When I was but 14 summers Papa and Mama hitched up the stagecoach and headed cross-county to Gortin.
I missed the cinema down the lineside, cycling to Lough Neagh, Gervin’s snooker hall and my buddies back in Coalisland. It’s was a familar journey as many Sundays I called to my father through the cigarette smoke in the car to go ‘the bumpy road’ to Gortin, that is through Pomeroy rather than the long line from Cookstown via Creggan Crossroads.
That was back in the 60s when we visited my Granny’s house. All I remember of Gortin as a child is cows and a humpback bridge where men talked and dragged on cigareetes (all adults smoked back then).
I spent several interesting years among the Glens before I found my way back east. We hunted and went to war in the dancehalls of Tyrone and Donegal and played football with the local St Patrick’s club. I’m sworn to secrecary but nights in Gortin in the late 70’s when the country bands were playing and taverns were packed… put it like this, it would have been no surprise had Butch Cassidy and the Hole in the Wall gang rode into town… the Wild West. All you need to know, dear reader, is there was some craic the night we put the goat in the back of Alice Devine’s mini outside Gortin dancehall.
The under 14 team packed into Mick McCullagh’s van for away games on Saturday mornings. “Gather, side-step and lash her up the field,” was his advice. Mick gave so much to the youth of the area. Last month he passed away in his 80s. Doing the sums, the adults who were bedrocks of the community back then are hitting into their twilight years. That is how it rolls. If we keep turning up for life our day will come.
A waddle of my siblings attended the local St Patrick’s Primary School under the tutorship of Patsy Flanagan and his wife Ita. Their tenure spanned four decades. The Flanagans ran two classrooms teaching P1-3 in one room and 4-7 in the other. Mrs Flanagan taught ‘The three Rs’, sewing, music, art, history, geography, religion and had to cover every subject for three different year groups in one room. Talk about multi-tasking. She also ran the Gortin choir in her spare time.
They taught two generations of many families in Gortin, people who went on to be doctors, nurses, lawyers, local farmers, builders, dentists, vets, shopkeepers – you name it. The Flanagans devoted their entire lives to the education of the children of the village and surrounding area.
Patsy is deceased and Ita, who lives alone, looks forward to her Monday visits to meet her friends at the local day care centre a short distance from her home. At least she did until faceless people at the Western Health and Social Care Trust (WHCST) in their wisdom decided that the 15 friends will be packed off to share a centre with elderly folk in Newtownstewart.
Many of them are high dependence, frail and/or have Alzheimer’s. Ita and her friends are distraught while their counterparts seven miles away also face a disruption to their lives and a dilution of their experience at their special centre. There was a “consultation process” you know. Bureaucrats use that type of jargon. However during the process no-one from the Trust has taken heed of the feelings of the day centre users regarding what local man Pauric McConnell calls, “Maximum disruption to their lives for minimum saving”. Pauric is the son of centre attendee Jack McConnell who played on the first Tyrone minor team to win an All Ireland title in 1947. “Thanks Jack, now off you go…”
“Ain’t there no one here that knows where I’m at? Ain’t there no one here that knows how I feel? Good God Almighty that stuff ain’t real!” penned Bob Dylan on ‘Last thoughts on Woody Guthrie.’
A protest group has mobilised. People from Gortin are giving their elderly a voice. A tough battle lies ahead. Suits tend to adapt the attitude of legendary soccer gaffer Brian Clough. On disagreements with players, Clough said, “We talk about it for 20 minutes and then we decide I was right.”
In his address to Congress last week Pope Francis said of refugees, “View them as persons, seeing their faces and listening to their stories.” The same applies to our elderly.
To listen to Mrs Flanagan these days, one needs to sit beside her wheelchair and lean in close. When this Herald reporter did that last week, she said, “We are so happy here. We do not want to leave. Please see us as vulnerable, old age human beings who deserve to be treated with dignity.
“Why should we be moved when we are so well looked after here by our carers? I live alone and look forward to coming here and would certainly not look forward to driving seven miles in a bus to Newtownstewart, in a wheelchair buckled to the floor.”
No-one from the Trust has bothered to get that close to hear what Mrs Flanagan has to say. That is the thanks our elderly receive for what they did for us.