It’s the day after the autumn equinox, mild, pretty and a little bit melancholy. I’ve left the main routes from Belfast as soon as possible and approach Swanlinbar from a new angle, all poignant abandoned cottages and narrow grassy roads. The Creamery Road brings me into the heart of the town. I turn right and there, almost immediately, is the abandoned Methodist chapel where William started working in the summer of 1900.
I drive up and down the town to see what’s happening. It doesn’t take long, and the answer is very little. Swanlinbar is attractive and nicely situated on the river, but it’s the quietest of all the towns I’ve visited so far. It’s midday on a September Saturday, and there’s no-one about.
I know from my research that this is a fairly recent slowing into slumber. In the early eighteenth century, there was an iron foundry here – the Irish place name is An Muileann Iarainn, The Iron Mill, and the name Swanlinbar was a fabrication, a jigsaw of syllables from the names of the foundry’s owners. Later, there was a hotel in town for visitors to the six mineral spas which flowed nearby. John Wesley himself visited in 1767, 1775 and 1778 (and found the people of all denominations “artless, earnest and loving”). And even in recent years, the town was thriving, with a lively eleven-pub high street. Now there’s only one.
I don’t have high hopes for what I’ll find here, although it’s fantastic to be able to see the church, still standing plain and proud near the river. But I want to walk around a little, so I park at the end of the Creamery Road and go across to the Post Office, which adjoins the church.
And everything changes. Behind the counter I find Gregory. He is now the owner of the old Methodist church. He’s a keen and most knowledgeable local historian. He loves Swanlinbar and is involved in all sorts of plans for its regeneration. He’s also very kind and friendly, and within minutes I’m being shown up and down the street and regaled with tales of old Swanlinbar and prominent Methodists from days gone by.
He recalls Christmas Days in his own childhood, going to Mass with his siblings, full of excitement to see what Santy would have brought them, and noticing the Methodist service already in full swing. They were just that little bit holier than the Catholics…..
He asks if I’d like to see inside the old church.
There’s nothing I’d like more.
Most of it is empty space. Bare boards, no pews or furniture. Peeling duck-egg blue wooden walls. A high ceiling, exposing the roof. Gothic windows, offering a view only of the sky. There’s no smell of damp. It’s been well preserved.
There’s a tiny minister’s room, board-panelled, near the main door. Some old coat-hooks on the wall. And an amazing treasure – an old harmonium tucked into the corner.
I’m not sure about the chronology of instrument use in Methodist services. But this is an old instrument, one which Frances could have played. Its keys are swollen stuck, but the pedals move. It’s still breathing.
I stand a while, taking in the atmosphere, looking around and imagining the little sanctuary freshly painted and bustling, full of people in their dark Cavan Sunday best. My great-grandmother at the organ, turning the pages of her hymnbook for the next stirring setting of a Charles Wesley text. My great-grandfather addressing the first congregation that was really just his, inspiring them, making a joke about being a Monaghan man himself, noticing the absentees, encouraging the flock.
Gregory shows me the church basement. You can see how sturdy the construction is, standing beneath the floorboards I’ve just been walking on. Strangely, there’s a fireplace built into the wall down here. Did somebody live here at some point? There are mysteries still to be unravelled.
I’ve been thrilled by this visceral glimpse into Frances and William’s life in Swanlinbar, and I’m ready to drive away happy. But Gregory wonders if I’ve called at the manse yet. No – I had assumed that the manse lay between the church and the river, and that it’s long demolished.
It’s not. It’s a few houses up the Creamery Road from where I parked my car. Gregory suggests that I call at the door.
I walk out the road, knowing it’s a long shot. But there working in the garden are Noel and his son Conor. I explain my connection with the house and I’m welcomed in. Noel’s wife Kathleen arrives back from doing messages in the town and we begin a tour of the manse.
It’s a gorgeous house, detached and set in a substantial garden, with stabling for a horse. The period features are intact – the tiles in the square hallway, with the staircase rising up around it, the shutters throughout the ground floor, the window frames with some little touches of stained glass. It’s the most elegant house Frances has lived in so far, and as her first manse, it always occupied a special place in her heart. Nora writes about her mother’s vivid descriptions of her new home and of placing her wedding presents around it.
Kathleen and Noel are the most generous and lovely hosts possible. In no time, I’m sitting having my lunch at a big old table in my great-grandmother’s kitchen. It’s bread and cheese and tea. The cheese is fancier than any Frances would have seen, but it’s familiar ground. We talk about the Swanlinbar of today, education and prospects for young people, agriculture, health and Irish political issues. This manse kitchen has listened to such conversations continually over the last 117 years. I feel immensely privileged to be involved in this one, and there’s a very grateful tear in my eye.
Frances and William lived here in County Cavan for three years. It was a quiet posting in many ways. Later, when I’m able to see the original documents in the library at Edgehill, I find that William officiated at only one wedding during these years, perhaps his first. It was a winter celebration, when Maggie Jane Moffitt married William Magee on the fifth of December 1900.
Maggie, a seamstress, thirty-one years old, had been living with her older brother Robert, his wife Doria and their seven children on the family farm in the tiny townland of Gortnaleg, just south of Blacklion. After her marriage, she moved in with William, his elderly mother and father and sister Hannah, on their farm in Druminiskill, just across into County Fermanagh. The Magees were a Church of Ireland family, and Maggie left the Methodist Church of her youth to join her husband’s denomination.
The census records of 1911 show Maggie and William living in Druminiskill with their eight-year-old son Richard. Hannah is still with them, occupying the position of unmarried auntie that Maggie had previously held in her own brother’s family. The Magee family remain in their Gortnaleg farm. Doria’s name is now transcribed as Deliah, or perhaps Deriah. The three eldest children have left home, and four more young ones have joined the family. The youngest is baby Wesley Jason, an astonishing mix of names, Methodist and 1970s, to my eye. Interestingly, two of the middle children, including Maggie Jane, named after her aunt, are recorded as being able to speak Irish as well as English.
All of that’s a bit of a diversion, but it’s also a little snapshot of a family history very typical of its time and place. I also wonder about the personal connections between the characters I see emerging from the church’s careful records. Frances and Maggie were the same age and had much in common. Might they have been friends? Might they have kept in touch during the years ahead, as Frances, a great letter-writer, moved from town to town and Maggie brought up her one precious son in the Lakeland countryside? Would they have heard of the important events to come in each other’s lives and sent sincere notes in their similar, careful late-nineteenth-century handwriting?
Frances was six months pregnant with her first child at the time of Maggie and William’s wedding. The baby was due in March. With so many older and younger siblings, nephews and nieces, I would imagine that Frances had attended births before and looked forward with excitement and a realistic idea of what lay ahead for her own first confinement.
Her sister Rebecca, a reassuring and competent presence, came to stay in the manse. Everything was made ready for the expected time. But a complication arose. William received news that Swanlinbar was to receive a visit from the Reverend F E Harte, minister of Carlisle Memorial Church in Belfast, as part of the Foreign Mission Deputation. Fred Harte was a friend of William’s – they had been ordained together. Carlisle Memorial was William’s own home church. Offering hospitality at the manse was the right thing to do.
And despite everybody’s best hopes, the inevitable happened. Frances and Rebecca entertained their visitor warmly, and everyone retired to bed. Almost immediately, Frances went into labour.
Fred Harte tells the tale in his own book, The Road I Have Travelled. “I was three long weeks in the country speaking on week-nights and preaching on Sundays. The tour began at Enniskillen, from which I had a two hours trip down Lough Erne to Knockninny, thence to Swanlinbar, where a little boy was born to the Rev. and Mrs. William Bryans while I was in the manse. There was great commotion during the night, but I slept peacefully through it all. The little boy was called after me.”
Mr Harte was a notoriously heavy sleeper. Later in his book he manages to slumber through the night of the Donaghadee gun-running. Nevertheless, to modern sensibilities, having to stifle your labour cries to avoid disturbing your husband’s colleague in the guest bedroom sounds like a duty too far. Frances was certainly made of sterner stuff, though, and, ironically or as a genuine compliment, the little boy was indeed named Frederick Edward.
Fred was joined the next summer by his brother Donald. The manse and its safe green garden were the perfect place for the little boys to play, and by the spring of 1903, Frances was secretly expecting her third child.
But spring was becoming a time of anxiety. She knew that a move was inevitable, and as yet there was no indication of William’s next posting. With every passing week she looked more fondly round her warm, square, nicely appointed house and feared that its comforts would be hard to equal. Her fears were to prove entirely justified.