Patsy Quinn… storyteller, teacher, and Newry neuk

Peter Bayne


Peter Bayne


Thursday 4 February 2021 6:22

By Daniel Hill…

ONE affiliate of The Newry Democrat has described Patsy Quinn’s stories as “The true stories of Newry, the old and scarcely remembered Newry which are in my own opinion the best social and family history of the old town ever written.

They are simply written tales of who we are, hence we have come and what has made us into the Newry people we are today.

One of these stories No Paupers Grave was selected for publication in the acclaimed RTE Lyric FM book “Ten Years of Great Irish Writing”.

The following is a short excerpt from the story which recounts from the perspective of Patsy, then just a 10 year-old boy how his infant sister Margaret died and the unspoken fear’s that she could be buried in an unmarked Paupers grave that besieged the family in the aftermath of her death.

“The baby seemed to have stomach pains. Gripe water could be bought over the counter and this was tried. Another remedy was a teaspoon full of whiskey, but nothing worked. In those days a visit from the doctor had to be paid for so, unless things were pretty serious, we didn’t send for one.“ Eventually the doctor was called. Even the nurse was called. Their best efforts came to nothing. As soon as I came downstairs that morning, I knew something was wrong. My father wasn’t at work, the house was very quiet, my mother who would normally be chivvying us along to get us to the table for the porridge and out to school, was quietly crying. Her eyes were very red. My, sister who regularly took charge, told us that our three-month old baby sister was dead.”

Greatest story ever

Now in his 85th year Patsy has come forward to relate to The Democrat what could potentially be the greatest story he will ever tell, his own.

We begin our journey through the life of Patsy Quinn in the poverty-stricken landscape of post war Newry, on John Mitchells street where as a young child he faced near unfathomable hardship which many of us could not even begin to comprehend let alone live through on a daily basis as did he and his family.

As many of you may have already deduced from the short excerpt from the story No Paupers Grave, Patsy claims that the experience’s he underwent on the streets of Newry in his most formative years have laid the foundations for the overwhelming majority of his writing projects in his later life.

“I was born in John Mitchells street in 1936 in Newry before I moved to Clare’s avenue in 1945, next to the poor Clare Convent. My experiences growing up in Newry in the 1940’s have now formed the basis of a lot of the short stories that I have written in recent years.”

“My sister died after the war in 1946 and after my father had returned from serving aboard the HMS Caroline. In those days there was close to 30 percent unemployment in Newry, so it goes without saying that we, that is both my family and the wider community had very little money.

There simply were no jobs to be had for men to support their families. I remember that before there were five of us all living under one roof and my father was on the dole so effectively, we were all living on 19 shillings a week. I distinctly remember that some people within the area were so poor that they regularly drank tea out of jam jars because they couldn’t afford cups. That should give you an idea of how hard times were back then.

As a result of living in such impoverished conditions, deprived of all the comforts and luxuries that we in the 21st century now take for granted , whenever his three month-year old sister Margaret died tragically and unexpectedly in 1946, Patsy, even at the tender age of 10 years old was intuitive to know that the unspoken fear was that she could met the fate that so many of her preceding country men and women had meet in the century previous.

This was to be buried in an unmarked Paupers grave, something which was still considered to be a point of shame in what were still very religious and superstitious times in Ireland’s history.

Patsy accurately points out that Paupers graves first became ubiquitous across Ireland in the period leading up to and throughout the great Irish potato famine of 1840-45.

“Since the great famine of the 1840’s, when they could be found all over Ireland to be buried in a Paupers grave was considered to bring shame upon both the person being laid to rest in such tragic circumstances and their family. As a result of the conditions that we found ourselves in we thought Margaret would meet the same fate because neither my mother nor father had the money to bury her.

Guidance from greengrocer

However, owing to the advice and guidance given to the family by a local greengrocer who worked out of Hill Street in the town, Margaret was absolved of being laid down to rest in an unmarked plot of ground alongside so many others whose families could not afford to provide them with a respectful and dignified burial.

“However, my mother consulted with a man Brendan Gallagher who owned a grocer shop on Hill Street who was kind enough to inform my mother that she could avail of a government grant to help pay for the cost of funerals.

“ He told my mother to consult with Gerry McCardle the local funeral director and undertaker and everything would be alright. I remember that after my mother consulted with Brendan, she was in much better form emotionally coming out of his store then when she was going in. We availed of the grant and thankfully Margaret received the dignified burial that she deserved.”

It may come to many as a surprise that although in his twilight years Patsy has become quite the accomplished writer and scholar, he describes his memories of primary school as not memories to have been relished, resulting in him availing on more than one occasion of the opportunity to not attend school at the Poor Clare Convent situated on the street that he lived on. At the age of 14 he took a temporary leave of absence from his education, departing school as a high functioning illiterate.

Primary school years

“I received my primary education at both the poor Clare convent and the Abbey Primary school Newry. I regret to say that my experiences at both establishment’s was horrendous, but please let me explain. When I was young a lot of people died of tuberculosis which in those days was referred to as consumption. One of my earliest memories was my mother’s sister’s Aunt Annie dying of tuberculosis. Her wake was held at Saint Georges Lane.”

“After my Aunt died my mother was always living in perpetual fear of one of us contracting tuberculosis at school. I was quite clued in however as I realised that if I coughed in the mornings my mother would not send me to school, so as you can probably guess I coughed every morning.

“At school I did not really develop my love of learning or literature, despite the repeated efforts made by the headmasters and the nuns who did on more than one occasion liberally deal out corporal punishment. I mean I left school at the age of 14 in 1950 and I could hardly read and write. Primary school was not a happy experience for me, and it was not all the teachers fault either.”

Newry Youth Club

However, Patsy leaving school at the age of 14 would not mark a permanent departure from his education, rather a temporary hiatus. The next major chapter in Patsy’s life would be his involvement in youth work at the Saint John’s Boscal’s Boys youth club Newry, which would eventually lay the foundations for his career as a P.E teacher.

“In 1948 I joined the saint John Boscal youth club. In the youth club you are expected to take charge all the time and demonstrate effective leadership. Gerry Brown was the name of the man who ran the youth club. He ran a system were members of the youth club which was made up exclusively by males took part in several athletic activities including the likes of boxing and gymnastics as well as outdoor excursions.

“During my activities with the youth club I went to night school and learned all kinds of things. I believe my passion for learning may have been rekindled here.

Patsy credits his development into a P.E teacher to the leader of the Saint John’s Boscal youth club, Gerry Brown a man who he still considers his hero to this very day.

“Gerry Brown the leader of the youth club sent us to Banbridge to receive lessons from a lecturer at Stranmillis college to instruct us how to teach a class P.E. I was about 16 at the time and I went on this course. They didn’t train P.E specialists in Northern Ireland in the 1950’s so I though this would be the best opportunity I would get to teach the subject.

“Then in about 1958, or 59 one of the schools the Bessbrook tech sent the youth club a message asking if anyone would be interested to teach an odd P.E class in the school. Because I had already completed the course at Stranmillis I jumped at the chance.

“At this stage I was 20 years old and I was working full-time, one week about so one week in the factory, one week on the dole but despite this I went to see the principal of this school in Bessbrook. He told me that there were a few other schools in the area who were looking for qualified P.E teachers. After a few ad-hoc jobs I finally landed a role as a full-time P.E teacher in Saint Coleman’s in Newry. I was making a good living as a P.E teacher as well as working in the youth club during the night. I had three children and a wife so I needed all the money I could get.

Although his interest in teaching P.E had it’s origins in his activities with the Saint Johns Boscal Youth Club and the contacts that he made in his time there, Patsy did not become a fully qualified P.E teacher until the age of 39 when after acquiring three A levels from the Newry school of business studies to gain admittance he graduated from the Stranmillis teacher training college. He describes his time spent at Stanmillis as the happiest days of his life.

“After acquiring my A-levels from the school of business studies I was accepted into Stranmillis teacher training college in Belfast and they were the three most enjoyable years of my life. When I finally qualified as a teacher, I was 39 years old.

“I landed my first job as a P.E teacher in Saint Patricks Lisburn. I had initially went there to receive on the job training. The P.E teacher there told me that they had been teaching P.E unqualified for eight years. During my training MR. Cairns, the school headmaster told me that there would be a job for me in September. It’s funny because I only ever had two teaching jobs in my life, landing both of them before I went for the interview.

“As soon as I started the job, I immediately started my own after-school basketball team because I had played league basketball and had thoroughly enjoyed it. We also had a mountaineering, sailing and canoeing club. I have fond memories of a lot of the kids in Saint Patricks who lived in the local area staying in the family house overnight, sleeping with their sleeping bags in the living room the night before a mountain expedition. They were all friends of my son so this happened naturally enough.

“Despite some difficulties that I had working with the principal MR. Cairns in my later years at Saint Patricks I enjoyed every minute of my time there.

From here Patsy would continue to live out his lifelong dream of being a P.E teacher at Dromore High School Banbridge, where he would spend 20 years imparting his knowledge and wisdom to the students who were fortunate enough to come under his tutelage.

“I knew the principal of Dromore High School, Rex Russel. I had meet Rex through my activities assessing pupils for their suitability for the Duke of Edinburgh award at Saint Patricks. He said to me Quinn if you are interested there is a job for you as a teacher and a youth leader in Dromore High School. I worked about a third of the week teaching, a third of the week in administration and a third of the week working as a youth leader.

“I worked in Dromore High school for twenty years and aside from my time spent in Stranmillis these were the most joyous years of my life.

Upon retirement in 1998, Patsy was to discover that he had an as yet unrealised passion for sailing which would see him purchasing a yacht which when not in use he would store in a mariner in Carlingford. It was here that he would first make formal contact with another one of Newry’s great denizen’s and writers, the one and only Rowan Hand.

“I retired from my job as a teacher in 1998 and I was acquainted with Rowan beforehand. In 98 I bought a Yacht which I mourned in the mariner in Carlingford. Coincidentally Rowan had a boat beside me. We naturally got chatting away and we became good friends. We had many friendly jousts, or as Rowan referred to it as the “polishing of each other’s native sod’s.

“One of the many fond memories that I have of Rowan is when he asked me to come down to the mariner in Carlingford one Saturday morning whenever the Dubliners were coming over. I believe the plan was to try and establish a radio station in the bay. I was pleasantly surprised whenever they, that is the Dubliners greeted Rowan as If he was an old friend. He has developed quite the impressive portfolio of contacts throughout his long career as a journalist. Since then, Rowan always has been and will remain a great friend of mine.

If I were to sum Rowan up in one line it is that he is a man who can get things done.

It may come as no surprise to many that Patsy attributes Rowan as being one of the two key influencers that played their part in encouraging him to develop what has become the second greatest passion of post retirement life, that is devoting himself to the ever indefinable and infinitely amorphous art that is creative writing.

““It was Rowan that is responsible for my foray into creative writing, so you can blame him. I would be telling Rowan about things and he would say to me, you know you should write that down.

“When I decided to write the book of short stories he pushed and pushed and pushed like hell for me to finish it. Rowan alongside another man in Newry, Anthony Russel who wrote the life story of John Mitchell encouraged me to write my stories and have them published. Both are great writers and both of these men are two men that I have an awful lot of respect for. Anthony was formally a geography teacher, but he is also a fantastic historian.

“If they said something was reasonably good. I believed them because both are masters of the craft of writing and I hold their opinions of my work in very high regard.

Although as already stated Patsy is in his 85th year of life, he still has a wealth of ambitions which he intends to fulfil in despite whatever apportioned amount of time he has left to do them in

““At the minute I am trying to get back into walking, I have a treadmill in the garage although perhaps this is cheating.

“Also, I have started working on a book called, and I don’t know if all of your readers will be familiar with the term, Newry Neuk. For those unfamiliar with the term a Neuk is an old Irish phrase to describe someone who has become intrinsically influenced by and is inseparable from their town or county of origin. As the old saying goes you can take the man out of the town but never the town out of the man.

And don’t worry I am still receiving plenty of encouragement from Mr Russel and our cherished friend Rowan”.

The story “No Paupers Grave” is collected in the RTE lyric FM book ten years of great Irish writing which is available for purchase from Amazon. Patsy’s new book “Newry Neuk” is still a work in progress.

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