Enchanted evenings

‘Greenacres’ farm

Islandflackey

c1952-1956

Some of my happiest memories date from when I was a young boy growing up on a small farm in Ireland.  Despite the fact that we did not have much, certainly little that would today be considered necessities, my childhood was a happy one.  We had no indoor toilet or bathroom, and no heating, apart from a fire in the kitchen and on special occasions, one in the living room.  During most of the year, the bedrooms were ice-cold and we took a rubber hot-water bottle to bed to fight off the chill.  We had no car and no television.  Our situation in that era was like that of most country people in Ireland.

‘Dinner’ was the main meal of the day, and we sat down to eat at one o’clock precisely, to the chimes of Big Ben and the one o’clock news.  The light meal in the evening was known as ‘tea’, and in our house, that was at 18:00 precisely, to chimes of Big Ben and the six o’clock news. Six years of military precision left their mark on my father.

By 19:30 my mother ordered me off to bed, but I could read until she came back to switch off the light.  As I got older, the lights-out time was slowly extended.

From the time when I could read, books were my passion; those who know me today would say that I have not much changed, at least in so far as books are concerned.  And when the lights went out, I fantasied about being a great explorer, a brave knight, a detective or whatever the hero of my current book did.  I was a dreamer.  I was able to borrow books from the library in Coleraine, and I read all the books on the little library shelf of my primary school.  I would have been a rare month when I did not read at least one book.

In the summer time, on a tranquil evening after ‘tea’, I used to love to go down to the piggeries and the fields behind the house.  I was alone there; the workers had gone home, my father usually to his bowling club, and my mother pottering around in her garden.  Sometimes I would climb up onto the roofs of the piggeries, armed with a rock, and try to hit one of the multitude of rats that were scampering around; the farm was always infested with rats; it was impossible to eradicate them.  It also proved impossible for me to hit them.  By the time I stood up to throw, they had disappeared like a flash.

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‘Greenacres farm in the mid 1950s
Farm Map
A schematic drawing of the farm near Portrush

At other times, I would go down to the stream that flowed past the old flax dam, at the end of the pig run, and race two or three empty shoe polish cans and see which would be first to the tunnel under Carnalridge Primary school, where I would retrieve them.  The flax dam was silted up and filled with reeds and some stunted willow trees grew on the banks.  In springtime, frogs laid their spawn in the pools of water, and one year I put some spawn in a large jar and watched them hatch and grow into little frogs.

In the pig run, I once found a beautiful orchid.  I took the flower and pressed it for my collection.  My grandmother taught me how to do it, by pressing it between some heavy books that she had.  I never did again see an orchid in the pig run, or anywhere else on the farm.  Perhaps one of my father’s pigs ate it.  The pig run was always pitted, like a WWI battle field.  The pigs loved to tear up the soil looking for roots and would wallow in the hollows.

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My father in the pig run with the boar

On the south side of the piggeries, there was the midden heap and the area around it was quite marshy and the grass was left to grow long.  Every year a corn crake nested in that grass and every early morning and evening one could hear its ‘craeking’ call.  They were a migratory bird, but I had never seen one.  One evening I went into the long grass to find the corn crake and see what it looked like.  I must have almost stepped on it, for it burst out of the grass just in front of me and flapped away.  I felt very guilty after that, and hoped that it would come back, for I loved its call.  I never did see a cuckoo either, although at times I could hear them all around us.

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A corncrake (picture from internet)

Today, the farm has long gone, hedgerows have been torn up, the farm buildings have been demolished; all that is left are my vivid childhood memories.

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The overgrown ruins of part of the piggeries

Jimmy

James Bankhead was a quite tall slim man with fair hair.  Before he bought his first car, he used to regularly walk into Portrush.  He had a very long loping stride and in a few steps he was over the crest of the hill and out of sight.

He was married to ‘Nan’ Stewart, a childhood friend of my mother.  They lived in the big schoolhouse, next door to our farm, and he was headmaster at Carnalridge Primary school, no more than fifty meters from his front door.

Between the schoolhouse and the school lived a very strange old man.  He had unkempt hair and a long grey beard, and must have belonged to a religious sect, for he had a sign in his garden declaring ‘Repent, for the Kingdom of God is nigh’, or something similar.

The old man’s house was so small, it could only have consisted of one tiny room.  His garden was a large patch of bog, in which the only thing that grew were rushes.  The old man was rarely ever seen.  As a child I was afraid of him.

Carnalridge school was originally established in 1850 by the congregation of the Presbyterian church.  When I first attended the school in 1953, it consisted of just two rooms, a recently built extension for infant children, plus a dining room and catering facilities.

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Carnalridge Primary School

There were three teachers – Miss Moore, who looked after the infants, Miss ‘Old Biddy’ McCartney, who was my first teacher, and James ‘Jimmy’ Bankhead, who taught the older children, until they left for the secondary schools.  I don’t know how many pupils there were in that era, but my guess is that there were about 60 altogether.

My earliest memory of the school was the morning of my first day.  We had to stand around the room, with backs to the wall and give our names. The little girl beside me wet her pants and stood in a large puddle of urine. I feel sure that she has never forgotten the embarrassment that she must have felt.

In my last year, there were only four of us who took the ‘Eleven Plus’ examination, that determined whether we would go on to a grammar school, a technical college, or to an intermediate school, which was little more than a holding pen, until the children could leave at age of 15.

Three of us went on to the grammar school in Coleraine, all in the ‘A’ stream, which was a tremendous compliment to the teaching skills of James Bankhead.  In addition to me, there was David Hunter, who ended up studying law at Oxford, and who became a barrister in Belfast, and Michael Moore, who ended up as a headmaster, like his father before him. The fourth pupil was Joan Gurney, who went on to the Intermediate school.

James Bankhead was born in Ahoghill, in 1906, the son of Samuel and Jane Bankhead.  He started his teaching career in Clooney Primary School, in the Waterside area of Londonderry, where he was an assistant teacher for 5 years.  He was appointed principal of Carnalridge in 1932, and remained there until his retirement in 1966.

James Bankhead

He was a man of many talents and diverse interests.  He was a renowned horticulturist, specializing in growing and studying daffodils, and wrote many articles on the subject.  He was a local pioneer in the field of radio and television.  He built his own radio in 1939 and took it to the church to hear the declaration of war.  He built one of the first television sets in the area, and invited local people to his house to see the coronation ceremony in 1953.  He was an accomplished tenor soloist and sang with the church choir.  He was a keen golfer and bowler.  He was an accomplished mathematician and read widely.

My years in his class were some of the best years of my youth.  He taught me in arithmetic and I loved it, and my love of mathematics endures to this day.  He introduced me to the classical  books in the small school library and I borrowed and read most of them: Children of the New Forest, Treasure Island, The Black Arrow, the Enid Blyton books, Robinson Crusoe, among many others. He talked often about the history and geography of our area.

It was James Bankhead who introduced us to cricket, and in our lunch breaks, when the weather was favourable, we used to play, and he always joined in.

Cricket became a passion with me, especially after he showed me a game being played on his television.  I used to spend hours bowling against a wicket placed against the end of our house, and I made up different ways of keeping score.

In about 1986 I visited him.  He was living in a bungalow on the edge of Portrush, on the Ballywillan Road.  His wife had previously died in 1977 and he had remarried to her sister, Lily, who had been living with them in their later years.

I spent a very enjoyable and memorable couple of hours with them, sipping on sherry, and chatting about old times.  I asked him where he had found all the fascinating historical facts about Portrush and the area, history that used to enthral me.  He remembered the book and the author, but regretted that he did not have a copy, otherwise I felt sure he would have given it to me.  It was not until recent times that I discovered a complete transcript of the book on the internet.

Before I left him, I took the opportunity to do something I had wanted to do for many years.  I told him what a great influence he had been on me.  I thanked him for having given me such a good grounding and fostering my interest in a diverse range of subjects.  It was an emotional moment for me and I suspect it was also for him.  He was already an old man at that time, and shortly after, he had a stroke.

He and Lily spent their last days in an old people’s home in Portrush.  He died in 1992 and was buried beside Nan, just outside the door of the ruined church at Ballywillan.

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Lily died some time later and was buried in the new graveyard, across the road from the old church.  I have always thought that Jim and Nan would have wanted her to be buried with them.

Coleraine

The earliest known settlement in Ireland was found at Mountsandel Fort, about one mile from the centre of present day Coleraine.  It was there where nomadic hunter-gatherers built their shelters in about 7000 BC.   Dating from about 4000 BC, there is much evidence of Neolithic Man in the area, such as the stone tomb at Magheraboy and the standing stone at Carnalridge.

Coleraine is reputed to have received its name when St Patrick passed through around 450 A.D. Popular tradition states that the Saint was given a piece of land by the local chieftain on which to build a church. The ground was covered with ferns, and so he called it “Cuil Rathain”, which means the ferny corner. Again, authorities differ in this, some asserting the meaning to be “the rath at the bend of the waters”. Over the centuries the name was anglicized and became “Coleraine”.  It is believed that the first church, or monastery, was in the same location as the present St. Patrick’s Church.  The earliest record of Coleraine occurs in Adomnán’s ‘Life of Saint Columba’, written on Iona, circa 700.

Located at the lowest fordable point of the river Bann, Coleraine suffered repeated devastation by competing tribes, by the Vikings in 830 AD and by the Normans in 1177.  It was not until the end of the 16th century that the Ulster tribes were subdued.  In 1610 the first settlers arrived to rebuild Coleraine.  Fortifications were erected and the town was laid out in its present form.

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Coleraine in 1613

In 1642 the dispossessed Irish rebelled and for six weeks laid siege to the town, during which 2000 of the inhabitants died of disease and famine, many of them having fled from the countryside seeking protection.   The siege was broken by the arrival of a Scottish army. In 1689, when the invading army of James II approached the town, the people fled to Derry, where they again suffered siege and famine. James II was eventually defeated at the Battle of the Boyne.

As a result of the devastation of the countryside, poverty was widespread and over the next 200 years there was a steady exodus of locals to the New World. There was continued threat of uprising and there was much suffering as a result of the serious outbreak of cholera in 1832 and the Great Famine of 1840-46.

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Possibly due to the lack of local opportunities, there was a strong tradition of young men enlisting in the military and many local men fought in the Crimean, Boer and the two world wars.  The Battle of the Somme had a particularly devastating effect on the area and there was scarcely a household that did not lose a family member, as witnessed by the long list of names on the local war memorials.

In 1844 a new stone bridge was built across the river and in 1855 the current town hall in the Diamond was built. The town also became an important centre of the linen industry and textile and shirt-making industries expanded.  In 1888 the river was dredged and piers built, allowing the passage of ships to Coleraine harbour.

In 1968 the new University of Ulster was opened between Coleraine and Portstewart and the influx of students provided a much-needed new source of income to the providers of accommodation, suffering as a result of tourists going to warmer climates for their holidays.

Like much of Ulster, Coleraine suffered from ‘The Troubles’.  In 1973 an IRA car bomb killed six, in 1992 a car bomb exploded in the town centre and in 1995 a massive explosion devastated the entire centre of the town.

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The Diamond with its town hall as it is today

A grammar school in Coleraine was first proposed in 1846, but the plan was shelved, die to the economic crisis resulting from the Great Famine.  Coleraine Academical Institution (C.A.I.) was finally open in 1860, with two masters and 14 boys. The number of students peaked at about 1100 in the 1970s and has since been reduced to 700.

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Coleraine Academical Institution, now known as Coleraine Grammar School

The school includes 27 acres of sports fields, including rugby and football pitches, tennis courts, cricket pitches, an athletics track, a swimming pool, a games hall with multi-gym equipment and a boathouse.

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James Nesbitt – actor

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Andrew Trimble – Ulster & Ireland rugby

Two well-known C.A.I. Old Boys

Boarding, which was a feature of the school since its beginning, reached its peak in the 1970s with 300 boarders, but since then it went into decline, and the boarding department was closed in 1999.

In 2015 the all-boys C.A.I was merged with the all-girls Coleraine High School, to become Coleraine Grammar School.

Just past the school, off the Castlerock Road, was the farm of my maternal grandmother’s family.  Her ancestors had farmed the land since at least the early 1800s.  Unfortunately, there are very few records that have survived from before the mid-1800s, so the tracing of Irish ancest0rs soon meets a dead-end.

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Kilcranny House

My great grandparents had eight children, seven girls and only one boy.  I guess that the only son did not want to be a farmer, and the farm was eventually sold.  The only son died when he was only 48.

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Today some peripheral buildings have been added to Kilcranny House, which now belongs to an organization that promotes much-needed peace and reconciliation.

I suspect that the organization would have had my ancestor’s approval.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Old Man Watton

Old man Watton was a very old man, at least as I remember him when I was young.  He was grizzled and grey and said very little.  But he was so strong.  In his hands the heavy hammers and pliers of his blacksmith’s trade were like a child’s toys.

When I close my eyes I can still recall the sound of the hammer striking iron, the huge black bellows that he operated with his foot, the intense heat from the coals and the fierce hissing when he dipped the red-hot metal in the water.  I went to the forge may times as a child, usually delivering eggs to old Mrs Watton, sometimes taking a piece of metal thatmy father needed reshaped for the farm.

A typical country smithy

 The forge was on the way from my parent’s farm towards Portrush, past the headmaster’s house and Carnalridge Primary School and just after the honeysuckle bush that my mother loved so much.  When I was young she used to take me there of a warm summer evening to experience that heavenly scent.  When the air was still, one could smell it from quite far away.

A honeysucle bush in full bloom

The smithy was at the end of a narrow lane.  It overlooked the town and was not far, probably no more than ten minutes walk from our farm.  On the right of the entrance was the tiny cottage of the Dallas family with their beautiful vegetable garden and opposite there was a spring, with a metal cup hanging from a hook.  That water was so pure, so cold and refreshing.  And at the end of the lane was the smithy.

But progress and modernization have marched on.  The spring had been covered over and the lane turned into an asphalt road.  The old Irish cottage of the Dallas family has been replaced by a tasteless modern bungalow and the vegetable garden is now a car park.  The smithy has disappeared and the honeysuckle bush has long gone.

These days I know more people in the graveyard than in the street.

And sometimes I feel that it would be better never to return again, just to remember it as it was.