Friday, July 1, 2016

Killynure - the Life of a House




NOTE: This post is dedicated to all those relations and friends who at some time have belonged to Killynure. The synonyms of the word belong include: fit in, be suited to, have a rightful place, have a home. As for me, although I will never own it, nor would I ever want to, but I do know that part of me will always belong there.

On Tuesday, May 23rd, 1995, I walked out from Armagh City heading south-west on the Monaghan Road with my brothers Struan and Bruce, and my sister-in-law Sara. It was my first time back in Ireland as an adult, and their first visit to Ireland, ever. The four of us were hoping to find Killynure, a townland that had long been the home of our ancestors. Part of our reason for seeking this exact place was that our father had died about six weeks earlier and we had brought some of his ashes with us, to bring him home.

We knew hardly anything about our family history back then, but we did know that our great grandfather had built a house at Killynure with stairs so solid that they never squeaked. When we had mentioned this to a clerk in a leather goods shop in Armagh, he told us that Killynure was a large brick house, and that it would be on our left after we passed Milford. In Brown’s Hollow. If we passed the road to Aghavilly, we would have gone too far.

We stopped in first for a beer at Damper Murphey’s, and then headed out. Three miles or so later, there it was, set back from the road with cattle grazing in the surrounding fields. The last time I had been there was in 1950, as a small child, and my only memory was of running back to the house with my great aunt Blin in the midst of a sudden downpour. She had put her raincoat over my head to protect me from the rain, and held my hand tightly as we ran. I can still recall the smell of the tartan lining of her oil cloth raincoat.

1995 - View from the road to Monaghan
The first house that our Oliver ancestors lived in at Killynure in the early 1800s wasn't visible from the road in 1995. It was a typical, one story bungalow, now part of a square of farm buildings. Our g-g-g-grandfather Benjamin Oliver and his wife, Elizabeth Bradford of Cavananore, Co. Louth, had raised their seven children there. In 1816, Benjamin had planted 270 trees: ash, larch, scotch fir and spruce fir. There was also an orchard, primarily of Bramley apples, the best for making apple tarts.

The original bungalow no longer has a chimney and has not been inhabited for more than a century. I can’t be sure whether the original structure was as large as it is now. One day, I would like to check out the interior walls. Maybe they will shed some light on this question.

Unfortunately the 1836 Field notes recorded no information about whether the roof was made of straw or slate. I suspect the latter.  The outlines of the house and its outbuildings are indicated in an 1835 map. Sometime between 1835 and 1856, when the Griffiths Valuation was done, a second barn was added. The roof was reslated recently, and I suspect that the hip roof, seen on the left was not part of the original structure. The curved corner is an uncommon feature for local bungalows, although some cultures had a tradition of curving the corners of buildings so the devil would have no place to hide.
After the death of Benjamin Oliver in 1831, and then the death of his eldest son in 1873, Benjamin’s grand-daughter Bessie Jackson and her husband Thompson Brown were the next to inherit Benjamin’s lease at Killynure. They lived in the bungalow before building the big brick house. In a letter dated March 2, 1881, Eliza Oliver says of her daughter: Bessie & her family are well; but they will never be right comfortable till they build a new house, which I hope they will do before long. Partly the delay in building was because of a court challenge over Uncle William Oliver’s 1873 will. Had the challenge succeeded, it would have benefitted two of Bessie’s cousins: John and Ben Oliver. Even though they don’t seem to have won the case (I haven’t yet found the outcome), there might have been some legal merit to their claim on 1/3rd of the value.

In another letter, June 8, 1883, which Eliza wrote to her son Thomas Jackson, the brick house was still new enough that it was worth commenting on: I spent a fortnight in Killynure lately, and was greatly pleased with the new house; it is both handsome and comfortable.  This helps to fix the completion date, as do the Valuation Books for 1883. They show a jump in value for the buildings from 8.10.0 to 17.0.0 at a time when the valuations of neighbouring buildings showed no such jump.

This is the earliest photo that we have of the “new house” at Killynure. Based on the ages of the children as well as the fact that the roses have grown up to the roof, I suspect it dates from 1892.
L-R Frances, Robert, Elizabeth, Mary, Mother Eliza, Father Thompson & Blin. It may be George who is holding the donkey. It may be someone else. The youngest child, Herbert, is astride the donkey– dressed as young male children were at that time.NOTE: The part of the roof that was made of lead was removed during WWI to be melted down for bullets

This photo of the family of Thompson & Bessie Brown was taken abt 1899. I have not yet positively identified which of the three older sister are which, but this represents my best guess.  
L-R Elizabeth? (who married Samuel GILMORE of Liscalgot), George, Blin, Thomas Jackson, with Herbert in front of him, Mary?, David, Robert. Seated Thompson jr., Eliza, Thompson Sr. and Frances?.
Several of the older children  were living –or had been living - in China, Persia, or Hong Kong.
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By the time of the 1901 census, the eldest children were already grown up, and the household at Killynure had shrunk considerably. The parents, Thompson and Eliza, were there on the day of the Census, as were four of their ten children: George, Thomas Jackson (my grandfather – at age 21 already a Civil Engineer), Sarah Margaret aka Blin, and their youngest child, Herbert Evelyn. Other than that, there was also a family servant, Mary Hearty who was 21 years old. She probably had come from the Jackson farm at Urker, Parish of Creggan, and was probably a sister of John Hearty of Liscalgot. Also living with them was James McGlough, a farm hand. Perhaps he was the young man holding the reins of the donkey in the picture above.

Twenty seven outbuildings were noted in the 1901 Census including: 8 stables (the family were well known as avid horse people), 1 coach house, 1 harness room, 2 cow houses, 1 calf house, 1 dairy, 3 piggeries, 1 fowl house, 1 boiling house, 1 barn, 1 turf house, 1 potato house, 1 workshop, 3 sheds and 1 store. The original bungalow was not described as such. At some point, there was also a gate house at the top of the drive. When my Aunt Dorothy visited, sometime before 1954, it was still standing. She remembered the fireplace and bellows.

Blin Brown (1886-1963)
The last of Thompson and Eliza’s children to live at Killynure was Sarah Margaret aka Blin Brown (1886-1963). After the deaths of all her brothers and sisters, some of whom had returned to help out from time to time, she ran the farm for a couple of years on her own before selling it in 1954. It can’t have been easy. After Blin’s death, close to a decade later in a care facility in Belfast where she suffered from dementia, a loaded pistol was found in her effects. Thankfully, it hadn’t been used. Robert Foster and his wife Isabell White of Ballyloo (buried in Knappagh Presbyterian Cemetary) bought the farm, lived there, and ran it until after their daughter Amanda married Edgar Knox. Then they passed it on to the young couple – 50/50.

Fast forward now to May 23, 1995, when my brothers and Sara and I first walked up the laneway, and past the two Massey Fergusson tractors parked in the yard. As we looked around for a moment, two people, Edgar and Amanda, emerged from the milk barn. As soon as they understood why we were there, they doffed their working wellies at the door of their house and invited us in. Amanda excused herself for a moment, and returned in a skirt. Edgar told us all about his herd of 140 milk cows, and his 350 beef cattle, all raised by himself and Amanda with the help of “the Man”. Just as the Olivers had done more than 150 years earlier, the cows and cattle were grazed on fields at Killynure as well as at neighbouring townlands. The fields were remarkably fertile. Edgar was able to harvest three crops a year, compared to only one in most fields in England. After tea, we walked through the fields, and up to the perimeter of the March Hedge. Before we left, we had agreed to meet them later that night at The Hole in the Wall pub.
Edgar and his cows. 1995.
Even if I could recall how much we all drank on that particular night, I doubt that I would want to confess it. I recall how Amanda had a habit of pinching the front of her blouse to hike it up a bit, as if the weight of the silk on the back of her neck were too much. She was a quiet, gentle soul. Edgar and my brothers egged each other on, one-upping each other with their stories and jokes. Edgar and Amanda’s friend Faith, who had joined us that evening, was more outgoing than Amanda. Our different accents sometimes led to much puzzlement. Edgar had a Co. Tyrone accent, and when he mentioned floor boards, as he did in talking about a renovation, it sounded to us like fleurbirds. After a while, we learned to swap out vowels when we were lost. That night, we closed down the bar, and the seven of us agreed to meet up in a few days’ time.

L-R: Sara Brown, Amanda, Sharon, Bruce (in front), Edgar and Struan.
When we were invited to tea at 7:00 PM, a couple of days later, we hadn’t grasped that tea in Ireland meant that a meal would be served. In our ignorance, we had already eaten, and then were faced with platters of salads, hams and cheeses, as well as one of Amanda’s Pavlovas. Eugene Fegan was also there that night. He had been a farm hand at Killynure in the late 1940s and early 1950s, and remembered me visiting there as a child. His ancestors had also held land there in the mid-1800s.

On my subsequent visits, Edgar and Amanda always invited me to stay with them. One time, I slept in the same room as my father when he had lived there in the 1920s. His family had come back from Canada for a while, and had lived there after his grandmother was widowed, frail and needed care. On one of my visits, Amanda, feeling a little abashed, had told me that some of the Brown’s furnishings had been left in the house, and that the headboard of a brass bed had been used by her father to help firm up a concrete retaining wall that he had poured. Such are the twists and turns of history.
L-R: Natasha, Natalie, myself, Hannah & Aiden. April 27, 2016
Two decades would pass before I was photographed once again on the porch at Killynure. It so easily might not have happened. A few days earlier, Brendan Oliver, of Olivers Fruit & Veg in Armagh, asked me: how could you be an Oliver when your last name is Brown? When I explained about our connection to Killynure, how Benjamin Oliver’s grand-daughter Bessie Jackson had married Thompson Brown in 1867, he told me that Amanda Knox’s will had recently been contested. It seemed as if history were repeating itself. It was 1873 all over again. I told him that I had wanted to contact Faith, to see if I could learn more, but I couldn’t recall her last name. Brendan didn’t miss a beat. She works across the street, he said. At the Spar. A few days later, when I went back to thank him, it turned out that he had gone to Cuba for a couple of weeks for a family wedding. By the time he would be home again, I would be gone. The chance to meet up again with Faith had been that close to being totally missed.
L-R Natasha, Natalie, Hannah & Aiden & Faith. April 27, 2016
The evening that I met up with Faith, we didn’t close down a bar, but our time was no less memorable. Two of Faith’s daughters, Natalie and Natasha, and two of her grandchildren joined us. From Faith and her daughters, I learned that Amanda had willed part of the farm to Natalie, Faith's eldest daughter, now a nurse. No surprise there, at least for me. Eight years earlier, Amanda had told me that this was hers and Edgar’s intent, not that they had ever told Natalie this. Natalie had been like a daughter to them, often slept over there, and had also worked at the farm as a teenager. During Amanda’s final months, Natalie had cared for her, making it possible for Amanda to stay in a hospital bed in her own living room at Killynure for as long as possible.

Over dinner, I shared as many of the stories that I could recall and that there was time for. Thomas Andrew Jackson (1930-2007), one of my third cousins, had once told me that he would never forget the taste of the Brown’s hams – the best in the country. He had said that they had been smoked in a specially constructed chimney, but when I got back to Canada, my brother Struan set me straight. These renowned hams had actually been salted, not smoked, and had then been hung on hooks in the coolness of the basement. The ones that Thomas enjoyed would have been cured by Blin. They also would have been covered by green mould. Penicillin, was what my grandmother called it. The mould was always cut off, and the hams were then soaked in apple cider to reduce their saltiness before cooking.

Blin had studied culinary arts in Scotland. Had she wanted to marry, she would have made a great catch, but I suspect that she felt no interest in men, at least when it came to marrying. My 3rd cousin, Eilie Ryder, knew her well, and still has her cookbook. Somewhere I have made a note of her recipe for Mayonnaise, although I haven’t yet tried it. In the years leading up to WWII, Blin canned and preserved an entire cellar-full of provisions. She had been prescient that there was going to be a war, and she wasn’t known for doing things by halves. When rationing was imposed, as she had foreseen, she was more than ready. Her neighbours, Catholics and Protestant alike, all hard hit by the lack of sugar and meat, recalled her gifts of jam, preserves, and salted meat.

Blin’s other obsession was horses, and I suspect that she would look fondly on the affection that Natasha, Natalie’s younger sister, has for the horses that she cares for these days in the barn at Killynure. I also suspect that Blin, and her grandmother Eliza Oliver would both feel that it is right that it will be the lives of these two sisters and their families which will write the next chapter in the ongoing story of Killynure, whatever that will be.

April 27, 2016 - Natasha and her horse at Killynure.

See also some other posts on my web site about Killynure:

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