James Bankhead was a quite tall slim man with fair hair. Before he bought his first car, he used to regularly walk into Portrush. He had a very long loping stride and in a few steps he was over the crest of the hill and out of sight.
He was married to ‘Nan’ Stewart, a childhood friend of my mother. They lived in the big schoolhouse, next door to our farm, and he was headmaster at Carnalridge Primary school, no more than fifty meters from his front door.
Between the schoolhouse and the school lived a very strange old man. He had unkempt hair and a long grey beard, and must have belonged to a religious sect, for he had a sign in his garden declaring ‘Repent, for the Kingdom of God is nigh’, or something similar.
The old man’s house was so small, it could only have consisted of one tiny room. His garden was a large patch of bog, in which the only thing that grew were rushes. The old man was rarely ever seen. As a child I was afraid of him.
Carnalridge school was originally established in 1850 by the congregation of the Presbyterian church. When I first attended the school in 1953, it consisted of just two rooms, a recently built extension for infant children, plus a dining room and catering facilities.
There were three teachers – Miss Moore, who looked after the infants, Miss ‘Old Biddy’ McCartney, who was my first teacher, and James ‘Jimmy’ Bankhead, who taught the older children, until they left for the secondary schools. I don’t know how many pupils there were in that era, but my guess is that there were about 60 altogether.
My earliest memory of the school was the morning of my first day. We had to stand around the room, with backs to the wall and give our names. The little girl beside me wet her pants and stood in a large puddle of urine. I feel sure that she has never forgotten the embarrassment that she must have felt.
In my last year, there were only four of us who took the ‘Eleven Plus’ examination, that determined whether we would go on to a grammar school, a technical college, or to an intermediate school, which was little more than a holding pen, until the children could leave at age of 15.
Three of us went on to the grammar school in Coleraine, all in the ‘A’ stream, which was a tremendous compliment to the teaching skills of James Bankhead. In addition to me, there was David Hunter, who ended up studying law at Oxford, and who became a barrister in Belfast, and Michael Moore, who ended up with a PhD in Marine Biology. The fourth pupil was Joan Gurney, but I don’t know what happened to her.
James Bankhead was born in Ahoghill, in 1906, the son of Samuel and Jane Bankhead. He started his teaching career in Clooney Primary School, in the Waterside area of Londonderry, where he was an assistant teacher for 5 years. He was appointed principal of Carnalridge in 1932, and remained there until his retirement in 1966.
He was a man of many talents and diverse interests. He was a renowned horticulturist, specializing in growing and studying daffodils, and wrote many articles on the subject. He was a local pioneer in the field of radio and television. He built his own radio in 1939 and took it to the church to hear the declaration of war. He built one of the first television sets in the area, and invited local people to his house to see the coronation ceremony in 1953. He was an accomplished tenor soloist and sang with the church choir. He was a keen golfer and bowler. He was an accomplished mathematician and read widely.
My years in his class were some of the best years of my youth. He taught me in arithmetic and I loved it, and my love of mathematics endures to this day. He introduced me to the classical books in the small school library and I borrowed and read most of them: Children of the New Forest, Treasure Island, The Black Arrow, the Enid Blyton books, Robinson Crusoe, among many others. He talked often about the history and geography of our area.
It was James Bankhead who introduced us to cricket, and in our lunch breaks, when the weather was favourable, we used to play, and he always joined in.
Cricket became a passion with me, especially after he showed me a game being played on his television. I used to spend hours bowling against a wicket placed against the end of our house, and I made up different ways of keeping score.
In about 1986 I visited him. He was living in a bungalow on the edge of Portrush, on the Ballywillan Road. His wife had previously died in 1977 and he had remarried to her sister, Lily, who had been living with them in their later years.
I spent a very enjoyable and memorable couple of hours with them, sipping on sherry, and chatting about old times. I asked him where he had found all the fascinating historical facts about Portrush and the area, history that used to enthral me. He remembered the book and the author, but regretted that he did not have a copy, otherwise I felt sure he would have given it to me. It was not until recent times that I discovered a complete transcript of the book on the internet.
Before I left him, I took the opportunity to do something I had wanted to do for many years. I told him what a great influence he had been on me. I thanked him for having given me such a good grounding and fostering my interest in a diverse range of subjects. It was an emotional moment for me and I suspect it was also for him. He was already an old man at that time, and shortly after, he had a stroke.
He and Lily spent their last days in an old people’s home in Portrush. He died in 1992 and was buried beside Nan, just outside the door of the ruined church at Ballywillan.
Lily died some time later and was buried in the new graveyard, across the road from the old church. I have always thought that Jim and Nan would have wanted her to be buried with them.