Moving On, Part 2

I have been crossing the Border in Ireland for as long as I can remember. Back and forward many times each year. It divided our family: my mother from north Leitrim and my father from mid-Antrim. Separated my home from my grandparent’s farm. Places I loved. Early crossings were marked by the tension of an Irish Customs inspection, of car and baggage. Pass, and you got into the Free State. Fail, and you returned to the North to offload the contraband. A pound of butter? Later the frontier was marked by police and army checkpoints, with high green security sheeting that became unremarkable.

An early satellite image of Ireland and Britain (Wikipedia)

In Derry I discovered the Border again, harder and more fortified. It’s close to the City. Cuts it off from a large part of its historical and cultural hinterland. The few roads out to Donegal were heavily militarised, gated security checkpoints. Elsewhere along the arc of territory that was incorporated into Northern Ireland was a network of blockaded side roads. I ran, walked and cycled over many of these unauthorised cratered crossing points. Areas that were regularly patrolled and observed by the Army. Fields on either side often became grim places with a sense of no-man’s-land; abandoned cars and machinery, dumped waste, and sometimes bodies.

The reality for those who live around political Borders is that they divide us. They are a hindrance to the ebb and flow of our daily lives.  We work around them as we can. Living on the Donegal Derry Border is no different. And worse, this hundred-year-old Border remains a fudged Imperial solution that institutionalised sectarianism, difference.

In the early nineteen eighties, we had been living in Muff for about two years; a small village right on the Border. Daily trips to Derry meant going through the permanent checkpoint at Culmore.   Mostly this was routine with little delay. However, one evening was more memorable. On my way to a Derry meeting of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, better known as CND. I was pulled over, probably at random, and questioned by two soldiers.  One, a tall young man with a South of England accent. He held a clipboard. After the usual boot-and-bonnet search, he began to ask familiar questions in a friendly but formal tone. The other was shorter and I recognised him as a member of the Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR).  

‘Where are you coming from, Sir?’ the English soldier asked.

‘Muff,’ I replied swiftly, wanting to get along.

‘Place of birth?’

‘Ballymena.’ The answer written down on his clipboard.

‘How long have you lived there, Sir? In Muff?’ the UDR man asks in a mid-Antrim accent very similar to my own. I turned to him and answered that it’s been a couple of years.

‘Is this your car?’ the English voice again.

‘Yes, it is.’

‘You like it there? In Muff? Sir?’ The Antrim man again, adding emphasis on the ‘sir’. I switched my attention.

‘I do, yes.’

‘Date of birth, please?’  the Englishman asks, who’s given the answer he wants, and follows up with, ‘And where are you going to?’

‘A CND meeting in Derry.’ I replied and he wrote that down.

‘A CND meeting. What’s that, sir?’  I turn to the UDR man and explained what it is – a campaign aimed at removing the threat of nuclear weapons.

‘Thank You. You can go now.’ The English soldier told me after I gave him the address of my destination.

‘Is it a large group then, sir? CND?’ The Antrim accent continued, getting sharper with each question.  I answered that it was fairly small.

‘You can go now, Sir.’ I looked again to the English voice and nod.

‘Does your country have nuclear weapons? Sir?

And I really didn’t know. Does my country have nuclear weapons? My country? Muff? Antrim? What was my country?  Where did I belong? Had my Antrim mates come to get me back? Northern Ireland, UK, or the Republic of Ireland?

‘No.’ was all I said eventually. He flicked his head for me to leave; my fellow Antrim-man seeming happy at some achievement I couldn’t figure. And to a degree, I still remain confused by that question. At having to decide between one and the other. Of course, we can claim multiple identities, and I do. We have multiple identities. Yet the circumstances on the Border that night demanded a singular choice.

On a slightly different note, the best Border, and train song I’ve come across is one by Kevin Doherty on All Aboard, a track from his album Strange Weather. Enjoy the carriage-swaying rhythm and the sharp lyrics, as the train makes its way from Buncrana to Derry, across the Border. I caught a live version many years ago in Buncrana, where we now live. That night the train rolled on and on, past the Border, past Derry. Superb.

All Aboard, Kevin Doherty

“We’re heading South… to the North

You can keep your East you can keep your West

It’s the North and South that I like best

We’re heading South

To the Border, Why always a Border?

Why always a border?”


Strange Weather, Kevin Doherty is available on CD and on some online platforms, link here.

Print and pdf version here.

Moving On, Part 1

Six years living away from Northern Ireland, I decided to come home, to Ireland. To live on the island of my birth. Reconnect. To touch places and communities familiar and unfamiliar. Derry was a good place to start when I was offered a job there in 1978.

During my time as a volunteer in the British Solomon Islands Protectorate, living on local wages, I had hoped to make a small contribution to a country on the verge of independence; I carried the notion that perhaps I could do the same on my return. It came as a surprise that a group in the City had fundraised for my project in the distant Western Pacific.  Meeting them was my first contact with Derry.

A detail from Bishop’s Gate on Derry’s Walls (Wikipedia)

The City was in effect in the middle of a war. The Troubles. Deaths had peaked in the early years of the decade, yet in the late seventies, there were still around one hundred fatalities each year. The widespread relief across all communities at the signing of the Good Friday Agreement was twenty years away.

I lived on the west bank of the City, mostly Catholic and broadly republican. I enjoyed the music and social scene. Dated girlfriends. Met friends in bars. The place was alive with political debate. Among my friends, there was a sense that change was always possible. Actually inevitable. That it would get better for everyone.

A few things came as a shock. I’d never seen a city get its foreheads darkened with ash, on Ash Wednesday. Never. I’d never stood for The Soldier’s Song. Beside young men upright to attention. The a.m. disco beat just faded, the room bristling. Never.

I settled in and went about my work as best I could. It was a new project that sought to improve understanding and action around issues of global inequality and poverty. I worked in schools and with community groups. Catholic schools were generally more sympathetic to reducing inequality. Protestant ones often suspicious of action for change. It was a challenge.

There were high levels of poverty across the City. The Catholic population seethed with resentment against past and present discrimination. I knew this but had never really come face to face with it. The gerrymandering of housing allocation had stopped. The City Council had begun to reflect a more democratic voice. Though I didn’t need to look far to see that sectarianism was alive and kicking. The new Ulster University had been sited in green fields outside Coleraine rather than at the obvious location at Magee College in Derry. A decision cloaked in secrecy.  The understandable anger initially shocked me.

Suspicions abounded in the security-conscious City. Who was who? A Ballymena prod wandering in and out of the Bogside Community Association, where I was generously offered admin support, must have raised an eyebrow, a question asked. I had my list of trusted friends and community contacts at the ready, though it was never needed.

I had the good luck to have an office in 45 Clarendon Street; a Victorian red-bricked terrace. The building housed four or five community projects, no one knew for sure how many. In my spare time that first year, I delivered a local magazine, Community Mirror; getting to know the geography of the City’s communities. The sweep of the river, its hills and tight old streets. Discovering elevated viewpoints where the visitors looked in awe. The last walled City built in Europe. Walls again used for defence.

The small office on the first floor had a beautiful large oak desk. It had been used previously by Paddy Doherty – Paddy ‘Bogside’ as he was known. Often, sticking his head around the door to enquire how I was settling in, he would point to the desk, ‘My desk,’ he would remind me, ‘I’ll want it back,’ he said in a tone of parental authority, one Paddy was noted for.

Derry took on a facade of normality. Yet gaping holes in city centre streets and the numerous screened security locations with tall camera towers told another story. You quickly became blind to much of this. To the visitor the place looked grim. A night-time bomb would send a hollow boom across the river leaving an eerie silence, a heartbeat stalled. Then at the next dawn you woke with the City, got up and got on with it.

The music scene was alive with rock and punk bands. The Undertones got Teenage Kicks and The Casba rocked. The Casba Bar that is; its floor and tables swayed as we pogo-danced, bunched in the small bar just outside the City’s walls.

People I was aquainted with were killed by one group or another, others lost loved ones in Bloody Sunday’s carnage, others damaged by the overarching violence and trauma. It’s a terrible picture, its detail sharpening with time.

Some years earlier at the height of the Troubles, while living at home in Ballymena, I jumped at the chance of escaping the bloody insides of a small chicken factory to drive a regular delivery run to Belfast. Dropping off boxes of chickens all across the city. Winding through street barricades and checkpoints, past burnt-out cars, changing routes around ‘ongoing incidents’. The old Transit liable to backfire, potentially lethal if it happened in the wrong place. I don’t ever recall mentioning any of this back home. These were regular working days.

Travelling with a friend one Friday night on our way from Derry to Ballymena, we were stopped at an army checkpoint a few miles north of the town.  On the dark roadside, we answered their questions, but on the request for our date of birth, we tried the ‘I’m-not-legally-obliged-to-give-you-that’ answer. A term that was legally correct, if uncooperative. As the minutes past the repeated questioning took on an edge. I was pushed back against the car and told, with a rifle on my chest and the soldier’s breath on my face, that he could spend all f******* night at this game. Our choice. They weren’t going anywhere. We gave them our dates of birth and went our way.  Chastened. Raised in an entirely Protestant community I had no experience of this type of policing with its edge or threat, though it was common for many on a daily basis. And this was relatively mild.

A year after arriving in Derry I met Berenice in Dublin. Two years later, on a journey that took us over a pot-holed road to a ‘mixed’ marriage, we were looking for somewhere to live in Donegal. Not Derry. Across the border in Donegal.

Concludes in Part 2

A note here on my use of Derry as opposed to Londonderry or L/Derry. Growing up in Unionist Ballymena in the 1960’s I recall it always being referred to as Derry. Whether in conversation or referring to the Apprentice Boys of Derry, or the Derry Feis where my father had sung as a child. Later political agencies started to use the more formal Londonderry to further the case of the City’s Unionist and Protestant roots and allegiances. I don’t recall this use in our family. So, I’ve stuck to what I’m most familiar with.

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Where’s this going?

I’ve been writing these blogs for the past three years. It has been a journey of discovery. I’ve uncovered lives, connections and stories that I never imagined. It’s part family and social history, and part memoir. But where are they going? I plan to collate and edit them into a form that might make them suitable for publication. There are a few more I have already drafted, but I see an end in sight. Looking through the blogs some highlights jump out.

Martha McWilliams, back left with her Logan cousin in front, Ballymena 1934.

The pieces collectively sketch the overarching story of my maternal and paternal families from a few generations after the Plantation of Ulster.  Themes of religion, emigration, farming, and Orange activism stand out.

There was the discovery of my McWilliams great grandparent’s connection to the religious Ulster Revival of 1857 and the generational echo down to my own church upbringing. And on my mother’s side, the Davis family had a challenging transition from late nineteen century Orange Unionism to active participants in an Independent Ireland.

There has been a rich mosaic of stories from the generation of my maternal grandfather, Richard Davis, the siblings born between 1861 to 1882:  of brothers James and Robert and their army service; of William and his emigration to join the South African police force; of John and his bumpy journey from his Leitrim roots to County Meath; of Thomas’s emigration to Toronto, followed by his Dromahair sweetheart Minnie Gillmor, their marriage and his transition from house painter to real estate businessman; and of putting some colour on the undoubtedly strong, yet almost invisible character of Mary Jane, Richard’s only sister; and of Richard himself, his challenging fortunes and the impact on his family’s lives. And added to that of Herbert Gillmor, Richard’s brother-in-law, through his numerous near-death experiences in World War One, to emigration and a colourful farming life and tragic death in Goodfare, northern Alberta.

Through these stories I’ve discovered many relations, cousins I’ll call them all. For example, Clive and Cedrick Davis in South Africa, the McWilliams cousins noted below and Davis cousins in Alberta and the U.S.

A recent genealogical DNA test I took turned up McWilliams cousins in Canada and the U.S. ‘Do you know your Cullybackey cousins?’ they asked. No. For some reason, we had very little connection with wider family members. The initial contact was with the DNA of Willard McWilliams and his family outside Ottawa in Canada. Similar to some members of the Davis family, they had emigrated from Ireland around the 1850s, to settle on the Trim Road, Navan, Ontario, where they are today. Their family’s thorough genealogical research traces our roots back to my great great great grandparents, James and Margaret McWilliams both buried around 1817 in the Old Cemetery in Ahoghill.  That puts their births around the middle of the 1700s. There are more stories to come here, I think. One possibly tracing the McWilliams North Antrim roots back to Scottish planters drawn into North Antrim in the early 1600s by Randall MacSorley MacDonnell at Dunluce. (Any additional DNA by Davis or McWilliams family members would help deliver better results here. Volunteers? I used the genealogical specific site Family Tree DNA who have links to the North of Ireland Family History Society  and  There are links to DNA testing and results at NIFHS. )

An early discovery was the contribution of my mother, her sister and her brother to The Schools Collection, a 1937 compilation of folklore by National School children. Their school books are part of this collection which resides in the National Archive of Ireland.

In some cases where the lives of distant relatives have been faint or near invisible, I’ve enjoyed bringing a few of them to life with a certain amount of creative licence.

I followed another Davis family who settled at Lurganboy near Manorhamilton during the 18th century, thinking that they might have been related to the Davis families from Glenboy and Boggaun. It appears that they have no connection and their family trajectory is very different. The Lurganboy story tells of their nineteen-century movement into the professions and commerce in Ascendancy Ireland. One family member, Thomas, was MD at the workhouse in Manorhamilton and then at Derry where he died and is buried. His legally-trained brother, R.E. Davis was, for many years, Secretary to the Sligo Leitrim Northern Counties Railway Company. Their story is worth writing up at some stage.

There will be a few more blogs before this series of stories comes to a close. However, if the experience of writing them over the past three years is anything to go by, I expect another new twist at any moment. The photograph above was posted on a website by June Norton, a cousin, a few days ago.


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Join us

The church was empty when I pulled open the heavy two-way vestibule door one evening in late summer. The sun beamed obliquely through the tall plain frosted glass windows, casting long shafts of sunlight across the empty pews, the front of the church in shadow. The raised central pulpit was set in a stage of blue deep-pile carpet, its only decoration, carved in a wooden relief, the Old Testament’s burning bush. It was six years since I had been there yet the place resonated strongly with me. The deep shuffling groan as the Sunday morning worshippers stood to sing. Not an empty seat. Rows of chairs brought in along the ground floor aisles.  A bold choir swamped by the congregation’s massed voices, swelling in praise.  

Wellington Street Persbyterian Church (Congregation moved in 2010 to a new location)

To the right of the pulpit, a solid oak door stood ajar; the Committee Room where I had arranged to meet the Reverend G.

I had left Ballymena not long after my twenty birthday. Spent three years as a student in London before going to the Solomon Islands in the tropical Western Pacific as a UNA volunteer. For most of that later three years I lived and worked in a Melanesian culture, learning the Pidgin language, making long-lasting friendships and contributing in a small way to an island country on the verge of independence. Taking cash instead of a return air ticket I travelled home by a long and complex overland route through Papua New Guinea, Indonesia, Thailand, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Turkey and across Europe. The Troubles continued to rage when I was away. If I thought I was more aware and knowledgeable on my return, I was still confused by it all in equal measure.

Living back home while I figured out my next steps, it wasn’t too long before I got a phone call from the Reverend G.  I was surprised – my church experience then seemed so distant, I wasn’t part of it, or any organised religion anymore. Yet I wasn’t really surprised – the church needed new blood and given my family background, I was an obvious candidate. My mother had often told me that I would make a good Minister. But I never had any passion for the role or the message.

I agreed to meet the Reverend G in the church the following week. And as I put the phone down, I could hear myself agreeing to his further requests. I needed a plan. Maybe this was how my father had become to be a church elder: don’t fight the inevitable, take the easy route. And so, I thought about how I would respond. Turned it over in my head a few times. And wrote it down.  I knew I wouldn’t be taking up his offer. But I had to do this face-to-face.

The Reverend G was an authority figure to my father. And to the family. Like in most Irish homes the Minister or Priest’s visit brought out the good china and plates.  As we grew older, we knew to clear out of the house on these occasions. If caught there you were expected, at least, to pray with him before he left.  At the time we saw it as adult’s business.

“When Tom retired and went over to the other side …” The Reverend G said years later, when leading my father’s funeral service in Coleraine, before the long journey to his burial in Dromahair, County Leitrim. In Northern Ireland the term ‘the other side’ is redolent with meaning – often inferring threat or danger.

My parents had moved from Ballymena to Dromahair, near my mother’s home, after they retired.  There, daddy could enjoy a cigarette and a drink beyond the judging eyes of his religious and family peers. In his Ballymena community and church, partaking in tobacco and alcohol was considered sinful and would bring its opprobrium, particularly so for a church elder. (‘Let me smell yurr breath!” Ian Paisley was often heard to roar at journalists, sniffing for signs of the ‘Devil’s Buttermilk’)

When I went to meet the Reverend G I was tanned with a head of curly sun-bleached hair and a tight beard. I drove a couple of miles to meet him in a casual top and jeans. I was confident and prepared. That was, until my soft shoes squeaked on the aisle’s shiny linoleum. I should have met him somewhere different, a neutral venue. I looked at the upper gallery and the seats where I used to sit with friends, Sunday after Sunday. I’m a teenager again, standing beside my father on a Sunday evening. The church half full. His rich tenor voice filling the space around us, never seeming happier.

I knocked and pushed open the heavy door.  He was sitting one leg across the other reading his Bible, my chair beside him. Behind him a large oval boardroom table.

The Reverend G was a physically impressive man, particularly when preaching from the pulpit in his ermine-collared gown. He had a mop of dark curly hair atop his round open friendly face. The wealthy congregation looked after its minister well, and he had no ‘calling’ to go elsewhere. His sermons tended to reflect his more liberal, socially aware version of Presbyterianism. Yet he saw the trickle of church members starting to drift off to Ian Paisley’s fierier and more evangelical Free Presbyterian Church.  

“Hello. Good to see you again!” He said rising from the chair, smiling, extending an open hand. Not like the village preachers in the Solomon Islands in their colourful T-shirts and shorts, I thought, his sombre grey suit and collar. “I heard that you were back and wanted to have a chat. How are you? Have you settled?”

“Thanks. I’m very well, but I can’t say I’m settled. ‘Not even sure I want to either, you get a great buzz from travelling,” I replied, and we exchanged some conversation about my volunteer work and the experience of being abroad.  He talked about the challenges of being a church leader amid The Troubles, of trying to keep everyone onside.

“But I didn’t ask you here to talk about that. You have probably guessed. We need new blood in the Church. You were very involved when you were last here; a leader in the BB and the youth club. And your Dad is a stalwart elder. We need young people like you for a thriving church community. Have you given any thought to becoming a full member? Of getting fully involved? We have prayed for it. The elders too. I think it is God’s will that you give your life to Jesus in this way.”

“Yes, I thought you would ask me that.” I said hiding my unease best I could. “Since I’ve left I’ve made many friend’s. Some of different religions, some of none. Some are Buddhists, some Animists. Yet they are as ‘Christian’ as we are – in the way they live their lives. In the way they treat each other. Treated me.  Where do they fit into this Church? Are they welcome as they are? Can they become church members without giving up who they are? I want to be part of something that includes them, doesn’t put them on the outside.  They live rich and full lives. They are good people.  If I can’t bring them with me, then I’m not really interested.” There I’d said it, unsure if it came out right or coherently, but it was done.

“I understand completely. I do.” He replied. And I believed him. “But …”

I don’t recall the rest of the conversation. A few minutes later he wound up with a prayer. Nor do I remember exactly how we left it. But a few minutes later I was on the street, breathing deeply into the warm air of a summer evening and making plans.

Shortly afterwards I moved to Belfast to take up voluntary community work. But before leaving I had heard of a job coming up in development education in Derry. To my surprise, the originators of this new project had supported my UNA work in the Solomon Islands and knew I was back home. I was bound for Derry and the North West.


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You Have My Ear

I was brought up very strict. Presbyterian strict.  Almost daily church activities became part of the amalgam of who you were then. You’re unaware of any other way of being. But teenage years bring change. It can go any way. The eldest gets it hardest, I say. No sibling examples to follow, or scoot around.

I was going to church two to three times on Sundays then. At the church’s Boys Brigade and youth club four times a week. Enjoying most of it: camping out on the Antrim Hills in summer, weekends away, helping out on social schemes, a winter full of activities and a Saturday evening trip to an indoor pool in Portrush.

A still from the video that accompanied the released of A Whiter Shade of Pale

On Sundays wearing a suit I never liked, never wearing it out. I couldn’t say it was against my will. I was the fourth generation steeped in that church and its Ulster Revivalist traditions. Following my father, a church Elder and ex-missionary. Once or twice year hellfire preachers were brought in to get our souls over the blessed line. These were uncomfortable occasions, feeling the heat of God’s stare on you. There in your seat. To be told that maybe this could be the last offer of salvation. Feelings of relief, then guilt as a decision was fudged again. By mid-teens, the world of Princess Street, Ballymena and our church was beginning to feel claustrophobic. I sensed a bigger place elsewhere. Sensed change.

A couple of years later with a group of friends, we started to skip Sunday morning service. We would be at the tail end of the crowd going into the church – the meeting house the early Presbyterians called them – then we’d turn sharply and walk off up the empty street. We had about an hour and a half to ourselves and headed for the People’s Park, walking its many paths and messing about.  One or two always offering stories of recent exploits with girlfriends, different to the ones they’d told in church weeks before. Our return would seamlessly join the worshippers leaving the church and looking forward to their Sunday dinner. Morning service was always full. No one ever noticed a half dozen missing souls. Not daddy anyway. And the subject of the sermon never came up at Sunday lunch. Though I strongly suspect that six young fellas in suits strolling the quiet Sunday morning streets was a giveaway.

Before that came music. And girls. But music started it, with Procol Harum’s Whiter Shade of Pale. I was fifteen, hormones starting to surge. It was the number one hit all summer long. Playing on the radio. In shops and cafes. It drifted through open doors onto the sunny streets. Played over the Tannoy at the agricultural showgrounds on show day, over the preened cattle and shiny new-model tractors. The sound of the churchy Hammond organ and the cryptic lyrics wrapped me in pleasure and hope.  The Summer of Love, they called it later. And it was one of those innocent summers before all hell broke loose.

I had no idea what the song’s words meant. It didn’t matter. The song painted my imagination in colours that wouldn’t fade.  The images were brighter and fresher than the repetition of Bible stories that reduced them to doom-laden prophecies.  Perhaps the organ made it instantly familiar. There were snippets of the lyrics I knew. They created images that were gossamer yet sharp, evocative yet ambiguous, heavenly yet earthy. The familiar chorus. The organ lifts and surges. I’m gone. 

And so it was that later
As the miller told his tale
That her face, at first just ghostly
Turned a whiter shade of pale

We skipped the light fandango
Turned cartwheels ‘cross the floor …

As the ceiling flew away …

She said “there is no reason”
And the truth is plain to see …

One of sixteen vestal virgins
Who were leaving for the coast …

And so it was that later
As the miller told his tale
That her face, at first just ghostly
Turned a whiter shade of pale

Turned a whiter shade of pale

If the song opened a window on an alluring world, it also started a struggle between my conscience and my increasing secular self that would see-saw on for years.  For a while, in late teens, this seemed relentless. The squabbling would eventually quieten, but would take years to go away. In our faith, it’s a personal crusade. It’s my battle with the Devil in all his forms. An internal battle for the most part. That is until you win out and proclaim that you are ‘saved’, or don’t and remain beguiled by Satan. There’s no middle way. It’s stark, God or the Devil. The first line of our BB anthem goes ‘Onward Christian soldiers, marching as to war.’  Despite all, I was beginning to turn my back on that march and move in another direction.

That year was peppered with great songs: The Monkees’ I’m a Believer, The Beatles’ Strawberry Fields, The Stones’ Ruby Tuesday, Scott McKenzie’s San Francisco, Pink Floyd’s See Emily Play, Jackie Wilson’s Your Love, Jimmy Hendrix’s Hey Joe, and that’s not half of them.  They all helped colour my world, and lift the grey skies of Ulster.  But it was a Whiter Shade of Pale that for me marked a beginning. To Gary Brooker and Procol Harum, thank you.


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Four sisters, three aunts – Part 2

Before we were old enough to go to Sunday school Martha and Lily read us Bible stories from colourful picture books. God’s Heaven with white-winged angels for the saved, the horned Devil stoking his fires for sinners. And always, God watching you, knowing what you were thinking and doing. While the Ten Commandments were beyond us then, we were gathering a list of sins. And quickly got a sense of how simple it was to err under God’s eye:  disobedience, fibbing, fighting. Other more serious ones were later added: stealing, cursing, playing with the Devil’s cards, gambling, smoking, the list got longer. They taught us the Lord’s Prayer; although its nightly refrain never settled in our own house.

Lily, mother Lizzie, cousin Peggy, Jean and their Aunt May, Stranmillis, Belfast
c 1950.

We spent some Sundays there too, flat inside days. No playing or laughter outside. A day for church and bible study.  Maybe ‘Songs of Praise’ on TV. To Martha and Lily at that time, life appeared full of danger and risk. When hunger drove us back from the field red-faced, panting hard, with scrapes and the odd bruise we would hear dire warnings that our ‘hearts might burst’. One that I particularly remember was being told that so-and-so ‘got blood poisoning from a rusty nail, and watched a poison move up his arm, into his heart and killed him.’ Ferocious cleaning with splashes of Dettol would follow. Inside the house there was danger too, ‘You’re sitting too close to the fire, you’ll melt like a jelly baby.’ And one that frightened me at first, after I swallowed chewing gum, ‘That dirty gum it’ll stick to your insides, and everything will stop working.’

While much of this apprehension must have been related to Lily’s early diagnosis of heart disease, the impact of the failure of their father’s coachbuilding business must also have come to bear. In later years he was said to be painfully shy, almost a recluse. My father too had an aversion to risk, unlike my mother, and was happy to let life run smoothly with no appetite for change as long as problems stayed away from his door.

Over time the influence of Martha and Lily’s cautious natures was offset by experiences elsewhere. Particularly so at our grandparents’ farmhouse in County Leitrim. Here farm life was a more basic struggle against the forces of nature; more precarious, with some level of jeopardy part of daily life.  From a young age, we were regularly called upon to help with some farm job or other.

Halfway through my time at primary school, Martha opened a small shop on High Street. She had for some years been an agent for Kays mail-order catalogue, garnering sales from friends and neighbours. The shop sold biscuits, sweets and some basic foodstuffs. It was next to the family’s first home and her father’s coachbuilding workshop. For two years it was on my route home from school, and a welcome stop. Martha was generous with sweet treats.  

After about ten years of shopkeeping, she applied to be postmistress of the new post office in the Ballykeel estate. There was spare floor space for a shop as well. She sold babies and children’s clothes this time.  Martha’s sister Jean and my mother soon became involved. Small in stature, Martha didn’t lack grit and resilience and in time appeared to throw off any effects of her father’s timidness. She clearly was a good bookkeeper and had enough business acumen to keep both enterprises running through difficult years. During the Troubles, the post office was raided by gunmen a couple of times, but she kept going. Martha had a wicked laugh, often in response to something that went against her religious instincts.

The sisters were happy in Ballymena and had little desire to travel. The Free State was a foreign and distant place. And I am not sure if they ever understood, or even forgave, their brother for marrying a woman from County Leitrim. While my mother was a member of the Protestant Church of Ireland, among Ballymena Presbyterians the church appeared closer to the ‘Church of Rome’ than to their own faith.

Over the past couple of years, while I have been writing these pieces on my families in County Antrim and County Leitrim, I have been struck by different patterns that appear across several generations. Patterns that influenced individual lives and their journeys. In Leitrim, as part of a Protestant minority, there appeared a restlessness, a hunger for something different, whether through emigration, ambition or simply expanding their farms. In Ballymena, by contrast, there was apparent contentment in lives dominated by strong religious belief and practice; where there was no desire to look too far beyond their own place, happy in their trades and with their lot.


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Four sisters, three aunts.

My dad had four sisters, May, Lily, Martha and Jean. No brothers. May and Lily were born just before the 1911 census, when their father, Hugh was running his coach building business in a workshop at the rear of their house on Albert Street, Ballymena. The business was failing. Few wanted a horse and carriage. The car was taking over.

Sisters Lily, Martha and Jean

The early years of the young family were shaped by the collapse of the business, shrinking the family’s life and aspirations. It appeared to have a devastating impact on Hugh. Martha, Jean, and Tommy were born after they moved into a smaller rented terrace house at 45 Princess Street. Here there were a number of families who were closely realted to Hugh and Lizzie.

Hugh was a very religious man, raising his children after his own severe fashion, and was a staunch member of the Orange Order. The story goes that he spent a night in Carrickfergus gaol and walked home, after ‘standing up for his faith’ in defying an order to cross Harryville Bridge, most likely during an Orange Order protest against Home Rule in the early 1900s. He was a strict adherent to Sabbath Day observance and demanded the same in the household: Sunday’s food preparation was carried out the previous day and there was no work or play of any kind. Sunday was for church attendance, prayer and bible study. After their parents died, and during my first years staying with them, my aunts continued this strict weekend regime.

May, the eldest got married locally and became Mrs Templeton. The wedding in Kells Presbyterian Church was at some distance from the family’s home church. This was done most likely in reverence to it being at the iconic epicentre of the Ulster Revival (a religious revival in 1859) which strongly influenced May’s father and grandfather. May died in 1943 not long after the birth of her first child, Maurice. Hugh and Lizzie, May’s parents, felt her death was preventable and fell out irreconcilably with her husband’s family; an aunt and cousin I never knew. Next, Jean married Tom Williams. Tom had been in the Military Police during the North African World War 2 campaign and was stationed in Northern Ireland at the end of that war. After marrying they moved to Lurgan, where they got a house and Tom found work. Tom was a Welshman, proud to recite the poetry of Dylan Thomas. Lily and Martha never married.

Martha and Lily doted on my brother Ivor and I. We looked like twins as they pushed us in buggies around the town, their friends stopping to admire our blond curly heads sticking out of the fur-lined hoods of our suits. Their mother Lizzie, my granny, was still alive then. I recall her as a severe woman with none of the laughter or fun of her daughters. Each of the girls had taken a trade, and probably worked for a short while in one of the town’s mills. When she was in her thirties Lily was found to have a serious heart condition and never worked outside her home again. Living as she did on the steep hill of Princess Street, neither did she walk it again. A few years later after another ’turn’, her doctor advised her to move her bedroom downstairs and strictly avoid anything strenuous. Preparing the Sunday dinner on Saturdays in a small dark scullery was the extent of her work. She rarely went out, not even to church.

My brother and I fell into a pattern of spending Saturdays with Martha and Lily, at ‘Princess Street’ as we referred to it. This gave my mother some relief and time with our younger siblings Elaine and Nigel. At Princess Street, we were joined by my cousin Gareth after his parents returned from Lurgan when Jean wanted to be nearer her family and church.

The laneway outside the tiny backyard with its larder and toilet, dropped sharply down to a field below. It was triangle shaped. At its broad edge, away from the town was a field of allotments. My father worked the family plot there before he married and continued for a few years afterwards. The field narrowed towards the town into a laneway near the Memorial Park on the Galgorm Road. We played on the unused part of the field, joining the town’s children, shouting and squealing as we rolled down the bank and played various games while Saturday afternoons flashed past. The field was silent on Sundays. There we discovered the street skills of chewing bubble gum, spitting and cursing, trying them all out until hunger drove us back to the red-bricked terrace. Our highly religious aunts were mortified at the state we would often return in, but their outbursts of laughter often took any sting from their rebuke. However, I got a stunned reaction trying out the ‘c’ word during one of the regular Saturday evening fry ups. Uncle Tom was there and lent greater gravitas to my telling-off, although I later discovered his army background tempered his anger somewhat.

It was on a Saturday that the coalman came stooping through the front door, him blackened carrying his large sack, walking over papers on the carpeted hallway then through the living room to tip the sack into the small cubby hole under the stairs, the coal clattering into a heap. And also on Saturday came the rent collector, a small suited man called carrying a rent book and pencil. His coy manner was unbroken by the jokes and taunts of Lily and Martha as he stood stiffly marking off their payments. Before their mother died and against her wishes, the two sisters turned the house from its hard linoleumed, dull brown tones into a carpeted home, softer and brighter, prompted by colourful images from their well-thumbed Kay’s Catalogue.

Continued next blog.

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In Memory of Hugh Gilmour

(Written in memory of Hugh Gilmour killed by the Parachute Regiment in Derry, as a contribution to the Community Writing Archive on the 50th Anniversary of Bloody Sunday.)

30th January 1972

“Is Hugh alright?” an anxious Derry mother might have asked earlier that day, after the first news of trouble reached the house, gun shots already heralding disaster.

“Hugh? Dunno yet.”

“Hugh. Is he alright?” An innocent question dropped from a mother’s lips. A terrible answer that would roll and echo down the years, demanding justice.


I was twenty-one, a green first-year at college, studying engineering, coming to terms with student life in London. After a few drab months in digs, I had moved into bright new student accommodation; a small room on the eight floor with a bird’s eye view of the city. I had a bank account, had time on my hands and was drinking too much. It was great to be away from home, Ballymena. But I was suffering somehow.

Almost every Sunday evening, I would ring home between seven and eight, from some noisy coinbox. That Sunday too, as the body of seventeen-year-old Hugh Gilmour and the twelve others lay in the disorder and chaos of Altnagelvin Hospital, I called. I hadn’t heard the news. My mother usually answered the phone, daddy always desperate to hand it on.

“Are you alright?” she started, “You didn’t call last Sunday.”

“Yeah, I’m good. How’s everything at home?” I said diverting further explanation. My sister? Youngest brother, Nigel? Brother, Ivor in Belfast? Daddy?

“There was trouble in Derry today,” she said at some point. Her judgement already clouded by insinuations dropped into the news bulletins of an illegal march, possible gunmen.

Ours was not a family that entertained political discussion.  Our community was not in disarray, or under threat. It seemed solid enough, yet there was always an unnerving tremble at the edges. My first vote had been for an SDLP man from the Glens.  I kept that to myself.  Before that I followed Austin Currie’s occupation of a property at Caledon where, with a colleague, they demanded housing equality. It helped fix my gaze. I kept that to myself as well. There was nothing overtly sectarian in our house. Just a quiet regard for the status quo.

“Terrible trouble,” she said. I sensed her upset.


“Is Hugh alright?”

“Hugh. Is he alright?”



1.  All contributions to the Bloody Sunday 50 Community Writing Archive Anniversary are here at:

2.  The summary of the Saville Enquiry finally exonerating the victims is quoted in Wikipedia, “The firing by soldiers of 1 PARA on Bloody Sunday caused the deaths of 13 people and injury to a similar number, none of whom was posing a threat of causing death or serious injury,” and also said, “The immediate responsibility for the deaths and injuries on Bloody Sunday lies with those members of Support Company whose unjustifiable firing was the cause of those deaths and injuries.” Saville stated that British paratroopers “lost control”,fatally shooting fleeing civilians and those who tried to aid the civilians who had been shot by the British soldiers. The report stated that British soldiers had concocted lies in their attempt to hide their acts. Saville stated that the civilians had not been warned by the British soldiers that they intended to shoot. The report states, contrary to the previously established belief, that none of the soldiers fired in response to attacks by petrol bombers or stone throwers, and that the civilians were not posing any threat.

Prime Minister David Cameron addressing the House of Commons after the publication of the report on 15 June 2010, apologised and described what British soldiers had done as “both unjustified and unjustifiable, it was wrong”.He acknowledged that all those who died were unarmed when they were killed by British soldiers and that a British soldier had fired the first shot at civilians.”

3.  The following is a brief bio of Hugh Gilmour provided by the organisers of the archive:

Hugh Gilmour 

Aged 17

Hugh Gilmour was the youngest of a family of eight and lived in the Rossville Flats. The son of a former Derry City player, he worked as a trainee tyre fitter in Northern Ireland Tyres in William Street. Living in the Rossville Flats, Hugh found himself at the forefront of the civil unrest that swept the north in 1969, and he contributed to the defence of the Bogside in August 1969. A typical football-mad teenager, he was an avid Liverpool supporter and he attended the pictures every Friday night with his friends, who called him ‘Gilly’. His family remember him as a prankster with a free spirit who would sometimes get into trouble for bunking off school. However, they also remember him as a hugely affectionate wee brother who they doted on. He had just bought a car and was learning to drive – his sisters remember he and his friends tinkering with the beloved, battered little red car, with its special parking space which they marked out with white paint. This was a step up from the go-carts he and his friends would cobble together from scraps as children. They aren’t sure what happened to that little red car after Bloody Sunday, and presume it was probably burnt during a routine riot. Hugh and his friends would spend sundays exploring the town and the docks, doing odd jobs here and there to scrape together their money to buy a bag of chips to share or a day out in Buncrana. A dare-devil, his sisters remember him scaling the multi-story block of flats where they lived or crossing the Craigavon bridge by walking along the parapet with no fear of the cold river Foyle below!

 On Bloody Sunday he left for the march wearing a fashionable new pair of Doc Martens. His family say that Hugh’s friends recognised his body being put into an ambulance by the Doc Martens he was wearing. His loss is still very raw for his family, who say that in many respects they can picture him as if it were yesterday despite the passage of 50 years.

He was shot dead as he ran towards the safety of the Rossville Flats, dying just below the windows of his own home. The banner of the Derry Civil Rights Association was laid over his body. 

Hugh Gilmour was shot by Private U, who claimed to have fired at a man armed with a handgun. The BSI rejected his account as ‘knowingly untrue’. 

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Up for work

It was the job that found us. Not one you’d go looking for. Teenaged brothers at a loose end for a week before Christmas, on school holidays. Daddy said we had work. No questions asked.  Handy we thought, a ten-minute cycle from home at Carniny to Galgorm Parks – the townland of my grandmother’s birth.

We were always up for work. We had been brought up to it. Whether picking spuds from the cold autumn clay on some farm outside the town, or the multitude of jobs we grew into at Granny and Granda’s farm in Leitrim, or for me working in one of Ballymena’s many shops.

Here there was no job application, no cv. There was no interview. No chance to ask questions. Working conditions? Career prospects? It was a small chicken factory, its block walls and corrugated asbestos roof bursting out of its small-farm beginnings. The boss was a farmer, and a businessman, I was later to discover. He was also an elder in our church – a spiritual leader – like daddy.

“Tommy?” I guess he asked, “I have a place for your two lads for a week before Christmas, if they’re interested. It’s very busy coming up to the holidays. I need the extra help.” 

Daddy would never have turned him down; in deference to his air of confidence, the hint of authority that seeped from him, a man with ambitions. I guess that if daddy had been a solicitor or a teacher he wouldn’t have been asked. Or if he had been, it would have prompted him to find some alternative, rather than have us spend our week before Christmas, killing and gutting chickens.


Johnny – name changed and imagined.

‘Johnny, you’re not the full shillin, son.’ Me Da used to say regular. ‘But there’ll always be work for ye. Always wans want ye. Tell me if they ever rough ye up tae much.’ They did, when A was young. But A never tauld him. A learned tae handle meself. When A lost me temper something happened tae me. All A knew was everyone scattered. An A was left standin on ma own. A did a lot of that, standin on ma own. A know they all thought a was soft in the heed. A just saw things different.

A worked in a wee chicken factory for a wheen a years. Course they gave me all the jobs nobody else wanted. A knew that. Cept when new ones come in. They did them fur a while – shovelling blood intae bins, loadin the lorry for the weekly dump, boys that was bad, specially in heat o summer. Thosens there thought a felt nothin doin that work. A did. A didnae like the place, just got used tae it. We all got used tae it. A was nae different.

The wemen groped me. A didnae mind it, most o the time. First thing in the morning. The smell of fresh soap still on me. Afore the stink of the place had soaked into me, into them all. Sometimes across the gutting table they would wink at me. Obvious like. The rest o them watchin. The big one, Joan, she would hauld her hands wide apart like A was that big, her pretendin tae be shocked. A always started tae laugh, giggle, couldnae stop. Then everyone started up. A had tae go and stand on ma own for a while. Till a settled.

A was the one who slit the throats of every chicken that went through the place – well most o them. A’ll tell about that in a minute.  An them birdies endin up on all the fancy tables frea here tae Belfast. They didnae  know A had me hands on them.

The line worked maybe every other day. A used to sit on me plastic chair, way me three or four sharp knives. It was a kinda dull corridor, the flur made tae catch the blood. The line of stunned birds hangin upside down comin at me like there was no stopping them. There was no stopping them. When a cut their throats the blood spilt over ma white plastic gown and boots, japinn me face as well.

Well, one day a fell asleep. In ma chair. A didnae know it. The chickens movin on past me. A woke tae a wile roarin.  Heeds lookin at me from either end of that bloody place, all gulderin and laughin. The line had stopped. The birdies were waking up in the scaldin water doon the line frea me. The chickens in front a me hangin upside doon, swinging about at all angles. Took me A while tae come tae ma senses. Tae know where a was. They never let me forget that day.


Working in a chicken factory teaches you a lot about life and death, class and capitalism. The look of it, the smell of it. I had been with Granny as she dispatched chickens and geese for Sunday dinners, helped pluck them, and was familiar with the messy nature of life and death on farms, but this was different, the noise, the scale, the smell.

It was a temporary job that I never put on my CV, but one that my brother and I kept up the following summer and for a couple of years afterwards. That first year we gave all our earnings to our mother. Later when I had my driving licence, I jumped at the chance to deliver the oven-ready chickens around the war-torn streets of Belfast; ignoring the added danger of an old backfiring Transit van. I had escaped from that putrid place.

There was always a smell, always worse in summer. Blood and guts, and feathers, going off in bins that should’ve been taken to the dump days before. There was a putrid mix of chicken shit and viscera that the powerful hoses and no volume of water could ever eradicate. But you got used to it. When you arrived in the morning you donned a long white cape and boots and the world was transformed. When you got home you dropped your stinking clothes in the garage.

Johnny had something different about him, ‘especially challenged’ you might say now, and at the time he got some vicious slagging. I knew him from the Boy’s Brigade, our regimented church youth club. Generally, he got along well with everyone, but we knew that when he lost his temper it was best to stay well clear of him. He was strong as an ox and could do severe damage. Sometimes when he stood on his own after some incident or other, looking flat and lost, you wanted to give him a hug and tell him it was alright. But you never did. In the small factory when he put on his white waterproof gear and with a slight sway to his walk, he reminded you of a white penguin; that was until he became splattered in blood from head to foot.

Within earshot of the squawking, flapping birds being fixed upside down on the line, Johnny bled the stunned chickens. He sat in a chair, his boots in the pooled blood, drawing his knife across their throats as they moved in front of him. Further along the chickens were submerged in scalding water, before rubber flails would remove most of their feathers. Four or five of us stood on inverted milk crates to pluck the rest of the wet feathers.

One day someone screamed “Stop the line!” after the birds had started to show signs of life as they were being beaten with the flails. The line jerked to a sudden stop as the chickens swung wildly. We ran to where Johnny was sitting. He had fallen asleep, head to the side, arms dangling, palms open, under the line of swinging birds.

The boss called us around a wide stainless steel eviscerating table one afternoon, empty except for a weighing scale and a knife. About ten of us spread out around three sides of the table. He was a tall heavy-boned man, well spoken, who carried his ownership easily, nothing overtly aggressive. Mind you, when he let out a roar at us, all heads would turn. He pulled on a white coat from a wrack on the wall, picked up a knife and flashed it across a sharpening steel. The way you see butchers do it. Second nature. Delicate sweeps of the blade to sweeten the edge. Peter, his gaffer, set a chicken on the table, chilled and headless. With a firm hand on the chicken, the boss slipped the knife into its back end, deftly cutting a U under the bishop’s nose, like we’d been shown. He inserted his hand and drew the entrails out in one sweep, then checked to see if the cavity was clean.  He dropped the hollow carcass on the bench, for effect maybe. Nothing new here. He hadn’t said a word, though all eyes were on him.

“Now. Watch!” He said pulling out the back-end flap and holding the attached piece of fat between finger and thumb. He cut it off. “That’s what you’re all doing,” The fat landed on the scales with a splat. “One ounce,” he paused.  “Peter, how many we killing a week?”

“Four and a half thousand a week. More coming up to Christmas, say six.”

“Let’s take four and a half thousand a week, by one ounce. What’s that in pounds?” he asked, knowing the answer. “Just under three hundred pounds of chicken. At seventy-five pence a pound that’s about two hundred and thirty pounds a week. Two hundred and thirty pounds a week I’m losing!”

“But’s just fat,” somebody started.

“That’s the point, it’s not just fat! It’s the same price as the rest of the chicken. You know what’s in your pay packets. And you know how many of yous that would pay. A whole lot. So, leave that wee bit of fat on there for God sake! I don’t want to go through this again.”

And now, as sure as Karl Marx wrote Das Kapital, every time I cook a chicken, there it is, at the back end, a useless flap of fat, that no one needs, but that we all pay for.


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Colpey autumn 2021

A spinney of aspen stands out bright yellow on the hillside behind our farmhouse at Colpey. It grows on the edge of an ancient woodland that stretches a mile west to Gortcormican. If you look and listen closely, the leaves tremble in a gentle breeze; aptly named Populus Tremula, or in Irish, Crann Creathach, the tree that whispers with the world beyond. The aspen blaze briefly on the damp spring line that marks a pattern of old settlements, our farm included. Each tree is most likely suckered underground, a clone of its near neighbour, hence the spinney.

Colpey autumn 2021

On arriving, some thirty years ago, we planted thousands of trees that have now become a forest; but not the aspen, who knows how long they have been here. As the verdant shades of spring, and the reds and yellows of autumn bookend each growing year, so this autumn bookends our time living here at Colpey. Next spring, we will have moved into our renovated terraced house near the pier in Buncrana.

After the forest was planted, we established a tree nursery. At the time we had three young children, Berenice was about to return to teaching, and shortly I would be offered work at an engineering start-up, both better paid than the unknown returns from a risky venture. However, the notion of some type of farm enterprise had always attracted us and had brought us here in the first place. We had the energy, and farming the ‘25 good acres’ with its cattle and sheep seemed not enough at the time. The nursery, primarily a large poly-tunnel, was planned and set up with green hopes, to grow an annual crop of forty thousand broadleaf saplings. During the first and second years we found it impossible to discard the ten percent or so of plants that didn’t make it to saleable size. These saplings, no taller than twenty centimetres were set aside, and when time permitted, were dug into stony and rocky ground, near the aspen, where we thought they might survive. A few did, a handful of the couple of hundred we planted. They were either too small or weak to survive the rampant grasses and briars or were browsed by cattle. The nursery itself survived for about five or six years, its scale too small, the climate too wet, the soils too heavy.

The forest we planted seemed, on the face of it, simpler – and there’s a very inaccurate saying about forestry that you plant it and close the gate on it for forty years, until harvest. After a few years we had to replace hundreds of young wild cherry trees after they became infected with a canker; many of the sycamore and ash stems forked, needing to be heavily pruned; deer came to browse other young trees, and now over thirty years on, hundreds of semi-mature ash trees are dying with ash dieback disease (caused by an invasive fungal pathogen Hymenoscyphus fraxineus). Last winter many of these ash trees were replaced with sapling birch, and a new generation of deer came for the tasty green shoots. Tending the forest is good and pleasant work, and goes on. To see the forest, grow tall and full of wildlife is a wholesome pleasure.

About twenty years after we saved those small puny plants, I discovered a surviving oak tree, now over six meters tall. How had I, and the cattle, missed it all that time, although it had blended into the rest of the alders, ash and sycamores? It grows beside a track I walk regularly, into what we call ‘the rough ground’. It is tall, upright and sturdy. I gave it a hug last summer but missed its reply. A stone’s throw away is the spinney of aspen, which with the oak and rest of the trees on the hillside, will glow in shades of yellow and gold for autumns to come.

The townland name ‘Colpey’ – with only two farmsteads – or ‘Colpey Rocks’ as I have heard it called, is likely to derive from the old Irish word colpa or collop, meaning the area a cow would graze in summer; perhaps that too is appropriate for us now, alluding to an autumn movement more clement pastures.


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