Growing up in Drumbally

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9. Cousins

In my notes about my Devlin and Boyle Grandparents, I make some passing references to cousins, of which there were seventy-four, including my five sisters and me. In the case of the Boyles, there were eventually fifty-two of these, although the thirty year span of their years of birth - 1934 to 1964 - meant that the earlier group of cousins (those born in the 1930s and early 1940s) had more in common with each other than with those born later. In the case of the Devlins, the earliest of the twenty-eight cousins, Albert Roberts, who died tragically at age four in New York, was born in 1916 while the youngest, Brian Devlin, was born forty years later.

Our closest relationships were with the O'Reillys (we called them Reillys, without the "O") reflecting not only our closeness in age but also the close relationship of our mothers who as sisters had been born within a year of each other, and also the proximity of our homes which were only about a mile apart as the crow flies. Some Boyle cousins lived in England and of these I met only a few, intermittently, in my youth, usually when they were visiting their grandparents. Others I met later in life and yet others not at all. Such was the span of age that in fact I was Godfather to two cousins, Josephine Gregory (nee O'Reilly) and Ann Conlon (nee Devlin). The O'Callaghans lived in Camlough and I remember staying in their house occasionally before the family moved to Newry, where they had a greengrocer shop in Monaghan Street.

I seemed to spend a lot of time in the Reillys as a boy - at least once a week, walking across the footstick over the Creggan River and the fields from Drumbally. On the way were two grand houses, Gilmores and Wrights, joined by a rocky lane that plunged steeply from one and climbed sharply to the other. Both had substantial pear, plum and apple orchards and occasionally, when not overcome by fear of large dogs and large men, I would venture to scrump a few of the choisest fruits. The adjoining fields were abundant sources of mushrooms in the Autumn and many a basket-full was gathered in the fresh dewy mornings. There was only three years between Joseph, Paddy, Tommy and me, and we played together for six or seven years until we grew out of playing. I was especially keen on the Reillys as I was the only boy in my family, having five sisters. I remember the later Reilly cousins being born and the smaller ones, Anne, Phyllis and Gerry, in the early 1950s, climbing all over me as I sat by the fire in the house in Urker. I remember that while it was fun at first, it became irksome as they simply wore me down with their boundless energy. Their Uncle Patrick, who had been a soldier in the British Army in WW1, stayed with them. He was a quiet inoffensive man and all I can remember of him was his bayonet, which had kept as a souvenir.

Aunt Alice was a card. She had a wicked sense of humour and was liable to break into fits of laughter at the simplest of cues. She tells me that sometimes she was not able to deal with callers, like Insurance Men, because something about them; the way they talked, something they said, something about what they were wearing -- anything -- would set her off and she would collapse into fits of laughing. She would infect others too, and there were occasions when callers were left on the doorstep while she and a neighbour, Katie Kierns, retired to the kitchen in a helpless state of hilarity. She once abandoned a neighbour on the doorstep when he asked her for the time of day.

Uncle Joe had a taxi business that he had to give up due to ill-health. He sat by the fire, always with his cap on except when having his tea, smoking his pipe and reading the paper or listening to the radio. I loved that radio as we did not have one in Drumbally. It was powered by "wet" and "dry" batteries. The "wet" battery had to be periodically charged in Crossmaglen. If I remember rightly, it was connected to a large external aerial.

In the summer months we spent a lot of time in "the bog", which was an area of raised peat behind the house. Here we dug tunnels in the high banks and erected barricades on the heather and generally had a good time getting mucky and dirty. We played cricket with tennis racquets for bats and an old car wheel for the wicket. We bowled a tennis ball underhand and loved to hear the wheel "ting" when it was hit. We climbed nearby trees and once built a substantial platform high up in a pine tree. We climbed up by the trunk and branches and returned to earth by rope. I carry a scar inside my right knee from those days caused by the ragged metal end of the shaft of a missing bicycle pedal. I stayed overnight in the Reillys on a few occasions and can vividly remember the picture above the bed of an ocean liner at sea. As I drifted into sleep it was as though I was being bourne away to far-off exotic places on the crests of deep blue ocean swells.

We explored the lanes and fields. We knew where the plum trees were and how to get to them. We ventured into deserted and tumbled down old buildings, looking for treasure which, we were sure, was somewhere to be found. In the autumn we made water pistols from thick green bog reeds and happily drenched each other to the chagrin of our mothers.

I recall some wonderful names - the "Grey Island", a large field, and the "Dirty Hollow", a dip in the road just before entering Crossmaglen, which was less than a mile from Reillys.

It was often late when we left for home and at a time when there was no electricity in the rural areas the dark was stygian, relieved only occasionally by flickering oil lamps and candles in isolated houses. I remember clearly one stormy night of thunder and lightning that started up as mother and I were still half a mile from home. The lightning was splitting the sky and seemed now and then to strike the ground only yards away while the thunder exploded around us like bombs. For split seconds at a time the countryside for miles around would stand out stark and clear before disappearing in a huge blast of sound. We were blinded and deafened and I was convinced that we would never see home, and doubted if there would even be a home left when we got there. But God was good and saw us safely through.

The other cousins we went to see occasionally were Brigie and Anne Boyle. Uncle Falie (Felix) lived in the townland of Legmoylin (Leac Maoilinn - the flat stone on the hill brow), which is about a mile south of Silverbridge on the old road between Armagh and Dundalk. He was my mother's eldest brother.

According to his mother-in-law, Biddy Fearon, the thatched, stone built building had been a coaching house on the old road before they built the New Line and until she passed away she would not allow it to be replaced by a modern building. Her husband, Peter, had a smithy at the foot of the hill which was in the ownership of my Uncle Mickey Boyle until the nineteen fifties when he gave it up and went to work for the County Council. Not a stone of it is visible today. I can see him still working in the dark interior of the smithy, sweat pouring off him in the heat of the summer and the fire, grimy with dust and smoke.

My mother was a regular visitor to Legmoylin and I went with her occasionally. Peter Fearon had been dead for many years but I do recall Biddy as she was a formidable presence who always had something to say. Uncle Falie was small and wiry and with a placid disposition. In later years when I would call with my family to say hello he would insist on putting a large sack of potatoes in the boot of the car.

Auntie Katie, Falie's wife - known as Katie Fearon in our house -was always welcoming. She talked very fast. In addition to her daughters, Brigie and Anne, Katie looked after foster children.

Other Boyle families lived in the townland, relatives of my grandfather, although I didn't know this at the time and one of the families lived in a house that was purported to be haunted. It was said that the family was tormented in the night by strange happenings - pictures falling off walls, bedclothes being pulled off them and flying through the air. Neighbours who came to help left in terror. When the last of the family died the house was never again occupied and is currently in use as a farm outhouse.

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