Monday, 2 August 2010

THE COMMONS CUP and other antiquities

The Commons of Carrickfergus appears on the 1832 map (see last post) as a vast, featureless upland moor, devoid of any evidence of human activity apart from the cattle trail across it. But around the edge was a string of stone-built herds' houses which all seemed to look onto the commons just in the same way as a lough-shore fishing community might be strung around a large lough.

It was only when the revelation came that there was a 'necklace' of old houses around the commons did I realise that the only ruined house 'in' the Commons that I remember discovering as a boy was one of these - right on the boundary of the Commons, near Lough Mourne. Back then (50 years ago) it was roofless and overgrown, and when we pushed our way inside through nettles and brambles, I found a glass sitting on a remains of a window sill.

That glass was badly made, with a crooked stem, an air bubble in the base, and an uneven rim. It went with me in later years to student flats and anywhere else I called home as a sort of token of the many local mysteries and childhood wonders that, one day, I would resolve.

I wrote it into a novel,
The Man Frae the Ministry, in a different setting altogether (a fictional Ulster-Scots settlement in Canada), where it became the proof of a former visit by Sam and Joel to old Sawney's house:
'His eyes went from the spot where Sawney had been sitting and spitting into the fire, to where the window was above the table - a table that was now a pale anaemic nettle. There was a small glass, half-full of dirt, on the sill of the glass-less window frame. It was the only piece of furniture to be seen. Sam lifted the glass, emptied it, and ran his finger round the inside to clean it out. "Not broken - nice", he said replacing it by its short stem. It had a slight tilt and a bubble flaw in the base.'

I think life is full of little 'coincidences' and events that only have meaning later. As the gospel song says, "Further along, we'll understand why".

Of course there are other antiquities in this 'barren' land of the Commons. Although permanent buildings weren't allowed until about 1870, seasonal huts made of sods and branches called 'booley huts' were numerous and in parts of the commons their circular pattern can still be traced on the ground. 'Booleying' was the summer grazing of cattle on the mountains and often the children and women lived they for the summer months in these temporary shelters, leaving the men to work the arable strips of 'infield' around the lowland hamlets or 'clachans' of stone-built cottages.

During the time when only Freemen of the town of Carrickfergus had grazing rights on the Commons, the booleying may well have been something that was practiced unofficially by remnants of the 'Old Irish' population living to the back of the Commons in places like 'Ardboley' and 'Milky Knowes'. The huts were always near a fresh water supply, and indeed they are found near 'Bryan O'Neill's Well' and down along the sides of the Woodburn river and the Craignabraher Burn. The Craignabraher Burn gets its name from the 'Friar's Rock' in the Commons which was once both a 'Mass Rock' for Irish Catholics and a 'Field Conventicle' site for Scotch Covenanters in the Penal days. In the 1800s, once the Penal Laws and the Test Acts were repealed, a 'Mass House' (Catholic Chapel) was built to the north-west, and a 'Meeting House' for Covenanter Presbyterians was built to the north-east. These Covenanters were known in Ulster as 'Mountain Men', and I often wondered was there a connection with their American kinsmen, the 'Hill-Billys', for 'billie' is the Scots word for 'friend ' or 'comrade'.

Lough Mourne itself was temporarily drained in the 1920s while it was being converted into a reservoir, and pre-historic dug-out boats were found, along with two artificial islands (crannogs) that were used 1000 years ago as defensive Irish homesteads.

A host of Irish place-names in the Commons testify to the survival of the language into more recent times, along with a smattering of Scots and hybrid Irish and Scots place-names as well. But unlike townland names which have often survived because they were written into land-leases, these local names are a real clue to language and culture of the 'commons' folk.

Craignabraher (Irish: Rock of the Friar or Priest)
Slimero (Irish: Red mountain plain)
Toppin (Scots: Cairn or peak of a mountain)
Isle of Glass (Irish and Scots: Green hill in the bog)
Duncrue (Irish: Fort of the cattle payment)
Munney Braddy Moss (Irish and Scots: Stolen peat bog)
Carnwhissock (Irish and Scots: Cairn of the severe blow)
Lignaca (Irish: Hollow of the mist)

For the final antiquity, we must go down the Cattle trail off the Commons to Dalway's Bawn. Here, East of Eden, an old Irish Harp was found in a bog beside the Bawn
in the 1700s . This is the famous 'Dalway Harp', so named because it was kept by the Dalway family for years and is now one of the most treasured possessions of the Irish National Museum in Dublin. Dated to 1621, its image is used by the Irish state as its logo, and the name 'Dalway Harp' has become the generic name for this type of classic Irish harp.


  1. Interesting post— as always. I've always kept an eye open for the out-of-place object during my times outdoors. I was the first to build on my home site, but old-time neighbors across the way had secretly dumped some of their refuse on the property over the years. Sometimes I find broken pieces of patent medicine bottles, stone (clay) jars and cheap clay tobacco pipes when working in the soil. I always wonder what stories they could tell. On the farm where I was raised, we sometimes found flint arrowheads from the days of the redman.

    Your thoughts about the origin of the term “hillbilly” are interesting. As I'm sure you know, it's a term now used in derision for mountain or country people by outsiders. Ironically, we "hill people" often take the name willingly, preferring to be simple and decent common folk than arrogant and ignorant boors like so many of our detractors.

  2. I love old bottles too, and used to collect them (my massive collection of invaluable trash languishes in an outbuilding, out of the reach of my family's 'reddin out' obsession). The glass, however, is still in the house largely because I took my son (aged 20) to see where it was found and told him the story and have promised it to him.

    More on the word 'billie'. Rabbie Burns uses it a lot, for example in the opening lines of 'Tam O'Shanter':
    "When chapmen billies tak the street,
    And drouthy neebours, neebours meet."
    (he defines 'billie in his glossary as 'friend, comrade').
    We use it with the same meaning (a bit like 'cronie') and would even greet a friend "Hi, billie Sam". A 'billie-can' was a workman's tin for boiling water in to make tea on an open outside fire on a building site. So I suppose 'hill-billy' would be understood as a slightly derogatory term by the early Scotch-Irish settlers if it referred to their clannishness.

    I like the story of your old-time neighbours dumping stuff for your later discovery. Our fields are littered with such stuff - including bits of clay pipes and broken pottery. In our case it came from the once universal practice of keeping a farmyard rubbish tip (called a 'midden') and periodically spreading the waste on the (arable) fields as a sort of compost/fertiliser. Nothing new in recycling, is there Gorges!

    By the way, I too would be proud to be called a 'hillbilly' just for the reasons you say.

  3. Great post, Philip... You mention that in your novel "The Man Frae the Ministry" one setting was a fictional Ulster-Scots settlement in Canada. What do you know of such settlements? I'm familiar with many Scots who came to Canada in various waves of immigration -- to Nova Scotia and Upper Canada (Ontario) particularly. But I know nothing of Ulster-Scots settlements in Canada -- though there may have been many...

  4. Gary, the answer is that the fictional settlement in Canada is decidedly 'unreal' - if not surreal - and was intended to be satirical. The (Irish) reader would be well into the book before realising that it was not set at home. It has a sub-theme of the Ulster-Scots diaspora, but I originally wrote the setting in the Appalachians - probably the only overseas part of the world where such a mono-cultural (almost Amish-type) community might have existed. But the Upper Canada setting suited the parallel better with the historical and cultural baggage that is shared vis-a-vis the unspoken tensions between the old 'Empire Loyalist' vs. French = Irish Gaelic traditions.
    Sounds dreadful when I try and explain it!
    But it might well have ended up as set among the snake-handling believers of Tennessee. Maybe the next one ...

  5. Hi Philip,
    I really appreciate this blog and it sets me wondering about the derivation of names of Boal and Barron of which there are many dotted around the Commons and Loughmourne. Do you know if these were desciptive names relating to occupation or location or what is the derivation of these names. There were many McAllisters, Robinsons,Grahams etc. My father (T.R.Cowan) stood in an election to Larne Distict Council which strangely took in the Commons and Isle O Glass area. I think that it was in 1958 or thereabouts. He won the election and represented the area until the RDC was abolished through local Govt. reform I think in mid 60s. There were less than 200 voters (I think) on the electoral register and we had great fun canvassing and driving around the countryside on election day picking up voters and delivering them home again before the opposition got them. It was a great way to find out who lived where.