Although we spent the first two years of my life “downtown” at No. 18 Church Street, Strabane, my father then decided that he didn’t want his children “being brought up by every Tom, Dick and Harry on the street” but by himself and my mother. So we moved about three quarters of a mile up the hill outside the town, to a house rented from my father’s uncle, Johnny Kee.
This sounds like the idyllic country life (the address, after all, was “Greenhurst, Curly Hill”) but it had its challenges. We were not connected to the town’s sewerage system (thus involving my father in recurrent monkeying around with a septic tank), a previous tenant was said to have been murdered there, the building was surrounded by a jungle that would have done the Amazon proud and, most ironic of all, we had no electricity – in 1950 the service just hadn’t made it that far out of civilisation.
There were upsides, like the evocative lighting of the oil lamps in the evening with their feathery mantles, the smell of paraffin oil and hiss as the pressure was pumped up. And neither Tom, Dick nor Harry were anywhere to be found.
For a while the bane of this country life, from my father’s point of view, was the flock of jackdaws who took up residence in our chimney every March. Their nests, made from twigs, had a way of rendering our flues all but impassable to the smoke. Not only did the smoke empty out into the living room but, much more dangerous for birds and humans, the twigs caught alight from time to time. As kids we thought this very exciting but our father took a dimmer view because it could set the whole chimney on fire and this could to lead to setting the house on fire.
An idea slowly settled on Dad’s mind. There was only one thing to be done with the jackdaws. Shoot them. Even if you only hit a couple of them surely that would scare off the rest of the flock. Then into the edge of Dad’s mind crept a sub-idea. He knew someone with a shotgun – none other than the son of the Key family, his very own cousin. He was, in effect, our landlord and he surely wouldn’t like to hear of the house being burned to the ground by jackdaws. So a discreet visit was paid to the Keys’ farmhouse.
That’s how a shotgun and ammunition ended up in our hallway. I’m not sure who exactly had the licence for this thing but let’s not get technical. Early the next morning, before he went out to work, my father sneaked out to the garden, loaded the shotgun, took note of where the jackdaws were (not difficult – they generated an almighty racket), took aim and “Bang!” It appears that these particular jackdaws weren’t stupid. Between our Dad’s taking aim and the bang they had transferred from the chimney to a local tree.
He tried again the next morning. Same result. A battle of minds began to unfold, since Dad wasn’t stupid either. He was giving them too much time to re-locate. Why not load the gun in the hallway, thus cutting out one stage and being ready the exact moment he emerged out the front door? (A point of detail here – our house had a little raised threshold in the doorstep)
So the following morning, with somewhat of a swagger, the neophyte gunman loaded the gun, listened for the jackdaws (you could easily hear them from the hallway) and made a run for it. It ended up not so much a run as a step – a step which tripped on that threshold of ours and produced not only a bang but also a hole in the hall ceiling.
I think Joe Wilson was a little late to work that day because, instead of driving his van to the Board’s premises, he drove it straight to Keys’ and handed over a hot shotgun, scared out of his wits but forever chastened on the subject. The jackdaws held a small champagne reception after Dad had safely gone to work.