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.