Thursday, 17 November 2011

Walking the Cassie cattle trail: 3. More light on the Witchthorn

Before moving on from the site of the Bellahill witch thorn and the Witchthorn National School (just past the Resting Slap on the Cassie as described in the previous post), I found some more information which I think is worth relating.

The above-mentioned illustration and account of the Witchthorn from Alexander Johns of Carrickfergus in 1849 is not the only source of information on these. The Ordnance Survey Memoirs for the Parish of Kilroot dated 1839 records that the Witchthorn and the school were on the farm of Thomas Hay, and this source gives the following account of the witchthorn:
"Gentle Bushes 
On an eminence in the townland of Bellahill, and holding of Thomas Hay, there stands a large ancient thorn locally called the Witches' thorn and gave local name to a national school situate at that place. This school is known by the Witchthorn National School.
There are a few other ancient thorns in the parish, and esteemed sacred as being fairy abodes and consequently remain unmolested."
Well, as we saw in the last post, by 1849 branches were being removed and it disappeared before 1900. The title of the OS Memoir account - "Gentle bushes" show that they viewed the superstitions here to be the same as those common throughout Ireland, and related to the "gentle folk" or Fairies. Incidently, a fairy was by no means "gentle" but the term comes from 'gentile' and the Irish "ginte" (gentile, pagan, heathen Dane) - and from which word we get the local family name of McKinty/McGinty (meaning 'son of the Danish man or Viking'). 

As the townland of Bellahill was overwhelmingly Presbyterian, such superstitious beliefs (particularly in fairies) were generally held in ridicule, and so the identification of the tree with witches rather than fairies. In the early 1900s John Hay from this farm in Bellahill told his daughter-in-law (Mrs Susie Hay) a story of how Mr Dalway had ordered the men to clear away an ancient motte-like mound or 'rath' from near the bottom of the Cassie. The hero of the story was a local man who used his sister's tiny clog to make fairy footprints around the 'fairy fort' and play a practical joke on the whole countryside.  Susie Hay then based her ballad, 'The Rath in the Valley' on that story (Note that 'freit' is an Ulster-Scots word for 'superstition' and 'moat' for 'motte' or 'mound' - but in this poem these words are used by the 'English' landlord!):
By Susie Hay

Once upon a time, so I've heard tell,
  A Rath was in a valley, and fairies there did dwell.
None dared molest the "Wee folk" who came when moon was clear,
  And everyone for miles around that Rath did well revere.

The landlord of the valley came unto the mound;
  Said he, "By Irish 'freits' I never will be bound;
That moat doth spoil my field, so to my men I'll say,
  Go at once to that low field, and clear the Rath away."

The men obediently went off, with shovel and with spade;
  Upon that Irish Rath an attack they fiercely made;
But the truth of all the matter was that they were Irish too,
  And the fear of Irish fairies did thrill them through and through.

The first day of their labours, all went very well,
  And nothing but the sound of spades resounded through the dell,
And driving off with carts of mould, they did not their work leave,
  Until above the valley, shone the first faint star of eve.

Lo, see them the next morning, as to their task them come,
  From different cots around the vale, a-straggling one by one,
Scarce wakened from their night's deep sleep, scarce seeing the right
  But from their stupor quickly roused, when near the Fairy Rath.

The first one who did reach the Rath, to all began to shout,
  "Oh hurry, hurry, hurry, boys, the fairies have been out."
And sure enough, around the mound,--this tale is really true--
  Were marks of tiny footsteps, as of a fairy shoe.

The men were seized with horror; their very bones did freeze!
  And shouts of wild excitement filled the early morning breeze,
And wafted them right up unto the very mansion house,
  To where the lordly master was sitting with his spouse.

"Now what, now what, now what," he called, "is this unearthly row?
  "What's happened that wild Irish crowd, what are they doing now?"
"Oh sir," a messenger replied, who came, all pale with fear;
  "The men won't touch the Rath because the fairies have been here."

So down unto the valley strode the irate English lord,
  Said he unto himself, "I'll quell that Irish rabble horde."
But not a man of all the crowd would ever put a spade
  Into the Rath, the fairy marks had made them so afraid.

When some time passed, so I've been told,
  The work was done by other men, who were by nature bold,
And had no fear of Little Men, Banshee, or Witche's wail;
  But still the "fairy shoemarks" stay an ancient country tale.

The secret of the tale was kept, until 'twas told to me;
  The solution was quite simple, as you will plainly see;
A 'divil-of-a-fellow' a-livin' near the bog,
  Marked all the 'fairy footsteps' with--his little sister's CLOG.
This, and much more, information about the Hays of Bellahill was sent to me by Robert (Bob) Todd of Nova Scotia in Canada, who contacted me after reading the blog.  The Thomas Hay on whose farm the witch thorn stood in the 1839 account was Bob Todd's great, great grandfather. The OS Memoir for 1839 also says that Thomas Hoy (the spellings Hay, Hoy, and Hoey seem to have been used interchangeably for the same person and family) was 'librarian' of the Bellahill Book Club, established in 1837, with 8 members and 23 volumes of historical works. It almost certainly met in the Witchthorn National School, which was also on the 'holding' of Thomas Hay.

The Witchthorn National School sat on the wide verge on the right-hand side of the Cassie as shown here. In the I839 OS Memoir it is  described as sitting "on the old road leading from Bellahill to the commons".
It was a small, thatched, single-story building, only 18 feet long by 15 feet wide and had been established about 1800. The 16 scholars were all Presbyterian, and the master was a John Saunderson, also a Presbyterian. The school was 'visited' by Rev. William Glendy, a 'minister of the Remonstrant Congregation' and was 'well furnished with desks and forms'.

As we leave the Witchthorn and move on down the Cassie towards Porg Hill, it is quite a coincidence that the history of the two family farms on either side of the cattle trail (the Hay's and the Poag's) has come to life by means of two separate Canadian descendants (Barry Poag and Bob ('Hay')Todd). But more of that soon ...

Friday, 11 November 2011

Walking the Cassie cattle trail: 2. From the 'Resting Slap' to the Witchthorn

Leaving the Resting Slap with its views of Belfast Lough and Carrick Castle, the Cassie trail opens up from an overgrown path to a tractor-friendly country lane. My original intention, as promised in the last blog which covered my walk with Ray Cowan from the Beltoy Road to the Resting Slap, was to continue on down the Cassie past the Witchthorn as far as Porg Hill. Porg Hill is where the Poag family farm had been.

There are no Poags still living in Bellahill, but a Barry Poag had read this blog some time ago and wrote to me from Canada (where his grandfather Robert Poag had emigrated to, from here, in the early 1900s).
Over the past year Barry has been corresponding with Ray and I regularly. He has shared a wealth of material from his own family and local history research. There will be much more of these Bellahill Poags when we do eventually reach Porg (or should it be Poag?) Hill. But first of all, Barry has sent some printed information on the Witchthorn - and this opens up a whole new story.

The excerpt is from a book on "The Forest Trees of Britain" published by the well-known English naturalist Rev. C A Johns in 1849. It was supplied to C A Johns "together with the annexed sketch", by the author's uncle, Alexander Johns of Carrickfergus, and it describes the Witch thorn at "Bellahill" on the estate of M. Dalway, Esq. The significance of this discovery for Barry Poag lay in the detail of the account, for Alexander Johns' informant was none other than Barry's great-great-great grandfather James Poag (who indeed states that he remembered the tree 70 years beforehand, that is, in the 1770s!):
"The schoolmaster of the Witch-Thorn National School (the tree has given its name to the place) referred me to an old man named James Poag, residing about a quarter of a mile from the spot. I found him at home, but gained little information; he is 87 years of age, a tailor by trade, and was busy at his work, three lads plying the needle with him; he said his sight was not so good as it had been, and his hearing rather dull! He invited me to take bread and butter and milk, all his house afforded, and told me he remembers the tree for 70 years, and that from his earliest recollection the trunk has always been as large as it is now. Within these few years some branches have been cut off, (a very rare occurrence indeed with an aged Thorn) which being reported to the agent of Mr Dalway, that gentleman went to the spot, and has taken steps to prevent a repitition of the act. The large trunk is 4 feet 2 inches in circumference, and the other 3 feet 6 inches; the thorn is about 20 feet high. It stands on high ground, and the father of the present proprietor told my informant that he had seen the Witch Thorn from the Scotch coast."
The map shows the section of the Cassie from the Resting Slap as far as Porg Hill and the Poag farms in Bellahill, and the sites of the Witchthorn and the Witchthorn National School. Neither of the 'witchthorn' sites survive, although Ray was able to point out the their sites from what he had been told.

Older maps show that the school was there in the 1830s, and it must have survived until the 1870s when the two 'new' Bellahill National Schools were built. These were located on 'proper' roads a t either end of the Cassie (the Beltoy Road, and the Dalway's Bawn Road).

The precise locations of the Witchthorn and the Witchthorn National School are both marked on this detail from an 1858 land valuation survey. A thick red line marks the townland boundary between Crossmary to the south and Bellahill (Ballyhill) to the north and east. Carrickfergus County (North-East Division) is to the west of the Copeland Water.

The thin red lines are farm boundaries - the farm at the top marked 10A is the Cowan home farm, and the one marked 21 bottom right is the 'original' Poag farm.

The Cassie runs across the top of the Cowan farm to the Resting Slap (which is where it meets the top 'point' of Crossmary townland) and then down past the Witchthorn along the townland boundary towards Porg Hill on the Poag farm. The Witchthorn therefore would have been a townland boundary marker before enclosure, not to mention a distant landmark for those on the cattle trail droving towards the 'Resting Slap'. It is fascinating that the 1849 account states that M. Dalway's father told James Poag that the tree could be seen from the 'Scotch coast'.

Alexander Johns had supplied an illustration of the Witchthorn along with his account, and this has to be an actual representation because he describes the tree as having two trunks, one 4 ft. 2 inches in circumference, and the other 3 ft. 6 inches. He also states that the tree was (in the 1840s) 20 ft. tall and that branches had been recently removed which he shows on the ground.
Alexander Johns was born in Cornwall in 1784, and was Ordnance store-keeper of Carrickfergus Castle from 1812. He died in the town in 1866 and was an accomplished illustrator, as his following sketches of Carrickfergus demonstrate. Indeed, he provided all of the original illustrations of local antiquities for Samuel M'Skimmin's "History and Antiquities of Carrickfergus

In the previous post I ended with a photo of Carrickfergus Castle viewed from the Resting Slap, and it fascinates me to think that this was the spot from which Alexander Johns sketched the Witchthorn, after eating a bread and butter 'piece' at James Poag's farm.

Another connection: the Johns' house in Carrickfergus in the 1860s was on the seafront at Joymount where the road leads to the Scotch Quarter, and on to Eden. This photo shows it on the left with a first-floor conservatory. The building (now demolished) was used to house Carrickfergus Technical School when my father was Principal there in the early 1950s.

Back at the Resting Slap, looking back towards Beltoy, is the overgrown path straight ahead that Roy and I had just walked before now proceeding on to Porg Hill. Here the beginning of the wider lane can be seen disappearing into the fields at both sides of the Resting Slap.

As soon as we turn round the corner, the Cassie opens out into a double-width lane, with the worn track only taking up less than half of the total width between the hedges.

And on the ground to the right are the sites of both the Witchthorn and the old Witchthorn National School.

It is not surprising that there is no sign of the school, but because of the superstition against interfering with a 'witch' thorn (the Ulster-Scottish equivalent of the Irish 'fairy' thorn) it is remarkable that nothing of the tree survives. The Scottish beliefs in Broonies (Brownies) and Pechts (Picts) operated here rather than Fairies and Danes. So it was witches, rather than fairies, that were supposed to dance and congregate at these trees - if not live under them! Witch trials were held in Carrickfergus, the most notable one being the trial of the 'Islandmagee Witches' in 1710 when 8 women from Islandmagee (the destination of the Cattle trail) were found guilty in what was to be the last witch trial in Ireland.

And so it's on down the Cassie towards Porg Hill ...