Saturday, 19 January 2013

RIP Auntie Sheila

A week ago my father's sister, my aunt Sheila, passed away in Belfast after a seven year battle with cancer. The funeral was on Thursday, but as often the case at such events, you never really get a chance to say how much someone means to you. So I want you all to know about my Aunt Sheila!

Sheila & my father in Eden
Sheila Elizabeth Cobby, nee Paton, was born in Belfast on Valentine's Day in 1943, in the middle of the Second World War. Her father Charlie and mum Jean had been residing in the city's Whitewell area, where two years before their house had been damaged during the Belfast Blitz. Her father, a wireless shop manager, was born in Belgium to two Scots, and spent the First World War in Brussels as a small child during the occupation by the Germans. Her mother, a Glaswegian, was descended from family of an Irish protestant background in Derry, and had only moved to Belfast in the late 1930s. Sheila was the third of four children, with two older brothers Robert and Charlie, and a younger brother Colin, born just after the war.

When her parents separated in the mid 1950s, Sheila and her mum briefly returned to Scotland. They made their way north to Auchterarder in Perthshire, where Sheila's mother (my grandmother) had already obtained work as a domestic servant at the huge Gleneagles Hotel, her job being to supervise the laundry in the hotel etc. Sheila had to stay in the village with a lady called Mrs. King and her son, Charles, and was enrolled into a local school in the town, having to wear a uniform of maroon and grey.

In Carrick
(I once asked Sheila what events made her proud in her life. There were the obvious - her marriage, her daughter, and so on - but she also told me that when she was young in Auchterarder she was always forced to sneak into the back door of Gleneagles Hotel, and up a small stone, spiral staircase to secretly meet up with her mother whenever she could. She was never allowed in through the front door. Years later, she took much pride, when, having won a prestigious golf tournament in Belfast, for which the first prize was a weekend at the Gleneagles Hotel, she could actually walk through the front door of the place as a guest, without any objection from the staff.)

Sheila and her mum returned to Northern Ireland not long after, and when her mum regained custody of the three boys, they all moved to Carrickfergus, further north along the shore of Belfast Lough. They initially stayed in the village of Eden, but not long after relocated to Joymount in the town itself, residing at Robinson's Row. In the late 1950s, Sheila developed polio, and it was believed that she would never walk again in her lifetime. She was treated at Purdysburn Hospital in Belfast, and at one point, when it was believed that the virus had reached her brain, things did not look good for her. She once told me that she remembered the nurses saying that they might have to call her father in to see her for a last time, but fortunately her condition improved and she was discharged from the hospital with a pair of calipers to help her when walking. She overcame her polio with sheer grit and determination.

As a teenager, Sheila worked for Betty Wilson in Dobbins Inn Hotel in Carrickfergus. With the money she earned from here, Sheila was the first to buy a Mini car in the town in the 1960s. She later worked at Dunmore race course.

Wedding - with her father, Colin & Charlie
Sheila later married Allen Cobby, a merchant seaman, in Hull. She gave birth to her daughter when living at Carnmoney, County Antrim, at a place she had bought prior to meeting Allen. About six years later, the family moved to Waterloo Park North just off the Belfast Road in the city's Fortwilliam area. Many years later she also became a grandmother to Australian born Lauren. Sheila worked as a saleswoman all over Ireland, and eventually retired in April 2003. As already mentioned, she loved her golf, and was one of Northern Ireland's top amateur golfers. In the 1980s, she was lady captain of both Carrickfergus Golf Club and Fortwilliam Golf Club in Belfast, and was a member of the Irish Ladies Golf Union.

Sheila had no time for the sectarian nonsense still happening in Ireland - politically she was a member of the Alliance party, with as many Catholic friends as Protestant. When I married my Irish Catholic wife Claire in Kilkenny in 2000, Sheila was the only member of my extended family to bother coming to the service from Northern Ireland - and in Kilkenny today my wife's brothers still toast "Auntie Sheila", she made quite an impact! Nobody told Sheila where the boundaries were, she was capable of making her own mind up in such matters. In that regard she was a true hero, and there are not enough like her.

Overall, if there is one word that describes Sheila's approach to life it was a 'grafter' - she worked hard to get where she got to, overcoming extraordinary odds and challenges.

Sheila at my wedding in June 2000
When I was baptised on the submarine HMS Churchill in January 1971, Sheila was there as my godmother.  When my parents split up in the late 1970s, and my brother and I returned to Northern Ireland with my father, it was Sheila who came and picked us up from the ferry. As lady captain in Carrickfergus Golf Club, it was my aunt Sheila who first introduced me to scampi in a basket! When I gained a place at university in Bristol in 1991, for various reasons I was unable to get funding for my first year. I took a job in Belfast as a security guard to save up to pay my fees, and Sheila put me up in her house for the summer. When I worked a 12 hour shift, and sometimes 24, I would return to her house to find something in a pot on the stove and the electric blanket in the bedroom I was staying in always switched on. When my first son Calum was born, it was she who bought him his first soft toy, a wee blue rabbit called "Floppity"!

I can hear her now - "Now Christopher, let me tell you, have you nothing better to be doing with your time than writing all this nonsense?"

RIP Auntie Sheila, you will be much missed...

And make way Big Yin, there's a Paton coming - and she'll be making sure your handicap gets better on the big celestial golf course in the sky!

Carrick Golf Club Ladies annual dinner, abt 1981
After my christening in Helensburgh
Ladies Captain's Day at Carrickfergus Golf Club, 1981
On a winning streak!


  1. What a lovely tribute - really beautiful. Thanks for sharing with the rest of us.

  2. A beautiful tribute to a remarkable lady. May she rest in peace.

  3. What a very special lady, Chris. She sounds like she was a very positive influence in life - someone to both respect and love. We need more like that, eh? Thanks for sharing your remembrances of her story.

  4. Thanks for haring Sheila's story with us.