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.

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