Former Castleisland Town Bellman and poet, Charles Conway passed away at the age of 85 in his adopted home in Huddersfield in early October 2008.
Charles was a regular visitor home and was always well informed of the goings on in his native town. His most notable trip back was during September of 1992. On that occasion he decided to stage a couple of demonstrations of the bellman’s trade on the streets of the town.
He had a great story to tell and I alerted Tom McGuire of Radio Kerry to the fact that he was available. Tom invited him to the RK studio in Tralee for their chat and I remember recording the segment of the show on a cassette tape.
I found that tape recently and got permission from Radio Kerry’s Fiona Stack to include it here.
Tom McGuire was appointed the new head of RTE Radio One last December.
During his 1992 trip Charles Conway enjoyed a two-week holiday in his native town. He brought the bell used by his father to make a living right up to the late 1950s. Quite coincidentally, on the day he chose to stage his first show at the Market House Corner, he later discovered was the 35th anniversary of his father’s death. The show was rained off on the day in any case.
However, on the following Friday morning Charles was on hand, with a gang of supporters and in good voice, and proceeded along the front of the Market House with the immortal opening line ‘All Take Notice.’
The bell too had its own story and Charles told his followers of its history on that magic morning:
“We know that the bell was bought by my father in Caherciveen at a bazaar in 1903 and at the time it was bought as a present for his father – so three generations of us used this bell.”
Though not fully fledged bellmen, Charles and his brother, Michael took on the job when their father was ‘poorly’ – said Charles with just that hint of a concession to all his years in England.
“He took great pride in the job. He would rehearse his message as he made his way down Pound Road and he would start there at The Market House Corner and go up as far as the Library and down the other side of the street.”
There are so many stories surrounding the original Bellman that it’s hard to separate fact from fiction. One that Charles remembered well was the one of the clash of the old bellman and a young pretender.
Folklore has it that once when old Michael Conway – or Mickey Duck as he was known locally – was out of action through illness a young man from ‘uptown’ took over the business. When Mr. Conway recovered his health and his patch there was an inevitable encounter at Mollie’s Corner one foggy day.
The pretender was sent packing by the old campaigner and with a sore head. Claiming he was struck rather that saved by the bell, the young man looked straight at a potential witness and saw that a case could be made. “You saw that” he said to the ‘witness’ “You’re a lucky man he didn’t hit you with the bell,” came the reply and the case evaporated there and then.
“I remember the incident well,” said Charles. “They had some few words alright – but I’d say he walked into the bell and that’s how he got the crack on the head.”
The trade of the bellman was one very dear to the late Charles Conway and during that short holiday in Castleisland he managed two street shows here. He also played a leading role in setting up and maintaining an Irish Centre in his neighbourhood in his adopted town.