Ballycarry fostered a strong, deep and abiding sense of history from an early part of my life. I grew up on a farm overlooking the village as well as Islandmagee, County Down and the Scottish coastline, which makes a comment made by native son General Sir James Steele about Ballycarry people looking beyond their own horizons very relevant to me.
From an early age I had an interest in the local history of the area developed in no small way by a local woman named Susie Hay. She lived on the edge of the village and had known our family for decades. She was friendly with my grandfather, whom I never knew, helping him to compose music for numerous songs which he wrote during his lifetime, including the Muttonburn Stream, a famous Ulster folksong in the 1930s and 1940s. Susie Hay had an exceptional and unrivalled knowledge of the local area and it was she who introduced me to the sense that there was an intriguing history about Ballycarry: the story of William Nelson, the Ballycarry United Irish martyr of 1798, was kept alive by her and, enthralled, I went in search of his grave in Templecorran cemetery when I was older. It was difficult to find and somewhat neglected; this fiercely unionist community had changed its political outlook from the period when the inscription “The Ballycarry Martyr” was added to the stone in block letters.
The story of William Nelson spoke to me of a many layered past in the community. It is a place where history merges well with the present; the ruins of Templecorran Church are a constant reminder of early Presbyterian, medieval and early Christianity in this village overlooking the North Channel and the Scottish coast. It is a past which is sometimes complicated, often nuanced and always interesting.
In 1963 a book with a compilation of material on the history of the village was edited by Avy Dowlin, daughter of the village poet William Calwell, who was a major figure in the 20th century history of the village. That book, Ballycarry in Olden Days has always been an inspiration to me and I have often returned to it for further insights into the past.
The book was printed before I was born, but over at least 30 years I have been gathering and compiling my own historical materials on the area. After over two years work writing it up and gathering photographs, putting together a business plan for its publication (as it was always going to be self-published), and reviewing and rewriting, the book finally got published in November.
I had an anxious wait to see how it had turned out. At the launch my friend and local poet and writer Davy Moore spoke of how a book being published is like a baby being born and he was quite right: the attention lavished on the book, the fascination with it when it arrives, all make it a very similar situation from an author’s point of view.
Travelling through history from ancient times to the more recent past (probably the most difficult period to write about since it requires a judgement on what history is in a modern context), the book has a hopefully good balance of narrative and photographs. It has been selling well, with almost half of the print-run gone within two weeks. Feedback has been extremely positive. One woman read it through the night, another man’s daughter told me he had hardly put it down since it arrived with him. Others added their own memories of their young days in the area, prompted by what they read.
Seeing a book you have written on the shelves is always a thrill and author’s pride comes into play as ‘the child’ makes its presence felt. Although this is not my first book, the feeling remains the same, and I am sure all authors share this sense for their own work.
For me this history book was a deeply personal one. Ballycarry is my birthplace and the people I have written about were often from families which I know, and sometimes they were people I know or knew as well. I felt a strong sense of responsibility – more so than with, I think, any other book – to tell the story well, to include as much as possible and never to forget those who might be judged to be just ‘footnotes’. So many photographs had to be left out, but some fantastic ones just had to be included, such as what was probably the first motor car in Ballycarry and others that were snapshots rather than formal photographs.
Growing up I heard stories of the families from the village, not least the rural community at the Burnside, where the evenings were spent discussing not only local gossip and news but also the happenings in the world around. This almost idyllic image of a few neighbours gathering after their work was done in the evening and having a yarn belongs to a bygone era now; the modern younger generation are much more likely to chat with each other online these days. There are also stories of how local women in the village itself would inform others in the house that they were “going to the front door”, which was a place to watch the goings on in the street and get into conversations. It may have only been a few steps away but it was an important part of the social life of the village in past generations. This is a tradition which is now mostly if not entirely gone.
Similarly, as the village grows and new residents have arrived, the ‘old village’ has faded into the background, the modern Ballycarry physically very different from the small collection of houses which used to exist there and are recorded in the 19th century Ordnance Survey Memoir for the area. Even as a child growing up, we used to play in fields which are now the location of one of the older housing developments in Ballycarry, the Woodlands estate. This growth in the village has added new layers to the history and development of the area over the years.
Over the years I became more and more aware that the history of the community in Ballycarry was an example of wider experiences, and broader history was reflected in this small village and rural community which can proudly boast of an exceptional past. The big historical players included Rev. Edward Brice, the first Presbyterian minister in Ireland, James Orr, the foremost of the Ulster Weaver Poets, and General Sir James Stuart Steele, the officer who signed the UK mobilisation order in 1939. But there were lots of others who coloured this history. Some of them belong to my own growing-up, and have passed on; older neighbours like Willie Burns and Davy Craig, village characters like John Clugston, people like Susie Hay. These and so many others have all been part of a rich fabric of history which form a very unique ‘memory quilt’ of our community.
In my youth we would be visited by some of the older Hume family members every other Sunday, returning to the farm which they grew up on. They would have a summer afternoon or evening walk along the Burnside to Lockstown, and sometimes down the braes towards the Shore Road at Magheramorne, often reminiscing about the area and its people in bygone times. Those walks have faded into history; all of the children of my grandparents William and Agnes Hume born at Monterloney Farm have passed away, and with them a multitude of their memories. Now that those children and most of the other children who grew up with them are gone as well, it seemed an appropriate time to go back in history and explore the community, events and history that shaped them.