The Digger recalls the humble beginnings of a world renowned author
"NO bonnet , long dress, coat, boots, no stockings, fairly clean legs and nice hair -flowing freely..."
These were the hand written instructions pencilled into a script for a play titled 'Love is Enough' written in 1977 by Alastair J. Smyth, the then head of Antrim Grammar School's English Department.
A copy of the script, complete with cast notes, entrance ticket and other associated memorabilia is still in the possession of a former pupil at that school, Frances Wilson, who hailed from the Crumlin area of County Antrim. The instructions on the script would guide Frances as she performed one of the leading roles in the play, and assist in recreating the scene which was set in July 1841. The play was of course a dramatisation of Dr. Alexander Irvine's book 'My Lady of the Chimney Corner'. The book was described as "a story of love and poverty in Irish peasant life."
As a child I first set eyes on an early edition of this little treasure amongst my mother's collection of her old school books. The story had been penned by Dr. Irvine using the dialect from that era and as a child proved difficult for me to master. As I grew to love the book, I enhanced my collection of Irvine's books through browsing through the once numerous second hand book shops in the district. Previous owners had obviously treasured their copies. Inside the covers of these books, I uncovered not only the previous owners name, but pasted in local newspaper cuttings from many years ago that centered around the author. I was fortunate to pick up several signed copies of Dr. Irvine's books.
Frances Wilson also has a copy of her script signed by a daughter of the author, Mrs Anna Irvine Buck who at that time resided in San Francisco. She had been visiting the province for a second time, prior to the play being staged in 1977 and had taken time out to meet Alastair Smyth and the cast at the school. She had her photograph taken with them at that time. Frances was to play the part of Anna Buck's grandmother - Anna Irvine (nee Gilmore) born about 1824. She, like Frances, had also hailed from the Crumlin area.
Dr. Irvine, in the opening chapter of his book 'My Lady of the Chimney Corner' informs us that his mother, Anna Gilmore, "lived on a small farm near Crumlin, County Antrim." They were described as being neither "well-to-do" nor poor, but almost certainly considered to be in a much better situation than the family of Jamie Irvine. He was a shoemaker's apprentice and illiterate, never having spent a day at school.
They were to meet at the village well, as Anna was collecting water for Mary McKinstry, an elderly neighbour. Dr. Irvine informs us that "old Mary did not lack for water-carriers for months after that." The romance blossomed, but was wrought with a difficulty. Jamie was from a Protestant background, and Anna was described as an "ardent Catholic." Mixed marriage in those times was frowned upon and the local priest refused to perform the marriage ceremony. They resorted to the vicar in the local parish church. A short time after the wedding the couple went to a cross roads in the district and decided to drop a stick there to determine the area where they would set up their first home. The stick fell and pointed to Antrim, less than ten miles away from where they stood.
Their first child was only two years of age when the famine struck. Hardship and hunger was to follow. A second child survived only three months. Dr. Irvine informs us that over the following fifteen months his parents buried three other children and saved three. He himself was the ninth child. Shortly after his birth the family moved from Scott's Entry to Pogue's Entry in Antrim, where visitors to the town can still visit and see the humble beginnings of this world renowned author. Alexander Irvine had been born on January 16, 1863 with a "caul." That was a symbol of luck, and his mother kept it in a purse.
She named him Alexander, a Greek name meaning "helper of men." He could not have been more appropriately named.
A recent discovery within the parish records of St. Aidan's Parish Church, Glenavy leads us to believe that Dr. Irvine's sister, Margaret was baptised there. The entry reads "Margaret - daughter of James Irvine and his wife Anna baptised 21st April 1850."
His compelling life story unfolds to us in several of his books including 'From the Bottom Up' and 'A Fighting Parson: The Autobiography of Alexander Irvine. At the age of about nine he was delivering newspapers. That was the beginning of a varied career, that would take him to various parts of the world. Other local employment included "scare crowing' for James Chaine, M.P., stable boy, gooseberry picking and delivering goods in Belfast. He relocated to Scotland where he was employed as a miner for one shilling a day. He would then enlist with the Marine Corps as he realised there would be an opportunity to receive some formal education. Such was his determination to succeed, he spent up to sixteen hours a day reading, eventually averaging a novel a day.
In 1888 Alexander Irvine emigrated to the United States, where he arrived with only one dollar in his pocket. He had various forms of employment including an elevator attendant, porter, milk cart driver and a salesman. In 1890 he was working as a missionary amongst those living in need and deprivation in the Bowery, New York. Alexander Irvine was no stranger to this way of life. He joined the Socialist party and in 1903 he graduated in theology from Yale University.
In the early 1900s he returned to Antrim to visit Pogue's Entry, the family home where family life had been changed forever due to the passing of his mother on July 12,
1889. He took his father to Scotland to visit brothers and sisters who had settled there. At the conclusion of his book 'My Lady of the Chimney Corner' he describes leaving his father for the last time at a railway station. "He clutched me tightly and clung to me with the clutch of a drowning man."
It is obvious to the reader that both he and his father had been together for the last time. Alexander Irvine visited France, Italy and England before returning to America. Jamie Irvine died on February 17, 1904, and was laid to rest with his beloved wife Anna in Antrim Parish Churchyard.
The Digger can be contacted via The Ulster Star office or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org