In 1685 when King James the Second was on the throne he was petitioned by two gentlemen of Ulster - Vere Fssex, Earl of Ardglass and Hugh, Earl of Mount Alexander. Their charge was to present a petition asking that a charter be granted for a horse race to be run annually in Ulster and that permission be given for a fair to he held during the race.
His Majesty graciously received the petitioners and showed an interest in the Province that he was to know much more about in a few years time. The petitioners were successful as His Majesty signed the Racecourse Charter bringing into being "The Down Corporation of Horse Breeders".
The first races were run on a course near Downpatrick but nearly 200 years ago the venue was changed to the Maze, and from that time the event was known as "The Maze Races". There had been only a few races run on the new course when what was known throughout Ulster as "The Maze Racecourse Murder" took place.
The July weather of 1813 was all sunshine, and more people than ever took the advice of the Lisburn rhymer and "Hied to that spot of gayest sport -"The Maze". It was a record year in entries. Two new sweepstakes had been added, and riders and steeds from the famed Kildare stables were to compete. Never was the town of Lisburn more crowded, the streets were thronged with people, while all the roads were streaming sightseers Mazeward. To quote a contemporary description
"There was indeed a prodigious turnout of the denizens of our Northern Athens, from the splendid barrock-and-four to the cotter's cart suitably bedecked for the occasion. Among the throng were half-crown lawyers, Men of Bails and Men of Hogsheads, and dandies tightly laced."
In the crowd was Barney McCann, an employee of Andrew Sloan, a Lisburn baker. Barney had come to the town from a Dromore bakery to better himself, and was now receiving the imposing salary of 6s 6d per week. In those days a baker was of some consequence, and with his slender figure and good looks Barney was very popular in town.
Everyone dressed up for the races, and our Lisburn baker stepped out in a fine homespun suit and a new rabbit skin cap. At the racecourse he met a stranger from Dublin, one Andrew McAdam, a horsedealer. Hoping to get a tip from the "horse's nose", so to speak our Lisburn baker bought the Dubliner a glass or two of whiskey, twopence a glass was the charge. Then Barney's hopes were justified.
Scarcely had the bookmakers commenced to shout the odds as the horses lined up, when the dealer taking a roll of notes from his pocket, laid on an outsider, a big chestnut carrying an unknown jockey. Barney followed his friends substantial bet with a modest shilling. A short bugle blast. They're off: Hooves thud dully on the turf as the bunch of horses flash by. Gradually a Sherwood-green shirt draws ahead. In a moment the big chestnut leads the field. They're at the turn, the critical moment of the race had come.
"A mass of heads move round the tower
within the distance every voice is still."
Round the hill the horses in a flash of colour vanish out of sight. With one momentum the spectators, horse and foot, rush up the slope. They reach the crest. A moment's silence - then a great roar "Joyce wins!" The, Kildare outsider had romped home. With a knowing slap on the back McAdam the dealer, led Barney away to collect his winnings. By nightfall Barney's few shillings had changed into a tidy wad, while the dealer's roll had grown fourfold.
Barney and the dealer entered into the spirit of the fair in more ways than one, in fact they visited every inn in and around Lisburn. The dealer had a very curious watch - made of gun-metal ornamented with the figures of four soldiers, this he displayed with pride at each inn and on every possible occasion. Rut Barney admired more the fat bank roll from which the dealer every now and then peeled a note to pay the score. When midnight chimed the two revellers were seated in an inn near The Warren Gaston at Blaris, they were then on their way to Hillsborough - so they said; at last they left, and the landlord, about to lock up, noted that they had left the main coach road and had taken a by path to the River Lagan. It was none of his business, he shot the bolts, lit a candle, and climbed to bed.
The day afterwards the Dublin horse dealer's body was found lying in the Lagan. He had been strangled and robbed. A warrant was issued for the arrest of Barney McCann, the Lisburn baker. For weeks the hue and cry continued, but McCann was nowhere to be found, in response to the description issued several men wearing rabbit skin caps were arrested but not one of them proved to be the wanted man. The last clue concerning the fugitive came from Newry, where an inn-keeper had served a man who carried a curious time-piece - a watch with four soldiers on it.
Ten years slipped by. By then the murder was a story that had been told. In Galway round about then there lived a man who didn't hold with horse-racing or with betting either. Fine fat cattle were his favourite animals. He was called Mister Hughes by all and sundry, for as well as being charitable, witty and jovial, he was the chief butcher and most popular man in the town. He was also a man of "weight" in more senses than one, for as well as weighing seventeen stones he owned 26 acres of good upland meadow, while his bankroll ran into four figures, and - he was the close friend of Mister O'Rourke, the chief magistrate. There was no doubt that Mister Hughes enjoyed his popularity, indeed he was at his best when standing at his own door ringed round with a crowd of his admirers. It was then that his great big honest laugh would ring far down the street and passers-by would smile and say "That's Mister Hughes". There happened to pass on one such occasion a dirty-looking tinsmith. "What are you dealin in, me lad?" shouted Hughes. "Pots and pans mister," answered the man. "Sure, its kemp a face like yours should be dealin in," retorted the butcher. His cronies roared with laughter.
The tinsmith looked at Hughes a while. Then, "There's more than me should be dealin kemp, Mister McCann," he said slowly, McCann, alias Hughes, blanched, but quickly recovering himself, laughed the matter off, and seizing the tinsmith by the arm jovially asked him in to have a "bite to eat". Inside the butcher fed the sharp-eyed Northerner right royally. Then, crushing twenty notes into his hand, he made him promise to leave the district at once and to never breathe anything to a living soul. The tinsmith left, but in the blanket of darkness he returned and informed the chief magistrate of his discovery.
To convince Mr. O'Rourke that his friend Hughes was really McCann the murderer of Andrew McAdam, was difficult, for days the magistrate thought the matter over. He was very worried, and called on his friend the butcher. On the wall he saw a strange watch hanging on a nail, on the dial of the watch were four soldiers. "Where did you get that" he asked "An old thing I found," answered Hughes in a hoarse voice. Further questioned Hughes said that he had come to Galway from Dungannon; he however, did not know Benburb or Castlecaulfield. Two soldiers arrested him an hour later.
At his trial at Downpatrick the rabbit skin cap was produced. It had been found among his belongings in Galway. What foolish whim had urged him to keep the fatal watch and cap? The evidence of his guilt was now complete, and he was sentenced to death.
At Downpatrick the sun shone brightly as the clock solemnly struck two. The jail gates opened and a pinioned man was led to the scaffold steps, slowly he mounted, on the platform he looked down on a sea of faces below him - a soldier adjusted the noose. The sun glinted off an officer's uplifted sword. The blade flashed downwards. The bolt was drawn and Barney McCann fell twenty feet to the ground, the rope had snapped. Soldiers carried him into the jail to recover, some said that justice had been done - the man had been hanged.
"My orders are to hang him by the neck until he is dead", replied the grim sheriff.
THE GRAHAM INDIAN MUTINY PAPERS. Edited by A.T. Harrison, Public Record Office of Northern Ireland. £7. 50
The Public Record Office of Northern Ireland has a vast collection of family papers, many of them dealing narrowly with local businesses and of limited interest.
But some of the collections have wider dimensions, like that of the Graham family, where the canvas is not Ireland at all, but India.
The Grahams were from Lisburn, a town that still proclaims its somewhat warlike links with India through the menacing statue in its Market Square of General John Nicholson, hero - and victim - of the siege of Delhi in 1857.
Nicholson is perhaps the best known Ulsterman to have served in India in the 19th century, but there were many others. At the outbreak of the mutiny, there were four Grahams serving in the East India Company's Army - the father, Dr. James Graham, and three sons - and another Graham, a nephew, was in the Commissariat. In addition, a daughter and daughter-in-law, plus children, were living in India.
The doctor was murdered in the mutiny, one son killed himself, and two children also died.
The papers in this volume include the son James's diary for 1857 and 1858, and various letters, both home to Lisburn and to each other in India.
For good value, there is an introduction of some length, by the editor, giving the historical background, plus a historiographical essay on the documents by Dr. T. G. Fraser, of the New University of Ulster. An appendix examines Ulster attitudes to the mutiny, quoting from the Northern newspapers of the time. There is a glossary, and a useful index.
Clearly this is a book that would be of immense interest to any student of the Indian mutiny. In his essay, Dr. Fraser says they are not unique, but they are important, and "help us nudge a little closer to an understanding of one of the great crises of the 19th century." Their chief merit, he says, is to give the "feel" of the embattled British community. They certainly do that, and do it well enough to make the volume a delight for the general reader. Nor is it all India, for the letters home give little sidelights on attitudes to Ireland, and they also display a certain Lisburn solidarity.
On July 2nd, 1857, William wrote home to report "Old Garrett all right - Nicholson also. In fact, no Lisburn casualties, but our poor father."
William was the liveliest of the Grahams, displaying a touch of the Flashman in some of his letters. On September 27th, 1857, he recounted the recapture of Delhi:
"Delhi gone at last, and I was there and had a little to-do in the business. I had the command of one hundred on Punjab mounted police, and though we in one attack with some of the Cashmere inf(antr)y were obliged to retreat, there being only five hundred of us in all, and (we) were surrounded by some 3,000 of the enemy, I did not get off before I lost twenty-two men, and twenty-nine horses, which was a good lot out of one hundred. We went to take the East (word illegible) and I was sent with cavalry through the (? Subzie) Mundie, which is nothing but walls, and gardens and brushwood, quite unadapted for cav(alr)y, there was not one hundred square y(ar)ds where we possibly could (? act on). But thank God I got all serene out of it, not without one or two nasty patches. One ball through my pugry, and the other a soent ball hit me on the heel. I was riding a 1,400 rupee horse which I was in such a state about, I had not time to think of myself."
But he goes on to say that:
"Lisburn has to mourn over the loss of the finest soldier John Company could boast of - this is Nicholson ... India has met with an awful loss in him, for such men as he was (are) not to be found. His loss is greater than 2,000 Europeans at the present moment."
It was the nephew James who, after a career in the Commissariat, from which he retired as a lieutenant-colonel in 1879, collected the papers. This volume is, according to the editor, only a small portion of the family papers. Anyone who reads it will be grateful that the Grahams were such dedicated letter-writers.
The oldest register of the parish of derriaghy
1696 - 1772
pp lix + 134 PRICE £3.00
PUBLISHED BY REV. CANON W.N.C. BARR
The field of ecclesiastical records is a rich treasure store for the archivist and historian; therein lies in microcosm the life of a whole community. In bygone centuries the church was the centre of the community and the vestry or those appointed by the vestry controlled many of the aspects of everyday life which are now the province of the local authority.
The Parish of Derriaghy can trace its history as far as the early 13th century; indeed it was probably one of the original parishes delineated at the Synod of Rathbreasail in IIII Ardrachi - the early name from which the name we now know is derived - was a parish in the Deanery of Dalboyn in the 1306 Papal Taxation. Some years ago Rev. W. N. C. Barr, the Rector of Derriaghy placed us in his debt for his excellent history of the parish, the fruits of many years of diligent research; his wide bibliography was indicative of the variety of sources available to the parish historian. That book set a high standard for others to follow.
Now Dean Barr - for in the meantime he has been appointed Dean of Christ Church Cathedral in Lisburn - has placed us even more in his debt; he has reproduced the oldest register of the parish, dating from 1696 until 1772. This volume, handsomely xeroxed and bound, I believe by the Dean's own hand deserves a wide appeal. Few parishes can boast written records as early as this; the fragile nature of these pages (as I know from personal experience) suggests the worthwhileness of the effort to put them into a form of permanent record.
In a long preamble we are given a detailed account of the physical condition of the volume; Dean Barr then puts the flesh on the bones with a short history of the parish together with some biographical notes of the incumbents and principal parishioners of the period. For those unfamiliar with vestry duties, we are given a brief synopsis of its responsibility towards providing for the poor and the maintenance of roads, to mention only two areas which would be somewhat strange to a modern Select Vestry.
But the real treasure is in the transcription, page by page, of the Register itself. These were astute businessmen when money was involved; in 1724 we are told that
"Thomas Simpson left to the poor of the pish of Dirriaghy the sume of Tenn pounds Sterl for the use of the poor afores,d to be putt out at Interest and the sd interest to be divided at Easter. On third to ye poor of the Established Church within the said pish. One third to the protestant Dissenters , and the other third to the Roman Catholics. This Mony was lent to John Coyn of the pish of Dirriaghy John Harris of the said pish and Thomas Christian of Lassue bound for the same Aprill 10th 1714. Interest pd last Easter."
A sound ecumenical gesture coupled with good business sense: The Register abounds with similar details; little incidents, which nowadays would probably not be thought worth a mention, are scattered throughout the pages. These men took their responsibilities seriously and noted everything down; how fortunate are the parishioners of Derriaghy and a wider public through the work of Dean Barr to have had such diligent forebears. For case of reference, the good Dean has even provided an index of every name mentioned during the period of the register an invaluable aid to the family historian.
It is to be hoped that this volume will reach a wide public; very modestly priced at £3 and available from Derriaghy Rectory, it deserves to be on every local historian's bookshelf.
The Bells of the lovely little parish church of Drumbo have been ringing out across the Lagan Valley for the best part of 200 years, now, within nine years of its bi-centenary, Fred Rankin has written a timely and informative history of the church and the parish it serves. His book, The Heritage of Drumbo, has been published privately by the church, of which he is the treasurer, to raise money for its restoration fund.
This is no narrow litany of church events since 1791, the year of its consecration. Mr. Rankin, an avid and thorough local historian, has rightly set the progress of the church against the background of the community of which it is part. The result is a social document which will be of interest far beyond the parish boundaries of Drumbo and of value to anyone studying the history and development of the Lagan Valley.
But the central theme of the book around which these peripheral details are wound, is the parish itself. Mr. Rankin traces the history of Drumbo (Druim Bó - the ridge of the ox) as a Christian settlement back almost 1,000 years when a monastery was built on the site of the present Presbyterian Church. Evidence of that may still be seen in the celebrated Drumbo Round Tower a stump of which remains in the graveyard. Later Drumbo and Drumbeg were a united parish but went their separate ways in the late 18th century, when the Drumbo parishioners decided to build their own place of worship, and a suitable site down in Ballylesson was chosen because by then most of the population was living in the valley rather than on the hill. So it is that today Drumbo parish church is still sometimes referred to as Ballylesson church. The explanation is that Ballylesson is one of 28 townlands in the ancient parish of Drumbo.
Mr. Rankin found the parish records to be a rich source of material. Drumbo, for example, must be one of the few churches to have bound over its sexton to keep off the drink. They did so in 1875, when their errant employee had already been warned several times about his "continued inebriated habits", they finally decided that he would be fined £2 and if he "conducted himself soberly" for a year, the money be returned by the churchwardens, "that appears to have been the end of the matter", writes Mr. Rankin. Firm steps were also taken to put paid to the excesses of the crowds which, in the early years of this century used to travel out to "The Goat" public house at nearby Milltown, where Sunday drinking was permitted because it was over five miles from the centre of Belfast. Money was raised locally and they bought out the licence and closed down the pub.
Mr. Rankin refers also to the days of horse racing at the Giant's Ring (six times round it was two miles exactly) and to prominent local families such as the Dungannons, the Downshires and the Batts of Purdysburn. So thorough has he been that he has even included the respective chimes of the eight bells of Drumbo, Ulster's answer to the great bells of Bow. The last two, incidentally, were added five years ago to make up an octave. Mr. Rankin records that when the first six were installed in 1789 they cost a total of £270.16s.8d. The most recent two cost over £4,000. This book is a picture of the past which will both inform and entertain.
BLACKSTAFF PRESS, BELFAST, 1981, pp127,PRICE £4.95
Amongst my souvenirs of boyhood is a recollection of rambles along the Lagan towpath and of watching the plodding horses and the slow drifting movement of a passing barge.
In those days one went on a "tram" to Stranmillis where the streets of the city suddenly ended and within half a minute (or so it seemed) one was in a different world. The clatter of the old trams gave way to a stillness that almost struck you in the face. You stepped beyond the last of the square-setts of the pavements which belonged to Belfast and you crossed a magic boundary into a kingdom of ambling water, branches of great trees weaving a web around the flat mirror of the stream, and reedy banks from which the water-hens and their chicks would launch out at the sound of your foot-fall. Before you lay an enchanted pathway that led into a green wilderness which in childhood's eyes were as full of mystery as any of childhood's fairy lands.
One could walk and walk, with interest and fascination at every turn of the dusty path. One could go as far as Drum Bridge and emerge unto what was then a country road, and so make one's way back to board another tram at upper Malone. Or one might even (great and famous expedition:) rove out as far as the place where the sheds and storehouses piled up on the banks of the Canal on the edge of Lisburn. In that event there was a price to be paid, for one must turn tail and go back the way one had come. Unless, of course, you had the price of the ticket. For then you could make your way down to the railway station in Lisburn and return by train. When that happened a small boy's cup of life was full to the brim.
He had the puff-puff, and the barges lined up at Molly Ward's, and the kingfishers to be espied at the third lock - never to mention the lemonade bought at the wee shop near New Forge, just in time to save him from a lingering death. All in all a boy of twelve had enough and more in the way of compressed happiness to send him to sleep in sheer contentment when it came at last to the end of a June day:
It was mainly the barges of course - and the horses on the long rein of "the haulers" - that made the day what it was. When the barges were moving you could stand and watch in breathless admiration the sea-dog who stood at the stern, leaning on the tiller to adjust the swing of the barge to the curve of the bank. The old felt hat was well down over his eyes and the pipe with the tin-top clenched in his bristly jaws. The man was a professional. His skill, inherited from generations before him, had developed to the stage of an easy nonchalance that set him up above ordinary mortals and made him the stuff of dreams for an observant child. What would one not have given to be like him: To have your own barge? or (even better) to be in command of a barge which had actually belonged to your father or grandfather? To be standing there, big-handed, maybe even wearing his hat? Glory be:
You had a bonus if you were lucky enough to come on a barge when it was tied up at one of the old jetties. Or set plump in the middle of a lock in the very process of being gurgled and splashed in the deluge that erupted through the hole In the great wooden gate. For then you could look down on it and catch a glimpse of what lay beneath the open hatch - the scrubbed woodwork, black polished iron stove, and shining brass kettle with steam at the spout. I tell you, you had something to think about when you eventually got home that night:
Alas, all these things are gone: Gone almost without a trace and one does not need to be a romantic to feel the pangs of regret on a sad certainty that those were better days for old Belfast than any that this present generation is likely to ever see again.
But I have good news for you: If you want to revive the memory of the old canal; to discover information about the people who worked on it; and to have a collection of photographs snatched from a fast approaching oblivion; you can go out and buy for yourself a copy of a little book entitled "Once upon the Lagan" by May Blair.
It started off several years ago as a school project in a little school at Saint James' Hillsborough, which once upon a time could have been described as being almost on the very banks of the Canal - until a long stretch of it was filled in to make the Sprucefield-Moira stretch of the M1. Mrs. Blair taught in the school for a while and she had the idea of setting the children to find out "what the old people say". Then, by and by, she put it into permanent form. What was originally done for the benefit of local children is now made available to the public at large. And everyone of us is in her debt. On the assumption that I am not the only one with a vested interest in memories of the County Down of yesterday, I do not hesitate to predict that, like me, others will get great fun out of the couple of hours of sweet nostalgia which lie within the covers of May Blair's delightful excursion into the past.