"...stories birling through my mind..."
A literary journey
Irish culture & folklore
"...stories birling through my mind..."
“Perhaps the saddest incident comes from Ballygalley. An old woman, named Jane Parke, well-known to most of the residents of the neighbourhood, resided in a roughly-built cabin under the sea wall, a short distance on this side of the Halfway House. She lived principally by charity and recently was in receipt of Poor-Law Relief. Repeated warnings had been given her of the danger she incurred by continuing to reside in her tumble-down shanty in rough weather, but she was deaf to all advice, and now had met her death as the result of her obstinacy, her dwelling being completely wrecked and she either drowned by the heavy seas or was killed by the walls falling in on her.”
Larne Times, 29 December 1894
I’m holding up the photograph of you, Jean Park, a face born of boulder, rock and shingle, but you did not emerge from these rocks. You emerged from the sea, a small baby found in a boat in her dead mother’s arms.
Your face is contorted and twisted with age, older than your 71 years, and you had no time to prepare for any photographer. Did you know what you were doing when you agreed to squat down and look at the camera? Was the photograph taken the same year you died? A farewell. Something to make your legend real.
I want to find a way to know exactly where you resided. The locals do not believe your dwelling was adjacent to the Halfway House, but rather, they say, you lived down by the Ballygally Head. Was it on this spot? I see the photographer, Robert John Welch, climbing from the road down past the seaweed drying out along the wall. I see him tip his hat and approach you. Today, you’re his golden find. He would record your name as Janet, but we know you as Jean, interchangeable with Jane when written in ink.
I hold up my mobile phone, nervous that the wind will catch it. It’s a great luxury now on this, the last of normal Sundays. I see the rocks and the grassy bank and picture the telegraph pole in the photograph that was damaged the night that you were washed away. Above it are the mountains that stretch out along Path Head, misty in your photograph, exactly proportional to what I see through my iPhone’s eye. My brother sees Ballygally Castle behind you. (He sees castles where I see walls, but he has a feeling too that this is the place.) The bank is ever-changing, as we witnessed with the carving of a large swathe of coast at Ballygally in a recent storm. Rocks come and go, but this seems like a good hiding place, an opportunistic spot; you would have been the first person to be seen as the tourists rounded the bend at Ballygally Head.
This bay is the cold, dark edge of Ballygally. I have never stopped here, but I will remember the wild seclusion it holds. Did you pick it because you knew that no one would bother you here, that no authority would climb down and question you — or offer you Poor-Relief? It’s a cove below the head of a sleeping giant, whose face is handsome on approach from Larne or looking down from Sallagh, but here, up close, he’s stark and cold and covered in lichen.
Legends of Ballygally
The labourers building the road must have felt his danger and left the road hair-pin narrow to end their travail. The head had a confused appearance, the Ordnance Survey recorded in 1835, “scene of some violent subterraneous commotion.” A poet, William Clarke Robinson, said it was “Like lion crouched with threatening mien,/ To guard those castles lone/ Where lovelorn maid was sent with grief immured ‘twixt sea and land;/ And where O’Halloran Surgant Chief,/ By moonlight drilled his band.” How your fate and that of the poet would become entwined.
This is the closest I’ve ever been to Carn Castle in Ballygally, the name given to the cluster of stones remaining from days of Gaelic chieftains and bards. Those stones, exposed to the elements for centuries on top of a towering basalt rock, have survived — a stronger pile than your little hovel. Did you know the story of the thief who stole the chieftain’s daughter and locked her up there in that outpost at the edge of something — the edge of an era, perhaps? Were you drawn to the phantom echoes of the daughter’s cries? Or was it romance that brought you to this uninhabited place?
Jean & the Antrim Coast Road
You would have been a child when William Bald and his men built the Antrim Coast Road — the beginning of something. You would have been nine years old when it began to take shape, a teenager when it came through Ballygally. They call it the Causeway Coastal Road these days, either to irritate the folk of County Antrim or to bestow the route with the one sole purpose of reaching the Giant’s Causeway — no journey for journey’s sake. In your time, thousands of tourists on jaunting cars made more regular stops. Your trade depended upon it. I have travelled across the globe, Jean, and I can tell you there are fewer places more beautiful than Ballygally Bay, but you would have known that if your husband was a sailor; he would have told you what the world was like when he returned home to tend to the farm.
Marina Jane, William Clarke Robinson
In his poem 'Marina Jane' (Antrim Idylls and other Poems) the poet said that a phantom ship slipped through the water on the night that you died. William Clarke Robinson would have been visiting his homeland when he penned his collection, his address Sea View Hotel in Glenarm at the time his book was published in 1907 — around twelve years after you died. An international language scholar enraptured by your legend, Robinson scribed 29 verses of your story. He knew you, perhaps, though it is not clear if he was living in Glenarm or Carnlough when you were residing at the shore.
Whilst you live on as one of our leading legends, the man who scribed you into the annals of folklore has largely been forgotten, remembered only by folklore enthusiasts who have yet to commit his name to Wikipedia. When fellow poet Benmore gave reflections of Dr. William Clarke Robinson’s life in the Larne Times on the occasion of his death in 1932, he began by setting the scene of his social circles. Robinson moved with the celebrities of his time: Francis Joseph Bigger, Ethna Cabery, Alice Milligan, Arthur Griffith and Eoin McNeilll, Douglas Hyde. Born in Deer Park, Glenarm, he was educated in Cairncastle by school master Patrick Magill before moving onto the Academical Institution Belfast, where he excelled at languages. He subsequently attended the University of Bonn in Germany and went on to live in Florence in Italy, among other places, winning literary fame in America, England, Germany and France. He penned many factual books on literary and linguistic themes, was a lecturer in Durham in England and a Professor of English Literature & History at Kenyon College in Ohio. He was active in Larne Literary & Debating Society in 1918 when he was resident of Carnlough; presumably he had moved home by then. He was also an orator of renown on the poetry of Robert Burns.
Birth of Marina Jane
The poet said you were found in a boat with your dead mother, who had just given birth to you, the story we all know, one he must surely have learned as a school boy in the 1850s, regardless of whether your fate on the shore had been sealed at that time or not. It’s a story I find hard to discount despite having no evidence for it beyond Robinson’s poem, so ingrained it has become in our knowledge of you, and I shudder to think of a woman giving birth alone in a boat. She too must have been born of boulder, rock and shingle. You survived. She made sure of that.
That was 1823, the Irish Rebellion in living memory for the people of Ballygally in the parish of Cairncastle in the barony of Upper Glenarm. The village was not a village, but a townland of farms then, dominated by descendents of planters, Scots folk with strong Scots voices — Presbyterians outnumbering Anglicans by 1 to 37 and Catholics 1 to 16 in 1935. The parish covered a wide area from the shore to the hills with 2,600 inhabitants, primarily farmers prone to whiskey and dancing. “The general style of the houses in this parish is much superior to that of the neighbouring parishes,” Ordnance Survey writer James Boyle scribed. Some cottages still remain from that time, but mainly the village is dominated by large dwellings, more superior, less in keeping with the sweeping vistas.
You were said to have a foreign look about you. In 1823, slavery was abolished in Chile, British convicts were transported to Australia, Portuguese rule ended in Brazil, France invaded Spain and a slave rebellion took place in British Guiana. Your mother could have come to occupy a little rowing boat cast down from a great ship from a distant shore, or you could have floated down from some nearby Scottish Isle, the Isle of Man — Rathlin even. The truth is that we don’t know. We think you look foreign, but it’s hard to tell when the ravages of time and wind are marked on your face.
A Coastguard's Daughter
The poet’s story has been adopted as the truth about you, Jean, and although it was written by a great scholar, I wonder how much of it is poetry and how much is fact. He said you were adopted by a coastguard, and this is plausible; Ballygally Castle served as a coastguard station and smugglers were still active when you were a child. At least four people were coastguards in the village in 1851, 28 years after your arrival, the year that the poet was born, and I have wondered, whilst searching for your maiden name — to no avail — if one of them was your adopted father.
The poet said that you “nothing lacked.” As I think about you positioned in front of your cottage, ragged and worn, I wonder if this was a constant throughout your life; even as you had nothing, you nothing lacked. It’s a serene sort of thought this Sunday as the life we all know is about to go out in a storm. He said you married a farmer and a sailor, Mr. Park(e), but I want to dally a while and see your childhood more clearly. Did the coastguard raise you alone or did he have a wife? Did you spend your days looking out the window of a coastguard cottage dreaming of what your real mother would have been like? You would have been educated to elementary standard, no doubt, for the people of the parish of Carncastle had a thirst for education; there were plenty of schools for every denomination. David Manson was born in the same parish one hundred years before you, a pioneering school master, whose story is as fascinating as your own. (It comes with the territory in the parish of Cairncastle, what with a sailor being washed up in the Spanish Armada, supposedly giving seed to that beautiful tree that still adorns St. Patrick’s Church yard up the hill.)
I searched through every Jane living in Ballygally in 1851 of twenty-eight years of age and could not find you. You were probably married by that time — a Park already. I found only one family of Parks in your area in 1851 in Ballytober, a townland situated in the countryside behind Drains, a bay named after the blackthorn and one that is a good brisk walk from here. In House 23 lived a farmer, Mr James Park, aged 38. His wife was called Margaret Park and was 26, around two years younger than you would have been at that time. There were two babies, Jane Park, aged two and a three-month old, Mary Eliza, as well as two servants. There had also been a Jane Park, mother of James Park, who died of natural causes in 1850 — at the end of the Great Famine. Another Jane Park, sister of James, died of consumption in 1842. I did stop and wonder for a moment if there was a chance that Margaret was you, but the Park(e) family continued to provide several more generations of James Parks, as can be seen from the 1901 census in Ballytober, while your Mr Park disappeared.
The Park family of Ballytober townland was probably not connected to you, but seeing the family’s names in print gave me an idea of what your life might have looked like before you fell on hard times, and although there is no suggestion of babies in the poem by William Clarke Robinson, I found myself wondering if you had maybe lost at least one child, as was common at that time. Could it have been for the love of your husband alone that you took yourself to this shore, as the poet believed, or was some deeper part of you set adrift?
Mrs Park & the Famine Years
The poem skips ahead from the merriment of an old country wedding with dancing, feasting and bonfires — nothing lacking yet again — to that fateful time when your husband went away, and what I’d ask you if you were sitting here beside me on this stony beach is — when did all this happen? It’s the part of your story that would reveal most about you.
Ballygally was not wholly dependent on the potato crop in the 1840s. There was a variety of other staples, such as beans and barley, some meat and also the shellfish and seafood so close at hand. You lived through the Great Famine of 1845-1849 in your youth, and so it is often assumed that you lost your livelihood at that point; it would explain your absence from the 1851 census. It is certain that Larne Workhouse burgeoned with hungry labourers from the countryside during the Great Famine, but it is also possible that you survived the catastrophe without losing your home, that the event of your husband’s absence came later. I think it came later because standing here now with March’s lion roaring on — no lamb in sight — I would suppose that two years is anyone’s limit, even though I assume your character to be much more sturdy than mine.
If you had lost your farm during the Great Famine, you would have been living in that little hovel, precariously close to the raging sea, for at least 44 years, all the years I’ve been on this earth. I like to imagine that you had your youth and spent it before retiring here. Why would a young woman resort to those desperate measures when the opportunity of becoming a servant girl or even a workhouse inmate offered more shelter? I wish I could find you in those missing years. One moment you are the “maiden fair and famed” in the poem and then you are this grief-stricken woman, stripped of her looks, hopeless, yet alive.
It is known that your trade was selling dusle to the tourists who came up the coast every day from Larne — a tourist resort in your day and for many decades after. Your trade is written on the photograph taken of you by Robert John Welch. It’s part of the legend that I find easier to believe. News of your death was reported to the Lancashire tourists who came on package holidays each summer. I think they knew you. The dulse selling, if true, sets you apart as an entrepreneurial pauper cashing in on the tourist trade in much the same way that Henry McNeill cashed in on the Antrim Coast Road and the postal route to build up his package holiday empire. The question is — would you have relied on this trade in this hovel when you were young? Did you do it for more than forty years?
Mystery of the Deep
The poet says that you had some sort of vision about your husband’s fate, a presentiment of his “mystery of the deep,” a bit like standing here now at the edge of something, knowing that events in the coming days will mark the end of one life and the birth of a new one. Nature will have time to heal as the cars and planes are halted, but we will know some kind of hardship to pay for what has passed.
Many people tried to help you when your sailor went away. They tried to keep your farm going, but if the poet is right, you let it fall to “waste and weeds.” I wonder why. Had your mind drifted or did the farm represent some unhappiness? The landlords appear tough in the poem, and although we know that landlords were notorious, I wonder if you allowed them to take the cottage from you. The newspaper recordings suggest that you were given chances on the eve of your death that you didn’t take it. You dictated your own fate.
We know the rest of the poem to be true. You did build a hut here below the posting track, and although the shore changes dramatically every day, such loose stones remain within reach, as do the long, heavy whips of kelp stalk at my feet that are as tough as wood. The poet tells us you had a wee dog called Brinie and that Brinie and her pups went on to survive when you refused heed warnings about the storm and stayed down by the shore.
A Hurricane to remember
There are parallels between you and my own great great granny, Isabella Gillen, who in the same century, lost her husband in some mystery. He was set for America and it is thought that he died at the harbour before boarding the ship. Isabella was from Ballysnod and raised her family there, up high, at a distance from the shore, but she lived out her days in a wee thatched house near the railway line on Bank Road between Larne and the Glynn. She too would have felt the full force of the hurricane on the night of 21 December 1894, as would my great granny, Mary Lyttle: few thatched roofs survived after six to seven hours of wind blowing with the strength of a tornado. The storm reached its height between 2.30am 3.00am and Isabella Gillen must have cried with relief when it was all over, an event that continued to cast a shadow over Larne throughout Christmastide: in the centre of the town, slates and chimney pots came crashing down, fountains were blown over, trees born up on the Bank Road — even the ducks on Larne Lough struggled to make good their escape. Telegraphic communication was “demoralised.” On the eve of another storm, we can’t afford to be demoralised, but we know what lies ahead, our presentiment flashing up on the screen in Italy and Spain every minute of the day.
The poet wrote that all trace of you was gone, but the Belfast News-Letter reported on 25 December 1894: “On Saturday afternoon the dead body of the old woman was picked up near Ballygally and removed to the boathouse at the coastguard station, and an urgent request will probably be held today.” You made your way back to your adopted home, Jean, and then you were buried.
On Saturday 22 December the Blackburn Standard reported that the telegraph wires were destroyed, the poles of the electric light company were damaged, that ships were beached at Millbay, boats were wrecked, bathing boxes in Larne ripped up and the stage at the promenade damaged. Elm trees were plucked up by the roots, the Congregational Church stripped of its steeple and then there’s you, Jane Park of Ballygally, a pauper’s death reported in England.
Your death certificate cites you were a widow, aged 71, who died on 21 December 1894, a labourer drowned during the hurricane of that same day; the information was provided by JJ. Adam. Your story is the dream of writers and artists inspired not by great rulers and patriotic heroes, but by men and women born of boulder, rock and shingle, those who defy convention and live at the harsh, cold edge of something until it’s time for them to go back home.
Marina Jane is printed in the upcoming Larne Anthology of new and historic writing, "Shaped by the Sea," a Peace IV initiative facilitated and edited by Angeline King. The story also inspired a character in Angeline's latest (unpublished) novel. Other work by Angeline includes:
Contemporary novel. "An enjoyable coming-of-age tale with a Belfast twist" (The Irish Times)
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A Belfast Tale
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Irish Dancing: The festival story
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Children of Latharna
Stories for big weans and wee weans. "Lyrical and nostalgic; wistful and humorous," Ian Andrew, author.
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