Thanks For The Memories
KERR’S CORNER this time is a little bit different from the norm. Since the last issue my father, Tommy Kerr has died, so I’m using the column to say something about him.During his ninety-one years a lot has changed in this country.
My dad was born in 1915 in Meigh in South Armagh when Ireland was all one country and part of the UK. This was during the Great War, a year before the Easter Rising and the Battle of the Somme. He lived through it all: the formation of Northern Ireland and the Irish Free State, the early troubles, the hungry thirties, the Blitz, post-war prosperity and the latest troubles.
Despite leaving South Armagh in the early Thirties, he still had a fondness for the place. Earlier this year my sister took him for a nostalgic drive around some parts he hadn’t seen for over half a century. He really enjoyed it. On a trip to Dublin on the train on St Patrick’s Day last year, he eagerly pointed out landmarks around his old stamping ground. One of his earliest memories was seeing all the King’s dead horses lying by Kilnasaggart Bridge when the IRA blew up the line to attack a train carrying soldiers. Apparently King George V was opening the Northern Ireland Parliament in Belfast and the horses and men were intended to take part in the ceremony. Dozens of horses were killed in the explosion. No wonder he never forgot this grisly sight.
He also recalled attending the funeral of Lord Carson in Belfast. This was the biggest funeral ceremony he had ever seen until George Best’s last year.
During the Second World War he worked in Ewart’s mill in Bedford Street which was turned over to producing uniforms and other equipment for the war effort. He spent many evenings on fire watch on the roof of the building. During the big blitz, he had spent an exhausting night putting out incendiary bombs. Just about deadbeat, he went home to Rosapenna Street for a good sleep only to find that his home had become a pile of rubble. Fortunately no other members of the family were injured, I know of no surviving pictures of my dad from any earlier than 1941.
My mum was an ARP warden during the war. She met dad during the war and married him just before Christmas in 1947. At first they lived with her mother off the Shankill Road, but they eventually got a flat in Green End in a new Housing Trust estate called Rathcoole.
My first sister was born in 1954, I came along in 1957 and my second sister in 1962. By that time we had moved a brand new house in Movilla Park. This was our family home for most of my life.
Most of dad’s brothers and sisters – and his mum - moved to Canada just after the war. Another brother, who had served in the RAF, lived in England for a time before returning to Ulster. Tommy remained a home bird, although he did manage to travel to Canada a few times to see his relatives. The last time was only a few years ago. Hew was certainly highly regarded by them. Some of the loveliest tributes and sympathy messages I have received have come from Canada.
My mother never enjoyed good health and died in her mid-fifties in 1980 – five days after Dad retired. This was a terrible knock back but he didn’t let it beat him. He really enjoyed his retirement and remained very active, often walking everywhere. He made great use of his bus pass; often getting on any bus he fancied and walking back to Belfast City centre. Often I would get reports from friends who had spotted him walking in the most unlikely of places! Until the age of 87 he was still walking on the Twelfth with his Orange lodge, Primrose Temperance. He only stopped when he admitted to himself that he couldn’t stick the pace anymore.
On his ninetieth birthday the family organised a terrific party for him in the Spectrum Centre on the Shankill Road. My sister had organised this with military precision and it went very well. Tommy was tickled pink by the large number of friends, relations and well wishers who turned up for the event.
He strongly valued his independence. Until May he was even going into town on the bus to visit the Linenhall Library where he liked to read the Newry Reporter – his old local newspaper – each Saturday. It really upset him that he couldn’t do the things he used to do after he suffered a fall in early June. In the last couple of months he was in and out of hospital and the Cherrytree nursing home in Carrickfergus. He hated it. He was miserable. He found it very difficult to accept that his independence had been lost. All he wanted to do was go home to his own wee flat in Rathcoole Close. Even in his last hours, all he wanted to do was fight to get out of bed, out of hospital and back home. He was a fighter right to the end.
Despite his guts and tenacity he also had a generous spirit. He cared about other people and even cats. One of my cats went missing on June 6th. Right up to a few days before he died, he was still asking if there was any word of my lost cat. They just don’t make them like that anymore. We shall all miss him. Thanks for the memories, Dad!
Thanks to the staff of Cherrytree and Whiteabbey Hospital for all they did for Tommy and to Rev Alice Stewart of the Church of the Ascension for the magnificent way she conducted the funeral service and comforted the family. Thanks also to Primrose Temperance LOL who were kind enough to carry Tommy’s coffin to the graveside. I was deeply touched by he affection he was held in by so many people who came along and by all the messages of sympathy the family received. Thanks to you all.