Iveagh Ancestry

  Unlocking the past




Monkey nuts and corsets - stories with John Quinn

By Michael Rooney, Aug 7 2012 06:22PM

John Quinn is a local historian, poet and raconteur living in the townland of Lackan in the ancient parish of Drumballyroney. For many years he worked as a bread-server for Irwins’ Bakery and was engaged in a variety of farming activities. Currently, he is the chairman of Rathfriland Historical Society, an active contributor to the work of the Parkinson’s Society and Treasurer of Drumgooland Parish Church. I spent a very pleasant afternoon recently with John talking about his involvement in local history, story-telling and poetry.

‘I got involved with Rathfriland Historical Society almost by accident,’ explains John. ‘I had gone with my wife, Joyce, on a trip to Glasslough in Co. Monaghan with the society. Glasslough is the estate of the Leslie family and one of the Leslies, Captain Leslie, had come to live at Ballyward Lodge. My great-grandfather worked for him.’ As a result of the trip, John was invited to join the society by Dr Ian Shannon and it wasn’t too long before John’s skills as a storyteller were brought to the fore. ‘One of the meetings was to be a panel of local historians talking about their memories of Rathfriland. The person chairing the meeting didn’t show up, so I was asked to step in at the last minute.’ After that, John was a regular contributor to the society’s programme, eventually becoming its chairman.

Custodian of the Standard of the Governor of Northern Ireland

In addition to his many duties in the community, John holds a position that is unique: he is Custodian of the Standard of the Governor of Northern Ireland. When direct rule was imposed, the office of Governor of Northern Ireland ceased to exist. The standard of the governor which was flown to indicate the governor’s presence at Government House, Hillsborough was no longer required. John explains how he became responsible for its safe-keeping: ‘Wing-Commander Higginson of Ballyward Lodge was the last governor’s ADC (aide-de-camp). When the office of governor was abolished in 1973, Wing-Commander Higginson became responsible for it. Before he died, he asked me if I would be its custodian after his death. I agreed and so I am now the custodian of the standard.’ Although the standard is housed in a place of safekeeping, John has kindly allowed me to have a viewing of it. It is always a privilege to be shown an historical artefact, especially one which is a part of the history of Northern Ireland.

John exudes a real passion for history and has always been keen to promote its value. ‘The past passes us all. Society gains from learning about the past. You learn about different ways of life both in the local area and beyond.’ Connections between local history and the wider world have fascinated John and it is one such connection explored in his forth-coming book, A History of Drumgooland.

History of Drumgooland

‘I became interested in the history of Drumgooland some years ago. Joyce ran the Sunday School at Drumgooland Parish Church and as I was waiting for her to finish, I used to read the registers and records of the church. Over time, I became familiar with what was there so people with connections to the area often came to me when they were looking for ancestors. I was then keen to find out a bit more about the wider history of the area.’

John explores many aspects of Drumgooland’s history including the role played by the Beers or de Beers family who bought the Ballyward estate in 1812 and built Ballyward Lodge in 1821. ‘The de Beers family were originally a French Huguenot family,’ explains John. ‘The Huguenots were French Protestants who arrived in England during sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The de Beers family was part of this group and they made their money building churches. The family came to Ireland during the reign of Henry VIII and was given land around what is now Knockbreda.’

John explains an indirect connection between the family and another famous literary family: ‘A member of the Beers family married the local rector, Reverend Thomas Tighe. He spotted the talents of Patrick Bronte and appointed him master of Drumballyroney School and tutor to his children. He also organised a petition of sponsors to enable Patrick to become a student at Cambridge University. At that time, it was very rare for anyone outside the gentry class to be admitted.’ It is interesting to think that if it hadn’t been for Reverend and Mrs Tighe’s efforts, the course of literary history may have been very different!


In addition to researching the history of Drumgooland, John is an avid collector of stories relating of the area. ‘There is a very strong history of storytelling and poetry in Ireland, particularly in areas such as South Armagh,’ John explains. ‘People love a good story, especially when it involves someone they know or if there’s a lesson in it.’ John refers to one such anecdote that taught him a lot about understanding people and their perspective. ‘When I was about 12 or 13, I helped a local farmer, Sam Mark, who made deliveries of meat to homes in the area. One morning before Christmas, I got into the van which was packed to capacity with goods for delivery. As Sam’s wife fussed over the last minute preparations for the journey, Sam said to me, “Son dear, nobody, only the man on the road knows what the man on the road has to come through.” ’

Over the course of my visit, John recounts many stories and anecdotes he has heard and collected over the years. His archive is a treasure trove of local folklore capturing the lives of people from another era. Larger than life characters have a strong presence in all of John’s stories and a small selection is included below.

The potato merchant and the miserly brothers

‘The best stories are remembered because of the wit of the characters involved. One such story involves a potato merchant who used to manage the export of potatoes from Ballyward railway station for Stewart and Orr. He had the reputation of being a bit of a practical joker and always liked to have the last word. Now, there were two brothers who had a grocers’ shop and the potato merchant would often visit them in the evenings for a bit of craic. The brothers were known to be greedy and used to get annoyed when the potato merchant would pick up an apple, eat it and forget to pay for it. One evening, while the potato merchant was visiting, a traveller woman came into the shop with a baby wrapped up in her shawl. ‘Would you have something for the baby?,’ she asked the brothers. Thinking they would get their own back on the potato merchant, they pretended to the woman that he was the boss, so that he would have to deal with the query. The potato merchant, not to be outwitted, then proceeded to take two and half crowns out of the till and gave them to the woman, saying, “If you have any friends looking anything, send them in quickly, for I’ll not be the boss for much longer!”’

A winter’s tale

Over the course of his career with Irwins’, John encountered many colourful characters with a story or two to tell. One tale, a classic case of misunderstanding, involved a fellow bread server, Sam Agnew.

‘One winter’s night, Sam, whose run went up round Dree and Finnis got stranded in the snow. He was bogged down, it got dark and Sam realised he was in a pickle. Eventually, he detected a light in the distance and began to make his way towards it. It came from the window of a small cottage inhabited by a woman and her nine year old son. Because of the conditions, there was no hope of rescue that evening so Sam was forced to stay. Now, as the house was small, he had to share a bed with the woman’s son. When the time came for bed, Sam entered the room to find that the boy appeared to be kneeling by the bed with hands clasped and eyes closed tightly. Sam presumed that the boy was saying his prayers and joined the boy in the same posture, to set a good example. The boy asked, ‘What are you doing?’ Sam replied, ‘Same as you.’ ‘Well, if you’re doing the same as me, ma’ll kill you, your chamber pot’s on the other side of the bed!’

The horse-dealer and his wife

John has collected many stories featuring people in an argument. What makes them interesting is what it says about the characters involved and the unintended humour that can emerge from a tense situation. One story concerns the sometimes stormy relationship of a horse-dealer and his wife.

‘On one occasion, a well-known horse-dealer from Ballyward bought a very fine black horse. His wife wanted it for her own use and persuaded him not to sell it. Some time later, a local farmer noticed the horse grazing and approached the dealer with a view to buying it. The dealer informed him that the horse wasn’t for sale; it was for his wife’s personal use. The farmer thought that this was only the dealer’s way of pushing for a harder bargain and so persisted until the deal was struck. As the two men shook hands, they were spotted by the dealer’s wife, who knew what had happened and became very angry. The dealer, in his own defence, said that the farmer had given him a very good price. This did not wash with the wife who proclaimed, “If it hadn’t been for my money that horse wouldn’t be here!” To which the dealer replied, “If it hadn’t been for your money, you wouldn’t be here either!” ’

The swing plough

Many of John’s stories involve the sharp wit of people who, even in the most difficult situations, always had a suitable riposte. The late Owen McGibney of Gargory was one such character.

‘Owen was ploughing a field using a swing plough. Swing ploughs had no wheel and tended to bounce up and down over the ground, making them difficult to use. While he was ploughing, the handle of the plough bounced up hit him under the oxter, dislocating his shoulder. Because there weren’t many cars on the road in those days, he had to wait for some time to be picked up and taken to the doctor’s. When help did arrive, the doctor immediately sent him to the hospital. A team of nurses was summoned to try and reposition Owen’s arm, causing him to scream. Poor Owen’s agony was heard by the matron, Miss Ligget, who came down from the maternity ward to investigate. ‘What on earth is going on?,’ she asked. The nurses described Owen’s condition and the lack of success they were having in rectifying the situation. The matron’s response was less than sympathetic: ‘There is no need for shouting – I’ve just delivered a 10lb baby and there wasn’t half the racket.’ To which Owen replied, ‘Aye, Matron, but have you tried putting it back in again?’

The priest, the bishop and the Orangeman

Another story involving Owen McGibney implicated John in the visit to the area of the late Bishop Brookes.

‘Bishop Brookes had been celebrating Confirmation in Gargory and was on a visit to the sick of the parish with the local parish priest. Owen, who was then getting on, was entitled to such a visit and on the occasion of the visit, he invited me in. I became involved in conversation with the bishop about the people we knew in Rathfriland and talked for some time on this subject. Eventually, Owen, who was standing, leaning on his zimmer frame, exclaimed, ‘Bishop, did you come to visit the sick or to chat to an Orangeman from Ballyward?’

Monkey nuts and corsets

Sometimes the characters of John’s stories are required to employ their wit to settle arguments. An example is a story involving Hughie ‘Ragadoo’ Gribben.

‘Bob Kerr bought a lot of cattle and ‘Ragadoo’ or ‘Rag’ was often employed to drive them home. One day, Bob bought forty heifers at Camlough market and as it was late in the day Bob urged ‘Rag’ to get them on the road so that they would be a least halfway before nightfall. However, ‘Rag’ liked a drink before he did anything so he stopped at a local pub for a bottle or two of stout. While he was there, he witnessed two female market traders from Belfast arguing over whether or not the bowl of nuts on the bar was fattening. The barman asked ‘Rag’ for his thoughts on the matter. To which ‘Rag’ replied, “Did you ever see a monkey wearing corsets?” ’

‘While ‘Rag’ was a great wit, he had no schooling, a fact that was sometimes pointed out unkindly by others. One night in the pub, two men doing the crossword asked ‘Rag’, “How do you spell ‘paint’?” Knowing that they were trying to catch him out, ‘Rag’ replied, “What colour?” ’

Dr Who

John has collected stories from many individuals across the area. Often, those whose job involves travel or meeting people accumulate anecdotes from their encounters. The late Dr Wilson of Ballyward had many humorous tales to tell.

‘One time I asked Dr Wilson, when he had retired, if he missed being on the road responding to calls and he told me he did not. But he did have a lot of stories from his experiences as a GP. One night, during the ‘Troubles’, he got called out to a house in Leitrim. At Rooney’s Corner, the army stopped him and asked him his name and to state the purpose of his journey. The soldier asking the questions didn’t quite hear the doctor’s response and asked, ‘Dr Who?’ To which the doctor replied, ‘No, I’m not Dr Who, I’m Dr Wilson!’

John’s book, A History of Drumgooland, will be published later on this year.

My thanks to John Quinn, for sharing his passion for stories and local history, and to Joyce Quinn, for her hospitality.

This article was first published in The Outlook, 8/8/2012

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