Gems of the road

GEMS OF THE ROAD

by Conal Brolly

A short time ago I received an email from local photographer Norman Bell from Cookstown whose wife Meta I interviewed for the Mid Ulster Observer in July 2010. In his communiqué, Norman said, “I have a cousin who is a native of Cookstown and who has lived in Sweden for forty years. In recent times due to family commitments he is spending more and more time in Ireland, generally a week every month. I think he would be a very interesting person to interview. His name is Des Allen, he is sixty-five and he is very interested in his ancestors as well as local history.” I was instantly hooked and I immediately contacted Norman to set up a meeting with his cousin.

We arranged to meet at Norman’s home in Cookstown. Norman invited us in and he introduced my wife and I to Des. Norman left the room to make tea for everyone whilst we chatted to Des about how his recent trip home had been, before settling down to start our interview.

I said to Des, “Before we discuss your time in Sweden, I’d like to first take you back to your childhood. Where were you born?” Des said, “I was born in Coltrim in Moneymore. I remember our neighbours the Devlin’s who had a son who was the same age as me who emigrated to New York. I have one sister Yvonne who is now Griffin and she lives in Killymoon Rd. My father was called Sammie Allen. He worked in the 1940’s in Capt Harris's Garage, then Moneymore Creamery and on to the Bacon Factory in Cookstown (Northern Ireland Farmer's Bacon Co.). He then worked through the early 1960’s until the mid 1970’s in Fisher’s Hat Factory. My father was a very sociable, respected, friendly, down-to-earth, chatterbox! Everyone knew him and when Fisher’s closed in the mid 1970’s he got a job in the Town Hall in Cookstown for the Environmental Office.”

Des added, “Norman recently showed me an article you wrote on Mervyn Glover from Moneymore. Mervyn and my father were in the same class together; Moneymore PE School. My dad was the same kind of person as Mervyn as in he was very outgoing and easy to talk to.” “Tell me about your mum.” I said, Des replied, “My mother is called Thelma, nee Coulter and she is currently residing in Moneymore Care Home. Mum was the opposite of my father; she was very quiet in contrast to him. My mother is originally from a townland called Tyressan between Cookstown and Drapersfield. My mother was a housewife and her main priority was her family.”

I then asked, “Do you remember any of your grandparents?” Des said, “Norman and I had just been talking about that the other day as we were privileged to have known both of our grandfathers and grandmothers on both sides of the family until we were in our early thirties. My grandfather Sammy Allen was also very well known in the Moneymore area, he was a farm labourer and a country butcher....he was also one of the first employees at the newly started Bacon Factory, Cookstown in 1939. I have traced my grandfather's father and his father - my great-great grandfather called John Allen who was born in Moneymore in a townland called Tintagh in 1834. I know from recently acquired church records from Moneymore, that his father was called Samuel and he was born at the start of the 1800’s.” “So the name ‘Sam’ has been in your family for many generations.” I said, Des nodded.

In his email Norman said you were from Cookstown, when did you move to the town?” I queried, Des said, “When I was four years old our family moved to Clare in Cookstown.” “What are your memories of Cookstown?” I asked, Des said, “My memories of Cookstown are mostly positive, although in 1953 I had polio and that was a big factor in my life. I was away from home for thirty-three weeks in hospital.

I had great friends in Clare, the Colvin family, Orville, Ali and Rodney, the late Harry Ruddell, Evan Connolly and my second cousin Raymond Millar who now lives in Bangor.” Des then talked about having wonderful memories of his school days so I asked him to share them with us. Des sat back into the sofa with a broad smile on his face as he recalled, “I attended a small country school, Drapersfield Primary School up until I was eleven years of age; the school has since been turned into a family home. The senior teacher was a lady called Miss Patton and a lady called Miss Hamilton was the junior teacher. When Miss Patton retired, Miss Hamilton took up the senior position and a lady called Miss Greer took the junior position. I have wonderful memories of my time at Drapersfield Primary School - the other kids made sure no harm came to me and that is something that will live with me forever. Another memory is of one of my teachers’ who was very strict on cleanliness. Every Friday we had chores around the school which was either gardening or washing her car. On one particular Friday three of my friends and I were selected to wash the teachers car, a Morris Minor. Before we started, the teacher lined us up and asked us individually, ‘How would you recognise my car from a distance?’ The answers ranged from the number plate to the make and when it came to my turn I said that you could notice the car from its shine and I got half a crown for my answer. Another story I vividly remember was when I just started the school and I walked up to McCrea’s shop in Drapersfield and when I entered the owner Mr McCrea was behind the counter and I asked him ‘How much is a penny chew?’ He replied ‘It’s a penny.’ and that’s when the penny dropped!” Laughed Des, he continued, “In my early teens I remember being fairly mischievous, like tying a string between a tree and then to peoples’ back doors. When I was fourteen I smoked my first cigarette but my mother and father wouldn’t have been pleased if they found out so I dug a small hole on the lane of our house and hid my cigarettes in it. So every Friday when the Colvin brothers and I were going to the pictures I’d collect the damp box of cigarettes and by the time we reached the cinema on Molesworth Street the cigarettes would’ve been dry, so we went into the picture house and smoked them. When we were sixteen my friends and I hung around a place on the Moneymore Road called the Candy Corner owned by the McMullen family.” “Did you go dancing?” I enquired. Des replied, “I didn’t go to dances as my family were from a strict Christian background and everything was black and white. There were things I could do and things I couldn’t and I was greatly influenced by that - I didn’t go to dances because I thought it was wrong.” Des smiled and said, “How so much has changed from those times.”

“Did you have any other hobbies or interests as a child?” I asked, Des said, “I am a great lover of football and I’m as much a fanatic for the game now as I was when I was a child.” “How did that come about?” I asked, Des said, “When I was eleven years of age my parents bought a television set, so I was sitting watching the news one evening on the same week as the television set was purchased and by chance it just happened to be the evening of the Munich air crash - that left a tremendous impression on me and from that day to this I’ve been a Man United fan - a chronic Man United Fan! When I was going through high school I wasn’t interested in girls or studying, it was just Man United. There was a lad I ran about with called Raymond Harkness and he was an Everton fan - when the teacher was writing chemistry formulas on the black board Raymond and I would have been discussing our teams’ performances over the previous weekend.” We both laughed.

I then asked Des if he had any aspirations about what he wanted to be when he grew up and he said, “I always wanted to be a goalkeeper, but with my bad leg it was never likely to transpire - ideally I hadn’t really thought it through. Another career that appealed to me was journalism. Whilst I was still at the high school my friends played hockey and cricket, so I travelled with them to all of their games and when I was fourteen I was given the job of writing the match reports for the local paper. I continued writing the reports for two years and I felt that journalism may have been the path for me. I applied for a trainee position in a local paper which I was offered. However, shortly afterwards another position caught my eye which was for a trainee architectural technician and I applied for it and was offered the position and I started shortly afterwards with W & M Given in Molesworth Street. I worked there from 1964 until 1967.”

Norman re-entered the room with three mugs of steaming hot tea accompanied by a box of chocolate biscuits.

“When you were younger were there any events which were life changing for you?” I asked, Des replied, “That’s a good question. When I was sixteen there was a change in my life influenced through an evangelical campaign where an English preacher, Michael Fleming, came to the town to talk to young people and to encourage them to change their direction in life and follow a Christian pathway. I made a decision then to become a Christian which coincided with the start of my architecture job.”

“You said that you decided to become a Christian. What did you do next?” I asked, Des said, “When I was twenty I went to Bible College in Edinburgh - There were eighteen guys and twenty girls on the course. We lived in separate accommodation. We had a lecture & study centre and the course was based on theology, church history, homeletics, doctrines etc. The course was fairly comprehensive so I didn’t get the opportunity to pop down to Old Trafford for a game, but I had my transistor radio which kept me apprised of Man United’s progress. Whilst we were there we also took part in outreach work as part of our course, which involved knocking on doors that aspect didn’t appeal to me. What did appeal to me was working with kids during the summer months and that was a highlight for me. I spent two wonderful years in Edinburgh and I made many friends.

When I returned home I was the Youth Leader and Junior Minister in Dungannon Methodist Church. In 1968 I met a wonderful girl, Elizabeth O’Brien, in Coleraine through a cousin of mine, Eileen Wright. Liz was at Trinity College, Dublin at that point and we had very little contact over the next few years except at holiday time and the attraction was still there and we bonded, so in 1971 we were married. Liz was a social worker and she worked in Limavady and Dungiven.”

“When I was contacted by your cousin Norman, he told me that you have spent many years in Sweden, why did you decide to go there?” I asked, Des said, “When Liz was at Trinity a lot of her case studies were based on cases from the Swedish social system and around the same time I met with a man who knew two people who were working with young people in Sweden - So Sweden had presented itself to us through two different angles. Liz and I decided that this was more than a coincidence and we began to think about moving to Sweden before we were married. That was put on the back burner for a few years.

I moved to W & M Given’s head office in Coleraine and I was there from 1970 until 1973 where I studied for my Construction Technician Certificate to become qualified as an architectural technician, which I achieved. Steven our eldest child was born in 1972 and then Mark was born in 1973 and in the interim period Liz was at home on maternity leave and our dream of going to Sweden seemed to be getting further and further away. I wrote to the couple in Sweden who were working with the local youth there and they replied telling me to come over and stay with them for free, unfortunately I didn’t have enough for the fare to get there. Another sign that this just wasn’t coincidence then appeared when Liz received a tax rebate for the exact amount of money that it would take me to fly from Glasgow to Gothenburg. I went to Sweden in August 1972 and I met a lot of very interesting people who were living in a place called Jönköping. Jönköping was based in the south of the country so I wrote to the tourist board to find out what the area was like. I received a reply fairly quickly and the letter was signed by a lady called Margaret Karlsson- Doyle - an Irish lady who lived three hundred yards from where I intended to stay, which was another positive sign for us! Margaret introduced me to a possible employer with a job of teaching English conversation to local people. I returned home to Liz enthusiastic about our future and we made the decision to move to Sweden.” You talked about your sons Steven and Mark. Do you have any other children?” I asked. “We have two other boys - Sam who is very well named because he is just like my father and Tim is the youngest boy who was born in 1979. We also have eleven grandchildren and one great-grandson. In August 1973 we moved to Sweden. “Did you have a problem with the language barrier? I asked, Des said, “Luckily, the Swedes we encountered back then were reasonably good English speakers. I still needed to learn the language though, so I bought a linguaphone course to study Swedish and I learned a few friendly phrases.

“How did you feel when you arrived in what was to be your new home? I said, Des replied, “We drove through England to Hull and across the North Sea to Gothenburg. It was the first time I was confronted with driving on the other side of the road and I drove around the first roundabout in the wrong direction, at night-time in the rain. The following day as we drove towards Jönköping, Liz and I were feeling pretty good, but we kept asking each other ‘are we mad?’ - But there was comfort in all the signs that had brought us this far. When we arrived everything we had with us was in the car. The accommodation was luxurious apart from the fact that there was no furniture in it and the furniture we brought with us was a coffee table, a cot and a few blankets. As I unpacked the car I met a young man, called Janne, from the area, an interior decorator on his way home from work. Later Janne returned with his family and when he found out we had no furniture he organised furniture from his friends for us.” From here Des and his family blossomed and gradually Des became more in tune with his new life, “Over time I moved to different areas of the country and at one point I taught English on a full time basis. I also worked with young people, which I thoroughly enjoyed. I then went back to school in Sweden so that I could utilise my architectural skills and eventually I started my own company in 1986, DACCAB, which was the shortened version of Des Allen Communication Consultancy and AB is the same as limited over here. I retired from the company in 2005. My wife and I are now living in the town of Karlskoga and since my retirement I have put my energies into my family, my grandchildren and of course studying my family history.” Des paused thoughtfully for a moment before adding, “When I look back over my life now I see a thread which stretches through from my younger self aged sixteen, through to when my wife and I went to Sweden and right up until the present - I can look back and see every step I’ve made.”

It intrigued me why Des stayed in Sweden after his initial contact with the country so I asked, “What do you love about the Swedish culture?” Des paused thoughtfully and replied, “They are a very respectful nation, something we all could learn from. I love the Swedish way of life so much so that on one occasion when we lived and worked in England we found that we couldn’t adapt to their stricter way of life so we returned to Sweden.”

“At the start of our interview you talked about your family history, tell me more about what you have discovered.” I said, Des replied, “I am very interested in my family genealogy and over the past three years we have discovered cousins in the United States (New Jersey & Delaware) they are all female cousins so none of them carry the ‘Allen’ name, although there are Allen’s in Canada.” Invariably we all at one time or another talk about our relatives, but I was intrigued what set Des on the road to researching his family tree, Des said, “When my dad was still alive I had been interviewing him about his past and my grandfather’s, to try and retrieve as much historical background and through our chats together I discovered we had relatives in Canada. After my father died we were clearing out our family home and I found a letter from the US, addressed to my father and the letter was dated 1996. The letter was from a lady in New Jersey in which she said that she had evidence that she was related to Allen’s on my fathers’ side and if he would like to write back and help her with her research, but my father never followed it up. So when I came upon the letter in 2010 I decided to reply to the person and the address on the 1996 letter. I wrote a general letter saying who I was etc. and I added my email address and the following Tuesday I received a reply, from a lady named Anne who was then eighty eight. Anne has given me names of other members of the Allen family also.” Des added, “Liz and I are travelling to America in July to meet my new family members and I am really looking forward to it.”

“Is there anything you would like to add?” I queried, Des finished by saying, “Although I have been living in Sweden for over forty years now, I still consider myself to be a Cookstown man. I come home every six or seven weeks and on each occasion I always keep in touch with my extended family.”

As our interview ended Des mentioned to me that he was leaving the next day for Sweden. After my wife took his photo, I thanked him for taking time out from his busy trip to chat to me, we then shook hands and I wished him a safe journey back. As we left I smiled as I thought - you can take the man out of Cookstown but you can’t take Cookstown out of the man!

 

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