The Avondhu - By The Fireside
‘OLD RUSTIC BRIDGE BY THE MILL’
One of Mr Looney’s greatest claims to fame in the locality, however, is that his grandfather had worked on the Old Rustic Bridge in Castletownroche, as featured in the popular song ‘Old Rustic Bridge By The Mill’.
Over the years, however, the wooden bridge, which was believed to have been built between 1908-1910, decayed and has since been replaced with a metal bridge.
Lizzie Looney, John’s grandmother, went to Birmingham to spend the Christmas of 1948 with John’s parents. While there, she took ill and died six months later, just after her 80th birthday.
John’s grandfather was then convinced by his own parents to move to Birmingham to live there. The shop by the bridge in Castletownroche was sold for approximately £500 at the time to the Reynold’s, who had a pub at the same location.
Sadly, master carpenter John Looney passed away from a heart attack in 1957 and is now buried in the same grave as his wife in New Oscott Cemetery, Erdington, Birmingham, England.
Returning now regularly to Ireland and to Castletownroche, John says he feels ‘most at home’, despite never having lived in Ireland.
Elements of his families impact on the village still crop up to this day and while John says he never actually met his grandfather, the Looney presence is still felt locally.
“My father died when I was five so I didn’t really know him that well, but every time I come to Castletownroche something spooky happens, every single time,” John revealed.
On a visit to Ireland in 1989, a local of Castletownroche advised John to go to a specific location at the old dance hall in the village stating that there was something on the wall he wanted him to see.
“I went down there and my father and his best friend, Chris Hunter, had written their names on the wall but they’d dated it the 15th April 1939. I found it on the 15 April 1989!” John claimed.
Living in Birmingham, John worked for some time with the West Midlands Ambulance Service until he suffered a heart attack, the very cause that took the lives of both his father and grandfather.
While driving on the motorway in 2017, he began experiencing symptoms of a heart attack and pulled over to a motorway phone where his wife called for an ambulance. Within a minute of going on the ambulance when it arrived, I went into cardiac arrest and they had to use a defibrillator on me.
“What was really weird as well, my cousin in New York, he found a whole box of letters from Dad to Molly (his sister) over the years in the 1950s. He found one from 1963 when dad had a heart attack and his symptoms were absolutely identical to mine.
“They were quite unusual, I had pins and needles down my right arm, instead of my left, I had a toothache, and I felt sick, then all of a sudden I felt as if I had been kicked in the chest by a horse,” John said.
Within an hour of the heart attack, John had a stent fitted in his heart.
Now he’s trying to raise money for the Midlands Air Ambulance Service and Birmingham Children’s Hospital, where his wife Moira has worked all her life as a radiographer.
‘CEOL MO CHROÍ’
John is recording a list of songs for a CD ‘Ceol Mo Chroí’, one song for each of the 32 counties of Ireland, but three for County Cork, and among those of course is ‘The Old Rustic Bridge By The Mill’. On his most recent trip to Ireland, John visited the bridge by the mill with his mandolin.
“I play the mandolin a little bit. I’ve only been learning for about two years. I just wanted to do something because I used to play the accordion, but playing the accordion after a heart attack wasn’t a good idea! So I started playing the mandolin. I told one of my cousins in Dublin and he said ‘that’s so spooky,’ and I said ‘why?’ and he said ‘didn’t you know that your grandfather played the mandolin?’”.
Image note: The grand staircase pictured on page 12 is from the RMS Olympic, a sister ship to the Titanic and is likely similar to the grand staircase on the doomed Titanic, crafted by John Looney.