By Jack Holland
There was a justified uproar recently among concerned citizens for the preservation of historically interesting buildings because the philistines had pulled down the house where the poet Seamus Heaney had lived in Belfast during his time teaching at Queen’s University. This kind of thing is not new, I am afraid, in Ireland. But I was personally shocked and upset when I was informed just last week that my grandmother’s farmhouse outside the village of Rostrevor in County Down had been demolished on orders of the Housing Executive. The Murphy family who have lived there for many generations now live in a modern bungalow in the field next to where the old house stood.
The house had been there since early in the 19th century. It stood on a slight slope running down off the Hilltown Road, a few hundred yards passed the old Kilbroney cemetery. My grandmother Kate Murphy was born there about 1878.
It was a low whitewashed home, with a kitchen, a parlor and two bedrooms at the back. There was no toilet or bathroom. The kitchen had a massive black range. The door opened from there into the farmyard, where I remember there being a pigsty and a barn. Hens and chickens would be constantly running in and out of the kitchen. My grandmother had stories about the house, which she recounted to me when I was a small boy. She told me that shortly after it was built a strange woman came to the door asking for butter. My great-grandfather said he did not have any. The woman told him to look in the pocket of his jacket, which hung on a peg by the door. He did, and found a piece of butter wrapped in paper. The woman then told him that the door had been built over a fairy path and that it would have to be moved. She went away and was never seen again. The door was duly shifted. It was always a good idea to stay on the right side of the fairies.
Another, even stranger tale that had me in awe of the Little People was the one she told about the stone wall around one of the Murphy’s fields. Late one night she was awakened by a terrific noise. It sounded as if some one was having a party in the field. Her father came in and told her to stay in bed and not look out the window because the fairies were playing in the field. Next morning the stone wall had been demolished, the stones scattered everywhere. But her father seemed unconcerned, telling her that it would soon be put back together again. The morning after that it was — every stone replaced as of it had never been moved. That used to send me to bed with something to think about.
Not only people, but animals, had psychic experiences in those days. My great-grandfather’s horse always refused to cross a certain bridge on the way back from the village. This was because, people believed, that horses could see ghosts that human beings could not. Once during a storm my great-grandfather, impatient to get home, tried to force the horse across the bridge. It bolted, throwing him to the ground. The head injuries he suffered killed him.
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For me, the house was part of two worlds. There was the beautiful landscape of Mournes, the slopes of which rose up hardly a mile away from the Murphy’s fields. But then there was another world surrounding the farmhouse, inhabited by unearthly beings, witches, ghosts and fairies. I did not realize it at the time, but mine was probably the last generation in Northern Ireland to be exposed to the folklore of the old Irish oral tradition, which my grandmother brought with her when she moved to Belfast when she was about 17. The Mournes had preserved many of those old legends and fairy tales which had died out elsewhere. To her, they were a living presence, and so for a while they were to me — especially when I visited my cousins in Rostrevor.
I have a very early memory of her bringing me along the Hilltown Road to the Kilbroney cemetery, down through the corner gate, with the ivy-covered ruins of the church of St. Bronagh on the left, and the green slopes of the Mournes in front, the old headstones tumbled or chipped and worn away by centuries of wind and rain. That was the place where, she told me, when the wind blew hard people heard the sounds of a church bell, though the church had stood in ruins for centuries. Until one night the wind blew so hard that it brought down a huge oak tree that had stood in the churchyard for as long as anyone could remember. As the local people sawed it up for wood, they found entangled in it branches a great bell — hidden there, according to legend, by monks to preserve it from the Vikings.
But the sight my grandmother wanted me to see was a huge grave (or at least it looked huge to me) of Jack Murphy, the Irish giant. He, she said, was my distant ancestor. Murphy had been of normal size until he was in his teens, and then suddenly he began sprouting up until he was around 8 feet tall. My grandmother told me he once lifted a cow out of a well. He got a job in a circus and was touring France when he died. He was only 28.
So, not only had my grandmother been raised in a house that sat across a fairy path, but I was descended from a giant.
Many years later, when I returned to Rostrevor, my grandmother’s nephew Jack Murphy lived in the house with his wife, Rose. It hadn’t changed much from my grandmother’s day — the chickens still came running in and out of the kitchen, and the barn was the only toilet for miles around. Rose still made griddle break on the big black range in the kitchen and cooked me a wonderful meal that evening.
Their son Joe was born in the house and lived there for more than 60 years. He and his wife, Emily, were to be the last of the Murphys to do so.
He told me he had built the new bungalow near the farmhouse but had wanted the old house preserved. However, the Housing Executive wanted it knocked down. When I asked why, he replied:
“It was just awkwardness.”
So down it came, leaving an empty space.