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Remembering Jimjoejoe’s innocent life and rare talent

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Remembering Jimjoejoe’s innocent life and rare talent
Illustration by Caty Bartholomew


There were so many families with the same surname in the parish that it was common for a man's father and even grandfather's Christian name to be attached to his own Christian name so that people could know immediately who was being spoken about.

That was how Jimjoejoe came to be so called right from childhood.  It is a common custom right to this day. 

Jimjoejoe was a special child when he was born in the 1940s. He was always special. He was always different right from the beginning.

He was a big baby when born in the front bedroom at home and, quite early, his parents knew he was not the same kind of child as all the others in the house.

There is a lovely word for that in the west. They say that a child is "innocent."  Effectively that means that the child is born without that self-protective shield of distrust and suspicion the rest of us are endowed with from birth.

From the time he was a baby onwards Jimjoejoe offered love and a wide, trusting smile to everybody he met. He was a true innocent.

In his time that was a heavy carge to carry too.  When he was six years old he was sent to a special school in Dublin for the different kind of education required for such children. He was there for a whole year.

When he returned home he was still smiling as widely as ever and he had one special skill, unusual, feminine even, which marked him out for the rest of his life in the parish.

From somewhere in the special school in Dublin, somehow, he had learned how to make incredibly beautiful rag dolls. Nobody at the school ever explained to the home family how he had developed the art; it had just happened.  Jimjoejoe grew up to be a tall, gangling smiling lad, a farm laborer for local farmers just like his father, always smiling and happy, always "innocent" and trusting in his ways, always happy to work a hard day for whatever small wage was on offer later.

And in the evenings at home in the cottage with his parents, night after night, he created the clan of rag dolls for which he became locally famous over the years.

They were special. They were real works of art of their kind.

I've seen and handled two or three of them. They were really beautiful and are still treasured by local families.

They are pale-faced, smiling golliwogs of the brightest of colors, stuffed with straw, exquisitely stitched together, crafted from whatever materials were to hand in Jimjoejoe's home from the 1950s of the last century onwards.

He always gave them as presents to the children of the parish, especially on their birthdays and for their First Communions. They are treasured today in those homes, often passed on down the generations.

It is the wide smiles that are stitched in yellow cotton on to all the faces of the rag dolls that, in my view at least, makes them so special. The smiles are replicas of the wide, pure, trusting smile which their maker has carried through the parish all his life.  

I jump through the decades. He eventually was living alone in his home, both parents passed away, being overlooked in his life by a cousin who lived next door.

He was well able to run a neat home, looking after himself very competently, but when the cousin became bedridden with age the social services intervened just under two years ago and took Jimjoejoe off to a geriatric nursing home in the town.

I'm told he was still smiling in a dazed kind of way when they took him away in a white ambulance in the middle of a May morning.  He insisted on locking the front door when he was leaving and putting the brass key under the mat. That's what I was told.

I passed his house the other day. He has been gone from it for nearly two years. 

It has that look of a home which is not being lived in on a daily basis, but it is not yet beginning to show any signs of rundown or deterioration. It is a cottage with a slated roof and a small porch to the front.

Two of the last rag dolls that Jimjoejoe created during his last days at home are still sitting on the sills inside the porch. You can see them clearly from the road. They have those wide, golden smiles on their faces.

It is compelling to think of them as children of a kind waiting for the man of the house to come home.

And of course Jimjoejoe, though still alive in the nursing home, never will.

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