In our last blog we revived some childhood memories of growing up in the beautiful Mourne country of Northern Ireland’s County Down and we promised to revisit it soon and talk about some of the great characters who lived, worked and played there when we were growing up in the fifties.
In the books and stories I’ve written I’ve drawn on the traits and personalities of some of these folk, taking care, of course, not to identify any of them by name, even though all of them have long since passed on to a better place. Any reader who thinks he can identify some of them is probably right—but let’s keep the secret between us. The names used here are not their real ones. The stories are true, but, as all good books declare, any similarity between any person, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
The Kilkeel fishing fleet, one of the best in Ireland, was the heartbeat of the town and provided the bulk of local employment. It was a tough life being a fisherman. I know, because my dad was one for a while. When the fish were leaping into the nets wages were good. When bad weather kicked in, or the fishing was poor, there were no wages at all.
It was easy to spot a fisherman. Their national dress was navy pullover, dark trousers, a reefer jacket, rubber boots and a peaked cap. One week the fleet put into Whitehaven on the north-west coast of England to land their catch. One crewman—let’s call him Charlie—a mild, respectable fellow who never got into trouble, had one or two beers too many and the police felt obliged to let him sleep it off in a cell.
He appeared in court before the local magistrate next morning, still wearing his working gear. Sharp as a tack, that worthy took one look at Charlie and declared shrewdly “Ah ha, I perceive you are a seafaring man.”
“I am indeed your Worship,” replied Charlie, “and I am also a far-seeing man!”
“What do you mean by that?” the Magistrate enquired.
“Well your Worship, I can see a month ahead of me!”
There was a loud guffaw from the public gallery and even his Worship couldn’t suppress a smile. What could he do but let Charlie off without a blot on his record.
Bill was another fisherman who hailed from the deep south of Ireland and had never lost his soft Kerry brogue, or his carefully cultivated nautical rolling gait. Imagine Victor Mcglaglen, John Wayne’s sidekick in The Quiet Man and a score of other movies and you have Bill.
He told the story himself of one day arriving at the harbour where his boat was tied up, standing at the quay edge and yelling “Harrah, are yis up down dere?”
“We are,” came the reply.
“How many of yis are dere?”
“Come up the half of yis.”
And as Bill recounted in the pub afterwards “Up came two men and a bhoy!”
Bill’s fishing boat came into harbour one day. It was boiling hot and he had developed a powerful thirst. He was in bad need of a drink and headed up town to his favourite watering hole, staggering back to his vessel several hours later as night was falling. Now Kilkeel is a tidal harbour and the tide had gone out, leaving Bill’s boat about twelve feet lower in the water than when he’d left it. Heavily under the weather, he stepped off the quay and plunged to the deck below. When the crew visited him in hospital next morning he was nursing a broken leg.
Asked how he was, he could only respond “Shure, I don’t remember that step when I left.”
Many of the fishermen had nicknames. There was the Blue Fella, so called because he favoured bright blue clobber instead of the traditional black or navy. There was the Black Fella, who lived alone and presumably held the view that water was for sailing on and not for washing in. He was pushing eighty and claimed to have consumed enough Guinness over the years to have floated the Queen Mary. So far as I know, nobody was ever prepared to bet that he hadn’t.
There’s a crossroads in the middle of Kilkeel town. Coming in from the north, straight on would take you to Cranfield Lighthouse and Carlingford Lough. A right turn would take you along the lough short to Warrenpoint and Newry and a mile after turning left brought you to the harbour. There was a flight of steps on two sides of the crossroads and it was there that the fishermen gathered of an evening to ease down over a smoke and put the world to rights. Their rallying place was carefully chosen and probably owed much to the fact that there were half a dozen bars within easy staggering distance.
I recall one or two fist fights over trivial disagreements, but generally, the fishing community were a hardworking and easy going lot. We kids were not encouraged to mingle with the grown-ups at the corner and were gently, but firmly shushed off to our homes.
It was a great treat to be allowed to loiter on the fringes for a little while and listen to the craic, which, as they say in the vernacular, was mighty. One of the regulars, Hooky Burns, was a fairly decent amateur boxer. He had certain renown locally for having knocked out three US GIs who were making a nuisance of themselves one night outside a local bar. During World War 2 a number of US Army units were based in the town before moving on to the European theatre.
It has to be said that Hooky was a tad on the boastful side. One evening, with a couple or three pints inside him, he solemnly addressed the crowd at the crossroads. “The farther you go up our street the tougher the guys get—and I live in the last house!”
This blog is getting overlong. Perhaps I’ll spin you a few more yarns about Kilkeel another time. If you can stand it!