On the moon?

On a balmy airless night in July 1969 I sit with my Grandmother on the edge of a concrete water tank looking up at the moon; the crew of Apollo 11 are on their way home.

Granny Davis and my sister Elaine circa 1965.

My Grandmother, Annie Davis (1889-1978) was born Annie Elizabeth Gillmor in post-famine County Leitrim, the eldest of eight children. As a young woman she read the poetry of Longfellow, The Romantic Poets and later the War Poets; favourites she copied in her notebook and included the lyrics of Stanley Kirkby’s 1915 song “Somewhere in France.” As the eldest she helped raise her younger siblings in a family with strong Victorian and religious values; a family that expected advancement for their children, primarily by marriage for their three daughters. She carried a sense of responsibility for her siblings, supporting them where she could, and for the culture and values of her shrinking Protestant community.

I am her first grandchild.  When Apollo 11 lifts off to the Moon I am 17, going into my final years at grammar school, the A-level years; dreaming of being an airline pilot, a head full of rock songs and riffs; playing in a small band, in a garage mostly.

We travel to Larkfield on the 12th of July, the start of the Twelfth holidays, avoiding the traffic snarls around main Orange demonstrations. Along the route my father sings a verse or two of “The Sash” to the accompaniment of nearby pipe band.

The sun shines all summer; the hay is fresh and sweet smelling, made without rain and worry. A Sunday afternoon trip to Bundoran is a teenage heaven; the base beats of “Mony Mony” and “Baby Come Back”, drive out above the lights in the packed arcade; girls in short skirts lounge in the summer heat.

News filters through of escalating conflict since the 12th of July; the first deaths of the Troubles, riots in Derry and Belfast, families fleeing their homes in fear.

I follow the progress of Apollo 11 from Cape Canaveral to the Moon and back. RTE’s daily coverage and Kevin O’Kelly’s commentary taking me to the heart of it; like millions across the world awestruck by images of spacemen at a human frontier. The scratchy voices and broken fuzzy images adds to the drama. I’m rolling with the orbiter, weightless at the thought of it, falling for the managed presentations, mesmerised by its magic.

Granny Davis sitting at the water tank circa 1955.

Late one evening after the Apollo 11 programme ends Granny asks me to go with her to fetch water; the large kettle and pot on the range are all but empty. There is no indoor plumbing; drinking water comes from the well below in the meadow, the rest is drawn from a large open concrete storage tank at the top of the yard fed from a distant spring. We take two buckets apiece. Granny is now 80 has had osteoporosis for years; she gets smaller each time we visit. The moon, nearly full, lights the farmyard and surrounding landscape. We walk the 25 yards up to the tank, our buckets clinking, breathing in the warm air of a long summer dusk.

Do ye hear that? She asks. Listen!

I hear it, faint in the distance, a cuckoo, soft and velvety as the evening.

I pull out the wooden stopper from a pipe protruding from the tank and fill the buckets from the spout of water; Granny’s I only half fill. She sits on the edge of a small tank where the cattle drink, and when I finish, I sit down beside her.

The beauty of God’s world. she says with a sigh, as our gaze is drawn to the sky.

You’re enjoying it? The Moon on TV? She asks me after a time.

I am. It’s a great adventure.

Well, she replies dryly, Whatever I’ve seen on that box in there, I don’t believe they’re up the there.

And with that she picks up her buckets and walks towards the farmhouse.

As the end of the holidays approach and our return to Ballymena is imminent, the news brings word that violence continues to spiral. There is widespread sectarian rioting; British troops are on the streets of Belfast and Derry, taking control from the Stormont Government.  At Boggaun there is an undertow of tension as we think about getting home.


1.  Stanley Kirkby “Somewhere in France”, 1915 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q96UruVGIT4

2.  “Mony Mony” by Tommy James and the Shandells, 1968 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pkMgs3lFwkQ

 3.  “Baby Come Back” by the Equals, 1968 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yPVRzKCWlGI

4. For a summary of events on the island of Ireland in 1969 see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1969_in_Ireland

5.  Samuel Devenny, who had been severely beaten by the RUC in his home in April 1969 subsequently died on 17th July, becoming the first victim of the TheTroubles. Francis McCloskey (aged 67) died one day after being hit on the head with a baton by a member of the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) during street disturbances in Dungiven, County Derry, on July 14th.

6. For an alternative view on the Moon landing here’s a link to Gill Scott Herron’s “Whitey’s on the Moon.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=goh2x_G0ct4

Masterson National School

At Masterson National School Ena, Phyllis, and Cecil contributed to The School’s Collection, now part of Ireland’s national archives.    

Masterson National School. Photo © Kenneth Allen (cc-by-sa/2.0)

The journey to school on the ass and cart takes just under an hour, and on the metalled road it isn’t too bumpy.  In the town they walk up the steep Church Lane to the school as Herbie or Reco go off to do some errands before returning home.

At first Ena, Cecil, and Phyllis find the new school strange. They were all in one room with their new teacher Muinteoir Gobnait deBúit; the newish desks all have ink pots and they have books apiece. But there is the familiar smell of the turf fire – turf which they still must bring each day. As they expect, their new teacher can be cross and sometimes the senior pupils, like Ena, have to take care of the youngest ones when they become unsettled or unruly. The subjects, including twice-daily Irish and religious instruction haven’t changed, and the weekly visit is now from their local clergyman. The school days soon fall into the usual pattern.

By 1937 they have been joined by Wallace aged 10 and Alf, 8; Ena is in her final year and is cycling to school; Jack will start the following year. They know a number of the pupils through family and church connections and have made new friends. The school numbers have now grown to some 35 pupils as smaller rural protestant schools, like Glenboy, closed during the 1920s and 30s.

The school, located in the grounds of Manorhamilton Parish church is most likely the former dispensary at the 17-century military garrison, where the church was built in 1783.  In 1809, John James Masterson, a local parishioner gave a £900 endowment towards the education of the parish children, particularly their religious education, and the school took his name.

Manorhamilton Parish Church (Cemetries Ireland) Masterson National School is to right.

Between October 1937 and the end of 1938, the school pupils took part in the collection of folk lore and tradition which has been recorded as The School’s Collection, part of Ireland’s National Folklore Collection archives. It includes bound volumes of teacher’s transcriptions of the children’s story and sources, and the original exercise books. The Davis family feature significantly in the Masterson school records. Ena, Phyllis and Cecil collected stories, riddles, lore, games and songs from their father Richard (1882-1961), Grandmother Margaret Gillmor (1862-1933), Uncle Alec (1869-1941) and neighbours Pat Lonigan (1861- 1945) and Peter McManus (?-1946).

The contributions give a fascinating insight to the family and to the wider culture, just over eighty years ago; they can be viewed at the link – Davis contributions records here.

Most notably the recording by Ena or Phyllis of their uncle’s version of “The Rocks at Bawn” is arguable most interesting, placing the song’s debated origins at Bawn near Dromahair, and citing its popularity 100 years previous. The first verse from the recorded ballad goes:

Come all ye loyal heroes
Wherever that ye be
Don’t hire with your master
Till you know what your work will be.
For you must rise up early
From the clear daylight till dawn
And I fear you won’t be able
To plough the rocks of Bawn.

Finally, here is an entry from Phyllis: “Fairy Fort” There is a fairy fort in a field beside my land. A man called Peter MacManus owns it, and it is in the townland of Buggawn. It is a round fort and is fenced round with a hedge there is a big stone in the middle of it where the fairies used to sit all night when they came out to play. There is a hole under the big stone for them to go out and in, but the people who own the field never heard of anyone going down into this fort. The owners of the field never disturbs the fort when ploughing or moving. Lights have often been seen at the fort, and there was also music heard in it.  Ends.

At the end of the school day they stack their books at the front of the room. An Muinteoir waits for the class to fall silent.

“Téigí abhaile anois. Slán agus beannacht.” 

And they are up and out as fast as they can squeeze through the door.


1. Only Phyllis and Jack went on to The Technical School (The Tech) in Manorhamilton. This was the first post primary school in North Leitrim and opened in 1935.

2.  Masterson National School, see website http://www.mastersonns.com/

3.  The School’s Collection is searchable although not all entries have been transcribed. https://www.duchas.ie/en/cbes

4. The Davises extracts from the Masterson NS contributions are at this link. Davis – The School’s Collections.

5.  Frank McNally discusses the origins of the ballad “The Rocks of Bawn” in the Irish Times and refers to Ena and Phyllis’s entry in The School’s Collection. https://www.irishtimes.com/opinion/classic-rock-frank-mcnally-on-tracing-the-origins-of-a-famous-irish-ballad-1.3634782

6. Thanks to Wills O’Malley, Padraig Fitzpatrick and Dominic Rooney for their comments and review.