Thursday 14 February 2013

Celtic Roots Craic! 56 – 'The Cock Corner' & Co. Down Railway

Downpatrick – BCDR Railway Station

We've been having untypical snow here in Ireland, recently, which, thankfully, has now disappeared.  We're not used to extreme weather here, so it always throws us into chaos – not like my friends in Canada, etc., who are always ready for extremes.  And the great news is that our little cottage project has finally got official Planning Approval so, as soon as the weather gets a little warmer, I'll be able to start turning what looks like a glorified garage into a proper home.  That should be fun.

The stone building was probably erected around the late 1850s, and I've been intrigued to find out more about its history.  It sat on its own, beside a couple of thatched cottages with some farm outbuildings, another farm on the other side and one across the road.  Apart from the church across the road, which dates back to the 1700s and earlier, and a hall just up the hill from us, these are the surviving original buildings of Listooder, Co. Down.  There are also the remains of the stable for donkeys and the minister's horse.  Other cottages were unfortunately demolished by the landlord many years ago, when the tenants had the cheek to ask for some improvements to their properties.  Instead, about a dozen families were all summarily evicted.  The school was demolished around then, as well.

The hamlet has always been  a mixture of Roman Catholic and Protestant right back to the 17th century.  We are right on the crossroads of two country lanes and across from us is a large field, with these two roads and the main road nearby making a rectangle cut off from other fields.  It's called Leggycurry Field, with the main road crossing the small Killygartan River via Leggycurry Bridge, just a quarter of a mile from us.  In that field are two small disused stone quarries, which may have been used to provide stone for the church and houses in the past, but I have another idea.

Travel about a mile north or south from Listooder and you will come to the remains of two railway bridges from the old Belfast and Co. Down Railway, which took passengers and goods to the city from both Ballynahinch and Downpatrick/Newcastle (and on to Castlewellan and Banbridge).  The two lines separated just a mile and a half north of us at a place called Ballynahinch Junction.  The Ballynahinch Line was opened in 1858, while the Downpatrick Line was completed a year later.  The old line used to cross both roads near us on an embankment, which required local stone to be quarried for its construction – perhaps from those selfsame quarries in the field next to us.  Which in turn could mean that our building might have originally been built to house carts and tools connected with the quarry?

The Downpatrick–Newcastle and Ballynahinch lines were closed back in the 1950s. Incidentally, the other branch of the now defunct line went just behind our present house on its way from Newtownards to Donaghadee. The only BCDR line still functioning travels from Belfast to Bangor – two miles away from our current home. When we first moved here we explored the old cutting behind our house and recovered four ends of the original bench seats from a BCDR carriage – the seats themselves having been burnt. Some day I hope to make these into a couple of outdoor benches for our new place.

By the way, a couple of miles of the BCDR track has been restored in Downpatrick, so in the summer you can take a steam engine trip on the old Co. Down Railway from Downpatrick Station out to Ballydugan Mill and lake – mebbe have meal there? – and to the ruins of Inch Abbey in the other direction. Newcastle Station still exists, but no longer a station, but the Queen's Quay terminus in Belfast is long gone.

While researching the history of our proposed new home I learned that, although Listooder is the name of the townland it belongs to, that was not the original name of the hamlet.  The farm building next door had a shop-cum-pub at the end next to us, known as The Cock – what is known in Ireland still as a 'spirit grocers'.  In other words, it sold hardware and groceries to local farmers and kept beer and spirits in the back for those who required them. 

Stories are told of the local minister having to give stern sermons on the evils of drink, after his parishioners had consumed a 'liquid lunch'  between morning and evening services! While excavating inside the building and to the rear I found quite a collection of very old beer, whiskey and medicine bottles – several still intact – complete with several glass stoppers. Less than a mile away was another little 'spirit grocer', known as The Hen – now completely gone. So our hamlet was previously known as The Cock Corner, and is shown as such on old maps of the area.

Belfast's new Titanic Quarter is now the home of a brand new building for the Public Records Office (PRONI) and here I discovered old Rates Records for our property dating back to 1936, when it was shown as a house and shop until 1957. After that, John McCullough – who could conceivably be a distant relation – presumably got too old to run the shop and just lived out his days in a room at the rear. He had no electricity and had to go to the farm next door for water and to use the toilet – even though there was a perfectly good well behind his house.

Before he opened his shop the building was the original home of Listooder Mission Hall, which still survives in a wooden building just down the street.  After John became ill and moved to his brother's farm on Listooder Hill, the building was inherited by a relative, who kept horses at the rear while her two brothers ran both a car repair and a landscape gardening business from the building.  We bought it from this lady in 2007. Quite an interesting little history, eh?

Celtic Roots Craic! 55 – Irish language- north and south

Drumballyroney School, Co. Down

I just learned something the other day that took me a bit by surprise.  Apparently, quite a number of people in east Belfast – usually referred to as 'Loyalist east Belfast!' – are taking a course in the Irish language! Now, to those of you who live in far off places that may not seem such a strange thing – after all, it IS our own language, is it not? But if you have ever spent any length of time in this part of the world, you would soon learn that such a thing has been unheard of for decades.

Part of the reason for that was that Protestants swallowed the propaganda that claimed the Irish language for the Republican Movement. Obviously, then, it was something that Loyalists should avoid like the plague. So, it's a great sign of 'normalisation' that ordinary people from east Belfast should not only be learning Irish, but that no one is voicing any objection to this. The truth, of course, is that for many years the Irish language was kept alive mainly by Presbyterians and other Protestant intellectuals – clergymen, mostly. The first book in any Gaelic language was published in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1564 – a translation of John Knox's book, 'Liturgy'. The first book in Irish to be printed in Ireland was a Protestant catechism, using Gaelic script.

Irish was spoken by the majority, even in the north of Ireland, up until 1800, or so. When Queen Victoria came to visit Belfast (after Cork and Dublin) in August 1849 (during the Irish Famine), one of the things she noted in her diary was that most of the banners she saw contained the Irish motto, 'Cead mile failte' (a hundred thousand welcomes). Though Belfast was a completely Unionist governed town at that time, nobody felt they were not also Irish.

The British Government prohibited the teaching of Irish in schools. And, strangely enough, the Roman Catholic Church discouraged the learning of Irish in their National Schools until about 1890, seeing it as backward and learning English as the way to better yourself – especially in the British Empire and in America. Even the reformer Daniel O'Connell and other Irish political leaders saw Irish as a backward language.

The Famine itself had removed many native Irish speakers – either by death or emigration – and it was left to Protestant clergymen to instigate moves to preserve and restore the language. Douglas Hyde, the son of a Church of Ireland rector, founded the Gaelic League in 1893, to preserve the Irish language. A branch was formed in Belfast in 1895. Speaking in New York in 1905, he said, 'The Irish language, thank God, is neither Protestant nor Catholic, it is neither a Unionist nor a Separatist.'

At that time there was also a revival of interest in Gaelic sports and the Abbey Theatre was launched in Dublin, which performed plays about Ireland, though still written in English. Well known writers such as W.B. Yeats, J.M. Synge, Sean O'Casey and Lady Gregory were involved in this. Their writing utilised Hiberno-English – the version of English spoken in Ireland – which used many idioms from the Irish language.

Many of those who came to govern the new Free State after independence from England, were influenced by the Gaelic League. Unfortunately, it was infiltrated by members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood and developed radical nationalist aims, with the result that, in 1915, Douglas Hyde resigned as president in protest. From then on the Irish Language became more and more a symbol of the Republican Movement and Presbyterians took less interest in the language because of this.

The new Irish Government continued to use English for all official business, although Government employees had to have a qualification in Irish to apply for a position – though they never had to speak it after they were employed. Irish was made a compulsory subject in schools. To become a teacher you had to have an Irish qualification, though again, all teaching was done in English.

In Northern Ireland the Unionist government discouraged the learning of Irish and the number of Irish speakers declined greatly. The last native Irish speaker here, from Rathlin Island in Co. Antrim, died in 1983. Since the Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1998 Irish was given official recognition and many of the new integrated schools teach the language. Six families established a Gaeltacht in west Belfast back in the 60s, and now there are many Irish language Primary Schools in Northern Ireland and at least four Secondary Schools. The enthusiasm for learning Irish among working class Protestants in east Belfast is a very new departure and it'll be interesting to see how that develops!

Celtic Roots Craic! 54 – 'Scraws, thatch and 'the back streets''

Groomsport Harbour and village with thatched cottage behind

I was helping my daughter and son-in-law to move house recently and we had a Brazilian helping us, whose name was Clauder – Claude with an 'r' on the end. I was able to remember his name quite easily because it reminded me of some-one throwing lumps of turf – clods.  We call this pastime 'cloddin''.  That reminded me of another local word for turf – scraw. Scraws were used in thatching, which is making a bit of a comeback after nearly dying out as an art. The rafters and battens of a roof to be thatched were first covered in scraws – grass sods complete with the roots, but with the soil mostly removed. This provided a base for the hazel rods that were used to pin down the bundles of thatch on the roof. Nowadays I believe steel spikes are used as well to secure the bundles of reed thatch.

There are not too many thatched cottages any more in Ireland – north or south. Most of those you would find now would be of fairly recent construction and often used as tourist accommodation. The original thatched cottages of the Irish countryside have mostly rotted and tumbled into ruin by now, while modern tiled or slated dwellings have replaced them. 

At Groomsport village – where my boat, Warrior Maid, is moored – there are still two of the original fisherman's cottages preserved by the local council as a visitor's centre for tourists, known as Cockle Row. In the summer months they hold classical concerts outside at weekends, while inside you might be fortunate enough to be given a piece of soda farl, freshly baked on a griddle over a traditional turf fire.  If you are even more fortunate you might get butther on it!

These cottages are also the landmark I use to line up my boat with the end of the pier. Beyond this line the water is deep enough for my boat at any stage of the tide, but inside that line I can only approach my mooring at more than half-tide. The cottages are also lit up at night, which makes a pretty backdrop to the harbour.

Ye'll not find too many thatched houses in Belfast, now. The original workers houses in Belfast were built during the Industrial Revolution, when a lot of people moved from the country to the city to work in the Linen mills. These brick built, slate-roofed houses were the bare minimum that Mill owners could provide for their workers. Whole areas of Belfast were laid out in matching rows of these terraces, known locally as the 'back streets'. The houses are known as 'kitchen houses', or 'two up, two down' – meaning two bedrooms upstairs, a 'living room' – or 'parlour' downstairs, with what was known as a 'scullery' behind – probably with a 'Belfast' sink – leading to a tiny paved yard, with an outside toilet – or 'outhouse' – off it.

Years ago, at the height of the troubles, I ran my own construction business, rehabbing these old houses under a local authority grant scheme. One of these jobs was a house that had been bricked up during the troubles, because it was in an interface area and rioting between the two sides had put whole streets of houses out of use on either side of the 'Peace Line'. When I began this job I could only access the house by means of a ladder, climbing in through the first floor (upstairs) window, because all the downstairs windows and doors were bricked up.

These houses would need repaired, a bathroom added and an extension out back with a proper kitchen. Some of the work involved removing the roof slates, re-pointing the chimney and replacing the original slates on new felt and laths. Every morning I would climb the ladder, then take a good long look around in every direction, before beginning work. One morning I spotted two other men on a roof just across the Peace Line from me – but it turned out they were doing the same as me – rehabbing a house on that side, so no problem!

There were occasions, though, when bullets would be fired across the fence, hitting the street outside. Or a hunger striker would die, and all the women from the 'orr side' would be out banging dustbin lids in protest. On those days you found some work needing done inside! 

When the roof was nearly finished the prospective new owner of the house arrived to see the progress and, seeing as I needed a couple of extra slates, I took him for a wee tour of the empty streets beyond his – next to the Peace Line. There were no people, the houses occupied only by pigeons – 'road pickers' as they're called locally. It was a very eerie experience and he was nearly a nervous wreck after that trip – though I did manage to find the slates I needed!