The Ulster Revival

The Ulster Revival began near Ballymena in 1857 and over the following two years reported one hundred thousand conversions, not ten thousand as I incorrectly noted in the previous blog. The more I read into this religious and social upheaval, the more I realised I had underestimated its influence on lives of my father and his family, and indeed on my own. One hundred and fifty years later an upbringing in the Presbyterian church still resonates with this revival. This story, in two parts, could be that of Robert McWilliams, my Great Grandfather born in 1822 and who died around 1906.

The Connor National School house (from Connor Presbyterian Church website).

“In the year of 1858, all that time ago, at a prayer meeting in Connor of a Saturday evening, a saw the Light, was saved by the Grace of God. A changed man a was, many didnay believe it. At the start of that year the Master a was workin tay said he’d give me one more chance, told me if a went to those meetings in Connor maybe they would turn me around, cause he coundnay.  A took his word and a wheen of us went down tay Connor one fine Saturday afternoon in December. A year later a was born again in Jesus, ma terrible sins all washed away.

On a wee farm a land near Glarryford there were nine of us born and reared, more an two hours walk from the town. A wet patch of ground where the flood would oft come up tay the house. We were workin as soon as we able, some going tay the weavin, an always plenty a food on the table for young an old. A good Christian family we were. But a got one scutch on the ear too many from Daddy and cut out for the town on me own, way nothing but the clothes a was standin in. A had a fierce temper then, an no respect. But a felt a was well able tay look after maself, went tay Ballymena an took the first job a was offered. A was big and strong, any work was easy and a always had pennies in ma pocket.

A had no interest in God or any church an was soon dallyin way Kathleen, a wee catholic girl, she worked in the kitchen up in the Castle. We were well got up tagether, livin as man an wife, in the wee room we had in Bridge Street.  When I think on it now, the Devil blindin me tay ma sins.

When she left tay go home tay Moneyglass a sore missed ma family.  Afore long a started runnin after the wee still, anywhere a could find it. Of a fair day there be nay work atall and likely none the next either.  Daddy sent ones after me, but they had no say over me. A was committin sins then a donay want tay think about in this life, or the next. An then the Master put it up to me and by the Grace of God a found salvation in that house in Connor.

In the Connor School House a met the Reverend Moore and first converts who were taking Bible study and prayin, about thirty of us all tagether. They told us tay read the Bible, see the truth of it ourselves, an pray that Jesus would save sinners like us from Hell’s eternal fires. It was like they were talkin just tay me that day, a felt ma heart swell, beatin in ma chest, and a knew a had come tay the right place. James, one of the converts, said he would teach me how to read.  He showed me the words and gave me the understandin of it. A held the Holy Book in ma rough hands that night, a grown man tryin hard tay stop frae shakin.

A was soon able to read a few words, an in no time a could read the first verses from John Chapter 3. James stood me up at one of the prayer meetings, a read a few verses, everyone listenin, tay me – a drunkard, a fornicator, a terrible sinner.

‘Jesus answered and said unto him, Verily, Verily, I say unto thee, except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.’

Ma head was spinnin when a sat down, the crowd murmurin “Praise the Lord”, a’ll never forget it tay ma dyin day.

When the Spring came prayer meetings and bible studies were goin on all day and night. In the school house, in the church, in folks houses, and sometimes in barns or outside. Those uns already saved were takin the meetins.  They hadnay much learnin themselves but they all knew their Bible. The ones with big strong voices did the best preachin, a think. Boys a dear, what nights there were, sometimes a didnay get home tay near dawn.”

Concludes next blog.

A Ballymena Coachbuilder

Hugh and Lizzie Mc Williams were my paternal grandparents. They were born in Ballymena about 1879. I recall little of them or their lives; they are in shadow, I am unable to see them. Working on this series of stories has thrown up regular surprises and no less so here where I discovered another family that faced financial ruin in times of change.

My grandfather and namesake Hugh McWilliams died when I was a toddler. With his wife Lizzie they lived in a 2-up-2-down terrace house on the hill on Princess Street in Ballymena. The house, near the train station, became my second home where my Aunts, Lily and Martha doted on us children. To my mother, a stranger to the town, this came as welcome family support. These regular visits to 45 Princess Street established an order that would run into my teenage years.

Lily and May with their parents Lizzie and Hugh McWilliams in 1950.

Although my grandmother Lizzie died when I was ten, I have little sense of her, my memory unyielding. If pressed, she is a ghost-like figure, standing at the return on the stairs, dark in her long blue pinafore over a woollen skirt, her grey hair tied back in a bun, an aged face masked behind large round glasses. She looks at me without expression, yet stern, comes down towards me, heavy black shoes ring hollow on the lino-covered treads. At the bottom of the stairs she turns and goes into the back room and scullery. I’m on my own in the dark hallway.

Hugh was born in 8 Alexander Street one of 5 children. When I was running about the town the street was ready for demolition to make way for a new road, a few occupants left. We thought it a slum, called it Clabber Street.

All his siblings had a trade; he was a coachbuilder, James a shoemaker, Elizabeth a spinner, Catherine a dress maker, James a cabinet maker, while his father Robert was a labourer.

Hugh and Lizzie Logan and were married in Kells Presbyterian Church in 1908, five miles from their home church on Wellington Street in Ballymena. They were strongly religious, enforcing regular bible study, believing in strict Sunday observance and regular church attendance. Hugh was an active Orangeman in the Galgorm Parks Lodge; its Lambeg drums often beating their practice rhythms across the green countryside on a warm June evening.

This Kells Church had been at the epicentre of the Ulster Revival with the first convert in late 1857. The following two years it spread to Ahoghill, Ballymena and beyond claiming over 10,000 converts; those who with deep personal conviction, repented their former sins, claimed Jesus as their Lord and Saviour and were “born again”.

At the Revival’s height prayer meetings and bible studies, taken mostly by lay preachers were running from morning to night. The conversions were marked by prostrations, visions, and speaking in tongues – scenes not typical of the dour Ulster stereotype – and resulted in disruptions to ordinary work and business, frowned upon by some traditional Calvinists. Hugh’s parents, certainly influenced by the Ulster Revival, were likely converts at one of these meetings. The influence of the Revival was felt for decades to come and is still viewed as a highwater mark of Christian renewal; in Ulster most converts swelled the Presbyterian congregations.

The Pentagon, Ballymena, reputedly with its first motor car circa 1900.
Hugh’s workshop is about 200 yards from here.
(Old Photos of Ballymena on Facebook)

By the age of thirty Hugh had a successful business and the couple had their first two children, Mary called May and Lizzie called Lily. He had an established coach building enterprise with several employees, operating out of a workshop behind his home in Albert Place.

Misfortune befell him with the introduction of the motor car. Challenged by a reduced demand for coaches and carts his business collapsed. With his employees gone he took whatever work he could get, maintaining a small workshop until he retired. By 1915 the family had moved to a rented house in Princess Street where my father was born. These events may have affected Hugh’s health; in his later life he was a very shy man, uncomfortable in company, particularly female company.

Hugh and Lizzie were at my parents’ wedding in Manorhamilton Parish Church and after in Sligo Town in 1950. In an informal wedding picture outside the church they look frail and slightly out of place.  Hugh died a few years later in 1954. His coffin was appropriately placed in a carriage drawn by two black horses. In his honour the Galgorm Parks Orange Lodge with its Lambeg drums and band would, for some years, stop in respect outside his Princess Street home, on their way to the annual 12th of July celebrations.  My Grandmother, Lizzie died in February 1961 and they are buried together in Ballymena Cemetery.