CARROWDORE in County Down is hardly the most remarkable of places, although in past years it would have been well-known in the motorcycle world for the Carrowdore 100 motorcycle road race, which started in 1927. The poet Louis MacNeice was not born there but is buried there.
Another equally significant literary figure, almost forgotten today, was conversely born there but is not buried in her birthplace.
Maria Henrietta Delacherois-Crommelin, who wrote under the name of May Crommelin, was born in 1849 and grew up at Carrowdore Castle, which had been built by her grandfather in 1819. She died in England in 1930. She was a well-known figure among the literati of Victorian London, where her sister was married to the poet laurate John Masefield.
The Crommelin family were French Huguenots who had fled from religious persecution in France and were living in Holland in the late 17th century. In common with the Duke of Schomberg and most of the Huguenots in the Netherlands at the time, Louis Crommelin pledged support to William of Orange during the religious wars in Europe of which the Glorious Revolution and Williamite Wars were a part.
After the victory in Ireland, Louis Crommelin was personally invited by William III to lead a Huguenot colony of 70 French-speaking families in establishing the linen industry in Lisburn in 1698. Included in the colony were two of Louis’ brothers, three sisters and a number of his cousins. This was a major enterprise and more than 1,000 looms and Dutch spinning wheels were imported from Holland to ensure success, while Louis invested £10,000 in the venture.
The De la Cherois family also enter the family story through the Huguenot colony at Lisburn, two members of this family having married into the Crommelin family; Nicholas and Daniel. This name became Delacherois in time. Both the De la Cherois brothers fought for William at the Boyne in 1690, having arrived at Groomsport with the Williamite army in 1689.
The daughter of Samuel Hill Delacherois-Crommelin, May Crommelin was very well aware of this ancestry and the connections right back to the Glorious Revolution. She was author of a history of Louis Crommelin which was unpublished, but she was also author of numerous published books, short stories and magazine articles. She wrote over 45 books, many of them novels and several connected to Ulster.
One of these novels was Orange Lily, an impressively woven plot set around Carrowdore but extending in its storytelling to the United States. The novel draws on her experiences of the Orange and Ulster-Scots tradition in the locality, although the Orange Lily of the novel earns her name not only from her father being Worshipful Master of the local Orange Lodge but also from the colour of her hair.
Orange Lily was published in 1879 in New York, bringing the Carrowdore area to the attention of a much wider audience. In 1880 an edition printed in London included other short stories from the area, and two of these are also featured in this new edition published by the Ulster Scots Academy.
This new volume will revive the name of May Crommelin to a modern audience. It is an attractively presented book, which is greatly added to by editor Dr. Philip Robinson’s excellent introduction, highlighting the history behind the authoress and the novel and an equally fascinating appendix by Mark Thompson, including photographs, and detailing some of the locations relevant to the novel. These additions assist in setting the novel in context and the Ulster Scots glossary is also a very helpful aspect of the 2017 edition.
The novel itself, of course, is able to stand up for itself. For those who think that 19th century novels are dry and rather dull and boring, this will confound perceptions. Although the dialogue is of its time period, and modern authors would probably be more direct, this is nevertheless an engaging story. Writers would suggest there are really only a very small number of plot lines for all novels, and this one follows themes of jealousy, coming of age, rags-to-riches, and ultimate happy resolutions. The villain gets his come-uppance, which is only as it should be.
The story centres around Lily Keag (the Orange Lily of the title) and Tom Coulter, as they grow up together in the parish of Ballyboley (Carrowdore). Thrown into the mix are a cast which includes Daniel Gilhorn, for whom the central characters retain an aversion from the start, and who plays the villain in the novel, as well as others including Miss Alice and Miss Edith, who live at the castle, and are benevolent if somewhat eccentric figures. John Gilhorn, who aspires to provide a home for Orange Lily and settle down with her, gives us a little tension, for he is a likeable character yet one who appears to offer something of the prospect of a loveless marriage for Lily. She is pledged to Tom Coulter, but he has gone to America with the intention of doing well enough to come home and marry, his status altered from that of the servant boy on the farm.
Crommelin has clearly drawn on characters from the era of her writing, although there is a quite a mixture of characterisation going on; Lily Keag’s father is Master of the Ballyboley Orange Lodge, when in fact May’s own grandfather, Nicholas Delacherois-Crommelin was a prominent Orange leader in the area, as subsequently was her uncle. Her experiences at Carrowdore Castle no doubt found their way into the pages, as did some of the individuals she would have known, under different names and perhaps with several characters amalgamated together.
The book has also two additional short stories, The Witch of Windy Hill and An Old Maid’s Marriage, both of them charming in their own right.
I have to confess to being more attuned to reading American thrillers and modern historical fiction, so I approached Orange Lily with an open – if somewhat wary – mind, in anticipation that it would be rather tame in contrast. What I found was a fantastic story, well characterised, with engaging events and dialogue and a plot which had me gripped at the end of each chapter. Crommelin’s short stories were the same. This is a fantastic book, which opens an inviting door to the world of May Crommelin and her work.
This book deserves to sell well in its new edition not only in the hills of Carrowdore made famous by the 19th century Orange song which mentions “Mr. Crommelin” and his benevolence to the Orange tradition in the area, but also to a much wider audience in Northern Ireland.
Orange Lily by May Crommelin, edited and with an introduction by Philip Robinson is published by Ullans Press for the Ulster Scots Language Society, 329pps paperback, ISBN 9781905281312. On sale from Amazon for £11.50 plus P&P, and also in Ards and Bangor visitor centres and in North Down museum.