Sunday, 25 June 2017

Following Frances 2: Irvinestown


The first thing I notice is the new wildflowers in bloom – foxglove, honeysuckle, spotted orchid, pink thistle…. The cow parsley has died down. The hedgerows are less frothy. The blossoms are warmer and fuller. Three weeks make a big difference when you’re this close to wild ground. It’s not the same in Belfast.

I’m back in Gortnagullion, ready to follow Frances’s story on to Irvinestown. But she may have been more eager to leave home than I am. I’ve come to love this place and its peaceful quiet and I need to stay a little longer. She wasn’t to know what I do, that she wouldn’t be returning.

I visit the McCrea house, looking forlorn today with the light behind it. Mary Brandon’s cottage is prettier, with its peeling blue and yellow paint and cast iron fireplace. I think now that Frances’s mother Eliza may have lived here in her later years, once Joe took over the family home, so I look round with new interest, seeing her in a chair by the window or bent over the fireplace. I go down to the tumbled foundations of the school and think of the sixteen siblings trekking this path in turn, books in hand, big ambitions in mind.

It's too hot to walk far, so I circle the roads in the car again, filling in my mental map, getting the roads in order. Back to Montiagh Bridge, round to the standing stones on the Montiaghroe Road, and right down Movarran Road to the border. The border is a nothing, an imaginary line down the middle of the muddy Tenor River. Forty years ago there were armed soldiers on guard here. Now there are just four placid, curious cows on duty.

Nearby, I meet Per, a friendly Swedish Fermanagh smallholder in Wellington boots. He is the personification of authenticity – he tells me about the carefully researched native trees he’s planted in his field. He has replaced the pointing on his half-ruined cottage, using traditional methods, and looks after the orphan lambs from the next farm over. But then he starts explaining that all the European royal families have actual blue blood, since they are monsters, descended from Genesis’s fallen angels and their unfortunate human wives. It’s time to leave.


It’s not far to Irvinestown, but I’ve spent long enough round Gortnagullion to make it feel a world away. To Frances, this would have been a large town. She travelled here as a child in her father’s trap, as he traded and paid visits to friends. And now it was the first step in the long journey she was to make as an adult woman.

Willie, the next brother up from Frances, had a grocery and hardware shop on the main street. He lived above it with his wife, Maggie Donnelly as was, and, eventually, his eight children, Helen, Gerald, Cecil, Arthur, Don, Will, Harry and Eric. Frances worked with them in the early days.

The shop would have been an exciting place for a girl from a tiny rural townland. Her circle of acquaintances would have expanded hugely. All the news would have been with them immediately, carried by small-town chatterboxes. The fair, mucky, cacophonous and thrilling, took place right outside their window. If ever there was a quiet moment, she could have watched the world go by and dreamed. It would have been fun.

I’m still slightly rattled by Per’s revelations, so I take refuge in Heather’s Cottage Bakes for tea and apple pie, a suitably turn-of-the-century refreshment. I strike up a conversation with the much more reassuring Sandra, the best housewife in town. She is on her fourth wash of the day, two done and ready for ironing, one on the line and one in the washing machine. She laughs a lot and has a great appetite for traybakes.

Restored, I cross the street to Willie’s shop. It’s a shoe shop now, with an architectural practice nicely added to the back, also including the family’s upstairs rooms. I have a chat to the woman who owns it and wander round the small space. There are few original features remaining, but it’s another room where I know for sure that Frances spent time. She flickers into view a little more clearly, competently measuring out butter and flour.


It’s here in Irvinestown that she first met William Bryans. I can see from the remaining photographs that he was tall and handsome, his dark hair slicked down in an attempt to tame the curls, with a luxuriant moustache and a slightly cleft chin. Before training for the Methodist ministry, he’d assisted his father in their painting and decorating business, and he was an accomplished artist in his free time. Articulate, practical and friendly, he must have been an attractive man.

He was a friend of Frances’s brothers and visited frequently to talk philosophy and theology and enjoy a family meal. His own family, from Clones originally, lived in Belfast, and he had been a member of the great “Methodist Cathedral” at Carlisle Circus. Frances may have travelled to Belfast to visit her older sister Lizzie, married to her second husband now and living in a large house on Botanic Avenue. She would have enjoyed hearing William talk about life in the city.

He was also recently bereaved. His father, Alexander, died in 1896. The poignant burial certificate gives the causes of death as lead poisoning and exhaustion, inevitable problems for a hard-working painter. As the oldest son and a clergyman, William organised the purchase of the burial plot and the funeral, and was now responsible for his mother, Catherine, his delicate sister Isabella and his younger brother, Alex, training to be a minister too. I can imagine him confiding in Frances, a warm and compassionate woman, intelligent and faithful. They were both from modest backgrounds, well read, artistic and interested in the wider world. They had both reached points in their lives when life with a partner in their own home was the natural next step. The romance was inevitable.

I’m not sure how courting happened in Irvinestown in the late nineteenth century, between respectable church members in their late twenties. Probably they couldn’t have been alone together in private, ever. But they might sometimes, once they were engaged, have walked together in the town or the country roads.

My walk out of town takes me to the quirkily boarded-up towers of Necarne Castle. When Frances and William were courting, it was a private home, not open for public recreation. But its environs are atmospheric. The paths are shaded, and rooks circle the treetops. I collect a few dark feathers and some sycamore wings. Teenagers are competing on horses on the lawn – there’s a holiday spirit here in the late afternoon sun. If you look above car level, there’s very little that’s anachronistic. A tall couple in formal clothing, hands not quite touching as they talk, might easily pass unnoticed in the shadow of the castle’s east wing.


The wedding was in Fintona Methodist Church, on August 15, 1899. I’m so excited about this visit that it seems impossible for it to live up to expectations. My plan is to attend church here at 10.30 and then go back to Irvinestown for the midday service. Two services in one morning – nothing out of the ordinary for nineteenth century Methodists.

The congregation is tiny, eighteen of us in total. But, like Pettigo, it’s very friendly. The minister comes to welcome me personally before the service starts, and afterwards she asks me to tell everyone about my project. We sing familiar songs. There’s a great children’s talk based on one of those dolls where Red Riding Hood, Grandmother and the Wolf are all combined in one body. We’re reminded that sometimes we ourselves have both good and bad within us. We pray for local friends and disasters unfolding across the world, forest fires in Portugal and elderly church members in Togherdoo. The minister is eloquent, full of heartfelt vitality. I think of William, known by his contemporaries as an inspiring preacher. He would have enjoyed this service.

I notice something serendipitous. In most of the pews, the floors are carpeted. In mine, the floorboards are bare. My feet are touching the same boards Frances and William walked 118 years ago. I don’t think this will happen very often on my journey, and it sends a shiver down my spine.

There’s a rough hole in the wood near my feet – maybe this is why the carpet has been lifted. I reach down and lift out a half-inch splinter. I keep it safe in my purse.

Afterwards, everyone stops to talk to me. They remember Frances’s nephew Theo, who used to play the organ here. They point me in the direction of his shop. I have several invitations to lunch. Once again, I feel very welcome. And I chat so long it’s too late to get to Irvinestown for the midday service.


Methodists don’t ring bells. Instead, Frances and William departed for their new life in Ballybay with kind good wishes and maybe a few more raucous shouts from her nine brothers ringing in their ears.

They would have travelled the 36 miles by horse and trap. In all their days, they never owned a car, so this would have been the first of many slow, scenic, momentous journeys. I imagine them shy at first, but relaxing as the day wore on. They would have talked about William’s churches in Ballybay and Cootehill, the places they would move on to in the future, their own families, perhaps, more vaguely, the family they might have together. Domestic arrangements and deeper things too.

I drive their route, down the Aghafad Road to Clogher, then along the old Monaghan road, passing through Tydavnet, a place that appears very early in our family annals, and Monaghan itself. Then on out the Ballybay road to the tidy town where William was working. It’s still a very beautiful journey, marked in several places with Scenic Route signs. At some points, the road becomes a complete tunnel of bright green leaves. It’s soft countryside with wildflowers still abundant. After Monaghan, though, the views open wider. I look back and see, ten miles away, the dark gothic spires of St Macartan’s Cathedral, not long completed in 1899. There are more people about and more traffic. Everything here is bigger, busier and more complex. And that’s how life was going to be.

Sunday, 4 June 2017

Following Frances 1: Gortnagullion


It’s a soft May evening. The Derrybrick Road is a gentle garden of bright greens and muted wildflower shades. I park outside the cottage where Mary Brandon once lived and get out of the car to stretch my legs.

The scents of hawthorn and maybe lilac hit me strong and sweet, and there’s a noisy counterpoint of bird conversation overhead. Gortnagullion is an Eden tonight.

I go straight to the McCrea house. This is my third visit in as many years, and each time there’s a little less left of it.

There’s a modest porch draped in ivy. Four rooms, side by side, all with windows looking back east. A corridor, probably a later renovation, running along the front. Substantial chimneys and fireplaces. Cattle have been camping in every room. There’s been a fire on the floor at the far left. The wallpaper scraps I loved the first time are almost all gone. Every window frame is empty.

But, astonishingly, this is the house where, in 1869, Frances, my great-grandmother, was born. Her mother, Eliza, was also born there in 1836, returning to her childhood home as a married woman and mother of, eventually, seventeen. Frances was the twelfth. There’s been a pilgrimage already in the finding of this place, too involved to explain, but full of online thrills in the execution. I’m fairly certain I’m right. It’s a newer version of Frances’s house, but it’s the right footprint and the right foundations, in the right spot on the map. Being here still sends shivers down my spine.

I walk slowly through the small house. I end up standing quietly in the room on the right, focusing hard, trying to imagine what it used to be like, trying to travel backwards in the bird-broken stillness to another evening when the house was full of family busyness. Feeling foolish, I call out “Frances?”.

In a moment, there’s a flurry and a tiny bird rockets in through the paneless window, scattering ivy and dust across a beam of sunlight. Without alighting, it turns and shoots back out, a feathery wind-up toy of an unexpected gift.

Later, I see that it has built its nest high up under the worn beams of the roof. This is still a home.


Eliza and Edward’s children were Anne, John, Elizabeth, Jane, George, Rebecca, Frances (the only one to die very young), Thomas, Edward, Robert, William, my Frances, Joseph, Christopher, Samuel, Charles and Alexander. These four rooms, modest and, to my eyes, poor, seem an unlikely cradle for a tribe who made their various ways in life, clever, creative and poised. From here they scattered themselves on a broad map of Ireland and the New World. They ran businesses, played the piano, wrote books, travelled widely, rose to the forefront of their professions, brought up 79 children of their own.

Alex, the baby, but eventually the Reverend Doctor Alexander, refers in one of his books to “miracle of Gortnagullion”. But he never explains quite what that miracle was.

The secret lay somewhere on this road. I wonder this evening if it was linked to Gortnagullion National School, there on the Griffith’s Valuation map of 1862, crouched like a snail by the wood a little further south.

Charlie Lunny over the road tells me that you can still see a few stones from the school walls, so I set off to find them. Every hole in the hedge is a distraction of frothing cow parsley and clover, with glimpses behind to dark tree trunks, twisting to let the evening light down to the grassy carpets. There’s nothing modern here.

 Towards the junction with the Formil Road, I see it. There’s a low, dark line at the base of the trees a few yards in to my right. I wade through the ferns, hoping and hoping that it won’t just be concrete.

It isn’t. It’s a row of old stones, covered in moss. This is the school house. A rough floor plan remains, a foot or so high. I step into the classroom where, perhaps, a hundred and forty years ago, a young teacher inspired my great-grandmother to become a woman of substance and skill.


I’m staying this weekend in the closest thing I could find to the McCrea house – a very beautifully restored four-room nineteenth century farmhouse on the Movarran Road. In Frances’s time, Arthur Armstrong lived here. Now, it’s the most peaceful place I’ve ever been. The deep windows face west across a field of pink columbine and cattle. I can’t hear a single human sound. One of the few personal facts I know about Frances is that she was always, in her daughter Nora’s words, a great lover of flowers. Movarran in May would make anyone love flowers. Here are clover, yellow iris, vetch, the remains of wild garlic, buttercup, cranesbill, woundwort, toadflax, speedwell and hawthorn, all visible from my half-door. There’s even a wildflower roof.

In the morning, I had imagined breakfasting under the chestnut tree in the garden. But now it’s raining steadily and there’s a curtain of mist cutting off my view of Donegal. So I eat my toast on a cushion on the flagstones and begin to write about what I’ve found. I’m improvising. Some of it is fact, the account of my own journey. More challenging is the fiction. I want to flesh it all out with little vignettes, speculative but perhaps more true in their way than what seems to be objective truth.

I work in fits and starts as the grey day passes, and finally the clouds lift a little. I close my computer and drive across the border at the river a few yards away and on to Lough Derg. I’m the only pilgrim there. I go on, zigzagging back and forth, circling Pettigo and Kesh, establishing the shape of the roads in my head. I take photographs of sheep and get a lot of midge bites. I eat my dinner in the chip shop in Kesh and have a bit of a chat with the owner.

Back in my hideaway, I’m sketching out ideas. Eliza on the night before Frances’s birth. The school teacher. Frances on a bicycle. I try out different voices, but at this point they all sound a bit too much like me. I need to get to know them better.


On Sunday I make a particular pilgrimage. Frances’s family attended the Methodist church in Pettigo, five miles away, so I do too. I consider walking, and it’s not impossible that they did, but it seems politic to drive there in the Micra, on the basis that they may have travelled in a horse and trap, or perhaps two to carry the whole family.

Once more, I’m struck by the beauty of this road. It’s a little rollercoaster, a slighter shadow of the serious hills on the parallel Meenacloy Road. That one would have been fun on Frances’s bicycle. Today my route is hemmed by lush ditches and old trees, with short vistas into fields that haven’t changed much since Griffith’s Valuation. That makes it all the more exciting when I emerge onto the Pettigo road and start to catch shining glimpses of Lower Lough Erne. This journey would have been a weekly treat.

Pettigo Methodist Church is disappointingly un-dusty and un-dilapidated. It’s friendly, bright and freshly painted. And yet that’s probably exactly what it was in Frances’s time too. We sing a hymn by Isaac Watts. We hear a talk about the sun – it’s rare enough in the west of Ireland to see it for as many days as we have just now – and the wonder of the relationships between it, the earth and the moon. In the 1870s those would have been even more of a wonder, and it’s possible that our sermon would have worked equally well.

Over tea and scones in the church hall my networking reveals no new McCreas, but I do meet the cousin of my mum’s schoolfriend and a cousin-once-removed of my dad’s auntie. This is Northern Ireland. Well, in fact it’s just over the border, but that’s a whole other story, and the principle still stands. It makes me feel at home, despite the length of the chain that links me to this place.


I make a final visit to the house. Trying not to look too suspicious, and glad that I told the neighbours what I was doing, I skirt the walls, the outbuildings, the edges of the garden. I want some kind of trophy, really, unrealistically, some little item that’s been lying there since 1869. There’s a horrifying moment when I find a terrible pale fleshy thing, covered with flies, under the holly tree in the corner. Perhaps it’s the afterbirth of a calf. It brings me down several notches from my lofty time-travel imaginings. The Derrybrick Road wasn’t all wildflowers and little birds back in the day, in fact. Frances lived on a working farm. I lift a small stone from the broken-down wall of the shed and an old, bent, rusty nail. They’re good mementoes.

Round the corner I come to the old Montiagh bridge. It’s so still and so unspoilt that once again I do feel transported. I don’t anticipate that there’ll be another moment in my quest when I come so close to being there, then. I make some sound recordings and drop a stick in the river. It floats slowly under the bridge and comes to rest on a crooked stone. I sit on the wall and think.

I need to join this weekend with the next stage in Frances’s journey. She spent some years working at her brother’s shop in Irvinestown, and I’ll visit there shortly. But there’s another trip to recreate too. She married William Bryans in Fintona – at what would then have been the almost elderly age of 30 – in 1899. I’m sure she travelled there from the family home in Gortnagullion. Her mother, Eliza, must have helped her with her dress and her small trousseau. Her five older sisters, all married women themselves, would have given her discreet advice on wifely life. Some of her brothers were friends of William.

It’s over twenty miles from Gortnagullion to Fintona, so perhaps Frances didn’t make the journey on the wedding day itself. But it was a lovely bridal trip – the twisty road goes through the villages of Ederney, Lack and Dromore, through hills and hedges and avenues of trees. Hopeful and wholesome, the start of a happy new chapter.

An idea strikes me. From beside the bridge, I gather an armful of billowing cow parsley, the most bridal of all wildflowers. I carry it with me to Fintona, puffed and pretty on the passenger seat of the Micra. I park at the Methodist church in Fintona and carry the flowers to its plain old door. I leave them there on the step in Frances's memory.