I caught my first fleeting glimpse of Johnny the Jig in Holywood, Co Down, in the mid-1950s, through a side-window of dad’s doddery-old black Ford Prefect.
Dad drove even slower to let me see the sculpted figure of the barefoot little boy playing an accordion.
Johnny enchanted me, though I didn’t know it was sculptress Sophia Rosamond Praeger’s gift to the town in memory of local Boy Scout Fergus Morton, killed in a road accident while doing ‘Bob a Job’ in 1952.
I became better acquainted with Johnny in later years when I lived in Holywood for two happy residencies in houses quite near the statue.
Johnny is now on my office desk, photographed on the front cover of a book called Holywood People, launched in the local library last night.
And Sophia Rosamond Praeger is one of around 70 individuals and families, past and present, associated with the town and the surrounding district who are recounted in the book.
Compiled by the History Group of the Holywood District University of the Third Age (U3A), most of the people detailed in the book lived in the town or nearby, some have also worked there, while a few have more tenuous connections with Holywood.
“The selection was based not on quantitative criteria,” the book’s eight authors explain in the introduction, “but on an assessment of the significance of the individual’s contribution to the development of Holywood or wider society.”
Such as Praeger, and others from the arts, including cartoonist Rowel Friers and film-maker John T Davis – mentioned on Roamer’s page today but there’ll be more here soon!
There’s a hefty tally of folk from business and industry in the book, including soap manufacturer Archie Finlay; Shorts missile and aircraft guru Sir Philip Foreman; Bernard (Barney) Hughes who owned the largest baking and milling enterprise in Ireland in the 1870s and Sir Samuel Kelly, owner of over 40 iconic Kelly coal boats, as well as being chairman or director of about 20 other leading Ulster companies.
There are also chapters of churchmen, educationalists, politicians, community stalwarts and people from the world of sport.
“This book reminds us both of the cultural richness of our town,” the authors write, “and of the impact that its residents have had on the wider community.”
Some of the inhabitants of the 60 well-illustrated pages “have travelled widely in their chosen occupations and callings”, the authors add, “and many have retained their roots’ in the town.”
The book is a veritable Who’s Who of Holywood, richly garnished with When and Where, some intriguing Why and How and plenty of Now!
Writing about the town in 1913, historian Mary Lowry didn’t credit the poet but reproduced three lines from a poem written in 1822:
“Close by the water’s farther side,
There sits in clean and modest pride,
The cheerful little Holywood.”
And more recently, one of the town’s residents brought more cheer than most to Northern Ireland and further afield.
“He understands the Ulsterman as no sociologist ever will,” wrote journalist Billy Simpson, quoted in the book, “and he has the gift of portraying that understanding in art and words that enable us to laugh at ourselves”.
In the arts section of the aphetically compiled book, Rowel Friers comes after Garth Ennis, the comic book writer born in Holywood in 1970, and before Hertfordshire-born sculptor Morris Harding, who shared a studio with Rosamond Praeger in Holywood and carved the base of Johnny the Jig.
“The only side I’m on,” Friers once quipped profoundly, “is sanity. I just make fun of all the madness.” Rowel was describing his work as a caricaturist, the best-known cartoonist of the Troubles in Ulster.
Rowel and his wife Yvonne “were a great team” the book recounts, continuing: “She enjoyed drama and he enjoyed designing the stage sets – first for Fisherwick Dramatic Society and then for Holywood Players.”
Together with a friend “Yvonne ran a playgroup in ‘unused space’ in the Friers family home on the corner of Brook Street and Victoria Road (in Holywood) for over 30 years.”
Rowel’s cartoons were published in enough newspapers and magazines to fill the shelves of any thriving newsagent – Punch, the Radio Times, London Opinion, the Daily Express, the Sunday Independent, Dublin Opinion, the Northern Whig, the News Letter, the Irish Times and the Belfast Telegraph.
John T Davis is also in the arts section, Northern Ireland’s most distinctive documentary film-maker and cinematographer, born in Holywood in 1947.
Following his first film, Transfer in 1975, working as cameraman and/or director John’s movies on smaller and larger screens included Shellshock Rock (1979), Route 66 (1985), Dust on the Bible and Power in the Blood (1989), Heart on the Line (1990) and Hobo (1991) which required Davis to spend three months living as a ‘drifter’ with a concealed camera, jumping freight trains.
More recently Davis has directed Van Morrison Live in Santa Monica (1994) and The Uncle Jack (1996).
“Tragically, on a stormy night in December 1999,” the book laments, “his house Ben Edar was seriously damaged by fire. Much of his archive, including many irreplaceable films and photographic records, was lost. He has since made several more films, among them Traveller (2000), A House Divided (2003), and Tailwind (2008).”
Holywood People at £5, with all profits going to charity, is available in shops in the town, by email from email@example.com or at www.colourpointbooks.co.uk.