Friday, 28 May 2010

The original Yahoos at Kilroot

The 'Round House' in Kilroot, just a stone's throw east of Eden in county Antrim, was where Jonathan Swift is supposed to have lived when he was appointed by the established Church of Ireland to the Prebendary of Kilroot from 1695-1696.

From here he drafted his first satirical tirade against Scots and Presbyterians in his A Tale of a Tub, and where he gathered most of his ideas for Gulliver's Travels.

The problem for the young Anglo-Irishman was that when he was given his first charge after taking Holy Orders in Dublin, this Prebendary of Kilroot had only one 'working' church in the 3 parishes under his care. The parishes in question covered most of south-east Antrim, and were Kilroot, Islandmagee and Templecorran. The Templecorran church (now a ruin at Ballycarry) is the only one he is known to have attempted to hold services in. The story is told of how he found nobody at church on his first Sunday at Ballycarry, so went to the far end of the Main Street and stood like a statue until a crowd of curious inhabitants gathered round him. The he took ten giant strides forward, stopped and picked up a pebble from the street to put it in a bag, and then another ten, and so on - Pied Piper of Hamlyn style - until the crowd followed him up the churchyard and into the church. Then he bolted the door behind them and delivered his sermon. But brilliant story-teller as he was, a year later he still only had three or four Episcopalian families in as many parishes, with the remainder being almost entirely 'Scotch Dissenters' (Presbyterians).

Thus began Swift's obsession that religious and political conformity was divinely ordained - and that it was a principle more important than any detail of doctrine. A Tale of a Tub was a straight-forward satire against non-conformity. The survival of the ship of state (the state church - regardless of theology) was so important that when attacked by a whale (the devil), a tar-covered tub (non-conformist churches), had to be thrown overboard so that the whale would be diverted to play with the tub instead (and both Church and State saved). Swift wrote numerous pamphlets in support of the Religious Test Acts when they were first introduced in Ireland in 1703. These Test Acts denied Presbyterians the right to hold any public office without first taking the 'Sacramental Test' of receiving communion in the Established Church. Indeed, these Test Acts were to prove a significant stimulus for the massive migrations of Scotch-Irish to America in the early 1700s.

If A Tale of a Tub was fixated on the dissenter versus conformist debate in political and religious life, Gulliver's Travels gave vent to his other Anglo-Irish fixation: his feelings of superiority as an English 'giant' in Ireland, contrasting with his feelings of inferiority as an 'Irishman' in England. But in Gulliver's Travels, he still couldn't resist a poke at the terrible uncultured barbarians that were the bane of his life at Kilroot. 'Blefescu' that barbarian northern land was understood to be Belfast, for Wolfe Tone (leader of the United Irishmen in the 1798 rebellion) wrote "Thomas Paine's Right's of Man is now all the rage in Blefescu". Those strange people were the 'big-endians' who believed that a boiled egg should only be opened at the big end, and were blindly intolerant of those who believed otherwise. In the story, they were only to be outdone as uncouth Philistines by the Yahoos. The good folk of Kilroot knew exactly who Swift was labelling 'Yahoos'.

Now as a junior Yahoo in the 1950s, I, along with other Boney-boys, used to walk along the shore - or to be more accurate, the railway line - to Kilroot and explore the derelict 'Swift's Cottage'. No other house had rounded corners, and we were told that Dean Swift had built it like that so neither the devil nor Presbyterians could hide in the corners. I remember that the thatch was almost gone, for I could stick my head up through and gulder out at my mates in the garden - much to their shock, for they couldn't see where the noise was coming from.

The Round House was gutted by fire in 1959, and it (along with the adjacent Kilroot Railway Station) was knocked down shortly after to make way for the gigantic Kilroot Power Station. So what neither the devil nor the Presbyterians could shift, Ulster's biggest carbon-emitter could.

Wednesday, 19 May 2010

Eden re-visited

Sometimes going back to the the green, green grass of home is disturbing - especially if the grass has been covered in tarmac and concrete since. But unexpected reminders here and there can help you understand how much those lost ingredients shaped you way back then.

The 'bowl I was baked in' was the small village of Boneybefore in east Antrim. It had been by-passed by the new main road from Carrick to Larne, and so the world largely passed us by too. But just a short dander to the east loomed the next, slightly larger, village of Eden. Until we came into our teens, we 'Boney-boys' held Eden in awe - it had a pub, and everything else that was taboo. But it had better things too: a wide street and two-story houses (none of which were thatched), and a Post Office (with the only telephone box in the country outside).

There was a large house beside Eden Primary School with an orchard in its garden. Naturally, this was a big temptation and it became the crime scene of many a raid for apples, when lessons were done.

I went past the site recently and smiled to see that it has been re-developed for modern housing and re-named the 'Garden of Eden'.

Not only did I go to Eden Primary School on weekdays, but to the sweetie shops there on Saturdays - and even to a terrace house on the street there for my seasonal hair-cut. There was no barber's pole or sign, and the only way of knowing you were at the right house was a set of buffalo horns hanging in the porch inside the front door.

Eden Mission Hall was opposite the school, and when I was about 9 or 10 years old (in the 1950s) it was also used by the school as an overflow classroom. But from as early as I have memory of, Eden Mission Hall was also where I was taken twice on Sundays. Sunday-School was in the afternoon, and the church 'meeting' at 7 o'clock at night. I can still picture every nook and cranny, board and crack in that hall.

None of this involved any choices on my part - it's what I thought the entire human race's life experience was, and it was what everybody did as part of family life. I can't remember having any awareness that there were any other types of schooling or of churching.

But the 'Boney-boys' began to explore that outside world. I could get out of the Sunday night 'meeting' by going with five or six other escapees to a big church on Sunday morning. The 'big' church in question was a Presbyterian Church in the Scotch Quarter of Carrickfergus. It was a bit like going to a big football match when you had no real interest in, or understanding of, the sport. Six of us would squeeze into a pew in the gallery built for four. I remember little more, other than the occasional clutch of good-looking girls sitting opposite with straw hats on, and the walking there and home - about three miles round trip. In every sense (from a Boneybefore perspective), Carrick was way out west and on the other side of the world to Eden.

There were no 'big' churches in Eden, but another mission hall. It was called the 'Wilson Memorial Gospel Hall', and was a bit of a mystery. These Gospel Halls ran 'children's meetings' on a Tuesday night, and they were different. We Boney boys went there spasmodically of our own free will. Much foot-stamping choruses and sweeties thrown into whichever section of the crowd could find a bible passage first. I remember one evening there was a projector showing slides of a mission in Africa. One of the white missionaries had enormous swelling of the legs which the man said was 'ellyphantitus'. To me, then, I thought I could look across Belfast Lough from the shore at Boneybefore and see Africa on the other side. Now that I live across there in county Down, I can testify that there are no elephants spreading disease today on either side of Belfast Lough.

Running down alongside the Wilson Hall was a river at the far, eastern end of the village. This was the Copeland Water, which marked the boundary of the old medieval county of Carrickfergus. Parallel to the Copeland Water and just about 500 yards to the east, is the Kilroot River which runs from near Ballycarry, past Dalway's Bawn and Castle Dobbs (where it is known as the 'Muttonburn Stream') and out to the sea near the old house Dean Swift (author of Gulliver's Travels) is supposed to have lived.

East of Eden was a different country, as the folk song 'The Muttonburn Stream' hints.

Saturday, 1 May 2010


So the Old Orange Tree was published last year by the Ullans Press - with a change to the cover design as previously posted. This consisted of giving Eve a new tress of hair to satisfy the publisher's sensitivities! A bit daft methinks, as the original folk-art is from the banner of my brother's 'Black' preceptory in Carrickfergus - and it gets an annual public airing in the streets of respectable east Antrim towns without having had a single word of complaint in the past 200 years.

See USLS website for details: (that is for details of the book - not the 'Black' parades).

Well, what now? And apologies for the long silence! A 'wee scare' as we like to refer to cancer, followed by a 'wee procedure' (or rather two of them), are the reasons for my intervening silence. But now, with that and the subsequent treatment behind me for the time being, it is time to climb down from the Old Orange Tree and move on.

But to where?