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St Johnston & Carrigans
Donegal

Brendan ‘Sox’ Devine
by a friend


Not so long ago, every town and village in Ireland and indeed in rural communities had a ‘character.’ In fact, there may have been a few ‘characters’ in any one locality. When you try to analyse it, it’s hard to describe accurately what a ‘character’ actually is. We all knew who the local ‘characters’ were. Mostly men, but not always. But, sadly, the local ‘characters’ are nearly all gone.

I write this, because, just recently, St. Johnston lost a well known ‘character’.

Brendan Devine, locally known as ‘Sox’, passed away in January 2020. He was seventy years of age. There is no doubt that he was the last of the many characters, who lived in the locality of St. Johnston and Carrigans. The others have all sadly now passed on as well, but not alone was Brendan probably the last of them, but he was the best known. It is said that he acquired the nickname ‘Sox’ from an incident when, as a lad, in an attempt to dry his wet socks without taking them off, he put his feet too close to the fire and burnt both socks and feet.

Brendan Augustine Devine was born in Foyleview, just outside St. Johnston village and lived his whole life in the same house. Sadly, his mother passed away when Brendan was just three years old, a tragic event to befall any child of that age. His father, Eddie, was an engine driver on the railway and was known as ‘Steam’ Devine. Brendan went to primary school, St. Baithin’s, which stood just a couple of hundred yards from his home. While its proper name was St. Baithin’s’, some wag christened it the ‘Blueball Academy,’ as it was located in the townland of Blueball – and the name stuck. His teacher was none other than Master Sean McBride, that famous composer of the song, “The Homes of Donegal.”

However, after spending the required number of years at the ‘Blueball’, he decided that schooling or even Master McBride’s song writing was not for him and he sought employment in Desmonds’ garage in Derry. But working at cars didn’t appeal to him either, so he did what many other young men did, he took the boat to England. However whether it was the boat journey across the water or whatever, Brendan took a liking to life on the ocean wave and he joined the Merchant Navy. Soon he was visiting many ports around the globe, from North America, to the Far East, to Australia. He told me many stories about different ports and about his times in the Service. Unfortunately, an incident in Australia led to him being packed off on an early boat home. I can’t remember the details now of what actually happened in Australia, but I do remember that it had something to do with a lady and being absent without leave for a weekend, springs to mind, but I can’t rightly remember. So we’ll just leave it at that. I think it was probably all a misunderstanding.

Back in St. Johnston, the salmon fishing season soon came round and Sox, like most men in the St. Johnston and Carrigans area, became one of the hundreds, who donned their waders and headed for the river, in the hope of striking it rich. Those who had a licence, owned a boat and net and those who didn’t have a licence, usually became a crew member for the many licence holders. Many men even left relatively lucrative jobs in England to come home ‘for the fishing’, although while they seldom made more money than they did in England, there was always the chance of that one ‘Klondyke’ and that was enough to tempt them home. And of course, it was a holiday home, to see family and friends. Anyone who has not fished for salmon on the Foyle, doesn’t understand the magnetism that draws a man back year after year. The way the salmon business was run was comparatively simple. The total sales value of the week’s catch, less any expenses, was divided into three. The holder of the licence got a third, the owner of the boat and net (which was usually the same man, but not always, as the licence holder) got a third and the crew divided the remaining third between them.

Now, there were those men, who fished legally and those who fished illegally and were known as ‘poachers’ or as they were locally called, ‘poochers’. Now I emphasise that not for a minute am I suggesting that Brendan fished any way other than legally. I’m just filling in the local history. Everyone knows he never ‘pooched’ in his life. And on the few occasions that he was dreadfully unlucky to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and got caught in possession of, let’s say, an illegal net or boat, he claimed in local court that he just happened upon the said items, while he was out walking along the banks of his beloved Foyle. A very plausible defence, I think, which any fair minded judge should have believed. However, for whatever reason, on one or two occasions, the judge did not believe him and he was fined the usual few pounds. I have no doubt whatsoever that any charges for which he did pay a fine, were gross miscarriages of justice !

A local sergeant, now long retired, did all in his power to catch Brendan on the river, fishing illegally. But, of course, he never did catch him, because, as I have stated above, Brendan never was involved in any type of such nefarious activity. It was a Tom and Jerry type scenario and like the cartoon pair, Tom never did get to catch Gerry. Although on one well known occasion, the sergeant waited in the bushes by the river, for a long time, watching through his binoculars, a man, far away, packing his illegal net into a bag and, throwing it over his shoulder, before proceeded to walk through the dense reeds towards the river bank. The sergeant concealed himself until eventually a man with a bag slung over his shoulder approached, then jumped out. The man with the bag was Sox.

“Hold it there, Brendan” says the Sarge, “You’re under arrest!”

“What for?” asks Brendan

“For possession of an illegal net, which you have in that sack – I’ve been watching you !”

“Go and take a good jump to yourself,” says Brendan.

“Open that bag now”, ordered the sergeant.

Brendan dropped the bag and turned it up to spill out the contents - it was full of empty bottles. There was no sign of a net.

“Sure, I’m only gathering bottles to get a few pennies back on them, to feed my poor hungry wains,” says Brendan, as he re-filled the bag and proceeded on his way.

During the winter season, Brendan was an avid follower of game shooting and on many a dark early winter’s morning we spent in the mud flats, known as the Hollocks, an area of reed beds in the middle of the Foyle, waiting for the early morning flight of duck. Brendan was an excellent shot and when a duck appeared out of the dark sky, you had to be quick to get a shot in before him. He was so confident with his aim, that a favourite saying of his, as he was about to pull the trigger, was, “How do you like your duck, with red or brown sauce ?” After the morning duck flight, it was on to the pheasants and whether it was Binion Hill, Dooish, or even as far as Ramelton or Clonmany, we seldom came home without a good bag. And while we travelled far and wide, Brendan’s favourite shooting spot was where he called Tony’s meadow, a marshy area, just a couple of hundred yards from his own home, where we often stood in the gloaming, making not a noise, as we waited for the dusk flight of duck, be it mallard or the fast flying teal, our ears pealed for the wing beat of an approaching bird, while trying to identify from which direction the sound was coming. As the light got dimmer and the darkness grew, we depended less on our eyes and more on our ears. Away in the distance, up river, at the islands, you might have heard a gun being fired and you became extra vigilant, in the hope that the shot may have scared some duck down to the meadow. And away down river, you would hear a curlew now and again. Or perhaps the whisp of a snipe, as it sped past, now impossible to spot, never mind shoot. Eventually, darkness completely overcame us and while you could hear the duck, you simply couldn’t see them, to get a shot, so it was off home. But we seldom went home without a brace.

Great days, now sadly gone.

Brendan was also a keen supporter and player of cricket and was a fully paid up member of the local Cricket Club in St. Johnston and indeed, when at the crease, what he lacked in speed, he made up for in craft. He was an able bowler, also.

He was an avid follower of greyhound racing and in recent years, he looked after and trained greyhounds for their owners. On one occasion, as recalled by a local man of the cloth, Sox invited him to the dog racing track in Lifford.

“I found it strange that almost all the dogs he told me to bet on, never featured, whereas the no hopers, with big odds, which he bet on, seemed to do better,” the Holy Man remembered.

At the end of the night, on the way home, Brendan was counting his winnings in the car. The good Reverend eventually turned to Brendan and asked how come the dogs he picked came last, but those Brendan backed, seemed to do better.

“It’s a secret,” says Sox.

“And what is the secret, Brendan?” asked the priest.

“Well, it’s very simple, Father,” says Sox, “You stick to the preaching and I’ll stick to the dogs!”

In the old days, on a Saturday evening, if it was too wet to go out hunting, we used to pass the time playing snooker in Martin Golden’s snooker hall. He was a good pool and snooker player and indeed, quite a shrewd chess player too. We often passed an hour or two, at the chessboard, usually in the Carrig Inn. I vividly remember, on one occasion, he and I were engrossed in a tight best-of-three match. At one game each, the tiebreak was lasting well over an hour, but of course, there was a certain amount of time wasting on the part of both of us, simply to frustrate another keen player, a well known St. Johnston gentleman, who had just recently returned from living in Scotland. This man was patiently waiting to take on the winner. Eventually, Brendan won and with a sigh of relief, the new man immediately took off his coat and hung it on the back of his chair and sat down to challenge Brendan. The pieces were set up, Brendan moved first, the challenger moved next, whereupon Brendan made a move to tempt his opponent into a trap – a fatal one. The new man took the bait and moved exactly where Brendan had thought he would. Just at that moment, the barman, the late Lehane Lennon called, “Here’s your pint”.

Our man got up to pay for his pint, but by the time he had sat down, the game was over – checkmate to Brendan. Before he had a sip at his pint, Brendan had him beaten, courtesy of the ‘three move checkmate’ and the game was over in about two minutes. The new challenger wasn’t too pleased, especially at himself for not seeing the move happening in front of his very eyes. It’s a well known move that any amateur player should know and watch out for. This gentleman was, in his own way, also a ‘character’, but sadly also passed on some years ago. He was famous locally for ‘knowing everything’. Readers of a certain vintage who are reading this little obituary will know exactly to whom I am referring. That was over forty one years ago.

There are countless stories about Brendan, all good stories, but too many to regale here.

How many are true? Who knows, but even if some were apocryphal, they were still good stories, nevertheless. If I were to tell them all, there wouldn’t be enough space in the website to hold them all. However, allow me to tell some of them.

One day, in the local snooker hall, a couple of young lads were playing pool and after the game was over, one of the lads searched his pockets for a couple of 2p pieces, needed to start a new game and get the balls out on the table. Unfortunately, he could only find one coin, so he approached Brendan and says,

“Hi, Sox, have you a 2p?”

Quick as a flash, Brendan replies, “I haven’t a f****** Rupee, never mind a 2p !”

On another occasion, when asked by a lad for a cigarette, he shot a look of dismissal back at the lad, adding, “It’s “Devine” you call me, not “de Paul’.

A well known story is still told, when once was a pub at the lower end of St. Johnston street, called “Ritchie’s”, beside where The Fisherman’s Inn now stands. It was owned by another character, called Ritchie Lynch, long passed on too. One night, there were about a dozen people in the bar, after hours, it was about 1.30am. Suddenly there was knock at the door and two Guards, not from the local barracks, stepped in. “Right’” said one of the Guards, “names and addresses.” They pulled out their notebooks and began writing. They were moving along, taking down the information and one of the Guards eventually stood before a certain local gentleman.

“Name and address,” demands the Guard. (Now, I shall not give the proper name of the man, whom the Guard was questioning, - to protect his good name and integrity - so we’ll call him Jim Doherty, from Ard Baithin, the local housing estate.) But Mr. Doherty had a plan up his sleeve, so when asked his name, seeing that the Guard was not local, instead of properly answering “Jim Doherty, Ard Baithin, St. Johnston”, he says, “Paddy Lynch, Carrickmore, St. Johnston.” The Guard had no reason to doubt the information, so he wrote it down and moved on down the line. Eventually, he reached Sox. “Name and address,” says the Guard.

Brendan looked him straight in the eye and said… “Jim Doherty, Ard Baithin, St. Johnston,” ….!!

Brendan married Martha Rodgers, from Carrigans and together they had a daughter, Anne and a son, Kevin, plus three grandchildren. But Brendan was way ahead of his time, when it came to woman’s rights and gender equality. In the old days, most men left their wives to slave over a sink or wash dirty nappies, while the menfolk did the easy work and brought home the paypacket. But, as I have said, Sox was forward thinking - he believed that it was only fair to let Martha have the freedom to go out to do the easy work, in Derry, while he chose the desperately hard job of staying at home….. as Phil Coulter famously wrote in his song,

“The town I loved so well” ...

"While the man on the dole played the mother's role, Fed the children and then trained the dogs."


He could have written that specially for Brendan. He was not one to be tied down by permanent employment.

Brendan enjoyed good health for almost all his life, but for the past couple of years, his health declined and in recent months he was lovingly cared for by Martha, Kevin and Anne.

I spoke with him often towards the end and he had lost none of his old sarcasm and wit.

I can envisage the scene in the Great Pub in the sky, when the door opens and you walk in, Brendan. All the other characters will look around and someone will say, “Jesus, will ye look who it is – Sox Devine,” and you’ll probably reply, “Aye, and would somebody gimme a fag, I left mine in the house!”

Sox, you old fox, you may be gone, but not forgotten and I have no doubt that the stories about you will live on!

Rest in peace, Brendan.