Saturday, 16 September 2017

Love is enough

Last weekend, the European Heritage Open Days saw me touring the back roads of East Antrim in the Micra. My first objective was Pogue's Entry in Antrim itself. The tiny cottage preserved here was the home of the barefoot child Alex who grew up to be Dr Alexander Irvine, student at Oxford and Yale, marine, minister, missionary and author.

He's most famous here for his novel, "My Lady of the Chimney Corner". Disgracefully, I hadn't read it. I was able to remedy my lack in this online reader - a nice facsimile of an early edition.

The parallels between his family and my own (and so many ordinary families from the North of this era) are enough to make it fascinating. Famine, true love, poverty, faith and education are recurring themes. He presents the dialogue in what feels now a rather patronising attempt at a literal reproduction of an Antrim accent - but it's still a touching story. It has a sense of authenticity, resonant descriptions of ordinary things and the sort of phrases that lodge in the truthful parts of your mind.

The soda bread was fantastic too.

"We live at the bottom of the world where every hope has a headstone."

"How cud a machine make a boot, Anna?"

"There were few whole pieces on the dresser."

"Love is enough, Jamie."

Sunday, 10 September 2017

Following Frances 3: Ballybay


It’s mid-August when I visit Ballybay – just as it was when Frances and William arrived there after their wedding. The sun is bright and the clouds are fluffy, but it’s Sunday quiet and I walk up and down the main street without meeting many other people.

I hadn’t realised before just how nicely preserved Ballybay is. If you look higher than car level and picture the power lines out of the way, it can’t have been very different in 1899. Most of the prettily painted houses look as if they would have been well established by then. Many of the shop fronts are still un-modernised. The charming twists and turns and rises and falls of the road lend a fantastical mood – it’s like an imaginary Irish town from a fairy-tale.

Every now and then, the terraces of shops and houses are broken up with an archway. Many of these provide tantalising views of old outhouses and sheds set in behind, preserved by benign neglect as they were a hundred and twenty years ago. There’s no doubt that Frances’s late Victorian skirts swept up some of those steps.

One of my favourite streets is a steep incline up to the Anglican church. Its grounds offer fine views across the town and to Loch Mor, below. I spend a while walking through the old gravestones. I pick some early blackberries, and then suffer a crisis of conscience, because stealing food from a churchyard suddenly seems a bit wrong.

The blackberries are in evidence everywhere, though. It’s a reminder of how much further south we are here, and what a sheltered inland area it is. At home, the berries are still green. Here, some of the branch ends are heavy with sweet, ripe, black ones. They’re my favourite fruit. I justify myself to my conscience and eat away.

Going back down Church Street, I pause outside one very derelict house. Flakes of duck-egg paint drift onto the road. Ivy covers some of the windows completely. The roof is open to the blue sky. It’s atmospheric and lovely. I stand for a while and take in its details.


I don’t know exactly where in Ballybay Frances and William lived. Nora’s memoir explains that there was no manse in town for the Junior Married Minister, so they rented a little house for £15 a year from William’s £60 salary, which also had to cover the expense of keeping a pony. Mr Ralph Richardson, a horse trader famous throughout Ireland, lived in town and attended the Methodist church. His generosity to successive Methodist junior ministers is well documented: William’s steed may well have been more valuable than he realised.

And all trace of the church, unusually, is gone. It was sold in 1991, for £7000, to Dr M Smyth, but my online detective skills haven’t been good enough to discover where it was or what happened to it. I think I’ll need to join the Irish Methodist Historical Society to find out this sort of secret. I think Frances would approve.

I concentrate my speculation on Meeting House Lane – just the sort of street name which could arise from the presence of a Methodist church, although it’s also the route to the Presbyterian Meeting House on the Clones Road. It’s a nice back street, with an old bridge crossing the peaceful little river. I sit on the bridge in the sun for a while, pick some more blackberries, and find a pleasingly sparkly white granite stone to take home.


Ballybay was part of a paired circuit with nearby Cootehill, where the senior minister lived. I drive along the ten-mile road linking the two towns, through hills and wetlands, a pleasant summer landscape. There are several abandoned houses on the road which might date back to Frances’s time. I think of William travelling around on his horse, visiting members of the small church, receiving congratulations on his marriage and gifts of food to take home to his new wife.

With perfect timing, I turn a corner to find three white horses munching stolidly in a scrubby field. They observe me somewhat balefully.

My own bed and breakfast accommodation is off this road, in the townland of Lisnalong. It’s a gorgeous location with a super-soft bed where, later, I’ll dream of boats on the lake and wake to find songthrushes circling outside my window.

My hostess, Annie, has me eating tea and cakes in the living room and listening to some good advice on life in general, before she sends me back to Kieran’s restaurant in Ballybay for my dinner. It’s the only place in town to go. I’m obedient, and head straight back to Kieran’s purple door. Unfortunately, however, it is actually the only place in town to go, and all the tables have just filled up.

But Ballybay hospitality wins the day, and the chivalrous Harry invites me to join him at his table. Harry is of indeterminate age and reveals very little about himself at first. I wonder how to ask politely what he does, without causing offence by assuming he’s retired, or not retired – always a minefield. “What are you involved in yourself?” is my best effort – indeed, I’m quite pleased with this as an enquiry in the best of taste. He’s involved in the waste business, and we conduct an entertaining conversation about this field. You would be surprised, as I was, to hear some of the things that are stumbled upon by people in the waste business.

Harry has lived here all his life and knows who it is in town who will know the things I want to know. I take down some contact details and thank him kindly. He leaves me to my rhubarb crumble and waves a blessing as he goes out the door.


I’ve been very taken with Ballybay, but in Cootehill I feel that I’ll be on slightly surer factual ground.

I walk the length of the broad, practical main street, noticing again how well preserved many of the older buildings are. I’m looking out for the Methodist church and manse on Bridge Street, at the far end of town.

This church was also sold after the congregation became too small to maintain it, but the Freemasons who bought it have kept it intact, and I recognise it immediately. The double-fronted white manse is set slightly behind it, sharing its lovely garden. And – oh no! – the manse is now a bed and breakfast establishment! If I had known this, staying here could have been the highlight of my trip.

As it happens, the owners, Michael and Mary, are working in their garden, making the most of the sunshine. I introduce myself, hoping that I might perhaps take a photograph of the outside of the old manse. But within a minute I’ve been invited inside for tea (I think Mary was getting tired of cutting the hedge and is looking for an excuse to take a little break…) and am shown all around the house. I’m so grateful. The house is full of original details – shutters, door handles, windows, fireplaces – and it’s easy to picture how it would have been in 1899.

The minister then, William’s senior, was Henry N Kevin. The Reverend Kevin was 48 at this point, an experienced clergyman who had already worked all around Ireland. His wife, Annie, was a little younger, at 40, and their children were ten-year-old Charlie and six-year-old Helen. I picture them as a lively, cultured family, Henry with his rakish middle initial, Annie, originally from England and a keen singer, the two children with their surprisingly modern names.

Frances, missing her own large and gregarious family, would have been welcomed thankfully into their midst. An experienced auntie to her siblings’ many children, she played with the little Kevins as the men discussed their congregations. She was a good pianist – perhaps she accompanied as Annie sang, or maybe they joined in a duet. Annie, not so steeped in the ways of Irish Methodism as the others, might have been slightly less reverent on occasion, making Frances laugh as she told anecdotes about her time as a minister’s wife. They would eat modestly but well, Frances enjoying the respite from her own cooking chores, but always, as a well brought up Fermanagh girl, offering Annie her help.


The year, full of new experiences, friendships and hopes, went quickly. June saw Frances on tenterhooks, waiting to see which church Conference would assign them to. William, thinking himself a veteran of this process by now, was more sanguine. And rightly so, this time, for the decision came that William was to go to Swanlinbar, scene of his first placement as a Junior Minister. Now he would be the Minister. They would live in their own manse, their first real home.

I follow what are now the back roads to Swanlinbar. It’s about forty-five miles of lush, Monaghan and Cavan lakeland. A couple of showers disrupt the sunshine. Along the way, I pass the forbidding fa├žade of the workhouse at Bawnboy, wondering how much of a shadow this haunting place still cast in 1900.

But Swanlinbar is an attractive small town on a fine August day. I feel buoyed up, ready for the next stage of the journey, what must have seemed the real beginning of their working lives.

VI: Postscript

I join the Methodist Historical Society, and wonder why I didn’t do this earlier. Within a day we establish the location of the Methodist Church in Ballybay, the empty piece in the jigsaw for the town. I smile. It was in Church Street, directly opposite the derelict house I loved.

Saturday, 2 September 2017

A view of grass and sky, the sound of waves

Sometimes, what you need to make things right is to lie on your back in the grass, in the sun. 

It's best if all you can hear is birdsong and waves.

You should close your eyes for a while. Fall asleep if you need to.

Later, look more carefully at the grass, the weeds, the insects.

Contemplate the sky.


Saturday, 19 August 2017

Blackberries and manna

It's a fabulous late summer afternoon. The sun is warm and the clouds are dramatic, so I race out to practise my landscape photography and see if there are enough blackberries ripe to be worth gathering.

Ballymorran Road, near Killinchy, is always a good place for both these endeavours, and it's certainly on form today. I stop everywhere that I can fit the Micra (triumphant from its recent MOT success) onto a verge. It's nice to have a car that won't look noticeably different after it's been scratched up in a hedge (a couple of years ago the police came to my door, having been alerted by neighbours to the likelihood that my car had been damaged by passing vandals, but the officers and myself circled the car carefully and I didn't see anything particularly different from usual...).

I compose my landscapes carefully, trying to find foreground interest, shooting with more sky and then more sea to work out which is best, looking for good reflections. I'm reasonably pleased with what I'm doing. But I'm half aware the whole time that I need plenty of good images for my Instagram feed - I'm nearly at the end of my current series and I'm under pressure to plan the next one. 

The pressure is entirely of my own creation. Nobody else cares at all. But I have my self-imposed schedule of one new shot a day. I alternate landscape and portrait formats. They're properly edited. That's quite a lot, when for most of the year I can only shoot on fine weekends.

Then I catch a grip. Even if I never stray far from home, Northern Ireland has more than enough beautiful places and things to keep me going on this plan for ever. There'll always be something lovely or poignant to show. It's not going to run out.

Thus philosophising, I head for the blackberry hedges. I find a fantastic bank of them, where the top few berries on each stem are perfectly ripe, juicy and sweet. I gather enough for the next three days - they'll be superb for breakfast with Greek yoghurt and toasted flaked almonds. 

But I don't want to stop at three days - I want go gather enough for a week. For two weeks! Which is ridiculous. They wouldn't be fresh. And there are thousands more right here, and there will be some more ripe in three days. And the three days after that. I'll return, and they'll be ready for me.

Clearly, I have an attitude problem. It makes me think of the Israelites in the wilderness, scooping up their lovely fresh manna, but determined to gather more than they need for today. But manna doesn't keep - it's mouldy by the morning. I would have fit right in with them.

I catch another, firmer grip and feel happy with my current blackberries. The words "sufficient unto the day" float into my head. It's a totally inappropriate motto, because it actually continues "is the evil thereof", but perhaps, taken out of context, it's the way to go.

Tuesday, 8 August 2017

The last resort

The workhouse was the last resort. Designed as an unholy marriage between welfare and punishment, it was preferable only to total starvation. Famously described as 'the most hated and feared institution ever established in Ireland', but nevertheless full to overflowing during the Famine years of the mid-nineteenth century, you couldn't be provided with relief unless you entered. And the whole family had to go in together. It casts a shadow still. A shame, a stigma, a shiver. Make the sign of the cross.

I only discovered recently that some of my ancestors - and there may be others I don't yet know about - were admitted to the workhouse at Lowtherstown, now Irvinestown.

The surviving records, fragmented as they are, tell a piteous story.

In Fermanagh, the summer of 1848 began with high hopes for a successful harvest. But in June the weather changed, the crops were destroyed, the potato blight spread further and animal feed couldn't be dried. Many of the men had already died after labouring through the previous winter on the government road-building scheme. Tenants in arrears were evicted, their small houses tumbled. They took to the roads and ditches. 

On Wednesday 22 November 1848, 73 paupers were taken in to Lowtherstown Workhouse, including the widowed Margaret Elliott and her four children, James (11, my great-great-grandfather), Catherine (7), Thomas and Irvine (5), from nearby Drumduff. They are described as healthy, with a poor appearance. 'Healthy' may be overstating it, and the age gap between James and Catherine makes me wonder if one or more other children had already been lost.

In March 1849, James and Catherine were admitted again (there's no record of their previous discharge; perhaps they absconded). There's a note saying 'Mother in, poor appearance'.

James and Catherine left again, officially, six weeks later.

By early June they had returned to the workhouse, along with Irvine. They're described now as 'deserted, thinly clothed'.

James left for good on the 15th of June, Catherine on the 20th of July and Irvine on the 25th of August. Thomas isn't mentioned after the first record. I assume that he died in the workhouse. Margaret's fate is also unclear - did she die there too? Did she leave with her children and succumb to illness? Did she actually 'desert' them?

James and Catherine, determined, hardworking and fortunate, made lives for themselves, James in his business in Portaferry, Catherine with her husband William Ardill in Cork. Irvine never married and was always referred to as 'poor Irvine' by the family at large.

By the standards of Famine times, the Elliott children spent a short time in the workhouse. But that time left its mark and saw the break-up of the little family unit.

The Irish workhouses were built so well that many of them are still standing and in use. They're also all essentially the same, so when I visited Bawnboy Workhouse this week, it was personal. I was seeing my own family within these memory-haunted rooms.

The separation must have been the hardest thing to bear. After taking a de-lousing bath and putting on the hated workhouse uniforms, Margaret went to the women's wing and Catherine, alone, to the girls' dormitory. James took his two little brothers up to join the other boys. 

After that, they would have seen each other only from a distance, in church. All the windows are placed deliberately high, so that the only thing you see is sky. Seven-foot walls partition the different areas, for the men, the women, the boys, the girls. Perhaps they called out to each other - but you could be locked in the refractory, the blackhole, for breaking the rule of silence. There's a dent worn on the stone bed there where the desperate and disobedient laid their heads. 

The children lay in rows in their dark dormitories, on straw pallets, under rough, shared rags, with a large, overflowing tub for a toilet. The workhouse, built for 400, held 796 by the start of 1848. Diseases spread like fire: black fever, yellow fever, dysentery, cholera.

Food was watery 'stirabout', thin soup, some bread or potatoes, and occasionally rancid butter. They ate in silence from tin plates.

In the best of times and the best of workhouses, children were schooled and learned trades. In Lowtherstown, the boys were trained for a while under a master tailor and shoemaker, and the girls were taken to Archibald Graham's in Pound Street to make shifts and petticoats with Miss Kane. But the teacher, previously a gardener, admitted himself that he was "no great hand at writing", and the hungry children were listless except when they fought to sit nearest to the fire.

Discipline was strict. Punishments were issued for breaking silence, bad language, insulting or threatening fellow paupers, neglecting cleanliness, not working hard enough, pretending to be ill, playing cards, smuggling in drink or tobacco, disturbing prayers, attempting to enter another ward, disobeying orders, inciting insubordination or attempting to leave.

With illness rife and overcrowding constant, death became a way of life. Many people were close to the end, starved and fever-ridden, by the time they begged for admission. Conditions were appalling and there were few staff with any medical skills. Inmates died every day. 

At Lowtherstown, burials began in the workhouse grounds in January 1847. The Elliott children would have seen the grim removals, but they would have been spared the sight of their little brother's burial in the paupers' plot, dropped through the hinged base of a reusable coffin.

James and Irvine knew Tommy had gone. But Margaret and Catherine, behind their walls, didn't until, eventually, the priest read out the names of the dead.

I walk the buildings at Bawnboy with a small group of women. We range in age from teens to seventies. We chat at first, but grow gradually quieter. Our guide is knowledgeable, presenting the facts clearly and pragmatically. Sometimes it takes a moment for what she's said to sink in, for the horror to dawn on our faces. It's not that long ago.

I find myself making image after image of windows, doors, locks and keyholes - the things that offered hope and connection but ultimately separated and imprisoned.

I imagine the members of my family and their separate trials. Isolation, loneliness, despair, too much responsibility. I think too of Thomas Elliott the elder, Margaret's husband, lost to the winter, having tried his hardest to keep his family from this fate. They're six from amongst over a million, but for me they're the real faces of the bigger tragedy.

I've brought with me six tiny silver hearts - I carved one in wax and cast the set. As I walk round a second time, I look for a place to lay them to rest. I find it by the chapel, at the boys' side of the workhouse. It's a high window ledge, out of easy sight. The afternoon is dark, but just as I approach, a rare beam of sunshine lights it. I put the hearts gently in the corner and say a prayer for the six people they represent.

Many thanks to Dymphna Headen and the team at Bawnboy Workhouse for the warm welcome this week. If you're interested in learning more about Irish workhouses, John O'Connor's book, The Workhouses of Ireland, is fantastic, full of facts and compassion. Breege McCusker's short book, Lowtherstown Workhouse, is excellent for details specific to Lowtherstown.