Aughnacloy

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I


Frances, William and their two little boys arrived in Aughnacloy in July 1903. The manse, attached to the church, stands towards the southern end of the town, on the corner of the Monaghan road. It's an attractive grey stone building with what must have been a substantial garden behind it.

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Frances had already set up manses in Ballybay and Swanlinbar. She was becoming used to taking stock of a new house and placing their own modest possessions in it to make it feel like home. But this time, it was harder work, more of a chore. Two-year-old Fred and baby Donald didn't make her task easier, and her pregnancy, too recent to be shared with anyone but William, left her tired and sometimes dispirited. Soon, the whole family was ill with summer colds, and Frances found herself thinking too often of their lovely house in Swanlinbar and their friends there, a time which seemed in retrospect sunnier and simpler.

And Aughnacloy had something of a reputation in Methodist circles. Several previous ministers had died there. Nora describes it as "a most unhealthy manse". Frances was not superstitious. But she knew the stories, and she worried a little.


 

II



Baby Nora was born in December, safe and sound. The congregation, now becoming friends, celebrated with them, and Christmas was especially joyful.

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Later that year, however, Fred started complaining about a sore throat. Within hours, he was feverish and nauseous. Then an itchy, bumpy red rash appeared. It was scarlatina, one of the most feared of childhood diseases. Frances knew that Fred had to be isolated to protect the rest of the family, but it was too late. Within a week everyone was ill, even little Nora. 

Some of the ladies from the congregation helped with nursing them, and Dr Phillips called regularly. William and Nora recovered quite quickly. The two boys caused greater worry, their symptoms lingering much longer. The doctor was most concerned about Frances herself, who was suffering terrible headaches and stomach pains. Scarlatina was a frequent killer, and he began to fear the worst for her. He had been attending illnesses in the manse for years and now, looking at her feverish face and the listless little Fred and Donald, he decided that drastic action was needed.

Dr Phillips told William that, unless Frances was moved, he could not be responsible for her life. Horrified, William arranged for his wife to be taken by carriage to her sister's house in Fermanagh.

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III

 

The two practical men, the doctor and the decorator-turned-minister, set to working out what was wrong in the house. With the help of another member of the congregation, they began to investigate pipes and tanks, the attics and chimneys, even lifting the corners of floors. They found an answer in the dining room. Lifting a flagstone under the rug, they found an open sewer directly underneath. Appalled by the sight, their friend left. William and Dr Phillips grimly replaced the stone over the awful sight and began the complicated process of arranging to have the house's plumbing rerouted.

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IV


How do I know all this? A little is speculative, some is careful research, but most is clear from Nora's brief and rather grim account of her parents' life in Aughnacloy.

"After three years work in Co Cavan Father & Mother moved to Aughnacloy where I was born. It was a most unhealthy manse & several ministers had died there. And when our family had Scarletina & Mother was very ill the Doctor said she must move or he would not be responsible for her life. Father attempted to get things righted & got a man to lift the floor in a room. When the floor was up sewers were discovered with only a flag for covering, and the man refused to do any more! No wonder the family was ill."

When I visited, I wasn't expecting to like the town. Frances didn't remember it fondly - the horrible illness coloured her memory of her two years there very strongly.

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In fact, I found it quiet and pretty. A lovely broad high street, ideal for a weekly market, with attractive houses just waiting to be beautifully restored. An appealing town pump, set where water carriers could enjoy the view over the bright green Tyrone and Monaghan countryside. Two other churches on the main street, well cared for and busy.

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The Methodist church itself is plain, painted pink, with pleasing arched windows. I was given a very warm welcome. There were eighteen of us there the morning I attended, and almost everybody stopped to talk to me, interested in my quest. The service was simple and moving. The singing was three times as impressive as you'd expect from eighteen people. I was glad to have my expectations so thoroughly contradicted.

Just one small thing jolted me. Beside me on the wall was a marble plaque, engraved with the name of Henry N Kevin, William's colleague from his time in Cootehill and Ballybay. Henry Kevin died at the manse in Aughnacloy in 1912.

I'd found out enough about Mr Kevin previously that this was actually upsetting. His obituary says that he had become weak after repeated bouts of flu and had been about to ask for a year's leave from his work. I hope his final illness was nothing to do with the conditions in the manse.

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V


I traced the rest of his family. His daughter Helen married a man from Aughnacloy, Samuel Hanse, a few years later, and they emigrated to New Jersey, part of the flood of people leaving Ireland at this time. Henry's widow Annie followed, living with Helen and Samuel in New Jersey until her death in 1939. Little Helen, the child Frances played with on the floor of the manse in Cootehill in 1899, lived until 1997 and the astonishing age of 106, reigning as the matriarch of a large extended family. That made me happy.

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