Sunday, 27 March 2016

Ardglass, and the side of his face

J is visiting from Florida, and it's a beautiful day, so we set out on a showing-off-the-County-Down-coast driving trip, the one that always makes me think of Van Morrison's song Coney Island. We do stop off at Ardglass, though neither of us likes pickled herrings, and we won't be eating mussels till later, in the Mourne Seafood Restaurant.

We like Ardglass. Fishing harbours are one of my favourite types of place for photography, and it's good to be there with someone who shares my enthusiasm. Good to be with him, full stop.

He draws my attention to other interesting things in the town that I hadn't really noticed, like the abundance of medieval tower-houses and the little stone bathing hut on the rocky beach.

We need a cup of tea, as part of J's tea-appreciation training programme, and a helpful young lad tells us about Doyle's tea shop round the front. It's great - cake with proper whipped cream and excellent pots of tea. It's also great that we just manage to beat the entire Mid-Ulster Walking Club to the best outside table. It's such a warm day that we take our coats off. In March! County Down is pulling out all the stops.

I still have those Van lyrics running through my head.

I look at the side of his face as we sit together squinting into the sun, and I'm thinking, wouldn't it be great if it was like this all the time?

Sunday, 13 March 2016

A small, sad story about emigration

Visiting the Ulster American Folk Park near Omagh makes me think about one family tale of emigration that I always find moving.

My great-great-great-grandfather, John McCrea, was 70 years old in 1845, when the potato crop first failed. He and his wife Rebecca had been running a good business, transporting produce around their home area of north Fermanagh and even as far afield as Derry. Their children worked in the business too.

Despite their industry and the business's success, times had been hard for the last few years because of the practice of rack-renting - every time they made improvements to their premises, the landlord raised the rent. It was barely affordable now.

The first signs of the devastating Famine years to follow were the last straw for John and Rebecca. What money they could gather was invested in passage to Canada for themselves and their children. Canada was the cheapest destination for emigration in these years, and it had the added attraction of help from the British Government in transporting people to settle further into the interior of the country. 

Their son Edward, my great-great-grandfather, was twenty-one years old in 1845 and due to travel with the party. Shortly before the departure date, however, he was involved in a rowdy scuffle in the family goods yard. The agent arrived to claim the rent. There was an altercation. Edward's brother shouted something about a gun - a bluff. The agent, frightened, produced his own gun and fired haphazardly. A stray bullet caught Edward's ear, which bled profusely.

It was decided that Edward would delay his departure until the wound had healed. He went to stay with his married sister, a welcome addition to the small household at this troubled time.

He waited for news of the family's arrival in Canada, saving to book his own journey.

Canada was a popular choice for emigrants for many reasons, not least the affordability of the passage. But the low fare often resulted in very low standards of health and safety on board ship. Accommodation was overcrowded. Food and water ran out quickly. Dysentery and fever were rife. The healthy lay amongst the sick, all of them without light or air or help. Rebecca and John and their family were on such a ship.

The emigrant ships sailed up the St Lawrence waterway, heading for destinations in Quebec and Montreal. First, however, they stopped at Grosse Ile, a pretty island which operated as a quarantine station, about thirty miles from Quebec.

John and Rebecca, both suffering from fever after the appalling voyage, were supported from the ship by their children. The elderly, ailing couple were quickly identified as ill by the Canadian authorities and taken to the immigrant hospital. 

Two weeks later, in their separate, isolated wards, they both died. All they had seen of their new life was a dockside and the steep avenue up to the hospital.

Edward was devastated when the news eventually reached him. His siblings, with no remaining options, continued on into Canada. Edward chose to stay in Fermanagh after all. How he survived the years of the famine and went on to have his own family is another story.

Another story too is what happened in Grosse Ile just two years later. My elderly relatives were comparatively fortunate. By 1847, the flood of emigrant ships from Ireland was arriving with dozens of cases of typhus on board, swamping the small hospital. Forty to fifty people were dying each day. The authorities did their best, working in tents and sheds to tend the emaciated, tatter-clad Irish arrivals. In 1847, 100,000 people left Ireland for Canada. 42,000 of them died on the journey or within days of landing. In 1909, a memorial was erected to these people on the highest point of Grosse Ile.

Sunday, 6 March 2016

Old dolls

In the restored nursery at Mount Stewart, I find a beautiful, frightening collection of old toys.

I think immediately of "the time my doll died"... My mum told me that my doll had perished and she had put it in the big dark chest of drawers in her bedroom. I knew that perished meant died. I didn't know it was also something that happened to rubber toys in the 1970s. I was devastated, and afraid to go into that room, in case I saw the dead doll, for a long time.

And I think of this poem by Eavan Boland. I love the way her poetry treats "objects", which are often domestic details like the ones I'm drawn to photograph, and her hints about what has been disregarded, disguised, suppressed, but may be clearly seen when you know how to look. Past and present, innocence and loss of innocence, forgetting and remembering...

The Dolls Museum in Dublin

The wounds are terrible. The paint is old.
The cracks along the lips and on the cheeks
cannot be fixed. The cotton lawn is soiled.
The arms are ivory dissolved to wax.

Recall the Quadrille. Hum the waltz.
Promenade on the yacht-club terraces.
Put back the lamps in their copper holders,
the carriage wheels on the cobbled quays.

And recreate Easter in Dublin.
Booted officers. Their mistresses.
Sunlight criss-crossing College Green.
Steam hissing from the flanks of horses.

Here they are. Cradled and cleaned,
held close in the arms of their owners.
Their cold hands clasped by warm hands,
their faces memorized like perfect manners.

The altars are mannerly with linen.
The lilies are whiter than surplices.
The candles are burning and warning:
Rejoice, they whisper. After sacrifice.

Horse-chestnuts hold up their candles.
The Green is vivid with parasols.
Sunlight is pastel and windless.
The bar of the Shelbourne is full.

Laughter and gossip on the terraces.
Rumour and alarm at the barracks.
The Empire is summoning its officers.
The carriages are turning: they are turning back.

Past children walking with governesses,
Looking down, cossetting their dolls,
then looking up as the carriage passes,
the shadow chilling them. Twilight falls.

It is twilight in the dolls' museum. Shadows
remain on the parchment-coloured waists,
are bruises on the stitched cotton clothes,
are hidden in the dimples on the wrists.

The eyes are wide. They cannot address
the helplessness which has lingered in
the airless peace of each glass case:
to have survived. To have been stronger than

a moment. To be the hostages ignorance
takes from time and ornament from destiny. Both.
To be the present of the past. To infer the difference
with a terrible stare. But not feel it. And not know it.

Eavan Boland                                  1994