My name is Jenna Fox and I am currently undertaking a placement with National Museums NI at the Ulster Folk Museum in Cultra as part of my Master’s degree in Cultural Heritage and Museum Studies at the University of Ulster.
My placement involves transcribing a collection of handwritten notebooks which were compiled by individuals in the late 1950s and 1960s. These notebooks were essential for the development of the Folk Museum as they record by county and locality anecdotes and information on truly diverse topics. The notebooks that I will be discussing were written by a teacher from Larne in the 1950s. The author covers a wide range of topics from her youth, including local country cures for ailments, superstitions and folklore, the role of the town blacksmith, as well as her favourite confectionery that she enjoyed as a child.
Other stories in this series have discussed how Larne was a hardworking labouring town. However, the author reveals that it wasn’t ‘all work and no play’.
Gathering and Gossiping
When we consider who enjoys a spot of gossiping nowadays, we may almost instantly picture a group of women. That was not the case in Larne in the early 20th century. The author writes how clusters of young men and boys from the surrounding farms came to the crossroads, located in the current Craigy Hill district, to ‘congregate for a gossip’. On brighter summer evenings, young local men came to a ‘wide grassy verge’ near Millbrooke to ‘squat, gossip and watch the passers-by’ and play the occasional ball game to unwind.
Older men gathered at the crossroads which intersected the local Masonic and Orange Halls, as well as a pub. For clear reasons, this ‘is/was a favourite rendezvous for the neighbouring men’.
The Written Word
The country folk who wished to spend their evening reading may have ventured up to Carneal House where they could bring books to swap. The author writes how the house was built by the Craig brothers who had ‘intelligence above the average’ with an ‘interest in books that is still remembered’. One of the Craig brothers organised the library at the house for local ‘neighbouring farm-folk’ to use, who could come, swap a book, receive some ‘hospitality’ and indulge in ‘good-crack’. Occasionally, the family at Carneal House organised a ‘library soiree’ in the barn where girls danced and fiddlers played.
Some Larne townsfolk turned to writing to bring in the evenings. The author writes about Mr. Harry Browne who was better known as the famous ‘John o’ the North’, a native Larne poet. His poems focused on ‘local places, people and events’, often writing about community characters including ‘Rusty Beard’, a local beggar man. The author recalls how the ‘heart would warm’ when reading his poetry in which he applied the ‘local dialect and turn of phrase’ which would ‘echo in the Co. Antrim reader’s mind’.
Those who were musically inclined may have spent their free time practising an instrument. The author remembers how it was ‘the ambition of most people to play the piano’ when she was a child, but that many young men instead became ‘proficient in the fiddle’ which was much more commonly found around the district. The melodeon too, was ‘commonly played’, and one may have seen the occasional guitar as well. The tin whistle was especially popular, and the town ‘always had a good number of young men and boys who enjoyed playing in flute bands’.
The fiddle was commonly played due to its popularity at local dances. The author recalls some well-known local musicians who specialised in the fiddle. One such player was Alex Mearon, who was ‘once in great demand as a fiddler’, but later gave lessons on the violin. ‘H. Carmichael’ was also a popular musician who was especially in demand with local ‘Irish folk-dancers’.
Children who wished to join in with the playing may have spent time at home forming bands with their siblings. The author writes how as a child she gathered in an empty barn and invented instruments out of anything she happened to have to hand. This included ‘tin-whistles, corn-crates, trumps, comb and tissue paper, toy bugles, melodeons, and for percussion, can-lids and buckets inverted’.
Like today, children were taught a few simple tunes to keep them occupied. The author recalls the song “There was a Wee Wee Wife-a-Kay”, which is a traditional Irish song that the author’s mother sang to them as children. Another was “Up the airy mountain and down the rusty glen”, a song which warned children from straying into the forest which was home to ‘little men’. The author considers this to be a poem devised to make children ‘content to stay close to home with their parents in fear of the ‘little men’.
The author writes about how as a child, the streets surrounding her home were free of cars and so children spent a great deal of time outside playing. A classic game was ‘tig’ or ‘it’, a favourite with children today too. Boys in the ‘autumn and finer winter evenings’ may have played a similar game with a shuttered lantern called ‘Jack, Jack, show your light’, which was a form of hide and seek. Boys played marbles ‘quite a lot in the quiet roads in those days’. The author recalls how boys carried them around in ‘the strong drawstring bags made by mothers’, comparing the ‘plumbers, pops and glassies’. Chestnuts were collected too and a game was played with one ‘well-seasoned’ chestnut on a string, ‘with which they dared all-comers’.
While boys had their marbles on the finer spring and summer evenings, girls enjoyed endless games of skipping. ‘In the quiet streets of pre-motor days, girls could spread across the street with a long rope, and all take their turn at skipping’. The author recalls how the skipping games she played as a young girl had been ‘handed down for generations’ and included rhymes such as ‘A Penny on the Water’ and ‘Cayenne Pepper’. Girls later advanced to ‘French Skipping’ in which two ropes were turned in opposite directions. Girls took turns jumping in and out of the turning ropes. The author writes how ‘it used to be a joy, before motors made our roads unsafe, to see a child skipping along happily maybe on an errand, or trundling a hoop along the street, or maybe walking about on a pair of low stilts’.
Girls ‘played a lot with dolls’, but they were vastly different from the ‘deluxe life-like ladies one sees today’, as it was only the rich who could have afforded such prices. Instead, girls in Larne played with ‘rag-dolls, wooden Dutch dolls and china-dolls, all at home in an improvised shoe-box house. With the dolls, girls played at ‘havin’ a wee-house’, enjoying a game of ‘make-believe and dressing-up’ in any corner they could find.
Young boys and girls alike enjoyed playing with ‘bull-roarers, butterfly cages and tops’ which could all be purchased from the local shop. Whilst there, the lucky few with a spot of pocket change could pick up some ‘black balls, clover-balls, mints, liquorice, butterscotch, ever-lasting stripes or cinnamon sticks’ to enjoy on the walk home. Those without change who found themselves ‘hungry on their country walk’ ate hawthorn buds, blackberries, mushrooms, wild strawberries and crab apples. While walking, the children could ‘find out what time it was’ by blowing the ‘fluff’ off a dandelion-dock.