by John McGrehan
During the past months there has been great activity in
the town with the laying of new water mains and although
traffic has been subject
to some disruption, yet with the use of present day
machinery the work has been carried out very quickly.
When the original water scheme was completed nearly 70
years ago, with the laying of cast iron mains, the work was
done mainly by manual labour and it took the contractor,
Grainger Bros. of Holywood, much " longer to complete the
scheme in comparison. In the original scheme, which was
carried out to the order of Dromore Urban Council, the water
supply was extracted from a stream which started on one of
the Dromara mountains. A reservoir to assist in conserving
this supply of water was erected at the top of Bankhead's
Hill. This scheme provided for the erection of fountains off
the water main in different places in each street in the
town, from which people were able to draw water and carry it
it was not long until it became evident that this scheme was
proving insufficient to meet the needs of the town and
during the summer it was common for the supply of water to
be turned off at night, so that it could gather sufficiently
to satisfy people's requirements when turned on again the
next day. Since that time, Dromore had joined the Portadown
& Banbridge Regional Joint Water Board and with the erection
of different dams and the construction of new trunk lines we
were assured of an adequate supply of water at all times.
While we appreciate how convenient it is today to just go
over to the tap and get as much water as we want, it is well
to reflect on how we got our water before these schemes came
the Square opposite Messers Neeson's shop just outside the
low wall which once enclosed the Market Yard, there stood a
pump which always had a plentiful supply of water at all
times throughout the year. There was also a granite drinking
trough at this pump which served the purpose of providing
drinking facilities for horses. As a matter of interest, it
is pleasing to see that this pump, together with the trough,
has been preserved and erected within the Market Square on
the opposite side of the Town Hall from it's original
In Meeting Street there was also a good pump, the same
style as the one in the Square, which provided a bountiful
supply of good cold spring water and no matter how warm and
dry the weather was in the Summer we were always assured of
a good supply of water. This pump was erected about a
quarter of the way up Meeting Street hill and was nearly in
the centre of the road.
While this pump gave great service, if the wheels were
not regularly oiled, when it was being used it made a
screeching noise which was very disturbing, especially late
at night or early in the morning. Brewery Lane also had a
pump, but during the summer it was not reliable as the
spring would dry up and you could not get any water. At the
back of a house convenient to this pump there was another
pump from which you could get water, but to get to this pump
you had to go through a blacksmith's shop and when there was
a good number of horses waiting to be shod it was not a
pleasant task going past these animals! Rampart Street too,
had a pump which served the needs of the people in that
locality. Up in that direction there was also a pump up at
Barban Hill. The pump in Church Street was situated at the
bottom of very steep steps and it was not too handy to carry
full cans or buckets back up these. Mount Street, Gallows
Street and Cross Lane each had their pumps and some people
had quite a distance to carry the water for their daily
requirements. As one lady observed, "You made a can of water
last a long time!"
was a pump in Weir's Row and some people from Princes Street
carried water from it as they preferred this source of
supply. Outside the town there were also pumps at Holm
Terrace but there were two well known pumps: one was at the
top of Circular Road, Known as Peggy's pump and the other at
Drumbroneth, known as Cherry's pump. Peggy's pump was
situated a short distance from the road and sometimes as you
went to get water, you had to take the top off the pump and
put some water in to get the pump started. The pump in
Drumbroneth took it's name from a family who lived in it's
There were also a large number of spring wells from which
people drew their drinking water without the assistance of a
pump. There were two of these which were , better known than
the others. One in Ballynaris called Bishop's Well and the
other known as the Fairy Well. The Fairy Well was situated
in a field belonging to Caughey. Brothers at the side of the
Weir's Stone. This well was known to many locally and people
came from a distance to get water from it as they felt it
For washing some people liked to obtain soft water, so
they placed a barrel at the end of the down pipe and
collected the rain water from the roof for this purpose.
In those days it was a common sight to see a person
carrying two buckets full of water, with a hoop between them
to keep the water from spilling round them.
||(a) were used as a method of
drawing water, by the simple turning of a knob, from
the piped main water supply system
||were used to raise water from
various spring wells prior to the introduction of a
piped mains supply. This was by the laborious up and
down action of the handle (b) or by manually turning
the handle in a circular motion (c).
THE LIFE AND TIMES OF
JAMES KIRKER STRAIN
By Harold Gibson
name of James Kirker Strain is virtually unknown in Dromore
and district today yet he spent some 48 years living in the
town and was the minister of First Dromore Presbyterian
Church from 1863 until 1907 having been assistant to the
Rev. James Collins from his ordination in First Dromore in
1860. After the death of Mr. Collins in 1863 Mr. Strain
became the Minister in full charge.
James Kirker Strain was born on June 19th 1834 and was
the son of the Rev. Alexander Strain who was minister of the
Presbyterian Church at Cremore, near Tyrones Ditches in
County Armagh. Rev. Dr. J. K. Strain M.P.) The days in which
he lived were difficult times both socially and politically.
Little is known about his early days but as a student he
achieved academic distinction and he graduated from Queen's
College in 1856 with a Bachelor of Arts degree. Strain was a
brilliant pupil and records show that he carried off many
prizes both at Queen's and at Assemblys College. His
brilliance did not leave him in later years as he was
awarded a Doctorate in Law from the Royal University of
Ireland in 1885.
Great things were happening in the life of the church at
this time. Revival had been sweeping across America and the
effects of this revival continued into 1859 moving into
Wales, Ireland and Scotland. Dromore, whilst not directly
affected by the revival did witness a marked increase in
church attendance and an increase in the number of prayer
meetings in the district. It was in such a heightened time
of spiritual awareness that James Kirker Strain came to
Dromore. An account in the News Letter dated Saturday, 10th
September, 1859 tells of an open air service being held on
Sunday, 4th September, 1859 in a field belonging to Mr. John
McDade, convenient to the town. "There were present at least
1000 persons, comprised of the middle and respectable
inhabitants of the town and surrounding district".
Mr. Strain first preached in First Dromore on 4th
December, 1859. He was one of a number of men to preach with
a view to receiving a
to the church. On hearing him preach Thomas Jamison records
in his diary "He is clever". However the congregation issued
a call to another candidate, Mr. Boyle, on the 14th
December, 1859. Mr. Boyle declined the call the next day and
on 22nd January, 1860 Mr. Strain was back again in the
pulpit of First Dromore and in the words of Mr. Jamison "he
preached a most impressive sermon" using as his text "Herein
is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us and
sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins." Mr.
Strain again conducted evening worship and preached from the
text "What must I do to be saved." Mr. Jamison recorded that
this was the most touching sermon that he ever heard. Mr.
Strain was not the only nominee for the vacancy as a poll
taken in the congregation on the 29th January shows. Two
other men, Mr. Anderson and Mr. Arnold each received 1 vote
but Mr. Strain received 73 votes. On the 7th February, 1860
Mr. Anderson and Mr. Jamison presented a call to Mr. Strain
at a meeting of the Belfast Presbytery. Mr. Strain accepted
the call at once and so his ordination took place on 27th
March, 1860 in the presence of a large congregation in First
As we have already mentioned he came as assistant to the
Rev. Collins and spent those first three years under the
guidance and influence of his senior. At this time Mr.
Collins lived in Parkrow House while it appeared that Mr.
Strain lived in rented accommodation in the town. Mr. Strain
appeared to settle in to his new surroundings fairly
quickly. Notes from Mr. Jamison tell of his sermons often
accompanied by comments such as "this was one of the best
sermons." The times in which he lived were marked by large
attendances at public worship and by large numbers of pupils
attending Sabbath school. For example, a prayer meeting held
in Belfast on 2nd July, 1860 saw an attendance of around
20,000 people. This was one of many such gatherings that was
held in the aftermath of the Revival and the Belfast
meetings usually took place in Botanic Gardens. On July
12th, 1860 a social was held at which 310 Sunday school
pupils had tea and Mr. Strain was presented with a preaching
gown. On 2nd September, 1860 Mr. Strain preached to an
immense congregation on the subject "The Signs of the Times"
and the offering amounted to �6:10:0d.
Ireland was still recovering from the Potato Famine and
all the consequences that had come upon the land were still
keenly felt. Industry in Dromore was mainly hand loom
weaving much of it being done in the homes. Ship building
had just begun in Belfast a few years earlier and so the
industrial future of Ireland was beginning to take shape.
During Strain's ministry in Dromore much political change
was attempted with Gladstone seeking to introduce Home Rule
for Ireland. "My mission is to pacify Ireland," Gladstone
remarked as he set off for Windsor to be accepted by Queen
Victoria as her Prime Minister. These were also days of
political uncertainty and the "Irish question" still
dominant. It was in such days that James Kirker Strain lived
and ministered among the people of Dromore. In 1881 the
population of Dromore was given as 2491 and it is reported
that the previous 15 years had witnessed a great change for
the better at Dromore.
Queen Victoria was reigning the Empire so Victorian
values and standards were very much to the fore.
A Visit to
was somewhat slower than it is today and given the account
of Strain's visit to America he tells us that he left
Dromore on 26th July, 1870 at 11.00 a.m. and eventually
arrived in New York on Monday, 8th August, 1870 though he
did not get off the ship until the next day due to custom
house arrangements. It would appear that the reason Mr.
Strain visited America was in order to raise funds for the
building of a new manse. Parkrow House, where Collins had
lived was not the property of the church. Mr. Strain
undertook some preaching and gave lectures while in the
States one of which was entitled "Happy Homes" and he tells
us that there was a good attendance and the collection
"amounted to the magnificent sum of $13:50c". On the Sabbath
3rd September he preached in Third United Presbyterian
Church in Pittsburg after which he went West to Petersburg
in Illinois before returning to the East and visiting
Philadelphia, Baltimore, Princeton, Albany, Troy,
Kinderhook, Newburg, New York, Brooklyn, Jersey City and
many other places. He also went to Toronto and gives us an
account of seeing the Niagara Falls. His was one of
temporary disappointment and as he records, "The longer one
looked at them the more awful and awe-inspiring they
became". He was a man who enjoyed good preaching and in his
little book he tells of the various preachers he heard. Some
he heard gladly and others he described as being profane in
their handling of the text. He was a man with a great sense
of humour as is shown when he tells of falling asleep while
listening to one preacher. He says "I fell asleep actually
with my eyes open- a new plan which I would recommend to all
sleepers in church!" On his last Sunday in America, the 6th
November, 1870 he preached in 7th Avenue UP Church in New
York at 10.30 a.m. He went to church in the afternoon and
again in the evening and heard two other preachers, one whom
he described as good and the other as no preacher at all!
Mr. Strain was a man who enjoyed preaching and he seemed
to have gifts in that direction. He was what may be called a
textual preacher and from records available together with
the comments of Mr. Jamison he must surely have been one of
the foremost preachers of his day. Now back in the work of
the ministry after his tour of the United States the task
that lay ahead of the people was the building of the manse.
During the 1870's Strain gave himself to the work of the
ministry. His powerful preaching and winsome character won
the hearts of many people. It was during this period that he
met Maria Lousia Greer, daughter of the Rev. Thomas Greer of
Annahilt and they were married by special licence during
1873. Their marriage was blessed with two sons and a
daughter. They were the first family to live in the new
manse in which Strain had been so instrumental in seeing its
construction and which is still the manse of First Dromore
to this present day. Dr. Strain was not immune from much of
the suffering that life in those days had to offer. Their
only daughter Lizzie, born on 3rd November, 1880 died just a
few months before her 16th birthday on 26th August, 1896.
Dr. Strain was never a robust man and had never enjoyed good
health and the death of his only daughter was a severe blow
to the family. Just a few years earlier, in 1881 he had been
granted special permission by the General Assembly to retire
on the grounds of ill health, something he declined to so.
In fact in the next few years he seemed to be even more
diligent and studious as he gained his Doctorate in 1885.
His two sons graduated, J. K C. Strain with a B.A. and T.
G. Strain who received his B.A. from Cambridge. With the
death of his daughter adding to his afflictions Dr. and Mrs.
Strain continued in the work at First Dromore. He continued
to preach and to catechise as health permitted. He saw his
work in the congregation and with his people otherwise a man
of his gifts and talents may have been widely used in the
various courts of the church. During 1884 the World
Presbyterian Alliance was held in Belfast and it is most
likely that Dr. Strain would have been present at such a
gathering considering that some of the finest theologians
and outstanding preachers of the day were in attendance.
However any mention of his membership of Committees or
Boards of the General Assembly are not recorded and would
confirm that his work was within his congregation. Dr.
Strain carried on and as a report in The Irish Presbyterian
of February 1908 states "he continued to work on and died in
harness." On the 28th December, 1907 Dr. Strain left this
scene of time having served all his ministry in First
Dromore. The account of his death was recorded in The
Witness of Friday 3rd January 1908 and read as follows "We
deeply regret to have to announce the death of the Rev. J. K
Strain LL.D., minister of First Presbyterian Church,
Dromore, which occurred on Saturday at the Manse". The
report of his obituary ran for almost two columns and gave
details of the funeral service.
The Final Farewell
New Year's day 1908 was a solemn and sad day for Dromore
and especially for the people of First Dromore. This was the
day that Dr.
Strain was buried. A service was held at the Manse and the
Rev. J. W. Gamble read from the Bible and the Rev. W. G.
Glasgow led in prayer. The funeral cortege was large and
impressive as it made its way from the Manse towards the
church. Children from the Sabbath School preceded the hearse
as the coffin was borne from the manse to the church by
relays of the Session and Committee. Following immediately
behind was a number of his fellow ministers including Rev.
Dr. Davidson, Moderator of the General Assembly, Prof. S. L.
Wilson, R. W. Hamilton, J. Rentoul, (Banbridge Road), J. W.
Gamble, T. Dunn, J. Mitchell and James Irwin, Moderator of
At the church the funeral service was conducted by the
Rev. R. W. Hamilton who spoke of Dr. Strain as a man "of
exceptional abilities, of strong and intelligent
convictions, of powerful and persuasive speech, of high
Christian character" and went on to say that he had been an
able minister of the New Testament that needed not be
ashamed. Dr. Strain was described as a preacher with fine
Evangelical fervour, devoted to the salvation and
edification of your souls.
So after 48 years in Dromore the remains of James Kirker
Strain were laid to rest in the adjoining graveyard. His
widow left Dromore shortly afterwards and went to live in
Dublin with her sister. She attended Adelaide Road Church
until at the age of 76 she died unexpectedly on 24th
February, A fine tombstone was erected and still stands in
the graveyard today, at the rear of the church. An
inscription reads: "He was a faithful earnest and eloquent
preacher of the Gospel, a true friend to his flock, a man
The story of a Visit to America. J. K. Strain,
The Church on the Hill. Donald Patton, Banbridge 1981.
County Down, A Guide and Directory, George Henry
Bassett, Dublin 1886. Republished by Friars Bush Press,
The Oxford Illustrated History of Ireland, edited by R.
F. Foster, Oxford University Press 1989.
A History of Ulster. Jonathan Bardon, Blackstaff Press,
The Second Evangelical Awakening. J. Edwin Orr, London
The Year of Grace. William Gibson, Belfast, 1860.
The Witness and The Irish Presbyterian (Presbyterian
Historical Society, Church House, Belfast.)
By Sam Johnston
Agnew was born in the Kilntown district of Dromore in 1880
and died 1963. He was a many faceted, if unpolished rough
diamond. Just the type that would have appealed to Charles
Dickens who would most certainly have incorporated him, as
he did with Mr. Micawber and Barnaby Rudge, as a captivating
character in one of his novels had he ever encountered him.
He was a boot and shoemaker. He was a violinist. A
flautist (tin whistle and fife). A timpanist (Lambeg
drummer). A hunter (greyhounds, terriers and ferrets). A
witty raconteur. And being my mother's brother he was my
Uncle Sam; and thereby hangs this tale.
Sam plied his trade in a room off the kitchen in his
house in the Cross Lane. There he would sit on a low bench
with his implements on either side. The shoe, with a metal
last inserted, was held in place on his lap with a loop of
rope that went round it's instep and was tensioned by the
instep of his foot at the other end. It was the custom of
cobblers to use their laps in this way, and legs had to
withstand the pounding of hammers necessary in the mending
of footwear. This crouching posture was superseded - (in
Dromore at any rate) by John Andy Magill who pioneered the
method of standing at a workbench whereon the footwear was
mounted on lasts which could rotate in any direction. This
speeded up the task immensely and was much less laborious.
Allied to that was a machine with whirling buffs and brushes
which gave a "good as new" appearance to the repaired
footwear at the touch of a button.
Sam looked what he was - a character. A small stout butt
of a man with powerful arms and strong neck leading to a
mobile face that
mirrored his many moods. Atop of all this was a thick crop
of hair that stood up as stiff as a yard-brush and was
underpinned by eyebrows of like density. A squat nose with a
convenient upturned tilt prevented his metal-rimmed
spectacles from falling over it's edge. The old adage warns
not to judge the book by the binding, and Sam's physiognomy
belied the prodigious memory housed behind it. As my mother
used to say, "Your uncle Sam has a head like an almanac". He
could recite every town in the 32 counties and his favourite
ploy was to ask schoolchildren to name them, which none of
them could. His next question would be, "Do they teach you
nothing in school these days?". Or he would ask them, "If
the third of six was three, what would the fourth of twenty
be?" I gained his respect when I answered that one
correctly!* Then there was his great conundrum which still
puzzles me to this day. It posed the question. "If a farmer
sowed a field of corn, he was sowing, and if his wife was
sewing a dress, she was sowing. If the farmer later said "We
have sewn to-day" would it be spelt `SEWN' or `SOWN'?
After some fifty years I'm still awaiting the answer.
Sam started his working life in Ligoneil with a
watchmaker and jeweller. He told of a man who brought in a
watch which wouldn't go and said he would call for it next
day. Sam watched carefully as the boss examined the works
through his eyepiece and gave them a sharp puff with his
mouth, whereupon the watch started working. "If I'm not here
when he comes back for the watch, charge him five shillings
for it!" he told Sam. The client returned and as the boss
was absent, Sam charged him ten shillings. "Why did you
charge him twice what I told you?" asked the boss on his
return. "Because", said Sam "I blew into it too!!"
But life in the big city did not appeal to young Sam and
yielding to nostalgia he walked the twenty miles home. He
was soon apprenticed to a shoemaker named Mr. Purdy, who was
a master craftsman by all accounts. Then, on having his time
served, he married his wife Rachel and started his own
business in Dromore.
Flexi-hours may be a modern method of conducting business
but Sam was working this system 70 years ago! Being his own
boss he could lie in bed as long as he liked before starting
to repair some footwear, but often when the sun penetrated
the workshop window the call of the open country would be
too much for him and he would down tools, put on his outdoor
clothing, open the door to the backyard to admit a
greyhound, a lurcher, an Irish terrier and a Jack Russell,
all barking and whining in anticipation of the impending
hunt for hares and rabbits. Then, putting a leash on the
greyhound, he would open the front door through which would
cascade this canine cavalcade which petrified passing
pedestrians as the hairy horde swarmed around them.
The Magherabeg district was his favourite hunting ground
and he found it convenient to get there by walking the
railway line from the Maypole bridge. He would tell of two
near mishaps which befell him on such journeys. Seeing a
train approaching he went a few yards down the very steep
embankment and held the greyhound until the train passed.
The dog panicked as the engine went by and leaped out of his
grasp, sending his roly-poly body tumbling over and over
down the steep slope. He feared for his limbs, if not his
life, but fortunately a clump of whins brought him to a
prickly halt half-way down.
The other episode he told, tongue-in-cheek, was when he
was walking the line with the rocky walls of the `cutting'
on either side. The strong wind blowing in his ears muffled
the sound of the overtaking train. It was only the vibration
of the sleepers that made him look around to find the engine
almost on top of him! So he took to his heels and ran in
front as hard as he could. The engine driver spotted him and
shouted, "Run up the bank man! Run up the bank!" Whereupon
Sam shouted over his shoulder, "Bank hell! It's taking me
busy beating you on the flat!"
The hunting over he would return to his workshop and work
until nearly midnight. It was an ideal existence which many
His workshop was seldom without company and at times
overflowed with people who congregated there to enjoy the
crack and music, for he loved to entertain with fiddle, fife
and tin whistle. In those pre-T.V. days Agnew's was the
place to go for guaranteed pleasure.
floor was strewn with footwear, newly repaired, awaiting
repair or beyond repair. Once when a farmer sought him to
fix a pair of boots, Sam looked them over in disgust and
gave his opinion. "If there had been uppers on them I might
have been able to put soles on them, or if there had been
soles on them I could have put uppers on them, but they're
clean done." The farmer asked despairingly, "Surely you can
do something for me?" "Well," said Sam, "I could sell you a
pair of laces, for the eyeholes aren't too bad!"
A good selling line was second-hand Army boots which
arrived from time to time in hessian bags. They were not
always tied in pairs and the prospective buyer had to sort
through them to get a pair that matched.
They were priced at 15 shillings (75p.) and according to
Sam, he had little or no profit at the price. So much so,
that when a client asked him to wrap his purchase in paper,
Sam refused, saying if he wrapped them he would be giving
away his profit.
The snag about the Army boots was that they were studded
with broad headed nails called protectors and if one fell
out with usage it left a small hole in the sole through
which water would seep on rainy days.
A purchaser was leaving the workshop with a pair under his
arm and with an afterthought turned and asked Sam, "Will
these boots keep out the wet?" "What age of a man are you?"
asked Sam. "I'm 64 come June," he said. "Well surely to
goodness a man come to your time of day knows to keep out of
puddles," said Sam.
One of the eternal snags in commerce is getting prompt
payment for services rendered. Sam had been bitten too often
in that respect, so he had several notices hanging in
eye-catching positions. Here are some of them.
|`My work is good. My price is
Cash on the nail before you go!'
||`Good friends did come and I
did trust them
I lost their money and their custom.
To lose them both did grieve me sore,
So I've decided to trust no more.
PROMPT PAYMENT PLEASE!'.
|And hanging on an ancient clock
that hadn't worked for years was the short,
blunt reminder: `NO TICK HERE'.
With so many demands on his time and passtimes customers
would sometimes find that their shoes that should have been
ready and mended, still hadn't been touched. He would
promise sincerely that they would be ready early next week.
"Sure you told me last week," ranted a disappointed lady,
"And you'll never get to heaven for telling such lies".
"Them's not lies, M'em", explained Sam, "Them's what you
call `business fibs"'. Implying that one could tell
`business fibs' with impunity while other untruths condemned
the teller to hell's fire!
One of the reasons for the late delivery of day-to-day
repairs was when Sam undertook to manufacture handmade
footwear. This was a time-consuming job and entailed the
addition of little leather patches on the wooden last or
pattern to allow for the client's bunions etc., and only
those people with above average wages could afford to pay
for the handmade article. If they squeaked when walking this
was regarded as a status symbol, denoting one could afford
such up-market footwear. My wife tells me that around Comber
way people translated the `squeak squeak' as saying `not
paid, not paid'. Sam confided in me that to guarantee the
squeak he would insert a piece of felt between the leather
in the sole and that gave the required sound as the leathers
flexed when walking.
Uncle Sam, being self-taught, played all his instruments
by ear and his stance when he played the fiddle was unique
for instead of resting it under his chin, he held it low on
his left breast, and his head was turned away at
right-angles instead of in line with the strings. His face
was set in an impassive mask as he gazed fixedly at the
wall. Then with the tune finished he would explode in a
hearty laugh and ask, "What do you think of that one, bhoy?"
And what titles he had for them! Such as `Erin's Farewell',
`The Liverpool Hornpipe', `The Irish Washerwoman', `The
Cuckoo's Nest', `The Blackbird', `The oul-rag-a-doo', "The
Mason's Apron', `The Wind That Shakes the Barley', Pop Goes
The Weasel', `The Oul Sows Ramble To The Pratie Bing', `A
Cup of Coffee' ("There's no sugar in it!" he always
remarked) `The White Cockade', and so on and so on. The
titles are still etched in my mind though I have forgotten
some of the tunes.
He would tell the true story, punctuated by much
chuckling, of hearing about a man called Pat who was
learning to play the fiddle by scraping and scratching at a
tune called "Sausages for Tea", which was putting his
brothers round the bend, and his own life in danger. One day
Pat's brother Joe dropped in to see Sam and after a bit of
chat, Sam reached for his fiddle and said, "I'm going to
play you a great tune called `Sausages for Tea'." "You'll do
damn all of the sort!," snorted Joe, making for the door.
"I've had `Sausages for Tea' for the last fortnight and I
can't take any more," and disappeared like a flash. By the
time Sam dandered to his front door Joe was disappearing
round the Gospel Hall corner some sixty yards away, with his
coat tails flying!
Sam's other instruments were the tin whistle, the fife
and the drum. Orange parades would find him fifing to Lambeg
drums and how he detested aimless blattering by beginners.
"That rumbly-dumbly sort of playing is just a waste of my
music", he would say, sticking the fife in his hip pocket
where it remained till more competent drummers took over. He
had a miniature drum about half scale in his workshop and I
used to whistle a tune and He would drum to it, - and what
drumming! The staccato reverberation and changing tempos and
rhythms in that small room, produced a tingling in the spine
and a stinging in the eye that was exceedingly exhilarating
and perhaps primitive. It had nothing to so with political
connotations or religious undertones, for Sam was not a
bigot, as the multiplicity of his customers testified. It
was an extrovert expression of the rhythms housed in that
barrel of a body. Invariably he would remark after such a `rivetting'
session. "That will help to soften the wax in your ears".
There were other music-makers in the house in the form of
canaries and `mules' and when silent Sam would encourage
them to sing by calling, "Bully Dick, Bully Dick!" and
invariably they would respond with their sweet trilling. The
mules were dark feathered birds and were the offspring of a
canary mated with a goldfinch, which resulted in above
average singing ability, but, being hybrids, they, like the
four-footed mules they were named after, were unable to
reproduce their species.
As a teenager I would frequent Uncle Sam's about three
times a week and would lend a hand by stripping off worn
soles and heels ready for repair. To the repaired footwear I
would apply an inky wash to the soles and heels. The sides
of the heels and uppers were daubed with a pitch-like
substance called `heelball' and gave the footwear a pleasing
aspect. I mention the foregoing so that the reader will
better appreciate another of Sam's favourite stories. He was
coming home one evening and noticed a publican standing in
the doorway of his premises trying to hold upright a noted
tippler who, with a skinful of drink and dearth of cash in
his pocket, had become a nuisance to other customers. Sam
was hailed and entreated by the publican to take the drunk
home, to which he replied, "When I get my job done and
nicely heelballed, I put it in the window for the public to
see my handiwork, so I suggest your man should be put in
your window and let the public see what you can do!"
Before myxomatosis ravaged the rabbit population they
were the poor man's chicken, and indeed, when properly
cooked, were every bit as nutritious and tasty. They were
trapped in great numbers by being driven into nets placed at
the ends of their burrows down which they were pursued by
ferrets. Sam bred ferrets for this purpose but so great was
the demand for them, he had to buy them in from outside
sources. Most of these were delivered by rail and were
ravenous when they arrived. One such consignment was
released from their container and commenced to quest all
around the room in search of food. After several re-counts
it was agreed that one was missing from the original order.
With an after thought, Sam upended the box and out tumbled a
handful of straw and the pelt of the missing ferret! It had
been cannibalized by it's ferocious `friends'. When I
expressed regret at his loss of profit, Sam consoled me by
saying he would spread the cost of the dead one over the
price of the others. "Sure", he said, "They're getting a
ferret and a bit anyway!"
He had fished every river, Lough, lake and dam for miles
around, and I would listen enthralled as he told of big fish
he had caught and the even bigger ones that got away. I had
been taken by my father to fish at a Lough at Shanrod for
perch - I still have vivid memories of knocking back the
buns and lemonade that Da bought in a wee shop nearby. Sam
enquired how we had got on at the fishing and I told him we
had caught a dozen medium sized fish, but the big one, as
always, got away. We actually had it in the net but it gave
one almighty leap, broke the line and escaped; which was a
pity for it weighed two pounds exactly! He was briskly
hammering in nails as he listened and as the tempo of
hammering eased I could see he was turning over in his mind
what I had just told him. Finally he stopped, looked over
the rim of his glasses, pointed the hammer at me and said
accusingly, "Houl on a minute, lad. How did you know it
weighed two pounds if it got away?" "Because," said I, "It
had the scales on it's back!" "Oh! Go to hell!" he exploded
and vented his anger with a venomous attack on the nails. He
had `walked into it' and I felt sorry for leading him on,
for a great maxim of his was, "Chaff will not catch an old
bird, it takes corn." But he soon forgave me and caught out
lots of others as he retold the tale again and again.
I mentioned his dogs earlier. The only one he would let
out on it's own was the big lurcher - a cross between a
greyhound and a large collie-and as I was crossing the
Square on my way to Sam's, I noticed this dog scavenging in
entries and shop doorways. I told Sam what I had seen and he
gave a great laugh and said, "He's a quare dog thon! He
lifted a pound of sausages out of a woman's basket in the
butchers last week, and I'm waiting on him coming home now
to see what he's bringing me for the dinner!"
He took to wearing the inner tube of a bicycle tyre and I
asked the reason. "Well." he explained," I can't be bothered
adjusting my belt after I've had a big feed, but the tube is
handier for it comes and goes with the tide".
The coalman called one day and accused him of not
speaking to him when he passed in the street last Saturday
night. "Sure I didn't know you," said Sam, "You must have
had your face washed!"
There was the occasion when, as a lad, he was walking
along the road eating a piece of bread. He met a woman with
a small dog which kept jumping annoyingly around him, trying
to get the bread. "Shall I throw it a piece?" asked Sam.
"Please do," she replied. Whereupon Sam caught the dog and
threw it over the hedge!
He liked a game of football and often told of when they
were boys, his brother and he were on the same side, playing
with a hanky ball' in the roadway. As Sam dribbled through
he was fouled with a painful kick to the shin. He went down,
crying with the pain and eventually his brother came over
and said, "Stop your blirting! Sure we're getting a
I could go on but I'll end with the story of the night
his wife burnt the porridge! My father and I were having a
great chat with Sam in the workshop and Rachel, Sam's wife,
who had been making a pot of porridge for supper, joined us.
Suddenly Sam's nostrils twitched and he let out a gulder,
"You've burnt the porridge, woman!" Up we all got and made
for the kitchen. Sam, in a towering rage, shouting abuse at
Rachel, who panicked and grabbed a wooden spoon and would
have stirred the porridge but my father stayed her hand.
And, trying to pour oil on troubled waters, admitted to
occasionally burning his, but if one spooned off the top
layers carefully they tasted not too bad. But Sam was
furious and yelled "If they taste as good as you say we'll
burn them every bloody night from this on!" My whole body
vibrated with suppressed laughter at the thought of Rachel
presenting a burnt offering ad infinitum. Though I expected
Sam to hit me a clout in his anger, I had to explode with
one great bellylaugh which triggered off a chain-reaction
which left the four of us hilariously helpless. Thus the
situation was defused in humour.
When Sam died, old Aunt Rachel was taken to live in her
son's home where she spent the rest of her days in a
serenity and style she had never known before. Whenever I
visited her she was always sure to place her hand in mine
and shaking gently with laughter she would say, "Sam, will
you ever forget the night I burnt the porridge?"
As I grew older I met the girl who became my wife and our
`coortin' left me with less time to see Uncle Sam. He
noticed my absence and asked me had I got a girl? I told him
all and jokingly said I hoped my infrequent visits wouldn't
result in him removing me from his will.
"No. I haven't struck you off, but now you'll only get a
'mention'," he said.
However, he did leave me a legacy. A legacy of homespun
anecdotes and yarns, memories of quaint figures of speech
and his inimitable ability to cheer up the cheerless.
Looking down the years I can remember cobblers in every
street in Dromore. There were the Cammock's, Billy and
Johnny, Harry and Johnny Morgan in Meeting Street. Rampart
Street had a Mr. Clokey. Bridge Street had the Wilkinsons
and there were various men who worked for Castles Bros., one
of whom was Charlie McKee. John Andy Magill wrought round
the Rocks along with his son Billy and Bobby Carr. Jemmy
Walker and Son operated in Church Street. Gallows Street had
Stanley Jess, Tommy Rice and James McComish. Uncle Sam Agnew
plied his trade in Cross Lane. Geo. McCalister had, besides
himself, his son Charlie along with Willie Cherry, Thomas
Beggs and Herbie McClune and Mount Street had Billy Barr and
Robert McDonald. There was plenty of work for them all until
synthetic soles ousted leather in footwear, making shoes
Indeed it was more economical to buy new ones than to
have the worn ones repaired. So cobblers became a dying
species, with Wilfred Mason being the last craftsman to
close his door in 1992.
* Answer to question = 71/2
ST. COLMAN'S PRIMARY
SCHOOL DOWN ALL THE DAYS