Real characters about town are few and far between of late and indeed if it wasn’t for Marty Bogroll we’d be bate altogether. Lofty Larkin, I understand is over in Galway. Characters of yesteryear, like Forty Coats and Forty Bottles are still in our minds. You can still see the ‘Last of the Summer Wine’ line-up at street corners, on the summer-seats at the Greenbank roundabout and such like, but few have that local-colour name-tag of old that so readily identified both the character and what he/she was famous for.
Mary the Rent was a shrewd operator in times gone by. She’d go round the town knocking on people’s door demanding the rent. Mary didn’t even have a house of her own, much less be a property-owner of note. Many people, knowing her well and her needs, gave her a few coppers anyway. This would be enough to keep her out of the workhouse for a few nights.
Jemmy the Smuggler I think was flattered by his name. A character whose speech impediment rendered him almost unintelligible, he sold newspapers on the streets until illness drove him into the workhouse. Funny, on-street newspapers sales used to be the job for the local town character.
Jamesy Kelly, the singer [‘Singing the Blues’] did it in my day. Jamesy lives now in the ‘home’ up the Rathfriland Road. When not selling the paper, he’d call into every barber’s shop for a hair-cut. With a great clicking and clattering of scissors’ blades and flourishing of comb, the barber would dutifully comply. Jamesy would rise much pleased from his chair and reward all and sundry with a shy but broad smile, and occasionally a song. It was his shyness that most appealed to me. How could he still be shy when he was ever the centre of attention and obviously loved it? Then he’d move on to the next barber! He never left time for a hair to grow on his head. He was loved by all and sundry!
Talking of singers, whatever happened to Skibbereen? He was good enough for guest appearances in the local clubs but it must be twenty years since I even heard his name mentioned.
Only the older ones among you would remember Jem the Nod and Sergeant Straw. Plied with free drink – clearly their only motivation, for these men were no fools – they’d perform silly tricks and act as figures of fun. On the other hand Slate Lugs from Church Street could strike fear into the hardiest of souls. By way of contrast, Micky the Dummy was a kindly vagrant who with a friendly smile, was always at hand to offer help whether you wanted it or not!
John Torley, or the Cock of the Rock as he was known, could write a begging letter like no other. One addressed to the Board of Guardians of the Poor Law Union so moved those illustrious gentlemen that they passed the hat round their own table to assist him!
Satan Connolly haunted the Castle Street/North Street area of old. He was normally a docile, if work-shy character and earned his living begging from the local shops. With a few drinks on him, his temper changed and he became a real devil. ‘Satan!’ the local young lads would taunt him, with the desired result. He spent manys a night in custody.
The 12th parades brought the best out of Johnny Bullpost, a harmless if slightly deformed creature with a short body topped by a large head and supported by short, thick legs. His speech impediment ensured that he became a figure of fun for many. Barefoot, he marched alongside mimicking the brethren on their way to Edward Street Station. Since many Orange tunes are really Irish rebel songs without the usual words, Johnny would sing along supplying the ‘missing element’. Occasionally an Orangeman would play along, and give Johnny a sash and a bowler hat to complete the outfit.
Mary Bite was a very sad case. A woman of terribly distorted features, she was also crippled and walked from side to side like a crab. Her ‘party-piece’ was to creep disguised up upon a group of people, then drawing back her shawl to expose her face, she’d utter a spine-chilling shriek! She was several times jailed for vagrancy. After a spell in Downpatrick gaol, while walking home to Newry she dropped dead.
Margaret the Flower was known for her extravagant behaviour as well as her love of flowers. Considered a figure of fun she’d often be seen walking down Hill Street bedecked like the May Altar! She had little discriminatory taste for she’d mix real with artificial flowers! After several visits to prison the Mercy Nuns took her in. This transformed her life and she became famous for her prayerful stance and her devotion to her faith.