- Contributed by
- CSV Media NI
- Location of story:
- Malta and Downpatrick, Northern Ireland
- Background to story:
- Royal Navy
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 19 January 2006
This story was written and kindly contributed to the BBC by Ian Davis. The story was posted by Mark Jeffers.
All Change for Ballynoe, Bright, Killough and Malta!
A Heart-warming Story by Ian Davis
This concerns the extraordinary but true connection between the island of Malta during World War 2 and Loop Platform, here in Downpatrick.
I was just three when my mother was widowed. She was left to urgently think of how to keep house and home together and rear three children, my brother and sister were seven and ten years older respectively. In those days there was no government support - no benefits or handouts. With advice from friends and relations she opened a newsagents and tobacconists shop on property kindly leased by the late WF Minnis, manager of the Belfast and County Down Railway adjacent to Sydenham station.
Through this extremely hard work she was more than successful in the task, providing us all with good education and a loving and stimulating environment. Next door to us at that time were the McClenaghans - the most wonderful neighbours any one could wish to have. They were a large family, and apart from Mr and Mrs there were seven children.
In spite of this and knowing my mothers difficulties of giving time during school holidays (a newsagent shop allows little time off) this wonderful family arranged with my mother to take me along with their own family to Coney Island near Ardglass where they rented a thatched cottage on the back shore for three months every summer.
I stayed for six weeks - this being the limit of primary school holidays in the 1930s. This arrangement commenced in 1928 when I was four and continued up until I was sixteen.
The youngest member of this family was Joe McClenaghan, who was nearly five years older than me. I hero-worshipped him as he gave me such an abundance of playtime. We used to play trains, he the driver, me the guard and the train being the broken sea wall outside the cottage — the simple pursuits of those years!
We often travelled by train, and coming from Belfast for Coney Island we would have to change at the Loop Platform just outside Downpatrick. Most Newcastle bound trains from Belfast did not call at Downpatrick - they stopped at the Loop Platform where there was a connection to both Downpatrick and Ardglass. To inform intending passengers for these destinations and stations the guards of the branch train and the main line train would walk up and down the platform shouting: “change for Downpatrick, Ballynoe, Bright, Killough and Ardglass!” The one exception was the 10.50am train that went through to Downpatrick, and so the instruction was modified to “Change for Ballynoe, Bright, Killough and Ardglass”. We thought this was wonderful, and as the halt for Coney Island was on the Ardglass line we enjoyed the thrill of having to change trains at this isolated location.
In later visits Joe became very interested in the fishing fleet of steam drifters who came each year to Ardglass to take advantage of the abundance of herring in the area. So much so that he would be up at dawn to meet the returning fleet, (in those days the boats went out about four in the afternoon returning around six and seven in the morning).
A local farmer, who was the owner of the cottage, would usually go about three times a week to meet the returning fleet selling potatoes to the fishermen and before going to sleep Joe would tie a string to his wrist and feed the other end being through his window. In the morning the farmer would tug the string as he past the cottage, rousing Joe, who hurriedly dressed and accompanied the farmer to the harbour. As time went on he got friendly with the predominately Scottish crews and one in particular, a Captain Murray, skipper of the drifter “Norlan” from Buckie on the east coast of Scotland. When he was about fifteen or sixteen he used go out fishing with this skipper as an extra hand.
With the event of war being declared in 1939 most of the boats were recalled to their port of registry for war service - they never returned. Early in 1940 Joe enlisted— no surprise in the Royal Navy. By that time he had been working as a clerk in a well-known tobacco firm in Belfast and thus joined as a ‘writer’. I saw him about September of that year home on leave; on returning he was posted to Malta enduring the privations of the siege of 1941/2 together with the constant bombing for which the islanders were justly awarded the 'George Cross'.
In Malta when any of HM ships and transports bringing in essential supplies - that is the ones lucky enough to have avoided all the enemy could throw at them - docked, most of the garrison and people of the island would assemble on grand harbour Valetta to welcome in these ships.
Some time during the summer of 1942 when things were pretty grim with daily bombings and severe shortages a single navy ship was able to break through. She was a fast mine laying cruiser loaded with - apart from ammunitions and some aviation spirit for the defending aircraft — items of food etc.
When she docked Joe was on the harbour jetty. Suddenly he heard a voice shouting down from the direction of the bow: “McClenaghan!” Joe looked up from where he thought the shout came from. Then he heard the voice again - this time: “Joe McClenaghan! Change for Ballynoe, Bright, Killough and Ardglass!”
Suddenly Joe saw the smiling face of a sailor - it was a face he knew as a native of Ardglass who had worked in one or other of the two big grocery stores in Ardglass — either Hunters or Milligens, I am not sure which.
Joe waved, the sailor whose name I have since forgotten waved back and said, “Meet me at the gangway, I am coming ashore!”
They met, exchanged a hug - it was a very emotional moment for both. The cruiser had been repeatedly bombed on her journey but luckily only received minor damage from a near miss and for Joe to see this great ship about 12000 tons break the siege relieved the stress and worry of whether the British Navy could successfully defend the island against the onslaught of the axis powers of Germany and Italy.
Later in an air raid shelter over glasses of beer - beer brought in by the cruiser - they shared experiences since enlisting.
It is 62 years since Joe told me this story when he suddenly and without any warning arrived back home and went straight to Coney Island in August 1943 after the island was relieved by the successful campaign in North Africa and the landings in Sicily.
After Joe returned to his depot I never saw him again, his family moved to Holywood and while I saw them from time to time Joe had lost his heart to a Birmingham girl and so settled down there. I know he passed away some years ago.
My memories of his kindness and that of all his family are very cherished and unforgettable. They were unique in what they did for me and my hard-pressed mother. Such bestowed kindness would be a rare thing today, indeed if at all.
Is it not quite remarkable that a railway passenger-guiding announcement, “Change for Ballnoe, Bright, Killough and Ardglass” should be particularly instrumental in bringing two sailor friends together in a war-torn island in the Mediterranean Sea?
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