I’ll miss my navvy friend


February 7, 2018 – January and December are notorious months for people dying. Yes, they still die in Dumbarton and elsewhere and I much prefer that death is given its rightful place and not substituted with “passing” or “passing away”.

I know my good friend Tom Monaghan, a salt of the earth Son of the Rock, did too. If ever there was anyone who called a spade for what it was, it was Tom, who has died aged 73. His final committal took place in an English crematorium on January 15.

Tom was the son of Joe Monaghan and Lizzie Weir, a devoted couple with a large family who lived a long and interesting life. They lived initially in a council flat in Castlehill, a housing estate on the road to Helensburgh, the Highlands and Loch Lomondside, before moving to Balloch, near the Bonnie Banks themselves.

Joe was ever the handyman. Indeed, he was much more than that, a highly skilled, innovative tradesman who, given a few pieces of wood, could make you anything from a dog kennel to a garden hut to a sailing dinghy.

His day job was as a digger driver on one of the biggest civil engineering projects ever carried out in the UK.

Joe was in the “Green Howards”. He was a digger driver and worked on building the Clyde Naval Base at Faslane and the cavernous concrete bunkers that house the nuclear missiles, high in the hills high above Glen Douglas and Loch Long.

This was greatly to the benefit of Tom, whom Joe recruited as his banksman (the guy who shovels the overspill from the bucket back into place) – and his pals.

Tom wasn’t the only one to benefit. We all got summer work during the school and university holidays. It was hard work, digging trenches and manhandling pneumatic drills.

The navvies – or muck savages, as I have heard them referred to – who had been doing this work for years called their drillers jack hammers.

But the work, God bless it, meant we got wages, a wad of money to spend at the weekend. We were all glad that we all knew Tommy Monaghan and his father Joe, the man with the Irish brogue.

Joe was sometimes a forbidding character to us youngsters.

He knew how to scowl, but once we got used to it. His Bellaghy bark was worse than his bite and we all got on well with him.

Bellaghy is a small town in Northern Ireland, the home place of the Nobel prize-winning poet Seamus Heaney, not far from my own family’s home village of Ahoghill in County Antrim.

Joe and Lizzie Monaghan were married for more than 50 years. I was at their golden wedding celebrations in Balloch with my wife Bernie in the company of Lord and Lady McFall, the MP who had been Tom’s classmate at school.

Everyone had an enjoyable night in St Kessog’s church hall where there was much eating, dancing and drinking. It was a great celebration for a wonderful couple.

His parents were proud of Tom. He was a bright student, whose favourite teacher was Matt Bryson, the English teacher at St Patrick’s High School.

Unlike so many of us, Tom did not play football. Nor was he particularly interested in it. While we talked about Stanley Matthews and Manchester United – and Celtic, of course – Tom’s main source of pleasure was the music of the Everly Brothers, Don and Phil.

He knew every song and bought every record. While his old man was at the Deli counter of Lewis’s department store in Glasgow’s Argyll Street buying exotic cold meats and other treats and delicacies we in Dumbarton had never heard of, Tom was in the record department squandering his hard-earned wages on LPs by the Everly Brothers.

These were great times for us. Mr and Mrs Monaghan had no trouble allowing us into Tom’s room to play records and enjoy ourselves.

His best pal was his neighbour Tommy Moy, who would bring his guitar along and we had music and singing sessions.

At weekends we went out to the dancing, Arcari’s in Balloch on Friday and Saturday nights and the church hall at St Michael’s on a Sunday.

Our mission was to look for a “lumber”, a good-looking girl to take home and young Thomas Monaghan with his good looks, blond locks and interesting patter pulled the birds on a regular basis.

Then I drifted off from school to be a copy boy on the Scottish Daily Express and Tom showed us all up by passing all his exams and winning a place at Strathclyde University.

But it wasn’t to follow a course in English and Shakespeare, which he loved, in Matt Bryson’s class.

Tom was adept at Maths and he followed a course in civil engineering. We remained good friends. The Express office was just around the corner from the University, and I would go there from time to time for the subsidised student lunches – and the odd beer. Too many beers meant we were legends in our own lunchtime.

We kept up our friendship through the university years and continued to go dancing and drinking and attending football matches until Tom graduated and landed a plum job with FJC Lilley, the civil engineering contractors.

I became a Daily Express reporter and Tom became a rising star in the civil engineering world, working on projects from Aberdeen to Africa, where his great strength was that he had excellent communication skills and he could share his own experiences of hard work and cold wet days with the labourers on the building sites. He was a loyal Lilley’s man and stayed with them throughout his whole career.

He must have had a job in and around Manchester at one time and Tom and his pal Andy Mallon came home to Dumbarton during the holidays with two exotic English girls on their arms.

One of them was an attractive strawberry blonde named Sandra, who happily became his wife. They settled into a long and happy marriage and brought up their own family, Gill and Tom, on whom Tom doted.

Sadly, young Tom Rasburn, his grandson, was killed in a car accident last year and Tom and Sandra were stunned and heart-broken by that.

It says much about Tom’s courage and resilience that while he himself was suffering from the cancer that was eventually to end his life he got through that loss with Sandra and Gill ever by his side.

And also, with the tremendous support and encouragement of his brother, Gerry, who was a rock at this time, supporting him and visiting him frequently from Scotland.

Tom and Gerry – now don’t laugh because they sound like those cartoon characters – were a double act that was hard to follow, especially when they went back to Bellaghy.

They had some great times with their cousins and friends in the pubs there. And Tom and Gerry had some great stories to tell about that.

We could go on here about other times that were remarkable, such as the stag party of one of Tom’s closest friends, Steve Murray, who became captain of Aberdeen, Dundee and Celtic football clubs.

There were high jinks, fun and games that night and they were talked about whenever Tom came up to Scotland and we met for a pint or a cup of tea.

What happened at that casino in Edinburgh stayed in Edinburgh.

Tom’s workmates and boyhood pals in Scotland were sad to hear of his death, but pleased to see him relieved of the pain and suffering his serious illnesses brought him and which he bore with great patience.

Tom Monaghan was a good, kind-hearted man and a top professional in the world of civil engineering. He will be sadly missed by us all.

Gill Monaghan Rasburn, Tom’s daughter sent a note which said: “My dad’s service went really well today, people came from far, wide and near. We are so happy you spent the day with us and many memories and tears were shed and lots of smiles too. It was a beautiful service for a wonderful man.”

It wasn’t intended as a tribute to Tom, who had worked on some of the biggest civil engineering projects from Shetland to West Africa, but that night there was an hour-long programme featuring the Everly Brothers on BBC4.

There was just the suggestion of a tear in my eye when Don and Phil sang “I’ll do my Crying in the Rain”.





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