Bertie Law

Since my mother died in 1985 and my father in 1995, my visits to my homeland have been few and far between; Portrush is about as far from NW Europe as one can go.

In the spring of 2005, I drove over to Ulster, via Stranraer and the ferry to Larne, to spend some time in the archives in Belfast; I wanted to research part of my Irish family history.  And afterwards, for two glorious days I went walking in the Mourne mountains.

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An abandoned ice-house on the lower slopes of Sleive Donard, in the Mourne mountains

Instead of returning directly to Larne and Stranraer, as I had intended, I decided to take a detour north to Portrush and around the stunning coastal road.  Almost without exception, when I have returned to Portrush, my first stop has been the graveyard of the ruined church at Ballywillan.  For in that graveyard are buried my Douglas ancestors, as far back as the early 1700s.  My parents and paternal grandparents are also buried there and for a while I wander from one known grave to another, lost in memories of when many of them were alive, especially in the case of my first schoolmaster (see Jimmy) and Derek Aiken, a school friend, who died at age 44.

Existimos mientras alguien nos recuerde

(We exist while someone remembers us)

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Further down the hill, was the grave of Molly, the wife of my first cousin, Bertie Law.  After leaving the graveyard, I intended on passing by his house in the hope of spending some time with him.  I had just found new data on ancestors in which I knew he would be most interested, for like me, he was an enthusiastic amateur genealogist.

But when I arrived at Molly’s grave I was momentarily confused; she had been dead for thirteen years, yet the soil had still not settled.  And then of course it dawned on me that Bertie was dead, and only very recently buried.

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Bertie’s mother, Annie, was my grandfather’s sister.  She died three days after giving birth to Bertie’s younger brother, John, commonly known as Jackie.  Twenty years later, Sergeant John Douglas Law of the R.A.F. died over Germany and is buried at Rheinburg War Cemetery. I believe Jackie to have been the only WW2 casualty of the village.

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Bertie was my mother’s first cousin and the most complete example of a handyman that I have ever known.  He was an accomplished carpenter, bricklayer, plasterer, roofer and decorator.  He built his own house in Glenmanus and most of the buildings on my father’s farm: the housing for the incubators, chicks, poultry, turkeys, the pig pens, and all of the storehouses.  And when my mother was on one of her ‘I’d like to change this room’ moods, Bertie would construct cupboards and partitions.  It was through observing Bertie at work, that when the need arose, I knew instinctively how to lay bricks, plaster, rebuild a shower, decorate etc.

Bertie was something of a workaholic.  During the day he worked as a conductor for the local bus company and later he would work on the farm buildings.  And when he returned home, he would spend time in the evening in his extensive vegetable and flower garden.

It was after the death of my father that I discovered Bertie’s interest in family history.  He showed me the charts that he had drawn and we ended up by combining our research.  And we supplemented it by mail, by telephone and occasional visits by me.  Bertie’s charts are the backbone of what I know today of the history of the Douglas family of Glenmanus.

I felt very sad that day in May when I eventually left the graveyard.  It felt like the end of an era, for Bertie was my last close contact with my parents.  I still have two cousins living in the village, Hughie and Brian Douglas. I have recently renewed contact with them and long may that contact last.

Sometimes I feel most fortunate, for I am rich in memories.

Old Joe and Young Joey

Old Joe Collins owned the farm opposite ours in Islandflackey.  He was known as ‘Old Joe’ to distinguish him from ‘Young Joey’, his son.  For generations in Ireland, most eldest sons were named after their fathers and likewise eldest daughters after their mothers.  I was one of the exceptions, having been named after my father’s father.

When we moved from Glenmanus to Islandflackey in about 1952, Old Joe was still working his farm, with his cows, plough horse, orchard and vegetable garden.  Small holders could never have afforded to own a tractor.

When I was young, probably no more than six or seven, I can clearly recall one day seeing Old Joe across the road, walking up and down in one of his fields sowing seed using a violin-like instrument with a bow and a hopper, which he had to regularly stop to refill from a sack that he had brought to the field in a wheelbarrow.  Not long after that that Old Joe retired from active farming, his animals gone and the farmyard silent.

An example of sewing seed

 Like most Irish farming families, the Collins had been almost self-sufficient.  They had their cows for their milk and they made their own butter.  They had chickens for their meat and eggs, and next to the southern sheltered side of the house, they had a vegetable garden and an orchard.  And potatoes were plentiful and present at almost every meal.

But Old Joe had more.  He had an area planted in gooseberry bushes and in addition he had three greenhouses in which he grew tomatoes and that were heated by means of a central boiler and pipework.  And the gooseberries and tomatoes he supplied to local greengrocers.  When he had enough to fill a couple of baskets, he would catch the bus to the town to sell them.

My father’s parents moved over from Norfolk when my brother was born, in 1953.  The rented the big house at the end of the lane that passed the Collins farm.  Old Joe was the caretaker of the house.  I never did know if he owned it or whether he had been looking after it for an absentee landlord.

The ‘Pink House’ which my grandparents rented

If ‘Young Joey’ had been interested, he would have continued to work the farm, but it was never big enough to support him too, and he got a job with the local electricity company.  Farming is a hard life and once sons escape to a relatively cushy nine-to-five job, not many want to return.

I never ever saw Joey walk anywhere.  He always left the farm in his little car, even to attend Sunday worship at Ballywillan church, which was about 200 metres away.  As the minister came out from his room and made his way to the pulpit and as one of the elders went to close the church doors, one could hear Joey’s car screeching to a halt and the bang as he slammed the door and his hurried footsteps as he rushed in.  He always just made it on time.  Nobody ever entered the church after the doors were shut.  That was simply unheard of.  And when the service ended, Joey was always the first one out.

Ballywillan Church

Joey eventually married a nurse and she moved in to the farmhouse.  I don’t remember her name for they married after I left home.  She had a severe back problem.  I don’t know the cause, but she became more and more bent over as time passed and she could not straighten up.  Her life must have been difficult.

Of course all are now long dead and the properties have been renovated, extended or demolished and replaced by something more modern.  I still remember as it was more than sixty years ago.

But I am quite sure that one thing has not changed in the neighbourhood with the passage of time and that is the unwritten rule that one does not enter Ballywillan church once the service has started.