Landing on my feet

July, 1965

Despite all my macho bravado and naïve ambition, when that early morning arrived for me to get up and leave home, to go off into the relative unknown, I felt suddenly quite nervous.  The enormity of what I was going to do, with little money and even less marketable skills hit me, and I just wanted to find it to be just a dream.  But my mother knocking on the bedroom door was real.  I took a deep breath and got up.

I had a hurried breakfast, while my parents silently watched.  Their faces said it all.  They looked sad and concerned.  It was a emotion that I did not understand until I, in my turn, experienced my own sons setting off for their first time, albeit from afar.

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Photo taken not long before I left home

My friend, Stewart Barnes, arrived to drive me to the airport.  I went to the bedroom to say goodbye to my brother.  He was half asleep when I kissed him.  I will never forget the sleepy look of bewilderment in his face.  I don’t remember going to my sister.

The rest of the day passed in a blur – to Belfast, then Heathrow and on to Toronto, where my grandparents were waiting for me.  I remembered my grandmother from a visit she made to us in Ireland, but I had never seen my grandfather. They migrated to Canada soon after the end of the war and he never returned. They lived in Brampton, about 50 km from downtown Toronto.

Immigration card

After a couple of days walking around sleepy suburban Brampton, I decided that it was not for me.  My grandparents were keen that I stayed there, but to me, Brampton felt about as exciting as a night out in a funeral parlour.  So I decided to try my luck in Toronto, where my friends, George and Eileen, had settled.

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My maternal grandparents in their living room in Brampton, in 1963

I took a Greyhound bus to the terminal in Toronto and went to a nearby restaurant to eat something, before starting job hunting.  Apart from hamburger, I recognized nothing on the menu, so hamburger was what I ordered.  There were no chips.  Afterwards I realised that chips were called French fries in Canada.  I had never been in a restaurant before.  My innocence must have been glaringly obvious.

I walked towards the city, completely awed by the size of the buildings.  At that time, they were completing the twin towers of the Toronto Dominion Bank, the tallest of which had 56 floors.  I had never seen a building with more than three floors.

I stopped in a phone booth, close to the new city hall.  In those days there were still phone books in phone booths, and in the yellow pages I found a small section for Quantity Surveyors; there were only three entries.  One with the grand name of Helyar, Vermuelen, Rae & Mauchan, attracted my attention, and I called them.  A gentleman called Peter Pedrette answered my call and suggested that I go and see them right away, as their office was close by the city hall, at the corner of Richmond and Bay, opposite the big Simpsons department store.

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The new Toronto City Hall, with the old city hall on the right (photo from internet)

I was interviewed by Bob Maughan and James Rae, two Scots who had been several years in Toronto.  They soon seemed to be more than happy with my capabilities as a junior and were more interested in the fact that I played rugby.  They called a friend, Norman, connected to the Toronto Scottish, and arranged for me to attend their training later that week.  And, by the way, I could start the next Monday on a salary of 55 dollars a week, a princely sum to me; that was more in one week, than I earned in a month in Ireland.  It was only later that I realised that the cost of living in Toronto was much greater than that of Ireland.

I accepted their offer without any hesitation and I skipped and danced my way back to the Greyhound bus depot.  I was deliriously excited about my new job.

I felt as if I had arrived.

Bertie Peacock

When I was a teenager, Bertie Peacock was a hero and idol in my part of Ireland.  He was born in Killowen, in Coleraine, played a few games for the local football club in 1947, before being transferred to Glentoran, in Belfast, and on to Glasgow Celtic in 1949.  There he made 450 appearances, together with 31 caps for Northern Ireland during 1952-62.  He played in the 1958 World Finals in Sweden, when Northern Ireland reached the quarter-finals, a feat not since repeated.

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Bertie Peacock in his Glasgow Celtic days

In 1961, he returned to Coleraine as player/manager, culminating with winning the Irish Cup in 1965, at which I was present.  Soon after, I migrated to Canada and lost touch with the exploits of the team, which had several more cup and league successes.  Bertie retired in 1970, continued for a few years as manager, and eventually bought a local pub, which he named  as ‘Bertie’s Bar’.  He died in 2004.

When I recently visited the Coleraine graveyard, my brother showed me Bertie’s grave.  He told me that there was now a statue of Bertie in the Diamond in the town.

It was my great-uncle Bill and Ronnie Wilson who first took me to see a Coleraine football match.  Apart from the once-a-year North-west 200 motor cycle race and the horse racing in the fields beside Hopefield hospital, there was only local football to watch.  Television was in its infancy and, apart from the FA Cup final, no football was broadcast live.

Ronnie used to work with my father.  He was a few years older than me, and Uncle Bill used to drive us the four miles to Coleraine in his little Morris Minor 1000.  Uncle Bill used to set off more than an hour before the kick-off, despite that there was never a crowd capacity of much more than 2000.  We used to race along at about 30 mph, only slightly faster that uncle Bill would have driven his horse and cart; there was always a long line of reluctant followers behind us.  He always parked in the same spot on Union Street.  And the ground was practically empty when we took the same seats on the back row at the corner of the stand.  Sometimes we had to wait outside until the man who operated the turnstile arrived.  We never missed a kick-off.

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A Morris Minor 1000 – Uncle Bill’s was black

My brother dropped me off near the town centre and I strolled the rest of the way along the pedestrian mall.  The town centre that I remembered had much changed; it had been extensively rebuilt after the IRA bombings in the 1970’s.  I stopped opposite the building where I used to work and took a photo of it.  The quantity surveyors that I worked for – Dalzell & Campbell, probably no longer exists.

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My desk was at the window on the first floor, above the entrance

 

Close by, was the statue of Bertie Peacock, and reading the attached plaque was an older man.  We started to talk, as do most Irish.  I asked him what all the flags around the town were in mourning for.  He told me that they had been put up to celebrate Coleraine being in the Cup Final on the coming Saturday.  When I remarked that they all seemed to be in mourning at half-mast, he laughed and said that that the men who put up the flags only had a short ladder.

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It turned out that the man I was talking to used to play football and he had known Bertie Peacock.  Not only that, he used to play for Coleraine.  And to cap it all, he played in the Cup Final of 1965, which was the last game I saw, before I migrated to Canada.  I was talking to Johnny McCurdy, the famed defender of the sixties and seventies, who still holds the club record for appearances at 634.  After he retired from playing, he managed the club for a time.

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Johnny McCurdy as the victorious captain, with club chairman, Jack Doherty (photo from internet)

We chatted for a long time about this, that and the other, and when we went on our separate ways, I felt as if I had never been away, and that all my wandering for the past fifty-two years had been but a dream.  It was the same strong feeling of nostalgia that I always experience when I revisit my home country; of memories of happy and perhaps simpler times, tinged with a sadness that those days are gone forever, together with most of the people that I once knew.

I crossed the bridge and walked slowly back to my hotel, along the beautiful riverside walk.

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Part of the riverside walk (photo from internet

 

George

Since my father died in 1995, I have not often been back to Ireland, in fact only in 2004, and again about eighteen months ago.  The north Antrim coast, from whence I come, is not on the way to anywhere; it is about as far as one can get from civilisation, unless one is sailing north to remote Scotland, the Faroe Islands or Iceland.  And once landed at Belfast airport, there awaits an hourly bus service to Antrim and an hourly train to Coleraine, both of which I always seem to manage to miss by no more than five minutes.

But when I step foot back on Irish soil, all the frustrations and aggravations of modern travel and living seem to evaporate, and I completely relax; I am once more 18 and on my way home again.

I met my brother the next morning at my hotel, and we headed off to the graveyard; I was anxious to visit the grave of an old friend, George.  We worked together in Coleraine in the mid-1960s.  He migrated to Toronto in 1965, together with his fiancée, Eileen.  They wanted to marry, but being of mixed religions, migration was their perceived solution.  George had a cousin in Toronto, and soon after they arrived, George and Eileen were married.  As crazy as it may seem today, that was the experience of many young Irish couples in that era.

George & Eileen

I followed soon after George and Eileen, and spent a few weeks sleeping on their living room floor.  None of us had much money and my contribution to the household was much welcomed. Eventually I moved in with five other guys, at 345 Eglinton Ave West –  Howard Abrahams, Michael Goldberg, Robin Jackson, Bill Stott and a Canadian, Gordie.  I am still in touch with Howard and Michael; Robin died a long time ago in South Africa; with the other two I have had no further contact, although I was once told that Bill did end up as the global boss of Hallmark Cards,

George worked as an estimator for a construction company – Pigott Construction, and later, he introduced me to his boss, who offered me a job, which I accepted.  Outside of work, I saw little of George socially; he was a settled suburban husband and I was a lad-about-town, playing rugby, football and partying.

Before I left for Australia in 1971, I last saw George and Eileen.  At that time, they had a little girl.  They seemed to be very happy and very much in love.  That was our last contact.

After I had a stroke in late-2005, it took some time, perhaps 2-3 years, for me to realize that my memory had not completely recovered.  I stumbled upon my own method of revitalising it – one day I may write of that difficult period of my life, and in so doing, I tried to find George.  Telephone directories, linkedin.com, facebook.com, internet etc. – there was no footprint.  I eventually dismissed him as being as a ‘Luddite’, resistant to new technology.

Until my good friend and genealogist, Norman Calvin, found him for me, or rather, found his sister.  And there I was, with my brother, looking for George’s grave.  It was no wonder that I had not been able to find him.  He came upon hard times in Toronto.  He lost his job, divorced and lost his family.  He eventually returned to Coleraine, but his situation did not improve.  On 25 November 2005 he died, a broken man.  On that day, I was fighting for my life in an intensive care ward of a hospital in Stockholm.

But where was his grave?  I had a rough idea where it was, but there were so many.  We split up, one each side of a path.  We walked up and down the rows, until I was on the point of giving up and getting more precise directions.  I distinctly remember saying out loud, ‘George, where are you’, when, in that instant, my brother shouted, ‘Over here’.

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It was another of the many co-incidences in my life.