Big thank you from

For whom the bell tolled

IN 1940, when I announced that I had been transferred to Cookstown, an impish colleague rattled off this old ditty,

Long hungry Cookstown,
Where the stones are chained and the dogs run wild...

He didn't know the origin or the meaning, nor do I, but it wasn't uplifting.

I had to go into digs for the first time and with a black out in force, everything rationed, and the media censored I wasn't elated.

To crown it all the whole atmosphere was tense, as an invasion by the Germans was deemed imminent and preparations were continuing apace.

I managed to get digs with a young married couple at Burn Road, just off the long wide street stretching a mile from Gortalowry to Oldtown with little of interest.

Just the usual market town set up and virtually deserted of vehicular traffic due to petrol rationing.

The Assistance Board had just acquired office accommodation at Molesworth Street near the station which served two railways as far as I can remember - the GNR and the LMS.

The premises had earlier been a pork shop and some wags tormented me for some weeks by ringing up and asking for me by name seeking pork pies etc.

Once I got a fine parcel of pig's trotters courtesy of the Bacon Factory and by challenging the delivery lad I discovered that a lassie that was doing a line with a colleague of mine and in digs in a small private hotel next door was responsible for the leg pulling.

I told the caretaker to put them in the bin and he exploded `You wouldn't put lovely pigs trotters in the bin! Can I have them? I love them'

This tom foolery was swiftly eclipsed by a startling event. The bell was about to toll and Cookstown people seemed the most unlikely candidates to break the law about silencing bells, yet that was where it was to be broken.

I well recall the build up. The previous morning I had wakened to the rhythmic sound of marching feet outside as a column of the army, seemingly endless, passed the end of the Burn Road situated just at the foot of Chapel Hill, where Holy Trinity Church stands.

A ban on careless talk (to use war parlance) gave rumour free vent, hence local armchair strategists solemnly declared that the army was manoeuvring for the high ground of the Sperrins around Draperstown in preparation for a siege. We were not to discover the truth because of censorship but it all added to the tension which was in the air. Were they coming or were they not?

When the bells of Holy Trinity pealed loud and clear in the wee small hours of the night, with snow on the ground and a hard frost magnifying the sound, I lost no time in leaping out of bed, and the whole populace did likewise.

The pealing didn't last long but the hubbub of army, civil defence, Dad's Army, Special Constabulary etc mobilising was palpable.

There were no announcements; hence I just had to wait for developments like everyone else. None came so it was a matter of getting to the office as usual, which happened to be beyond the church.

There the story was unfolded.

During the night a fire had broken out in the Vestry area of the church, an annex apartment adjoining the sexton's residence, one encased in pitch pine panelling, which would have burnt like tinder.

Jimmy, the sexton, had promptly jumped on the bell pull and furiously pealed the bell. Regulations or no regulations he wasn't going to wait or run for the fire brigade!

It was a kind of handcart and bucket set up anyhow.

Happily the army had a check point set up at the entrance to the avenue leading to Holy Trinity church and with their power pump they had the fire out in a jiffy, elevating them to hero status in the eyes of the local community.

War time censorship barred media comment and gossip took over. Many tall stories went into circulation about the panic reactions of named local members of the 'Specials' and air raid wardens.

Canon Hurson's public expression of appreciation of the army's prompt response to the sexton's panic action was no exception. Seeing Holy Trinity Church on TV lately in connection with the funeral of a local victim of the Tsunami has reminded me of war time life in Cookstown.

Actually I enjoyed my sojourn there, and I think the Balladeer's harsh description of Cookstown a bit unfair. I had good digs there and there was a nice little golf links (privately owned) where green fees were modest.

As well, Joe Allen, a famous local auctioneer and unofficial mayor who virtually ran the town, was married to a Soldierstown lady called Campbell. Her people owned a farm adjoining my fathers and I was regularly entertained to tea.

Joe's descendants are still in the fine mansion 'Allendale', Moneymore Road that the old man built in the late nineteen thirties.

When I was recalled to headquarters in 1941 to assist victims of the blitz on Belfast I wasn't at all pleased, but I did get promotion out of it.

By Pat Smyth
Ulster Star