French Connection

Seamus Johnston. (SUNINT1202AQ02)
Seamus Johnston. (SUNINT1202AQ02)

Last week Seamus Johnston called time on almost 50 years with the Waterside Credit Union.

After 38 years as the president of the Waterside Credit Union, Seamus Johnston, is calling it a day. He talks about life growing up in Marlborough Avenue, cycling the length of France in 1948 and why a sense of duty helped him to help others.

Seamus pictured with his Ethna. They wed in St. Columb's Church, Waterside in 1956. (SUNINT1202AQ01)

Seamus pictured with his Ethna. They wed in St. Columb's Church, Waterside in 1956. (SUNINT1202AQ01)

Last week Seamus Johnston called time on almost 50 years with the Waterside Credit Union.

Seamus, who lives in the Waterside with his wife Ethna, is a proud Rosemount man at heart. When he first joined the Waterside Credit Union in the late 1960s he had but a few pounds to spare but for the last four decades he has helped the organisation to become one of the strengthening blocks of the community.

When it came to helping others in the local community Seamus was as dutiful, dedicated and hard working as anyone could imagine.

However, when he was younger he studied languages at University College Dublin (U.C.D.) and in 1948 he joined a friend from Tyrone on the trip of dozen lifetimes; he cycled the entire length of war scarred France.

“We were late for our boat to England,” recalls Seamus. “As we approached, it was actually moving away from the port. We had to throw our bicycles on to the boat and jump - we made it by the skin of our teeth.”

Seamus and his friend set out on their trip from the north of France and were even mistaken for German POWs by locals who would been captured by the French army during World War II.

“You have to remember that there was still a lot uneasiness and suspicion in the air.

“After the war many young German POWs worked in some of the local farms. Many of the POWs escaped and tried to make their way through France and back to Germany.

“A few of the locals suspected us of being escaped POWs but when we convinced them that we were from Ireland they just went about their business.”

Seamus came face to face with the human cost paid by so many families when he and his friend agreed to meet a local man for dinner during their visit to Barzy-sur-Marne in the Picardy region of north-eastern France.

“We met the man in the village and he was asking us a lot of questions like who we were and why we had come to France. He had lost one of his eyes during World War I.

“After a while he invited us to his home the following day to share a meal with him and his wife.

“To be honest, my friend and I were looking forward to a proper meal because life on the road was tough and we had to ration what food we ate.

“We arrived at the man’s house and soon found out that he and his wife had lost three sons and one daughter during World War II. One of the sons was killed by the Germans in North Africa whilst the other two were killed whilst serving with the Maquis (rural guerrilla bands of the French resistance). The man’s daughter was shot dead by the Germans when she protested publicly when they entered the village.”

The rest of Seamus’s trip saw him venture into the hills and mountains of Switzerland before taking the downhill cycle to the French Riviera.

“It was amazing when we reached the French Riviera,” he recollects. “At one stage we had a beach entirely to ourselves. Obviously this was because of the war because when I went back to the same place a few weeks later I couldn’t find a space to sit. Tourism had returned to the area again and it was popular once more.”

On reaching their southerly destination Seamus and his friend started the return journey north.

When he arrived back in Ireland he was in remarkably good shape. He spent a few days in his native Derry before returning to Dublin to complete his degree.

“I was like an Olympic athlete when I got back,” he laughs.

“When I left Derry to go back to university I was asked by my lecturers if I would give a talk on what it was like travelling in France.

“No one at the university had been to France since the war so I gave my talk and it went really well. People came from as far away as Galway to listen to what I had to say.”

Seamus was born and reared in Marlborough Avenue in Rosemount in August 1928.

He was one of nine children; his father, Patrick Johnston, worked as a clerk in the General Post Office whilst his mother, Ellen, whose maiden name was McLaughlin, was a housewife.

“I have very fond memories of my childhood. Where we lived back then would have been regarded as the countryside.

“There used to be fields all around us. There was a particular field near Marlborough Avenue and it was owned by a man who used a wooden crutch called named McClean.

“When we were young we played football and cricket in the field. When Mr. McClean saw us he would get really angry and would throw his crutch at us.

“On good days we would all set out on a walk to Grianan Fort. We would take a few eggs with us and when we reached the fort we would light a small fire, boil the eggs and have a picnic - they were great days.”

When he was a young man, Seamus was a member of the Cathedral Choir. He rejoined the choir when he returned to Derry to work in the 1950s.

When Seamus moved to the Waterside with his wife Ethna he joined the St. Columb’s Church choir.

“I loved singing in the choir - it was one of my great passions.”

Seamus’s mother was a native of a townland near Dunree in Donegal. Seamus recalls long summers spent with the rest of his brothers and sisters “chasing sheep” and fishing in small rivers and lakes for white trout.

“I loved it when we went back to my mother’s home - it was just magical.

“We would have spent the days chasing sheep over the hills and tickling trout in the streams.

“My older brother Anthony was the man who trained Dana for the Eurovision Song Contest, and he taught me to fish.”

Before going off to study modern languages at U.C.D. Seamus attended St. Eugene’s Primary School and then St. Columb’s College.

On leaving St. Columb’s at the age of 18, Seamus was awarded a scholarship to study French, English, Spanish and Latin in Dublin.

“I didn’t get as much a chance to practise Spanish back then and French was the language of the time. I’d say I’m still fluent in French and I keep myself sharp by reading the odd French book.”

Seamus returned to Derry in the early 1950s where he became a teacher at the Christian Brothers Technical School on the ‘Brow of the Hill’, (where Lumen Christi College is now).

He worked at the school for a few years before moving on to St. Joseph’s College in Westway, Rosemount where he worked for ten years.

In 1973 Seamus was made principal of St. Oliver Plunkett’s Primary School in Strathfoyle. He remained there until his retirement in 1990.

“I really enjoyed teaching,” he says happily. “I enjoyed instilling a love for learning in the children I taught.

“I suppose the main reason I became a teacher was because my older brother Anthony was one.

“When I saw what he was doing I thought to myself, maybe I should give this a go.”

It was during his early days as a teacher that Seamus first met Ethna McHugh in the Corinthian Ballroom.

Ethna, who is from the Waterside, and Seamus were married in St. Columb’s Church in 1956; they have seven children together.

“We first moved into a house in Beechwood Avenue but soon after we moved into Ethna’s family home in the Waterside.

“I love living in the Waterside but deep down I am a Rosemount man,” he smiles.

In the mid 1960s, Seamus’s brother-in-law told him that he and a group of others were trying to set-up a Waterside Credit Union.

Seamus had a small amount of money to spare and put it into a savings account.

“My brother-in-law was the secretary of the branch and a few years later he died. I was asked to become secretary - that was back in the early 1970s. I’ve held other positions within the organisation but I was made president in 1975 and I remained in the position until I retired last week.

“I suppose the main reason behind my decision to join the credit union was I felt that I had a sense of duty to my local community.

“Along with many other hard working people the Waterside Credit Union turned from an organisation with £70,000 of capital in 1970 to one with £18m today.

“It was a real honour and a privilege to work with all of the people of the Waterside Credit Union. I met some amazing people and I’d still like to think that despite the fact that I am retired that I will see them all from time to time.”