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.

My Home Town

Portrush is on the north Antrim coast of Ulster, close to the county Derry border.  It was originally a small fishing village built around the port, on a peninsula.  The town was recorded as having been granted to Richard de Burgo in 1305.  There are many spellings of the name of the town – Portros, Portross, Portrossce – all meaning Port on the headland.

Shortly after the ice age, some ten thousand years ago, the headland was an island surrounded by bog land.  Evidence of the bog can at times be found exposed on the West Strand.  Evidence of early settlements have been found where the East Strand car park and Causeway Street are now situated.

Above the Harbour next to Ramore head there used to stand the taller Crannagh Hill but it was quarried away to provide the rock to create the harbour’s pier.  Also around here used to stand a castle known as Castle an Teenie (Castle of Fire), because a light was shone from it on stormy nights to warn sailors of the rocks all around.

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Portrush in the late 1960s

The village of Glenmanus, where I spent my first five years, is less than a mile from Portrush harbour, and just off the road to Coleraine.  Originally Glenmanus would have consisted of a small cluster of houses, surrounded by farm land.  When I was young, Glenmanus was on the edge of Portrush, but today it has been swallowed up by the expansion of the town and the old traditional Irish houses have been demolished and replaced by humdrum modern bungalows.

Portrush remained little more than a fishing village, until the railway between Belfast and Londonderry, via Coleraine, was completed in 1855, with a branch line connecting the latter to Portrush.  With easy access from the industrial cities, Portrush was eventually transformed into a fashionable seaside resort, complete with hotels, boarding houses, golf course, boating, cinemas, amusement arcades, bowling green, tennis courts etc.

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Portrush railway station in the late 1800s

In 1870 the Belfast and Northern Counties Railway purchased the already established Antrim Arms Hotel and renamed it as the Northern Counties Hotel in 1883.  With over 100 rooms overlooking the Atlantic, both at the front and back, it provided luxury accommodation for wealthy tourists visiting the Giant’s Causeway.  It even had an indoor swimming pool in an era when few, if any, existed within many miles   For many years in the late 1940s and 1950s, my father’s dance band played at night in the ballroom during the summer season, as well as the Easter and Christmas holidays, often with an additional session in the afternoon.

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The Northern Counties hotel

An ancient abbey formerly stood on the site of the hotel and its lawn. It was mentioned in a document from 1262. In 1884 portions of the walls were unearthed, with quantities of human bones.

The hotel was destroyed by arson in 1990 and the owner and two others were eventually charged with paying terrorists to burn it down, in order to claim the insurance money.  The owner was Roy Crawford, with whom I used to work at Dalzell & Campbell in Coleraine.

East Strand lies between Portrush and the White Rocks.  In calm weather the water looks inviting, but it is both very cold and dangerous, with strong currents and steeply shelving shore.  Behind the East Strand lies an extensive area of sand dunes.

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The East Strand

About halfway along the strand there is a deep hollow in the sand dunes, between the Strand and the golf course.  Here it is believed took place the Battle of the War Hollow in 1103, in which the King of Norway, Magnus Barefoot, was killed along with many of his supporters.

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The War Hollow

At the eastern strand are the White Rocks, an area of chalk cliffs, with caves, arches and freestanding pillars.

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The White Rocks

North of the East Strand, between one and four kilometres off shore, are the Skerries, a group of seventeen islets which help create a natural breakwater. There is vegetation on four of them. The islet furthest east is called Island Dubh. It is probable that it was named after Tavish Dubh, a pirate, who once frequented the Skerries, and died in his ship there, and was buried on the island.  The place of his grave is unknown. It is said that Tavish Dubh, in 1310, when Edward Bruce invaded North Antrim with the object of winning Ulster, waylaid four English ships bound with provisions for Coleraine, held by an English army, and took their provisions up the river Bann to Bruce, who was in sore straits.  Soon after, Bruce abandoned his attempt.

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The Skerries

On the east side of the largest of these islands there is good shelter, with an anchorage of six fathoms, a place often made use of in later times by smugglers.

In my time, there was a boat that took occasional visitors around the islands, when the sea was relatively placid, but I personally never knew anybody who had ever set a foot on them.

For most of us, they were so near, yet so far away…

Benandonner’s stone

I have vivid memories of some incidences in my early childhood: falling into the stream at uncle Bill’s farm in Glenmanus; aunt Tisha making butter in a wooden churn; Maurice Elliott crashing into the bushes on his sled on Loquestown hill on a bitterly icy winter morning; my father telling me at breakfast that a fox had got into one of his hen houses during the night.

I have no memory of my mother in that era.  For part of the time she was in the sanatorium in Derry, diagnosed as having tuberculosis, and I was cared for by our next door neighbour, Louise Wilson.

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One of only two pictures I have of me as a baby

For my first five years, we lived in a little wooden house in Glenmanus, on the edge of Portrush, one of many basic dwellings around a field, most occupied by destitute families with no work and few prospects.  In Ireland, the years immediately after the war were not easy years.  By day, my father worked on his fledging poultry farm raising a few chickens, and by night he was pianist and leader of a Portrush dance band.

But my mother’s uncle Bill believed in my father’s farming vision and leased him some of his land at Islandflackey, at a nominal rent, a mile from the village, and helped him to obtain a mortgage to build a new house. It cost just over £1,000.

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The original house at Islandflackey circa 1954

And so the poultry farm of ‘Greenacres’ was born.

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The house and farm buildings circa 1960

There was already a ruined Irish cottage on the site, close to the road.  It had been burned down at some time in the past. It was demolished and a new ‘bungalow’ built a little further back, on a freshly levelled site.

Initially there was no electricity, no running water, and only an outside toilet.  At night we used a paraffin lamp, drinking water came from a neighbouring well, washing water from the constant supply from the roof, and the toilet was a tin can in an outhouse, that my father periodically emptied on the midden.  And the sole heat was from the coal fireplace in the kitchen, and on special occasions, a fireplace in the living room.

Although one could tolerate the inconveniences, with livestock, the lack of running water was a major problem.

My father employed a water diviner to see if he could find a source.  I remember the man walking back and forth over the fields, with a forked sapling in his hands, but the only possibility he came up with was just behind the house.

So they started digging a well about 1.50 m in diameter.  When they were about 2 m deep, with no evidence of water, the attempt was abandoned.

I don’t remember how long it took, but finally we were connected to the water and electricity services.  The indoor bathroom took much longer.  I suspect that my father could not afford the expense.  But eventually a cess pool was built, pipes laid and the storeroom was converted into a bathroom.

The other ‘luxuries’ took a little longer; the first television rented when I was perhaps 11, a little second-hand car bought when I was about eighteen, and a rudimentary shower and central heating many years later, long after I had migrated.

My mother never did have a fridge, washing machine or drier.  Her life was never an easy one.

Behind the house, just above where the failed well was abandoned, there was a huge boulder, at least as a child I remember it as being very big.  It was circular and smooth all over, like a massive pebble.  I did not know where it came from, but it must have been in the vicinity when the new house was built.

I used to imagine that it had been thrown by the Scottish giant, Benandonner, missing Finn McCool, the Irish giant, at the Giant’s Causeway, during one of their fights, and ending up on our land.  The Giant’s Causeway is connected to Scotland, and as a child,  I believed that there must have been some basis to the legend. The Giant’s Causeway was not  far from our farm.

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The Giant´s Causeway, looking inland
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And looking across the sea to Scotland

When I was still young, I clearly remember a passing visit from Sam Wilson.  It was his wife who looked me when I was very young.  According to my mother he was a remote relation, but to this day I have never discovered the link.  When he saw the stone, he asked my father to fetch his heaviest hammer and he would break it up for him.

Now Sam was a powerfully built man and the heavy hammer was but a toy in his hands.  He swung and struck the rock with all his power, but the hammer just bounced off it.  He winged and whanged and the sparks flew, but to no avail.  Not even a small chip of the rock yielded.

Sweating profusely and red in the face, Sam eventually capitulated.

Not so long later, when I had just turned 11, Sam dropped dead of coronary thrombosis at the age of 47.

And somewhere on the former ‘Greenacres’, I suspect that Benandonner’s stone still stands intact.

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.