ROAMER: Abundance of rare tales from the enthusiastic Millennium Babes

Water Street, Enniskillen. Late 1940s. Photographed by Tommy McBrien. Front - Rosie Williamson and Bridie Gordon.
Water Street, Enniskillen. Late 1940s. Photographed by Tommy McBrien. Front - Rosie Williamson and Bridie Gordon.

I’ve personal connections with today’s page that regular Roamer-readers may already be aware of.

I was born, brought up and schooled in Enniskillen!

The historic island-town and its people profoundly shaped my life, and continued to do so after I departed Fermanagh’s idyllic Lakelands for a burgeoning series of cities, near and far, in 1970.

Many people have similar feelings about their past, and often remain in, or return to, their original childhood stomping ground.

I was therefore honoured to go back and participate in the recent launch of a book about Enniskillen.

Entitled ‘Enniskillen in The Rare Ould Times’, it’s the fourth book in a series, each a colourful compilation of local peoples’ reminiscences and accounts of times past.

This latest publication is a remarkable mosaic of memories put together by Dr Mary Gordon and an enthusiastic team of contributors, endearingly called ‘The Millennium Babes’!

Northern Ireland boasts a host of local history organisations and heritage groups with regular meetings, campaigns and publications - all a vital part of community life - and at least half a dozen of their books and magazines are waiting in Roamer’s mailbox to be shared here.

Today’s colloquial title - Rare Ould Times - encompasses some unquestionably rare tales, in rare abundance, set in a countryside of rare beauty.

The heartily-fat 480-page tome is thronged with 130 locally-penned narratives punctuated liberally with 1,200 photographs, mostly bursting with nostalgia.

The vast variety of vivid recollections becomes immediately evident in the opening list of contents with ‘The Last Waltz in the Silver Sandal’ - a long-departed ballroom where Jamaican-born popstar Millie performed My Boy Lolliop in 1964.

Contrasting tragically with her massively enthusiastic reception was the accidental death of a fan.

Writer Toosie (Tom) Mulligan’s headline ‘I Learned to Swim Before I Could Walk’, suggesting a lough-side childhood, embraces wider social history.

Born between the bridges (and thus a fully-fledged Enniskillen-islander) in a house with no bathroom, little Toosie was bathed every Saturday night in the river.

His father was a peddler of used clothes and his mother plucked turkeys at tuppence a time.

Toosie became a messenger boy and member of the ‘toss school’ - throwing pennies into the air.

Police regarded penny-tossing as gambling, and when the school’s lookout raised the alarm they hastily tossed their pennies into the lough.

When the constables departed empty-handed the young lads, discarding their shoes and socks, waded into the water to salvage their stakes!

Learning to swim before walking reflected a sadder side to island life.

Toosie had six siblings.

Two died at birth.

“These were hard times for raising a family,” Mr Mulligan recounts, “there were four of us in a bed and three of them were still at the ‘wetting stage’, therefore I learned to swim before I could walk!”

Further chapter-headings amongst the extensive list of contents make an appetising menu of memories, though interrupted with sadness and woe.

The chapter title ‘Galley Uncle’ disguises disaster with the name of an American Flying Fortress that crashed beside the Graan Monastery in 1943.

Seven airmen died.

Five survived, mainly due to the Graan priests’ heroism, working with hatchets and garden tools on the fuel-soaked crash-site, dragging injured airmen from the buckled wreckage.

The scourge of TB (tuberculosis) and treating the all-too-common killer-disease in the late 1940s and 1950s tells of tragedy as well as healing, interspersed with rare anecdotes from a little lad who played quiz-games with the afflicted. Commerce, industry, shops and shopping are well-covered in the contents, with Ronnie Chambers’ account of his family-owned Church Street premises outlining the establishment, evolution and operation of a main-street island shop.

It was fitted with a money-spinning device called the Lampson and Paragon “to send the money from the counter to the office.”

Cables, tubes and pulley-wheels carried a suspended, cup-shaped, metal cash-container from the shop floor to the girl in the money-counting room.

The quick-deposit service, catapulted by elastic and boosted by gravity, worked smoothly until a shop-boy put a mouse in the pulley-cup.

“The girl in the office got an awful fright,” writes Ronnie.

Talented photographer Tommy McBrien’s ‘Century of Memories’ takes him from Water Street in 1920 to WWII’s Singapore with the RAF, including his lucky escape to Australia.

Tommy returned to Enniskillen in 1946 and as founder-member of the local Electrical Trade Union he mended the electrics in the local hospital’s operating theatre, hung the town’s first Christmas lights, and lit numerous plays and musicals performed by local drama groups.

Stephen McBride’s family adopted a stray dog and named it Bongo.

Seemingly happy with its new home, Bongo did back-flips, walked upright on its hind legs, and was excellent with a football.

There had been a circus in an adjacent field the week before Bongo turned up, starving, at the McBride’s front door!

The accounts in the Enniskillen compilation, about a breathtakingly wide array of people, places and events, are admirably summarised in Gildas Gordon’s foreward:

“The book is a real testament of humanity itself. It conveys humour, hardship, strength and a touch of sadness. It portrays a way of life that is long gone, but will certainly never be forgotten.”

Roamer requires absolutely no persuasion to agree with the foreward’s opening line - “Enniskillen is an incredible place and its people and the community spirit has made it a wonderful place to grow up.”

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