1950 – Excentrics and excentricities

I later joined the Housing Trust, which is now called the Housing Executive, I joined what could only be described as a happy band. Like all offices there were minor frictions, departments were often at loggerheads and there were the usual petty office jealousies, but by and large I looked forward to going to work. The work was varied and interesting and because the sites we worked on were situated the length and breadth of the Province, one was never bored.
There were a number of eccentrics there and we came across some strange customs. One of our bosses had the ingrained theory that everyone made at least one mistake in anything they did, so when we gave him a sheaf of drawings to check over and approve, he would look at every one of them until he found a mistake, which was not blatant. It could take hours. I must admit it was sometime before I was let into the secret of how to combat this and get the drawings back more quickly, even if it might prove that one was less than perfect – it was the intentional mistake. Subtly one was put in, not too blatant and not too difficult to find. Everyone was then satisfied.
Among our eccentrics we also had a couple of permanent chainmen. Any more which were needed were taken on locally or borrowed from some other authority.
Dan was sandy haired, short, tough and generally smiling. He dressed like a country squire, with a hound’s tooth, vented jacket, fawn trousers, punched brogues and a flat cap which would have graced most saddling enclosures. In fact he looked so smart there was a story going the rounds that the Chief Engineer, who was descending the stairs to meet an influential guest, was totally ignored by the guest as he rushed past to shake Sam’s hand and to say how glad he was to meet him. This did not endear Dan to Authority, but it did to us.
Dan was a country boy from near Ballymena, and not all his habits were in keeping with his dress. Using the pool cars, I would let him drive most of the time, it gave me time to decide what we would be doing when we arrived and I noticed that, in heavy traffic, Dan had a habit of rubbing his knee with his left hand, as if frustrated. He also had another habit, less acceptable. At times of stress he liked to expectorate through the driver’s window, which he mostly kept open, but there were occasions when he forgot it was closed.
We, Dan, another engineer and his chainman and I, were surveying a large housing site at the back of Larne, in Country Antrim, preparatory to designing the roads and sewers. It was raining heavily. We took shelter in the empty barns belonging to a farm which formed part of the site. We sat about, ate our lunch early so we could work through, once the rain stopped, we had a desultory conversation and then Dan introduced the subject of hypnotism as applied to chickens. He said he could place a chicken with its beak on a chalk line and it would not move off the line even if you walked right up to the bird and what was more he had ten shillings which said he could do it. Ten bob was ten bob, so we tried to get him to demonstrate without a wager but without success. In the end we pooled, we knew he could do it, Dan never made a bet unless he had a more than an even chance of winning, but we were curious to see how he did it
The first thing he did was to draw a straight line on the concrete floor in chalk. Next he went in search of a chicken, we had seen some roaming round the place. When he came back he had hold of one by the body with the wings clamped below his hands, and its beak facing away from him. His next act was to swing the chicken round and round in a wide flat circle at waist height and then, shifting his grip so he had the chicken clamped in the palm of one hand and the other holding its head with his forefinger firmly along the line of the top of the beak, he put the beak on the line, set the chicken’s feet across the line and held the bird like that for about ten to fifteen seconds. When he straightened, the bird remained and we walked round it, looked at it, and until he took it off the line, there it remained.
The sites we, were green field sites, farms which had been in families for generations. Ireland is a country with more than its fair share of myth and legend. Articles, with mystical connotations, or connected in any way with necromancy get a wide berth when it comes to disruption.
On one site there was a dolman in the middle of the field. For days the engineer responsible for the site could get no work done on that part of the job because a road was proposed where the dolman stood. The contractor told the Housing Engineer that there was not a man on his payroll who would shift it, could the road not be diverted? The answer to that was an unequivocal ‘No’, even if for no other reason than the ridicule he would receive back in the office in Belfast. Stalemate.
Then up spoke an Englishman labouring on the site. He would shift it, and he did, on his own. Whether true or inevitably made up to prove a point we never knew, but the story goes, that when the man returned to England he took ill and never worked again. We had the same trouble with Fairy Trees, those stumpy hawthorns one finds leading a lonely life somewhere in a field, which have survived because no one has had the temerity to dig them out and make ploughing or hay-cutting so much easier.

Categorized as General

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *