of diluted orange juice with a wooden stick in it. We heard about these great lollies, so one day my mother brought me and Freddy to the shop to sample them. They were great till all the orange was sucked out and you were left with nothing but what amounted to a lolly made from water. But it was a very enterprising venture on the woman’s part – and I don’t think anyone really minded that they turned to frozen water. In a way they had a taste of their own. It wasn’t long anyway, till the real thing appeared in the shops.
During the war you couldn’t buy a banana for love nor money. In fact, like the ice cream, I couldn’t remember what one tasted like. Just after the war went over a crowd of us children were playing around the horse trough in Corcrain. This girl we knew came towards the trough, hiding something under her arm. Triumphantly she produced a banana, exclaiming, ‘Look what I’ve got!’
One time another girl was in our house when fruit was still scarce. My mother gave her an orange. She looked at it, then proceeded to eat it skin and all. She didn’t even know enough to peel it – probably because it was so long since she had seen one. My granda said she went at it like a monkey!
Something else that was scarce after the war was toys. My father started making wooden ones, which he supplied to a shop in Portadown. He also sold some to neighbours. That particular Christmas Santa brought many a present to houses round about Corcrain which were made by my father. He made doll’s cots, small wheelbarrows, train engines – anything he could make a few shillings from. Our bedrooms looked like Santa’s workshop with all the different toys sitting about, waiting for the paint to dry.
Around the same time, when you couldn’t buy a doll for love nor money, someone started making these cloth dolls which had big round flat faces. All the girls my age got one for Christmas and thought them great. After a while another cloth doll was produced which didn’t have such a big round flat face – and were more like the real thing. I had one which had long hair made from strands of brown wool. On Saturday nights, my mother, father, Freddy and I used to go to the pictures. When we got home we would settle down to listen to the play on Saturday Night Theatre on the wireless. While I was listening I used to plait my doll’s woollen hair and tie the plaits with ribbons. Eventually dolls with delft heads came on the scene. It was coming up to my birthday and I can’t remember what happened, but I was crying. My mother said, ‘Stop crying. I’ve something that’ll make you feel better. Stay there till I come down the stairs. Close your eyes and hold out your arms. Don’t open your eyes till I tell you.’ When I opened my eyes a beautiful doll with a delft head and dressed in a nurse’s uniform was lying in my arms.
A favourite Christmas present for girls was a shoe -box filled with sewing needles, spools of thread, embroidery yarn, scissors, buttons and anything that might come in useful for sewing.
At that time everything was still rationed. You had to have clothing coupons and coupons for groceries and sweets. You would hear children saying to one another, ‘If you can get thrupence for sweets, I can get a coupon!’
My father and granda were in the British Legion. Every year the Legion had a trip to Dublin and we all went on it. We usually came home much fatter than when we left. You didn’t need coupons in The Free State, so we would buy new clothes, then smuggle them across the border by wearing them underneath whatever else we were wearing. You could buy all manner of goods far cheaper than you could get them in the North. In fact some things couldn’t be got in the North at all! One time my granny smuggled a camera home under her arm. There was this old joke going round. These two ladies went to Dublin in the train. They bought sugar and tea and hid them in their knickers. The train stopped halfway home and the customs men got on to search the train to see if anyone was smuggling. The two ladies were in a sweat in case they were caught. They managed to get away with it, but when the custom men left the train one said to the other, ‘Have you that sugar handy? I’ve just wet the tea!’
One evening a man rode through Corcrain on his bicycle, wearing nothing but his vest and long Johns, much to the amusement of those standing about. On a trip to Dublin he had rigged himself out with a new suit. He had thrown away the old one he was wearing and donned the new one, but at the customs it was spotted and taken from him!
Charlie Elliot and Mr. Hughie
Gerald Foy, whom I mentioned earlier, had a wee shop in Charles Street, which he took over from his father. His shop was in the middle of a row of houses which had a low wall in front and steps down to the front doors. Gerald used to have his supply of sweets delivered once a month. My mother bought all her groceries from him, so every month when he got his sweets, Gerald put aside for my mother as many sweets as a month’s quota of coupons allowed. If he hadn’t kept them for her, they would all have been gone by the next day, for as soon as people knew his sweetie order had arrived, they flocked to get what they could – they were in such short supply. I used to love going with her for the groceries when it was ‘sweetie’ day. We came away with lollies, toffees, boiled sweets, liquorice pipes and cartwheels, penny bars of chocolate and everything you could mention, for as well as our own sweetie coupons we also had my granny’s and granda’s and Joss’! My mother tried hard to ration them out to us, so we wouldn’t eat them all at once, but make them last until next month’s sweetie day came around. I’m afraid she never succeeded.
Sometimes it was hard enough trying to get through the Tunnel. You could run into a farmer driving his pigs to Denny’s and you could hardly get past them. The squealing would be awful, not to mention the stench! Many a time I saw a pig breaking away from the drove to run up somebody’s hall.
We had this cat one time which was an awful thief. You couldn’t leave it in the house a second but it was up on the table and away with something. One day it came darting into the house past my mother with a brown paper parcel in its mouth. My mother collared the cat and discovered the parcel contained a good pound and a half of steak. She went to the door and looked out, but there wasn’t a soul in sight, so she hadn’t a clue where the steak came from. The steak was too good to throw out. The cat hadn’t even torn the paper. So, she fried it along with plenty of onions for our tea. Where the steak came from remains a mystery to this day. The only conclusion my mother come to was – a butcher boy must have been delivering to somebody’s house and left his bike, with the carrier in front, unattended, so the cat stole one of his parcels.
My father had been taught at school by a teacher called Charlie Elliot, who also taught me at the Hart Memorial. Charlie was a very tall man. He used to ride this big high bicycle to school. He was very lame and everyone used to say he had a wooden leg. I never discovered if that was the truth or not, but I do know when he went to get on or off his bike he had to balance on his good leg and use his hand to lift the other one over the bar. It wasn’t long before Charlie discovered who my father was and he was always telling me how clever he had been. Charlie was a hard taskmaster. Many a time he whacked out indiscriminately with his cane or pointer. And many a time he threw the wooden duster at one of the pupils. When he was whacking someone, if you were sitting near them you had to watch out or you would have been hit as well. He was also up to all kinds of tricks. For instance, one day he gave the class this sum, then made us go up one by one to have it marked. He ordered those who had the sum right to stand on one side of the room and the ones who got it wrong on the other side. ‘You got it right!’ he’d say. ‘Stand over there!’ Or else he’d say, ‘That’s the wrong answer. Stand over there with the rest of the dunces. ’When it came to me, he said, ‘Aye – you’ve got it right. You must be taking after your father for being so clever. Stand over there. ’I was fairly preening with importance, as were all the ones he said had got the sum right. Next second he was yelling at us, ‘You thought you were clever – didn’t you? Well you lot didn’t get it right at all! It’s that lot over there that are right!’ And he hobbled up the line on his gammy leg and slapped us all on the hand with his big cane. And mind you he really went to town when he slapped! But as Freddy once remarked, it was great being able to boast after you left school that you had been in Charlie Elliot’s class!
We had a brilliant teacher called Thomas Hughie. He was strict, but fair. One day this big fella in our class, for some reason or other, ran out of the classroom. He took off along the corridors, Mr. Hughie after him. It was no time till Mr. Hughie caught him and brought him back. ‘You didn’t realize I have medals for running,’ he told the boy.
I remember when the theme from the television series, Z Cars, was very popular. It was one of Corcrain band’s favourite pieces. I remember them parading through the Tunnel on the Twelfth, and the Tunnel ones calling out for them to play it and them only too happy to oblige.
One evening my mother’s Cousin Martha, whom I think was very superstitious, was sure she saw a ghost as she passed The Plantation – which was the grounds of a big house situated more or less between the Hart Memorial School and what was then Dawson’s Row. The house was set back from the road. A great long drive with thick trees and bushes growing each side led up to the front door. There were big iron gates at the end of the drive. The Plantation got the name of being haunted. Anyway, one day my mother’s cousin was taking this man, who was in a wheelchair, out for a walk. She was wheeling him past the Plantation when she swore she saw the ghost. She was so frightened she fled, screaming, abandoning the wheelchair and the man in it. Months after this, one night my mother and her were walking past the same spot. Without thinking, my mother tapped Martha on the shoulder and said, ‘Do you remember the night you saw the ghost?’ Whether it was the unexpected tap on the shoulder or not that did it – I don’t know - but Martha dropped in a faint at my mother’s feet.
One Sunday my mother and father brought Freddy and I for a walk. Freddy had his catapult with him and kept picking up stones to fire from it. He lifted what he thought was a nice pale-coloured stone, then realized it was dog’s dirt! ‘Oh, s…!’ he cried, flinging it away from him. We had a good laugh about Freddy’s stone.
While on the subject of Freddy, he and the rest of the young fellows in Corcrain used always to be annoying an old woman called Annie McGinn, who lived in one of the wee thatched white-washed houses opposite us – by climbing the tree in her back garden. One day when they were up Annie’s tree she started giving out to them. When they paid no heed to her she went back into the house to return with a bucket of water. She stood at the base of the tree and chucked the water up at them. Instead it came down on her own head, much to the amusement of the boyos up the tree.
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