A rare photograph of James Elwood, Derrykillultagh with his fiddle. He could recall his mother sending him out with his father’s lunch on the day “The Ballymote Earthquake” went missing on 15th August, 1876.
We live on an island steeped in legend and history. Tales of heroes, valour and battles have been passed down from generation to generation. Before the television era, corners of rooms were occupied by friends and neighbours who had gathered together, positioned around the fireside. Here they exchanged idle banter, gossip and stories. In some instances there would be “nothing lost in the telling” of some of these tales and sometimes the truth would not be permitted to get in the way of a good story. The local balladeer would take some of these stories and skilfully put them to verse, encapsulating both the personalities and events, immortalising them for as long as people cared to recite them.
In May 1973 “The Orange Standard”, the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland publication, printed the words of a ballad in twelve verses titled “The Ballymote Earthquake” which was in fact the name given to a drum.
The place name “Ballymote” could refer to several places throughout Ireland – Sligo, Downpatrick or the Lisburn district. For the purposes of this ballad it is a townland of approximately 400 acres, situated a short distance from the village of Glenavy.
I had heard extracts of the ballad recited locally by some of the older folks in the district, but some of those recitations were not included in the published version in 1973.
The ballad relates the story of a drum that was in the possession of individuals aligned to the “Home Rule” and “Fenian” movements. It was allegedly stolen by others whose allegiances were attached to Orangeism.
I know of at least one homestead in the rural area of the district where the ballad was recited by a protestant on many occasions when he attended local ceilidhs with catholic neighbours. It was all taken as light-hearted banter and the response came in the form of a ballad about King Henry the Eighth and the protestants.
For many years I had been on the trail of the “Ballymote Earthquake” in an attempt to establish the facts surrounding the ballad.
James Elwood was a carpenter by trade, and a well-known fiddle player, residing in the area of Derrykillultagh, only a few miles from Ballymote. The local school children attending the nearby school at Killultagh were known to call with James on their way home from school. There the inquisitive children would watch on as James was piecing together the felloes, spokes and hub of the cartwheel. A friend of mine informed me that he had been one of those children who had visited James’s workshop in the late 1930 period. He recalled having a conversation with him during which the subject of the “earthquake” was discussed. James Elwood told my friend that the drum had been stolen when he himself was a young boy. He could recall the incident clearly as it had occurred on a day when his mother sent him with a lunch to take over to his father at “the low farm.” This was another farmstead worked by the Elwood family. Records show that the family did in fact have connections to two farms in the general locality, authenticating what had been related in conversation all those years ago. A headstone in Glenavy Parish Church marks his final place of rest and records the fact that he died in 1948 aged 81 years. A scrapbook containing death insertions from newspaper cuttings in the locality records his death as the 15th March 1948.
Another man, with a family history associated with the drumming tradition, recalled to me the story of the stolen drum as told to him by his father. He was, however, never been able to substantiate fully what he had been told – until I had discovered the story amongst the newspaper column’s published over 130 years ago.
Many hours were put into the manufacture of drums and to their owners they were not only valuable, but high maintenance commodities that required a lot of attention. Due to the high cost of initial outlay and upkeep groups of men would “club” together and purchase a drum. The formation of drumming clubs led to a competitive spirit amongst owners and drummers. Unfortunately drums and drumming activities throughout Irish history could sometimes end up in sectarian rioting, community friction and in some quarters regarded as a nuisance.
During the summer of 1861, six years before the birth of James Elwood, it was reported by the Belfast Newsletter that younger members of the community in the Lisburn area had spent their time during the longer evenings playing fifes and beating drums. On one occasion a crowd had followed on and gathered in the Market Square area of the town. The police came under a barrage of stones and bricks and had to fix bayonets and charge the crowd to effect their dispersal. In a later edition of the paper criticism was levied at those who had been participants in the trouble that had occurred. “Drumming and fifing is only a noisy method of wasting time that might be well employed in Mutual Improvement Societies, in reading instructive books, or in the parochial or district singing-class if music must be had....”
In August 1865 the same newspaper published a letter informing readers
that a man in Magheralin who had been making a drum had been “set on at
his house.” It was alleged that seven men with revolvers had arrived at
his home and took possession of the drum. They only managed to get “a
few perches” before the drum was seized from them by a “few protestant
Sectarian tensions were nothing new in the course of Irish history and 1876 would be no different from any other year. In the period leading up to the annual twelfth of July demonstrations it was reported in the Belfast Morning News that the Royal Irish Constabulary had despatched over 400 men to different towns in the north and it was claimed that over 200 men had been drafted from Drogheda to Lisburn. Locally, some Orange brethren travelled to Shane’s Castle Park in Randalstown for their annual celebrations and those local lodges with County Down affiliations attended the demonstration on property belonging to Thomas Blythe on the Moira Road side of Hillsborough village.
On Tuesday 15th August that year it was reported that the nationalists
of Belfast had arranged to celebrate the anniversary of that day known
as “Lady Day.” Irishmen were called upon to “display their undying faith
in Irish National Independence” and there was an invite to any
protestants and Orangemen who held the principles of the 1782 Volunteers
and the 1798 men to join in the celebrations. The meeting place for the
Belfast demonstration was at Torneroy Bridge at Hannahstown, commencing
at 2pm. A local M.P., Mr. Johnston, had called upon protestants not to
interfere in any respect whatsoever with the processions and to exhibit
a spirit of liberality and toleration. Unfortunately not everyone
listened to Mr. Johnston’s appeal and there were some stone throwing
incidents reported on the route of the march at the Shankill and Falls
Roads. The 27th Iniskillings and the 6th Dragoon Guards were deployed at
the flashpoints along the route. Later that evening it was reported that
35 persons had been arrested in the Belfast area for their involvement
in disorder. Trouble had also occurred in Lisburn. The authorities were
there in order to prevent a reoccurrence the following evening and
deployed a heavy presence in the town. The highlight of that evening in
Lisburn had been initiated by “some mischievous boys” who tempted the
police on duty and were chased down Market Lane during the hours of
darkness. The police, having been drafted in, had no local knowledge,
and were unaware of repairs in a roadway which had been left open to
make a sewer into a race there. The Belfast Evening News reported that
the police “tumbled headlong into the open sewer. Not one of them was
hurt but the race endedthere.”
Next: Tuesday 15th August 1876 and the stolen drum.
PICTURE CAPTION: A rare photograph of James Elwood, Derrykillultagh with his fiddle. He could recall his mother sending him out with his father’s lunch on the day “The Ballymote Earthquake” went missing on 15th August, 1876.
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