"...stories birling through my mind..."
A literary journey
Nostalgic Irish prose
Irish culture & folklore
Ulster-Scots short stories
"...stories birling through my mind..."
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
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