Ena goes to Ballymena, Part 2.

The second and final part of Ena’s move from her home in County Leitrim to Bellaghy and then finally to County Antrim where she settled in Ballymena.

Ena, right, with friend Issie in Magherafelt c 1949.

The shop on the corner of Main street and Mullaghboy Road in Bellaghy had recently transferred to Jim Hutchinson from his wife’s family, Vance. Jim’s brother Tom would shortly leave the town and set up Tayto Crisps in County Armagh. It was a busier town than Dromahair and the shop and yard bore a strong resemblance to Gillmor’s.  At the time Wallace, Ena’s brother was working on a farm in Co Antrim, and her sister Phyllis was coming to the end of her nurse training in Belfast, and they all met up often. 

Bellaghy in County Derry was a very different place to her home in County Leitrim where the tensions of the War of Independence had eased, or at least had been buried, and the new Irish Free State was to a large degree stable. The Irish Government had decided to make a complete constitutional break from the UK Comonwealth, finally enacted in April 1949 when The Republic of Ireland came into being. This further encouraged any southern Unionists sitting in the fence to reconsider emigration and it also heightened fears of abandonment among northern Unionists. The UK attempted to allay these fears guaranteeing Northern Ireland’s position in the UK until a majority voted otherwise and by the visit to Belfast of their Princess Elizabeth, soon to be Queen. But discontent was steadily building and in the early 1950s the IRA began its Border Campaign. Mid Ulster was not adrift from these tensions.

Tommy McWilliams was a daily visitor to Hutchinson’s shop delivering fresh bread and cakes. He worked for Morton and Simpson, a Ballymena bakery and confectionery, and quickly struck up a rapport with Ena over the counter.  As well as her good looks, perhaps he was taken by her exotic southern brogue, of which he had some experience when lay-preaching in Co Cork a few years earlier. He courted her, suggesting she write to her Sligo boyfriend and give him the bad news. As the relationship grew, he visited Ena’s home where his humour and northern swagger left an impression. It also helped that he was familiar with the ways of farming life, gleaned from the many rural families and farms he visited on his delivery run.

Ena and Tommy at Lough Gill, Co Sligo c 1950.

Ena and Tommy were married in Manorhamilton Parish Church in July 1950. On the morning of the wedding, as was the local custom, John McPartland, a good friend of Ena’s father, arrived at the bottom of the lane to discharge a few gun shots in celebration. Tommy’s father and mother, sisters and cousins attended the wedding and reception in Sligo, and it is likely that the day was full of surprise for them given their strong religious-based abstinence of alcohol and tobacco. Shortly afterwards Ena moved to Ballymena.

Ballymena was a large town, predominantly Protestant and mainly Presbyterian, Tommy’s family church. The accents were different to Ena’s and the unfamiliar religious norms and expectations would have been difficult to fathom.  Church attendance and sabbath observance were noted in the community, as was testimony of religious practice and personal salvation.  It was a long way from the more liberal attitudes of Ena’s Church of Ireland, which was regarded by many Ballymena Presbyterians as a church tending towards Roman Catholic practices. You could be forgiven for thinking that with her accent, she may have easily been taken for ‘the other side.’ For years she sought to change our regular use of the Braid’s Valley’s broad affirmative ‘Aye’ to ‘Yes’. 

While none of Ena’s family had been active Orangemen for at least two generations, Tommy’s father was a member of his local Lodge and as a young man had been jailed for defying a marching ban. In Manorhamilton the two communities worked together and mixed easily, albeit that the minority Protestant community needed their Catholic neighbours more than the other way round. In Ballymena there was effective segregation, which was culturally, religiously and politically sanctioned.

Ena with children, Ivor, Nigel and Elaine playing to the camera at Portrush c 1968.

Ena had just over a year to adjust before her first child was born in the Cottage Hospital and the coming years would be dominated by child rearing and housekeeping. With her gregarious nature, whether in the hospital or at home, she would take the first step and introduce herself to neighbours, often becoming their lifelong friend. And likewise, in her eighties, living in Portrush after the death of her husband, Tommy she showed great resilience building up another circle of friends.

Tommy did not involve himself with childcare or housework and his time off was largely taken up by his role of Church Elder – a religious counsellor. To some degree this insulated Ena from the strictures of their church – the redemption of women’s souls could wait a while, until their maternal duties eased. When we got older, she became involved in the Church’s women’s group.

From the outset of their marriage Ena maintained a close connection to her family and home in County Leitrim. A pattern of three and four annual visits quickly became established and soon we were drawn into the life of her family at the Larkfield farm.

In Ballymena Ena’s skills, learned from her mother, were at the core of our household.  Jam making and cooking, knitting and bargain hunting – for thrift rather than fashion or flavour. And always “ask for discount” she advised; sometimes to our embarrassment as a simple purchase would get complicated and drawn out. She frowned on the attitudes of her in-laws who tended to “spend it when you have it” while she was saving to fund some plan or other, be that their first mortgage or later a small business venture.

Her family had for generations a drive to better their lot, to advance through some scheme or other, and Ena was no different. She perceived this attitude in contrast to what she saw in her husband and his family, with little appetite for change or risk. So as her family grew, she wanted more; be that a few hundred laying hens, a part time job, a small business, or to go back to study; only the latter of which she never achieved. 

When Ena and Tommy retired it was to a farm, recently purchased by my brother Nigel near Dromahair, a few miles from Ena’s Boggaun home. Their first task, with little experience, was to manage the renovation of the old farmhouse, where the cattle had taken up residence the previous winter. They lived there for over 20 years, amongst good neighbours and a wide group of friends.

Ena and her husband Tommy are buried in the graveyard at Dromahair Parish Church in Co Leitrim.


Ena goes to Ballymena

This is the last in the series of stories focused on my mother, Ena, and her siblings as they grew up and left home. Ena Davis first worked in Gillmor’s shop in Dromahair, then in Hutchinson’s shop in Bellaghy in County Derry, before marrying Tommy McWilliams and settling in Ballymena.  The story is in two parts. At the end of Part 2 there are links to other of Ena’s stories.

Ena, centre, with a friend in Gillmor’s Yard, Dromahair, c 1946.

Ena left Masterson National School in Manorhamilton at thirteen in 1937, having previously gone with her siblings to Mullaghduff National School, a short walk from their farm. Leaving Masterson’s five of her siblings were between the ages of five and twelve and her labours were needed at home, where the family still struggled with its financial debt. She was keenly aware of their straits, and the measures demanded by their mother, Annie, to keep the family afloat. Their frugal self-reliant lifestyle left its imprint on Ena and all her siblings. Extremely limited household cash, homemade clothes and bed linen, all belied the outward prosperous look of the large two-storey slated house.

Had secondary school been an option – The Manorhamilton Tech had not opened at that time – she would have chosen to go but it is likely the needs of her family would have prevailed. Her school achievements at Masterson’s, particularly in Irish and her contributions to The Schools Collection, a 1937 folklore collection, attest to her diligence and love of learning.

In the early 1940s her family found a position for her in Gillmor’s shop in the small village of Dromahair, owned by a cousin of her mother. Stuart J. Gillmor’s was a general store which had been running in the village since the 1700s, supplying household, farm and hardware goods. The building, the shop and house, fronted the main street. From the Back Lane there was an entrance into a fine yard bounded by attractive stone buildings; housing a bakery, numerous store rooms and staff living quarters overhead.

Gillmor’s Yard, as it was called, was often packed with donkey and horse-drawn carts, the smell of fresh bread had drifted over the awakening village for decades. Ena lived in and cycled home the six miles each weekend. With her experience at home, she was often called upon to look after the young Gillmor children, providing a welcome change to her duties in the shop and yard. Wednesday, her regular half-day off was anticipated by excited children along her route, particularly by the pupils at her old Mullaghduff school as she passed out treats from her deep pockets.

These years were packed with new experiences and responsibilities; at Gillmor’s a serious attitude to work was expected. While she knew many around the area, she made new friends among the staff sharing and supporting some in unexpected challenges and grief. With girlfriends she went to socials and dances, and in summer to nearby agricultural shows.

Wallace, Ena’s brother, with friends in Magherafelt, 12th July c 1949, likely taken by Ena.

The late 1940s in The Irish Free State did not signpost a rosy future. The disastrous consequences to the Irish economy of the 1930s Economic War with the UK resulted in high tariffs on agricultural exports with farming going into an irreversible decline. The loss of rural employment with nothing to replace it forced a mass exodus of young people, most leaving for the UK. The numbers grew through the 1940s and 1950s. Large swathes of Ireland, particularly in the west, emptied, leaving numerous abandoned homesteads.

Many of Ena’s family, friends and contemporaries left for the large cities of England and further afield, while there were those, mainly from the Protestant community, who felt their prospects were as good in Northern Ireland. In 1948 Ena and her friend Izzie, both working at the Dromahair shop, moved to Hutchinson’s shop in Bellaghy, Co Derry where their families had found work and accommodation for them.

“Ena’s going now.” Her father Richard said, his neighbour noting the undertone of loss at the imminent departure of one of his favourite children.

Continues in Part 2.