Jimmy Donnelly: Life's journey safely over for kind-hearted railway man
JIMMY Donnelly was a kind, charitable man whose life's journey tracked the north's railways.
Born in 1930 on a small farm near the village of Pomeroy in Co Tyrone, he was the youngest of two brothers and one sister.
Tragedy was to strike the family when their mother died when the baby was just a few weeks old.
As was country custom, a kindly aunt whose husband was a signalman on the railway took the infant into her care and brought him into their home at Pomeroy station.
It was here Jimmy spent his early years, attending the local primary school but at the same time receiving an informal education about the railway at Ireland's highest station.
On his tenth birthday Jimmy returned to his birthplace to help out on the farm, which due to the war effort was very busy.
However, it was no surprise that the seed sown in the railway house came to fruit when Jimmy applied to join the Great Northern Railway and began his career as an engine cleaner at Portadown locomotive depot in 1947.
He often recalled his first night in his lodgings near the busy goods station, unable to sleep with the clashes of the buffers as wagons were shunted, homesick away from his family and excited about his new job.
His job, which involved clearing hot ash from the engine, cleaning the footplate and generally getting the locomotive ready before the arrival of the fireman and driver, was tough work for a young lad not 17. Yet it was a decision he never regretted.
Eventually Jimmy graduated to the post of fireman and he often recalled that the proudest moment in his career was on his first run on a goods train to Omagh, when they stopped at Pomeroy to take on water and he looked down the platform, thinking of all the times he stood there as a child dreaming of that day.
After being transferred on promotion to Enniskillen and Omagh for a period, Jimmy returned to Portadown where in 1953 at St Patrick's Church he married Sally, who was to be his faithful companion for life.
He now had a new priority, the rearing of a family of four girls and one boy.
This wasn't easy as his job involved being away from home at night and returning home to Portadown tired from shovelling coal, black with dust and often wet from inclement weather.
However, it was a privilege to hear he and fellow fireman Peter McCann recall their enjoyable experiences of firing a heavy goods through the orchards of Annaghmore, the climb from Trew and Moy to the tunnel at Dungannon, the steep gradient to Pomeroy, the beautiful scenery by Newtownstewart and finally the path along the Foyle into Derry city.
Following the closure of the Portadown to Derry line in 1965 Jimmy transferred to Northern Ireland Railways where he achieved the grade of both steam and diesel driver.
He became known over all routes and was a favourite with his learner drivers.
Long after retirement he made a point of attending Charles Friel's Railway Preservation Society winter meetings in Belfast, where he would have a chat with former colleagues.
Jimmy had many pastimes including bowling and ballroom dancing and although a supporter of Portadown Tír na nÓg GAA club, he remained a firm admirer of the Pomeroy and Tyrone teams.
He enjoyed travelling by car, train or boat but air travel was out of the question. Donegal was his favourite destination.
Above all he was a family man, speaking proudly of his children and never leaving the house without a kind word to his wife Sally.
He would often be seen riding his bicycle to 10am Mass in town on his days off and daily after he retired.
When driving the Belfast to Dublin Enterprise, Jimmy would say on reaching Dublin, "Thank God for a safe journey!"
A true Christian in every way, Jimmy Donnelly took his last breath before being welcomed home by God on March 14. His journey is now safely over.
He is survived by his wife Sally and children Marian, Jim, Anne, Brenda and Jacqueline.