Sunday, 23 April 2017

Following Frances

South Donegal was basking in spring sunshine earlier this week. I was spending a few days staying on St John's Point, researching a new photography/writing/family history project, trying to see if it's feasible and setting some parameters for how it might work. 

I suspect that bad weather would have put me off the whole thing, but the lovely light and warmth (well, comparative warmth - I took off my puffa jacket but kept my Aran jumper on), and the way that everything seemed to come together as I travelled, convinced me that this is going to be a good thing to do.

So I got back home all fired up and sorted out the domain name for the website where I plan to keep my work. I'll share the start of it with you here too.

My project is called Following Frances.

Frances McCrea was my great-grandmother, born in north Fermanagh in 1869. In many ways she was an ordinary woman of her time and place, but what makes her life particularly interesting is the extent to which she moved around the north of Ireland, because of her husband's work as a Methodist minister. She lived in eighteen different towns during her seventy-seven years, from Ardara in the west to Glastry in the east, north to Magherafelt and south to Ballybay.

I know quite a lot about much of this time because of the memoir written by her eldest daughter, my granny, Nora. As Nora tells the story of her own life, Frances is always there too, a figure taken for granted at first and later, as Nora becomes older, acquiring a clearer character of her own.

There's also a document written by one of Frances's own brothers, Alexander McCrea, which includes a description of their childhood in Gortnagullion, County Fermanagh. They lived, with their parents and fourteen (yes!) siblings, in a house which my cousin Janet and I located a couple of years ago, derelict but still standing.

What I plan to do is to follow the route of Frances's life. I will visit, in the correct order, each of the places in which she lived. I'll try to find her house. If there's a church to which she was connected, I'll visit that too. I'll take photographs of the place, trying to explore it through her eyes. I'll collect a few small items that come across my path and have relevance to her story. I'll make sound recordings. I'll also try to travel the route she would have taken to her next home.

This is a big project. The geographical area to be covered is manageable, but there will be a lot of to-ing and fro-ing, and I'll be taking small, country roads where I can. That will be slow, but more interesting than just speeding down the M1. It'll take months to complete the whole journey.

It's also quite vague at this point. I don't know where all the houses are. I don't know if it will be possible to visit the ones which I can locate. I don't know if I'll find interesting things to collect. I'd like to write, but I'm not sure yet exactly what - perhaps poetry, perhaps tiny stories, about the places and memories I come across. Perhaps I can create videos or AVs reflecting what I find. I'll work it out as I travel.

But there's plenty of beautiful potential here.

I chose to visit south Donegal for my exploratory trip because Frances lived in both Ardara and Dunkineely, and Nora wrote a considerable amount about this time. I started in Dunkineely, visiting the old Methodist manse, which is now a community centre. The guys working there kindly let me wander the house and garden, taking in all that has changed, but also finding some things that were there a hundred years ago.

Nora writes about the lords of the manor who lived next door. The father of this family was Hamilton Frederick Stuart Goold-Verschoyle, JP. Frances's children played with his daughters Sheila (read more about her fascinating life here, and I've just ordered Dermot Bolger's novel) and Eileen. The family is long gone, but the house was saved from dereliction by the current owner. I met him stepping across the road to buy his paper and we had a long chat about times gone by and the Dunkineely of today.

I went on to Ardara and out along Loughros Point, which plays a big role in Nora's memories of that time. I walked beaches which Frances knew, enjoyed views with which she must have been familiar, watched the lambs jumping about in the fields just as they did then. Homemade bread and a cup of tea in Charlie's West End Cafe were all I needed to keep me going after my massive breakfast fry-up.

I drove back over the hill to Dunkineely, following the route Frances's family took - me in my elderly Micra (and it strikes me how much cooler the project would be if I owned some unique vintage vehicle in which to follow the route), the family in two borrowed carriages, with the luggage behind in a convoy of carts. A light rain began to fall. I imagined how it must have felt, keeping the five children in order, wondering what the next home would hold, hoping everything in the carts had been packed carefully enough, missing friends already, looking ahead with a mixture of optimism and stoicism.

It was an exhilarating couple of days. A blend of detective work, open-minded wandering, meeting interesting people, landscape and detail photography, fresh air, western sunshine and drizzle, it made me think, Yeah. Do this.

You can follow my project, if you like, at - there's only a homepage there so far, and it won't look right on your phone yet, but I'll build it up gradually. 

And so it begins.

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