The rendezvous between my mother, the original country girl from a windswept mountainside in southern Donegal, with my father, the original city boy from Derry, was unique.
Saturday nights in Derry during the Second World War were a sight to behold. Mainly because there was nothing to behold at all. It was under strict Blackout laws – not a chink of light to be seen. That didn’t stop Guildhall Square filling up with all the girls and guys trying to get in touch with each other. Including Annie Myles and her besotted admirer, Joe Wilson.
The enterprising Joe had found a way to make his presence known amongst all the various voices in the heaving multitude. He whistled. And not just any old whistle. He whistled the hymn “It is well with my soul”. It was almost like a bird call which invariably produced Annie by his side. By the magic of romance Joe (now a budding Derry electrician) married Annie (the manager of the transport café at Guildhall Square) and moved to Strabane, County Tyrone, a town which would be called “quiet” by travel writers in the unlikely event that they ever get that far.
Eventually Strabane was introduced to the TV-watching public when an unsuspecting reporter, Charles Witherspoon, arrived there in 1970 to check on unemployment. A little group of men obligingly protested in front of the Town Hall.
Their self-appointed spokesman was George Cunningham and he had a little statement ready which was captured on camera. It was never clear who captured whom because our George laid into the reporter at the top of his lungs. It sounded like he had served his apprenticeship in an iron-foundry (you can still see George on YouTube).
So, at 10 out of 10 on the sound dial he gives it the full wellie:
George “My wife is employed but I’m not employed and there’s a Council inside this Town Hall that doesn’t give the…” at which point the valiant Charles from Ulster Television says,
Charles “I’m sorry, yir movin round, yi see, an’ the camera can’t get yi.”
George “There’s a Council in Strabane” (same volume)
Charles “Wait, wait, wait, take yir time, take yir time”
George “Yiss… We’ve got a council in Strabane that doesn’t give work to the people that’s born in the town. They don’t give out the houses to the people that’s born in the town. I’ve been threw out several times in the town and I had to go to the minister in Stormont to fight for fair play”
Charles “Now, just a moment”
Our man in Strabane had, however, put his finger on the town’s main issue, unemployment. Somehow he thought that the Town Hall contained all these jobs that were missing. In the meantime Strabane male unemployment rose to the highest level of any town in the European Union.
Many years later Channel Four declared Strabane as the third worst place to live in the United Kingdom. Strabane found that hard to take from a Channel that only made it to number Four – and how closely did Strabane ever enjoy the embrace of the United Kingdom anyway? Channel Four executives were invited to the town to judge for themselves. The next year it was the eighth worst.
So, it was against the trend that my father moved to Strabane from Derry in 1946 to take up employment. He started to work with the electricity service, then known as the “Electricity Board of Northern Ireland”. The Board never had a more faithful employee than Joe Wilson. Soon his job entailed being on call every second weekend, ready to respond to emergencies such as outages due to extreme weather.
Those “call-outs” routinely involved my father in driving far into the countryside to switch off the current on the major lines carried by electricity pylons so the system could be worked on. This often meant replacing a fuse.
Now this was not like the fuse in the plug of your bedside table. It was a glass tube about a foot long containing carbon tetrachloride around a spring-loaded coil. And this thing was perched as high as a house on the pylon overhead. You man-handled the tube into position by attaching it to telescopic fibreglass “operating rods” which reached up that high. And of course the reason you were there in the first place was that it was blowing gale-force winds. In the middle of the night.
It wasn’t always in the middle of the night. Unbelievably, my father would sometimes bring one of us kids with him. We would watch in a mixture of awe and apprehension as the storm wrestled with the operating rods which weaved around in the sky till, with a quick lunge of our father’s strength, they hit their target with a satisfying hiss not unlike a strike of lightning. Maybe that was one of the reasons we thought we all worked for the Board. It certainly provided a unique bonding experience with our Dad and made up for missing him on quite a number of Christmas dinners because he was on call.
Changing fuses had a side benefit. My father reclaimed the spent fuses – which weren’t broken – they just weren’t working. So when you took the cap off them you could harvest the carbon tetrachloride which was marvelous as a cleaning agent for textiles. Research later found out that it can affect the central nervous system. Oops. Good job we did most of the cleaning experiments in the back yard.
The Board’s territory in Strabane went right up the border with the Republic on its western side and included a technical enclave in Derry, requiring regular visits to the city of my father’s birth. As he drove up Aberfoyle Crescent one day my father remarked “I was born twice in that house” to one of his workmates in the van. There was no response for half a minute and then the man said, “You what?”. “I was born twice in that house”. “How come?” “Being born the first time wasn’t enough. I needed to be born again”. My father, the life-long stammerer, was never stuck for explanations of his spiritual life.