Turtle Bunbury

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Johnny Golden

Johnny Golden on his Honda 70. This
kindly soul died under the most awful
and tragic circumstances
in September 2010.
(Photo: James Fennell).

Vanishing Ireland
Mechanic & Sexton
Doogarry, Co Cavan

Johnny Golden was violently and viciously attacked at his home in Doogarry on 7th September 2010. He went into a coma from which he never rallied, dying four weeks later. A thorough investigation got underway immediately. It became a murder investigation after Johnny slipped away on 7th October. Johnny was buried in Killegar Church, where he had once been sexton, on Sunday 7th November. A cortege of 33 vintage tractors escorted the coffin from Taffe's Cross, past his house at Doogarry, where it paused momentarily, and on to the church. The coffin itself was drawn by Johnny's old grey Ferguson as a mark of respect for his work as a mechanic repairing and renovating vintage vehicles. Tractors from more than twenty vintage clubs formed a guard of honour, the wee church was packed out and a huge crowd formed outside. As one of his long-time friends remarked, "For someone with no next of kin and such humble beginnings ... he had the funeral of a prince." The service was admirably conducted by the local rector Alison Calvin and Dean Raymond Ferguson. I read a eulogy for Johnny which was based on the following story, written after our meeting in Killegar House in February 2009.

For the Anglo-Celt's review of his funeral, click here.


Johnny Golden never met his parents. He wasn't even sure who they were. ‘But I know I was born in 1937’, he said, with a refreshing smile. By the time consciousness dawned upon him, he was one of seventy young boys at the Sunbeam Home outside Bray, Co Wicklow. The Sunbeam was founded in 1874 by Lucinda Sullivan, one of those perpetually effective Victorian women who devoted their lives to improving the state of hospitals across Britain and Ireland. Entirely dependent upon voluntary support, its original purpose was to provide shelter for poor and homeless crippled children, whenever there were beds available. Many of its earliest inmates suffered from bone and joint disease, brought about by the consumption of ‘tubercular milk of bovine origin’. It was still known as ‘The Home for Crippled Children’, or ‘The Cripple’s Home’, until 1930 when it changed its name to the emphatically more optimistic Sunbeam Home. In Johnny’s day, the orphanage was supported by private donations, art sales, flower shows, musical concerts and the collection from St Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin, during the annual Boy Scouts and Girl Guides Service.[i] Indeed, the Sunbeam had its own branch of Scouts and one of Johnny’s proudest memories was the summer of 1943 when 1,000 Scouts from all over Ireland paraded in Lansdowne Road and Lord Somers presented the Sunbeam boys of Co Wicklow with a trophy.[ii]

Johnny spoke fondly of his days at the Sunbeam. Located on the Lower Dargle Road, the orphanage benefitted from its proximity to the Dargle River and the Sugar Loaf. Johnny climbed the quartzite slopes of the latter many times in his boyhood. From the summit, the boys would marvel that the snow-capped peaks of Wales could be so close. ‘Ah, the Sunbeam was a great place’, he said. Johnny was lucky to make it through school alive. ‘I used to walk in my sleep the odd time and I fell down the stairs. The way of it all was, I landed into the Adelaide Hospital but I was alright anyway’. When Göring’s Luftwaafe bombers struck Dublin in May 1941, five-year-old Johnny and the Sunbeam boys watched the explosions from their bedroom window. During the Big Snow of 1947, they sleighed down the slopes of Bray Head on an old pram and made a giant snowman which they kept on building, higher and higher, thicker and thicker, and, swore Johnny, ‘it was still there in June or damned near it’. ‘Ack, I was a just buck of a lad’, says he. ‘I gave myself a cut on the knee making the sleigh and the cut is there yet’.

From the age of 10, he was educated at St Paul’s National School in Bray. Three years later, the teenager said farewell to his Sunbeam colleagues and headed out into the world. The Sunbeam closed in 1960. ‘I was back in Bray a couple of times since’, Johnny recalled, ‘but it’s a totally different place to what I knew’. In late 2007, he met one of his old school mates, by chance, when they both fetched up at the same bar counter in Killeshandra, Co Cavan.

When Johnny left the Sunbeam, he and another boy, Richard Neale, were ‘adopted’ by a Miss Wilson who lived by the waters of Gulladoo, just south of Carrigallen, Co Leitrim. This was the age of the ‘Home Boy’ where orphans like Johnny were sent to work on farms in return for food and bedding. The latter often comprised of the hay-loft. In the morning, Johnny and Richard walked three miles barefoot to the local school in Arva where they ‘learned damn all’. When school was over, they went to work digging potatoes, cutting turf, making hay. There was little or no pay for their work.

When Miss Wilson died in 1963, ‘the year Kennedy was shot’, the Church of Ireland clergyman, Rev. Clements, transferred the boys to school at Corlaspratten, Co Cavan. It was quite a trek from Gulladoo and Johnny regularly ‘landed in school when the roll call was over’. ‘There was a good lot going to that school, forty or more’, said Johnny. ‘They were farmer’s children but a lot of those I knew are dead now’.

The boys continued to live in Miss Wilson’s house until 1970 when they moved to Kilmore, Co. Cavan. Richard Neale went on to become a policeman in Northern Ireland. Meanwhile, Johnny was appointed sexton of the church in Killegar, ringing the bell, mowing between the graves, raking leaves and overseeing the general maintenance. He later moved to Dogarry on the Cavan – Leitrim border where he lived in a pre-fabricated council house for the remainder of his life.

Johnny Golden. It sounds very rock and roll. Johnny liked the name. He says Golden is a common family name in the Sligo-Leitrim area. ‘I was supposed to have relations up this way’, he says. His friends called him 'The Gouldy'.

He spoke with a soft Wicklow accent and smoked his pipe with calm deliberation. He practiced as a mechanic and electrician and was often identifiable by his grease-black overalls. He was not famous for taking baths. When the council provided him with a shower, he used it to clean tractor parts. In 2008, he was taken to hospital for the first time in his life for a routine operation. A nurse explained they would have to wash him. ‘Don’t worry, I’ll only wash as far up as possible ... and I’ll wash as far down as possible’, she told him. ‘And I’ll wash possible’, said Johnny firmly.

On one occasion, he drove down to the Spring Show at the Royal Dublin Society showgrounds in Ballsbridge with Lord Kilbracken, his neighbour from Killegar. Lord Kilbracken suggested they reconvene at the Shelbourne Hotel. Perhaps inevitably, the ever-black Gouldy was accosted by the concierge the moment he came through the revolving doors of the hotel and dispatched back out onto Stephen’s Green. He duly made his way to a phone booth, phoned the hotel and requested a word with his Lordship. Kilbracken rose magnificently to the occasion, exited the hotel and returned with the Goludy by his side while the concierge bit his tongue. At length a waiter arrived and asked them if they would like coffee. Johnny said he would. ‘Black or white?’ asked the waiter. 'Don't you have any other colours in this fine establishment?' replied Johnny.

He was fascinated by machinery and always tinkering with old watches, telephones, toasters and machines of every type. He was a keen photographer, but could no longer find new film for his old Kodak camera.[iii]

He traveled on a bright red Honda 70, maximum speed 50mph. He painted the bike himself and told me it’s a tradition that the Republic of Ireland’s Hondas are red while Northern Ireland’s are blue. He wore slippers on his feet and a hat upon his head but always rode bare-knuckled. On cold days, he wore a heavy woollen overcoat. ‘Divil a dog, that’s a curse of a coat’, he complained. ‘The man who owned it before me is in the ground’. He always wore a helmet and that may have contributed to his blackened face. You see, the Gouldy kept himself warm in the wintertime with the help of a coal stove. When prodded as to how much fuel it used, he pointed at his helmet and said ‘two scoops of that a night’.

When not riding the bike, he was behind the wheel of a grey Ferguson TVO20, built in 1952. As his woderful guard of honour attested, Johnny was a vintage tractor enthusiast and frequently took part in rallies and runs all across the country.

Johnny was also a fine traditional musician and played ‘in the pubs the odd time’. There was a strong musical presence at his funeral and the pubs of several counties lit up late that night. Johnny mastered the piano, the button-key accordion, the tin whistle and ‘the fiddle in any key’. He was also a well-known step-dancer. While we talked, he began plucking on a toy ukulele and before long he was creating such beautiful sweet music that he had every foot in the room tapping. A man in Cavan taught him piano. ‘He’d make you play the same thing ten times. I got so used to it that one time I left the book to one side and started playing by note. I was fed up looking at the books’. He learned the other instruments ‘by ear’, he said. ‘It is a very great gift to be able to play’.

While Gouldy’s dreadful murder in 2010 remains a source of great sorrow to all who knew him, stories from his life and times continue to entertain his friends. One particularly worthy anecdote focuses on a failed attempt by three Catholic missionaries to convert the famously oil-covered Protestant mechanic. ‘They were trying to convert Gouldy?’ chortled a neighbour. ‘To what? Diesel?’

Johnny Golden, you had many gifts. Rest in peace.

With thanks to Sue Kilbracken, Rev. Alison Calvin, Dean Raymond Ferguson, John McCartin, Terry Reilly, Ted Sweeny and all who helped alleviate the grief felt at the passing of Johnny Golden.


[i] Such concerts often took place at the French School in Bray. Gentry families like de Burgh, Fowler and Gresham were key amongst the sponsors. One wonders was Sir Basil Goulding also an interested party.

[ii] Rathvilly was among those places to send a contingent of Wolf Cubs and Scouts to the Lansdowne rally. I presume my grandmother, Pamela Drew, lead them onto the pitch. The Irish Times, Monday June 14th 1943.

[iii] One of his favourite photos is of the Bundoran skyline which, he says, ‘is like the frame is already on it’. Amongst his collection are a number of photographs of Lord Kilbracken’s funeral. The Lord lay in state in the drawing room at Killegar for three days while local carpenters crafted a coffin from a sweet chestnut that had fallen on the estate. The service was presided over by the late Cecil Lindsay with the Catholic priest, Fr. Dennis Murray, also present. Johnny once accompanied the Lord on a trip to Dublin where the porter would not allow him into the Shelbourne without a dicky bow. He also recalls a session in a big hotel on the main street in Cootehill where the Lord brought him to a pub and some Englanders arrived. ‘Then the value started … I don’t know what time we got home’.

His meal of choice was soup and a spud.


Click here to see a full list of persons interviewed for the Vanishing Ireland project.