Phyllis was the first of her family to go to secondary school and the only one to take up a professional vocation. She left home at nineteen to study nursing in County Antrim. Fifteen years later a personal tragedy changed the course of her life and she emigrated to Canada.

Phyllis with author right and brother Ivor at Sligo Showgrounds circa 1957.

Phyllis started school at six years of age walking the mile or so with her brothers, sister and neighbours to their nearest school, Mullaghduff National School. The arrival of a donkey and cart in 1934 provided regular school transport allowing her parents to move their children to Masterson National School beside the Parish Church in Marorhamilton, making the longer journey each day.

She was a keen pupil eager to learn, exemplified by her significant contributions to The Schools Collection, a compilation of folklore and stories which became a National Archive, that includes her original copy books. Gathered from family and neighbours the contribution reveals over ten individuals that Phyllis badgered to collect the impressive range of stories, lore and riddles.

The Technical School opened in Manorhamilton, in 1936. Referred to as The Tech, Phyllis moved there a few years after it opened its doors. Like her older sister Ena, she liked Irish and was awarded a Silver Fainne Medal despite her parent’s misgivings about time spent learning Irish. The medal was a circular silver collar pin showing a proficiency and love for the language.

Her teachers encouraged her to consider a career. Phyllis had known of the early death of her older sister Maureen at a few months old, and experienced the family’s anguish during the illness and lingering death of her brother Herbie. Phyllis never forgot a throwaway remark made during her brother’s illness that she brought his diphtheria into the house, the infection that eventually killed Herbie. Given this, nursing was not a surprising choice.

Her grades at The Tech were good and she easily achieved the entrance standards for nursing. In 1945 she started as a trainee Mental Health Nurse at Purdysburn Mental Hospital on the outskirts of Belfast.

Phyllis at Larkfield sitting on a horse drawn grass mower circa 1951.

Of all our Davis aunts and uncles only Phyllis and Jack – the two who went to secondary school – would regularly dispense their knowledge and advice with great vim. Perhaps the experience of secondary school gave them a confidence, or it was the impact of what they learned there.  Phyllis would frequently remind us, her young nephews and nieces, how to brush our teeth, of the best foods to eat, to take time and chew you foods properly, and the benefits of learning and doing your lessons well. I recall a long lecture from her while brushing my teeth, endlessly it seemed, at the bathroom sink, probably at the time my teeth were damaged from too many sweets.

Phyllis had an independent streak influenced, undoubtedly by the strong will of her mother in steering the family through very challenging times, and by the opportunities opening up for women. When Phyllis was established in her nursing career, she bought her first car. On weekend visits home to Boggaun she was in great demand by her brothers and sister whose weekend exploits were usually limited by their bicycle or “shanks’ mare”.  

One Sunday they planned a trip to the Park Cinema in Manorhamilton. Annie, her mother was against it believing such entertainment was not only morally dubious but certainly inappropriate for a Sunday evening. However, Richard, her father saw little harm in it saying that they should go and take Padraig Fitzpatrick who was in the house at the time. Padraig is a regularly informant for these stories. So, Wallace, his leg in a cast after a recent car accident, Ena, Cecil and Padraig piled into the Morris Minor with Phyllis and they drove off down the lane for an evening’s entertainment. 

Perhaps they saw Deborah Kerr and Burt Lancaster in full technicolour, in the war drama “From Here to Eternity” or Jane Russell and Marilyn Munroe in the lighter musical comedy “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes”, both box office hits at the time.  Unusually, Padraig does not recall the film, but does remember the evening and driving home to Boggaun, leaving the limping Wallace behind as he had other interests in town.

During these years whether in Ballymena or Larkfield, Phyllis took us on day trips and when she worked at Magheramorne Hospital in the late 1950s we took Sunday drives from Ballymena to see her there, Phyllis cutting an impressive figure in her Matron’s uniform.

In 1951 Phyllis was a Registered Medical and Surgical Nurse in Belfast City Hospital Belfast, and by the end of the 1950s she was the Matron of the small Magheramorne Hospital, near Larne.  In 1959 she was engaged to be married to Tommy when he tragically drowned in an accident. Phyllis was distraught with the loss, her world and plans turned upside down and she began to look in different directions.  Having seen the adverts for nurses in Canada she decided on a fresh start there.

In 1960 she followed Alf, her brother to Toronto albeit by the easier air route – much had changed in the 12 years since Alf emigrated. There she took up a nursing post and was soon a fully Registered Nurse working in Toronto General Hospital. She missed her parents and wrote that she would “Love to get dad to go Canada, if I can only convince him that Ireland won’t move when he is away.”  Unfortunately, he fell ill in 1961 when she came home to nurse him in his final weeks, stirring memories of Herbie’s death almost thirty years earlier. Her mother Annie would visit her in Toronto a few years later.

Frank and Phyllis with son Graham taken by author north of Toronto 1963.

Not long after arriving she met Frank McBride and they were married in September 1961.  Frank was a Scot via Merseyside and, like Phyllis was a recent arrival.

Two years later she encouraged my parents to send me to Toronto for the summer where I spent the time between Aunt Phyllis’ and Uncle Alf’s family. When Phyllis was not working she took me and her young son Graham on many trips around the city, memorably to see a live stadium-show of The Three Stooges and my first cinema experience seeing Danny Kaye in the comedy “The Man from the Diner’s Club”.  At weekends we all travelled out of the city, to Niagara Falls, Muskoka Lakes, and up to the annual Davis reunion near Orangeville, among other destinations.

Cecil (brother), Phyllis, Graham (son), Ivor, author with Phyllis’s son Ian on shoulders, Ena (sister), Nigel (front, Annie (mother) and Elaire 1962 at Larkfield farm.

Using her first Brownie box camera Phyllis left a great store of photographs. Many of the ones used in this series of stories dating from the 1950s are most likely hers, and with others they provide a great family record of that time. Over the many visits she made back to Ireland we are grateful to Phyllis for corralling us into family photographs which would otherwise not have been taken.  The one above is typical and was taken on the family’s visit to Larkfield about 1972, behind is the hay shed and almost hidden is Cecil’s Skoda car.


Alf Davis

During 1947 and 1948 three Davis siblings left the Boggaun farm, Ena, Phyllis and Alf. Alf was nineteen when he departed and was to make the longest journey to what became his new home. I knew my aunts and uncles to varying degrees. Those who settled in Ireland I knew best and the others less so, only meeting them occasionally over the years. Alf left Ireland before I was born and my first memories of him were on his visits home.

Alf with his mother Annie, from a family photograph circa 1935, taken outside the Larkfield farmhouse at Boggaun., Co Leitrim.

Born in 1929 Alf grew up on the farm and worked hard in those lean years when the family finances were severely stretched. He left Masterson National School at about thirteen to spend a few years on the farm before going out to work in T.R. Armstrong’s hardware shop on Main Street in Manorhamilton.   Four years later he was making plans for the long emigrant’s journey to Canada. Unfortunately, he just missed the excitement of the town’s first cinema. It was opened by the same T.R. Armstrong bringing novel picture house entertainment which my mother and her contemporaries regularly enjoyed.

In 1948 Alf, full of trepidation and excitement, was photographed with several Manorhamilton friends onboard a ship leaving Liverpool for Canada. His parents aware of the harsh reality of Ireland at that time encouraged him to go despite reluctant parental bonds. When he landed on America’s shore Alf made his way to Toronto.

Toronto had been the destination of Alf’s Great-uncle Thomas, the first Davis born at Boggaun to emigrate there 1861. He claimed a pioneer’s plot at Amaranth, north of Toronto, clearing forest for farming land; Thomas’ brother John, a Methodist preacher left for the same region two years later, although he finally settled in Iowa. A generation later Alf’s Uncle Thomas emigrated to Toronto in 1886 where the family prospered in the newspaper and real estate business.  They all remained in contact with their Boggaun roots. Other families from the Manorhamilton area had also settled there making it an attractive destination for the new arrival.

Advert fot TR Amstrong’s hardware shop, Alf’s first employer.

Alf first worked in a menswear shop but within a few years, through hard work and ambition, he had set up Alf’s Menswear store on The Queensway.

Libby Smyth, originally from Derry, married Alf in 1952.  As their family grew and the business thrived, they bought a farm near Shelburne, north of Toronto, with friends Elward and Jean Burnside – the Burnside and Davis families in Canada are related.  Alf and his family spent working weekends at the farm, an echo of his upbringing, although not all looked forward to the end of the week.

While Alf returned home many times, at first on his own and then with his family, he probably felt at more and more at a remove from his early years at Boggaun. He carried a quiet generous way about him. When Alf first visited us in our Ballymena home, the tall stranger with a deep voice and strange accent, brought a suitcase of clothes for us; two little bomber jackets for my brother and I kept us stylish for months.

In the summer of 1963, I arrived at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport in sweltering heat wearing my heavy black school blazer and grey trousers. At the age of twelve I had travelled across the Atlantic on a Boeing 707, a substitute for my mother and father, unable to take time off for a summer visit. I was collected at the airport by Uncle Alf and my cousins. In the spacious back seat of the big car, with the warm air blowing through the windows, I was stripped of the heavy layer and then a stop at Alf’s Menswear store turned me into more suitable shorts and T shirt, followed by my first taste of ice-cold coke.

Alf, back left, with friends from Manorhamilton on route from Loverpool to Canada in 1948.

Ten years later as working students, three friends and myself, spent a summer picking tobacco on a southern Ontario farm. Flying into New York, we had arranged to drive to Toronto on a return-delivery before starting work – this was a cheap way to get around North America at the time.  We were welcomed by Alf and his family and spent a few days around the city.  

Alf generously offered to take us on the two hour drive to the tobacco farm. Leaving the city on the 12-lane Gardiner Expressway we sped west for miles along the populated north shore of Lake Ontario. With the city of Hamilton and Lake Ontario behind us we drove south through rich summer farmland. An hour later we headed out of Tillsonburg on dusty flatland dirt roads towards the shore of Lake Erie, finally arriving at the red clapperboard homestead of Marty Weiss, its high wooden drying kilns and large barns set in a wooded landscape.

Many Canadians visited their ancestral home at Boggaun over these years, but returning children got special treatment. When Alf and his family were due Granny led great efforts to make ready the house and farm in welcome; road and garden gates were painted, as were window frames and doors, yards were tidied and cleaned, the garden weeded.

But sometimes events would thwart her enthusiasm.  On one such occasion when the street around the back door had been cleaned and scrubbed, a large creamery can of fresh milk was accidentally spilt by the farm help who was hung over from the previous night’s revelries. Seeing her clean yard white with milk, Granny lashed him with her tongue and the unfortunate man fled the street threatening to do away with himself. He was found lying up on a dry ditch in the Well Meadow by my mother, Ena, who took the good part of an hour to talk him back to the yard. And tensions went higher when a beautiful salmon tickled out of the Bonet River, plated on the deep sill of the slightly-opened parlour window, was found with the upper side missing after a cat squeezed in to devour it.

Alf Davis and his brother Wallace were the only ones in their Boggaun family to carry the name forward, and after three generations of emigration to Canada most descendants carrying this Davis name are now Canadians.