Recollections of a Threetowner in Stevenston
My name is John Donnelly. My father was Harry, who had the Newsagents and Tobacconists in Boglemart St. My mother was Meg Kelly from Saltcoats. Before she married, Meg was in service in Glasgow. All four grand-parents were born and raised in the Old Country, making me full-blown Irish.
Old Jimmy (Grandpa) Donnelly was a labourer in Ardeer Foundry and LizAnn (Granny) was in service in the Eglinton Hotel in Ardrossan before they got married. Old Jimmy (Grandpa) Kelly was a track-maintenance man on the Caley. His section was from the bridge at Ardeer Foundry to the bridge at the Miners’ Home in Canal St. Biddy (Granny) never worked in Scotland. They were married the day before they arrived in Scotland. Biddy’s people were agin Jimmy, so they eloped.
I arrived on the scene in the middle of the war, April, 1943. My dad was in the RAF, and Meg had a 5-year old,(Gerry), and a 4-year old, (Margaret), and the shop to look after. God love her, she needed me like a hole in the head. But she managed. The shop we had then, was the top-shop in Glencairn St. beside the High Kirk garden wall. We were a family of shop-keepers, and after the war, when the menfolk came back, things were shuffled around and we moved to the shop in the Boglemart, which was also in the family.
Our first house was in Townhead St., opposite the Empire Bar, (Kind Annie’s). I remember the bad winter of 1946/7 when the big puddle in the back-yard froze. I remember thinking how strange that was. It was my first experience of ice. Other families there, were the Agnews, the Hosies, the Andersons and Barr, the bleach-man. On the top landing, with the curving, outside stair and balcony, lived among others, the MacIntyres. There were two unmarried brothers, Rubbert and Wull, and wee Mary, their sister. They were VERY old; must have been at least 50. I remember going up the stairs one day and getting my head stuck in the railings of the balcony. I let out a great scream of panic, and in an instant all the mothers in the street appeared from nowhere to see if it was theirs. Old Rubbert, loosened me and down I trotted to be comforted.
About the same time, an uncle of the Andersons’ appeared one Sunday afternoon on a motorbike. All the Anderson kids got a ride on the tank up the Loaning to the Mount Pleasant and back. All us other kids were standing watching. I was next in line after the last Anderson, and was hugely disappointed when the bike was switched off and put in the corner, and I never got a hurl. When my Granny Donnelly, who lived opposite us, was taken away to the hospital, from where she never returned, Kerry, her cat, came over to our house and never went back. It was as if she knew.
I went to St. John’s, and in all the years till I got my highers, I never really liked the school. Oh, there were good times, but in general, I did not enjoy my school-years. Almost from day one, I got called Sojer. Nobody can remember who started it or why. I still get ‘Sojer’ every now and then when I come home. Shortly after starting at St. John’s, we moved to 8, Castle Avenue, to a Lindsey-type house. I never knew what a Lindsey-type was, but now assume it was the name of the architect that designed them. My mother thought she’d died and gone to heaven. Our own front and back door with a huge garden; living-room and a real kitchen with fitted cabinets and electric cooker, - not a pokey wee scullery; three, yes three, bedrooms; and the pièce-de-resistance, the bathroom.
I don’t remember this personally, but it’s told regularly in the family. We flitted with Sanny Frew’s coal cart and I got to sit up beside Sanny on the bench. When we arrived outside the new house, before anybody can stop me, (I’m five), I jump off on the side away from the house, and do a swift right-turn and up the path to the front-door; straight under the horse. I was so wee that I never even touched the hair on its belly. My dad told me years later he nearly had heart-failure at the thought of what could have happened if I had startled the big Clydesdale.
I remember the school bus which picked us up in Greenhead Avenue and, for a penny, took us to the school. I remember the shouts in the bus going down the New St., when the kids wanted the driver to stop at the big gate or the wee gate. Funnily enough, I don’t remember ever getting the bus back up the road. Later when we were at St. Michaels, we caught the bus in front of the Cross Keys at half past eight. I remember we were always fed up with the teachers, who were not supposed to be on the bus at all, for picking all the best seats. Oh, how we moaned, but we never dared say anything to them. We had season tickets in those days.
Our neighbours in Castle Avenue were the Fords, (Jimmy later became the Provost), on the corner in Greenhead Ave. Then there was Murdoch at number 2, Magnus, Wallace, us, Brown, Slimman, Wylie, (later Brown), on our side. On the other side, I cannot remember who was on the corner of Greenhead Ave. No. 1 was Gibb, then Millar, Clark, Smith, Sellars, Hannah, (later Havlin), and Doran. The Dorans and us were the only Catholic families in the street. I can only ever remember two minor bits of friction in the five years we lived there. For the rest, we played together like brothers. We had some great times. Who needed a football field? There were no cars on the roads. Towards the end, Jimmy Ford got a car, and we became one of the few streets in the scheme with a car outside one of the doors.
Right at the end of our time there, big Tam, (Sonny), Wallace together with a pal of his from Hayocks Rd. bought a wee Austin 7. While turning at the top of the road one day, Sonny miscalculated the turning circle, and knocked Jean Clark off her bike. She was not hurt, though she got the fright of her life. The front wheel of her bike looked like a pretzel. Sonny brought one of his own wheels over to her house and replaced the bent one. The only problem was that his wheel was a size bigger than Jean’s and from then on, the front of her bike was higher than the back. That was the talk of the street for a long time. I remember, Sonny kept pigeons. I remember him out in the garden shouting peaspeaspeas and rattling the tin of dried peas, as the birds flew round the house and would not come down into the pigeon loft.
Mr. Smith and Mr. Slimman were great gardeners and both had roses in the front garden. The ball was as often in a garden as on the park (street). I remember one time, after Mr. Slimman had warned us about twenty times, he came out and confiscated the ball. He unlaced it and cut the string round the neck of the bladder. Do you think we all went home and complained to our fathers? Not likely. We were glad Mr. Slimman never came round to tell them about the ball in his garden. Mr. Brown, next door to us at number 10, was also a great gardener. He grew tomatoes in his greenhouse and also sweet-peas. He used to sell them to folk who called at the house. I can still remember the taste of those tomatoes; the best ever. My mother always had a bunch of sweet-peas in the house too. He was a great fisherman as well, and regularly passed a couple of fresh trout to my mother for our tea.
For a wee while, Catherine Belle and I were neighbours over the back. She was in Hawthorn Drive, and our back-doors backed onto each other. I remember one year there was a big fall of snow, and we all had inter-street snowball fights. Normally, gardens were off limits, but in the snow we were all over the place.
When I was ten, we moved to the house in Boglemart beside the shop. My mother hated the thought of moving from a modern house back to an old house. After a few years, we modernised it. That was some job. The floor in the living-room was so old and uneven, we had to put in a new floor. When the floor-boards were taken up, we discovered that the floor-joists were just resting on the earth. The house was a couple of hundred years old. So we had to take out the front window and shovel tons of earth out into the street to be taken away with the horse and cart. In this way, we created a cavity under the floor. Eventually, we got the house into shape, and it was a lovely house at the end. The walls were three feet thick of solid stone; as cool as anything in the summer, and as snug as a bug in winter. One time an A1 bus skidded coming round the corner from the Glebe St., and hit our house. It broke our drain pipe and had to be towed away. Couldn’t do that with a modern house. They put a bulldozer through it to widen the street; bunch of Philistines. Don’t take me down that road. You’ll be here till Christmas.
One of the kids we played with, (by this time I have a younger brother, Loy), was Brian Young; his father had the ice-cream shop opposite us. Brian’s mother was a Cavanni, who also had an ice-cream shop in the New St. Gordon Steel; his father had the taxis and also was one of the A1 bus owners. There were not a lot of kids to play with, but that did not hinder us. The sandy-hills were virtually next door. The ghosts of hunners of deid cowboys and Indians are wandering around over there. Next time you go past it, please show some respect. In the Boglemart, unlike, Castle Avenue, other gardens were part of our playground. I think we were tolerated because it was a busy street, and we never did any damage. It was mostly older folk whose families were grown up, and perhaps they welcomed the sight of kids around the place. We had no lack of places to amuse ourselves. We used to go guddling for eels in the burn. A couple of times we caught a glimpse of what we thought was a big eel, but now I’m pretty sure it was a pike, and it was a big one. Auchenharvie was only five minutes down the road. It would seem like paradise to kids today. It certainly seemed like it to us then. We also played in the gasworks. We used to climb up and down the piles of coke. Have you any idea what coke can do to the knees of wee boys. Their edges are like razors. I still have the scars. Another place we hung about was the smithy in the Gasworks Close. I can’t remember his name, but I remember the big Clydesdales getting fitted with red-hot shoes, and the smoke coming off their hooves.
I remember ‘helping’ my dad in the shop. I remember taking his morning tea to him in the message-bag in the top-shop, even before I was at school. Up the Loaning, through Mount Pleasant, down Millhill Rd. and along Glencairn St. Even though I didn’t need to cross any roads, would you let a four or five year-old do that today. I remember putting the bag down triumphantly, (and too hard), when I got there, and breaking the vacuum-flask with the tea in it. My dad had an old, wooden lemonade-crate which I would stand on to see over the counter and serve the ladies. That old crate was still kicking around the shop when I left to come to Holland to live.
At the weekend, it was my job to do the messages for my mother. First stop was John Browns, the butchers in New St. That would easy take half an hour, as the queue was all round the wall and sometimes out into the street. Then it would be the grocers. That was my uncle John’s, next to Park the bakers. That was the thick end of three-quarters of an hour. You waited for at least fifteen minutes, and it took another fifteen to get served by the time you went through the whole list. Then you had to carry two great heavy message bags down to the house. After that it was Morrison’s for the bread, scones and cakes for the Sunday tea. That was the whole morning gone. In the afternoon, there were always the odds and ends that had been forgotten. Sunday morning was off to Mass; half past nine was the children’s’ Mass, and we all had to sit down the front. Afterwards there was the sausage, bacon and egg fry-up, with either tattie or soda scones. At Christmas, there was fried dumpling as well. Nobody could make a fry-up like ma Maw.
Later when I got older and got conscripted into the family business, it was eight o’clock Mass, a quick breakfast and the paper-round. I also collected the evening papers from the station every evening at five o’clock, and at seven on a Saturday night for the football editions; Times, News and Citizen. If there had been a big match, the men would be queued all the way up the Boglemart to the Cross when I came racing round the corner on the bike. I sometimes even got a wee cheer. On Thursday mornings there was the ASH to be collected from the station before going to school. That was always three big parcels. It was difficult getting them into the big canvas paper-bag as they were an awkward size. Halfway up the New St., they would slip and nearly make you fall off the bike.
I remember my first day at St. Michaels. It was in the music period with Sister Mari Calista. I have always been a little’un, and when I was 12 or 13, I was a real titch, but I was still bigger than her. She was tiny. It was the usual story of ‘stand up and say your name, and I’ll get to put names and faces together.’ I was sitting next to my cousin who is also called John Donnelly. We were in the middle of the room, and in the row before us a boy stood up and said John Donnelly. A couple of minutes later, my cousin stood up and caused consternation. Eventually she sorted the two of them out, and pointed at me to carry on. It took me ten minutes to convince her I was not taking the Mickey and she really had three of us in the class.
Every now and then, the Boglemart would get flooded. If there was a real heavy thunder-plump, (did you call it that too?), the water would come down the Glebe St. like a river and the drains would not be able to carry it all away. I remember several times the shop was flooded to a depth of a few inches. "Quick, get everything off the floor and onto a shelf somewhere," was the cry. We had a step up into the house so it never got flooded, thank goodness. I remember my dad being furious at Willie Evans, the son of the photographer in the New St. He drove down the Boglemart towards Saltcoats through the water at speed and caused a big wave that washed into the shop. Willie didn’t enjoy it, the next time he bumped into my dad.
We always had a dog, and I usually was the one who took it for walks. I knew the whole area like the back of my hand; round Kerlaw, over the Penny-farthing bridge and down to the Halfway House and back in along the Kilwinning Rd; up the Biley Brae, past Corsankel and back down the old track to the waterworks, or on up to the S-bend; up Ashgrove past the Bluebell Plantation to the White Gates and down the back road to Kilwinning station and back in along the Kilwinning Rd.; down the other back road to Kilwinning from the cemetery past the Dubbs and taking the track over the railway and coming out at the Halfway House; down the shore and over the bridge at the end of Canal St. and back through Auchenharvie; or the other way, and out the Irvine Bar, along the sea-wall and back; down the back road to Saltcoats, past the White Wife and the rubbish dump, under the Caley railway bridge, past the Star of the Sea stadium, and back along the shore and up the New St.; up along the High Rd. and down Kinnear Rd., going in to see my Granny Kelly, then along Kerr Avenue and back through Auchenharvie.
I remember the Kilwinning by-pass being built, and walking along it before it was opened. They built the viaduct carrying the Kilwinning - Irvine railway line over the road by driving holes down through the embankment to make the big support-pillars, then making the concrete bridge on top of them, and removing the earth from the embankment under the new bridge. The viaduct got delayed because of some difficulties, and the road was built right up to the railway embankment. It was the daftest thing you ever saw. A brand-new, dual carriageway road running into a railway embankment and stopping there. It was like that for months.
When I left St. Michael’s, I went to work in London. After a year, I came back and went to Strathclyde University, staying at home in Stevenston, though most of my time was spent in Glasgow. After Uni, I worked in Newcastle, London again and Falkirk. While I was in Falkirk, I met my Dutch wife, and came over here to get married and settle down.
Regrets? About what? Being born and raised in Stevenston? Don’t be daft. Leaving Stevenston? Aye, now and then, but seeing it now, - not really. That I never went back to live there? No, I couldn’t live in Stevenston now. I’m back every year for a visit though, and hope to keep doing that as long as I’m fit to do so.
You can take the boy out of Stevenston, but ye cannae take Stevenston out of the boy.