The Red River’s colourful memory banks

No sheep could safely graze in Castlederg's fields in 1997

No sheep could safely graze in Castlederg's fields in 1997

I PROMISED to return to Castlederg and its Red River Valley, my travel-guide being a wonderfully reminiscent and evocative book that was sent to me last year by former Strabane District Councillor James Emery. Co-compiled by Canon Harry Trimble, it is one of three volumes of precious local history that dip into every aspect of the area’s rural past, from colourful court cases and council meetings to schools, churches, shopping and farming.

Close your eyes, stick a pin in a map of Northern Ireland, visit the village or town land around the pin - and you are guaranteed to discover a myriad of interesting and often unexpected tales from past and present. The two authors’ vivid compilation of old newspaper cuttings and historical narratives confirms without any doubt that the Red River Valley was, and is, no exception to the consistently reliable pin-in-map procedure! River banks are memory banks, and some of the Derg’s distant dalliances are curiously distinctive. I don’t know if the authorities would allow it today, but back in 1938 Mr David Reid from Spamount shot a 15½ pound pike.

The local paper claimed it was the largest fish caught in the River Derg for several years, and while I’m unsure if ‘caught’ was the correct verb to use, I’m quite certain that the pike wasn’t too concerned with syntax or grammar.

There was a sense of inquisitive contentment about the river in 1997 when a line of locals gathered on Castlederg Bridge to observe a farmer in a boat struggling to rescue a beleaguered sheep caught in the rapidly rising flood water.

Whilst the woolly jumper got well laundered, a faded photograph reveals that two passing canoeists had the best seats at the exhibition. The book meanders around the district with fascinating reminders of ‘the way we were’ in old-time Ulster. In 1822 an advertisement for a public auction in Castlederg must surely have attracted a great deal of interest.

Poised under the hammer was “a copper still, a still-head, the worm of a still, two copper boilers and 11 vessels of various dimensions.”

The DIY distillery kit had been seized “for the non payment of His Majesty’s duties.”

The public viewing prior to the auction was doubtlessly the best attended event of the year, because the advertisement also specified “three puncheons of spirits” and stated invitingly “samples may be had at the Excise Office at Strabane.”

The road to Strabane was presumably well trodden with local folk going, going, gone! News Letter readers with local knowledge might be able to throw some light on a horse that was stolen on New Year’s Eve in 1823. A reward was advertised for the recovery of the nine-year-old nag, nicked from its stable at Derrygoon.

It had a tail that was described as “rather inclined to the near side!” Which is the near side of a Derrygoon horse, and what is the derivation of its exquisitely colloquial town land address? Please let Roamer know via the more metropolitan address at the bottom of this page.

In the one penny Derg News in March 1938 there was an intriguing description of a school concert where the pupils performed two ‘action songs’ entitled The Wedding of Jack and Jill and The Sweeping Brush Brigade. More information about the choreography of ‘action songs’ and their lyrics would also be greatly appreciated. James Emery and Cannon Trimble’s instinct for action embraces country fairs, commerce and culture.

A contemporary chord is struck in their short history of Castlederg shoe-shop proprietor John Crawford who emigrated to Australia with his wife and six children only a few days less than a century ago.

They voyaged to their awesomely unfamiliar destination in the unnervingly small 6,000-ton SS Westmeath.

On February 15, 1913 the Crawfords arrived in New South Wales where the temperature was 115 degrees in the shade - not dissimilar to Australia’s current climatic catastrophe.

They travelled the final unrelenting miles in a horse drawn open cart - no mention is made of the inclination of the horse’s tail - across parched, deserted, unmapped countryside. As one of the earliest settler families in Bagtown, Griffith, their first-home mortgage was a tent, whilst chopping trees to build a log cabin.

Water wasn’t available for six months so they surely yearned for the heartbreakingly distant Red River Valley. A more recent, and arguably an equally courageous journey of discovery, occurred on the Royal Black Preceptory’s annual demonstration in Castlederg in 1957. The town’s new priest, a young Edward Daly, returned to his lodgings after hearing morning Confessions. The Black men, whom he’d never before encountered, had deposited their bowlers and sashes in his room while they lunched in the dining room in his boarding house.

“I couldn’t resist the temptation to rig myself out in a black bowler hat and a sash,” the young curate admitted later. “I looked in the mirror. I was a true Black Man!”

Father Daly reckoned that the owner of his hi-jacked hat and sash, and the other partially disrobed demonstrators, “weren’t aware of the profession of the tenant of the said room. I even had a black suit to compliment the outfit,” he boasted.

For information on purchasing The Red River Valley (£15 with all profits going to local charities) ring (028)816710414 or (028)81671366.




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