Country poet jests at Blitz evacuee’s beleaguered flock of ducklings

With air-raid sirens wailing in the night, a Belfast family rushed to huddle into the darkness of their make-shift bomb shelter in the garden.

Friday, 16th April 2021, 6:00 am
Former school principal and Belfast evacuee, David Orr

A child was urgently sent back into the house to retrieve a drawer full of important family documents.

Emerging at dawn, thankful to be alive, they discovered that the drawer was full of socks!

An immaculately uniformed policeman lay motionless on the street. His boots and buttons were shining.

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George Barnett (centre) with Sam Hanna Bell (left) and Michael J Murphy in 1962

His badges and insignia gleamed. A slate had neatly, instantly, surgically, taken his head from his shoulders.

Bombs were falling near the boarding house so its blacked-out windows were tightly shut.

A sleepless lodger, breathless with fear, couldn’t open his bedroom window in the darkness. So he broke a pane of glass, gratefully inhaling the fresh air into his lungs.

Next morning there was a broken pane of glass in the bookcase.

Poet Geordie Barnett was also an archaeologist, botanist, geologist, folklorist and musician

Those are some contrasting memories of the Belfast blitz, a sequence of Luftwaffe air-raids from 7 April to 6 May 1941, often recounted down the years and particularly today, 80 years after the tragic Easter Tuesday-night attack on 15 April.

Memories of that awful night, and of the other air raids, have been shared on this page in recent weeks, and there’s a special anniversary section in today’s News Letter.

Following Roamer’s accounts during the past few weeks, Graham Mawhinney e-mailed from Draperstown - “your recent mention of the 80th anniversary of the blitz…put into my head a rather light-hearted story about an evacuee.”

Graham’s e-mail continued with an introduction to his great-uncle David Orr, former principal of Tobermore and then Castleblayney P. E. schools before becoming principal of Montgomery School, Donegall Pass, Belfast.

Mr Orr retired in 1934 and continued to live in Belfast “but he’d been reared on a small farm near Draperstown,” Graham explained.

So, early in 1941, the family evacuated the city to live there, almost next door to Mr Orr’s cousin, George (Geordie) Barnett - “a notable local poet.”

Graham is very kindly sharing some photographs here today and one of Geordie’s (slightly shortened) poems, written in jest “mocking the ‘Master’s’ feeble attempt to rear some ducklings.”

There’s a clever schoolmaster - retired for life

From the noise of the school with its worries and strife

Midst blotters and jotters, books, inkpots and maps

And the trouble of training up other folk’s brats

Who got from Belfast with a very tight squeeze

Along with a bunch of the evacuees

He arrived at Sixtowns looking hearty and hale

And soon settled down amidst Labby’s green vale

He felt quite at home being reared on the ground

And started to lecture the farmers around

On the right kinds of stock both for milking and beef

And their slow farming methods which brought them to grief

On good cultivation he oft times would rave

And showed them fast methods their hay for to save

At subjects like these he would seem to be clever

But n’er gave a thought to unsuitable weather

A neighbour’s dun duck to his farmyard did stray

And finding some crumbs she did stop there to lay

Then his knowledge of farming was put to the test

And it took him a week to discover the nest

When at last he succeeded his grief it was keen

And there was not an egg at the place to be seen

His sister, a farmer, laughed at the joke

And told him beneath the moss cover to poke

The eggs he discovered and started to watch

As the duck at that time was beginning to hatch

And the neighbour who owned her, her kindness to show,

To his small grandchild, David, the duck did bestow.

The ducklings came out and their number was six

And they greatly amused him with head wagging tricks

Till a rat came along and a duckling did slay

Which caused him to worry by night and by day.

He borrowed a dog and searched for a cat

Tried ‘Rodine’ and ‘Romore’ upon that same rat

But the rat did elude him and all he did try

And oft showed its whiskers from a burrow nearby

It took his whole household - their number was five

To guard his small flock for to keep them alive

And his neighbours were greatly amused at the sight

When the flock to the parlour were rushed every night

Good water he gave them and oft was amazed

To see how they left it, the sight put him dazed

The trouble seemed inbred and deep in the blood

As they hated clear water and hankered for mud

He says the whole lot he will quickly sell off

And no more at the work of the farmers will scoff

For they must have great courage and hearts that are big

When they tackle the problems of poultry and pigs

Sheep, horses, goats, cattle, geese, turkeys as well

Their courage and patience increasingly tell

Beside the crop problems and problems of weather

These folk should be honoured for ever and ever

Geordie Barnett (1876-1965) was a prolific poet and Graham Mawhinney has collected almost 300 of his poems, which he hopes to publish.

If anyone has memories of, or writings by, Geordie Barnett or Cecil Orr, e-mail Roamer who’ll put you in contact with Graham.

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