All about me…
When working with horses, cool and steady hands are needed. I first experienced this, very early in life. I was introduced to the power and skill of the blacksmith’s art in 1958. This early start began a lifelong involvement in horses, hoof care and engineering.
I was only four years old when our village blacksmith, the late Andy Filson (born in the 1890’s), led me by the hand, into his workshop. He lifted me up in his strong arms and sat me safely, up on the huge pile of old horse shoes in the corner of his smithy.
Andy was very busy that day, he was swiftly making shoes by hand. A farmer stood holding a big black farm horse. Andy lifted the horse’s legs up one at a time and held the leg between his own. This left his hands free to fit the new shoes.
Sparks flew from red hot metal as Andy forged each of the big thick shoes around the anvil with his big hammer. He burned them in, causing clouds of smoke to rise from the feet before quenching the shoes in the big trough full of water beside the forge.
He nailed them on with his small shoeing hammer, clinched and filled the nails level so fast that his hands where a blur to me.
The smithy was full with farmers because it was a very wet day. Several took off their heavy wet coats to take turns to work the bellows. Others would strike with a sledge hammer to the timing nod of Andy’s head. Shoes were punched and shaped all around his massive anvil. It was all fast, continuous movement as shoes one after the other took shape and were fitted.
Other horses stood waiting outside. The smells, sights and sounds of that first afternoon and the many more days and hours in Andy’s smithy as I grew up, have stayed with me vividly over fifty years.
My grandfather Billy Latimer (also born in the 1890’s), brought me and my donkey Judy to Andy’s blacksmiths shop that first time. Andy and my grandfather Billy were long time friends. Both had served in France in the Great War over forty years earlier.
Andy was an army farrier and my grandfather Billy was an infantry soldier. He was a great shot with any gun and also had good hands for any skilled work. He could write with either hand. I am grateful to have inherited some of his hand skills.
In 1917, he volunteered for burial duty after being wounded himself. He searched for months and removed thousands of bodies that were often half buried in mud in France. This was in the thawing spring snow, he recovered and buried the body of his younger brother George. He wanted his mother back in Fermanagh to know, that George was buried safely.
My mother Margaret and her older sister, Renee, visited the grave together in France a few years before they died in 2009 and 2011. It was very moving for them to remember both Billy’s and George’s courage in those terrible times in 1917.
Jim Filson the son of Andy the blacksmith, was also a great hero to me. He had the skill and nerve to fly RAF Hurricane fighters from nearby Ballyhalbert airfield during the second world war. He trained young Polish airmen.
Three young pilots from the Polish squadron are buried beside my grandfather Paddy. These young men lie far from their own land in Ballycran’s cemetery a few miles from the airfield and my home village Kircubbin.
Later in life Jim Filson and I sang together in the church choir and I enjoyed his support and friendship very much.
He was infamous for flying his Hurricane flat out close to the local villages with his wing tips at ninety degrees to the horizon. People ran out to shake their fists at him for breaking their top windows with the wind from his plane when he flew very close.
On my father’s side of the family, there was a big involvement in pt to point racing and show jumping. My father and his three brothers Morgan, Derek and Cathal rode very well during and after the second world war.
Uncle Cathal, dad’s youngest brother was one of the top professional jump jockeys in Ireland for several decades and a real hero to me.
He was also another great shot in my family. As a young boy, he stood on a box, to compete against men in the local air gun league all over Co Down, this was in the inter pub matches just after the second world war.
All these great men were heroes in every meaning of the word, I am grateful for their great kindness to me as a boy and the influence they had on my character and working life.
I started riding at local donkey derbies. My donkey cost thirty shillings, coming off the lorry from the west of Ireland on market day in Kircubbin in 1958. The derby’s were very popular then in each village and the local summer jumping shows. I remember dad’s great friend Robert Sharp leading my donkey with me up along the middle of the main street straight from the market with me wearing a cowboy hat and shooting everyone I could with my spud gun.
In the next few years I could use a wooden sword or throw a spear, shot a bow or gun in either hand. I soon became very good shooting from either side as a mounted bowman. Later in life also when playing cricket I could switch hands causing much annoyance with all the fielders having to move about.
My father was a worse devil than I. He bought me a real bow from his friend Mr Blakely who owned the Athletic stores in Belfast. Dad raced against Blakely’s boat in the very competitive Strangford lough Flying Fifteen championship races.
Dad and his skipper Dr Pat McAuley also raced against HRH the Duke of Edinburgh and won the UK championship races in Scotland in 1958. Dr McCauley and my Dad ruled the weekly races in Strangford Lough for many years in the late fifties and early sixty’s.
My new birthday, of bow and arrows, was to give my mother and many other mothers in the village several heart attacks. They all got a great shock when they discovered why all their tin-bin lids gained many mysterious, ventilation holes over that long summer.
They found out that their ‘wee boys’, my loyal gang of “men at arms” held the bin lids up in both hands, and jumped up, from behind bushes for me to shoot at the bin lids with the steel, tipped arrows, as I galloped by in our playing field behind the village. I would switch hands to shoot from either side of my trusty steed.
I was Robin Hood one week, and alternated to be Sitting Bull, the next. I could hit two bin lids one after the other in each gallop past. Each boy took it turn, to jump up, for the honour of getting both his bin lids punched through, by several inches, with the steel tips on the end of the arrows.
I’ve never forgotten, Pete Gilmore’s smiling face, a big grin showing a missing tooth or two as he jumped proudly up when it was his turn. He recalled all this to my wife Laura, over forty years later when he joined her evening Spanish class. She had not believed my tales of boyhood adventures with my loyal gang of men when I told her twenty years earlier in Mexico.
I think it was maybe one of the Fay boys who told his mother on me. Paddy Fay’s nervous stutter maybe started around about this time.
My trusty bow was hid away for a long time until Dad smuggled it out for me again the next summer. I had to promise not to get the boys to hold any bin lids for me.
All my big gang of ‘ merry men’ were also proud to have the ‘mark of Zorro’ scratched on their left cheeks. This was done with a sharp tin top squeezed around the end of my bamboo sword. I had been introduced to the adventures of Zorro in 1961 in the daily film shows at Butlin’s holiday camp in Mosney.
When I returned to the village that summer I would fight with a sword and switch hands back and forward to confuse and disarm and then brand my loyal men with a great flourish of my tin top sword.This got me into trouble of course again when all the ‘scarred for life’, ‘Ist battalion Kircubbin mounted foot’ were paraded in front of my poor mother by a band of concerned mothers in the village.
In the many years since then, facing physical and engineering challenges in my involvement with horses has continued. I fractured my spine twelve years ago in a car accident so I’ve concentrated more on the breeding, training and driving sharp ISH pairs and teams rather than serious show jumping.
The photograph above was taken of the first day I drove four young horses that I had bred myself. They are al half brother and sisters by the same stallion. I plan to yoke two new related pairs later this year.
Many of my cousins, their children, nephews and nieces continue in the competitive family tradition. We have a great mixture of show jumpers, jockeys, footballers, hurlers, runners, boxers, artists, singers, dancers and rally drivers spread over the latest generations.
Many like me are addicted to the rush from going higher, faster and longer. It is hard to escape your genes I suppose.
My own continued passion, along with over forty years of working in agricultural, marine and aircraft tooling and production engineering around the world, has allowed me to this year launch my new equipment and maintenance tools, onto the market.
I have used high spec materials, advanced techniques, with world class manufacturing partners here in N Ireland, to offer my range of effective quality equipment and tools.