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"...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.
Mary Lyttle had nine children. (Herbert died in infancy.) The four in this picture are: Thomas "Tam", b.1910; Samuel "Sandy" b.1913; Mary Ellen "Nell" b.1912; and Jane "Jean" b.1914. The children born after the war were Isabella Brown "Bell" b.1919; John b.19xx; Kathleen Elizabeth "Molly" b.19xx; Robert "Rab" or "Bob" b. 19xx. Rab now lives in Canada.
The family had two goats, a cow, a horse and some chickens. Jean’s father, Samuel, was mad about horses. Then there was poor old Janet, a cross between a pony and a donkey!
Mary sewed on her Singer machine, a sewing machine similar to the one that now sits in my hallway and that belonged to my great granny Rossborough. (I’m afraid I didn’t inherit the sewing gene). Mary also knitted. Her daughters were also talented knitters, crocheters, embroiderers and stitchers.
There was no electricity and no plumbing in the family home, so the morning routine for the Lyttle children began with a sprint over frosted ground, barefoot, to get to the dry toilet. Jean says she sometimes had the misfortune to take ‘a dook in it’ My granny, Isabella, who was four and a half years younger than Jean, fell right in on one occasion!
The well at the end of the garden was often full of frog spawn in frog season, meaning much traipsing up and down fields with buckets to fetch water from the big well.
At Christmas, the custom was to hang up a white net stocking. Santa had a lighter load than today, depositing an orange, apple, yo-yo, pencil or pen in each stocking. One year, Jean got the ultimate in luxurious Christmas gifts - a tin of toothpaste!
Christmas dinner was a Christmas dumpling and a goose. Jean’s father was an enterprising soul, and one of his businesses was selling boxes of fowl at Christmas. He also sent Jean out around the doors selling herring from a spring cart. A shilling for a dozen was the price. In those days, few could afford red meat, and fish was the staple diet - perhaps another secret to long life! Jean was accompanied on the herring run by her friend Susan Johnson (nee Montgomery) who also lived until she was 100!
Jean was raised in a farmhouse beyond the top of the brae on the Ballysnod Road, not far from the Browndod Road. There was a kitchen and bedroom and the family had four beds, two on the ground floor and two in a mezzanine. The old settle bed eventually came up from Granny Gillen’s house for the boys to sleep in.
Milk was kept in the cool porch and Mary did all her cooking on an open fire, which had a hob on each side of it. The griddle was pulled down on a chain to bake fresh soda bread, wee slims and fadge every day.
By the time Jean had moved to Belfast as a young woman, Jean’s mother and father had relocated several fields away to the house in which Jean’s granny, Isabella Gillen, had once lived. The house is still owned by the Lyttle family but it is empty and dilapidated today.
Jean knew life before partition and attended the national school in Ballysnod with her Catholic friends, all of them barefoot. The school was situated on the corner of the Browndod Road and the Ballysnod Road. The school room was divided into two classes, junior and senior, and comprised a stove for teaching cookery. The children wore their own clothes and were put through their paces with drill every day. Slates and slate pencils were used for lessons.
Entertainment on special occasions was to be had at the Farmer’s Union ball or concerts in the school house. When she was a teenager, Jean would take a train trip to Belfast with her friends. It was a shilling for the ride and by the time they walked down York Street, they had to turn back to get the train home. Samuel did not allow his daughters to attend the dances, although he himself was said to be a great dancer.
Religion was never mentioned and Catholics and Protestants worked and socialized together on the farms in the area. The Lyttle children belonged to the Raloo Presbyterian church, and some of them attended Sunday school there. Mary, who was christened Catholic, rarely attended church. She was not one for leaving the house.
Jean is known to be great with numbers and was the first woman in her family to receive a scholarship to attend college in Belfast, where she studied short-hand, bookkeeping and typing. When she was struck down by a serious ailment in her leg, her father had to borrow a pony and trap to take her home to Larne. She never returned to college.
She married Cecil McCullagh at the age of 19 and her mother-in-law decided the newlyweds should both live in Belfast. The big smoke wasn’t to be in the end, for there was fresh soda bread to be had in Larne, which was sent down to Jean and Cecil along with fresh eggs from Balysnod every Saturday night.
Jean’s daughter Sheila, who was born in 1944, recalls that there was still no electricity at her granny Lyttle’s house when she was a child. She and my mum, who was born in 1948, remember clearly the big fireplace with the griddle and the chain, the scent of soda bread baking and the noise of the chickens in the yard.
Jean and Cecil had six children - Brian, Drew, Sheila, Loretta, Heather and Gerald. When her son Gerald was old enough to go to school, Jean took a job as a bookkeeper for Sid McIlroy in Larne and spent many’s an hour of her life helping her friends with their accounts. Jean was a talented Irish dance dress-maker. She made costumes for variety shows and Irish dancing festivals for Moira Metson. I didn't know this when I wrote the book on the history of Irish dancing. Jean is most well-known as a darts champion, playing well into her 90s.
I told Jean that I was partial to a glass of wine, and she warned me that I’d go blind! Alcohol is not part of the formula for a long life, so it seems, but I heard a rumour that Jean may have once sipped a snowball at a party!
Happy birthday Jean! Every time I see you I think of my granny, Bell, pictured below.
Jean makes a small appearance in my Irish Dancing book, although the reference is more to do with the strong interfaith relations in the Ballysnod area: Irish Dancing: The festival story
A history of dancing in Ulster with a focus on the festival tradition of Irish Dancing.
Angeline King is also the author of:
"An enjoyable coming-of-age tale with a Belfast twist" (The Irish Times)
Click here to buy
A Belfast Tale
“Uniquely, authentically and enjoyably Belfast" (Tony Macaulay, author of Paperboy.)
Click here to buy.
Children of Latharna
Lyrical and nostalgic; wistful and humorous, Ian Andrew, author.
Click here to start reading.
Scene from Snugville Street
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
God Created Butlins
History & folklore
Fiddles and Melodeons
Martha Taylor's diary
Jean McCullagh at 104
Ballymena & the McConnells
Arms in Irish Dancing
Catholics & Protestants in Irish dancing
Irish Dancing: The Festival Story
The Protestant in Irish Fiction.
The Protestant in Irish fiction II
Ulster-Scots in Irish Fiction
An author in Wonderland
Dancing in Victorian Ulster
Learning the Irish Language.
John Hewitt Summer School
Thirteen Reasons for Peace
So Young then (Andrea Corr & me)
Lesley Allen & Helen Nicholl