John Francis Grimes was born on Saturday 3 July 1943, the first child of Joe Grimes and Theresa Quinn. The family lived in a thatched cottage in the townland of Clunto-quin, Ardboe, just a half-mile from Lough Neagh. If you stood at the front door, looking east across McSloy’s field, you could see the green tin roof of the home of Willie John Kelly and his wife Catherine Glory. Turning to your left and looking north, you could see the lane meandering away to where it joined the road to the Battery Harbour and Lough Neagh, where Joe Grimes and Willie John Kelly and hundreds more fishermen carried on their precarious and sometimes dangerous livelihood. If you walked round to the back of the cottage and looked over the back hedge you could see, just thirty yards away, the tidy thatched farmhouse of Lena Grimes, mother of Joe and grandmother of John. An idyllic rural landscape: that is, until you looked to the west where the land stretched flat and featureless for miles – neither tree nor hedge nor bush to be seen anywhere – for here had been created a massive wartime airfield – Station 238 – home of the giant American bombers, the B.17 Flying Fortresses and the B.24 Liberators, and their crews. John’s first two years of growing had the unceasing backdrop of an intensely busy airfield: scores of planes taking off and landing both day and night, and the night lit up brighter than day by hundreds of landing lights which festooned the airfield and the surrounding countryside. The frenetic activity subsided to a considerable extent in 1945 but was renewed in 1952 when the airfield became a base for training RAF fighter pilots. Growing up next door to an operational military aerodrome may have seemed a wondrous existence to many but in later years John always insisted that he that he had quite a normal childhood.
John started school on 14 June 1948, a few weeks before his fifth birthday. The school was Moortown Boys’ Primary School, situated just under a mile from his home. There were two identical schools in one building, the girls’ school and the boys’ school. There is a group photograph from this time, and the tiny boy in the bottom right corner of the picture looks forlorn and slightly bewildered. It was not to be long however before it became apparent that this small boy had a remarkable facility for assimilating information; learning came easily to him and he was soon regarded as the brightest boy in the school. There was no special treatment for the holder of this title: John was involved with his classmates in the rough and tumble of the school yard, and the little adventures and games which took place each day on the homeward journey from school. At the beginning of 1952 the growing family moved to a new house in the adjacent townland of Annaghmore, half-a-mile from the old thatched house which had been home for more than nine years. However John as the oldest of six children was allowed to stay in Clunto-quin, moving in with his grandmother, an arrangement which was quite usual in those days. The change in living quarters did not affect John’s attendance at school: he enjoyed school and as the roll-books show, apart from a three-week absence and a two-week absence (which would appear to indicate the usual childhood illnesses) John rarely missed a day at school.
Towards the end of 1954 John was entered for the Qualifying Examination, or Eleven Plus as it was better known. The Northern Ireland Education Act of 1947, based on the Butler Act of 1944, made provision for primary school pupils to advance to secondary education. The original Tripartite System envisaged pupils at age eleven upwards taking a test to see which type of secondary education best met their needs: grammar, secondary or technical. In Northern Ireland the examination, known as the Eleven Plus, came to be seen as a ‘pass or fail’ opportunity to gain entrance to a grammar school. John was the very first boy from Moortown school to be entered for the test – GRIMES, John F., Examination No. 10202 – and he duly passed. His parents planned to send him to the nearest grammar school, which was Cookstown High School; however the parish priest of Ardboe, Fr Arthur Rogers, in the grossest way imaginable – using the threat of excommunication against the parents – sought to prevent the boy going to Cookstown High School, which he termed ‘A Protestant School’. The parents sought the advice of a friend, Patrick T Tobin, a Waterford native who was a former principal of Moortown school. The old blind teacher spoke dismissively of the clerical intervention and stated – ‘Send the boy. It is all bluster and bluff. And it is despicable.’
John’s sojourn in the Moortown school came to an end on Friday 29 July 1955. Soon, freshly scrubbed and uniformed, and armed with a scholarship from Tyrone County Education Committee, he found himself on the steps of the High School in Coolnafranky, Cookstown. Whatever first-day nerves he may have had soon dissipated, for John had a keen intelligence, learning came easily to him, and his quiet but open disposition ensured that he was regarded favourably by both fellow pupils and staff. As in 1948 when he first started school, John quickly found his feet and thrived in his new academic surroundings. He had an aptitude for all subjects but was particularly interested in mathematics, the sciences, and art. He also enjoyed the competitive aspect of hockey and athletics, and it was a rare annual school magazine which did not include his name for achievement in the classroom and on the playing fields.
High School sports day – Thursday 28 June 1956. John Grimes extreme right, front row
John sat his Junior Certificate examination at the end of his third year, 1957-58, and gained creditable results: he passed with distinction in Latin, History, Geography, Algebra, Geometry and Trigonometry, and Experimental Science. He passed with credit in English, French, Arithmetic, and Drawing.
He was due to sit his Senior examinations in May 1960 but he became ill immediately after competing in several events on Sports Day, which took place on 11 May. The diagnosis was pleurisy: John was immediately hospitalised. He spent several weeks in Drumglass Hospital, Dungannon, which specialised in treating patients with pulmonary conditions. There was still a belief in the efficacy of fresh air: the wards were long Nissen huts, with a wide-open door at each end of the central aisle. Once in recovery John spent much of his time painting and model-making. Revision was not on the agenda, for the Senior exams had necessarily been missed. He was eventually allowed home and his recuperation went so well that he was able to return to school in September. The headmaster, Mr James Campbell Cooper, felt it would be more beneficial to allow John to advance to Year E1 with his class-mates, even though he had not yet sat his Senior at ordinary level. He rightly surmised that John was quite capable of studying advanced level subjects, at the same time preparing to take his ordinary level Senior exams at the end of the 1960-61 year.
So it proved: John gained the full Senior Certificate at Ordinary level, passing in eight subjects – English Literature Senior, Modern History, Mathematics, Geography, Physics, Chemistry, English Language, French – the first six with credits. In addition he won the prestigious RS Twigg prize for best result in Senior Certificate Science.
From John’s point of view the only negative aspect of his recent illness was that his parents decreed that all sporting activities were ruled out for the foreseeable future. This was a natural concern on the part of his parents: John’s uncle and namesake John Grimes had died from tuberculosis aged 30 years; his maternal uncle John Quinn had been a patient in Drumglass Hospital for most of 1957, being treated for tuberculosis. Even though penicillin and other drugs had become available after the Second World War, people were still fearful of lung diseases, and there was a widespread belief that sweating and cooling could cause a relapse in the initial recovery period. This sporting ban was a blow to John, who enjoyed athletics and team sports; in 1959 he was already playing for the First Eleven hockey team at school, and he had been a member of his local Gaelic football team, Moortown, which in 1959 won the East Tyrone league at minor (Under 18) level. In that year too he had helped organise a soccer match between the High School boys and students from Cookstown Technical College.
At the end of the 1961-62 year John sat his Senior at advanced level, passed in Physics and Chemistry, and won a scholarship to study civil engineering at Queen’s University, Belfast. Those were quiet years in Belfast, before the upheavals which began towards the end of that decade. Almost every weekend John returned home, where much of his time was spent in carrying out the secretarial duties of the local football club, Moortown St Malachys, and in turning out for the senior team on Sunday afternoons. Evenings were invariably spent with his long-time girlfriend, Eileen Cassidy of Trickvallen, Ardboe. In 1964 John was joined at Queens by his younger brother Charlie who had also opted for civil engineering. John graduated with honours in 1966 and in that summer he joined Tyrone County Council. His brother Charlie recalled, ‘John joined Tyrone County Council after graduating with a 2:1 degree in Civil Engineering in the summer of 1966. He stayed with them until the spring of 1968 working principally on the supervision of the final 5-mile stretch of the M1 motorway to Dungannon. He was also involved in road and bridge design. Between 1968 and 1970 he worked for two local contractors – initially Glovers of Moneymore and later Clarkes of Lisnaskea – on the construction of new roads in Tyrone and Derry. He then joined a major London firm of Consulting Engineers, Binnie and Partners, in the summer of 1970.’
John and Eileen married on 16 April 1968 and moved into a flat in Moneymore. Eileen soon found part-time work in McNicholl’s shop. In May 1970, just when they were ready to make their move to England, tragedy struck the Grimes family when the father of the family, Joe, was killed by a drunk-driver while walking near his home. He was 54 years old. The following month John and Eileen said their goodbyes to family and friends as they prepared to leave for England. John also bade farewell to the local Gaelic football club, Moortown, of which he had been a long-time player, as well as club secretary in 1962-64, and chairman since the end of 1968. As chairman, and working with a small but businesslike committee, he set about changing the club around and results were immediate: in 1969 the club’s senior side, which had been cup finalists in 1968 but was relegated to league division 3 status, came back to winning ways with a faultless league and cup double. In 1970 John drew up detailed plans to remove the distinct slope from the club’s playing field; however when he left the plans were shelved. Shades of a prophet not being accepted in his hometown: possibly a wee bit of jealousy. Nevertheless John continued to give his allegiance to his old club, and kept up to date with their successes and failures. John and Eileen initially settled in Watford before moving to Boston in Lincolnshire, where they lived for a number of years. Those years and the ones that followed were described with humour and pride by their older son, Paul, at John’s Requiem Mass on Wednesday 26 November 2014 –
‘John met his sweetheart, Eileen, when he was just nineteen. Cresting the top of a hill on his bike whilst she was coming down it on hers, he narrowly missed running her down and having a head-on collision. Thankfully the encounter did not end in disaster. On the contrary, evidently John approved of Eileen for, one conversation and six years later the two curlies (as they were affectionately known for their riot of curly hair) married at the church in Ardboe and set up house together. They subsequently moved to England and had two sons, Paul and Timothy.
Asked once, ‘What do you do?’ by a well-to-do lady at a New Year’s ball in Boston, Lincolnshire, John was heard to remark that he worked in sewage. Although the lady in question looked horrified, his statement was not unfounded. John was an expert in wastewater and his thirty-five year career in civil engineering is testament to that fact. Serving as part of Binnie and Partners, Consulting Engineers, John travelled all over the world and lived for many years in the Middle East. His work was always noted to be of the highest standard and he was awarded the prestigious James Watt medal by the Institute of Engineers in 1994.
Between 1980 and 1987 the family lived in Cairo, Egypt. This was an unforgettable experience for everyone, not least John who loved exploring the ancient sites and who spent many weekends with Eileen and the boys in tow, tracking down various tombs and areas of historical interest. Paul wryly recalls that such expeditions were not helped by the barely functioning cars upon which they relied – British-made with no air-conditioning.
John also had the opportunity in Egypt to hone his golfing game and could regularly be found at the Mena House golf course, with a front-row seat to the pyramids and an enviable view of the famous structures. The President’s Decanter, a coveted club prize, still has pride of place on the sideboard in the family home – as does the golf ball for John’s famous (and only) hole-in-one.
A return to England beckoned in 1988 and a culture shock for all the family ensued. All too soon, life in Cairo – glamorous parties, embassy balls, bridge evenings with cordon-bleu cooking and plenty of oddly-named red wines – became a distant memory. But for John the pull of the Middle East remained strong and he continued to make several trips a year out to the Gulf in his capacity at Binnies. His rôle afforded him many opportunities to meet dignitaries, including the Prince and Princess of Wales, and one of his fondest memories was meeting Yasser Arafat in Palestine to discuss water supply projects. A civil engineer by training, Arafat like John had a passion for water.
Throughout all this John was first and foremost a family man. Father to two boys, Paul and Timothy, he was also delighted in time to become a grandfather to Isabel, Joshua and latterly to the affectionately-named Lottie, who gave him a hug the very first time she met him. With Isabel he shared his love of the outdoors, regularly taking her around the pond in Priory Park and feeding the ducks together. But when Joshua came on the scene John had to fight to keep his chair in the family sitting-room. Anything he had, Joshua wanted it too. In fact Eileen recalls with laughter one hilarious occasion when she brought John a piece of cake. To John’s consternation Joshua immediately reached over and wolfed it down so that John had to be consoled with another piece.
Quiet and self-contained, John loved to spend time in the garden and was a keen bird enthusiast. Every year he would point out to Eileen ‘his robin’ which he believed once more returned to the family garden. Eileen has since learned that a robin’s life expectancy is just one year however, so this is one scenario where John cannot have been quite right. John also enjoyed art in all its forms: attending a painting class, visiting galleries with his son Tim, and even trying his hand at photography, in particular seeking to capture the form of trees. He was never happier than when he could be found near water or aboard boats, as it reminded him of his childhood, growing up on the shores of Lough Neagh. He was an avid supporter of Liverpool football club, enjoyed watching Michael Palin’s latest travel guides, and frequented car-boot sales, which had interesting consequences, many of which are still stored in the attic in the family home.
Sadly for a man with such a sharp mind, John was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s disease in 2008. Even though this was a huge disability for him, John still pushed to live life to the full and celebrated his fortieth wedding anniversary with Eileen on a memorable visit to China. In actual fact the happy couple nearly missed their flight as, reclining in the comfort of the British Airways business lounge in Terminal Five, they were oblivious to the sound over the loudspeaker requesting a Mr and Mrs Grimes to please board immediately.
Equally memorable was the day at the Open Championship at Turnbury with his son Paul. Both keen golf enthusiasts, father and son trailed their hero Tom Watson around the course for hours – in the process narrowly missing his golf ball as it came sailing towards them at great speed – but developing an enviable sun-tan which had them resembling lobsters by the end of the day.
After three years of living at home with his illness, John moved to Broome Park Nursing Home where for the last years of his life he received the highest standard of care. The family would like to make special mention of Hernan, Raymond and Ted, John’s former colleagues at Binnie’s, who regularly visited him during this time and who proved a great support to both John and Eileen. Eileen herself would also like to thank the staff at Broome Park for their unwavering kindness and care shown towards John. Farhanna and her team have provided exceptional care and the family is indebted to them. Many friends have supported the Grimes family over this difficult season of John’s life. Although there are too many to name, Eileen does wish to mention Christine and Catherine, who have faithfully supported her over the years.’
John died on Saturday 15 November 2014, aged 71 years. He was laid to rest in the graveyard adjacent to Moortown Catholic Church, Ardboe Road, Cookstown, Co Tyrone, on Friday 28 November 2014
On behalf of the Grimes family I wish to express our indebtedness to Graham Montgomery, principal of Cookstown High School, who kindly allowed access to the school library and gave permission to copy material from school magazines and to scan class and team photographs. Grateful thanks are also due to Norman Devlin, past pupil of the school, who was kindness personified at all stages of putting together this short biography.
Pat Grimes, 12 November 2015
Picnic at Skegness – a picture from the Boston, Lincolnshire, years. John, Eileen and son Paul play host to John’s mother Theresa and his youngest sister Patricia
The Wash, Lincolnshire – 13 April 1979. Eileen, John and their son Paul with The Wash in the background