The Skelligs off the coast at Ballinskelligs – the medieval monks who lived on these rocky outcrops were an inspiration for John Main’s future interest in Christian meditation. [By Arian Zwegers (Skellig Michael Uploaded by russavia) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons]
click below to hear some music to create the right atmosphere, then read on…
Writing can be transformative, both for the reader and the writer. For example, when Neil was approached to write the biography of John Main, he had no idea that he was embarking on a journey that would lead him and Catharine on research trips to Ireland. Not only did they research John Main’s family roots in County Kerry but also started to look at their own Irish roots — coincidentally both Neil and Catharine’s ancestors came from Ireland. From this came much writing inspiration: Neil would write up his family history [see below]; a detective novel, The Other Key, later emerged with Irish influences and scenes; and Catharine would write her first novel— Polly of Bridgewater Farm — about her family’s idyllic roots in rural Dromore, County Tyrone and their traumatic experience of the Great Famine and decision to emigrate over the seas.
So we start with an excerpt from In The Stillness Dancing — the Journey of John Main. Then Neil’s article about his Irish roots. And finally, the last in our ‘St.Pat’s Tuesday Writing Conversation’ trio, Catharine’s Polly of Bridgewater Farm.
1. Beginnings in Ballinskelligs
On a February night in 1960 a Benedictine monk from Ealing Abbey in a suburb of London dropped by the Chelsea flat of an old Trinity College friend. He stayed just long enough to change from his habit into evening dress. Then John Main left for the festivities at Gray’s Inn where he had been called to the Bar, the first English monk so honoured since the Reformation.
Who was this slim, tall young man just turned thirty-four, with his sandy hair and piercing blue eyes who moved so easily from the spiritual world of Ealing to the secular temples of the courts? Why had he left a promising career in the law, a closely-knit family in Ireland and the young woman he loved, to become a Benedictine monk? How was it that John Main became so excited by the prayer life of a Christian writer who lived in the desert in the fourth century and to whom he was led by a Hindu swami?
Why would the prior of an established monastery in London later give it all up to go off and set up shop in an old house in Montreal, Quebec? And how was it so many people, seeking a new dimension in their lives, journeyed to the priory he founded in Montreal, discovered John Main and were forever changed by the discovery? The answer lay in John Main’s own journey.
The journey began at 12 Egerton Gardens, Hendon in London where he was born on 21 January 1926. His father, David Patrick Main, had been born in 1893 in Ballinskelligs, County Kerry, on the southern coast of Ireland where he worked as a ‘cable telegraphist’ for the Western Union Company. His grandfather, also David Patrick, had arrived from Scotland to become superintendent of the first trans-atlantic cable station established near Ballinskelligs in 1866. After he retired from the cable station John Main’s grand¬father helped build a hotel, called Main’s Hotel. For many years, Main was the important name in Ballinskelligs. Besides the hotel the Mains ran a grocery store, a post office, a fleet of boats and chauffeured cars for the tourists. Unhappily for his own fortunes, Main’s Hotel was not left to John’s father but to an older brother.
His mother, Eileen Hurley, born in Moat, County Meath in 1887, was six years older than her future husband, David Main. It was through his mother that he acquired a famous ancestor, the Irish nationalist, author and journalist, Charles J. Kickham, born in 1828. A description of Kickham fits his descendant: ‘keen, piercing eyes, which had a strange power of reading one’s very thought. . . .’ In his most popular novel, Knocknagow, written a year before his death in 1882, Charles Kickham wrote: ‘Glory to God in the highest and on earth enthusiasm.’ It was an epitaph that described the lives of Eileen Hurley and her son.
After her education in Moat, Eileen went to Belgium for finishing school and later became a nurse. It was as a nurse that she, then 32, first met her future husband. In 1919 David Main, aged 26, was in bed with influenza. Eileen had gone to Ballinskelligs to help in the influenza epidemic. She was small, blondish, pretty and refined. Almost immediately David Main fell in love with his new nurse. But there was a problem. Eileen Hurley was engaged to another man. David said that would not make any difference. And it did not. David simply told Eileen to break her engagement. He even suggested that she do this at the Metropole Hotel in Cork and he went along to make certain there were no slip-ups. There were none.
Then David took his bride-to-be to Roach’s jewellery store to purchase an engagement ring. ‘Mickey’ Roach was astonished to see Eileen accept a second ring from another man. But David Main was never one to waste time. He and Eileen Hurley, the future parents of six children, were married at St Peter and St Paul’s Church in the city of Cork on 7 February 1920. After their marriage David and Eileen spent only a short time in Ballinskelligs where, as the mountains of Kerry slope into the sea, the Skelligs Rocks rise off the shore, the site of one of the most spectacular and ancient monastic communities in Europe, a community that would exert an influence on John Main’s life. Then, in the early 1920s after the birth of their first daughter Kitty, on 10 November 1920, Western Union transferred David Main from Ballinskelligs to London.
During their first three years in London, David and Eileen had two more children, Ian in 1922 and Yvonne in 1924. Then came Douglas, with a quick and easy birth, on 21 January 1926. Ten days later he was baptized Douglas William Victor at Our Lady of Sorrows, Egerton Gardens, Hendon, the Main’s parish church. William and Victor were after his two uncles, his father’s brothers. But where did ‘Douglas’ come from? Apparently his Aunt Ethel, his father’s sister, was reading a book whose protagonist was called ‘Douglas’. When the baby was born earlier than expected Aunt Ethel cast about for a third name. So Douglas William Victor it was (the name John only when he became a monk). After Douglas in 1926, came two more children, Diane two years later and Allan Patrick in 1929.
A new city, another position with Western Union and six children in the space of nine years meant a bustling Main household. David Main was a strong disciplinarian with an explosive temper that sometimes frightened his children. He was a man’s man with an eye for pretty women. He would waltz into the Main’s post office at Ballinskelligs, singing ‘Home Sweet Home’ at the top of his fine musical voice, and kiss the first good-looking young woman he saw. Then he would go home and tell Eileen all about it.
David Main was a man whom most men liked and most women found attractive. He played tennis, golf and billiards and, despite a slight limp, he was usually dressed to the nines and cut a dapper figure about London, Belfast, and later Dublin. He never allowed the mundane to interfere with his polished appearance. If Eileen wanted a pound of sausages, David had them carefully wrapped, not in a greasy brown bag, but inside his gleaming brief-case. When he travelled he sold Irish sweep tickets on the side. His family was never in want but money was sometimes scarce. Despite the fact he was in some ways unpredictable and quick-tempered, David Main loved his family. They loved him and they shared fun together. Every summer there was a family holiday. Once David hired a man and his lorry to transport the Main family, all eight of them, around Sussex. This time the lorry was parked near a travelling circus. Perhaps intrigued by the Main menagerie, a giraffe stuck its head into the back of the lorry. Whereupon David Main instructed the lorry driver to avoid the police at all costs lest the whole kit and caboodle be charged with running an over-loaded and illegal transport service.
David Main was a born actor. Once his constituency Member of Parliament was making a speech filled with the usual political clichés. At the end of the speech, David Main jumped up and demanded a ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ answer to a very convoluted question. The puzzled parliamentarian confessed, ‘I’m afraid I don’t understand the question.’ Whereupon Main stood up again to accuse the poor man of stonewalling. The crowd burst into laughter and cheers. David Main had turned a dull evening into an exciting event. It was a lesson Douglas learned well: to make an adventure from the humdrum. On another occasion in his own drawing room in London, David interrupted a discussion on George Bernard Shaw, about whom he knew little, with the remark, ‘Ah yes, Shaw. Of course, he was quite an unknown quantity, you know.’ The guests, some of whom knew a lot about Shaw, were stunned. But Douglas who was present saw the moral of the story at once. Lack of knowledge was not fatal. Self-confidence was the thing. Later Douglas, who once described his father as ‘a wild Irishman with a mop of black curly hair’, would often use self-confidence and braggadocio to highlight a humorous situation.
There’s no doubt David Main had self-confidence to burn. He burned it selling sweepstake tickets (typically he gave that up once they were legalized), he burned it at the race-track and he burned it in shaky business transactions. As a respite from these and the constrictions of raising a large family on modest resources, David Main liked nothing better than to get back to Ballinskelligs (a liking not shared by his wife) and chew over the local news in Gaelic with his buddies in Kerry. The stories and the Irish whiskey were a potent brew for the ‘schanachies’ (Irish story-tellers) as they spun their tales around the bar of Main’s Hotel in Ballinskelligs. In another emanation David Main would have made a splendid character actor (as indeed would his son, Douglas). As a family man, however, David, in some ways, was ‘a street angel and a house divil’.
Whatever the hullabaloo, Eileen Hurley Main never seemed to lose her composure. She was quiet, gentle and very Irish. She shared with her husband a strong Catholic faith. In religious practice, however, Eileen never insisted on the letter of the law, for example, not eating meat on Friday if the meat would then go bad. Eileen said God was more concerned with the waste than he was with the rule. She worried about people down on their luck. She called them ‘waifs and strays’ and more often than not (usually after a telephone call from the local parish priest) Eileen would invite a ‘waif’ or a ‘stray’ in for a meal, maybe to stay the night or longer.
There was the time the wife of an official of the famous Raffle’s Hotel in Singapore showed up on her door step in London. Eileen knew the woman had a drinking problem. She invited her in, gave her a good meal, then ensconced her in the master Main bedroom for the night. Sometime after midnight David Main arrived home unexpectedly. Naturally thinking he would find his wife in bed he bustled into the master-bedroom, threw back the covers and discovered instead the wife of an official of Raffle’s Hotel. ‘My God, woman, what are you doing?’ he shrieked. Eileen merely laughed. ‘When you have a guest in the house,’ she said, ‘you give the guest nothing but the best.’ It was a custom Douglas never forgot.
David Main usually knew better than to argue with his wife. Later Douglas would call his mother ‘the gentle persuader’. She normally got her way without losing her temper. She was easy-going, more reticent than the Mains, sometimes living in a kind of dream world. When one of her children said, ‘I’d like to dye my hair,’ Eileen did not say ‘No!!’ She asked, ‘What colour?’ When the children played hide-and-seek it didn’t fuss her to find one in her laundry hamper. She just put the lid back down. Sunday night was family night at the Main household, not just for the Mains but for half the families in the neighbourhood. David Main had a fine singing voice. He wanted everybody to sing. What’s more he ordered them to. There were games. People wrote down a subject for a one-minute speech. Then the topics were drawn from a hat. Douglas’ older brother, Ian, was outraged when he drew the topic suggested by Douglas, ‘Early Byzantine Architecture’. Even at this time, aged seven or eight, no one was quite certain how seriously to take Douglas. Throughout his life, Douglas had fun with exaggeration and hyperbole. His sisters and surviving brother still remember, aghast, ‘the lies he used to tell’.
There was a mischievous side to Douglas. Once he and a group of his friends visited a local cemetery. Douglas noticed that some graves had flowers, others did not. He suggested they redistribute all the flowers. They did. Playing ‘doctors and nurses’ with his older sister, Yvonne, about to have her leg ‘amputated’, Douglas would say, ‘Don’t worry, Madame, this knife is quite blunt.’ Sometimes Douglas would entertain guests while his mother made tea. Once he startled a north London matron by asking, ‘What do you think of the Abyssi¬nian question?’ From his parents’ marriage, not romantic, volatile at times, but built on a solid bond between two complementary personalities, Douglas first experienced the warmth of human love.
But even in these early years there was another side to Douglas: quiet, shy, introspective and religious. From his father, accurate and pragmatic, Douglas acquired his precision. From his mother, spiritual, more of a dreamer, Douglas gained his insight into religious values and his imaginative flair. From the beginning there was a strong bond between Douglas and Eileen. She had immense influence on his spiritual pilgrimage. He was proud of his mother. Much later he would join clubs in various cities. One of the reasons was so that he could take Eileen dining in style.
Others noticed this close bond between Douglas and Eileen and also his quiet, reflective side. An older relative described Douglas at seven or eight:
He was, I thought, a very quiet and serious little lad but he always seemed to be making a study of people. Maybe this is why he was such a good mimic. . . . Maybe his appearance as a serious child was all part of the act. . . . Douglas was always a popular child and very much so with adults. This again, I think, is because he made a great study of all.
There was also a steady religious influence in the Main home. Naturally, in a Roman Catholic family then, there was regular Mass on Sunday and prayers in the evening. The Main children, like children in many Christian homes, played ‘religious’ games. Douglas and his brother, Ian, often played a game called ‘Bishops’. Although Ian was older, invariably Douglas was the bishop and Ian his assistant. Somewhat indecorously, the altar bell was sounded on a chamber pot. Douglas used to dress up as a priest with a dash of red to denote ecclesiastical rank. He made an ‘altar’ in his bedroom and his sisters were dragooned into ‘serving Mass’.
Many years later a boyhood friend saw these early religious ‘games’ as the real beginning of Douglas Main’s spiritual journey:
When he eventually made the break and went to Canada to concentrate on his meditative studies, one or two people said to me rather unkindly: ‘Typical Douglas—I always knew he would start a new religion.’ To me it was only the logical outcome of that facet of his character and forming inner self that I had seen so vividly in childhood. . . . Early in his life I was privileged to see on an intimate basis what was later to develop so strongly. He never really changed. From his childhood his later life was inevitable.
End of Chapter One.
In The Stillness Dancing — the Journey of John Main information page.
How the Sheas (and Neil) arrived in Canada
Written by Neil – originally published in Nuacht September 2006
You might think the name Coolcappa describes one of those iced coffee drinks we enjoyed during the summer. In fact it is a small village on the border of Limerick from where my Irish ancestors, the Sheas, set out for the New World in June 1825. (Coolcappa comes from the Irish Cuil Cheapach meaning “corner of the village plots.”) This spring, my wife, Catharine, and I spent a morning there mucking around the parish graveyard in the warm rain, looking for names on the weathered gravestones that might give us a clue about who was left behind. We also chatted with the lovely woman who keeps the grocery store-post office as clean as a whistle and filled with laughter from her wonderful Irish stories.
Of course the Sheas (also called the O’Sheas) are one of those storied Irish families that came from a long lineage working its way back through hill and dale, war and peace to the early bogs and mists of ancient Ireland. Here we catch up with them early in the nineteenth-century when the Sheas had long been farmers in County Limerick. Unfortunately, the economic situation in the early eighteen-twenties was grim. In 1821 the potato crop failed, causing great distress among the lower classes who subsisted mainly on a diet of potatoes and buttermilk.
To deal with this situation the British government decided to underwrite the costs of sending carefully selected families from the south of Ireland to Upper Canada, giving them free land (70 acres) and supplying them with tools and a year’s supply of rations. At one stroke this policy would reduce suffering in Ireland and provide more men for the militia in Upper Canada, still nervous after the war of 1812.
To get this scheme off the ground, the British government contacted the Attorney General of Upper Canada, Sir John Robinson, who turned to his elder brother, the Hon. Peter Robinson, at that time the Member of Parliament for York. Quickly, Peter Robinson travelled to Ireland and began lining up volunteers to leave for the New World. Although only a limited number could be accommodated, many thousands applied, sick of their poverty and lack of prospects at home. And this despite the fact Robinson was peppered with questions concerning the presence of bears, wolves and marauding Indians.
By the summer of 1823, the first group of emigrants sailed from Cork, arriving in Quebec City after a voyage of eight weeks. These settlers then travelled to the Bathurst District, made up of the present day counties of Lanark, Renfrew and Carleton. Many of them settled in Ramsay Township close to the modern towns of Almonte and Carleton Place. The second phase of Peter Robinson’s emigration plan began two years later, in the spring and summer of 1825. It was this group (2,024) that included my ancestors, the Sheas, who were booked on the good ship John Barry with a total passenger list of 253.
Along with Michael 16 (my great-grandfather) there were eight other Sheas in the family. These included Michael’s parents, Thomas (born in Coolcappa 1781) his wife, Bridget (1786), and his siblings Jeremiah (1806), Michael (1808), John (1810), Mary (1813), Thomas (1815), Johanna (1819) and baby Dennis, who was just two years old when the ship salied at the end of May at 10 a.m., the “morning fine and almost calm.”
Each ship in the flotilla (there were nine others beside the John Barry) included a ship’s surgeon, ours being Mr. William Burnie, a Scot, who had graduated from the University of Edinburgh medical school seven years earlier. Almost as important as the medical care he dispensed was the fact that Mr. Burnie kept a diary which gives a vivid account of life on the John Barry.
The voyage was not an easy one. Soon after boarding, the passengers began to experience two discomforts that were to plague them throughout, seasickness and inadequate sanitary facilities. Mr. Burnie wrote: “Two days at sea all the men were up and they sprinkled and scraped the decks. Women generally sick. Up all the beds and every person off the berths deck. Had the decks swept and the under berths cleaned. Washed clothes.” That evening at seven there was a welcome diversion, “music and dancing.”
On Monday morning “Timothy Callaghan was detected taking another man’s flour cake, and punished after being found guilty by twelve of his peers by cleaning the water closet for two days.” Many days the seas were rough and the passengers bilious. “Strong gales with thick fog. At times heavy rain. Heavy sea from S.W. … many sickly. Mrs. Slattery, Callaghan, Groves seasickness. Tim Reagan fever. Sullivan constipation … lime juice to those who wish it.”
Sometimes the nausea boiled over into a quarrel. “A violent fight with much scurrilous gab between Mrs. Owens and Mrs. Blackwell. The former is a noisy, quarrelsome woman, Blackwell little better. Well matched at tongues.” There were several miscarriages: “Another abortion – Dennis Mahoney jaundice, Pat Regan fever, Mrs. Condon bowels … Mrs. Grave and Baragy seasick.”
Mr. Burnie quickly established a routine whereby the men scrubbed the decks and “All woman washed clothes and hung them on the proper lines.” Meals soon became a problem because some items were foreign to the settlers (like the Sheas) “ who threw the cheese and plum cake over board or complained they were being poisoned. Cocoa was provided for the men, who rejected it. They preferred tea, which was only doled out to the women.” Several of the men (Michael Shea perhaps) disguised themselves in female clothing in order to get tea for themselves when rations were given out.
Tea was not the only problem. So, apparently, was the cook. On June 8, Mr. Burnie wrote in his journal: “at 1 p.m. Dinner people wrangling with the cook. They say he boils their provisions too much for the sake of the liquid. He denies it, but says they put it in so irregularly that some of it will be overdone. He threatens giving up the cooking. I settled the dispute by allowing everyone to take out his meat when he likes.”
Indeed, with no refrigeration, the diet was barely tolerated and sickness was endemic. As the weather worsened, the male passengers were obliged to take their turn at pumping out the ship several times a day. A number of passengers developed fever. Sanitary conditions were also deteriorating. The latrines were so inadequate that people took to creeping up on deck to relieve themselves at night. The weather worsened. On June 12, the surgeon writes: “Heavy gales and thick with rain. People between decks, some praying, some crying out murder, some swearing. A few believe the sailors to be getting out boats and leaving them.”
After making Newfoundland on June 19, the surgeon made a list of the ill including “Mrs. Regan who brought forth a daughter in the 7th month” and, ominously, “the baby Dennis Shea.” On June 27, the surgeon listed his patients as “10 sick, 2 very ill (Dennis being one) … People dined on deck. Weather fine and clear.” It was not fine for “baby Dennis.” His parents and eight siblings surrounded his cot, telling their beads long into the night. It was less than ten days from the sight of Quebec when Surgeon Burnie wrote in his journal: “Midnight departed this life Dennis Shea, aged 17 months 9 days.” Little did his grieving mother, Bridget, know that within a few weeks she would lose another member of her family.
Two days later the John Barry struck a sand bar, began to take on heavy water, many of the passengers panicked and some of the crew threatened mutiny before the officers managed to put things right. On July 7, six weeks after it left Cork harbour, the John Barry docked in Quebec and was boarded by the Harbour Master.
The next day Tom and Bridget Shea and their brood, along with the other passengers boarded the Steam Packet, Swiftsure, for the trip to Montreal. The ship sailed at eight in the morning the temperature being 88 degrees. The next day the emigrants from one of the other ships arrived in eight bateaux. “I consider his people more unruly than mine,” Mr. Burnie wrote with satisfaction. Beyond Three Rivers they “reached The Cedars where we buried the [Mahoney] child in the church yard. Indians very troublesome, wanting money for drink. Others tossing the luggage about and squabbling with the people.”
That was the surgeon’s last entry. The Sheas and the rest then made their way overland to Lachine where the bateaux were waiting to transport them to Prescott and on to Kingston.
Meanwhile Peter Robinson himself had gone to the Newcastle District (later renamed Peterborough after himself but then known as Scotts Plains) to reconnoitre a travel route before returning to Prescott to pick up his charges. “On the eleventh of August, I embarked 500 on board a Steamboat and landed them the next day at Cobourg, a distance of one hundred miles; the remainder of the settlers were brought up the same way, the boat making a trip each week.”
The route from Cobourg to Rice Lake (and then on to Scotts Plains at the head of the Otonabee river) was a thick wasteland of rocks and trees, an almost impenetrable forest. We can only try to imagine how Thomas and Bridget Shea and their six children would view this forbidding wilderness, most of it unknown except to native people. I find it hard to imagine myself although it is in this very area that I and many other descendants of Thomas and Bridget grew up. We went to Cobourg for school picnics, swam in Rice Lake and at least once a year excitedly looked forward to seeing the races at the Peterborough Exhibition.
Meanwhile, as he recounted, the resourceful Peter Robinson had “two scows” made, which were “transported on wheels from Lake Ontario to the Rice Lake.” No wonder Robinson found it difficult to recruit the manpower necessary to trundle these scows, each 56 feet long, on wheels over twelve miles of makeshift road laboriously cut out of the wilderness.
At last after much huffing and puffing, everyone arrived at Scott’s Plains, now downtown Peterborough. Lots were chosen and it is my understanding that Tom and Bridget and their children settled some miles from Peterborough in Asphodel township on what later was called the Shea line running between Norwood and Hastings on the Trent River, a road that Catharine and I discovered again on a sunny August day this summer.
Sadly, in 1826, not long after they arrived in Asphodel, another tragedy struck the family. Bridget, who had lost her baby, Dennis, almost within sight of Quebec City a few months before, now lost her husband Tom who was drowned in Rice Lake at the young age of 45, leaving her a widow, aged 40, with six children.
Fortunately, Bridget’s eldest don “Darby” (Jeremiah) was old enough to qualify for land. Bridget, now listed by the authorities as the “Widow Shea” received one cow, two blankets, three axes, meat, flour and other necessities. At the time of his father’s death, Michael, my great-grandfather was 17. He would have worked with his brothers clearing the forest and caring for his mother. About 10 years later, he married Ann Myles, 20, from Cork, the daughter of Thomas Myles and Honorah Connell. Not quite two years later their first child, Catherine, was born. Michael and Ann went on to have ten more children including William born in 1850 and Jeremiah in 1856.
William Shea was my grandfather. He grew up on a farm in Asphodel Township not far from where I later lived in the village of Hastings. He was a spare man over six feet tall with a trim white moustache who for many years had been a motorman on the street cars in Peterborough before returning to Asphodel to take up farming in earnest, living in one of those impressive solid red brick houses just outside Norwood at the western end of the Shea line. He had married Bridget McCarthy, born in 1856, and they had two children, my mother, Irene and her sister, Geraldine.
My grandfather, who spent many happy hours fishing for pickerel in the Trent River, died at the age of 89 in Hastings just as war was breaking out in 1939. His father, Michael, died at the age of 83 in Asphodel in 1891. It was just over 60 years since he had left Coolcappa to board the John Barry at the city of Cork for the wilds of Asphodel.
Originally published in Nuacht September 2006
Polly of Bridgewater Farm
A wet and windy day early in November.
Edgar Plimsoll, civil servant, sat fuming in his office at the back of Mountjoy House, headquarters of the famed Ordnance Survey at Phoenix Park. He was struggling manfully to find something at the bottom of an enormous pile of maps, drawings and reports on the desk in front of him.
“Willy!” he bellowed. “Willy, where the devil is that report on Dromore? It was due days ago. Heads will roll if we don’t get this mess off our hands soon.”
“I did Dromore like you said,” muttered Willoughby, a lanky youth of indefinite age, who detested his nickname. “It’s in here somewhere.” He pulled at a corner of the pile and the whole heap slid gracefully and inexorably to the floor.
“There are two Dromores, you idiot,” snapped Plimsoll, as he struggled to disentangle the heap, “and the one you can hardly find on the map is missing. Without it, we can’t hand in Tyrone. Why we bother I sometimes wonder. This whole ordnance survey has gotten out of hand if you ask me.” No one had in fact asked his opinion, but that never stopped Edgar. He actually liked this brightest of his new recruits, foresaw a fine career ahead of him, but he was stubborn, needed a good push now and then, like all the Welsh.
“You’d better get to it. Take the mail coach tonight to Omagh. Stop at the Royal Arms Hotel. They say it’s one of the best in the county. Orr, the owner, will give you a good horse there. And look sharp. The Duke of Wellington is expecting results for all this money Treasury is spending. Though why he thinks anyone can organize the Irish is beyond me, and himself an Irishman.”
Willy left in a huff. His grandfather was Irish and he was tired of hearing these constant caricatures. By the time he arrived at Gosson’s Hotel in Bolton Street, there were no inside seats left. Thus at 7:30 that night, he found himself perched precariously on top of the lurching coach, as the horses galloped down the darkening roads. He remembered all the lurid tales of highwaymen he had heard from colleagues, especially John O’Donovan, their place name and Irish language expert. One time O’Donovan had taken the night coach from Londonderry to Omagh. It set off with eighteen passengers clinging for dear life outside, and ten passengers crammed inside, himself clutching his umbrella as a shelter from the driving rain and wind, his feet almost frozen from the cold. As if this wasn’t enough, didn’t the coach overturn in the mud just past Strabane.
“When in doubt, walk, my boy,” advised O’Donovan. He himself had done just that, only to discover next morning that the coach for Dublin had departed without him. And to add insult to injury his superior, Larcom, had warned him solemnly to omit all ‘ribaldry’ in his survey reports. To which he is said to have agreed to make all his future communications “very serious, cold and
Hours later, Willy arrived in Omagh, sleepless, soaked to the skin, and with a cold well on its way. If only he could have stayed put for a day or two at the comfortable inn where a hot meal was set down before him.
The next morning a stable lad provided Willy with “one of his best horses.” No sign of Mr. Orr, the owner, who was “away on business.” It was still pouring rain when master and beast, both equally disgruntled, plodded along the muddy road in the direction of Dromore. Halfway there the horse stumbled and threw a shoe, in sheer spite, Willy declared later.
Willoughby George Hemans arrives at his destination.
A bedraggled figure stood hesitantly at the open door of Dromore’s forge. He was warmly welcomed by the group of men near the blazing fire, who of course wanted to know every detail of his errand, and as much of his life history as he would reveal. He had suddenly become a more interesting person than he had ever thought himself to be. In turn, he was more than a little surprised to discover that even the poorest labourer in this group had a vocabulary at least three times as large as his English counterpart, drawn from his Irish roots.
Remembering his duties, he queried the smith on how many houses there might be in the village. Thomas O’Neill, a giant of a man, roared with laughter. “I’ve never counted but I can tell you there are nineteen spirits dealers, and Cassidy’s is the best of them. For the rest you’ll find two grocers, two bakers if you’ll be needing a loaf of bread, one butcher, three cobblers, and if you want a place to stay, there’s McCann’s hotel, for what it’s worth. If you’re needing a fresh horse, as by the looks of it you do, there’s not a single one for hire here, but George Noble’s yer man, up on the coach road to Enniskillen.”
And so it was that Willy Hemans found himself on the doorstep of the Noble’s house on a hill just off what is now called Bridge Road. Jane Noble, a sturdy young woman of medium height, perhaps three years older than himself, stood in the doorway.
She took one look at him. Before he could protest, he found himself supplied with dry clothes, albeit a size too small, a hot meal and
a bed for the night.
The next morning, Will, for so he was now called, accompanied his host to the barn to find a suitable mount. Five years older than himself and half a head shorter, George Noble strode ahead so fast, talking rapidly all the while, that Will arrived nearly breathless at the barn, where several pairs of brown eyes stared curiously at him.
Indeed he had come to the right place. He couldn’t believe his luck. These horses, he soon discovered, were a cross between the sturdy local mares and the same Irish thoroughbreds that both the Duke of Wellington and Napoleon had ridden at the Battle of Waterloo. George’s grandfather had acquired one at the end of the war when they were going cheap at the famous Moy horse fair.
George and Jane wouldn’t hear of Will going to stay at McCann’s. That night around the fire Will discovered that his host’s forebears had almost been born on horseback; reivers (or cattle rustlers if you like) living by their wits on the borderland between England and Scotland. They had been shipped out lock, stock and barrel by James VI of Scotland when he became James I of England. He was glad to get rid of the lot of them, and they, in turn, had as little love for the law and authorities as did their new Irish neighbours. The Nobles on the whole were Presbyterians, but George’s father John had loaned three horses to John Wesley, the Methodist preacher, when he came through Trillick and Drumquin.
Every morning Will rose early and rode out to measure the height of hills, the length of rivers and the dimensions of any building that could possibly be of interest. In the evenings, neighbours dropped by after milking time, full of stories and information that unfortunately never made it into his report. He was just twenty-one. This was only his second field assignment and he was still a little in awe of the polished British officers who were in charge at Mountjoy House.
After all, who would ever read these reports? Likely these memoirs that had so excited Colby’s successor, the debonair young Lieutenant Larcom (now Superintendent in charge of the whole Mountjoy Ordnance Survey Project), would moulder on some back shelf.
And so Willoughby George Hemans relaxed in the warmth of the Nobles’ home and mentally consigned his assignment to oblivion. His real dream was to become a famous engineer on one of the new railroads. Railway fever would soon be sweeping Ireland. Every town in Ireland would want to be on a line. And he was in the right place at the right time to be part of the excitement.
Will explores Dromore.
One neighbour who was intrigued by Will’s dream and came by often on these November evenings was Joseph Fleming, a master stonemason, who lived with his son, William, on the farm on the opposite side of the coach road.
While George and William talked horses, Will discovered that Joseph had worked on the new portico of the great courthouse in Omagh that Will had seen through the rain. Will was soon describing the magnificent Roman arches he had admired when he had reluctantly spent two years with his father in Italy. Resentment against his father, a retired sea captain, who had deserted his mother and five small sons under the age of six, (himself the eldest), had given Will a burning desire to succeed.
Joseph had some time on his hands now that the harvest was in, and so he went with Will to have a good look at the four-arched bridge over the widest part of the Owenreagh River at Shaneragh. Just below Dromore itself, they stopped at another bridge with a history.
In the old days, the cottage weavers from Drumquin forded a mountain stream at that spot to bring their famed linen yarn, tweeds and flax to the Dromore Fair. The Alexander family, who had settled the place a long time before, had recently encouraged their tenants to build a bridge at the ford. The tenants worked long and hard, believing the promise they had been given that no toll would ever be exacted for that bridge. On the first Fair Day of the next New Year, imagine the surprise of the villagers who found themselves face to face with a tollkeeper!
By ten o’clock that morning, a colourful parade of tenants and weavers had formed with marching bands and were headed down the road toward the now inaccessible Owenreagh Bridge.
In the meantime, landlord Alexander had called in a troop of horse soldiers and the local yeomanry. At noon, armed only with blackthorn sticks, and cheering wildly, the people drove the police and cavalry steadily back through the streets of the village.
Unfortunately, property was damaged and a policeman killed by a stray stone. Three men, Barrett, Gallagher and Hannigan, were transported to Van Dieman’s Land in Australia and many others were forced to flee to safety. But the day the cavalry had to back off lived on in local legend.
The next morning Will went dutifully back to the more boring part of his task, counting houses; twenty-nine of one-storey,
sixty-eight of two-storeys, and five of three-storeys, mostly built of stone, he noted down. Joseph broke in, “And there was the house in which a man named Kelly was murdered by Lieutenant Hamilton on a Fair Day just fourteen years ago when he shot into a crowd of innocent people.” This certainly didn’t fit under the headings Will was supposed to fill out, so he continued, twenty-seven slated roofs and the remainder thatched.
“Those roofs nearly all went up in flames when the notorious Lord Blayney and his dragoons came through here in search of rebels some years back,” Joseph informed him. “The whole town might have gone up in flames if it hadn’t been for our curate, Benjamin Marshall. He’s the mildest mannered man you’d ever want to meet, but he stopped Blayney in his tracks with the help of a Captain and a Lieutenant who were horrified at his Lordship’s actions.”
“That same curate rushed into a burning house on that corner right over there to rescue a baby from its cradle where its terrified parents had left it. And now the daughter of that curate is married to one of the richest young men in Australia, one of the Osbornes.”
As they continued down Main Street, Joseph told him who lived in each house: the Sproules, O’Briens, McCoys, Scotts, McCuskers, Fenlons, McMahons, Humphreys, McLoughlins, McAleers, and the Anthony family. Then there were the McGraths, James Gilmore the carpenter, James Slevin, one of the schoolmasters family of Slevins, Catherine and Denis Teague, Thomas Corry, Margaret Cunningham, Thomas Gallagher, and Breege McIlholm.
When they turned onto Church Street, John Scott, the tailor, teased Joseph Fleming about having a new suit made. “I’d never afford that, John,” was the reply.
“Don’t blame it on me if that waistcoat falls off you all by itself one of these days,” John retorted. Indeed the britches Joseph habitually wore had turned almost grey from the lime dust embedded in the corduroy.
By the end of the day, Will had met nearly everybody in Dromore. They spent a little while in Cassidy’s. Though Joseph did not drink alcohol, he sat comfortably swapping stories with the other men while Will listened. If the story was especially poignant, about two brothers who had killed each other over a woman, it was met with a Greek chorus of “oh, the pity of it,” or “sad, indeed that was,” encouraging the storyteller to continue with another one.
Will regretfully returned to the mundane task at hand. Under the heading ’Communication’, he noted with some feeling: It is notorious in the parish that half the number of roads actually contained in it would be more serviceable if kept in good repair than all the wretched lines which now intersect it in all directions.
Indeed, he noted: There has been little improvement in the parish of any kind for many years, because of the absence of proprietors and of the rector of the parish who had not lived in it for forty years back until three years ago when the present incumbent arrived.
And twenty-one-year-old Will couldn’t resist adding a cheeky comment of his own to amuse his superiors: It is a singular fact that almost all the parishioners belonging to the Church of England are at heart mere Methodists, and though they appear at church in the morning, they never fail to season the information they derive there with a little Methodist rant in the evenings. Never mind that his friend, Joseph, was a Methodist.
The Old Church on the Brae
Early the next morning, the two men climbed up to the Old Church on the Brae. Will admired the mullioned transept window. Joseph had patched some of the cracks around it, but more cracks were appearing, and the roof was obviously beyond repair. There was talk of a new church, but the rector was occupied with the fine new glebe house he was building for his large family. And on July 12th of that year he had tactlessly placed a large Orange flag on the church roof, and another one over the entrance to the graveyard where Catholics and Protestants lay side by side.
Joseph showed the younger man the grave of his own grandfather. Thomas Fleming, born 1713, died aged 94 in 1807, son of John Fleming of Mulnagoe, so the inscription read.
Will sensed the attachment this man had to this place and the people who had gone before him. He thought with regret of his own father, now living in grand style in Italy. He and his brothers had been obliged to go with their mother to live with their grandmother in the tiny Welsh hill village of St. Asaph, gateway to the picturesque vale of Clwyd, with the smallest ancient cathedral in the whole of Britain. All these years his mother had supported them with her poetry. How he wished he had had a father like Joseph.
His thoughts were interrupted by an apologetic cough. A man of middling height had entered the graveyard with another, who carried a large shovel over his shoulder. “Our curate, Mr. Marshall, who saved Dromore, and our friend to the end, Mr. Walsh.” The gravedigger touched his cap then moved to his task.
Will murmured appropriate phrases but the sight of a new pit being dug opened up a raw wound. Only last May, he had watched his beloved mother being lowered into her own grave. Felicia Browne Hemans, age 41, the inscription read. She had died of tuberculosis in her tiny house on the edge of St. Stephen’s Green. He had found her there. The only relative at the graveyard had been his uncle, now Chief Constable of Dublin’s Metropolitan Constabulary. Felicia had come to Dublin to be near him.
Every schoolboy in the Empire probably knew her most famous poem by heart – at least the first two lines of it:
The boy stood on the burning deck,
Whence all but he had fled.
He wanted those lines carved on her tombstone, but had been dissuaded by his uncle. Would anyone remember them ten, twenty years from now?
His mother had been a friend of the poet Wordsworth, had stayed with him and his sister, Dorothy, at Dove Cottage in England’s Lake District. The great poet had praised her poetry, and her gentle spirit. She had won the hearts of a generation of Victorians who perhaps saw in her writing a reflection of their best selves. She had raised five sons, all the while a semi-invalid. Would even her name be remembered one hundred years hence?
Will looked around at the other graves, some unmarked, some with headstones leaning a little crazily to one side. Near the entrance a few were enclosed by a fine wrought iron railing, engraved with the name Noble. “Some of George’s wealthier relatives, I believe, those who own their own land, unlike the rest of us,” Joseph explained, with no trace of regret. Will thought of Jane, the young Jane Noble, who reminded him a little of his mother, with her dark hair, and of his new friends, George and Joseph. How strange, he thought, that the lives of these people I have just met should become so interwoven with mine, as though each of our stories is part of some greater whole, unfolding all the while. Curious that in this isolated village he should no longer feel so alone. A few days ago it was just a dot on a map.
It was peaceful, here on the Brae. Across the road, a few cows grazed placidly against the slope of the hill. One raised its head, stared at him, then bawled companionably. He almost laughed out loud, remembering his mother’s favourite poem. He repeated the words slowly,
The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,
The lowing herd winds slowly o’er the lea,
The plowman homewards plods his weary way,…
“Do you know it, Joseph?” he asked hopefully.
The older man nodded, “We learned it in school.
Now fades the glimmering landscape on the sight,
And all the air a solemn stillness holds,
Save where the beetle wheels his drowsy flight,”…
A cough tinged with merriment broke in on them. “I don’t see a beetle anywhere, do you?” said the voice of the curate at his side. “Ah, but our Thomas Gray got it right, Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard and here we are.
Perhaps in this neglected spot is laid
Some heart once pregnant with celestial fire;
Some mute inglorious Milton here may rest,
Some Cromwell, guiltless of his country’s blood.”
“And ours too,” he muttered. “Would that it were true.” And with that curate and gravedigger accompanied Will and Joseph back down the hill to the village.
On their arrival they heard a great commotion. People were running out of the shops toward one of the houses on Main Street. Two of the village’s constables were striding purposefully in the same direction, soon to disappear though a front door now thrown wide open. Joseph followed. He knew the house well; his son, William, had often been a guest there. Its owner was Dr. W. who had been a surgeon on a man-of-war naval vessel for many years. William had enjoyed the man’s stories. They were well told, enlivened by the fine classical education Dr. W. had gained in his early days at Trinity College. Recently, without explanation, William Fleming had ended the visits.
Before Joseph could find out what had happened, Dr. W. was led away in a straitjacket, half-supported by one of the burly constables. Joseph went into the house and found James Dill already there. This young Presbyterian minister had just arrived that August from Donegal, and already knew most of the people in the village.
Little by little Joseph learned the whole sorry story. The visits of the doctor to the local pub had become more frequent. “Yesterday morning the doctor’s sister-in-law, a young girl, came across the street to my lodgings to request me to go over to see the doctor, who she said was very ill,” Dill told him. “I found him in bed and apparently little the matter with him, except a tremor in his hand and a slight twitch of the lip. On my remarking, “You are not very ill,” he replied, “You don’t know what is the matter with me – it is the first stage of delirium tremens. I have had it three times before, and now while my reason remains, I want to prepare for the worst.”
“I was absolutely astounded,” young Dill told Joseph. “I read and prayed with him, pointed him to the Lamb of God who ‘came into the world to save sinners, even the worst, whose blood cleanseth from all sin,’ and besought him to flee to this only refuge of the sinner. I saw him again several times during the day; every time there was a change for the worse.
“Early this morning I was sent for in great haste. I ran across and there I beheld a sight I shall never forget – Dr. W. stood in his nightdress at his own bedroom door with a drawn dagger in his hand; his wife and sister-in-law had fled and he was pursuing them. I prevailed upon him to give me the dagger and to go into his bed, but every minute he started up, and with the most frightful gestures exclaimed, ‘There they are, don’t you see them!’ The surgeon was able to shave his head, but he became so violent soon after that the constables had to put him in a straitjacket, as you have seen, and I fear we will not cast our eyes upon him again except in death.”
Joseph was more than usually silent as they rode homeward. Will was interested to learn more about the young preacher who had faced down an armed man. Later Dill would give a rousing speech on temperance to a cheering crowd of three thousand people in the new Catholic chapel, standing side by side with Fr. Theobald Matthew, the apostle of temperance from Cork. Before he went to bed Will added a self-righteous note to his report: It may be noticed under the head, ‘Habits of the People,’ that there is a quantity of whisky drunk in this small place quite disproportionate to the number of the inhabitants, as the above table containing nineteen spirit shops out of forty-four tradesmen’s houses will testify.
The next evening, knowing Will would soon be leaving, the Nobles invited some of the neighbours. Will still had many questions and now threw one of them out. “Why is there so little new building in the village itself? Why are some of the houses in such disrepair?” The answer came with unexpected heat from William Fleming who had sat silent on two previous evenings. “I was just eight years old when two bad harvests in a row hit our part of the country, 1816 and 1817 that was. Some of my school friends were dying of the fever that followed on after. They closed the schools. People sold their clothing for food – there were children running around naked. There was no dispensary then, no medicine except a few herbs, no doctor.”
“People were just beginning to recover from that, those that did recover, when a second famine hit five years later. There’s a cumulative effect to these things that takes the heart out of people. Do you wonder people don’t worry about a bit of dirt or a broken-down wall?”
Will was intrigued by this man now suddenly so passionate. William was a fraction taller than his father, Joseph, equally broad-shouldered with black hair and deep set eyes. He had the bearing of a soldier but had never carried arms; his skin and roughened hands told of a life outdoors.
Now he continued. “On the other hand, we’re luckier than many a village in Ireland. We’ve two good men who’ve landed in our midst. I take it you’ve been hearing of James Dill, our new young Presbyterian minister who came in here like a whirlwind from Donegal in August and was ordained this month. He’s set us all back on our heels, including our new rector, who isn’t used to a young upstart – just your age Will, begging your pardon – stirring things up, and a non-conformist at that. And then there’s our new Parish Priest, Father Peter Gordon, a cousin of old Benjamin Marshall whom I gather you met upon the Brae. Interesting man is Father Peter, son of a Protestant blacksmith, with his father’s height and strength. He’s gone about rebuilding the church with all that energy, and the willing help of his parishioners. He’s even dragooned my father into helping them insert two lovely new windows, as I’m sure you’ve seen.” Will nodded. He had noted down the rebuilding for his report in his usual laconic style.
On the last evening of his stay in Dromore, Will found himself wishing he had a painter’s gift. Jane sat by the fire mending her lovely red cloak. It fell in folds of rich colour across the dark blue of her long wool skirt. The cloak had been made by her grandmother and given to her on her wedding day. She was just twenty-four years old, with silky black hair coiled loosely at the back of her head, clear skin tanned by hours in the fields and dark eyes that sparkled as she talked. Her nine-month-old baby, Eliza, lay fast asleep in a cradle at her feet. George stood leaning against the hearth, pipe in hand in a rare moment of relaxation. The blazing turf fire cast a ruby glow over the whole family, as though Will were looking at an old painting. He would remember them like this.
Back in Dublin, in his cubbyhole at Phoenix Park, Will reread his report. Pretty pedestrian stuff, he thought. For a moment he hesitated, then inserted one final paragraph. One instance of peculiarity of costume prevails in this as well as in the surrounding parishes of this part of Tyrone, that is, the great prevalence of red cloaks and shawls among the women. At a fair or any other concourse of people this remark cannot fail of occurring to the stranger. Its effect is very pleasing in the crowd. It gives a great air of liveliness and brilliance to the fairs.
With a flourish he signed his name, Memoir by W. Hemans, 30th November, 1835.
Perhaps someone else would see Dromore through different eyes….
End of Chapter One
Polly of Bridgewater Farm