Early Memories of Portrush

What is your earliest memory?

Are you certain that your earliest memories are genuinely your own memories, or are you remembering and imagining what your parents or others have told you?  I confess that I am never quite certain of the authenticity of mine.

My early years were spent in Glenmanus, a small village now totally enclosed and obliterated by the relentless expansion of Portrush.  Until I was five years old, my parents lived in a small wooden hut, at least I recall it as being small and wooden.  It was just up the road from the farm of my great-uncle Bill Douglas, and great-aunt, Letitia.  I can clearly remember going down the steps to the stream that flowed in front of Bill’s farmhouse and falling in the water.  And in an out-building, Titia making butter in a large churn, paddling up and down. And offering me a ‘piece’, a thick slice of bread, coated in butter and jam.  Delicious it was.  The stream has long since been piped and covered over, and the farmhouse demolished and replaced with modern houses, owned by two of my cousins, Hughie and Brian Douglas.

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A butter churn, similar to that of Titia

And one freezing morning in winter, when the older boys came flying down Loquestown Hill on a sled, and one of them crashing into a hedge, and injuring his cheek.  I remember it as being Maurice Elliott who crashed, but he has no recall of it. One of us is correct…

My mother contracted TB when I was very young, and for some six months she was interned in a sanatorium in Derry.  It was Louise Wilson who looked after me, while my father worked on the farm during the day and played piano with his dance-band at Barry’s Ballroom at night. My only clear memory of that era was sitting at the table, having breakfast and my father telling me that a fox or a badger had broken into one of the hen-houses and killed all the hens.  He could probably have ill-afforded the loss, as he was just starting out on his new farming venture.

And there was the day when my mother took me down to Portrush, through the archway under the railway embankment, and we sat up on a sandhill, waiting for the ‘mock invasion’ to start.  In those days there was no seawall, only sand dunes leading down to the west strand.  Out in the bay there was a battleship and it began to fire its guns and then several landing craft were launched.  The troops were disgorged just offshore and there was lot of firing of machine gun blanks, as they charged up the beach.  Predictably the ‘enemy’ soon surrendered.  For many years after, until I was about 16, I dreamed of joining the military, despite my father’s lack of enthusiasm.  He had had enough of war after six years of fighting in WW2 and wanted me to join him on his farm.  I ended up doing neither farming nor military.

In those days there was a tram that ran from Portrush to the Giant’s Causeway and I remember seeing it setting out past the gasworks, down Causeway Street.  It was probably one of the last trips, as it stopped functioning at the end of the 1949 season.

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, my father’s dance band played every night in Barry’s Ballroom.  My mother took me to see him play one evening, and afterwards, we went outside, to an exhibit called ‘The Wall of Death’.  It consisted of a circular wooden tower, inside which a couple rode motorbikes.  We stood at the top of the tower and looked at the bikes going around and around, horizontal to the ground at dizzying speed.  I later learned that my mother knew the couple.  During the war, in the summer season, they used to board at my grandparent’s farm in Glenmanus.  I wish I could remember their names.

So few memories, but so vivid are the few.  I sometimes wonder which vivid memories of their early years my four sons will recall, when they are older.

 

 

Hopefield

Hopefield Cottage Hospital was situated on the edge of Portrush.  It was one of the many rural hospitals that performed minor operations and provided for the chronically sick.  It enabled local patients to remain close to their families and the latter to avoid having to travel to a distant county facility.  In the years before and after the 1939-45 war, few local people had a car.  It was to Hopefield that I was taken when I was six years old, in 1953.

In my early years, I was a sickly child, repeatedly suffering from sore throats and fevers.  The medical verdict was that I had to have my tonsils removed.  I have only two vivid memories of Hopefield.  The first was of my lying on a bed beside a window, looking out across fields.  The other was that of a man in white, picking me up and carrying me to another room, laying me down on a table, and a black hissing thing that smelled strange, being placed over my face.  I have no recall of my mother or father being there at any time; I just remember feeling alone and scared.

Of course, I soon recovered, put on missing weight, and health-wise, I have never looked back.

It was in Hopefield that my grandmother, my father’s mother, died in 1958.  She already had had two strokes and had been bed-bound for several years.  She did not survive the third stroke.  I remember my father putting down the phone and saying, ‘She has gone’.  Before that I had never seen him cry.

Beside the hospital lay the fields of Caldwell’s farm, the fields that I looked out at from the hospital.  When I was young, during the summer season a small plane used to land on those fields, and for a fee the pilot used to fly tourists over Portrush, the Skerries and along the north coast.

Every Easter Tuesday, always a public holiday in Ulster, those fields were the scene of the Glenvale point-to-point horse races.  It was a grand occasion and people drove, cycled or walked from a long way to be there.  The venue was only a mile from our farm, so I often went too.  It was exhilarating to be close to the horses as they galloped by, jumping the hurdles and hedges.

Access to the Glenvale races was along a lane beside John Rainey’s house and past Caldwell´s farm.  The entrance to the lane was off the Coleraine Road, opposite to the road that led into Glenmanus.  In those days Glenmanus village was on the edge of Portrush and on the road to Coleraine were just fields and the occasional house and farm buildings.

It was at the entrance of that lane that I had arranged to meet my first love.  We were too young to be seen alone together, so she brought along her best friend, as did I.  We slowly walked the length of that secluded lane to the far end and back.  We held hands and said little.  We were eleven years old.

For my part, my attraction to her remained intact.  We had little opportunity to meet.  She went to the grammar school in Bushmills and I went in the opposite direction, to that of the C.A.I. in Coleraine.  She lived in the town and I in the country.  Our paths sometimes crossed in church, but she was always with her parents.  It was only at the rare church or school social event that the flame was temporarily relit, only to be once more extinguished.  In 1965 I migrated to Canada and she finished school and moved away from the area.  We had no further contact.

Today, the Hospital at Hopefield no longer exists, and the Glenvale races ceased to be held around 1977.  For many years they continued at Myroe, near Limavady, before recently returning to the fields of the old Adams farm at Loquestown, just across from our farm at Islandflackey.

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Action from the 1977 Loquestown races (photo from internet)

The former Caldwell fields are now under a maze of new houses and Portrush no longer ends at Glenmanus Road, but advances relentlessly towards Coleraine.  Soon there will be no fields left between the two towns.

The romantic lane of my youth still exists, albeit sandwiched on both sides between the rears of houses.

But my memory of how it used to be is indelible.