Part 1 of a major Times series
A BROKEN window in a caravan, which housed dozens of birds, occupied the attention of Jamie McCook when I called with him at his Ballykenver Road home near Armoy.
Anxious to ensure his 'captives' wouldn't escape, he was driving rather large nails into a sheet of wood, without too much success, although I wasn't going to be the one telling him.
Unless you know the man they call the Indian rather better than I do, being over familiar isn't recommended.
For James Richard McCook, born July 20, 1928, is in a kind of way, King of North Antrim hardmen. It's a title he would make no comment on, perhaps indicating nothing more than a shrug of the shoulders or a smile, but which would attract nods of approval from those who have heard – some more than others – of his awesome reputation!
Outside his home of 40 years, lies Jamie McCook's life and loves – his vast array of birds, the scrap metal he has amassed down the years and the equipment he uses in the course of his work.
Jamie McCook encapsulates everything that one associates with a rough and ready countryman.
Standing about 6 feet tall and with a figure to match, his pace of life maybe somewhat less active than in years gone by, but which still reflects the attitude of a man whose reputation is legendary throughout the country.
Mention the Indian and it's a fairly safe bet that most people will know who you are talking about.
"Aye, that's him from Armoy who can box a bit," is the reply you'll normally get. But there's more to him than meets the eye. He's the first to admit he didn't have the best education – "I node nothing when I went to school and node less when I left," he'll tell you.
But his life has been marked with incident after incident and many a pub audience has been intrigued by the stories of his youth, his fights and the people he has met in the course of his work.
And he hasn't done badly in business thanks to a generous nature, a shrewd brain and a large degree of honesty, which was thumped into him by his father.
"We widne hae stole a thing. Mae da would hae gone mad if we had," he told me.
Born at the Quarry Row, in a labourer's cottage owned by the late Jim Craig, Jamie McCook was the 17th of 21 children. There were 14 girls.
His mother, Mary-Ann and his father, Stephen, knew what hard times were and young Jamie had no choice, but to rough it and help out when he could.
He speaks well of his father who ended his life's journey at the ripe old age of 95.
"He was a black-stone mason and built that wall you see opposite the bank in Armoy. All them recesses in the roads were his as well.
"The McCooks were all good builders, but mae da also worked as a surfaceman."
His mother, formerly Reynolds, died at 86-years of age and Jamie recalls her with some affection.
"She always did well for us," he said.
Home later became a house at Mullaghduff where Jamie’s brother, Dan, still lives.
With such a large family, sacrifices had to be made and there was no such things as a bed of your own. In fact, four of the McCook boys, Jamie himself, John, Dan and Alex each cuddled up in one bed – two at the top and two at the bottom.
“Ye had to be careful in case ye got a big toe in your mooth. Then again, if ye got hungry you could always hae a suck at one,” Jamie said.
School was a four-mile walk for the McCook family and, more often than not, Jamie decided his time would be more profitably spent chasing after wild birds or rabbits and hares.
“There was nae free milk or family allowance in them days and we had to be content with a quarter of a soda scone, maybe wae a wee drap of butter or a bit of jam sometimes.”
The young Jamie McCook was taught to read and write by teachers, Miss McDowell and Miss Robinson. And it was Miss McDowell – later to die while playing tennis in Armoy – who gave him the nickname, the Indian.
He explained: “There was this big tree between Kanes and the School and we used to play on the branches.
“Me and Jamie Bartlett were always hingin’ on tae them and makin’ a whoppin’ noise. I always gowlin’ and shoutin’ and she toul me I wid make a good chief o’ the Indians.
“I suppose I was always the ugly yin tae and when we played cowboys and indians I was always made the Indian.”
In the spring days, the young McCooks walked to school in the bare feet and in the winter had a pair of gutties. There was no such thing as warm coats, scarves, etc.
“We had a pair of short trousers and a wee ganzy and mae da always cut out hair
like donkey fringe.”
Walking home from school often took longer than expected. For Alex, John and Dan would often skip the hedge and into a field for a turnip.
“We would break the turnip against an iron gate and divide them amangst oursels.
“Sometimes we would fin a crab tree and scobe a wheen o’ epples around the Bush.”
Even then there was a unique hardness about the McCooks and Jamie and Alex in particular.
Many a time the boys would go after trouts in the burn at Doughrey and use their terrier and lurcher dogs to chase rabbits or pigeons for soup for the family.
“I mind me and Alex swimmin’ without anything on in the burn in the winter and Jamie Miskelly comin’ alang and tellin’ mae me about how coul it was and we wid get our death.
“She toul him we were in it every day and wid come to nae harm.”
Jamie and the rest of the family were made to work after school. Gathering potatoes for half a crown a day to the likes of Andy McDermott,
Willie Hill and Alex McLernon occupied the winter days and he also spent time at Alex McCollum’s, Cusicks and Andy Wilson’s.
Working in the bare feet might have been thought to have been cruel, but the McCooks were used to it and Jamie admits to stepping into horse excrement when it was moving down the drill just to get warmed up a bit.
“It might sound bad, but that’s the way it was then.”
Hagging fir as a 12-year-old or visiting the moss twice a night in the summer were not uncommon, nor was working in a lint dam.
“In them days, peats were stacked alongside the road and the work was hard enough, but ye got used tae it.
“Ye were expected to work hard then. If ye ever went to a farmer, ye just had to work like a man.”
Evenings were spent either out roaming the fields or, if it was winter, sitting listening to Harry Lauder or George Formby records.
“Ma mae had an oul gramophone and she had all them oul records. I can’t really mind who they were.”
Neighbours for years were Billy and Frankie Heggarty and Jamie recalls having plenty of good scraps with them.
“I denny want to bae criticisin’ any o’ them boys cause they were gid mates,” he warned.
But that’s another side of the Indian!
Do you want to find out more and meet Jamie aged 21?