The lady piper of Carnlough 1897-1953

by Karen Edwards
Audio version recorded by Karen Edwards

            The village of Carnlough is just one of the small villages which grew and attracted small businesses, following the opening of the Antrim Coast Road. The Nicholl family business, a shop with one half hardware, one half grocery with an undertakers’ at the back, was inherited by Netta Jane Nicholl Johnston. In recent years it housed Killough’s pharmacy and is now a commercial gym.

Credit to Rev. Violet Johnston

            Known locally as “Miss Johnston”, and as Jane or Netta only to her close friends, she was a tall, slim and outwardly frail lady, belying her underlying strength of character. Refined, cultured and dignified, Netta Johnston was however deemed as somewhat eccentric. She was well-known as a “night-owl”, often seen walking around Carnlough in the wee small hours. No fear of attack for Netta, who would produce a long sword, which she kept razor-blade sharp, from the cane with a flourish and dare anyone to take her on.  She was also proficient in judo and kept a loaded shotgun beneath her bed.

            Netta loved music. She played and taught classical violin, but was also competent on the piano, lute and pipe organ. In fact, for years she was organist at St Mary’s CoI Ardclinis, of which she was a member, only ceasing after she fell out with the Minister who had banned her from practising at 3 or 4am in the morning! However this did not faze Netta, who believed that the established church was one of the main causes of division in society.

            Netta Johnston had a strong sense of community. She was heavily involved in staging the first ever Feis in the Glens of Antrim in 1904 and actively involved on the committee until the 1930s. A practical example of Netta’s community spirit was the formation in Carnlough of a non-sectarian Flute Band which never marched on either St Patrick’s Day or the 12th of July.

            One of Netta’s most notable achievements was that she was accomplished on the uilllean pipes, and a pupil of the famed R L O’Mealy. Her pipes still reside at the Ulster Museum and were displayed at a celebration of the life of Netta Johnston in 2019 in the Carnlough Heritage Centre.

            Typically, Netta caused controversy right to the end. Since she had a funeral business, she was very particular about her own funeral arrangements. In her attic she had a special coffin constructed with a glass lid. On occasion she would invite friends to the attic for a viewing and would lie in the coffin with her arms folded. It was her last wish that her coffin should be carried in an upright position around the village so everyone could see her, with the procession led by an uillean piper playing “Let Erin Remember” and finished by the band she formed, playing “Will ye no come back again”. In the event her funeral was a conventional one, no doubt due to the many differences she had with the local rector.

            Karen Edwards