Category Archives: People

The Singing Undertaker – remembering Seamus Harkin

me and seamus Oct 11
Seamus Harkin, 1935 – 2014. My father-in-law.

Born the third of five children in 1935 to a farming family in Creeslough Seamus Harkin, my father-in-law, left school at 14.  He never really got on with the teacher, who thought nothing of raising the sally rod when he didn’t match up.

After school he worked as a farmer, a Donegal County Council worker, a forester in his native Ards Forest Park and an insurance sales man.  A natural story teller, Seamus could paint a picture with words.  He held many clear memories of the people he met and the houses he visited on those travels around the county, selling insurance.

It was when he became the undertaker for Creeslough in the mid 1980’s that he met his true vocation.  A man of great personal faith, he was also extremely kind and had the immeasurable skill of being able to find the right words of comfort at the saddest times.  His dependable, solid presence and strong professionalism supported many families through their loved ones’ wakes and funerals.

Yet, with a voice like Johnny Cash and an ear for a great tune, it is as a singer in the pubs and music venues in Donegal that Seamus will be remembered by most.  He loved to sing and play his guitar and he entertained many a crowd, big and small, over the years.  He was in his mid 70’s when he wrote one of his most popular songs, No Tow Bar on the Back of a Hearse.

A man with many strings to his bow, his passion for music extended to instruments and he was a much sought after fiddle repair man by people from all over Ireland.

Seamus’ ability to weave a good yarn and his pride in his birthplace were the drivers for him telling his life story in his book, It Took a Lifetime.  One of six books he published, it is the personal memoirs of a man who knew the true value of life and lived his to the full.

As a strong believer in charity, Seamus actively supported local causes and, in 2010, he was awarded Donegal Rehab Person of the Year.  In 2013 his (self taught) technology skills were recognised with an Age Action/Google Silver Surfer of the Year award.

Whilst recovering from hospital treatment earlier this year Seamus wrote what became his last poem, The Man with the Clock Inside his Chest.

Seamus passed away on 2 May 2014.  He is pre-deceased by his baby son Paschal and brother John, and survived by his wife Tessie, sons Leo, Mark, Paul and James and daughter Edel, together with five grandchildren, three daughters-in-law, his sisters Mary and Nora and his brother Hugh.

The Man with the Clock Inside his Chest

by Seamus Harkin, February 2014

He was doing fine but now and then his heart would skip a beat,
He didn’t think much about it, could be the summer heat.
Then it would start to flutter, and do queer things in his chest,
So he thought it might be better to go and have a test.

They took him to the hospital and they laid him on a slab,
They said do not be worried you will feel a little jab,
They put a pipe into his heart, and had a look around,
Then they took him to another place to have an ultra sound.

They said your heart is jumping and the rhythm out of line,
We will put a little clock in you to put it back in time.
He said where will you put it will I have to wind the spring,
They said it goes on batteries you won’t have to do a thing.

They laid him on a slab again, and they opened up his chest,
They cut a little pocket there just underneath his vest,
They put the little clock inside which was wired to his heart,
So if his heart would ever stop, the clock would make it start.

So now he’s back at home again like a real bionic man,
His wife does not know what to do, should she even hold his hand,
He is running up the hill side, he never seems to rest,
There is no one who can match the man, with the clock inside his chest.

After writing this poem Seamus then wrote his seventh book.  Provisionally titled The Candy Man, it features a collection of memories and tall stories passed down to him by his father, Hughie Harkin.

And, as if to prove that the Harkin literary gene lives on, my own son penned this poem, which he delivered faultlessly at Seamus’ burial.

My Grandad

by Finn Harkin, 5 May 2014

My grandad was my superhero
On my chart he was a 1 – 0
My grandad love the trees
He loved his honey and his bees
Grandad had a loving heart inside his loving chest
We’ll miss you Grandad, because you’re the best

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Rocks in his ears and other brilliant descriptions

wet cat with reduced social skills
Wet cats aren’t friendly

“My head is not relaxed and there are bees stinging in my throat,”  said The Eight Year old this morning.  A swift aargh confirmed a red raw throat and a ticket to a day off school.

One other time he complained of having rocks in his ears which turned out to be a particularly nasty ear infection.

Quite clearly he is a child genius and destined for literary greatness.  In the meantime we enjoy how he articulates his different view of things.

Inspired by my poorly son I looked for descriptions from other people that paint a picture so true they make you smile.  Here are some of my favourites.

“It was June, and the world smelled of roses. The sunshine was like powdered gold over the grassy hillside.” ― Maud Hart Lovelace, Betsy-Tacy and Tib

“The bowler approached the wicket at a lope, a trot, and then a run. He suddenly exploded in a flurry of arms and legs, out of which flew a ball.” ― Douglas Adams, Life, the Universe and Everything

“He wasn’t that good looking, he had the social skills of a wet cat and the patience of a caffeinated hummingbird” ― Karen Chance

“She had a dour Presbyterian mind and a code of morals that pinned down and beat the brains out of nearly everything that was pleasant to do.” ― John Steinbeck, East of Eden

“Hot weather opens the skull of a city, exposing its white brain, and its heart of nerves, which sizzle like the wires inside a lightbulb. And there exudes a sour extra-human smell that makes the very stone seem flesh-alive, webbed and pulsing.” ― Truman Capote, Summer Crossing

“You could sometimes see her twelfth year in her cheeks, or her ninth sparkling from her eyes; and even her fifth would flit over the curves of her mouth now and then.” ― Thomas Hardy, Tess of the D’Urbervilles

“The duchess turned on Eugène with one of those insolent stares that envelop a man from head to foot, flatten him out, and leave him at zero.” ― Honoré de Balzac, Père Goriot

“The lawn was white with doctors” ― Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar

With thanks to Good Reads for the quotes.

My day in 10 pictures

Lamp light

My day invariably starts with the flick of a switch and the glow of this lamp.  No need for an alarm clock on a normal day as the two human versions tend to be very reliable.

Stair gate and stool

Mornings are busy in any house and ours is no exception.  Even though we don’t have stairs we use stair gates on the bathrooms to reduce the remote-down-the-toilet risk.  However, today The Two Year Old has found an ingenious solution and was caught cocking his little leg up to get in.  Plan B now required.

Moshi Monster with pink hair
I’m sure Michael Acton Smith is a lovely man as well as an impressive entrepreneur but I rue the day when he brought Moshi Monsters to us.  The Eight Year Old ‘found’ this dude outside Granny’s house yesterday so finders-keepers, right Mum?  Er, no, give it back to your cousin, she’s missing it.  As a marketer I can admire how the tapping in to an eight year old’s obsessive streak has been so clevery done by Moshi Monsters.  As a parent, not so much.  Tears at breakfast.

Broken digger

The Two Year Old broke the jib on his digger.  Too much love.  His face is looking at me, knowing with 100% confidence that I can fix it, can’t I?  More tears at breakfast.

My desk

And so to work.  Blessed relief.  I love the soothing, deep cobalt blue of the wall behind my screen, it’s a perfect backdrop for the places I’m taken to via that computer.  It’s my version of the opening credits for In The Night Garden.   From the window I can see countryside.  I am lucky.

coffee cup
I won an iPad in a Stena Line competition asking for suggestions to improve the ferry crossing experiences.  When I’m working I use it to keep track of a client’s Twitter stream while using the laptop for the other stuff.  I love the flexibility of freelancing and have worked on some very interesting projects since I started in June.  I can’t imagine not doing it now.

reading books

Once I’m in the zone with work, lost and totally focused, it can be hard to leave.  Luckily the boys love their books and I can sometimes get a few precious extra minutes.

Muckish at sun set

If I get up out of my chair to look out of the window I can see Muckish Mountain.  Its iconic table top shape is one of Donegal’s most recognised features and is easy to climb.  The view from the top is stunning, with miles of unspoilt Atlantic coastline, Tory Island and the Bluestack Mountains to the south all visible.  This sunset is quite typical; many artists have settled here, lured by the light created by our proximity to the sea.

Amelia's plane

The Husband has been away on a course this week learning exciting new skills for our next venture.  We picked him up from Derry Airport and this model of Amelia Earhart’s aeroplane is in the arrivals area.  It’s there because Amelia made an emergency landing in the area en route to Paris from Newfoundland in 1932, the first woman to fly solo nonstop across the Atlantic.  An inspirational lady.

Lasagne and apple crumble

We’re having left over lasagne for tea again.  With the Husband away I’ve relied a lot on the Grandparents this week so I repaid the favour in a small way by cooking Sunday lunch.  Lasagne is a favourite of everyone’s, served with garlic bread, salad and chips for the kids (and Grandad).  There were no apple crumble left overs, unsurprisingly.

Why I’m taking part in Blog Action Day 2012

Blog Action Day 2012
I’m going to write about sandcastles

I love blogging but it can sometimes be hard to create the space in the busy week to get down to it.

We all have the same distractions at the end of a long day – dinner to be cooked, kids to be bathed, partners to be listened to, phone calls to be returned.

That’s when external deadlines imposed by others can be a blessing and, of course, a friendly curse (take a bow, Weekly Blog Club, for your ever so lovely squidgy deadlines).

This year, for the first time, I’m one of the 1,115 blogs registered so far to take part in Blog Action Day on Monday 15 October.

Here’s what it’s all about:

“Blog Action Day is an free annual event, that has run since 2007. It’s aim is to unite the world’s bloggers by posting about the same issue on the same day, in order to raise awareness and trigger a global discussion around an important issue that impacts us all.”

Why take part?

“The purpose of Blog Action Day is to create a positive discussion that enables social good about an important topic. We ask bloggers to take a single day out of their schedule and focus it on an important issue.

By blogging about the same issue, on the same day, from their own perspectives, the worldwide blogging community focuses discussion and give their audiences the opportunities to take part in a global conversation, raise awareness or even funds for not-for-profits.

This year’s theme is the Power of We.  I must admit I thought it sounded a bit broad at first glance but I’m sure that will turn out to be a good thing once the fingers hit the keyboard.

I’ve been mulling my submission over and have a few ideas floating around.  The one that I keep coming back to is our local community’s recent world record breaking sandcastle building attempt.

If you fancy joining in too here are three things you need to know:

  1. Register your blog with Blog Action Day
  2. Read these tips on how to promote and create your Blog Action Day post
  3. Follow @blogactionday12 on Twitter and use the hashtags #powerofwe and #bad12

Fourteen songs of me

black and white gramophone
There aren’t many recent songs in this list of songs of me.

I’ve always loved all kinds of music and, since the days of listening to Desert Island Discs on Radio 4 when growing up (that programme, together with the shipping forecast, transports me right back to childhood), I’ve pondered what would go on my list.

Invariably I’ve dismissed it as too difficult a task.  What on earth would you leave out?  Which, of course, is the whole point.

When I was little I used to write out the Top 40 singles chart in an exercise book when it was played on Radio 1 each Sunday evening.  Wonder where those old books are now?  This must have been about 1980 ish because I remember Rainbow’s I Surrender being number 3 and really wishing it would get to number 1.  But John Lennon put paid to that.

We used to sit and watch Sunday evening TV eating egg and cress sandwiches for tea.  I listened to the Top 40 on the headphones while everyone else watched the Antiques Roadshow or The Professionals.

Nowadays making lists of my own is much harder.  However, with the recent emergence of Six Songs of Me from the Guardian and the eight additional questions from Janet Davis, I’m giving it a go.

What was the first song you ever bought?

This was Abba’s One of Us which I bought in Boots in Warrington with a gift voucher that I must have got for Christmas.  But I really wanted to buy Adam and the Ants’ Antrap which had just been released.  Says a lot about my middle-child, 11 year old self that I plumped for the safe option.

What song always gets you dancing?

A very hard question, as it invariably depends on my mood, who I’m with and how many glasses of wine I’ve had.  However, a safe bet would be Stevie Wonder’s Masterblaster which I remember hearing for the first time after swimming at Stockton Heath pool while waiting to be picked up.  Either that or Superstition.

Another would be Toots and the Maytals’ Pressure Drop.  Just infectious and toe tapping.  Or R Dean Taylor’s Ghost in My House.

What song always takes you back to your childhood?

I remember being dropped off to school while Video Killed the Radio Star by Buggles was playing and my dad saying they were right.

I also clearly remember going to WH Smiths in Warrington with my very excited Mum to buy Led Zeppelin’s In Through The Out Door on its release date in summer of 1979.  It came in a special brown paper envelope.

But the most memorable song is In The Evening, again by Led Zeppelin.  This was the first song played at the Knebworth gig that we all went to as a family, en route to camping in Cornwall.  We kids stayed outside in the tent as Mum and Dad went into the arena and, whenever I hear the eery, wailing first few bars of the song, I’m transported back to that time, expecting to hear the massive roar of the crowd when they realised it was show time.

What is your perfect love song?

Either Fleetwood Mac’s Need Your Love so Bad or Elvis’ Wonder of You (the latter was our wedding song before it was reduced to a cheesy sing a long by Radio 2).

What song would you want played at your funeral?

I wouldn’t, I don’t think.  Or at least, it would be very unobtrusive.  Something instrumental, like Fleetwood Mac’s Albatross.  Probably not Highway to Hell.

One last song that makes you, you.

This is the hardest one of all.  Being a Gemini, can I have two?  Ok, then I would probably plump for Over the Hills and Far Away, my all time favourite Led Zeppelin song.

And here are my songs for Janet Davis’ additional 8 questions:

What song do you remember best from college/university?

To get everyone on the dance floor the DJ used to play a trilogy of Primal Scream’s Loaded, Stone Roses’ I am the Resurrection and Rolling Stones’ Sympathy for the Devil.  We used to go to Spiders in Hull and I even remember some of the nights we had there.

What song brings back memories of homework?

I should have been doing my homework but I remember listening to Duran Duran’s The Reflex (and thinking it was rubbish) when I was taking in a pair of new jeans that just weren’t tight enough.  I must have been about 14.

What song best evokes your experience of a study or work trip?

In the 4th year at secondary school our whole year, it seems, had a thing for the soft rock album, American Heartbeat, long since unavailable.  It used to get played to death and sung loudly on the back of the bus going home each day.  I still know all the words to each song.  Wang Chung, anyone?

Later on we went on a college trip to London one time and ended up at the Astoria to see Sisters of Mercy, I remember them playing This Corrosion, fantastic.  And then the same gang used to go to the Sugarhouse in Lancaster where we saw The Men They Couldn’t Hang – that was a mad gig.

Which song is most likely to bring a tear to your eye (or to make you weep copiously)?

Fleetwood Mac – Man of the World

What is the best song to kickstart your most creative thinking?

I don’t use music to get creative.  Fresh air and a brisk walk along the beach, listening to an old disco song to get the strides going would do it, mind you.  A bit of Edwin Starr, Sly or early Jackson Five.

Which song helps you work when you really need to concentrate?

Anything Led Zeppelin.  Every lyric, chord and note of all the songs they ever officially recorded are so familiar to me that, if turned to the right volume, I can just zone out whilst feeling secure and in a good place.  But then there are times when that familiarity is also a bit annoying too.

When you’re angry, on which song do you want to turn up the volume?

Some hairy arsed rock like Motorhead or Deep Purple.

Which song sums up the person you would like to be?

I’m happy as I am but often wished I could sing, really belt it out, like Dusty Springfield on Son of a Preacher Man or the Dixie Chicks on Sin Wagon.  It’s such a gift to be able to captivate a room by opening your mouth, taking a deep breath and singing to the rafters.

Playlist

  1. Abba – One of Us
  2. Toots and the Maytals – Pressure Drop
  3. Buggles – Video Killed the Radio Star
  4. Elvis – Wonder of You
  5. Fleetwood Mac – Albatross
  6. Led Zeppelin – Over the Hills and Far Away
  7. Stone Roses – I am the Resurrection
  8. REO Speedwagon – Keep on Loving You
  9. Duran Duran – The Reflex
  10. Fleetwood Mac – Man of the World
  11. Edwin Starr – 25 miles
  12. Led Zeppelin – Achilles Last Stand
  13. Deep Purple – Ted the Mechanic
  14. Dusty Springfield – Son of a Preacher Man

Watching grass grow

Daniel Sweeney sowing lawn seed
Daniel Sweeney uses a traditional ‘fiddle’ more used to dispersing corn to sow our lawn seed.

This has been a red letter week for us, at last, we’ve been able to turn our attention to our outdoors and do something about it.

For nearly four years we’ve been looking out of our windows to what was, essentially, scrubby fields or ankle breaking bog ground.  There are worse views, I grant you, but what we had was not ideal for football (the 7 year old), climbing, swinging and sliding (the 2 year old) or keeping chickens (me).  It was ok to look at – it was just hillside so it didn’t stick out – but it was not what we needed.

So with the mini heatwave and the loan of a digger the hard landscaping of our site began in earnest last week.  I was so excited that the plans I had been sketching out and refining as each season passed (thanks for all your advice, Mr Titchmarsh) were finally starting to come to fruition.

At the same time, the 2 year old was lulled into a dreamlike state as he got up close and personal each day with a digger, a tractor and a dumper.  He’d gaze out of the windows at the machines each morning, quietly whispering “Digger!” to himself, such was his joy.

The 8th of an acre site is fairly exposed, the trade off from the wind being the lovely views.  We needed lots of top soil (13 dumper loads – yikes) to give enough depth for all the wind screening trees and hardy shrubs we’ll be growing down the east side, although the little rhododendhron seedlings we foraged from Ards Forest Park last year are doing well there for starters.

After the top soil was spread it was time to de-stone.  This back breaking job was made much easier with the arrival of about 5 or so neighbours bearing rakes and one clever youngster who’d attached a harrow to his quad bike.  He covered the ground in super quick time and was supping a well deserved beer while the others were still hard at it.  I love that this bartering of skills, time and equipment is still the way it’s done in our farming community in this part of Donegal.

It took a kilo bag of grass seed then to cover all that top soil.  Up stepped another neighbour who kindly shared his expertise to sow the lawn.  No doubt more used to sowing corn than grass over the years, Daniel skilfully manipulated his ‘fiddle’ to get the most even distribution of seed.  I very much doubt whether there’ll be any bald patches, given his methodical tread and beady eye.  Other than by the penalty spot in a few months time, that is.

So now we’re sitting and waiting, watching the grass grow.  The unseasonably hot, dry weather has given way to the warm and wet conditions that we’re more used to.  Not even a week has passed yet and already there are definite, if patchy, green shoots appearing.  Like an anxious teenager we’re hoping that the fluff will join up sooner rather than later.

The talk is now turning to when we can start to use our new lawn.  One of my favourite smells in the whole world is the bewitching perfume of newly mown grass.  If the weather’s with us (ha) we might even need to get a first cut done in October.  Already the Husband is muttering about how long this will take him and how he’ll really need ‘one of those sit on mower yokes’.  Hmmm, we’ll see.

Homeward bound

Striding Edge, Helvellyn, with Red Tarn
Might leave Striding Edge, Helvellyn, until the toddler is a bit bigger. Great image of Red Tarn courtesy of http://www.snapthelakes.co.uk

The roof box is packed, the boot nearly so and the kids are in bed.  At last.  We’re off on our holidays tomorrow and the excitement levels are high.

We’re going camping in Cumbria with bookend stops in Belfast (dinosaurs) and Loch Lomond (why not?) at either end.  The toddler doesn’t like to do long stretches in the car – Donegal to Cumbria is a good 8 hour journey all in – so we’re trying to accomodate him, for his sake and ours.  I’ve bought an alarmingly named gizmo called the Anti Escape System to stop him shimmying out of his car seat straps when he stretches up to look at tractors.  Let’s hope it does the trick.

The last time I was home in Cumbria was in February when I attended the Local Gov Camp in Preston with the lovely Paul Webster.   That weekend the snow was forecast and, sure enough, it came.  There we gov campers were, surruptiously checking our devices for the latest weather forecast as the skies above Preston remained a resolute grey, whilst trying to give 100% attention to the fab sessions going on.

Heedless as I was to my mother’s advice to “Get out of Preston now, it’s snowing so much here that the hens are covered!” I really had no one to blame when I became stuck hours later.  Despite revving the a##se off the hire car I couldn’t make it all the way home.  How lovely it was to see the familiar figure of my Dad swashing the snow flakes from his face as he came to find me after trudging through miles of snow.

This week, however, the forecast looks a lot more promising which is just as well as camping is not much fun in rubbish weather, with or without kids.

We’re looking forward to a week of kicking back with all the family and celebrating a 21st birthday with our own mini rock festival.  (The neighbours are a friendly bunch, although we will be unplugged).

The walking probably won’t get more strenuous than a trip up Orrest Head or round Tarn Hows as the toddler’s legs aren’t quite up to Great Gable or Helvellyn yet.  There might also be some duck feeding at Waterhead and possibly paddling in a tarn or two.

There’s a lot more for families with young kids to do in the Lakes nowadays (the aquarium at Lakeside, the wildlifepark at Dalton-in-Furness) and Brockhole seems a whole lot better than I remember too so we’re going to be spoilt for choice for trips out.

Of course it’s hard to beat the wave machine at Keswick baths on a wet day and just mooching through the ginnels in Kendal is enjoyable nowadays too (althouth not high octane enough for the 7 year old).  I’ll let you know what we enjoy the most.

Best get some sleep now – isn’t it impossible to get a lie in when you’re camping?

Bye for now.