Year of commemorations, questions and opened and unopened letters

Bird motif on Morton's flour bag
Bird motif on Morton's flour bag

On the first day of 2016 Roamer wishes this page’s readers and contributors a very happy New Year with an enormous thank you to the hundreds of folk who shared their memories, stories and pictures here during 2015.

On the first day of 2016 Roamer wishes this page’s readers and contributors a very happy New Year with an enormous thank you to the hundreds of folk who shared their memories, stories and pictures here during 2015.

But first, there are a few unanswered questions remaining from last year!

Such as - why was ivy put in water to boil flour bags?

We were informed that this was a common practice in days of yore when empty Morton’s ‘Early Riser’ flour bags were washed and recycled as clothes, sheets and pillow cases.

The botanists and scientists that Roamer contacted couldn’t come up with an answer though a reader suggested that it was lanolin (waxy oil) in the ivy that softened the bags during boiling and removed the ink-printed Morton Company name and blackbird logo.

Another unanswered question concerned the old Cork-built pilot ship Cormorant, known as the Belfast Pilot when she was moored off Carrickfergus between 1943 and 1959?

Cormorant’s new owners on the River Medway are father and son ship-restorers David and Simon Dudley.

They described her lifeboats “hanging inside their davits” (cranes) and wondered if any Roamer readers might know how Cormorant’s crew could have launched them in an emergency with the lifeboats suspended inboard above the decks instead of outwards over the sea.

Yet with Ulster’s unmatched history of shipbuilding no one offered a solution!

And a question of seemingly immense significance was raised here, and left unanswered, when the Magna Carta’s 800th anniversary was celebrated across the UK in June.

With the national and international spotlight on its historic signing by King John on June 15, 1215, a News Letter reader asked - “Are we commemorating the sealing of the Magna Carta on the correct day?!”

There was great pomp and circumstance in Runnymede where the Queen attended the anniversary events, but it seems that our top historians can’t agree if the date is the right one!

The reader who highlighted this curious conundrum emphasised a major local link with Runnymede - the first country outside England to receive the Magna Carta was Ireland!

In February 1217 it was sent to Dublin as the then Archbishop of Dublin was one of King John’s most trusted officials and was present at Runnymede for the negotiations between King John and the barons that preceded Magna Carta’s signing.

The Dublin Archbishop’s name appears on it as the second named witness after the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Last year brought readers’ memories of glowing coal fires in iron hearths, and of a cat regularly having kittens in a coal store.

A reader recalled learning Thomas Moore’s famous songs and poems in school, and there were mouth-watering memories of eating fresh-fried Lough Neagh pollan.

We were introduced to Dynamite Woman, the beautiful young Spanish freedom fighter Rosario Sánchez Mora who made hand grenades for the fight against General Franco’s forces.

In 1936 she lost her right hand when a faulty grenade exploded prematurely but she continued fighting.

We commemorated the sad day in 1940 when over 4,000 men, women and children perished when His Majesty’s Transport Ship Lancastria sank after being bombed by the Luftwaffe near the French port of Saint-Nazaire.

Bangor man Andrew Jaggers told us that his 30-year-old Uncle Cyril Sutton from England, along with many Ulstermen, drowned when the over-crowded Lancastria sank in less than 20 minutes.

We were told about an old WWII bible with a handwritten message “from Grandfather, Beulah Hill.”

A reader confirmed that the signature was penned by George Coalter, a greatly-loved preacher and schoolteacher then residing in Beulah Hill in Enniskillen.

Other readers shared a host of warm memories of the devout Christian headmaster.

A letter from Mr Coalter’s great grandson Johnston Irwin acknowledged a remarkable coincidence - “George Coalter’s great-great-granddaughter, who is my daughter Rebecca, is on page 25 of today’s News Letter!”

Sure enough, Rebecca’s story about her major sports award and her photograph was just a few pages away from her great-great-grandfather.

One letter was mentioned on this page on July 29, 2015 that I haven’t yet shared here.

My dear mother was buried on that day, and her Jewish father Leopold Kessler’s last letter to her before he died in a German concentration camp in 1942 was somewhere in her house.

She showed it to me only once when I was much younger and when I put my hand out to hold it she wouldn’t let me.

She whispered tearfully that his words were too anguished.

The pages were well worn with its fragile folds disintegrating because she had opened and read it countless times since coming to Northern Ireland as a teenage refugee from Austria.

Roamer’s page last July was mum’s obituary.

While writing it I admitted that I’d waited much of my life to read my grandfather’s final farewell to my mother.

I haven’t yet unfolded its brittle sorrows or translated the torment that I remember from mum’s eyes when she showed it to me all those years ago.

But the New Year brings hope, and I hope to read it and share it here in 2016.

I’ll smile through the sadness as it’ll be my first time holding onto my grandfather’s very own words!

I hope too that there’ll be many other readers’ memories and stories, joyful or sad, on this page in the year that’s just begun.

Happy New Year.