Thursday, 2 December 2010

Booley huts and booleying on the Commons

The ghostly footprints of ancient sod walls still mark the sites where families once moved with their cattle up to uplands in county Antrim during the summer months (from May to October). They built temporary "booley" huts to live in, usually beside a water burn or spring.
"Booleying" - what the text-books call transhumance in other parts of the world - comes from the Irish "booley" or "boley" that is used to describe either the upland summer grazing place for cattle
or the summer hill dwelling used by the herdsmen. These huts were made of sod and timber branches covered with rushes for thatch. Some 400-year-old drawings of these huts give an idea of how they were put together.

In the 1570 picture-map of Carrickfergus, it almost looks as if they had descended on the town after the summer for a harvest Feast of Tabernacles!

The old custom was for the young folk (sometimes the entire family), to leave the "clachan" (a cluster of farms with solid buildings) in the lowlands as soon as the crops were sown and migrate to summer pastures in the hills.
When the lands between Carrickfergus town and the Commons were parceled out in the 1500s into Aldermans Shares (strips of single, dispersed farms within their own fields), the Commons was still intended for summer grazing by these farmers. But it was the farms on the far (northern) side of the Commons that were still "booleying" on the Commons when the practice had died out in the 1800s elsewhere.

When the Commons itself was finally divided up into farms and fields there was serious unrest
, with bands of men pulling down the new fences in 1880 and attacking anybody who tried to build permanent houses. There had always been a slight sense of lawlessness connected with cattle on the Commons. In the early days, Bryan O'Neill was cattle raiding on a grand scale here in the 1500s, and cattle stealing remained a problem down to the Steelboys revolts in the 1770 when men from this early secret society of anti-establishment Presbyterian peasants burned down farmhouses and stole cattle belonging to the wealthy farmers (including some of Mr. Dalway's tenants) near Carrickfergus. Ransoms were demanded and the money was to be left at the Priest's Rock (Craignabraher) on the Commons, which is where the Covenanters held their open air meetings. It was soon discovered that the culprits were from the clachan of Raloo just to the north. Among those convicted in 1770 was a Paddy McKenty of Raloo, who almost certainly was from the same family as the ancestors of the modern crime writer Adrian McKinty mentioned in my last posting.

The families that took their cattle to booley places on the Commons like Ardboley (High Booley), Carnbilly (Booley Cairn) or Milky Knowes had their home farms down on lower ground in clusters or villages called "clachans". The arable land around each clachan was shared out between the group in a jigsaw of tiny plots and strips each year, and when the cattle returned before the 1st November, the field markers were torn down and the land around the clachans returned to common winter grazing. The homecoming to the clachan at harvest time (at the latest 1st November) was another great time of celebration and seasonal customs, closely tied up with Halloween bonfires and gatherings on 31st October.

When I was a young student, 40 years ago, I made a study of some of these clachans that had survived in the 1830 landscape north of the Commons in south-east Antrim - Glenoe, Raloo, Mackeystown, Ballylagan, Drummondstown, Lylestown, Uppertown and Browndod. In Scotland, such clachans are also called "farm-towns" (or if they have a church or mill: "kirk-towns" or "mill-towns"). Glenoe was properly a mill-town as it was clustered around a water-powered corn mill near Glenoe waterfall, and Raloo - still a really impressive clachan if you can find it - is a kirk-town with a (Non-Subscribing) Presbyterian Meeting House hidden among the cluster of surviving farms down a country lane.

When the family groups moved from these clachans in May along with their cattle to the summer booley pastures, their tracks up onto the high ground of the Commons cut across the established Dalway cattle trail, as shown on the map. This must have involved strange encounters, if not a clash of cattle herding cultures. And the booleying one was always the "poor cousin": often stigmatised with the idea that their encroachment was trespass. Another perception was that these "booley boys" were involved in cattle stealing, or worse. Not only did the Steelboys from Raloo conspire at the Priest's Rock near Ardboley on the Commons in 1770, but this was also the Commons rallying point for the local United Irishmen in 1798 before joining the Ballycarry Corps on their way to the Battle of Antrim. Of course, as the Commons had no permanent buildings or occupants in the 18th century, these "rebels" were from the radical Presbyterians that had lived in and around these clachans. These were the men who saw the establishment - be it landlords, government or established (Episcopal) church - as the same enemy as had been successfully overthrown in America by their first and second generation Scotch-Irish cousins in the American War of Independence. But the price of failure in Antrim was a dissenting tradition that has been submerged and forgotten for hundreds of years. The landscape north of the Commons is one of a rich, hidden heritage that has to be searched carefully for, off the beaten pad, and certainly off the tourist trail.

So, if you pass through Glenoe
(the only clachan which has a surfaced, drivable road through it), try and see beyond the picturesque waterfall to that hidden history of clachans, booleying and a "dissenting" independent spirit that typifies the local folk. I visited Glenoe waterfall again last month and as Helen and I walked up through the village it reminded me of a similar walk we had near Boone, North Carolina some 30 years ago - and then walking through Glenoe 20 years ago with friends from Kentucky. When you add the shared history and heritage together, the "mountain men" of this part of Antrim and the "hill-billys" of the Apalachians have more than genes in common.