James Rea written account - childhood and schooldays

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Last month, I received an email from Susan Rea from Winnipeg, Manitoba. Having recently visited the Ulster Folk Museum, she wanted to share with me an account of life in rural County Armagh written by her uncle James Rea, who immigrated to Canada in 1926 at the age of 20.

Image: James Rea c.1925. Photo courtesy of Susan Rea.
James Rea c.1925. Photo courtesy of Susan Rea.

Reading through James’ account, I was struck, like Susan had been during her visit, by how similar it was to the setting represented at the Folk Museum, which invites visitors to step back in time and experience what life was like in Ulster over 100 years ago.

Image: Visitors at the Ulster Folk Museum.
Visitors at the Ulster Folk Museum.

Over the next few weeks, I will be sharing excerpts of James’ account in a series of blog posts. Sincere thanks go to Susan for granting me permission to share this.

Today we begin with James’ memories of his childhood and schooldays.

“I was born at a place called Kernan near Portadown on July 12 1906. My father was a labourer and worked most of his life in a stone quarry, which by the way was very hard work in those days. My mother passed away when I was four years old. I was the oldest of three boys. Some years later we moved to an area called Tamnafiglassan where I and my younger brother David lived with our grandmother, uncle and aunt, whilst my other brother John lived with his father and stepmother which was about one mile distant at a place called Balteagh.”

Image: A worker in a quarry in Recess, County Galway, 1895 (BELUM.Y13403).
A worker in a quarry in Recess, County Galway, 1895 (BELUM.Y13403).

“After a few years, our grandmother, aunt and uncle passed away, so we moved to Balteagh and attended the school close by which was called Balteagh School. It was located close to what we called the halfway house, a junction on the main Portadown-Lurgan road. These two towns were five miles apart and this intersection was exactly half way. Our schoolteacher’s name was Mrs. Reid. She was a good teacher, strict and efficient. Naturally as boys we used to get into trouble once in a while. There was an orchard next to the little schoolhouse with a stone wall separating the two properties. That wall was no obstacle when we decided to have a couple of apples or pears. There was a strict warning not be in that orchard. In school our teacher used a wooden ruler or a pointer cane. We had to hold out our hand and bear the consequences. A note was sent home to the parents, and if a warning did not help, the next time the strap did. Staying away from school occasionally was another habit. We called it skipping school, and the penalty on this offence was a little tougher. Two of the older boys were sent out to locate us, usually in a farmer’s hayfield. The ruler was used again by the teacher and it depended on the mood that she was in as to how it hurt. Occasionally I would withdraw the hand before the ruler came down, but when connection was made it really stung.”

Ballydown National School is one of two schools at the Folk Museum. It was built in 1835 and closed as a school in 1939.

“I was not blessed with a good or even fair education; grade six was my level of learning. A high school education wasn’t available to me, not that I shunned it, but my family could not afford it. Thank goodness I was good in three subjects, reading, writing, and arithmetic. I made the best of what I had.”

 “We made our own entertainment such as football, kitty, and cycling, etc. Football in the rural areas was an economical sport. A pocket handkerchief filled with grass and tied up by the four corners served as a football. Pig’s bladder made a much better football. I can well remember as a kid, when I heard pigs squealing, it was a sign of them being killed and I would run any distance to get the bladder, which I would clean dry and then blow up with a bicycle pump and tie to prevent the air from escaping. The material was a little light, but it still made a very good football.”

Image: A man removes bristles from a pig at a doorway, north County Antrim, 1906. Two boys look on to the left, with an inflated bladder football. Shackles for hanging the pig are visible to the left of the door (BELUM.Y10024).
A man removes bristles from a pig at a doorway, north County Antrim, 1906. Two boys look on to the left, with an inflated bladder football. Shackles for hanging the pig are visible to the left of the door (BELUM.Y10024).

“The game of kitty was another good past time in the evenings, especially amongst the boys. The game was played as follows. First the equipment, which consisted of a piece of dry wood approximately six to eight inches long and one and a half inch thick pointed at both ends. Hard wood was proffered because of the added weight. Also there was a light broom handle or a piece of stick about three feet long, and two bricks or stones which were laid flat on the firm gravel about 3 inches apart. A hole was made in the ground or road. The kitty was placed across the bricks or stones directly above this hole. The stick was used to lever the kitty up and away. The further the better, because overall distance in steps is what counted. The idea was when the kitty landed after the send-off, was to strike it on one of the four corners while it bounced in mid-air to give it greater distance. Two could play this game, each with their own equipment.”

I hope you enjoyed reading this week’s blog post. Next week, we’ll take a look at the various ways in which James Rea earned a living.