JUNE 2, 1962 was a warm summer day at the Coton Parish Church in Nuneaton, Warwickshire. It was there and then that John and Marlene Phipps were married, and 60 years on they will celebrate the occasion in Ballinruan, which has been their home since 1995.
The couple first met on a quiet Sunday in 1959, when Marlene was just about to turn 16.
Not much older himself, John was already working on the railways, and was whiling the afternoon away at a social club for its employees.
“On a Sunday there’d be a bit of a dance in one room and there were three rooms there. Marl’s friend, her father was a guard on the railway. They were fed up on a Sunday afternoon and her friend said I know where we’ll go.”
Marlene says Sundays were for church and little else and her father wouldn’t have been a bit impressed if he’d known where she was off to.
“My father didn’t know did he? I wasn’t allowed go to the pictures or anything on a Sunday. It was just church and you could go for a walk.”
John remembers getting a tip off about the two girls arriving.
“When she was in the other room, I was playing snooker and a friend came flying in. He said ‘you lot are slipping up, have you seen them two birds’ as we would have said then, in the other room. We dropped the cues and went running in. My mate said I’ll have the blonde, which was this one (Marlene) and I thought no way and I got in first!” he laughs.
Marlene describes that first meeting as “a one in a million chance” which led to her marriage just a few years later, while they now have two sons, one in Chile and one in the UK, along with nine granchildren.
Marlene’s father was very protective of a young daughter, and John remembers him complaining when he dropped her home a few weeks later, but that situation improved. “Everything worked out wonderful, and my Dad loved John to bits.”
John had been adopted as a child, and was always aware of it. While it wasn’t something that caused him much thought in his youth, he eventually did start to wonder.
“The people who adopted me didn’t have any children and they always told me I was adopted. That never bothered me for a long, long time, but you find yourself thinking, why?”
He started working his way through telephone books to try and make contact.
“I was told where I came from in Hertfordshire, but I had no birth certificate. I had an adoption certificate but the only name on it was my mother’s and there were three surnames, which doesn’t help!”
However persistence paid off and he eventually got in touch with a half brother, who he still maintains contact with.
Describing who he was after, a woman that answered the phone said, “She sounds like my mother-in-law.”
“Her husband came on and I said who I was looking for and he said ‘oh, you’re my brother.’”
At different times he did manage to meet both his biological mother and father, while he also once met another now-deceased brother, but he says there were a lot of aspects of his past that he never resolved.
“I have lots of family stuff I still haven’t got to the bottom of. During the War I was just abandoned virtually. I don’t know what the connection with the family that adopted me was.”
The people who reared John were very poor and Marlene says that while he had a tough early life, she feels it has moulded him into a man who is very generous of spirit.
“He never had a birthday party, never had a present for a birthday or Christmas. He had a book given to him by a neighbour and he still has it now. He had a troubled childhood really, but I think it’s made you a better person. He’s such a nice person, he’d help anybody, as the locals around here will tell you, he’d do anything for anyone.”
After getting married they lived for a time on one of the farms owned by Marlene’s father, while John would go on to spend a couple of years working in Jordan, after which they bought their own house.
While they lived in a nice area, they both say they were fed up with the ‘Keeping Up With the Jones’s’ aspect of life there, and 27 years ago they came to Ballinruan, having enjoyed previous visits to Ireland.
They tried to buy a property in Bodyke, but it didn’t come to pass, before they came across the house that became their home in Ballinruan.
They actually camped in a field just up from it before bidding upon it, and John remembers it was in very poor condition.
“It was up for sale by Green Valley Property. There was no water, no phone, no electricity.”
Marlene says it could be hard to get what was needed at the time. “You’d want to order something and they’d ask for your phone number, you’d say you haven’t got a phone and then they’d think you have no money!”
However they persisted, and created a fine home in a supremely peaceful area, with outstanding views. “If you ever stand at the wall you can see Ennis, Crusheen, Galway Bay. We bought the view really,” Marlene says.
The newly arrived couple quickly immersed themselves in the community, and they ended up running the popular local Card Game for many years.
“We always played cards at home, but not the Irish games, and John went one evening to see what this card game was like. Then he started to go every week. Then I started, I had the top four cards written on my hand!” Marlene remembers.
While she was from a Church of England background herself, that was no barrier to Marlene running the local Apostolic Work group also.
The type of man who can turn his hand to anything, John has worked on local churches and community centres, while he has made himself available to many people who needed a hand at different times.
“I don’t mind doing any job and I’ll help anyone out. I’ve always said to this one that in life a little bit of help is worth a mountain of pity,” he observes.
They settled easily and having made their lives there, what is it that they like about life in Ballinruan? “The friendliness of people. We were accepted straight away,” says Marlene.
“It’s away from the rat race. When you’re drawn into a new car every year, new this, new that, better holiday than someone else, at the end of the day it doesn’t work. We just wanted to come back to a simpler way,” John adds.
Having been married for 60 years, the couple surely know a thing or two about what makes a relationship work.
“I think friendship comes first,you’ve got to be good friends. We do everything together, we always have done. You’ve not been one that goes down the pub do you? When we first married he used to go out on a Friday night, but that was all,” says Marlene.
While John initially jokes that the key to happiness is to keep agreeing with the wife, but in actual fact he feels that give and take is what’s needed.
“Life’s too short to be falling out. We’d have a disagreement, we don’t always agree on things, she’s a totally independent person, I can’t mould her to what I think and it’s the same for her with me. You have to have a little bit of give and take.”
At times the affection between the long standing couple is quite apparent in conversation. “John won’t say it, but he had such a hard life compared to me when he was young, but it’s made him turn out to be a nicer person,” says Marlene.
“It’s not been bad going, has it girl? We’ve been some interesting places and seen some very interesting things,” says her husband.
Owen Ryan has been a journalist with the Clare Champion since 2007, having previously worked for a number of other regional titles in Limerick, Galway and Cork.