Lives Remembered

James Savage: Footballer, farmer, councillor and man of the people

REPRESENTING the people was a special source of joy for James Savage.

An SDLP councillor for the Fews area of south Armagh for 20 years, he was a truly original personality with a distinctive approach to politics and life.

For him there was no greater uplift than having responsibility for the welfare of the community and he never lost the glow of satisfaction from carrying that out.

Born in 1932 in the townland of Outlacken, between Belleeks and Newtownhamilton, James was one of a family of seven to Hugh and Annie Savage.

His mother died when he was five and he was reared by his father on the family farm.

The undoubted hardships of those years shaped his approach to life and his philosophy of representation could be summed up in one phrase - the betterment of the people on the ground.

His long lifetime spanned vast changes: from the horse and plough to broadband, from the age of the scythe to the age of the silage, from the spring well and tilly lamp to mains water and electricity, and from life-long emigration to the jet age.

So rooted was he in the land and its people that there was always the sense that he looked after them partly in the name and memory of their forbearers who long before had wrought in the same fields and trod the same roads.

There was quiet poetic power in his thoughts and deeds - he saw the people in their total belonging, full of the past and full of the present, and out of his own experience he would be part of that betterment.

Before he went into formal politics his natural self-confidence led him to involvement in various organisations including Newtownhamilton Credit Union, the Loughgilly parish committee, as a civil rights activist and a founder of Belleeks GFC.

As a younger man James had followed the dancing scene enthusiastically and enjoyed the ceili bands, playing cards, joining in the storytelling sessions and above all playing Gaelic football.

In his time he togged out for Newtown, Clady, Drumheriff and Belleeks.

‘Big Jemmy’ mostly played in midfield and central positions where his size, strength and fielding ability saw him a match for any opponent.

When he hung up the boots he took up refereeing for several years.

Whether as a player or selector he was totally involved and when Belleeks were re-established in 1983 his three sons, Séamus, Hugh and Brian, lined out for the club.

Angela, his eldest daughter, also played with the Belleek camogie team, while Nan was a corner-back in a Derrynoose/St Michaels Newtown ladies football amalgamation.

Few matched James's intensity as an Armagh supporter, all through the good and bad times, and his exhilaration at the All-Ireland success of 2002 moved from bouts of pure speechlessness to outpourings of gratitude that he had lived to see the day.

He never missed an All-Ireland between 1951 and 1999 and followed Crossmaglen Rangers enthusiastically through all their great years.

In 1966 James married Kathleen Slevin from Keady and he built one of the first modern bungalows in the district to set up family life in his native Outlacken Road.

He was enticed to run for election for the SDLP in 1977 and every Monday evening after finishing off the milking, he would change into a suit, collar and tie and drive off to Newry to the meeting.

His speeches employed the art of storytelling and were always full of old country sayings and parables as he highlighted the importance of whatever cause or case he was espousing.

James served as chairman of Newry and Mourne Council in 1993-94, a year which saw him walk the St Patrick's Day route in New York and welcome President Mary Robinson to Newry.

But his most satisfying achievement was negotiating a council grant for the development of the new Lissummon GAA grounds. That was his bread and butter.

All things agricultural interested him. He used his years as councillor to attend conferences on farming matters in Ireland and abroad, and delighted in bringing back information on various grants and developments. He also served on the water and drainage board.

For two decades, ever supported by his wife Kathleen and family, James brought his unique approach to local government.

He was always himself, positive, self assured and approachable, ever willing to have a go, delighting in the achievements of families and communities.

Year after year throughout his public life he was the embodiment of the struggles of the people and the hopes of the people.

James Savage died aged 88 on March 12. Predeceased by his wife Kathleen, he is survived by his children Angela, Séamus, Hugh, Brian and Nan, grandchildren Caitlin, James Pius and Peter, brother Pat and sister-in-law Nan McCone.

Peter Makem

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Lives Remembered