In this fascinating article, Dermot Kelly recalls the life of his grandfather, James ‘Shanaghan’ Barrett - storyteller, trans-Atlantic sailor, fireman and proud member of the irish National Foresters.
His father William was born in the Gartan area of Donegal under the family name of Byrne. This name he changed to Barrett when he came to live in Sloans Terrace in Derry. It is unclear why he discarded his birth name but it was whispered that it was because he had deserted from the Militia.
He married Mary McDaid and they settled into life in Derry in 1867 where, as a Gauger for the Department of Customs and Excise, he behaved impeccably. As his family developed, he ruled by a strict Catholic code and, every evening on return from work, his wife Mary gave him a report in Gaelic of each child’s behaviour.
The non Gaelic-speaking children listened intently to hear their leasainm, nickname, to know if they were in for a hiding, a beating. Grand aunt Biddy told us that, when she heard scaoidin (wee spud) in the nightly report, she knew that punishment awaited her.
Into this atmosphere James Barrett was born in 1875. He did not experience the nightly briefings of his mother for long because she died a few years after his birth but he did remember one incident connected with her demise.
She died in September and his father, of course, imposed the strict Victorian grieving customs of the period. However, in December the elder daughters of the family tried to bring some cheer into the house of mourning by making a Christmas pudding.
Unaware of this, the father returned home from work one evening to find the pudding simmering gently in the three-legged pot hanging over the fire. He scolded the girls for their disrespect of their dead mother and upturned the pot on its chain, dousing the fire with the water and the pudding. The custom of the period was a year’s mourning after a death.
James (Jimmy) grew up in this environment where his sisters were the wives and mother figures and his father imposed the strict family discipline. He did not attend school on a regular basis and never acquired the ability to read or write. Barefooted he and his friends played along the riverbank at Foyle Road or watched sailing ships arrive and depart from the quayside.
They witnessed the tearful departures of emigrants and their families to places with strange sounding names such as Philadelphia, New York or Baltimore. These names were to become less strange and the places very familiar to Jimmy from a very youthful age.
Shortly after his twelfth birthday, he asked his father for permission to attend the Big Day on the fifteenth of August, the Feast of the Assumption, but his father refused him. This was an annual carnival event of processions, bands, stalls and side shows to celebrate the Assumption of Our Lady into heaven.
To ensure that his orders were obeyed, the parent locked Jimmy in the back bedroom of Sloan’s Terrace and removed his clothes. While warning Jimmy of the dire consequences of any further misbehaviour, the father failed to notice a raincoat hanging on the bedroom door. Some time after the room door was closed, Jimmy donned the coat, opened the window and shinned down the downspout to freedom. Barefoot and clad only in the raincoat he enjoyed the big day until his return home in the evening.
Climbing up the downspout, he tried to stealthily re-enter the back bedroom. Quietly pushing up the window sash, he entered the room to find his father standing arms akimbo waiting for him. “Well, Seanachie!”, said the parent, in other words: “Well, story teller, what is your excuse.” Jimmy, of course, had no excuse and suffered accordingly.
As his siblings spread the story, he was given the nickname Seanchie that became distorted to Shanaghan, a title he carried for the rest of his life.
Shortly after this event, Shanaghan ran away to sea and served as a cabin boy on the Jean Anderson, a barque-rigged sailing ship. His first voyage took him to New York and, on the return journey, made landfall some fifty odd days later off Inishowen Head. Entering Lough Foyle, the ship was taken in tow by a steam driven tug boat for its journey up river. As it drew near its home berth, the joy of Shanaghan’s homecoming was overshadowed by the fear of a hiding, a beating, when he returned to Sloans Terrace. He need not have worried; he was welcomed with open arms by his father and siblings who may have thought that they had lost him forever.
This voyage decided his future and, as he grew and matured, he crossed the Atlantic in McCorkell Line sailing ships such as the Osseo the Minniehaha and the Hiawatha.
Shanaghan’s career with this Line ended on December 9, 1895 when the Hiawatha docked for the last time at Derry Quay. It was the last Derry-owned sailing ship and had been sold to foreign owners while still at sea. Between voyages, he met Theresa Doherty, a factory girl whose parents had come from Greysteel to live in Governor Road. After a comparatively short courtship, they married in the Long Tower church on May 9, 1896.
Henceforth, he sailed for other companies and, although he became a skilled navigator, he never rose above the rank of boatswain because of his illiteracy. As Theresa gave birth to their children, he stopped deep sea sailing and concentrated on coasting so that he could spend more time with the family. Eventually, for the same reason, he took advantage of his membership of the National Sailors and Firemens Union and gave up the sea to become a fireman in the Hawkin Street station.
This also accommodated his membership of the Irish National Foresters and made it easier to be ashore for their ‘Big Day’ August 15, on which they celebrated the Assumption of Our Lady into heaven. He was very proud to have been chosen to lead their parades and marches because of his height and bearing and the whole family became involved in the preparation for these events.
Prior to parades or marches, while Theresa washed and pressed his uniform, the children polished and shone his shoes and buckles. When the Big Day arrived, he rose early, shaved and washed and donned his uniform for inspection and, after assurances that all was well, he set off, a fine figure of a man as he strode down the street.
His return was usually less dignified. A sidecar or taxi would draw up outside number 13 Philip Street and, as his busby rolled on to the ground, the jarvey or taxi driver would knock the front door and wife, driver and children would wrestle him out of the vehicle. Oxtering him across the pavement and through the hall, they would deposit him on the couch where he would sleep off his drunken spree.
Despite this loss of dignity, he only incurred the sanction of the Foresters on one occasion. The incident occurred one night as he tried to navigate the corner of Phillip Street and the Strand Road after his nightly visit to the Alley Mans. In difficulty, he spotted a fellow Forester Johnny McCauley, a Pioneer who lived at the top of the street.
As ships at sea would do, Shanaghan hailed Johnny seeking assistance. Help was refused as abstemious Johnny told him that he should be ashamed of himself and that he should be at home looking after his wife and family. Shanaghan replied that Holy Joes like Johnny were too mean to buy a drink and, as the exchanges became more aggressive, the dispute turned physical. Johnny sustained a broken arm and had to be taken to the City and County Infirmary where his arm was splinted and he was allowed to return home.
McCauley did not report the matter to the police, he took a more serious step, and he reported Shanaghan to the Irish National Foresters. Worried that he might lose his position as parade leader, his membership and, so, his social life, he appeared before the grand master and committee at the Green Table. Intimidated by the atmosphere and committee, he was made aware of the seriousness of bringing disrepute on the organisation and warned that any such behaviour in the future would mean immediate expulsion.
He was made to apologise firstly to the Foresters and then to Forester McCauley.
After a couple of years in Hawkin Street, increasing family costs forced Shanaghan back to sea and cross channel coasting. The outbreak of the First World War increased his wages and time at sea as the coasters carried essential commodities around the British Isles. This activity also earned him the British War Medal and Clasp and the Mercantile Medal.
For the remainder of his career, he managed to avoid the ire of the Foresters but not necessarily of his neighbours. On return from a voyage, he did not immediately rush home to his wife and family but felt it necessary to acquaint the publicans at the “Rock” of his arrival. His family and neighbours first became aware of the sailor’s return when a sidecar rounded the bottom of the street on one wheel at break neck speed - Shanaghan, standing at the front, whip and reins in hand, urging the horse on, while the jarvey clung desperately to the rails of the vehicle.
After the sudden and dangerous halt outside number 13, he would loudly greet all in sight except, perhaps, his neighbour, Shafter, who from that moment on would deem it safer to enter and exit his house via the back lane. Inside, Jimmy’s reception was ecstatic as he hugged and kissed the children and gave them pennies to buy sweets while Theresa made a cup of tea.
Always conscious of his own illiteracy, he often brought books from the ports he visited to encourage the children to read. This may have been the origin of the nicknames conferred by the Barrett children on their friends and acquaintances - Quilp, Dodger, Phileas and Uriah, for example. During the short periods between voyages, Theresa would see it as her duty to build him up again after his unhealthy sea diet.
Shanaghan had more confidence in the restorative powers of Guinness through which he eagerly pursued the same end. During this period he enjoyed the comforts of home in Phillip Street for a period of months while he assisted the divers trying to salvage the gold bars from the wreck of the Laurentic. This was a ship sunk by a German submarine off Fanad Head while carrying gold bullion to America and whose cargo has never been completely recovered.
The few missing bars were said by Shanaghan to have been secreted on the seabed by some of the divers for a return visit. One of the divers, John McSherry, lodged with the Barrett family in Phillip Street during the salvage operation.
NEXT WEEK: In part two of the story, Dermot Kelly recalls the tragic deaths of Shanaghan’s wife, daughter and son within eighteen months of each other and the tough task of raising a family on his own.