Rosie was the Hutchinson family's housekeeper for decades... now the boy she helped care for has restored her old cottage in her memory
Creighton Hutchinson (72) and his wife Pearl took on the project after successful surgery to treat his condition. Pearl tells Una Brankin how she hopes to write a book about the restoration
As a mischievous child in the 1950s, Creighton Hutchinson would be banished to the kitchen for being naughty, particularly when the local minister called. The expulsion was no punishment for the boy, however. He liked nothing better than to join Rosie, the housekeeper, in the servants' quarters or in her tiny cottage on the family's Kilrea farmland in Co Londonderry.
He never forgot the afternoons he spent in front of her turf fire, playing with the marbles, balls of twine and oddments he'd pull out of her cupboards. So when his wife Pearl suggested restoring the cottage more than 30 years after Rosie's death, he immediately warmed to the idea.
But there was a problem. Creighton, owner of the successful Hutchinson Engineering company, had always enjoyed good health. At 50, however, he began to feel unwell.
"He went for all sorts of tests for two years, but the doctors could never find anything," Pearl recalls.
"They told him it was all in his head, but he knew something wasn't right. It was Dr Michael Watt at the Ulster Clinic who eventually diagnosed him after a big investigation."
That day, back in 2002, Pearl had decided to wait in the car while Creighton, then 52, went in to see Dr Watt (the consultant neurologist who was suspended last year after a report by the Royal College of Physicians raised concerns about his practice).
"I'll never forget Creighton coming out and saying: 'I've got Parkinson's'," says Pearl. "Oh my word, it was a shock. Creighton's mother had it, but it's not supposed to be hereditary. He asked Dr Watt how long he'd got. He was very nice and said he'd likely live to 70.
"I didn't know whether I was coming or going, but driving down the road Creighton said: 'What can we do? We just have to get on with it.' That great spirit carried him through. It hasn't always been easy, but there's no point sitting in the corner crying."
Creighton's condition deteriorated rapidly. Over the next five years, despite a cocktail of varying medications, he developed a severe tremor in an arm and a leg, which began to affect his mood. Always an active man, he feared he would no longer be able to drive.
"That got him down," Pearl remembers. "Then, one Sunday after church, this pair from Australia landed at our door looking for help with finding their ancestors, which is something I'm involved with locally.
"I was trying to cook the dinner, so I said to Creighton to tell them to come back the next day - but he's too polite. He invited them in for a cup of tea and told them he had Parkinson's; he told everybody, he never tried to hide it.
"Well, it so happened these Australians knew someone with Parkinson's who'd had surgery for it back home.
"They got him to email us. I remember he wrote: 'The operation changed my life'. Right away, that gave us hope."
The operation in question involved deep brain stimulation (DBS), now the main type of surgery used to treat Parkinson's symptoms. Although it is not a cure for the condition, it can help to control the involuntary movement associated with Parkinson's in some but not all patients (fans of the drama Ray Donovan recently saw the miraculous effects of DBS on the character Terry Donovan, who has the condition).
But the Hutchinsons met a brick wall two decades ago when they enquired about DPS surgery here.
"Our own doctor knew nothing about it, so he sent us to a neurologist in Belfast, who knew nothing either, but he did know of a specialist, Professor Steven Gill in Bristol," says Pearl.
"So, we went to see him and he did lots of tests to see if Creighton was suitable for DBS; not everyone is. Luckily, he said Creighton was the perfect candidate for surgery and told us to go home and get the money for it. That was in 2007 and the cost was £27,000. The National Health Service paid it. They still do send people to England for the surgery if they're suitable, because it is not available here."
Pearl and Creighton's daughter and their two sons accompanied them to Bristol for the six-hour operation.
"The thought of what was involved in the brain surgery was quite traumatic for us but it didn't take a feather out of Creighton," Pearl laughs. "Professor Gill was able to put him asleep for it (some patients have to stay awake) before he drilled into his head.
"The night before he was wired up to this helmet thing, made by Harland and Wolff incidentally. Oh dear, it was quite a sight. The next day we drove round the countryside for those six hours and when we came back they said he'd done great.
"The next morning he was up buying a paper for the fellas on the ward. The shaking was gone."
DPS surgery implants a device that sends electrical signals to the brain areas responsible for body movement, preventing tremor. It can also help reduce the symptoms of slowness, stiffness, and walking problems cause by Parkinson's and other conditions such as dystonia.
"Creighton has a remote control for this box under his skin that he clicks," Pearl explains. "If he turns it off, his hands shake like mad again. Not long after the surgery he took an infection and they had to take out the whole thing for six months.
"The shaking came back, but we knew it was temporary. They put it back in the other side of his brain, the right side, and he hasn't been bothered by the shakes since. The disease continues, though. He still has to take medication, but not as much, and he has problems with his eyes at the minute.
"But, as the doctors say, you can live with Parkinson's. It'll be something else that'll kill you."
Now 72, Creighton is still driving and enjoying the occasional candlelit story-telling gathering in his beloved Rosie's cottage. After his operation he was able to help Pearl in her restoration of the one-bedroom dwelling, which was built into the side of a gravel pit at the end of a short lane on his family's land.
Well sheltered from the elements, it always had foxgloves growing around it and attracted sand martins in the summer.
Rosie McAtamney lived there rent-free for 30 years, having worked for the Hutchinson family since the 1920s, scrubbing floors, lighting fires, baking bread and cooking meals. She was paid five shillings a week, working from 6am in the morning until 6pm in the evening, six days a week.
As Pearl recalls, the Presbyterian Hutchinsons respected Rosie's devout Catholic faith and encouraged her to bring Creighton to the local chapel to see the Nativity scene every Christmas.
"Creighton adored Rosie. We restored the cottage in her memory and it was a good focus for us after his surgery," says Pearl. "We fixed up the tree growing at the gable end and the masonry around the big high fireplace. There are only two rooms and it had five people living in it at one stage.
"It's rough and ready. No electricity or toilet, and only an old jawbox with a cold water tap that was installed in the 1950s. We kept Rosie's old table and sideboard, where her gramophone sat, and put in an old leather sofa and a couple of rough chairs.
"Rosie's presence is still around. Her jawbox is still there. The nail behind the door is left where she hung her Sunday coat. The restoration was a labour of love on Creighton's part. He loves nothing better than to sit by the hearth fire recalling stories of her life."
The project not only helped Creighton in coping with Parkinson's, it also gave Pearl, a local historian and keen writer, an idea for a book. She hopes to start writing Rosie's Cottage soon, in between her storytelling gatherings and the new writing group she has set up at Kilrea Library.
"It will be the story of our journey in coping with the disease and a tribute to Rosie," Pearl concludes. "She was a very plain spoken granny-figure to Creighton and he adored her. He loved to play with her clay pipe and pretended to smoke it.
"Once, he went on and on so much about having a smoke that Rosie filled the pipe with turf coom and lit it for him. He immediately choked, coughing and spluttering. It put him off smoking for life.
"And he loved it when Rosie would say to her daughter: 'Give the wain a piece'. He'd lick the jam off the bread. He was never allowed to do that at home. I could write a whole other book about Rosie - she was also what was called a 'handywoman' (an unofficial midwife), who delivered hundreds of babies locally. But this one will be about Creighton's Parkinson's, too, and all the proceeds will go to the Parkinson's UK charity.
"We're very keen to fundraise to help Creighton's neurologist, Dr John McKinley in Belfast, to get DBS surgery going in Northern Ireland and a team set up here. Rosie would have approved of that."
Pearl Hutchinson's writing group, led by Portrush storyteller Kate Murphy, meets in Kilrea Library, 26 The Diamond, Kilrea, on the third Thursday of every month, at 2pm. Next session: Thursday, February 23. For more information, tel: 028 2954 0630