The time came for me to transfer to the local secondary school, Strabane Grammar School, which had been opened two years before to great fanfare. The “Grammar” bit sounded posh but it turned out to be simply moving on to “big school”. I went with my father to be interviewed by the shiny new principal, James Wilson (no relation). He was a staunchly self-professed atheist so he was somewhat taken aback when he asked me, “What do you want to do when you grow up?” and I replied, “I want to be a missionary”. He adjusted his rimless glasses and said two words to my father: “Passing fancy?” to which my heroic father replied (you’ll just have to imagine his stammer), “No, that’s really what he wants to do”.
My father was holding this conversation in an imaginary world since neither he nor my mother had experienced anything “secondary” about education. Now he was installing me in a lighthouse educational institution that introduced me to George Orwell through Politics and the English language, Seán O’Casey through The Plough and the Stars, and that same James Wilson who instilled in me his excellent vision of a clinically exacting discipline in Physics.
How all this was going to prepare me for missionary work was a question never far from my mind. I had read the old tomes of biographies that told the tales of missionary doctors like David Livingstone. Maybe I should be a doctor and get serious about the biological sciences (after all I had attempted to breed newts, found in a near-by quarry, in a makeshift aquarium under my bed). But it was not to be. My parents’ instinctive intuition woke up and advised me that being a doctor was too much for me to aim for.
Meanwhile there was a simple realisation hurtling towards me – how authentic would any kind of fancy mission work be if it didn’t work right there in Strabane, let alone on the far side of the world? And how would one address oneself to Strabane collectively? The solution was hiding in plain sight. There was one occasion per year when Strabane gathered itself together, despite any tribal differences – the Carricklee Races.
This was a point-to-point event held every St Patrick’s Day just outside the town. You could have a nice cup of tea in the marquee, maybe a wee drink and, let’s not forget, a flutter on the horses from stables all over Ireland. The chairman of the event was one Dan Smyth. Dan occupied three positions in our firmament. He was the owner of Smyth’s Mills in Strabane producing animal feed (a treasured commodity) and he was the chair of the Carricklee Races and he was a director of the Electricity Board for Northern Ireland – that very Board which employed my father.
I was advised that only Dan Smyth could give the go-ahead for my scheme to occupy one of the stalls at the races for the sale of high-quality, low-price copies of the Gospels. On the appointed day I went to his office in the mill to hear the verdict. It wasn’t the verdict I was looking for. He thought he knew more about racing than I did – and he wasn’t wrong! “It’s not exactly a Bible-reading moment” was his final word and, despite my positive assurance that any moment could be a Bible-reading moment, he wouldn’t budge.
My gallant father, who had fully supported my approach to his boss’s boss’s boss, then also complied with Plan B. The key to this plan was that my Dad, in the pursuit of his everyday work, knew every lane in the Strabane district, including the one that led to the Racecourse entrance. I had a (fresh new) driving licence so he drove me to Derry, we hired a small van, I drove it back, stocked it with the aforementioned Gospels and parked it on the grass verge beside that entrance lane.
The public had a great day at the races that 17th March with unfettered access to great reading material on the way in and out, without the clutter of other stalls. There’s nothing like a well-read race-going punter.