“The Kokeshi mystery in Strabane”

If my mother was the original country girl from a windswept mountainside in southern Donegal, my father was the original city boy from Derry. He found it faintly amusing that Belfast people thought they came from a “city” – which he considered to a be a relatively recent start-up.

The kokeshi doll from Eva Glass

His extended family was a veritable rainbow of religious conviction. He had been born into a Presbyterian family but not far away on the family tree were perched Cooneyites, Exclusive Brethren, an opinionated First World War veteran and a close relative who would promptly and proudly tell you the name of her church, although she didn’t actually attend it.

So my parents plumped for simplicity – and who could blame them! Their idea of simplicity had a basic menu which included the Bible, meeting up with like-minded devotees of Jesus, living frugally so they could help those who had fallen on hard times – and the backing of missionaries. At the back of my father’s mind there may have been a hesitance to go into missionary work himself. He could scarcely speak. As a small child he had woken up one night with a stammer at the shock of the some of the last, violent vestiges of the War of Independence being played out on their street. That stammer stayed with him the rest of his life and although we as children found it excruciating to watch him converse with visitors, it never prevented him from living a full and cheerful life.

It so happened that Strabane had already produced two missionaries to Japan, which are normally as scarce as hen’s teeth. It was therefore inevitable that we would somehow get mixed up with them – Eva Glass and Bobbie Wright, and then others. They succeeded in making Japan, which seemed so impossibly far away, a reality to the sturdy, phlegmatic residents of Strabane.

For example, on my desk, to this day, I have a little wooden Japanese doll (called a kokeshi). It was sent to us by Eva Glass from Hokkaido in northern Japan in the early 1950s. A kokeshi has no arms or legs but has a head that squeaks as it’s moved around. The family was delighted with this highly ornamented 11-centimetre-long creation. In later correspondence with Eva we found out that you can screw off the base of the kokeshi to reveal an inner compartment in which a message can be hidden. And so it was in the slightly later 1950s that we discovered the greeting that Eva had originally sent!

At one point it struck my parents that it would be a nice touch to send a Christmas care package to these Irish missionaries they knew in Japan – which now included at least three families. So every year in mid-November they would assemble generous packages of chocolate, no less, to be shipped off in good time. Now, it concentrates the mind of a small child to see chocolate leaving his house in such quantities at that time of year!

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