All the way from California, The Leader this week brings you the tale of expert escape-artist ‘Black Joe’ - not, as some might suppose, a notorious Wild West outlaw, but celebrated nonetheless, as the first of the famed black bunnies of Ballyvicknakelly.
His tale comes courtesy of a Dromore emigrant with a family name well known and respected in the place of her birth.
Now resident at Loma Linda in The Golden State, 83-year-old Maud Doloughan Seeley, who left for the US in 1952, is a niece of the late Andrew Doloughan.
Dromore Cathedral stalwart, author of local histories, respected journalist and newspaper editor in Dromore and Banbridge and, of course, one of The Leader’s own, Andrew’s was “a very great influence” on the life of his niece Maud, who clearly exhibits some of his flair for storytelling. Maud writes:-
My name is Maud Doloughan Seeley, the eldest in a family of eight - five daughters and three sons of the late John and Agnes Doloughan who lived on the hill before you come to Ballyvicknakelly Orange Hall.
The old homestead is no longer there and as I can see on Google Earth even the beautiful ash trees I enjoyed climbing as a child are gone.
Four daughters of our family remain and as the result of a conversation with my sister, Virginia Maguire, who had been asked by a friend if she knew about the black bunnies near The Hollow in Ballyvicknakelly, I thought, since I knew their history, Black Joe’s story would bring a smile.
When I share that I am writing this on my 83rd birthday then I know for sure not many will know who I am or remember me, but I do know all about the black bunnies at Ballyvicknakelly and perhaps some of the young people who are children of our classmates will know about the bunnies.
On the way to our home from school we had Samuel and David Martin, Desmond McClune, Norman and Alice Black and later, they had a younger brother named David.
Johnnie and Graham Wilkinson lived a little further down the road and Jim, Ivor, Betty and May Erwin came from Ballymacormick, crossing the burn so they could attend Ballyvicknakelly School.
At that point our family consisted of my brothers, John, Basil and Derek, sisters, Ina, and Margaret with Helena and Virginia following a few years later.
All of us attended the various Sunday Schools and churches in Dromore and to be honest very few unkind or naughty words were ever expressed.
Recalling the boys shouting, ‘Last down the Barley Park eats donkey dung’ - their boisterous expression of being out of school and on the way home - makes me smile as I recall a happy and fulfilled childhood.
Perhaps if it is forgotten, the Barley Park was the name of the hill on the road opposite the Doloughan or ‘The Hill’ farm where I was born, so the challenge of who could be at the bottom first was given practically every day.
Back then, before electricity or phone service had reached our area, the children of those days did a lot of exchanging with each other.
We had lived through the Second World War and the availability of toys or games was very limited; our joys and interests were in bantams, chickens, donkeys, the occasional comic magazine and somehow, from somewhere, came Black Joe, the delightful bunny acquired by my brother John.
I do not know which one of our friends gave or traded with John, but it did not matter; we were all delighted with our new furry pet.
We had an English Springer Spaniel named Flossie and a very large cat named Tiger, his name befitting his striped coat.
When my Dad was returning from a walk Tiger would go as far as half a mile to meet him, rolling and tumbling in front of Dad’s feet as he came up the road.
So, considering these pets and a very boisterous Rhode Island Red Rooster, my dad decided to make Black Joe a special hutch, which he attached to a wall some four or five feet off the ground, supposedly for his protection, but he need not have worried.
I am not sure why but neither the dog nor the cat would harm Black Joe and the three of them would curl up together in the hay in a small barn at the back of our house; they were family.
Black Joe could get out of his hutch; somehow he learned how to open the door and during the night would go in the field below our garden, visiting with the bunnies who lived there.
My dad soon realized he had an early-morning ritual; Black Joe would be waiting under his hutch to be returned to his warm bed of hay by his trusted friend.
In 1951 I moved to Southampton, England to teach for the Gregg Schools of London.
My mom would write every week and delight me with the stories of Black Joe and his antics.
Once, during a rainstorm, she brought him in and put him in an upstairs bedroom while she cleaned his hutch.
Returning to the bedroom she called out for him but could not find him anywhere. She kept calling and then noticed a hole in the back of the fireplace where the brick had been removed, making an escape route for one black bunny who went through to the adjoining attic of the small house attached to ours.
When she called again she heard the bunny-hops across the old attic floor and soon a pair of black ears appeared in the hole and Black Joe came through to the bedroom and waited to be picked up.
So much happened in my life since then, including emigrating to the United States of America in 1952 and later being joined by my family for a year or so.
At this point, somehow, I lost the connection with this unusual black bunny, and wonder if, when they were leaving for Pennsylvania in 1956, he was entrusted to another family?
However, for those of you who live near ‘The Hollow’ or have heard of them, you now know the history of Ballyvicknakelly’s black bunnies.