Mary Jane Davis, Part 2

No, I never married, but it could have been different. The first fella, John, came up here lettin on to help out, but I knew Mammy and Daddy had arranged it. He wasn’t too long about when he made a grab at me from behind in the byre door, he got my elbow in his face from the fright of it; left here with an eye goin black. Arragh, a rough fella and they knew it too. Didn’t see him after that.

Davis farm Boggaun mapped in the early 1900s.

Robert was a thin rod of a young man, smart enough, and they liked him. I saw him at church a few times, smiled my way. He would come up to the house all dressed up, one time with a bunch a wildflowers for me. I walked with him down to the lane a few times. They said he had a goodly farm up on Benbo, but I told them this was as high up any mountain as I would go. Nothing up on that place; they just nodded. Maybe I was too head strong then.

Benbo mountain viewed from near the Davis farmhouse at Boggaun.

But there was a lad, ahh, Henry, tall, we a big round smiling face, and a mop o wild hair, like he’d just stepped out of a gale. He was in the hay field first time I saw him. I brought them their tae, kept his eye on me the whole time. He helped us finish the new house too.  We rolled in the hay one summer when they weren’t lookin, aye, and a let him kiss me too. Like Ruth, I would have followed him anywhere, aye even to Benbo. But then, some ejit of a man took the poor cratur fishing, and my Henry drowned in a deep hole beyond in the Bonet river. A saw him laid out; his wild hair combed flat. I was sore for a long time after that.

I supposed a missed my opportunity or maybe it wasn’t meant to be, but that was the end of it. Anyways, there was plenty to keep my busy here.

Mary Jane Davis 1864 – 1937

Mary Jane Davis was my grandfather Richard’s sister, my grand aunt. She lived all her life at Boggaun, Co Leitrim. This imagined monologue is in four parts. It is 1934 and she is 70 years old. No photographs of her survive.

Part 1

I’m seventy years now, little value to no one. The young ones run wild; there’s too many to remember the names. Nera one listens to me; they pretend to ignore me, think my tongue’s too sharp, but they hear me. I’ve lived here longer that any of them, know it better. Seen it grow from a rough cottage to a fine slated house, the best around, doubled our land too. But now, we’re in a bog-hole of debt, God help us, where will it end. My father always said we got through the Great Hunger without missing a dinner, so I suppose we should manage now; maybe the worst is behind us.

The Davis farm at Boggaun mapped circa 1850s. Source OSI.

I was born here, no, not in this house in the old house, where the byre is now. A rough place when they arrived in the 1840s, I heard them say. Couldn’t pay the landlord. Old Patrick McKay, his family gone and wife long dead, lived out his time in that wee house in the haggard; I used to take a dinner to him was he was near the end.

This place was got by my grandfather, John, for Daddy and his brother Thomas, but Thomas left for Canada a few years before I was born.

It was a grand place though, our old house. I used to sleep beside the big open hearth sometimes; I can still remember the smell and sounds of the kitchen. My mother, Lizzy, kept it tidy and clean, kept us well fed. All of us running around causin mischief. I was happy then. No great rush on me to work, they said. But I did my jobs and went to school over in Cloonaquin; the world seemed so big then. As I got older, I discovered everything changes, nothing stays the same, ye can’t go back.

When I was a young woman my father started building the new house; Patrick was dead then and we tumbled his house for the stone. Everyday there were men about the place, building, cartin stone and the like. Daddy was making improvements to the farm, while buyin and sellin, cattle and horses. He always had some new plan; when the new house was finished he wanted to turn the old house into a byre and stable, with a hay loft over it.

Original thatched cottage where Mary Jane was born in 1864, converted to a byre and stable with a hay loft above.

The workmen quarried stone in the White Field, where the big hole is now; we used to play and hide in there, and in the river beyond at the Alt; I caught an odd fish there too. Daddy built a fine house; all the men worked hard and ate all we could put before them. A fine two-story house built about 40 years after the Great Hunger, the talk of Boggaun and around.

Of the eight of us only Richard was born in the new house, the rest half-grown or gone by the time he knew our names. He was 28, and still the baby to me, when Daddy and Mammy died within six months of each other, and Alex and him took over the farm. Still, when the census man came around the following year, in 1911, I was put down as head of the household.

Notes will appear at the end of the Part 4.

In Awe.

“A blackbird! A blackbird !” I shout pointing to the bird flapping weakly in the grass.

Daddy, rolled-up shirt sleeves, tie and waistcoat, leaves the old lawnmower, comes over and crouches down near the bird.

Tommy and Ena McWilliams with their children, from the left, author, baby Elaine and Ivor in the garden at Carninny Road, Ballymena, 1957.

We are in the garden of our house on the Carninny Road just outside the Ballymena town boundary. Daddy has cycled home from work as a bread man at Morton and Simpson’s bakery, and before our dinner he cuts the grass next to the vegetable plot.

“No, it’s a crow, bigger that a blackbird. Look at its big black beak.” he says, taking it up gently and showing it to me. I hesitantly stroke its feathers. Above the large sharp beak its beady eye blinks.

We have lived here for about two years. Against my father’s better judgement – a fear of debt mostly – he and my mother took out a mortgage on this 1940s bungalow on a large 2-acre site. There’s a big front garden, the lower half, next the road, a boggy meadow. Behind the house where the ground rises, there is a hen house for about 100 laying hens – my mother’s enterprise. A year or two later major cracks will appear in the front walls, the house is sinking on poor foundations.  He panics, believing his worst fears are realised. However, the house sells relatively easily, and they move the mortgage to an urban end-of-terrace house on the Ballymoney Road; it has small garden, back and front, and there is no space for laying hens.

“What’s wrong with it?” I ask.

“It’s a young one, maybe struck a wire, but we’ll fix it.” he says spreading the bird’s wings.

He takes a box of matches from his pocket, carefully holding the bird between his elbow and body, strikes the red top match, blowing it out to wave the sulphurous smoke under the bird’s beak.

Cupping the bird in his hands he rises from the ground slowly. Standing above me, he launches the bird skyward in a graceful arc of his arms. In the air it flutters briefly, catches its rhythm, and flies up and away from us. He picks me up in his arms.  We hear the crow’s call – Caw! Caw! Caw! – and watch until it can no longer be seen in the evening sky.