At National School in the 1930s.

In the next three blogs I will focus on the school lives on my Mother, Ena and her siblings during the 1930s and 1940s. Firstly at Mullaghduff National School, then through an imagined story and finally at Masterson National School and at “The Tech” in Manorhamilton. These blogs will be shorter than previous ones.

Mullaghduff National School Photograph 1931.

This photograph of the forty-four pupils and two staff of Mullaghduff National School was taken in 1931. In picture Reco (10 years old) is sixth in from the right on the back row, and possibly in the same row Herbie (11) three over to the left; Ena (8) stands beside the teacher on the right; and Cecil (7), I think sits on the ground beside the teacher on the left.  Phyllis (5) does not appear to be there, if indeed she had started school at that time. At home were Wallace (4) and Alf (2) and Jack (John) wasn’t yet born.

The picture tells a wider story. It was probably taken before the school broke up for the summer and the older pupils left. While the children have dressed for the occasion many don’t have shoes, this being an expense their families could not afford. Many of the older boys appear to project a stern and serious expression to the camera; they are aware of being captured in print, something unfamiliar to most their parents. A few of the girls look too old for the school. However, as the only formal education available at the time they stayed on at national school until 13 or 14 or as long as they could.

The Larkfield farmhouse sits on a small rise about 200 yards off the Manorhamilton to Carrick-on-Shannon road. This trunk road running from Carrick-on-Shannon to Bundoran was surfaced with tar and chippings by the late 1920s. A daily bus service ran each way but otherwise there was little motorised traffic. On school days the children would turn left at the bottom of their lane and walk towards Killargue, other pupils joining them as they covered the mile distance to the two-roomed schoolhouse sitting on the left by the roadside. They each brought a turf for the school fire, a lunch and a bottle of milk or tea. Books were being introduced at the time although it is most likely that the students still used slates and slate pencils; the cost of these and other expenses were met by the parents. 

Mullaghduff NS was a state school with a local Catholic Church management as it had been for many years before Irish independence. The school is listed in an 1859 schools survey. It was common that children of rural Protestant families would go to their local school, having no means of transport elsewhere.

The collapse of Richard Davis’s cattle shipping business, and consequent near bankruptcy was some 5 years previous, although the family were still in severe financial straits (see the earlier blog – Richard Davis, Swindled). Along with Richard and Annie and their eight children, Richard’s older brother Alec, aged 62 and his older sister Mary Jane, 67, were living there; twelve mouths to feed.  My Grandmother was under considerable strain caring for the growing family and the keeping the household together.  They were sustained to a large extent by their farm produce. Milk, taken daily to the Killasnet Coop Creamery and the sale of store cattle brought in welcome cash. However, in 1931 their labour was the prime resource and the older boys would soon join the effort.

Ireland was changing during these times. The Irish Free State would be ten years old the following year and was moving towards a new constitution in 1937. The Protestant population of the 26 counties fell by 30% from 1911 to 1926 as many families felt uneasy with the changing values and culture of the new Irish Free State. Border counties particularly, like Leitrim saw many families leave for Northern Ireland or other parts of the UK. The Davis family at Larkfield were not sheltered from these pressures.

Mullaghduff National School closed in 1956 with pupils moving to a new National School in nearby Killargue. In 2001 Ena, Cecil, Reco and Wallace attended a school reunion in Killargue Community Center, from where the above picture was sourced. As children going to Mullaghaduff school with their neighbours they strengthened bonds of community and established friendships that would last throughout their lives.


1. Thanks to the unknown provider and photographer of the above school photograph.

2.  For background to the evolution of the Irish National School system see: The National System of Education, 1831–2000, Tom Walsh. Chapter 2 from Essays in the History of Irish Education, edited by Brendan Walsh, Palgrave Macmillan Limited, 2016.

3. Protestant population decline between 1861 and 1991 see

4. And again thanks to Padraig Fitzpatrick his review of dates and detail.

Easter 1966 – 2

This is a series of writings inspired by my ancestors, their families and their imagined lives – Stan McWilliams.

Richard Davis, my Grandfather in the haggard with his shorthorn bull circa 1959.

Easter 1966 is a full and eventful week at Larkfield. Today is Easter Tuesday and there’s a cattle fair in Manorhamilton. Uncle Cecil is selling two in-calf heifers, Ivor and I are walking them the three miles or so into town. Neighbouring farmers have gathered their cattle and together we will make our way along the main road to the fair. Hopefully our two will sell and we won’t have to walk them home again in the late afternoon. We’re up early to a big bowl of porridge cooked the night before, eggs and homemade bread. We should get a dinner in the town after the cattle are settled near the old castle. It’s a day I look forward to since I was first taken by my Granda, Richard Davis (1889 – 1961) when I was about nine or ten.

The town will be taken over by animals, buyers and farmers, children and street vendors, the normally quiet town turning to apparent chaos for the day. There’s a sense of excitement as groups of cattle and sheep with their drovers converge on the town and head for their preferred stand, the earliest getting the prime locations. Farmers and young lads with sticks and dogs roam through the crowded dung-covered streets. Cattle and sheep dung and piss where they stand; the cattle settle easily and chew the cud under the watchful eyes of young lads, like us. Sheep, particularly lambs are often tied together at the neck by a loose rope or put in makeshift pens, they will make a dash for freedom at the first chance. Occasionally some of the more skittish cattle take off to shouts and whoops with their minders in chase. Small calves lie in straw bedded carts with horses tethered, asses and carts are parked apparently at random. A few bulls with rings in their noses are led and tied to a pier or something similar. Householders unlucky enough to have cattle or sheep standing outside their houses must endure the day and will, by late afternoon be washing the dung off their walls and footpaths.

Farmers selling stock want to get a good idea of the day’s prices and will wander through the fair keeping their eyes and ears open; buyers look over stock at close range, judging their strengths and noting which ones to come back to later. Some buyers are local but there are large dealers buying for the fattening trade in the east of the country – their presence is welcomed as it tends to drive up prices, but they have their tricks and are carefully watched. Here and there deals are being made, a small group gathers around the two men – I can’t remember seeing any women selling cattle or sheep at fairs –  and often a deal maker emerges from the crowd; he’s something of showman and will use his charms to help make a deal.

“Don’t be spoilin our day now! Ye’re not going to let a few pounds come between ye?” He’ll say with some authority.

“Make him a bid, wont ye?”

“Gwan now, split the difference!”

 He may draw their hands to together in encouragement to deal. Hands will be spat on and slapped to strike the deal, the lucks penny often settled in a local bar. The crowd will melt away and move on, the two left to work out their arrangements and terms. From another group a man strides away to shouts of

“Come back will ye! He’ll dale, he’ll dale!”  but he raises his hand and walks on, he’s had enough.

As the day wears on most deals are done.  Young minders are left to the stock while farmers go to settle up their deals and the lucks penny; gradually cattle and sheep are moved from their stand for the walk home or taken to a lorry for transport and the streets empty. For some it’s a day out and a chance to do some business, maybe to have a dinner in The Central Hotel or one of the other houses that serve up hearty dinners for the hungry, or meet friends for a drink in one of the many pubs; a welcome change to long days of solitary hard work. The odd one will lose the run of himself or tempers will fray over some minor disagreement. The town will start its clean up.

At the Manorhamilton sheep fair circa 1980, from A Fair Day by Martin Parr, 1984.

After breakfast the two heifers that have been in the byre overnight are taken out into the yard. We can see and hear the others and their cattle coming down the hill past Clancy’s lane, a short distance away. We drive our two flighty heifers down to the road, covering their run into the open field. When they join the others theyshould quickly settle down or maybe the whole lot will take off at speed and give us a good run.

There’s Bob Collins on his bike, Patrick Hugh McMorrow and Padraig Fitzpatrick with their six cattle. They stop briefly at the end of the lane for us to join them but keep the cattle moving forward. Cecil will turn back when we are on our way and after the milking is done will take the van to town.

We take up the rear, those at the front watch out for gates, gaps, and any place the cattle might turn off into. The day is cloudy and cool, and we are dressed for the walk with jackets and wellington boots and carrying a stout stick.

We walk some fifty yards when just ahead of the group I see a lorry coming around the first bend, McKay’s Corner two hundred yards away, it’s not slowing. Everything happens so fast, just ahead of the cattle a man is thrown into the ditch by the lorry, I can hear men shout and scream; the lorry weaves through the cattle and down the road towards us. Ivor and I are at the side of the road with one of Cecil’s heifers, she has turned across the road, her tail toward us, we can almost touch her; she’s a roan shorthorn, she turns her head towards the oncoming truck. The men continue to shout and roar, towards us now, we don’t hear them; in an instant the heifer is swept before us in the blur of the speeding truck. I feel the rush of air from the lorry, feel my heart thumping, I’m rooted to the spot at the verge of the road, aware of Ivor to my left, beside me. I see the heifer rolled under the truck and tossed out behind it a short distance away; she comes to rest in the middle of the road; dirt, hair and debris settle around her. In the silence that falls we catch the acrid smell of burnt hair and skin. Cecil runs towards us as we watch the dying animal.  He shakes us, looks into our eyes. The lorry has come to a stop just beyond the gate of the farm.

From the house on the hill Granny in her dark apron comes rushing across the field; hearing the commotion she is panicked by what she imagines has happened. I see Uncle Cecil’s other heifer lying on the road among the remaining cattle and further along a group bent over the injured man at the road side. A car has stopped beside them, it’s door open. There’s a stile across the stream at the road and we are ushered across it, up the field and back to the house. I see nothing else of the carnage.

There are no fatalities other than the two cattle; Patrick Hugh McMorrow is in hospital for some months and has suffered life changing injuries. The lorry brakes failed; it was carrying a load of potatoes from Donegal travelling to Carrick-on-Shannon. A few days later the bodies of the cattle are removed in a Burnhouse lorry.


Thanks to my brother Ivor and Padraig Fitzpatrick for sharing their memory of this incident and filling in my blank spots.

Easter 1966 – 1

This is a series of writings inspired by my ancestors, their families and their imagined lives – Stan McWilliams.

Author on horse drawn hay raker circa 1967

It is Easter 1966. I am 14, in third year at secondary school – Ballymena Intermediate. The car is packed and we’re on our way to Larkfield outside Manorhamilton in County Leitrim; five of us and all that a young family need for the week, there is room for little else. I am the eldest in the back seat (Nigel 7, Elaine 10, Ivor 12 and myself 14) and probably the grumpiest; making this trip three or four times a year I now feel more bored and less excited. Rhyming off the towns until we cross the border is old hat, though the younger ones are still at it: Ahoghill, Portglenone, Bellaghy  – no, too soon to start that – Castledawson, – on and on they go – Fivemiletown, Augher, Clogher, Enniskillen – now we are getting somewhere –  Letterbreen, Belcoo and into the Free State at Blacklion. Count the donkeys in rushy fields, through Glenfarne, to golden ice cream at Cooney’s in Manorhamilton; then, ice cream cleaned up we’re soon out the three miles along the Larkfield Road and there, the familiar farm house on the left, up the lane at Boggaun and we are here; at last!

We spill out of the car into the small yard. The car is emptied, bags taken inside and distributed around the bedrooms. Boxes of food are piled on the kitchen table.   Mother (Annie Davis, 1889 – 1978) and daughter (my mother, Ena McWilliams 1923 – 2015) exchange hugs and greetings. We are all hugged and appraised, each in turn, and showered with compliments by Granny, while Uncle Cecil looks on and smiles approvingly.  I’m more awkward now with these welcomes but they’re soon over, the cramped journey is forgotten and we’re running around over familiar territory: looking into sheds, around corners, through the hayshed, Ivor and myself going further afield. I come across two very short ladders – one painted green and red, the other yellow and blue – made for us by my grandfather (Richard Davis 1882 – 1961), now discarded as toys. Uncle Cecil (1924 – 2010) shows us a recently born calf and new bull.

 “And have you heard our new hit song?” he asks with a laugh.

We haven’t, but we soon would, many times, hear Larry Cunningham and the Mighty Avons sing their No 1 hit on the radio, “Lovely Leitrim”, with Cecil’s stumbling attempt to sing along. Cecil had seen him live in the local dancehalls and was enjoying the brief spot light that shone on Leitrim.

My father (Tommy McWilliams 1915 – 2003) will spend the night here and will leave the next day to go back to work; the holidays of a bread man are short when everyone wants fresh bread every day. His jolly banter and humour go down well and news from the North is always welcome, particularly when it reflects our happy, growing and apparently prosperous family. My Grandfather died 5 years earlier and mother and son have settled into new domestic and farm routines.  Differences between them could break into petty bickering, probably exacerbated by Cecil’s thwarted wish to marry some years earlier.

Electricity came to Boggaun in spring 1962 and a black and white TV sits over the old radio with its glass-cased battery. The floor of the kitchen is covered with grey lino and the outline of flags show through. A brown leather backseat taken from a family car wreck has been replaced by a simple settee.  Since Granda died the open fireplace has been closed up and a Stanley range sits against the wall, and with a fireside chair, table and dresser the room now looks smaller. 

On Easter Sunday we pile into Uncle Cecil’s green Morris Minor van which the previous week carried fattened pigs to Dennys in Sligo for slaughter. It had been scrubbed clean and the floor covered with cushions for our short journey to Cloonclare Parish Church, built within Sir Fredrick Hamilton’s 17th century garrison. The church has a scattering of parishioners with some Easter visitors, a small choir, and prevailing sense of the past. The form of service is prescriptive and stiff by comparison to the more informal tone of our usually packed Presbyterian Church, although I’m there on sufferance, easily distracted by a few attractive girls I haven’t seen before and the riff from The Beatles, Day Tripper running in my head. We are soon back to the farmhouse for an Easter Sunday dinner that is a wonderful spread of simple food, usually lamb or beef, prepared and eaten in the small kitchen.

I couldn’t miss the front cover of the RTV Guide, in eye catching full colour, the 50th anniversary edition for the 1916 Irish Rebellion, The Easter Rising, but I really haven’t any idea what it’s about.  Radió Telifis has a full week’s schedule of drama and documentary programmes on The Rising. Television and moving pictures are still novel for us and with only one channel we watch “Insurrection”, the nightly centrepiece. I’m glued to it from the start; we all watch, or most of us anyway.  It features a studio newscaster reporting on the rebellion as it happens, with roving reporters out on the streets, and interspersed with dramatized scenes from the main centres of the action.

Some years previously on a short holiday to Dublin – perhaps a romantic revisit of Mum and Dad’s honeymoon trip – we stayed in a B&B on O’Connell Street. With my brother, Mum and Dad, we walked past Nelson’s Column when it still stood tall, and past the GPO with its impressive columns fronting the street.  So, when the GPO appeared on screen it felt vaguely familiar. For whatever reasons I am immediately hooked and engrossed with “Insurrection”. We watch in silence except for Granny’s regular “Tut! Tut!” or occasional disparaging remarks as she knits and dozes in her chair by the range. When it finishes no one speaks, my two younger siblings I realise have long gone to bed; the silence is broken by the kettle set on the range for supper and by Cecil as he gets up and goes outside to check the cows in the byre. Later, I’m sure I overhear them talking about it in hushed urgent tones, catching broken phrases like and “too young” and “they have to hear it sometime”.

Our days are filled with farm jobs, and house jobs when we can’t avoid them, and this week Ivor and I will go with cattle to Manorhamilton fair. Hand milking of the 8 or so cows starts the daily routine but we were too slow to be useful and take to other jobs: clearing the dung from the channel behind each of the tethered cows and pitching the wet mass through the window onto the midden, or carrying armfuls of hay and buckets of water up to the cows heads; squeezing between them we soon know which one might kick, being careful around cows with new calves, and more relaxed around the older ones. The cow byre with its hayloft – converted from the old farm cottage – is warm with a strong familiar odour. During a wintery shower or down pour it is a welcome shelter, its dim space quietly alive with the sounds of contented animals.  Later in the morning I carry a bundle of hay on my back to outlying cattle on drier fields about a half a mile away, knowing every path and shortcut, each gap in the hedge and foot stick over the sheughs.

Granny, who seems to be getting smaller each time we visit, churns milk each week to supply the house with butter; when she has the churn set up there is a rush to help her. We love the deep splashing of dash, but it is hard work and there’s soon calls for help as arms quickly ache. At Easter time the fields are often sodden and little work can be done on them, but if it has been unusually dry a ploughman will spend a day turning the sod in a small field  for potatoes and oats – the first tractor arrived here in 1970 – or we set off with Cecil to burn gorse bushes on an out-farm. Later that year Ivor was to leave a hay field with a heavy sky promising rain to watch a World Cup match on TV.  Cecil was so shocked and silently angry that I don’t think Ivor’s reputation ever recovered.

RTV Guide Cover, Easter 1966

“Insurrection” portrays the rebellion as amateurish and insignificant against the organised might of the British Empire, but iconic in its assertion of independence. I quickly become bound up with the characters and their stories. The leaders of the Rising are stoic at the signing of the Proclamation of an Irish Republic and become more vulnerable and complicated as the drama unfolds. I hear the unfamiliar names: James Connolly, Padraig Pearse, Eamonn Ceannt, Joseph Plunkett, Thomas MacDonagh, Thomas Clarke, and Sean MacDiarmada, from nearby Kiltyclogher.  From the first premature shot fired from inside the GPO I sense it is going to fail.  James Connolly’s character at the GPO gradually accepts that The Rising his doomed; Padraig Pearse in his final letter to his mother from a prison cell on the night before his execution writes the heart breaking line “I will call to you in my heart at the last moment, your son, Pat”; the daily executions in Kilmainham Goal follow the failed rebellion; and James Connolly being stretchered from the goal hospital to the ambulance and on to Kilmainham Goal where he is executed, seated, as he could not stand: they all leave me tense and sometimes angry. The gathering around the television has become a nightly silent family event, not discussed or mentioned afterwards.

One evening near the end of the series, as the credits start to roll, I get up sharply and go outside into the cold air, walk the 30 yards or so up the track to the old car wreck lying next to the vegetable garden. A dog barks across the valley. The full moon, just turned, is reflected in the car’s shiny black surface; shadows of the clouds drift silently across the silvered landscape; up on the mountain, O’Donnell’s Rock, it’s bright as day. I breathe deeply and think of men drawing on cigarettes. I start to shiver, turn from the mountain and go back inside to the soft sound of voices and the smell of warm tea and toast.

Granny was the only one of us who was alive in 1916. My mother, Ena born in 1923 and Uncle Cecil in 1924 must have been taught the basics of Irish history in Mullaghduff National School in nearby Killargue. Ivor and I born and brought up in Northern Ireland and going to state schools know nothing of Irish history and certainly nothing of the Easter Rising. The previous summer Granny got very upset when she found an old tea box with a picture of the Queen Elizabeth II, defaced. The small box held rusty nails and lay amongst tools and various bits of rusty metal in the shady light of the stable. How she spotted it I will never know, but spot it she did and thereafter started an inquisition lasting a few days – When was it done? Who has been here? Which one of them could it be?

“Bad cess to them!”

“Bring all that to this house.” she repeated over the following days, clearly troubled. By contrast Cecil passed off the repeated questioning with little comment and showed no interest in finding the culprit responsible for the Monarch’s defacement.

Bogaunn and Ballymena, The Free State and Northern Ireland, Manorhamilton and Cluainin O’Rourke, Ireland and the United Kingdom: as I go North again, home and back to school, a door has been cracked open and I can see into a place that’s part of my history, and in time it will open further. In three months, I’ll be back to Larkfield, in Lovely Leitrim, to haymaking and saving turf, to the World Cup and Gaelic football on television, walking cattle to a fair in Drumkerin and Sunday afternoon trips to Bundoran – my education will continue.


See RTE archives for a summary of “Insurrection”

For a discussion of RTÉ’s programming over the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising see:

“Cluainin O’Rourke” and “Manorhamilton” were both displayed on road signs and unlike many rough  translations to English it is not a direct translation of the Irish place name but clearly indicates the change of ownership of the area that occurred at the 17th century plantation of Leitrim – Cluainin O’Rourke translates as O’Rourke’s meadow. These road signs were gradually replaced when Ireland took on the metric distances in 2005 now showing only Cluainin.

Milking on the farm stopped about 1969 when the dairy cows were replaced by suckler cows, breeding beef cattle.

For the 1953 coronation of Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom many Protestant families in the Republic of Ireland hung a commemoration picture in their homes. One such picture hung in the kitchen at Boggaun.

Thanks to Padraig Fitzpatrick for his sharp memory and welcome additions.

If you spot any errors or inaccuracies, please let me know and they will be corrected.

Richard Davis, swindled.

This is a series of writings inspired by my ancestors, their families and their imagined lives – Stan McWilliams.

Richard Davis at Larkfield / Boggaun circa 1930

Thomas (1827-1902) and James Davis (1833-1909) were the first Davises to live at Boggaun or Larkfield. Their father John (1797-1859), from nearby Glenboy leased the lands for them from the Fox Lane Estate sometime before 1856. James lived out his life on the farm at Boggaun with his wife Elizabeth (nee Mealy 1838-1910); they had eight children. Thomas however joined the Dublin Metropolitan Police remaining there for about six years.  In 1861 he sailed for Canada having sold his share of the farm to James. The following year his wife Frances (nee Duncan, ?-1906) and their four children, aged 1, 2,3 and 6, made the arduous journey across the Atlantic to join Thomas.

When James died in 1909 and Elizabeth the following year, the farm passed to my grandfather, Richard (1882-1961) and his brother Alexander (1869-1941). Alexander with his eldest brother John (1861-1931) left and settled in Co Meath, marrying Cartwright sisters.

Richard Davis married Annie Gillmor (1889-1978) on 23rd Oct 1918 in the Church of Ireland in Dromahair and she moved the few miles from Boihy to live at Larkfield. Richard’s unmarried sister Mary Jane (1864-1937) was living there at the time and lived out the remainder of her life until she died in 1937. She was some 20 years older than the new bride and was used to running the household on her own. These turned out to be turbulent times in the house and many rows ensued between the two women.  Granny’s family felt that their daughter had “married down”; in effect the Gillmors were long standing landowners and had established commercial businesses in while the Davises at Boggaun were relatively small farmers.

Since they moved to Larkfield it appears as if the Davises had prospered.  A new two storey house was built on the farm in the late 1800’s when the economy boomed after the potato famine – the same house that is there today that became a second home for myself and my siblings from the 1950’s onwards.  The house was a substantial statement of success for the time, situated on elevated ground facing the Manorhamilton to Carrick-on-Shannon Road, unlike the original cottage which faced roughly North South and sits just behind it. Ulster Bank books from the period show growing balances from 1901 when the farm was passed to Richard and Alex following their mother’s death. These records show many transactions in and out with healthy balances. Business was good in the early 20’s.  The bank books show that in 1901 the bank balance was typically £45, equivalent to £5,485 in Sterling in 2019; in 1915 it was £250, approximately equivalent to £25,485; and in 1920-22 it was £850 approximately equivalent to £41,269 in Sterling in 2019.

By the mid 1920’s Richard had set up a cattle shipping business with a Protestant partner from Manorhamilton. They bought cattle in the North and West, rented good grazing land in Co Meath, before shipping the fattened cattle to England. It’s likely that Richard’s brother John in Co Meath helped with some of the arrangements. The business was going well and there was a strong demand in England for cattle and horses during the First World War and after it.  But tragedy struck Richard Davis when Mr X absconded after delivering a shipment of cattle to England.  He fled to Canada with full pockets. This left Richard with large debts owed to farmers, to the shippers and to landowners for grazing lands. Following the swindle next to nothing remained of their healthy bank balance.

The family were now in effect bankrupt. Scraping up money from their reserves, the farms appear to have been mortgaged to pay the debt.  But not managing to satisfy the full repayments, the Bank advertised the farm for sale each year.  And each year no one would make an offer; Richard in paying farmers for their stock had earned a great deal of respect and no one would act against him.

During this turmoil the children were born Herbie (1920-1939), Reco 1921, Maureen 1922, Ena 1923, Cecil 1924, Phyllis 1926, Alf 1929, Wallace 1927, and Jack 1932. In 1928 Granda’s brother Alexander returned to the home farm from Co Meath following the death of his wife. All 12 of them were living off the farm while paying the bank what they could, and apparently with Annie and Mary Jane still rowing. It must have been very tough in these years. And that is not to mention the political and economic turbulence of the times: the Easter Rising, the War of Independence, the subsequent Civil War and the first World War; ongoing emigration and then economic war with England.

My Mother, Ena used to say that they survived those times because her mother Annie was such a strong, good and frugal woman and that without her the house and family would not have held together. Granny kept farm, financial and diary records, she knew where the money was coming from and going to – she ran a tight ship, she had to. As a legacy from those times I remember the bed sheets made from strong cotton flour bags, washed and sewn together.  The sale of the farm at any time would have put the family on the road, and my Mother told us that they lived with this fear for many years.

All the family living and growing up at Boggaun during this time must have been severely impacted by these events. Those of my generation will probably recognise aspects of our parent’s personalities that were moulded by these early experiences; frugality, a belief in hard work and a fear of financial ruin, among them. My Uncle Jack (John) repeated to us over years, rather cynically I thought then, “Here’s some good advice in life – never trust your own, they will be the first to fleece you!” Given the early experience of his family’s financial ruin it is somewhat understandable he felt this way.

From the neighboring Fitzpatrick farm and thatched cottage across the valley all looked well at Larkfield. Padraig’s father Patrick arrived in Boggaun in 1920 from Cavan. He remembers his father saying that at that time the Davises were finding it tough. He said that following the cattle business collapse they had 8 cows, a horse and a fairly rough cart. Padraig’s father was impressed that Richard could maintain a cool temperament with all that was going on around him, in the house and outside of it. He believed that when Herbie and Reco went out to work carrying stone on the horse and cart, family fortunes turned around with the extra money coming into household. This was probably in the mid 1930’s. The Fitzpatrick’s were close neighbours and friends and were always there at Larkfield when the work needed extra hands.

Herbie and Reco’s first job was carting stone from the nearby Bird’s Quarry to the main road that ran past their farm house.  When Herbie died at nineteen in 1939 from diphtheria it was a great tragedy to his parents and his siblings and impacted on the course of some of their lives.  Reco continued to plough around the country where his skills were in great demand. He developed a love of horses and successfully bred Irish draught mares at his home in Bunnanadden, Co Sligo.

The family and farm recovered but only to a degree. Debts were paid and hardship relieved, the farm turned a profit and it was reinvested in the farm; but despite all of this the young adults had difficult choices; leave home or face the very limited opportunities in Leitrim and Ireland in the 1940s, and 50s – simply put the farm could only sustain a single family and as a result all but Cecil left. My grandfather and grandmother took the strain over the years and survived, but it probably took the best part of their lives. And despite these events or maybe because of them, Richard and Annie and their offspring remained tough, resilient, and optimistic throughout their lives.

Granny and Granda Davis circa 1959

What I first remember of Larkfield is of a warm, safe and special place where we were spoiled by our grandparents and where we could play and explore with an unbound freedom. I was completely unaware of what had happened some years earlier. The household was neither obviously wealthy nor poor. As we grew into our teens, we discovered that honest hard work was currency there, and was expected even during our holidays. Leaving the farm at the end of each holiday was a tearful event for us as children; looking out the back window of the car, waving at the lonely figures of Granny and Uncle Cecil standing together at the gable of Larkfield, until they could no longer be seen behind the thickening roadside hedges and trees. Had we caught an echo of others looking back, heavy in their leaving for unknown places and perhaps of dreams lost and unfulfilled?

After Cecil died, we found a very small five-line memo from the Agricultural Credit Corporation Bank dated 1941. It returns a cheque for £244 and the farm folio (ownership) document, the loan having been fully repaid. 

One hundred years earlier there is similar story to be told of Richard’s grandfather, John Davis from Glenboy, where this story began, and who also appeared to lose everything and recover, but that’s for another day.


Boggaun and Larkfield are neighbouring townlands to the south of Manorhamilton in Co Leitrim. The Davis farm is in Boggaun. However, in my memory the Davis’ home and farm was always called Larkfield. In all the Cloonclare Church records from the earliest in about 1850’ the address is written as Boggaun and the first time “Larkfield” appears is in the Church’s registration of my Grandfather’s burial in 1961. I have suspected that as the townland of Larkfield was more Anglo-sounding than Boggaun it was more in tune with my Grandmother’s aspirations; it was her preference.  Following her husband’s death, she could perhaps finally assert her choice in the matter, with her Church at least. In the piece above I have used both names.

The bank account figures are indicative of balances in the account at that times and when I converted them to 2019 equivalents. Calculated at the following link

An Introduction

This is a series of writings inspired by my ancestors, their families and their imagined lives – Stan McWilliams.

Ena, Cecil, Phyllis, Herbie, Wallace, Annie, Alf, Reco and Jack (John) Davis

My mother Ena, was a Davis from County Leitrim and my father Thomas was a McWilliams from Co Antrim. The stark contrast between my mother’s origins in north County Leitrim and my father’s in Ballymena, in mid Antrim, where I was raised, has always seemed like a fault line: one county agriculturally and economically poor and the other rich and productive; one predominantly Roman Catholic and culturally Irish and the other predominantly Ulster Scots and Presbyterian; one looking to Dublin and the other more commonly “across the water”; the Leitrim farm house with no plumbing and a small outside toilet and our modest Ballymena home with plumbing and inside toilets. Both families were Protestant but of very different sorts. Trying to come to terms with these apparent opposites has been challenging but ultimately enlightening.

My early memories are hazy but it is there I start; they are not much help in clarifying the bigger picture of where I have come from. Faded sepia pictures of unknown men and women on walls around the Larkfield farm house, a mouldy leather side-saddle in the hayloft over the cow byre, fragments of hushed night time conversations not meant for my ears. The latter as I recall, sitting on my grandfather’s knee by a large open turf fire just before my bedtime, a black kettle steaming on the crook, the simple room lit by a soft glow from a single oil lamp. It is the barely-seen and half-heard that hooks our attention; the shapes and voices in the shadows of memory. And so now I want to know; who are these sepia strangers, what was a side saddle doing on a Leitrim hill farm, and who whispered what, and about whom?

My Granny Davis told me about Elward Burnside’s research on the Davis and Duncan family and years later I read his simple stapled document completed about 1963.  As a youngster I had heard of his visits to Ireland but like the visit of many of “The Canadians” they came and went barely noticed, often during summer school holidays.  On an eye-opening my visit to Canada at the age of eleven – sent as a family substitute for my mother and father – I remember being taken to the annual Davis reunion near Shelbourne, Ontario during the summer of 1963, organised by the same Elward. The crowded outdoor event had hundreds of people all claiming a connection to John (1797-1859) and Mary Davis (1800 – 1876) from Glenboy, Manorhamilton. I was lifted up onto a trestle table, introduced to the crowd and asked to say something “as gaelige”, in Irish; I was dumbstruck.

Elward Burnside met my grandfather by chance on a visit to Ireland in 1961 and found a rich vein of Davis family recollections and memories which became the basis of his research. Elward, an accountant by profession brought rigor and organisation to the family genealogical records and it will be hard to better it as a place to start when looking at this particular Davis history. He traces the line from John and Mary Davis, Glenboy to the present generations detailing all the descendants he could trace. More recently thanks to Alistair McAlister, a cousin, Elward’s work has been put onto a data base, updated and extended.

Elward Burnside said in the introduction to Davis Family History, “Irish History is one of great trouble, suffering and persecution, and while a knowledge of this history is essential for a fuller understanding of our ancestor’s thoughts and actions, it is beyond the scope of this small pamphlet.” 

Elward Burnside circa 1960

A family genealogical record is vital to know who our ancestors were and when and where they lived, however it is the trajectory of their lives that has my interest here. What I will try to do is add to the genealogy and draw out a few stories around a character or event that has caught my imagination, while giving myself the freedom to fill in some of the many blanks. I’ll start with the Davis family, my maternal grandfather’s family and plan to move on the Gillmors, my maternal grandmother’s family, and then on my father’s side the McWilliams and Logans. They will get mixed up and there will be surprises along the way.

Resources and Acknowledgements:

Brian Friel, from Translations, “It is not the literal past, the ‘facts’ of history, that shape us, but images of the past embodied in language.”

A big thanks to Alistair McAlister for re-awakening my interest family history and for his energy and diligence in researching and compiling an up-to-date “Family Tree Maker” database. Alistair sees potential connections everywhere, a very positive way of seeing the world.

Davis Family History by Elward Burnside, an unpublished pamphlet, circa 1963.  RCB Library, Church of Ireland, Churchtown, Dublin 14, Ireland.  This library contains records of birth, marriages and burials for Cloonclare and Lurganboy churches, among many others has been very useful.  A wealth of historical data bases are now online and I have accessed many of them through a subscription to I have turned up much that is new to me including quite a few unexpected twists.   This website has a very good introduction to sources of genealogical information, with links, and summaries of the various data bases.  A source of local information on the Manorhamilton area.

Finally, thanks to Berenice for her interest and encouragement, and particularly for her animated reactions to the surprises that the research has thrown up; to my siblings Ivor, Elaine and Nigel for their help in getting to the root of these stories; and to Dave Duggan for his support and direction on how to start and keep writing.