"...stories birling through my mind..."
A literary journey
Nostalgic Irish prose
Irish culture & folklore
Ulster-Scots short stories
"...stories birling through my mind..."
My Great Aunt Jean McCullagh (nee Lyttle) was 104 this week. Happy birthday Jean!
Jean is my granny Rossborough's sister. I interviewed her a couple of years ago when I was writing an historical novel and thought this would be a nice time to share what she told me. My mum is very fond of her aunt Jean. I always remember Jean sitting in the Murrayfield shopping centre when I was wee and my mum yarning to her for an eternity.
Jean said that when she goes for medical appointments, the nurses sometimes take pictures of her. They also invariably ask her what the secret is to a long life. She tells them that she was reared on goats milk and that she had bacon, eggs and soda fresh from the griddle every morning.
Jean's mother was Mary Lyttle (nee Gillen). She was from Ballysnod and lived there most of her days. Jean’s father was Samuel Lyttle, whose parents were from Maghera.
Mary’s father was Patrick Gillen, who, like many people in the late 1800s, left these shores for America. He was forty at the time, and it is believed that he may have died before actually boarding the ship. His wife, Isabella Gillen, my great great granny, was therefore alone for most of her adult life.
Jean loved visiting her Granny, Isabella. She too was from Ballysnod, but lived in a thatched cottage at Bank Quays near the Glynn. The house was on the opposite side to Howdens and located back from the road at the foot of a steep glen. Jean frequently ran down though the fields between Ballysnod and the Glynn with her siblings. They slept in an old settle bed filled with straw by the fire when they stayed over with their Granny Gillen. Jean recalls that her granny used to walk as far as Carrickfergus to sell eggs and to visit a relative.
Childhood play for my granny’s siblings involved hoops and skipping ropes. The children also had free reign of Arnold's farm. Jean’s mother, Mary, rarely ventured beyond the end of the lane, but the world came to Mary’s door with people selling a variety of goods, not least needles, pins and thread, essential items for a talented seamstress. The fishman also came once a week, whilst Jean remembers an auld boy called Tinman, who sold the family tin cups and a tin teapot.
The John Hewitt Society International Summer School
Here I am in Armagh, in voluntarily exile with nothing but a suitcase and a notebook, assigned to a dorm, a world away from my job, my husband, my children, my king-sized bed and all my inhibited freedoms.
I think of my responsibilities from time to time. They roll through my mind at the speed of steel bowls as I meander through the narrow streets, and they clock against my ears like wood on leather as I pass the cricket pitch on the Mall, but the itinerary is tight, the talks and entertainment uplifting, the friends giddy, and so, I walk each day in selfish sandals in the heat of a rare Ulster summer to the Market Place Theatre and Arts Centre in Armagh.
I could write about all the talks I’ve attended and all the people I’ve met, but the reader would see only a blur of names and not the essence of the John Hewitt experience: the wonder of first-time writers, the humour of those who ‘dabble in silly rhymes’, the swagger of outspoken critical thinkers, the idiosyncrasies of spacey poets who talk of other dimensions and the calm aura of the odd bestselling novelist who had no intention of ever becoming a writer at all.
Whilst the talks, readings and conversations are enthralling, some of the most meaningful exchanges occur in surrounding cafes, where tips are given freely and friendships blossom. I studied French at university and always wondered if I’d ever find my Rive Gauche. I didn’t expect to find it in Armagh.
I befriend a local writer called Byddi Lee, a fellow member of Women Aloud and author of ‘March to November.’ Her gorgeous Goldilocks curls come bouncing into my life as she utters a sentence that fills me with hope and fear in equal measures: ‘I’m reading Snugville Street.’ I laugh and assure Byddi that my novel about a French exchange set between Belfast and Paimpol is mostly fiction.
Byddi Lee points to her childhood home on the market place and gives me an insight into her upbringing, a precious window into the soul of a city. You see, Byddi Lee and me, we are as two Cathedrals, raised on opposing plinths of old battle lines.
How did did our ancestors, the young and old of nineteenth century Ulster, foot it to the dance floor? The answer, if you're partial to Victorian literature, can be found in a recently republished novel called Orange Lily.
May Crommelin’s novel, set in County Down in the 1870s, is well worth a read, but what caught my attention, as I made the last touches to my book on the history of Irish dancing, was the description of dancing, and in particular, the reference to Soldier's Joy, my 6 year-old daughter's favourite team dance.
No slithery-slathery walzes!
‘Soldier’s Joy' is a popular team (country) dance in the festival tradition of Irish dancing, and the dance is a charming spectacle to behold as the children knock, knock, knock, clap clap clap and rolly polly polly to the music.
However, in Orange Lily, the dance is a little more rustic. ‘Big Gilhourn,’ an affable farmer, who has taken a fancy to Orange Lily despite her unerring love for Tom, takes to the earthen floor of the barn like Michael Flatley, rejecting any notion of lilting to a modern dance:
“None of your new slithery-slathery walzes for me. What I like best is to see a man get up and take the middle of the floor - and foot it there for a good hour!’ ‘The Soldier’s Joy’ for me, if I may make so bold as to ask that request.”
A few weeks ago, I embarked an eight-week course in the Irish language and I can now say: “Tá athas orm.”
Happiness is on me.
I've always been captivated by languages. At the age of four, I heard the resonant words, “L’Irlande, douze points, “La Royaume Uni, nul point,” and I was intrigued. Decoding the Eurovision Song contest scoring system soon became an annual quest.
Two years later, listening to a pretty German lady singing ‘Ein bisschen Frieden’ (A little peace) marked the turning point in my linguistic aspirations. “I cannae get over it! Thon’s a quare an good song,” said my daddy, who only spoke English. I guess everyone in Northern Ireland wanted ein bisschen Frieden in April 1982.
I became a dedicated language enthusiast, reading and translating the foreign words on the Vosene bottle in the bath and giving ‘Frère Jacques’ slightly more ding ding dong than my contemporaries. By the time I was 16, I came to understand that languages were my ticket out of Northern Ireland, its trouble and its rain: Ein bisschen Wärme, das wünsch ich mir.
The dalliance with German ended after GCSE, but French was a life-long love affair that would ultimately lead to the fictional French exchange in my first published novel, Snugville Street.
The EU was said to be the key that would open doors for all of us working class children in Larne in the 1980s and 1990s, and it was true: languages and an EU passport allowed me to compete for jobs that were inaccessible to my parent's generation.
The patron saint of Irish festival dancing
If Mr O’Rafferty and the Misses Mulholland shaped the dancing style of most of the dancers of the festival tradition in Larne, Ballyclare, Belfast, Bangor and Portadown, then Miss Agnes McConnell of Harryville is the patron saint of Irish dancing in Ballymena and north Antrim.
Miss Agnes McConnell, later Mrs Close, was born in 1901 at 1 Railway Street, Ballymena. It is not clear who taught Agnes McConnell to dance in the Irish style promoted by the Gaelic League, but it is likely that she learned from another family member. Agnes would have been accustomed to the style particular to her area before conforming to the Munster style at the festivals after 1928: much of the adjudicator commentary of the early festivals centred around the taming of arms and Scottish influences among the Larne and Ballymena dancers.
Ballymena was certainly a hub of traditional dancing in Agnes’ formative years: the Protestant Hall in the 1910s and 1920s regularly accommodated Irish night festivities. When Madame McConnell, a Ballymena singer from a separate McConnell line, invited Miss Louise Agnese from Cork to the Protestant Hall in 1911 for an evening of theatrical and musical entertainment that included Irish jigs and reels, hundreds of people had to be turned away. Likewise, local teachers, the Misses Millar, who taught Madame McConnell’s children, included Irish jigs and reels in their fancy dance displays.
Miss Agnes McConnell ran what the family called the “original and only dancing club in Ulster” in Railway Street from at least the late 1920s, if not earlier. Most of the McConnell siblings were involved in dancing, including Sam, who was born in 1911; Fred, who was born in 1915 and Pearl who was born in 1920.
The children grew up in Harryville, a working class area of town that provided manpower for the local linen mill. Most of Miss Agnes McConnell’s aunts and uncles worked at the mill: her mother, Margaret was a spinner and her father, David, a fitter.
Ballymena is a town of mixed religion, but the McConnell family, who belonged to the Church of Ireland, would not have been part of the Gaelic League’s new dawn of saffron and green. Those Protestants involved in the Gaelic League revival of the early 1900s tended to be from middle class or aristocratic stock. Harryville was a unionist, working class and Protestant heartland where the voices were ‘broad Scotch’ and a Twelfth of July arch was decked out in in red, white and blue.
That the family took in a young neighbour, Nan, a future champion dancer, from a struggling family, is symbolic not only of the good nature of the family, but of the tough circumstances in which the people of the area lived.
The McConnells appear at the 1929 Ballymena festival as ‘The Shamrock team,’ featuring Miss Pearl McConnell, younger sister of Agnes. Their performance was noted by adjudicator, Mr Denis Cuffe, as the finest he’d seen in a life-time. In subsequent years, the McConnell dancers were entered into competitions under the name of ‘Miss McConnell’s school.’
Miss Sally McCarley, who later taught her cousin, Mrs Sadie Bell (née Kernohan) to dance, was instructed by Miss Agnes McConnell in the early 1930s. Although Sadie went on
This book is page turner and a wonderful unintended excursion.
It is ironic that I got lost in a glen on the way to Jo Zebedee’s book launch for Waters and the Wild, and I certainly gave my friends a wee titter on facebook when I described that journey from Larne to Carickfergus.
How can anyone from Larne get lost on the back road to Carrickfergus?
At first I blamed the majesty of Glenoe, but maybe, just maybe, there were wee winged creatures in the undergrowth guiding my destination!
I recently stumbled across the Ordnance surveys of the 1830s and discovered that apart from drinking copious amounts of whiskey and dancing their socks off, Presbyterians and Catholics of County Antrim in Victorian times were united in an unerring belief in the fairies!
The Glens of Antrim surround the town in which I live and they have claimed a great big part of my heart: Sunday drives to buy ice-cream in Carnlough; childhood beach trips to Waterfoot; practice hikes and expeditions through marshy mountains on Duke of Edinburgh awards; romantic flights of fancy in a white Fiat Uno with my boyfriend in 1994; guiding tourists (without getting lost) around the waterfalls at Glenoe and Glenariff; leafy walks with my children around Glenarm forest and the music and laughter of the annual Dalriada festival. In short; enough to inspire my own literary endeavours.
“It’s set in the Glens!” she said, and that’s all it took for me to be compelled to read Jo Zebedee’s Waters and the Wild.
The decommissioning of arms
Mr Sean O’Togda complained in 1924 of the ignorance of youth as a result of the decline of the old dance masters. Mr O’Togda had a teacher of the traditional style who taught dancing to women in the following way:
“To add grace and variety to the dance, he showed them how to dance with arms akimbo and to place the hands gracefully on the hips…He also showed the girls how to hold their skirts lightly at the side with thumb and index finger of both hands, and slightly and gracefully keep them out from the sides” (Weekly Freeman’s Journal.)
In a 1904 photograph of an Irish dancer, “Cassie” in Victorian attire at the Feis na Gleann, the dancer has both hands on her hips.
Miss Patricia Mulholland, a Belfast dance mistress, who began teaching in the 1930s, was also an exponent of the use of arms. “As far as I was concerned, arms poker-rigid beneath an expressionless face had little attraction. I wanted to inject more feeling, and, in the process, let Irish dancing come into contact with the widest possible audience.” (MacCafferty)
Arms were, however, discouraged by some dance teachers in the nineteenth century. Mr Trench, a dance master operating in the south of Ireland in the early 1800s instructed that arms should hang gracefully to the side. He actively discouraged the flinging of these limbs about, or flourishing them on the level with the head; an indication that the dancers either had a tendency to naturally liberate their limbs in ethereal motion, or that in some previous time, the arms had moved freely. Another reflection on pre-dance master times is this: “During the rapid exercise, Nancy occasionally clapped one hand on her well-developed hip.” (Irish dancing sixty years ago.)
The white collar scholars of the Gaelic League and the country dancers went head to head in a great national and nationalistic debate about what exactly Irish dancing was, and the Gaelic League turned to the south-west for inspiration, applying the Munster style found in areas of counties Kerry, Cork and Limerick to step dancing in the rest of the country. Foley observes that the dances were to be “controlled, disciplined, skilled and asexual;” hip slapping and flings thereby excluded.
This week marks the end of a chapter of my life as a full-time author, during which time, I can’t help but think that someone inadvertently plugged me into the wall.
Those who have undertaken novel writing as a profession will understand what I mean when I say that real life can be an inconvenience. Words rise up in the dead of the night; charged atoms that twist and turn until the school run is complete, at which point they explode mercilessly onto the screen. Any glimpse of reality is a gross impediment. A phone call, a parcel at the door, the school bell and the bothersome iMac message, “Your mouse battery is low,” all become implicated in the creative fall-out.
A few weeks ago, I surrendered to reality. I had been applying for jobs for a while, each application appearing on my screen like a waning mouse battery warning, but this job felt different. Perhaps it was down to timing, the job affixing itself, neatly to the end of a chapter. Or, perhaps it was a fateful moment during which the atoms of my life were aligned. Regardless, I understood that the career as a full-time novelist was over, and I began to re-enter the strangely familiar world that had hitherto been known as normality.
This week the sun was shining in Larne and the Orange Hall steps were ornate with dancers in emerald green, black, burgundy, royal blue, scarlet, navy blue and cerise. The festival was a positive experience made special by the charm of the dancers, the spirit of the musicians, the enthusiasm of the adjudicator, the generosity of visitors from across the province, the support from local people and the dedication of wee fairies who made it happen.
There was also a strong sense of history: the lady at the door danced competitively in the same hall as far back as the 1930s; the pianist had danced as a toddler in a variety concert in Ballymena during the second world war, and the wee fairies on the stage and in the kitchen included grandmothers, mothers and daughters who have been dancing their whole lives.
Few people realise is that Irish folk dancing, now primarily known as ‘festival dancing’ comprises Catholics and Protestants, almost in equal numbers. Even during the upheaval of ‘The Troubles,’ Catholics and Protestants continued to hold hands, literally and metaphorically, in towns like Belfast, Larne, Portadown, Ballymena, Ballymoney, Portstewart, Ballyclare and Bangor. Irish folk dancing, in fact, blossomed against the timbre of bullets and bombs. In 1975, one of the worst years for deaths during the conflict, the Larne May Day festival attracted 1,500 dancers.
Catholics and Protestants in the Irish folk dancing tradition have been dancing together for for ninety years, but further back in time, the harvest homes, lintings, punch dances and Mayday festivities also provided opportunities for Catholics and Protestants to come together. Traditional Ulster social dances like ‘A Soldier’s Joy,’ ‘The Sweets of May’ and ‘The Three Tunes’ were danced by Protestants and Catholics before the term “Irish dancing” was invented.
Libraries NI and Women Aloud NI are both at the fore of an effort to amplify female voices in fiction in Northern Ireland.
I have spent a year reading works from Northern Ireland authors, both male and female. The quality of literature in this country is high, yet local authors, particularly women, struggle to get their work published. The feedback from mainland Britain is often that the books are too Irish. The feedback from the Republic of Ireland is often that the books are too northern.
Once published, accessing shelf space among bestselling authors in bookshops is also problematic.
Libraries NI has gone the extra mile to ensure that local books can be seen by the public.
Why not pop into your local library this weekend and ask for something local. The three books that were selected for the Emerging authors events are available in Newtonbreda, Banbridge and Larne libraries. They can also be ordered from any other library in Northern Ireland. Here's a little bit more about each of the books for those who missed the Emerging author events.
82 Waterloo Road
The Teacher Voice
The Last Day of Summer Scheme
Uniquely Girls' Brigade
The Children of Latharna
The Band Stick
The Bully up the Brae
A dander around Larne
God Created Butlins
History & folklore
The Protestant in Irish Fiction.
The Protestant in Irish fiction - the novels.
Ulster-Scots in Irish Fiction
The reality of being an author.
Learning the Irish Language.
John Hewitt Summer School