Joe Burns

Joe Burns

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INTERESTING sidelights on the days when Newcastle was rapidly earning its title as the “Queen of Irish Watering Places” are provided this week in the reminiscences of 86 year old Joe Burns, of Barn Row, Annsborough.


Although Mr Burns is confined to bed in the Quoile Hospital, Downpatrick, his mind is as clear as a bell, and places, names and dates come to him as readily as though he were telling something that happened yesterday.


[Photograph] FOUR GENERATIONSMr. Burns, with his wife, daughter, granddaughter and great-grandson.


You wouldn’t be long talking to Joe (as I think he would be prefer to be called) till you would realise that he must have been “the life and sole of the party”, and even now he is the “star “ of his ward, and he keeps the nurses and other patients  in happy mood with  his and witticisms. Joe’s long and interesting career as a driver of hackney cars dates back to the early years of the present century and he must be remembered by the older generation for miles round, and indeed farther afield as the jovial jarvey who drove hackney cars from Castlewellan to Newcastle some 20 to 55 years ago. “I started off wi’ Andy Tufts of Castlewellan,” he told me. “He kept a post station, and he was the grandfather of Mr James Wilson, the auctioneer. He had three-horse brakes, two-horse brakes and singles. “I drove for the footballers, cricketers, Good Templars, Orangemen, and a whole lot more. They would come to Mr Tufts and book a carriage and ask for Joe Burns to do the driving – because I carried on a bit.




“I mind driving the meeting house choir to Rostrevor. There were 24 of them, so before we started off I brought a couple o’dozen ha’penny fifes. When we came to Reid Hall they all got out to make it easier for the horses going up the hill. So I shared round the fifes and we formed into a band and marched up the hill playing all the tunes o’ the day. They thought it was great fun.”




“About the decentest people I ever drove for was Ballywillwill Orange Lodge”, went on Joe. “They always asked specially for me and I drove them nine years in succession. There was some big days, and they ‘trated’ me well. John Hagan was the Worshipful Master and Bob Hill the deputy. “Ballywillwill Orange Hall was built in 1874 – the year I was born. It was built on ground given to the Lodge by a man called Joe Robinson. “It was a grand sight on the Twelth Day to see all the carriages wi’ Orangemen and their ladies. There would be four carriages from Tufts and Five from Porters, some single, some double and some wi’ three horses. There would always be one carriage for the police.”




Newcastle in those days was growing rapidly in popularity, and during the summer Mr Tufts, in common with a number of others, operated hackney-cars in the resort. Joe told me of the introduction of licenses for hackney-cars in Newcastle. “After Newcastle Urban Council was formed, licenses for hackney-cars became compulsory” he told me. “Ninety-eight licenses were issued the first year. They were coming from as far away as Banbridge, Dromore, Lurgan and other outlying towns. But the next year the licenses were restricted to within a four mile radius of Newcastle, and that, of course, included hackney-car owners in Castlewellan and Dundrum, and that kept the trade for the local men. There was jaunting cars, brakes and all sorts of cars.” After some years Joe changed to Mr Joseph Thornton’s stable in Newcastle. Mr Thornton was the father of the present Mr. W.J. Thornton, one of the town’s most prominent business men. “The pay was good – 12/- a week – but you had to earn it.” I asked Mr Burns if he could remember the names of those other drivers. He thought for a minute and then the names came. “There was Willie Ferguson,” he said “and Willie Paxton, James Doyle, Bobbie Lowey, and Harry Truesdale.” I believe Harry Truesdale is still alive. “I also drove for the Porter Bros. for five years. William had a place where Maxwell Neill’s shop is now. They had a place in Castlewellan too. There were three brothers – William, Jackie and Norman. Jackie & Norman were both killed in the first World War. “I never left a place that I couldn’t have went back to.” Joe added, and I fully believe him, for he strikes me as a man who was straight and above board, with no back doors.



Joe painted me a picture of the boom days in Newcastle after the G.N.R line had been extended from Castlewellan. “There were dozens of excursions every summer from all over, and boys were we kept busy. They came from Banbridge, Portadown, Dundalk and everywhere. We had a great time driving excursionists up the Mourne Road to Maggie’s Leap and the Bloody Bridge. Sometimes there would be all-day trips round the mountains via Bryansford, Hilltown, Rostrevor and Warrenpoint and back by the coast road through Kilkeel and Annalong. “Every Driver had two horses which he took out on alternate days. Some days there would be horses in double harness for bigger trips.”




Joe recalled the day when he drove a four-in-hand carriage to a wedding at Ballroney Presbyterian Church. The occasion was the marriage of Dr Rowan’s daughter, of Ballyward, to an English Doctor. The order was for a four-in-hand carriage, and for days before the big event Joe practiced round a field with the four horses and a carriage. “When the day arrived I went out to Ballyward, and collected the bride and took her to the church and back. Then later that evening I left them to Ballyroney Station, where the young couple left on the train for Belfast to get the boat for England. “There wasn’t a hitch through it all.” Smiled Joe, “and I had a ‘fiver’ for my day’s work – that was big money then.”


Next week Joe recalls his early days and recites the first poem he learned at Annsborough School. He also tells of hiring out with farmers and has some good stories of the lighter side of life.  

{Source: Mourne Observer 6th January 1961, page 3}








Joe first saw the light of day in a house on the Ballylough Road, near Annsborough on 19th July 1874.




When he came six he was sent to Annsborough National School, and although he did not say it himself I’m quite sure Joe was a bright pupil, for he recited me word for word the first poem that the late Master Maguire taught him. I think it would be appropriate to print it here. It’s title is “Isle of Beauty, Fare Thee Well” and it was written by Thomas Haynes Bayley (1797-1839). Here are the words –




                                                      Shades of ev’ning close not o’er us,

                                                      Leave our lonely bark awhile,

                                                      Morn, alas! Will not restore us

                                                      Yonder dim and distant isle.

                                                      Still my fancy can discover

                                                      Sunny spots where friends may dwell;

                                                      Darker shadows round us hover –

                                                      Isle of beauty fare thee well.


                                                     ‘Tis the hour when happy faces

                                                      Smile around the tapers light;

                                                      Who will fill our vacant places?

                                                      Who will sing our songs to-night?

                                                      Through the mist that floats about us

                                                      Faintly sounds the vesper-bell

                                                       Like a voice from those who love us

                                                      Breathing fondly, fare thee well!


                                                       When the waves are round me breaking,

                                                       As I pace the deck alone,

                                                       And my eye is vainly seeking

                                                      Some green leaf to rest upon;

                                                       When on that dear land I ponder

                                                       Where my old companions dwell,

                                                      Absence makes the heart grow fonder --

                                                      Isle of beauty fare thee well.


There was a tear in Joe’s eye as he quoted the last lines. “Aye,” he said, “it vexes me to think back on ould times, and the ones I knew then; they’re nearly all gone”.




Times were none to rosy for most people, and Joe had his full share of hardships, for his father was buried on Christmas Day, 1885, and his mother on the following 26th September. “I was the youngest of the family”, he told me. “The others were all out working in Annesborough Mill, and as times were hard and wages low I had to go out and work too. My first job was with the Green’s of Magherasaul. I was paid £1 for the half year, plus my keep. “From there I hired out at different places all round. I learned to do everything that had to be done about a farm, and when I was a man I was getting the top rate of £12 the half year.




Of those for whom he wrought Joe mentioned James Ireland, of Carricknacessa, and James Shaw, of Cregagh. “But”, he said, “the toughest man I ever worked for was Henry Cosby of Carson’s Dam. He hired me for the top wages of £12 for the half year. I was the market man and had to be on the road before five o’clock in the morning. “On four days of the week – Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday – I made the journey to Belfast, and many a time I seen me at Dan Murray’s Corner at Saintfield by five o’clock. On Thursdays I went to Ballynahinch, and on Saturdays it was Newtonards. “On my first day at Cosby’s the other boys gave me the wire that my dinner would be left for me on the gate pillar for me leaving in the morning, but not to take it. So as I was leaving for the market in the morning I spied the parcel but I went on and took no notice. I had a load of corn and I sold it in Belfast market for 7/- per cwt. And took 1/- out of the money for my dinner. When I came home I gave ould Cosby the money, but after counting it he looked at me and said: ‘You’re a shilling short’. ‘No’ says I, ‘but you’re a shilling short’. He asked me what I meant, and I said I had taken 1/- out of the market money for my dinner. He told me that my ‘dinner’ had been left on the pillar, but I said I was going to take no dinner off the pillar, so that finished that”.




Joe then told me of a schism he had with his employer over taking St. Patrick’s Day for a holiday. “It was coming up to St. Patrick’s Day”, he said, “and two of the other men, Dan Polland and Jim Gorman, and myself made it up to celebrate the feast of the National Apostle. We went for the day to Crossgar and had a rale jolly time. “Next morning we turned out for work as usual and no remarks were passed, but when it came to the end of the half year the boss took £1 each off our pays. When asked the reason for this, he said: ‘You took St. Patrick’s Day off, and the £1 is for the horses being idle in the stable that day’.” Not being satisfied with the explanation Joe consulted a magistrate, who advised him to take proceedings, so he consulted a solicitor and did so. “ When it came to the court day”, said Joe, “Cosby went up before the bench and gave me a character that would have scared ye. Then my solicitor, Mr. Sutherland, called down Mr. Ireland, who was one of the J.P.s on the bench, and a man I had worked for before. Mr. Sutherland asked him what kind of worker I as, and he replied: ‘He was the most satisfactory worker that ever I had, and I would take him back tomorrow’. So I won my claim, plus 2/6d. a day for five days I was off work in the meantime. “Mr McRobert was chairman of the Court, and Mr. Nathaniel Perry was one of the J.P.s on the bench”.


{Source: Mourne Observer13th January 1961}


Next week we conclude Joe’s interesting reminiscences.










I often wonder why it is that so many country people with little schooling are so quick-witted, and have a ready answer in situations where people with an academic education are left virtually speechless. It would seem that what they lack in one respect they make up in another—or had they the chance, would they have made their mark in some sphere demanding a keen brain and the ability for quick decisions? Perhaps the Brains Trust will that one some time.


Meanwhile, let me relate a few more stories about Joe Burns, who must have been one of the wittiest jarveys of his day, as many of the old folk will testify. In fact some of the sidelights I’m going to tell you come not from Joe himself but from some of his acquaintances of former days.


[photograph] A two-horse hackney carriage similar to the one which Mr Burns drove for many years.


Joe, as I’ve said, drove horse hackney cars in Castlewellan and Newcastle for around 35 years. Sometimes it was left to customers to give what they pleased, and one day after Joe had taken a party round Newcastle they were paying him as they got off the car. One miserly old gentleman, in stepping down reached Joe a threepenny bit. “You should have brought me round to the back before giving me that”, says Joe, “for if the mare sees it she’ll kick the bottom out of the car”.




Another day Joe got the contract of driving an American around the Mournes. At nearly every pub the Yank would call a halt for a refreshment, and decently enough would ask Joe what he was having, Joe would reply “Just the same as yerself”. The Americans favourite was a “brandy puff”, as he termed it – an egg beaten up in a glass of brandy. Joe quite relished the refreshment, but his touring friend thought he was being a bit clever, always replying “the same as yerself”, so he thought to “handle” Joe. At the next pub he took the barmaid aside and quietly suggested that she put a rotten egg in Joe’s drink. It so happened that she did have a stale egg and dropped it into Joe’s brandy. The Yank threw his drink up as usual, but Joe’s keen sense of smell told him his drink wasn’t just right. “What sort of drink wuz that ye asked her for?” he queried. “Another brandy puff”, replied the American. “Well is she puffed in yours”, said Joe, “she did something else in mine”—and he left it down.


After having a run one morning with Joe, an old bearded fellow chatted with him for a while and asked him what kind of day he thought it was going to be. “It’s going to rain”, says Joe. “What makes you say that?” enquired his friend. “Well, Old Moore says it’s going to be a good day, and you can be sure it’s going to be the opposite”, says Joe. “Did you ever see Old Moore?” asked the other. “No”, says Joe. “Well I’m him”, was the reply!


Last week I related the incident of how a mean, grubby old farmer who had hired him for the half year as Market man, and thought to keep £1 out of his pay for taking a holiday on St. Patrick’s Day, and of how Joe brought him to boot.




“Then another day”, Joe told me, “I was at Killyleagh hiring fair when a man came up to me and told me he would hire me. He asked me for my character, meaning a reference, and I left to see if I could spot someone who would recommend me. However some of the boys I got talking to told me – ‘For God’s sake don’t hire with him, he’s the worst man in creation to work for’. “A short while after that I met the man in the street ‘Well did you get me that’, he shouted. ‘No’, says I, ‘but I got yours’ and I walked on”.




In his young days Joe was extra fond of a fling, and a wee drop of the “craithur” [not sure about this word; difficult to read] too, and of many of the big nights he had he mentioned the flax-pulling dances, which were very popular about half a century ago. “I mind one big week in particular”, he said. “There was a dance on a Monday night in Charlie McCann’s, of The Ribb, Slievenisky; then on Tuesday night at Eddie O’Hare’s, of the Bog Road, Legananny; Wednesday night we were at Jeannie Wells’, of Slievenisky; Thursday night it was Pat McCartan’s, and James McGrady’s on Friday night. “That Friday night coming home I lay down on a lump of hay”, said Joe. “When I wakened it was broad daylight, so I headed of to my work, but I thought there was something wrong, fro the people weren’t all out working. Then I found out it was Sunday – I had slept all through Friday night, all day Saturday and Saturday night!” Joe was quite a polished dancer in his day, and could “shake a foot” even in recent years. Many a time he “led the floor” with his daughter Lizzie (now Mrs D King of Annsborough Park). He recalled the popular dances held at Annsborough during the war in aid of comfort funds for the soldiers.




Joe told me about drawing timber from Gillhall demesne outside Dromore, to Dromore railway station for piling the foundation of Belfast City Hall, around 1901 and 1902, and also of being engaged in similar work at Montalto, Ballynahinch, from whence the timber was carted to Ballynahinch railway station. The wages were good -- £1 per week – but it was heavy work, he said. For some years he was employed by the late John Magin, of Castlewellan, attending horse fairs all over Ireland. “I seen me bringing five horses single handed all the way from Crossmaglen”, he said.


The conversation turned to big events around Castlewellan in his early day, and he was able to narrate the history of the construction of the G.N.R. line from Ballyroney to Newcastle, mentioning the engineers and contractors, and the firm that built the bridges. Then amongst the local building contractors he mentioned Patrick McAleenan, who with the help of his sons and other local enthusiasts formed the first Gaelic Club in Co. Down – the Fontenoy Club of Leitrim, whose exploits are talked about to this day. He was also able to recall the names of quite a few of the earlier players and their victories – but that is another story, and one which we hope to deal with at an early date.


It was in 1903 that Joe Burns was married to Mary Rice in St. Mary’s Church, Newcastle, by Fr. Dempsey, P.P. They had 13 of a family, eight of whom are still alive. Two daughters are married and reside in Annesborough; three sons are also married, and the remainder are working in England. “It would take me half a day to count my grandchildren; but I have 11 great-grandchildren”, he said, with a twinkle in his eye, “I have a granddaughter married to and uncle of Pat Rice, the Down GAA footballer. Pat, you know, is a nephew of the late Joe Toner, who used to be a great soccer player in his day”. Though confined to a hospital bed, Joe is quite content with his lot. He described to me how he was suddenly stricken by illness about five years ago. “I was drilling potatoes the night before”, he said, “and the next morning this was the way I found myself – the victim of a stroke”. “Drilling at 80 years of age?” I said, “Aye,” says he, “I thought nothing of it”. With that Joe re-filled his pipe and I believe that as he gazed wistfully at each puff of smoke he could see the faces of yesteryear and hear voices of companions long since passed to their reward.



Another Old Folks Feature next week.


{Source: Mourne Observer 20th January 1961}


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