One gentleman who entered my life when I was about seven years old was Willie Burns, my mother’s uncle. He lived with his sister Lily at No 82 Chapel Street. Before that time I didn’t even know he existed!
Lily was ‘odd’ in her way and never bothered much with any one. She worked in Dromalane Mill and called regularly at our house. She asked me one day if I would whitewash her yard and I agreed. It was only when I called to her house that I was confronted by her rather stern and gruff brother, who found it hard to communicate with me.
It was only later that I discovered that under that gruff exterior lay a heart of gold. Willie was a bandmaster and founder member of St Catherine’s Brass and Reed Band. Unfortunately for the band, he introduced me to the clarinet: I say unfortunately for, to this day, I haven’t got a musical note in my body.
Dutifully, for maybe six or seven years after that fateful day, my clarinet case in my hand, I arrived after school at his house for lessons that sorely tried the patience of both of us! After all those years I finished up capable of a feline-like rendition of The Mountains of Mourne and The Rose of Tralee.
The average music lesson would endure perhaps 10-15 minutes before Willie, on the pretext that he needed me to run an errand, ordered the clarinet to be tucked away.
Willie seldom left the house and when he did it was always on his bicycle. When he wasn’t capable of that any more, I myself learned to ride the bicycle. At first it was at a peculiar angle to the vertical, one leg threaded under the bar. Then I graduated and could balance like everybody else.
Even at a tender age he would send me to Monaghan Street, to McNamee’s the tailors’ outfitters, to buy him a suit, shirts or whatever. I was very well rewarded for my batman role. There wasn’t a day that he wouldn’t give me a half-crown or a florin.
Through all the years that I knew him, he never once called me by my Christian name. It was only in June of 1955, when he was in hospital that he finally did so.
On impulse one Saturday I called to see him. As I entered the hospital ward, the breath was leaving him. He reached out to me and said my name,
I was with him when he departed this mortal coil.
I will forever remember the times I spent with my great uncle, Willie Burns!
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