Characters and Nicknames

By Patricia McElhone

Maggie Gillen was a character. She owned, drove and serviced her bus and whenever and wherever a problem arose she would crawl under the bus with her spanner and sort it out. I remember the old fashioned alarm clock she used for timing her service, which she kept on the floor at the front of the bus, as well as the black leather bag for collecting the money. Not alone did she transport passengers for 6d return, but she picked up or delivered messages at various yards around Sligo.

For years this same woman helped her father to care for the lights on the Channel. Lighting these perches on a winter evening could be dangerous. The perches were 15 feet high and marked the course of cargo boats going into Sligo. The lights on top of the perches had to be trimmed and refueled every day and lit at evening time. That meant two journeys a day and often in very heavy seas when the boat would be swept back from the perches again and again. Often when the job was done the boat would have to beach and the lamplighter and his boatwoman would have to walk back to the village. If Rosses Point men were brave, some of the women were fearless and it is somewhat fitting that Maggie Gillen's exploits were in the shadow of Maeve, the Warrior Queen.

Another extraordinary Rosses Point woman was Ma Gillen - at least that is how she was known to us children. She was a big woman and moved stiffly as if she was bracing herself against the roll of a ship. Her hair was brushed severely upwards and was pinned on top. We children had a healthy respect for her sharp tongue. She married a sea captain and accompanied him on some of his voyages, one of which was on a ship named the William Duthie, an Aberdeen Clipper bound for Port Elizabeth in South Africa with a cargo of coal. After discharging the coal they sailed for Calcutta to load a cargo of jute for Boston. When the ship was ready to sail on the morning tide, a fire broke out. The cargo was highly inflammable and Ma had to take to the boats wearing a shawl over her nightie and a pair of black boots. Someone put a black poodle in her arms and with nothing else left to her she was lowered down the side of the boat.

The Captain came along the deck carrying a black tin box stamped the William Duthie. As hr lowered the box down the side, the lid flew open and the ship's papers were lost. The black tin box to this day remains with Ma's daughter at Rosses Point. The ship, one of the finest afloat, burned for four days. The crew watched from the hotel windows and Ma would describe how it blazed over and under the water, the tips of the masts looking like lighted candles over the water at high tide.

On a subsequent trip Captain Gillen rescued an American registered vessel called the Lillian Baxter. Two sailors from this ship were picked up off the coast of Newfoundland and when Captain Gillen returned to England he was awarded a medal for bravery by the President of the United States. Like the black tin box, the medal and citation are proud relics of this brave captain.

Ma made several trips round the Horn but one she remembered particularly. The ship was hit by a storm and the ventilators were swept away. Water gushed into her cabin and she described it as being edge-to-edge with her bed. The ship's wheel was broken and could not be mended until the storm had subsided.

Meanwhile the ship was steered by ropes attached to the rudder. This job took the force of four men, two on each side. After 150 days at sea the ship arrived in London where the docks were lined with people waiting to see the ship and crew that had survived such storms. Happier trips included visits to the Lipton Tea Gardens in Colombo, the Red Sea, the Suez Canal, the Mediterranean, and St. John's Church in Malta. After all this Ma settled in Rosses Point and had eleven children. In later years she would relate her adventures to the lodgers who stayed in her house - Sea Crest - as it is today. The independence of these two women was the hallmark of the village women of those days - tough and spirited. Echoes of Grace O' Malley in their own ways.

If Ma Gillen regaled her guests with tales of ships and adventures, the Royal Hotel, now Ormsby House, had a general store, a bar licence and guest rooms. The proprietor was Ethel Ewing who married William Ormsby, first cousin of Jack and WB Yeats. I never remember him wearing anything else but plus fours. When the shop was open and he was in charge, he would sit on the wall across from the shop. He was never too keen on strenuous activity such as work, so when customers came he would wave his pipe in the general direction of the shop door with instructions to go inside and take what you want as long as you don't take more out of the till than you put into it. My memory of the shop is the pervasive smell of paraffin oil, long black strings of liquorice and Ethel Ormsby's dangling earrings.

Every evening Willie would walk up the road to the Golf Links Hotel. Coming home was tricky, so he used to walk down on the stony foreshore to avoid being seen by the villagers or passers-by. If anyone enquired about the various cuts and bruises sustained on his way, he'd reply a touch of gravel rash, don't you know. Another escapade could have had a different ending. He enjoyed hunting trips with his friend Tommy Ewing. Both gentlemen would ride off on a sidecar, one seated on either side, and would return with empty hip flasks and glowing spirits. On one such trip Willie fell from the sidecar through a hedge and landed in a field. His friend, at a loss to know how to rescue him, untied the horse's reins, threw one end down to Willie to fasten round his waist and tied the other end to the axle of the sidecar. With the horse encouraged to proceed slowly, Willie began his ascent to the road, through the hedge and back to terra firma.

Lobsters were a popular feature of the menu at the Royal Hotel and on one occasion Willie came home with some lobsters long after the household had settled down for the night. He left them on the kitchen table and went to bed. Next morning the guests were awakened by a screaming girl who had gone down to light the kitchen fire and was confronted by lobsters crawling round the floor. Mr Ormsby, come quick, there's a helluva big cricket walking round the kitchen floor. The girl, new to the job, had never in her life seen a lobster, nor I imagine would she ever wish to see another.

Nicknames of people and places had an aptness that reflected the familiarity of a small close-knit community where seed, breed and generation of the families were known by all.

Common surnames made nicknames almost a necessity as in Wow, Long and Rock - all Bruens; Bo'sun, Kenny, Post and Hoodler - all Gillens; Maggie Dundalk (Gillen) and Maggie Shanghai (McGowan); Miss Cosy and Miss California - both Briscoes. Miss California worked all her life as a teacher in California and came home to Rosses Point on her retirement. She road a high bicycle, always wearing a large hat and flowing chiffon veil over it and tied under her chin, earning her the nickname The Flying Saucer, until she got herself a Mini which she drove until she was in her nineties. Children would keep pace with the Mini as they walked from school.

Miss Cosy was a particular friend of my aunt and they swapped knitting patterns, plant cuttings and magazines. One I remember hearing about was Peg's Paper. Often we would walk along the road at night to visit Miss Cosy. The road then was unlit and generally traffic-free. I remember going along on dark nights, with curlews crying in Lochan, the moonlight throwing a golden bar across the channel, the skies littered with twinkling jewels of stars and at the end Miss Cosy's sitting room, a glowing fire and cocoa made on milk - sweet and luscious.

The Kerr and Briscoe families were Church of Ireland, much respected for their quiet gentility and their many acts of kindness to neighbours. My mother, ill and dying, welcomed Miss Cosy to visit. She would bring a single glorious rose that was a celebration of love and beauty. I have a very precious memory of the Eucharistic Congress (1932). The Kerrs, being the only people who owned a wireless, invited their neighbours (all Catholics) to come and sit on their lawn and listen to the broadcast. The sun shone, the sea sparkled and the notes of Panis Angelicus sung by John McCormack floated across the grass.

Areas had names like Helsinki - the crescent of Council cottages said to have been called after a Finnish corn boat that came into Rosses Point at that time (1939): Out Yonder - the area between the Upper Rosses and the Lower Rosses; Duck Town at the entrance to the village on the Sligo side and fronted by Lochan; The Burrow - the slipway in front of Elsinore (Austies) and Tommy's Island - Punta Beg.