Phil Callaghan – US GI Based in Belleek in WW2


Philip Callahan was born on 29th August 1923, in Fort Benning, Georgia. He joined the American Army Air Force in 1943 and was posted to Ireland where he became a member of staff of the U.S. radio station situated at Magheramena, Belleek, Co. Fermanagh, Northern Ireland. He was after the war was over to marry in the States, Winnie McGee who was a native of the Belleek area. He describes Ireland in the verse of a poem by Lady Dufferin, “They say there’s bread and work for all,

                           And the sunshine’s always there.

   But I’ll not forget old Ireland,

                           Where it’s fifty years as fair.”

            He describes his journey from the States until he arrived at Nutts Corner Air Base on the shores of Lough Neagh., there he was joined by Forrest Osbourne from Michigan a person more senior in years than himself. They were provide with one of the little four wheel drive Jeeps as their transport to place called Belleek where they were to join the staff of the radio station there, this was 1944 and on their journey westwards they met large convoys of American troops going eastwards towards Belfast. These troops had trained in Northern Ireland in preparation for the invasion of Europe and were to cross from Belfast to England.

            The further west they drove the more often they were stopped at check points, Osbourne was never short of a good story and informed the patrols that they were on their way to a top secret radio station of great importance that they had to put into operation. In the narrow streets of Portadown, Co. Armagh they were ordered to pull in by a large, rough looking Military Policeman who shouted at them, “ Hey you! Where do you think that you are going?”  “Pull over and get into line”. We already had one wheel up on the sidewalk of the narrow street squeezed between the convoy and the grey fronts of the town shops. Coming from the opposite direction was an endless line of trucks loaded with infantry men of the American 8th Division. They were headed for England and the battlefields of Normandy.  A few days before our arrival in Ireland, the Americans and British had landed at Normandy and the last of the division’s trained in Ireland were pulling out. Soon there would be no G.I.’S in Northern Ireland except for the Air Corps personnel at Nutts Corner the airfield outside of Belfast.

            Assuming that we should have been heading for Belfast the M.P. ordered us to join the end of the convoy. Phil told him that they were headed for Belleek not Belfast. The M.P. asked them where was that and demanded to see their orders. On checking them he asked how far was Belleek and what was there. Phil told him that there was a radio station and it was on the Free State border. The M.P. sent them on their way and after passing through several more check points they reached Enniskillen.

            Callaghan describes Enniskillen as being on the south – eastern tip of one of western Ireland’s most beautiful lough’s. The River Erne; which drains the lough flows to the sea through the south-western tip of County Donegal. Most of the river lies across the border in the Free State, but all of the 23- mile long lough lies in Northern Ireland. The road from Enniskillen to Belleek winds along the edge of thelough. It is an undulating road and I was soon engaged in Reading the picturesque name places along the road.

            Ireland is a country of contrast, and paradox. One may drive for only a few miles and yet have the un-explicable feeling that a whole continent has been traversed. Distances are more deceptive than in any country in the world. Distances appear great, but actually are short, and the miniaturization of the countryside heightens the deception of special arrangement so that the ever-changing vistas seem to expand in time and space. The little cottages, low stone ditches (in Ireland ditches are really fences), small shops and narrow winding roads fit smugly into green valleys, nestling like pebbles in a furrow between great stretches of rolling moorland and turf bog. The valley of the Erne is no exception and the 23 miles of lake road soon enveloped us with its strange beauty. We drove along lakeside and glens, backed by jagged cliffs and bordered by fields of green for which no verbal description is adequate.

            Belleek is situated on the River Erne at the most westerly point of Northern Ireland. It is a small village of some three or four hundred families, with one wide central street. One approaches the village from the Enniskillen road across a narrow strip of the Free State that juts like a thorn into the ruptured border, where it parallels the river. Strategetically placed on this point of the Free State territory are a pub and small shop. These are advantageously located for their owners, as the citizens of the north were more prone to buy their cigarettes and spirits at a lesser price in the neutral Free State than in the north with its wartime prices. Furthermore, fresh eggs, cheese, bacon and other such delicacies could be obtained without ration coupons.

            We crossed the River Erne by the Roscor Bridge; which mars the start of the river that drains the lake. Above on the hill we could see the antenna poles of the radio station the entrance to the station was on the opposite side of the hill along an avenue overarched with ancient beech trees that rose like whitened pillars from the sparkle of amethyst that was a mantle of dew on the early morning sunlit hedges. I asked Osbourne to stop as we entered the gate way so that I could get a photo of the beech avenue. It was forbidden to bring a camera with me from America and all my kit had been searched on departure. As my Fourth Derby camera was a small collapsible model I had carried in my pockets and it was not noticed. I lined up the viewfinder and clicked a black and white shot f the stately Beech trees against the green hills. The wind carried the tangy smell of a peat fire from a nearby farmstead. Brown and white cattle drifted in the wake of their leader browsing along the shoulder of the roadway.

            When one composes a photograph through a viewfinder he suddenly becomes attached to the scene that he seeks to capture. It is as if the camera were a link between the eye and the esthetic emotions of the inner brain; a connection to the unforgettable scene being photographed. One becomes enveloped in the whole process and the surroundings become a separate world. The camera protects one from the world while, at the same time allowing complete security in the most intimate explorations of its detail. As I dissolved myself into the Irish countryside, I suddenly realized that fate had finally played its most delightful turn-about on me. I knew at that instant that I would never want to leave Ireland; that I would be content to spend the entire remainder of the war in this one spot.

            I was glad I had brought my camera along. Photography, like, golf, is a disease. I would never be happy without the camera. I had paid $17 for my flat folding Fourth Derby; which was the forerunner of the miniature 35mm camera in a photography shop in San Antonio. Although it took 12 pictures on 127 film; it folded so flat that it left no bulge in my pocket under the army tunic. With this camera, I was to explore and record the Irish countryside during every free moment. One of the first things that occurs when a novice takes up photography as a hobby, after he ahs mastered the technicalities of the art, and providing he is sufficiently enthusiastic, is a subtle extension of his awareness for life and the beauties of creation. There seems to be little doubt that awareness and esthetic appreciation is sharpened by the fact that through the frame of a viewfinder one is inspired to record those details of nature that make up the beauties of our world. A competent photographer will never, in the words of William Henry Hudson, “ think meanly of the world”. Perhaps that is why I have never met a person interested in photography that I did not like and respect.

            One of the great hazards of photography is that the camera can become an end in itself and the photographer gets so involved in the technicalities of picture taking that he forgets the picture. In short a camera, like a person, can become a stimulating companion or an outright annoyance. Friendships do not develop instantaneously, they mature and thrive with time, for understanding and knowledge are a part of friendship and depend on time and thought. For a camera to become a friendly companion, a considerable knowledge of its capabilities and technical characteristics is necessary.

            I jumped back in the jeep and we headed up the hill. At the top, a wooden gate barred the way and beyond, we could see the long tarpaper barracks. We went inside and were greeted by Master Sergeant Huddleston, the NCO in charge. The barracks was long with a concrete floor and 2 small, round, tub-like coal stoves at either end. It appeared almost empty, for there were only 10 bunks init along opposite walls. Large French windows that opened out looked across a flat grassy cow pasture. From the line of windows on the opposite side there was a sweeping view of the Irish moorlands across the border. The boundary of the border to the north of the barracks was marked by a small lough; called Keenaghan Lough. Nestled atone end of the lake was a whitewashed Irish farm cottage known as Barron’s Cottage and at the opposite end, where a small creek drained the lake, was the McGee Cottage. It was in this latter cottage that my future wife grew to womanhood.

            The Sergeant introduced us around. “ This is Rocky Costallano”, he said, “ And, this is Rocky Grassano.” These 2 Americans, both from New Jersey, were by coincidence called Rocky and became known about the countryside as Wee Rocky and Big Rocky. They were both short, stocky, good- natured, and of extremely dark Italian extraction. Un like myself, they were radio operators, but pulled maintenance shifts at the range station with the rest of us as there was little use for operators at an automatic range station. Our main duty was to see that the station stayed on the air 24 hours a day, 12 months a year. The fifth radioman besides myself, Osbourne and the 2 Rocky’s was an ex-truck driver called Jonas. Jonas was his last name, but that’s all I ever knew him by. There were 4 MP’s stationed with us in the barracks. They were Air Corps MP’s but, in spite of their occupations, were quite congenial. The most serious and “regulation happy” was Sergeant Summers, their NCO; the others were PFC Davidson, a small bi-spectacled, quiet man from Ohio, PFC Furgerson, who always shined his shoes with spit and polish, and big John Craft, a six-foot-four, slow speaking country boy from New Mexico. Of all I liked Big John the best for although he gave the impression of being slightly slow, he was by far the most intelligent of the MP’s including the sergeant. (When big John retired in the States he returned to Ireland and lived the remainder of his life in Bonahill, just across the border from the Radio Station, he died and is now buried in Ireland). Another G.I. not mentioned by Phil was young Bill Mackeeno.

            The jeep we had driven was being assigned to the station. We ate at Cleary’s Hotel in Belleek as we had no cooking facilities and received per diem for our food. It was a 3-mile trip to the hotel. At shift changes, we would pile into the jeep or ride one of the many bicycles we had obtained from the RAF to town.

            The road to Belleek parallels the River Erne and winds through the countryside past numerous thatched roofed Irish cottages. The average Irish farmstead consists of small, enclosed fields set off from one another by white stone ditches (fences). Farm – yards are picturesque and the moods of a visitor to one of these hospitable cottages may vary according to the weather.

            On a bright day the winds blow from Donegal Bay, 8 miles to the west, and whispering through the Scottish pines, sets the lapwings to flight along the lough shore. The black- and – white birds, wheeling and landing and taking flight again and again, hang on down – curved wings suspended against the deep purple moorland peaks of the Blue Stack mountains far to the North. Nearby the mountain called “Breezy” by the locals of the valley, soaks up the blue from the sky and its heather-covered sides become atone moment, burnt umber and at another purple or deep vermillion.

            Chickens skuttle about the farmyard, picking at undistinguishable specks along the hedge-grows, or in the pile of neatly stacked turf blocks piled along the windward side of the cottage. The cottages themselves appear to have grown up from the rocky ground. They are invariably of three rooms; the kitchen and main gathering room for the family being in the centre, with a bedroom at either end, A huge stone fireplace covers most of one wall and a hook for the pot and kettle swings out from one side. The main fuel is turf, called peat in Scotland and England.

            Where the moorland bogs reach down to the edge of the greener valley, long trenches gash the heather covered hills. It is from these gashes that the turf is cut each summer and stacked in small piles to dry. The turf is cut in bricks about a foot long and left in the bog for the summer winds to cure. In late summer it is carried by donkey cart to the cottage and stacked in a huge pile. Thoroughly dry, turf burns with a hot, fast fire and it takes a considerable mountain of it to keep the cottage warm throughout a long, damp, cold winter.

            The bringing in of the turf is a chore performed by all the male members of the family, and it is not uncommon to meet a young Irish lad of 11 or 12 tugging at a stubborn donkey as he leads it pulling the orange 2-wheeled cart down a narrow lane. This gayly coloured orange cart can be seen parked in almost every farmyard or hidden away in the stone out-building that borders every cottage. Another feature of the yard is the potato pit, where piles of potatoes are buried under mounds of clay to protect them from the elements. Of all the rugged and earthly elements that go to make up the Irish family farm, the most appealing is the whiteness of the cottages set against the soft yellow ochre of their thatched roofs. In the areas along the coast of Donegal, where the wind blows hard, the roof is held down by criss-crossings of hemp rope that are pegged in place around the eves. The doors of these cottages are of the half and half type, called Dutch, so that on sunny days the top portion is almost always open and the housewife can be seen sweeping with the bissim, as the heather stick broom is called, or performing other house-hold chores.

            It the mood of such cottages on a bright day is one of charm, brightness, and colour, it is inevitable that the cold gray clouds that blow from the North Atlantic can change the mood to the other extreme, When the winds blow from the north, they bring with them the rain and cold fog that rolls across the moorlands and valley, and shrouds the countryside in a monotonous dismal grey that consumes the colour of the land as night consumes the day. The grey may last for weeks and the firm dirt farmyard becomes a slippery quagmire. The farmers appear in tall Wellington boots with the corduroy trousers tucked in the tops. The eaves drip water, the turf stacks drip, the bushes and hedge-grows drip, and the very character of the entire countryside changes from the brightness of an artist’s palette to the greyness of a castle dungeon. I am convinced that the often melancholy and nostalgic literature and poetry of the Irish are influenced by their changeable climate, as indeed are their own personalities.

            After my first few months in Belleek, I soon relied entirely on my bicycle to get around. I visited the cottages close by and spent long hours talking to the old Parish Priest, Fr. Lorcan O’Cairain, who was a botanist and Irish historian of considerable ability.

            He lived in Magheramena Castle by himself and was retired from pastoral duties. The station was on the Castle grounds and, like all good Irish Castles, this one had its own special ghosts. He told me of how an Irish lass; dressed in green, was supposedly murdered and each Friday appeared at an upper window with a candle. The room was kept continuously locked, but in spite of this the Green Lady of Magheramena was often seen walking around the castle grounds. Often on dark, windy nights on the way back from visiting John Gormley and his family, who owned the farm next to the barracks, I would cast a glance at the window in the east room that faced the lane. Some times I could even imagine I was a light in the window. I could easily understand why the Irish boys and girls that went courting down the main road seldom ventured up past the castle and along the lane after dark. Magheramena on a dark, windy night could be a frightening experience right out of an old English ghost story.

            During my shifts at the radio shack I often sat at the doorway, drinking in the view down the Erne valley. The transmitters were American, but the diesel engines that gave us power were lend – lease from the R.A.F. There were two of them and each day we had to switch from one to the other. This was done, by cranking a huge flywheel, until the engines caught. After a few coughs and puffs, one cranked faster and faster until the flywheel finally took hold and kept running. It was a very fatiguing process. The engines were cooled by rainwater that we trapped from the roof and into large drums. The water in the drums was usually warm and we stripped in the middle of the generator room and poured it over ourselves for our shower. There was little chance of visitors during bath time as the transmitter shack was surrounded by a tall barbed wire fence; supposedly to keep the I.R.A. from blowing up the station. War or no war, the Irish were not overly sympathetic towards the English and even in Northern Ireland the men were not drafted into the war. The feeling that our station might be attacked by the Irish I.R.A. was a farce, however, and I was personally acquainted with several Irish lads who formerly belonged to the I.R.A.  They would not have even considered attacking an American radio installation.

            One day in July, as I sat in the warm sun by the door of the radio station, my attention was held by a specimen of the beautiful red and yellow small tortoise shell butterfly, as it danced across the green turf and landed unerringly on the Yellow blossom of a solitary plant. Overhead a giant R.A.F. Sunderland Flying Boat banked gently over the station and with its silver wings flashing in the sunlight, headed straight down the river for Lough Erne 10 miles to the east. Soon the crew would be sipping tea in the mess. Perhaps I would even run into some of them for a few rounds in an Enniskillen pub that evening. As I watched the butterfly, and listened, to the drone of the Sunderland fading to the east, I was struck by the homing ability of both the man made machine and the butterfly. Besides wings, I thought, they have in common some thing called antennae. It is hard to find out exactly when the term antennae was first applied to the tread-like appendages of insects. I believe they were named for the radio antenna and not the other way around. They had originally been labeled feelers. It may have been their resemblance to the wires Marconi was stringing about on Salisbury Plain; that prompted some early entomologist to label the insect feelers antennae. The derivation of the word antennae is Latin. It comes from the Medieval Latin term antenna, meaning sail yard. Marconi’s experimental antennae farm must have resembled a sail yard, with wire strung in all directions. The radio range station in Ireland certainly resembled a sail yard with long loops of wire crossing one another.

            The R.A.F. Sunderland submarine patrol depended on the range station, and the Flying Fortresses arriving from the States picked up the beam several hundred miles out at sea and followed it to Prestwick, Scotland. A break- down of this low frequency radio station might spell disaster for an air force. Over the ocean, on a dark and stormy night, it was the difference between a safe landing and being lost at sea. Just as unerringly as the aircraft located my station, the small tortoise shell butterfly had homed in n the lone yellow flower. True the butterfly probably saw the yellow flower and headed straight for it, but seeing it is after all, electromagnetic communication. Yellow is just as much a frequency as is 300 kilocycles, the frequency of the air force radio range station. The difference, of course, is that the wave -length is only 0.57 microns long (a micron is 1/1000 of a millimeter). Whereas, the 300 kilocycle wave is about 3,000 feet long. Quite a difference in wavelength, and between the two lie 35 to 40 octaves of the electromagnetic spectrum.

            Despite the fact that the butterfly probably located the flower by sight, what about the antennae? Of what use are they in locating host plants and other insects? More especially, what about night-flying insects such as moths? Do they find their host plants and mates by visible radiation? Had my tortoise shell used his antennae, perhaps to identify the plant by some electromagnetic radiation generated by the plant? My interest as a schoolboy had always been birds, but as I speculated, I added insects to my list of subjects to be studied when the war ended and I returned to college.

            The night shift at the station began at 7.00pm. This is long before the sun sets in such northern latitudes, Belleek being at 54o 30” north, putting it close to Newfoundland latitudes on our continent. In early summer it is usual to see skylight as late as 11-30 p.m.  Often in the late spring and summer, I would hear a peculiar sound filling the evening air over the station. I searched the sky for the source of this sound, as it was so regular that I soon came to associate this faint drumming of the late evening sky’s with spring in Ireland. I was certain that it was a bird, but had not the remotest idea as to its identity. Like the wind through the beeches and the looming bulk of the castle, it too had a certain “haunting” connotation. When I enquired of old Mr. Gormley as to the source of the drum-like whispering noise, he informed me that it was a “heather bleater”.

            It was weeks later when I finally located, in Londonderry, a book on British and Irish birds. During the war such books were out of print and difficult to obtain. It was an atrocious book entitled “ A Bird Book for the Pocket”, a misnomer by any criterion, for it did not fit into even my big fatigue uniform pocket. In the preface the well-meaning author-artist stated; that “In my drawings a just general effect has been aimed at rather than feather accuracy”. The British are known for understatement, but this in fact was true. His drawings were inaccurate to the degree that all his birds resembled rag dolls suspended lifelessly, with no visible support in the centre of a vast expanse of empty page.         Here and there, however, were little bits of useful information and from the book I learned that the “heather bleater” is the local Irish name for the common snipe, the snipe that closely resembles our Wilson’s snipe. I had never heard this sound from the American snipe, but later learned that it is produced during mating season. During its flight at evening from the surrounding ditches and boglands the snipe climbs high into the air and, falling in steep oblique dives during its display flight, produces the almost bleating huhuhuhuhu – by the vibrations of its widely spread outer tail feathers.

            My living in Ireland had become much more primitive than life in the United States. We lived well on cabbage, tea, meat, eggs and bread; but, could obtain none of the foods in war- time in Ireland that we were used to in the States. There were no plumbing facilities and to keep warm, we had to constantly attend our barracks fire. One might say our standard of living was low and yet, by my own estimate, it was the ultimate paradise that I had settled in. I was close to the land and the people that worked the land. Surrounding me were miles and miles of wild moorland, mountains, bogs and isolated loughs nestled like sparkling diamonds in a purple mantle of heather, bog myrtle and antler moss. The curlew and red grouse inhabited the peat bogs that stretched for miles and miles above the cliffs that bordered the shore of Lough Erne. It was possible to hike all day and not meet a single person or see a house. At evening, returning home, the ever present drumming of the “heather bleater” above would remind me that the hills of Ireland, the Irish and Scotch never call them mountains, had indeed become the “hills of home.”





                                    CLEARY’S  HOTEL.


            Cleary’s Hotel is located at the end of the broad Main Street of Belleek. The main street approaching from the east appears to dead-end at a large, imposing, cream-coloured building with several wings and steeply sloping gables. This is not Cleary’s Hotel, but rather their competitor’s Elliot’s Hotel. Cleary’s is on the south side at the end of the street where the road takes a sharp turn around the corner and passes on towards the pottery before turning right again and crossing the ancient stone bridge that, in those days, humped across the swiftly flowing River Erne. The bridge was exceedingly narrow and impractical as its sides were constructed with high stone balustrades. There was room for only one car at a time to pass. As with many things impractical, the bridge was exceedingly charming and contributed greatly to the scenic beauty of this exquisite town. Alas, as with most things, both charming and impractical, it was also later destroyed and replaced by a concrete monstrosity. At the time, however, one could speculate as to its ancient origin, for the stone balustrades along its side were constructed such that there were three triangular niches off each edge. This type of construction is found in only the most ancient of bridges and the side niches serve the pedestrian as safety step-asides during the inevitable emergency, when the helpless foot traveler was caught in front of the galloping horses of the stagecoach or local militia.

The card advertising Cleary’s Hotel stated that it was both tourist and commercial, and was “most central for fishing, shooting and visiting all the local places of interest”. It further stated, “ visitors who come once will call again and recommend it to their friends.” With this statement, I was inclined to agree, if not for the comfort of the Inn, which varied with the coldness of the day, then most certainly for gentle and kind people that owned and managed the establishment. If one were to list all the virtues that a traveler or visitor to a strange land might wish its inhabitants to possess, then certainly leading any such list would be the virtue of kindness.

            The stranger deprived of kind and hospitable treatment by unthinking locals soon becomes both suspicious and cynical. The Irish, renowned both for their hospitality and ability to converse on most any subject, produce very few cynics among their visitors. Because of the harshness of the Irish rural life, one might expect harsh treatment, but the opposite is the usual in Ireland. The Irish are often moody, gay at one moment, melancholy at another; but those moods are softened with a lively humour and love for all their fellowman. If love is the real basis of Christianity, then Ireland is surely one of the most Christian of countries.

The Cleary’s, being no exception to the traditional Irish character, were more than patient with the ten “Yanks” that invaded their small hotel. The family group consisted of Des Cleary, the proprietor; Mary, his wife and his partially crippled sister, Amenda. They had s on 3 years old, Jimmy, who followed the “Yanks” about, forever turning over their tea, or otherwise acting precisely as a 3 year-old is expected to behave. The final member of the family was Bridget; although to all outward appearances a maid, she had spent her entire adult life with the Cleary’s and was, to be more precise, a member of the family. Jimmy was the “apple of her eye” and, consequently, could do no wrong.

            Bridget represented the last of a disappearing type of European women, for which there is no comparable replacement in our modern world. She was faithful, hard working and born to the land as if her body had been moulded and cut from the rocky Irish hillsides. In truth, her apparel, often smeared and dubbed with the black soot of the turf fire, or her brogans covered with the manure and bits of heather from the pasture where she tended the cows, attested to her closeness to the land. During the late summer haying season, she could rake, stack and thatch the ricks of hay to the shame of any man. Some of my friends thought he dirty, but bred of the city, they mistook the war paint of man’s eternal agricultural battle for uncleanliness. In fact, there are two types of dirt- dirt of the soil, without which man cannot survive, and dirt of character, which the selfish and hard of heart wallow in. Bridget was, in fact, not unwholesome but, to the contrary, saintly in her unselfish devotion to others. Because she was simple of heart and spoke with the ancient brogue of the Donegal hill country, some also considered her somewhat less than intelligent. Again, nothing could be further from the truth; she knew the techniques of her hostelry and agricultural trades and seldom wasted time on the useless or unnecessary.

            We ate on the second floor of the hotel at a huge oaken table, in a room that served both as a sitting room and dining room for the establishment. Against the outer wall, between two windows overlooking the bridge and river, was the fireplace. The chairs with their backs to the turf fire were, by any measure, the ideal spot. The cold chill of an Irish winter can only be overcome by toasting one’s backside at the turf fire. In the early years at the turn of the century, and prior to the war, Cleary’s was filed with Scottish or English fishermen on their fortnightly holiday. The River Erne was renowned for both its trout and salmon fishing. During the war, however, times became hard and only an odd commercial traveler would stop at the hotel. Invariably, at dinnertime, they sought to seat themselves by the fire and just as invariably, would shuffle through the door with the tea and intervene to reserve the favoured chairs for the Yanks.

            “ Sure I’ll be after seeing ye sit in this place, sure I’ve forgot entirely to tell ye, this one’s Mr. O’Callaghan’s place at tea time.”

In Ireland teatime comes often, and for some reason no between meal repast in the world can equal Irish bread and tea at tea time. At the end of the day we usually ended up in the Cleary’s kitchen around the turf fire. Amenda, because of her crippled condition, held the place of honour closest to the fire and from her seat directed a communication system equal to that of the Air Corps, covering the happenings of the entire area from Belleek to Ballyshannon across the border in the south. Although she never moved from her chair, she could at any moment tell you exactly who was courting who; at any crossroads for miles around. Besides keeping tabs on the behavior and idiosyncrasies of her countrymen and women, she was also the matchmaker for the” Yanks.”

            “Sure I have a nice wee lass for you Mr. O’Callaghan”. “She’s after asking who’s the tall Yank all the time”.

Amenda could also give details of the history of Belleek and she often told us about the better days when her father was the manager of Belleek Pottery. The fame of Belleek china is world -wide and it is considered by connoisseurs of good china to be superior to any of the more delicate varieties of chinaware. It is produced from a special clay and hand-made at the potter’s wheel. Egg -shell thin, it is actually translucent, but is as tough as china twice its thickness. Because of the fame of the pottery, Belleek has a reputation and renown that belays its small size.

            Des and Mary who owned the Hotel were ideally matched, Des tended the pub and Mary supervised the running of the hotel and the cooking. Although I drank little, Des always kept a wee bit of wine on his shelf, which I preferred to the Irish whisky or Guinness. I spent little of my time in the pub, but Des and I were god friends and I could always get a late night glass of Port after closing hours. Des had a tremendous sense of humour and a kept sixth sense for which of the police to let in after hours. Certain members of the R.U.C. (Royal Ulster Constabulary) were not above a wee nip after the closing hours and many a good yarn came from them around the turf fire.

            Of all the Cleary’s, Mary was my favourite. She had been a nurse prior to her marriage to Des, and had a quick wit and high respect for learning and education. She came from a farm not far from Enniskillen and her younger sisters, Kathleen and Bridget, often took the bus to Belleek for a visit. On one such journey I was invited to visit them at the dry goods shop they ran in Blacklion,

            The little town of Blacklion lies just across the border from the northern town of Belcoo. Separating the two towns is a short, wide river that connects the Upper and Lower Lough MacNeans. The river and lough’s mark the border between County Fermanagh in the north and County Cavan in the south. We had been warned of the dire consequences if we crossed the border into the Free State. Since it was a neutral country we were told we would be immediately arrested and interned. My conversations with the Royal Ulster Constabulary and the Irish Guards, the southern police, several of whom I knew from around Belleek, led us to understand that nothing what-so-ever would be said if we crossed in civilian clothes. The Irish themselves laughed at the idea that we thought that they might intern one of us if we strayed across the border. Officer Leithram of the R.U.C. even volunteered to lend me a pair of his pants and a tweed coat if I would join him for a round of the pubs in Ballyshannon, four miles from the border. One dark and windy night we made a trial run with no disastrous consequences.

            The following week I set out alone to bicycle the 18 miles to Belcoo. I carried Officer Leithran’s borrowed clothes along so I could change and cross into Blacklion to visit Kathleen and Bridget. The road led south through the town of Garrison on Lough Melvin. I tarried too long, however, at Fonzy McGovern’s pub in Garrison for Fonzy, a rather well-to-do, devil-may-care Irishman, was in a talkative mood. The sun was casting its long rays across the desolate moorlands above upper Lough MacNean when I rolled down the last hill into Belcoo. It was growing dark and a strong wind whipped around the corners of the shop-lined street. By the time I pulled the corduroy pants over my OD pants and changed my flight jacket for the tweed coat, it was pitch dark. The sun sinks quickly in the winter at such latitudes. Because of the war, Belcoo was blacked out, but across the river I could see the lights of Blacklion shinning brightly. Blackout orders were strictly enforced by the R.U.C. in the north and in one town, Pettigoe, where the border runs down the middle of the Main Street, one side of the town was blacked out, in total darkness, while the opposite side, in the Free State, was glittering brightly. This was one of the paradoxes of the war; that one side of a town could be at war while the same people on the opposite side of the street were neutral.

I wheeled my bike across the long bridge between Belco and Blacklion. It started to rain and the wind blew stronger and dashed some tree branches against the stone balustrade of the bridge. The continuous and restless roar of water passing swiftly over rocks below and the scraping and whispering of the wind-filled trees enhanced the impression that this was, as the Irish called it, “a smuggler’s night.”

Half way across the bridge I detected a dark object leaning against the stone balustrade and outlined against the sky. I had stopped and was staring into the darkness, the rain pelting my face, when a voice said, “Halt now, sure who is that crossing this bad night?” The huge bulk of an Irish Guard stepped forward. “What’s your name?” He asked in a quiet voice. “ And are you carrying anything?” “ I’ve got nothing on me”, I replied. “And my name is Callaghan.”  O’Callaghan”, he said. “And where are you from and where are you going this night?”

            “I’m from Belleek”, I said. “and I’m headed for Blacklion to visit friends.”  “I’ll be wanting to see your Identity Card then”. He said as he shone a light in my face. “But, I don’t have an Identity card.” During the war citizens on both sides of the border were issued ID cards. “No ID card!” He roared. “Now who would it be from Belleek on this night with no ID card?” “Sure you will have to come to the station with me. I’m thinking I might have to search you.” But I’m not Irish”, I said. I added with some bravado, “I’m an American from Texas.” Although in the States I usually said I was from Georgia, where I was born, in Ireland I claimed Texas where I had last lived as my place of origin. To the average Irishman, Texas was much more impressive than Georgia or New York, and at 20’ without the more mellow attitudes of age, one tends to seize upon even such an intangible and overly fabled statement as “I’m from Texas”, to gain a measure of prestige.

            “Ah sure “, he said. “You are a Yank”. I hope you will excuse me but have you any identification?” I produced my dog tags and he examined them by flashlight. I was beginning to wonder if I would be interned after all. I had already resolved that if he attempted to arrest me, I would turn and dash back across the bridge to the north. It was pitch black out and he could never catch me. Like the English Bobby, the Irish Guards carried no revolver, so there was little worry on that score. “O’Callaghan”, he said again as he read the dog tags. “ Sure”, he replied. “ There’s no O’Callaghans at all around Belleek”. “ I used to live there myself and never heard of an O’Callaghan at all in Co. Fermanagh.” “But why? I asked again. “Surely I don’t sound very Irish.” “Indeed you do”. He replied. “You sound just like you are from Dublin.” It was then that I learned Dubliners have very little of the thick Irish brogue. “ And who are going to see in Blacklion? Sure I have a sister of mine herself in New York. Would you know her by any chance? Her name is Cathleen Mooney.”  “ I am going over to visit Kathleen and Bridget McManus that run the dry goods shop in Blacklion”. I replied. “Well now why did you not tell me that in the start? Come along and I will show you where the shop is”.  As we walked across the bridge into Blacklion I told him about America and how I had borrowed the clothes from the R.U.C. to cross the border.

            In the next two years I spent as much of my free time in the Free State as in Northern Ireland and I do not recall that anyone ever threatened me with internment. Life in Belleek itself was quiet but not without some excitement. The high light of each month was fair day on the 17th. On that day the farmers from miles around Belleek would drive their cattle into town to sell and buy. On that day also the wide Main Street of Belleek became a quagmire of cow manure and the air odoriferous with the animalistic scents of sweat and Irish whisky. Bartering for beef took the form on unintelligible, for the outsider that is, shouting between two Irish farmers facing one another. To the casual observer, it might resemble a violent argument, which it was not. Time and again during the process, one would slam his fist down into the hand of his counterpart with a vigor that would shake them both to the tips of their Wellington boots. When the final thunderclap of hand-slapping had died away and the deal was set, the two would adjourn to the pub and seal the agreement with a nip from the wee bottle.

            On the fair day the R.U.C. engaged themselves checking cattle for clipped ears. Cattle brought across the border for sale were marked in this manner for customs fees. The price was higher in the North than in the South due to the war. A sly Irishman who could sneak a herd across the border at some desolate moorland crossing could make a killing. The R.U.C. often stopped by our barracks for a wee bit of that “Yank” coffee while absorbing heat around our pot-bellied stove. One day Sergeant Rhynne knocked on the door just as I was getting ready to bicycle into Belleek on a fair day. It was a bright, sunny day for picture taking. He pointed out our barracks window. “ Are those the same cows that were there last week?” He inquired. “Same cows”? I asked. “What do you mean?” “ Are they after being the same as last week?” He repeated. “Sure that black and white one wasn’t in Magheramena pasture last week.” I looked out the window again. “They all look black and white to me.” I said. “How do you expect me to tell one cow from another?”. “ They’re like Japs”. I said. “ You know in the war movies.”- “ They all look alike.” “ Ah sure, now cows aren’t all looking alike. Sure, those aren’t the same ones that were there last week. Sure, you are no help at all”.

The big event of the monthly cattle fair was the dance in Johnny McCabe’s hall, starting promptly at 9 o’clock pm. It usually featured a local ceildigh band consisting of a set of drums and three fiddlers. The ceili dances are the traditional of Ireland and resemble in many respects our square dances without the calling. Square dancing is in fact derived from the Gaelic ceili dances. Some of the dances are quite involved and go by such picturesque names as “The Siege of Troy”, “The Walls of Limerick” and the “Siege of Venice”. They represent in dance and music Ireland’s old and continuous battle for independence from England. Interwoven with the ceili dances were such physically exerting ones as the Scottish Highland Fling and the slower modern Fox Trots of the late 1940’s. The fiddlers were good and considerable energy could be expended during a few dances. Since the hall was small, and none too well ventilated, bodies were somewhat closely packed and the haze from cigarette smoke rather dense.

            The system for meeting and selecting a dancing partner or for lassies flirting with previous or newly won favourities was simple, yet sophisticated beyond any modern folkways of matchmaking. Since the hall was small, its walls could be furnished with only a certain linear arrangement of benches. The mathematical length of these benches seemed to match exactly 50% of the occupants of the hall. After each dance and before calling another, this 50% was taken up mainly by the men of the crowd, thus leaving little sitting space for the remaining colleens {young Irish girls} attending the dance. The arrangement might seem very ungentlemanly to the stranger, but was not intended to be so, for it left the colleens a considerable variety of laps to sit on. Since, obviously, a lap is much softer than a hard oaken bench, the solicitude for the ladies at the dance was evident. The system has several further built-in advantages as a social custom; first, since all the girls were sitting on laps, no one girl could be considered forward and, secondly, it is extremely difficult not to strike up a conversation with a lady sitting on your lap. It was in fact extremely easy to find out exactly who was who about the countryside for the Irish are not well acquainted with inhibitions that make for non-conversation. There was one last advantage to the “system” as I shall call it; since the benches were hard and extremely narrow, one was in continuous danger of sliding off and this eliminated any danger of excessive courting behavour among the precariously perched couples.

There was, however, one disadvantage to the Irish system of matchmaking, and this was that it discriminated against the newcomer, especially a newcomer from across the sea and in “Yankee” uniform. The Irish country people, in spite of their great love of America and Americans, were no different than people of any other country in respect to the soldier. A soldier is, after all, a soldier and well understood to be less inhibited than the average citizens who are not subjected to the unknown and fearful that are a part of the soldier’s lot. People the world over simply do not want their daughters associating with strange men in uniform. If one of our “Yanks” should occupy a bench, it would take a considerable amount of courage for an Irish lass to perch herself on his lap. No one really likes to be different and this would certainly give her a reputation for being forward, for no one can deny that a foreign uniform in a foreign land is different. The consequence of this was that most of us were often seen leaning against the wall of the hall, not wishing to appear ungentlemanly {by our own standards}, and not entering into the merriment at all.

It was several months before I worked out a ”system”. This consisted of buying a ticket to any thing or for any thing being raffled from the lovely colleens who peddled them around the benches. By never missing a dance {I could trade my night shift to Wee Rocky who was married}. I soon got in enough words to become acquainted with a few of the colleens. From then on, they lost their aversion to the “Yank” lap and things progressed normally. The dancing was fun, and the music haunting, and that the “system” worked well is attested to by the fact that one of the Irish girls, that most often sat on my lap and who was named Winnie, and who came from the McGee farm out by Keenaghan Lough, became my bride a few years later in New York.

One of the Irish lads that I became acquainted with at McCabe’s Hall was Marty Keegan. He was a tall, gaunt-looking Irishman of my own age and we were soon close friends. His plans were to join the seminary and eventually become a priest. Because he was plagued wit asthma, however, he had not been able to pass the rigorous physical requirements for life in the Irish seminary. He was the son of the schoolmaster at Creevy. We would often bicycle with the Master to his school, and then continue on to the rocky coast of the Atlantic along Kildoney Point. Marty had fishermen friends at Kildoney Point, and these men battled the winds along this rugged coast setting their nets from small boats for the green speckled herrings. The fish were pedaled at stands on fair days in the surrounding Donegal towns. Sitting on the rocks after a day at sea, we would plan our future after the war. Across Donegal Bay the rugged peak of Slieve League rose in the distance. There, St. Columbkille roamed the Donegal high lands converting the ancient Celtic peoples to Christianity.

For two years I had watched as transport and bomber, flying in from the coast of Ireland, had picked up the west leg of our Belleek radio range station and winging their way up the Erne Valley, north of the fog-shrouded Leitrim mountains, had headed for England and battle. Some of these planes and crews had perished in flames over Germany and the survivors had long since passed westwards on their way home. A few transports and RAF patrol planes still used the station, but it was only a matter of time before orders arrived to close down.

Along Lough Erne I often watched the flights of ducks collecting in groups for their southward migration. There were always a few of the great white mute swans floating gracefully along on the lake or river. In the fall I sometimes spotted large herds. Why groups of swans are called herds, a very un-swan- like word, I do not know. When the swans take flight they gain momentum, their long legs hanging below and paddling the water surface for yards and yards, as they slowly become airborne. When finally they lift from the surface, they retract their legs like landing gears being pulled up into the belly of a huge bomber. They could be compared to the large Sunderland Flying Boats taking off from the lake.

As Christmas approached, I spent more and more time with Winnie at the McGee cottage. I enjoyed long conversations with her older brother, John, who had been to the States, and was knowledgeable on a considerable number of subjects. One of the delights of Ireland is that it produces scholars who have never been to college. One is apt to meet at a local pub a bard or a master conversationalist more familiar with the works of Keats or Francis Bacon than the average graduate of a great university. These Irish become learned beneath the thatched roofs of their own cottages by reading and ceiling {visiting} besides being the Irish dance; is also the Irish term for visiting from cottage to cottage during the long winter nights. The Cleary’s often invited me to stay with them overnight rather than spend the stormy winter nights out on the haunted grounds of Magheramena Castle. The old Parish Priest had finally died in the castle and left me his telescope. The grounds were considered spooky now.

Orders arrived shortly before the big St. Patrick’s Day dance in McCabes Hall. I was told to lock up the station and report to a base at Prestwick in Scotland. As I prepared to depart from this wonderful place, a pair of curlews flew up from the heather, their long, curved bills silhouetted against the sky. I could hear their call in the air above, and as darkness fell the moon rose to the east and cast its diffused light over the rolling hill. The lights from the farm cottages began to come on and suddenly a feeling of nostalgia overcame me. On the next morning I would be leaving this land. It had been a peculiarly peaceful way to spend the world’s most fearsome war. I wondered what supernatural power mixed all the names up in a great hat and then by drawing manes out, determined that this soldier would be left in blood in a battlefield, while another would dwell alone in a beautiful and peaceful land. I wondered if the two curlews would survive their long flight to their nesting grounds far to the north, or if fate and a Hunters blast would knock them from the air.

I started the motor and drove slowly down the curving road, out of the moorlands, away from the heather, the curlews, the white cottages with their curls of smoke, away from the turf fires and crystal clear lakes. I would miss Ireland because it had become my home. I had fitted into this wild and fascinating corner of Ireland and its irresistible charm would forever remain in my heart.