By Jack Holland
Those of us who were raised in Belfast in the late 1940s and early ’50s (we few, we happy few!) now straddle more than two centuries. We also have — at least indirectly — experience of a third century. For the Belfast of those years was still very much a 19th Century, Victorian city.
In another way I can claim a further, perhaps more intimate connection with the 19th Century. I was raised mainly by my grandmother Kate Murphy and she was born around 1878. By the time the 20th Century dawned, she already was a young woman and had left her home, a poor, small farm in the townland of Kilbroney at the foot of the Mountains of Mourne, to work in Belfast. Around the turn of the last century, she took a job there as a housemaid in a big house in College Square, in the city center. (The north side of the square still stands, one of the few stretches of Georgian Belfast that has survived.)
My grandmother was very much a 19th Century woman with distinctly Victorian precepts.
She had seven children to William Henry Holland, a Portadown Protestant who worked as a coach driver at the house where she was a maid. She ruled her family of four boys and three girls with a firm hand. Indulgence was out. Her husband and sons were allowed a pint of stout at Lavery’s Pub on the corner of Joy Street and May Street, opposite our house, on a Saturday evening. Until the day he died aged at age 52, my uncle Tom was afraid to smoke in front of her. She was even stricter with her daughters and daughters-in-law. My mother, newly wed, moved into the Holland household, where she was more or less kept under lock and key. Rarely was she permitted even a visit with her own mother, who lived only a few streets away. My grandmother believed that a wife’s place was in the house. Once, my mother and her sister went for a walk one evening and stopped off at a neighbor’s for a cup of tea before returning. By the time she got back it was 10 o’clock and she found herself locked out. She got such a severe talking to for being late that she ran away to her sister’s house.
My grandmother took a stern view of relationships with men. Her daughter, my aunt Martha, her friend Maisie and my mother were all staying with her in a cottage in Omeath, on Carlingford Lough, for the summer. It was the family custom to spend a few weeks either there or across the lough in Rostrevor.
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One evening my mother, Martha and Maisie, set off for a stroll down to the shore, pushing me along in the pram. When they stopped at the water’s edge to watch the dusk darkening the slopes of the Mournes, they fell into conversation with two local lads, who courteously offered to escort the three women back up the road.
When they arrived at the foot of the laneway which led to our cottage, they were ambushed by my grandmother, who came charging at them waving a stick, demanding to know what they were doing out at 10 p.m. in the company of two fellas. The men fled and Maisie, who was a retiring, timid little creature, burst into tears she was so terrified.
My grandmother ran the home in a very orderly fashion. Year in, year out, until she was well into her 80s, she rose at the crack of dawn to start the fire and get the men out to work. At 9:30 she would put on her long black coat and hat and go to Shannon’s butcher shop on May Street for her daily supplies of meat. The main meal was served at 1 p.m., when the men came in for their break. Often, because my grandfather was the caretaker of a carting company’s premises, we had carters stopping by for a bit and a sup. A lighter supper was then served at around 6. There would always be a cup of tea before bedtime, which was at 10 p. m. during the work week.
My grandmother was a fabulous cook. She made steak and kidney pies with a delicious soft crust. She would always put of piece of butter on her finger and run it around the edge of the pie dish to make sure the pie didn’t stick to the tin. On Fridays, we’d have fish in a rich cream sauce with boiled potatoes.
One of her favorite dishes was onions boiled with butter and a pinch of salt, which she’d serve to the men when they returned from their weekly visit to the pub on Saturday evenings. She believed onions were good for you and "kept out the cold."
On Sunday mornings she’d rise early to make butter in her churn. After my grandfather died, in 1952, and we moved to a much smaller house near the Falls Road, she brought her churn with her and kept it in the backyard. But she never used it again.
Fortunately, I rarely if ever saw my grandmother’s fiercesomness. I did not regard her as stern at all. To me she was a warm, welcoming lap, someone to cuddle up with at night in front of the fire when she would put away her knitting to tell me ghost stories or tales of her youth on the farm in the Mournes. Thanks to her, in some ways, though I grew up in the 20th Century I enjoyed the best of a "Victorian" childhood — one imaginatively rich with what we now call folklore but I experienced as the living word in gripping tales of giants, ghosts, banshees and fairies.
I did not even think of my grandmother as particularly old, until one day, being obsessed with the Wild West, I realized that she had been born within two years of the Battle of the Little Big Horn. This amazed me. For years, I pestered her with questions. Surely there must have been something about it in the papers in Rostrevor? The fact that by the time she had learned to read, the battle was already almost 9 years old, did not occur to me. I looked on my granny with new eyes as almost a contemporary of General George Armstrong Custer. That was when I first fully realized that my grandmother was indeed a woman of the 19th Century.