It’s mid-August when I visit Ballybay – just as it was when Frances and William arrived there after their wedding. The sun is bright and the clouds are fluffy, but it’s Sunday quiet and I walk up and down the main street without meeting many other people.
I hadn’t realised before just how nicely preserved Ballybay is. If you look higher than car level and picture the power lines out of the way, it can’t have been very different in 1899. Most of the prettily painted houses look as if they would have been well established by then. Many of the shop fronts are still un-modernised. The charming twists and turns and rises and falls of the road lend a fantastical mood – it’s like an imaginary Irish town from a fairy-tale.
Every now and then, the terraces of shops and houses are broken up with an archway. Many of these provide tantalising views of old outhouses and sheds set in behind, preserved by benign neglect as they were a hundred and twenty years ago. There’s no doubt that Frances’s late Victorian skirts swept up some of those steps.
One of my favourite streets is a steep incline up to the Anglican church. Its grounds offer fine views across the town and to Loch Mor, below. I spend a while walking through the old gravestones. I pick some early blackberries, and then suffer a crisis of conscience, because stealing food from a churchyard suddenly seems a bit wrong.
The blackberries are in evidence everywhere, though. It’s a reminder of how much further south we are here, and what a sheltered inland area it is. At home, the berries are still green. Here, some of the branch ends are heavy with sweet, ripe, black ones. They’re my favourite fruit. I justify myself to my conscience and eat away.
Going back down Church Street, I pause outside one very derelict house. Flakes of duck-egg paint drift onto the road. Ivy covers some of the windows completely. The roof is open to the blue sky. It’s atmospheric and lovely. I stand for a while and take in its details.
I don’t know exactly where in Ballybay Frances and William lived. Nora’s memoir explains that there was no manse in town for the Junior Married Minister, so they rented a little house for £15 a year from William’s £60 salary, which also had to cover the expense of keeping a pony. Mr Ralph Richardson, a horse trader famous throughout Ireland, lived in town and attended the Methodist church. His generosity to successive Methodist junior ministers is well documented: William’s steed may well have been more valuable than he realised.
And all trace of the church, unusually, is gone. It was sold in 1991, for £7000, to Dr M Smyth, but my online detective skills haven’t been good enough to discover where it was or what happened to it. I think I’ll need to join the Irish Methodist Historical Society to find out this sort of secret. I think Frances would approve.
I concentrate my speculation on Meeting House Lane – just the sort of street name which could arise from the presence of a Methodist church, although it’s also the route to the Presbyterian Meeting House on the Clones Road. It’s a nice back street, with an old bridge crossing the peaceful little river. I sit on the bridge in the sun for a while, pick some more blackberries, and find a pleasingly sparkly white granite stone to take home.
Ballybay was part of a paired circuit with nearby Cootehill, where the senior minister lived. I drive along the ten-mile road linking the two towns, through hills and wetlands, a pleasant summer landscape. There are several abandoned houses on the road which might date back to Frances’s time. I think of William travelling around on his horse, visiting members of the small church, receiving congratulations on his marriage and gifts of food to take home to his new wife.
With perfect timing, I turn a corner to find three white horses munching stolidly in a scrubby field. They observe me somewhat balefully.
My own bed and breakfast accommodation is off this road, in the townland of Lisnalong. It’s a gorgeous location with a super-soft bed where, later, I’ll dream of boats on the lake and wake to find songthrushes circling outside my window.
My hostess, Annie, has me eating tea and cakes in the living room and listening to some good advice on life in general, before she sends me back to Kieran’s restaurant in Ballybay for my dinner. It’s the only place in town to go. I’m obedient, and head straight back to Kieran’s purple door. Unfortunately, however, it is actually the only place in town to go, and all the tables have just filled up.
But Ballybay hospitality wins the day, and the chivalrous Harry invites me to join him at his table. Harry is of indeterminate age and reveals very little about himself at first. I wonder how to ask politely what he does, without causing offence by assuming he’s retired, or not retired – always a minefield. “What are you involved in yourself?” is my best effort – indeed, I’m quite pleased with this as an enquiry in the best of taste. He’s involved in the waste business, and we conduct an entertaining conversation about this field. You would be surprised, as I was, to hear some of the things that are stumbled upon by people in the waste business.
Harry has lived here all his life and knows who it is in town who will know the things I want to know. I take down some contact details and thank him kindly. He leaves me to my rhubarb crumble and waves a blessing as he goes out the door.
I’ve been very taken with Ballybay, but in Cootehill I feel that I’ll be on slightly surer factual ground.
I walk the length of the broad, practical main street, noticing again how well preserved many of the older buildings are. I’m looking out for the Methodist church and manse on Bridge Street, at the far end of town.
This church was also sold after the congregation became too small to maintain it, but the Freemasons who bought it have kept it intact, and I recognise it immediately. The double-fronted white manse is set slightly behind it, sharing its lovely garden. And – oh no! – the manse is now a bed and breakfast establishment! If I had known this, staying here could have been the highlight of my trip.
As it happens, the owners, Michael and Mary, are working in their garden, making the most of the sunshine. I introduce myself, hoping that I might perhaps take a photograph of the outside of the old manse. But within a minute I’ve been invited inside for tea (I think Mary was getting tired of cutting the hedge and is looking for an excuse to take a little break…) and am shown all around the house. I’m so grateful. The house is full of original details – shutters, door handles, windows, fireplaces – and it’s easy to picture how it would have been in 1899.
The minister then, William’s senior, was Henry N Kevin. The Reverend Kevin was 48 at this point, an experienced clergyman who had already worked all around Ireland. His wife, Annie, was a little younger, at 40, and their children were ten-year-old Charlie and six-year-old Helen. I picture them as a lively, cultured family, Henry with his rakish middle initial, Annie, originally from England and a keen singer, the two children with their surprisingly modern names.
Frances, missing her own large and gregarious family, would have been welcomed thankfully into their midst. An experienced auntie to her siblings’ many children, she played with the little Kevins as the men discussed their congregations. She was a good pianist – perhaps she accompanied as Annie sang, or maybe they joined in a duet. Annie, not so steeped in the ways of Irish Methodism as the others, might have been slightly less reverent on occasion, making Frances laugh as she told anecdotes about her time as a minister’s wife. They would eat modestly but well, Frances enjoying the respite from her own cooking chores, but always, as a well brought up Fermanagh girl, offering Annie her help.
The year, full of new experiences, friendships and hopes, went quickly. June saw Frances on tenterhooks, waiting to see which church Conference would assign them to. William, thinking himself a veteran of this process by now, was more sanguine. And rightly so, this time, for the decision came that William was to go to Swanlinbar, scene of his first placement as a Junior Minister. Now he would be the Minister. They would live in their own manse, their first real home.
I follow what are now the back roads to Swanlinbar. It’s about forty-five miles of lush, Monaghan and Cavan lakeland. A couple of showers disrupt the sunshine. Along the way, I pass the forbidding façade of the workhouse at Bawnboy, wondering how much of a shadow this haunting place still cast in 1900.
But Swanlinbar is an attractive small town on a fine August day. I feel buoyed up, ready for the next stage of the journey, what must have seemed the real beginning of their working lives.
I join the Methodist Historical Society, and wonder why I didn’t do this earlier. Within a day we establish the location of the Methodist Church in Ballybay, the empty piece in the jigsaw for the town. I smile. It was in Church Street, directly opposite the derelict house I loved.