November 22nd 1938 dawned cold and foggy with a ground frost and light to moderate northwest winds. There were cloudy periods with occasional showers with sleet on the high ground. Adolph Hitler was staying at Berchestgarten while the Berlin Chancery was being repaired; Mr Chamberlain was in Paris to discuss defence following the German annexation of the Sudetenland in October; German Jews were being persecuted, put in Concentration Camps and driven from the country; the Prince Regent of Yugoslavia was visiting London; Japanese aircraft were bombing Yenen in China. You could buy a new Rolls Royce Phantom II for £2,955, or a 1939 Model Bentley 4.25 litre Sedonia Coupe (with overdrive, patent sliding extension (?), heater, two spare wheels, suitcases and carriage lamps - all for £1,950. The Queen Mary was preparing to sail from Southampton to New York via Cherbourg. If you had 100 guineas to spare you could embark on a (First Class only), 16,000 mile, 52 day cruise on the 20,000 ton Cunard Liner "Laconia". For the less well off Cooks Tours could do you a ten-day all-inclusive winter Sports Holiday for £10.2.6.
On the same day, I was born in the townland of Drumbally in South Armagh. Here the tempo of life had changed little over the previous fifty years and the doings of empires and dictatorships far away seemed of small consequence set against the toil and hardship of rural existence.
Northern Ireland was the most socially and economically disadvantaged region of the United Kingdom. At the time of my birth unemployment stood at 90,000, proportionally far more than anywhere else. It had the highest death rate, with maternal mortality having increased in the twenties and thirties and its educational services were a generation behind the those of England and Wales. Up to one-third of the housing stock was in urgent need of replacement.
The creation of the border with the Irish Free State in 1921 had mainly cut off South Armagh's natural outlets to Dundalk, Monaghan and Castleblaney and the area formed a bottom corner pocket of Northern Ireland. The people were hardy and independent. It was, and remains, a mainly agricultural economy, attuned to the rhythm of the land and the seasons; ploughing, planting, growth and harvest. Most farms were small, supporting large families, with little mechanisation. The principal means of transport were bicycle, trap, horse and cart, and shank's mare. There were few cars and an infrequent bus service between Crossmaglen and Newry.
Crossmaglen, or Cross as it is better known in the area, was the largest village in that part of the County. Its principal feature was its large square, reputedly the largest in Ireland, where the monthly Fair Day was held. There was the chapel, school, police barracks, picture house, dance hall and football pitch. The village was not electrified until the 1950's although the cinema had a generator.
Drumbally (which means 'The rath of the town'), comprising 265 acres, lies two miles from Crossmaglen and three miles from the borders with Co. Louth and Co. Monaghan. Drumbally lies on a large drumlin and from the top on a clear day flat countryside stretches south for many miles into Co Louth. In common with most of the rest of the country, the townland suffered a decline in population during and after the Great Famine 1845 - 1848. From Census returns we know that from 144 people in 75 dwellings in 1841, the population steadily declined, by 1951, to 37 people in 14 dwellings - a 74% reduction. At the time of the 1901 Census (the first one for which complete documentation survives) 11 of the 17 households contained at least one native Irish speaker - 13 in all. The average age of the group was 61; eldest 80, youngest 40. Drumbally had a significantly higher proportion of Irish speakers than the (civil) parish as a whole where 785 of 5249 (15%) spoke the language. When I arrived, 37 years later, most, if not all of this group would have passed on, taking with them a whole tradition.
The house where I was born, and lived in until 1952, was a slated single storey, two-roomed cottage 50 yards down a sunken lane at the foot of Drumbally hill. It belonged to "James Pat" McShane who had emigrated. The rent was 1s6d a week. There was a shed, a "street" (a clear area, or yard, in front of the house) and two "gardens", one of which my father planted out in potatoes and vegetables each year. When it rained, the water rushing down the lane in a torrent was an endless source of joy to me in setting up dams, making diversionary channels and generally getting wet through. I never remember the water as cold - it always seemed warm and fresh, with a feeling of newness, and promise, as it first rushed, and then trickled, over the stones. In the hard winter of 1947 the lane filled with snow and my father spent a whole day digging up to the road.
The house had a small entrance porch and the main room was floored in stone flags. There was an open hearth with a crook and the fire was built over a pit into which a wheel bellows blew air through a connecting pipe to stoke it. There was a fireboard (mantelpiece) above the fireplace. Light came from a small window one high on the back wall and a larger one in the front that looked over the street to Drummuckavall hill, with its scattering of houses, beyond the river. A large dresser held a variety of crockery, including cups suspended on hooks and dinner plates on racks. By the back wall was the settlebed where my parents slept. There was a table and chairs, some stools and a fireside chair. The walls were whitewashed once a year by my father. A horseshoe was nailed above the door.
A step up led to the single bedroom where we children slept. The floor was clay which eroded with every brushing and was periodically mended by my father with special dense blue clay that he extracted from a place in an area of scrub and whin bushes nearby. A single oil lamp and the flickering coal fire supplied the only light during darkness.
On the other side of the lane were five or six large beech trees that overhung the house. On the other side of the adjoining flat field was a clump of tall holly trees, which redly bloomed with Christmas berries.
Five other children were born in that house; three girls, Kathleen (1939), Alice (1943) and Eileen (1946). I was the only boy who lived. Two brothers, Owen (December 1947) and Edward (January 1941) died within a short period of birth. My parents did not talk about them. Infant mortality was not uncommon in those days, in urban as well as rural areas. It was accepted stoically as the will of God.
My mother kept a few hens for the eggs and my father would occasionally wring one's neck and pluck it for the pot. This fascinated me, the feathers flying in the wind and the other hens clucking and pecking about the without a care in the world, oblivious to the similar fate awaiting them when their productive life ended. When day old chicks were delivered from time to time, I couldn't identify the little balls of yellow and white fluff with the large creatures running about the place.
Mother made her own bread that was baked in a shallow pot hung over the open fire. Hot coals would be placed on the lid and replaced as they cooled. This speeded the baking process and gave a crispy brown top to the bread. I particularly liked this bread when it was fried in bacon fat. Porridge, or stirabout as we called it, required cooking for a long time. It was taken with salt and to this day I wince when I see people putting sugar on it. The porridge was always thick and filling. I once tried it with goat's milk and it was frightful. We had a goat for a while but I would not take the milk, it had a very strong taste and smell.
The lane wound on towards the river, skirting a bog hole and Robbie Lamb's house. Robbie lived alone with lots of cats. I was seldom in his house which was in poor repair, badly furnished and chaotic. There were families of Lamb recorded in the Census of 1766, Title Applotment Books of 1828, Griffith's Valuation of 1864, the 1901 Census and the Valuation records of 1935 and 1957. Sadly, Robbie was the last of the Lambs in the townland. Further along was Hughie McShane's farm. He was a bachelor who lived with his mother. Apparently when I was born I so impressed her that she declared "He looks very noble, like King George." The lane petered out in a field. At the edge of the next field, which adjoined the river, was a thatched cottage, where James Burns and his wife lived. The cottage must have been over 100 years old, even then. The rough-cut timber roof beams and the inside thatch were black with soot from the open hearth. Over the years more thatch had been added but I doubt if there had ever been a complete re-thatch in all that time. They had a section of bog and cut their own turf which when dry was piled in a stack at the side of the house. Both were elderly and as poor than we were. They had a cow and a couple of goats and some hens. The eldest daughter, Maisie, who must have been nearly as old as my mother, was a nanny somewhere in Belfast. When she retired from service, Maisie acted as househeeper for one of the local priests for many years. She passed away peacefully in 2004, aged 93. There were two sons, Ownie and Patsy. Patsy died when I was about five. I was often in their house. Theirs was the first place that I saw a three-legged stool and I was never comfortable sitting on it as I was naturally fidgety and it would rock as I moved. I think they liked having me around and I would always get a tin cup of milk or buttermilk or a bowl of porridge. My sister still tells the story about the time when, impatient with me dawdling over the porridge, Mrs Burns exhorted me to "Put in on your head, son." which I promptly did. James was troubled with "pains" and couldn't get about much.
The river bounded the other side of the field. It was about 20 feet across and about five feet deep between steep sides six feet above the level of the water. Two sturdy planks spanned the gap. The whole was about a yard wide with no side rails or rope support. This was perilous enough at the best of time but when the river was in flood the roaring brown torrent was just below the level of the wood and had anyone fallen in they would have been lucky to survive, especially since nobody could swim. This was "the plank" and was a shortcut for us when visiting our cousins, the Devlins and O'Reillys. It was also the shortcut for my father coming home from "Flints" with his bicycle and mother was ever in a lather that he would fall in the river. He never did, or at least never admitted to it.
Over the hill were the McKeevers (distant cousins through my great grandmother Brigid Quinn). There was a boy, Jackie and two girls, Peggy and Eileen. I recall that on some occasion when my mother was away (I think in hospital in Newry about 1948) Peggy looked after us. I remember her reading to us from "Uncle Tom's Cabin". I found the very book among my mother's things after she died in 1997. Eileen was godmother to my sister Eileen and gave her her own second name "Teresa" (according to Eileen).
We had a dog, I forget his name, who became a bit of a nuisance. He would lie in wait at the top of the lane and run out when people passed on bikes or in carts of traps. He knocked a few people off their bikes and my father had complaints about him so he decided to get rid of him by drowning him in the bog hole. He didn't tell us about this as he knew there would be a roaring match. The first we knew that something was wrong was when the dog appeared at the door wringing wet and stinking with a piece of rope around his neck where he had escaped from the bog when the rope broke from the stone to which it had been tied. My father hadn't the heart to try again and the dog was eventually given away to a neighbour.
We got another dog, a mongrel part collie who we called Bob after Black Bob, the border collie in the comic strip. He was a friendly and intelligent dog and when he was only a year or so old we gave him to Granda Boyle where he became an indispensable aid to the old man helping to round up and drive the cows. He made our visits to granda's all the more enjoyable.
The house had no sanitation or running water. Water had to be carried by hand from the well, which was 100 yards away, up the lane on the side of the road. It was a natural spring lined with rocks and whitewashed regularly, after being emptied by hand, by my father. As we got older it was a regular daily chore to fetch the water, two buckets at a time. The buckets were heavy, straining the arms and shoulders and cutting into the fingers, ensuring many stops along the way.
Discipline in the family was down to mother. I can recall only one occasion when my father punished me. I was swinging an old bicycle pump round my head in the street when the top flew off and struck Anna in the mouth. This left a small scar on her upper lip that she carried all her days. My mother left it to him and I got two or three skelps on the backside when I got home. It was more humiliating than painful.
My early days made more of an impression than I realised for more than 60 years. In 2002 when I was researching the family tree I met with Julia Pearce (nee Durkan), a second cousin. She asked me if I was the only boy in my family and when I said I was she exclaimed, "You're in my book!". "What book?" I asked. "One of the two I wrote about Crossmaglen and Blackrock". Although these had never been published Julia let me have a carbon copy of both. A fuller story of these books must await another day. However, the following extract demonstrates how I made an early impact. The 'Brigie' in the story is Sadie Nugent (nee Devlin), my aunt; 'Kathleen' is Julia herself. At the time of the incident Julia's family was living in Blackrock, Co Louth and Sadie was helping out in the home as Julia's mother, Kathleen (nee Richardson), was poorly.
Brigie made frequent visits home to see her family and rarely went without Kathleen. They cycled the twelve miles or so to Mobane and knew the road like the back of their hands. Yet this Sunday was different. There was Brigie branching off to the right at the bottom of Castletown Hill, bringing her into strange country.
Needless to say, it was me that was the star of the show.