It’s a soft May evening. The Derrybrick Road is a gentle garden of bright greens and muted wildflower shades. I park outside the cottage where Mary Brandon once lived and get out of the car to stretch my legs.
The scents of hawthorn and maybe lilac hit me strong and sweet, and there’s a noisy counterpoint of bird conversation overhead. Gortnagullion is an Eden tonight.
I go straight to the McCrea house. This is my third visit in as many years, and each time there’s a little less left of it.
There’s a modest porch draped in ivy. Four rooms, side by side, all with windows looking back east. A corridor, probably a later renovation, running along the front. Substantial chimneys and fireplaces. Cattle have been camping in every room. There’s been a fire on the floor at the far left. The wallpaper scraps I loved the first time are almost all gone. Every window frame is empty.
But, astonishingly, this is the house where, in 1869, Frances, my great-grandmother, was born. Her mother, Eliza, was also born there in 1836, returning to her childhood home as a married woman and mother of, eventually, seventeen. Frances was the twelfth. There’s been a pilgrimage already in the finding of this place, too involved to explain, but full of online thrills in the execution. I’m fairly certain I’m right. It’s a newer version of Frances’s house, but it’s the right footprint and the right foundations, in the right spot on the map. Being here still sends shivers down my spine.
I walk slowly through the small house. I end up standing quietly in the room on the right, focusing hard, trying to imagine what it used to be like, trying to travel backwards in the bird-broken stillness to another evening when the house was full of family busyness. Feeling foolish, I call out “Frances?”.
In a moment, there’s a flurry and a tiny bird rockets in through the paneless window, scattering ivy and dust across a beam of sunlight. Without alighting, it turns and shoots back out, a feathery wind-up toy of an unexpected gift.
Later, I see that it has built its nest high up under the worn beams of the roof. This is still a home.
Eliza and Edward’s children were Anne, John, Elizabeth, Jane, George, Rebecca, Frances (the only one to die very young), Thomas, Edward, Robert, William, my Frances, Joseph, Christopher, Samuel, Charles and Alexander. These four rooms, modest and, to my eyes, poor, seem an unlikely cradle for a tribe who made their various ways in life, clever, creative and poised. From here they scattered themselves on a broad map of Ireland and the New World. They ran businesses, played the piano, wrote books, travelled widely, rose to the forefront of their professions, brought up 79 children of their own.
Alex, the baby, but eventually the Reverend Doctor Alexander, refers in one of his books to “miracle of Gortnagullion”. But he never explains quite what that miracle was.
The secret lay somewhere on this road. I wonder this evening if it was linked to Gortnagullion National School, there on the Griffith’s Valuation map of 1862, crouched like a snail by the wood a little further south.
Charlie Lunny over the road tells me that you can still see a few stones from the school walls, so I set off to find them. Every hole in the hedge is a distraction of frothing cow parsley and clover, with glimpses behind to dark tree trunks, twisting to let the evening light down to the grassy carpets. There’s nothing modern here.
Towards the junction with the Formil Road, I see it. There’s a low, dark line at the base of the trees a few yards in to my right. I wade through the ferns, hoping and hoping that it won’t just be concrete.
It isn’t. It’s a row of old stones, covered in moss. This is the school house. A rough floor plan remains, a foot or so high. I step into the classroom where, perhaps, a hundred and forty years ago, a young teacher inspired my great-grandmother to become a woman of substance and skill.
I’m staying this weekend in the closest thing I could find to the McCrea house – a very beautifully restored four-room nineteenth century farmhouse on the Movarran Road. In Frances’s time, Arthur Armstrong lived here. Now, it’s the most peaceful place I’ve ever been. The deep windows face west across a field of pink columbine and cattle. I can’t hear a single human sound. One of the few personal facts I know about Frances is that she was always, in her daughter Nora’s words, a great lover of flowers. Movarran in May would make anyone love flowers. Here are clover, yellow iris, vetch, the remains of wild garlic, buttercup, cranesbill, woundwort, toadflax, speedwell and hawthorn, all visible from my half-door. There’s even a wildflower roof.
In the morning, I had imagined breakfasting under the chestnut tree in the garden. But now it’s raining steadily and there’s a curtain of mist cutting off my view of Donegal. So I eat my toast on a cushion on the flagstones and begin to write about what I’ve found. I’m improvising. Some of it is fact, the account of my own journey. More challenging is the fiction. I want to flesh it all out with little vignettes, speculative but perhaps more true in their way than what seems to be objective truth.
I work in fits and starts as the grey day passes, and finally the clouds lift a little. I close my computer and drive across the border at the river a few yards away and on to Lough Derg. I’m the only pilgrim there. I go on, zigzagging back and forth, circling Pettigo and Kesh, establishing the shape of the roads in my head. I take photographs of sheep and get a lot of midge bites. I eat my dinner in the chip shop in Kesh and have a bit of a chat with the owner.
Back in my hideaway, I’m sketching out ideas. Eliza on the night before Frances’s birth. The school teacher. Frances on a bicycle. I try out different voices, but at this point they all sound a bit too much like me. I need to get to know them better.
On Sunday I make a particular pilgrimage. Frances’s family attended the Methodist church in Pettigo, five miles away, so I do too. I consider walking, and it’s not impossible that they did, but it seems politic to drive there in the Micra, on the basis that they may have travelled in a horse and trap, or perhaps two to carry the whole family.
Once more, I’m struck by the beauty of this road. It’s a little rollercoaster, a slighter shadow of the serious hills on the parallel Meenacloy Road. That one would have been fun on Frances’s bicycle. Today my route is hemmed by lush ditches and old trees, with short vistas into fields that haven’t changed much since Griffith’s Valuation. That makes it all the more exciting when I emerge onto the Pettigo road and start to catch shining glimpses of Lower Lough Erne. This journey would have been a weekly treat.
Pettigo Methodist Church is disappointingly un-dusty and un-dilapidated. It’s friendly, bright and freshly painted. And yet that’s probably exactly what it was in Frances’s time too. We sing a hymn by Isaac Watts. We hear a talk about the sun – it’s rare enough in the west of Ireland to see it for as many days as we have just now – and the wonder of the relationships between it, the earth and the moon. In the 1870s those would have been even more of a wonder, and it’s possible that our sermon would have worked equally well.
Over tea and scones in the church hall my networking reveals no new McCreas, but I do meet the cousin of my mum’s schoolfriend and a cousin-once-removed of my dad’s auntie. This is Northern Ireland. Well, in fact it’s just over the border, but that’s a whole other story, and the principle still stands. It makes me feel at home, despite the length of the chain that links me to this place.
I make a final visit to the house. Trying not to look too suspicious, and glad that I told the neighbours what I was doing, I skirt the walls, the outbuildings, the edges of the garden. I want some kind of trophy, really, unrealistically, some little item that’s been lying there since 1869. There’s a horrifying moment when I find a terrible pale fleshy thing, covered with flies, under the holly tree in the corner. Perhaps it’s the afterbirth of a calf. It brings me down several notches from my lofty time-travel imaginings. The Derrybrick Road wasn’t all wildflowers and little birds back in the day, in fact. Frances lived on a working farm. I lift a small stone from the broken-down wall of the shed and an old, bent, rusty nail. They’re good mementoes.
Round the corner I come to the old Montiagh bridge. It’s so still and so unspoilt that once again I do feel transported. I don’t anticipate that there’ll be another moment in my quest when I come so close to being there, then. I make some sound recordings and drop a stick in the river. It floats slowly under the bridge and comes to rest on a crooked stone. I sit on the wall and think.
I need to join this weekend with the next stage in Frances’s journey. She spent some years working at her brother’s shop in Irvinestown, and I’ll visit there shortly. But there’s another trip to recreate too. She married William Bryans in Fintona – at what would then have been the almost elderly age of 30 – in 1899. I’m sure she travelled there from the family home in Gortnagullion. Her mother, Eliza, must have helped her with her dress and her small trousseau. Her five older sisters, all married women themselves, would have given her discreet advice on wifely life. Some of her brothers were friends of William.
It’s over twenty miles from Gortnagullion to Fintona, so perhaps Frances didn’t make the journey on the wedding day itself. But it was a lovely bridal trip – the twisty road goes through the villages of Ederney, Lack and Dromore, through hills and hedges and avenues of trees. Hopeful and wholesome, the start of a happy new chapter.
An idea strikes me. From beside the bridge, I gather an armful of billowing cow parsley, the most bridal of all wildflowers. I carry it with me to Fintona, puffed and pretty on the passenger seat of the Micra. I park at the Methodist church in Fintona and carry the flowers to its plain old door. I leave them there on the step in Frances's memory.