School Days, — March 25, 2009 11:21 — 0 Comments

Schools’ Essay Winner 1973

On Wednesday 18th March 2009 I was conducting a telephone call with a dear friend when she changed the subject and stated that there would be a huge sale on the Newry Reporter that week. I walked into the trap and ask the stupid question why?

The Gilbert O’Sullivan lookalike on the right is our own Brian Fitzpatrick !


There was a great photograph of myself and this left me puzzled as I have not stood in front of any local newspaper photographer’s camera for a long while. It was stated that the Reporter would be sold out quickly with the demand on my photograph.  So curiosity got the better of me and the paper was bought.

As I went through the paper there was nothing about myself and then I began to think I had been conned on a grand scale. Well into the paper and the section I love, the 100, 50 and 30 years ago section and there to my horror was the picture.

In 1973 the photograph was brilliant, a testament to youthful success but by 2009, a testament to an aged hair-victim.

I am sure that we all have those embarrassing photos that especially mothers produced at the most inappropriate moment.  Well I have to say that while the photograph produced mirth in 2009, back in the early summer of 1973 it was so different and why  is so poignant to me.

So, to the story.

I was doing A levels, Abbey CBS and on a very laid-back day with Jimmy Haffey in the A level Geography room.  He was in a great easy mood, ready to be diverted to any craic about Revenue men or any other scandal. He amazingly produced a letter and began to read out the details of a local essay competition.  None of us, teenagers all, were bothered really about the contents but Jimmy was. He felt it would do us a world of good to partake.  Somehow – and I am still puzzled by this – we all agreed to write the required words, maybe just to appease Jimmy but time has dulled the memory.

 Newry Port and Harbour Trust was in the beginning stages of its final years.  What to do with the Newry Canal and the Albert Basin for the future was the crux of the competition.

Even in 1973 the damage was done, fixed bridges through Newry, the canal was in essence a dead duck even to nonplussed A level students. So I let the imagination loose and had this weed-covered waterway turned into a tourist attraction on a grand scale and at the end I made the critical reply that such ideas needed financial backing. I felt an opportunity had been missed by the planners, just like the debacle at North Street – a community destroyed as a sap for losing the railway.

Essays were handed over to Jimmy when complete and as far as I was concerned, the episode over.  It was getting close to the summer and a temporary job was being sought.  My dad had secured me employment at Haldane & Shields, Monaghan Street.  I would have money and something to do to keep me out of trouble.

Before the summer exams began, we were summoned to Jimmy’s A level room, a spectacular view over Newry in the background, as there he stood with a devilish grin on his face.

 Someone was in trouble, was the main thought and we all looked at each other and frowned as to what information Jimmy had.

 Somehow myself and Aidan Fearon from Rostrevor had been successful with the essays and the competition. I know I stared at Jimmy and actually said that he was doing a wind-up.  I was shown the letter, I was winner and Aidan the runner up.

We were both asked to attend the Port Authority’s office on Merchant Quay, quite close to Hogg’s travel agency, on a certain date and Jimmy said we had to be in school uniform.

So both of us fulfilled our obligations but rather than just a photo-shoot, we were invited into the boardroom and W.V Hogg began to discuss elements of our essays.  I wondered whether they were going to act on the ideas presented: only time would tell.  But, as you know, the Canal stayed as a dead duck.

 Then the pose for the photograph and I had a cheque and more money to spend.  The summer of 73 had potential to be great. A week later, school over and it was Thursday and my first day at work at Haldane & Shields.

 What I did not know was that I could have been put anywhere in the yard but somehow my dad thought being on security duty at the gate would be good for me. Parents ! Don’t you just love them?

 I was a security guard and had no notion of the coded writing on the documents being presented – double Dutch as far as I was concerned. 

Within minutes of the gates being taken off by forklift and the first vehicle for inspection ready, the wits in the yard had my nickname. The permanent security man was nicknamed The Dog and I was now his assistant.

Deputy Dawg sounded loud and clear even including the cartoon accents.  Branded for the summer and I could kill my dad.  Parents, you have to love them.

What was good about being on the gate was the chance to get across to Geoghans, the newspaper shop.  So there was some status with the job if the weather stayed dry.

Back to the first morning and just about 9.15am a big car drives in and I am informed that Mr Haldane has arrived.  His car is parked right close to the Dog’s little office.

With no vehicles to inspect how was I to look busy and I could not be in the Dog’s office so I had to stand like a right eejit in the yard as if a vehicle was approaching?

He headed over to Geoghans so some respite but nowhere to hide. On his return back, I returned to mode of being ready for business and dedicated and hoping he heads for his office and I could relax.

Imagine my horror when he looks directly at me and comes towards me. I wanted to die and I could hear howls of laughter and scorn about a deputy about to be sacked.

I try to smile:  then I thought that made me look stupid so I put on an interested face.

His introduction, his demeanour and tone have always stayed with me and I cherished the respect he gave me, a total unknown.

‘So we have someone famous working on the gate. A great writer who may write great things in the future’, he said.

‘Eh’ was my reply. Was this man joking with a first day employee?

He saw my reaction and with great grace and ease he showed me the Newry Reporter.

There was muggins, front page, the only photograph on it.  W.V Hogg standing between Aidan Fearon and I.  In large black and white but of all places, the front page!!  I was not buried within. Even stupid me knew that fame lasts but an instant but I was in my instant.

Mr Haldane was right:  for a few days I would be famous, front page Newry Reporter. My mum was so proud of this, she talked for days about it knowing it embarrassed the hell out of her teenager son.

I still remember that this man, Mr Haldane asked me about my written comments and he agreed with some of my criticisms. I was having a very intelligent conversation with a very interested and interesting individual.

For those few minutes it was a true pleasure for me to talk to an adult in authority.

So I basked in the glory of it but Mr Haldane had impressed me so much with his calm and thoughtful approach.  I had so much respect for him by the way he treated me on that nervous morning for me.  The front page also earned me some respect down the yard so I avoided any other first day pranks.  Even the time given to me by Mr Haldane had others talking in a positive way.

I kept the job for the summer and right up until the following January I was given evening work to do after school but not gate duty.  I had escaped but not the nick name. So life moved on.

I still remember how I felt when I heard the sickening news that this gentleman had been shot and killed. I revisited that small moment in time and was glad that I had met this man and that he had been so polite and courteous towards me.

So to 2009.  I have to take the ridicule about my hair.  I thought I was cool with the length but curly hair expands outwards to resemble a bush.  I must have stuck my finger in numerous electrical sockets to get it like that was a common comment. Heard it all before.

My son conferred Geek status on me and others laughed, the fashion victim of a bygone era. The era of bell-bottom jeans, the wide collared Ben Sherman shirts:  we were fashion victims but it was still great to be breaking the bonds of short, back and sides. What the slaggers did not know was my story of that photograph.

Sometimes I wonder about that summer and that one moment.

I was grateful that I was allowed the experience of it, of meeting a very thoughtful man … a memory to treasure.

… Oasis ? …


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