Never mind Drumlister - Leo Donnan and his family were 'Living in Dunsilly'

A FASCINATING booklet published by Antrim and District Historical Society 30 years ago has shed more light on life in rural Antrim in the Victorian age.

Local historian and Sacristan of St Comgall’s Church, Brendan Smith, brought the book to the Antrim Guardian office after we issued an appeal for more information about some of the borough’s historical old buildings.

Back in October 1989, in the acknowledgements for ‘Living in Dunsilly’ by Leo G. Donnan, R.H Foy, then Secretary of the association, said that he had often been entertained by the stories of the family, who lived at New Lodge in Muckamore and Dunsilly House, in the early years of the century.

“These yarns centered around Ernest Donnan and had a somewhat unreal air, which tended to suggest that the storyteller had a fairly fertile imagination, combined with a tendency to exaggerate.”

However on meeting Ernest’s son Leo, Mr Foy realised that the stories had played down his exploits!

“Leo, when faced with the choice of givin a talk or writing an account of his time in Antrim, chose the latter - hence the following account.”

The booklet was published with the help of the old Antrim Borough Council and Brendan’s copy used to belong to the library before being withdrawn from stock.

Said Leo: “In 1895, at the age of 71, my grandfather went to live at New Lodge, Muckamore, with his wife and two surviving sons Ernest Edward (my father) and Arthur Leo (my uncle) but only the house, outbuildings, yard and garden were used by the family.

“My father had started, in his earlier days, to serve an apprenticeship with Harland and Wolff when the family lived at Rosetta, Belfast, but he had health problems which meant he was unable to continue that work.

“His brother Arthur, when at New Lodge, served his apprenticeship with a firm of Linen Merchants in Belfast, going to and from his work by train, from Muckamore Station.

“In those far off days, he was taken to the station in the morning and collected in the evening by pony and trap.

“When he lived at New Lodge, Arthur was a very keen amateur photographer and spent much of his spare time taking photographs, mainly on a Sanderson plate camera.

“Many of his photographs taken then are still verv clear after more than eighty years and I have used some to illustrate this account”

Arthur was also very musical and at one time had two Steinway pianos and an American organ in one room!

“My father, Ernest, found an interest in Rifle Shooting, and in 1901 was picked as a member of the Ulster Rifle Association's Team which went to the United States to compete against the American National Rifle Team.”

The Ulster Team won and the cup is still in the possession of the Ulster Rifle Association.

Both Ernest and Arthur Donnan, when living at New Lodge, took a keen interest in what was then a fairly recent development - motorcycling.

Pat and Louis Meenan of Ballycraigy House both had motorcycles before the end of the century and they were joined by Ernest and Arthur Donnan using Belgian made F.N. belt driven machines.

The family at that time became very friendly with many of the local people, including the Meenan family, who lived at Ballycraigy House, Muckamore and who had a Solicitor's business in Belfast.

The site of the house is where the part of the Ballycraigy estate was later built.

Also well known were James Graham and his family of Newpark, Mrs. Warwick, the Clark families, Dr. Adams, Dr. Smith, Dr. Gawn, the Cowan family of Dunadry and many many others.

“My grandfather died at New Lodge in 1903, and, in the following year my grandmother, father and uncle decided to have a holiday in the Canary Islands, before moving to Holyrood, Malone Road, Belfast in 1905.

“It was when on holiday in Grand Canary that my father met the Padron family, who lived in Las Palmas.

“He fell in love with one of the daughters, Wilhelmina, who later became the mother of eight children - four girls and four boys.

“The wedding took place in October 1904 in Las Palmas, under both Spanish and British Laws, and the oldest child Rachel Maria was born in Grand Canary in August 1905.

“Ernest with his young wife and baby then returned to Belfast late in 1906 to live for a short time at Holyrood, Malone Road, Belfast, where the second child, Leo George, was born in February 1907 - that's me!”

Leo said that it was in the summer of 1907 that his father decided that some employment was necessary as he had to provide for a growing family!

“Observing that of his friends in the Antrim area were able to reasonably well by farming, he felt that he would give it a trial, though there was no history of farming in the family.

“He bought the Dunsilly House and farm of approximately 100 acres, followed by a farm at Kilbegs of about the same size.”

Ernest began by growing apple and plum trees, but had to bring a man and his family over from England to help control the huge orchard, and look after the pruning, spraying and other work.

Grinell was the name of the family and they lived in the house at Kilbegs farm.

Ernest also continued with his hobby of violin making and the great violinist Fritz Kreisler played on his violins when he visited Belfast in the late 1920s.

The industrious Ernest also designed and had made a flax pulling machine and bought an Argyle lorry in 1912 to operate a local bus service, day trips and deliveries.

Tractor pioneer Harry Ferguson was enthralled by another of his inventions, a ‘slatted mould-board for ploughs’, which was eventually put into mass production in Germany.

Another invention was a system which could pull artillery over soft ground, using horses.

Ernest was called up at the outbreak of World War I, but was invalided out after an exercise during training.

Back at Dunsilly, another venture was the growing of over three acres of tobacco under an Irish government scheme.

The seeds were sown in frames, placed beside the wall of the Milltown or Kilbegs cemetery.

With the war in full flow, it was hard to get workers for the farm.

The North Irish Horse Regiment was at that time stationed at Antrim and many of the soldiers would come out to Dunsilly, in the summer evenings to hoe and weed around the fruit trees, getting one shilling and a plate of porridge and milk for their labour.

In 1914, one of the workers ended up in court after driving a horse and cart to the Dunsilly Arms - then known as O’Kane’s pub, and was charged with being incapable of taking charge of a horse and cart, and causing an obstruction!

Seven year old Leo was even called to be a witness in court and received a shilling from his father - an absolute fortune!

Leo’s uncle had come from Grand Canary with his English wife and with Ernest’s help, they purchased a farm at Ballyharvey, near Muckamor, but returned as war began to rumble.

His grandfather, Don Leon Padron, had come to live with the family before 1912.

During the war, as a Spanish subject, he had to report at frequent intervals to the local police station and could not leave the country or change his abode without advising the police in advance. That state of affairs continued until the war ended in November 1918.

“My elder sister Rachel started school at Creavery Public Elementary School in September 1910 and I followed in 1912.

“Our younger brother Arthur and two younger sisters Wilhelmina and Dorothy, did not start school until after we left Dunsilly.”

Mr Clark was the head teacher.

“We walked to school a distance of about two miles on our bare feet and weather did we wear boots or shoes.

“There was a horse-drawn van which often went along the same road, about the time we were heading for school and we sometimes got a hold of the back door and hung on for dear life as our feet pounded the hard ground.

“The driver got fed up with these tactics and responded by beating the horse to speed it up.

“1 held on, knowing that if I let go, I would certainly finish on my face.

“The horse got faster and faster, while the driver used his whip on me to get me to let go, which I eventually did.

“My hands hit the road followed by my face and that put an end to our ‘hitching’ operations.

“Stealing the Dennison's turnips was now and then engaged in.

“I remember how Mr Clark made us take one penny for each turnip stolen and hand it to the farmer.

“As he had a couple of fierce dogs, always on guard in his yard, we didn't look forward to that visit with the money.

“Although we had plenty of fruit and vegetables of our own, they didn't taste half as sweet as those from someone else's fields.”

The children also enjoyed fishing in the Dunsilly Burn.

“Our mother bought us fishing hooks mounted on gut, which we used when worm fishing.

“Catching the fish was only part of the exercise, as we often grilled the fish on a piece of slate over a fire on the river bank, using dried timber and eating them without any salt.

“They tasted very sweet to us as we would not have had any food since midday when our ‘school-piece’ had been devoured in the playground.

“The summer evenings at Dunsilly, when we had to get to bed about 8pm, we used to listen to the blackbirds in the laurel bushes between the house and the river.

“Another sound we heard plenty was the call of the corncrake.

“Sadly the corncrake or landrail is now almost extinct, thanks to the changes in agricultural methods and the extensive draining of large areas of the countryside.”

Leo recalled families including the Millers, Fagans, Buicks, Warwicks, Allens and McClenaghans, who all lived in the local area.

Other memories included ploughing matches, raising pheasants on the farm, shooting parties, slaughtering pigs and the installation of telegraph poles along the Ballymena Road!

There were also visits to Shane’s Castle and boating trips.

In 1915 the children left Creavery and went to Massereene School in Antrim town under Mr Needham, opposite the old smithy, where they would watch the shoeing of horses during the midday break.

“We found the town kids a lot less to be trusted than those we had known at Creavery, that is they looked on us as backward and not in the same class when it came to trickery.” he said.

“Country folk are often thought of by ‘townies’ as ‘soft’ and easily misled, but very often it was the other way around.

“Some of the ‘townies’ didn't know the difference between a sheep and a pig.

“During the 1914-18 War quite a few refugees came from Belgium and were living in houses in Bridge Street or Massereene Street.

“On our way back home from the local school the refugee children called us names which we couldn't understand and we replied in words which were equally incomprehensible to the refugees.

“They were not too well liked by the locals, mainly because no-one could understand what they said and that often led to misunderstandings.”

Leo recalled the Sloan family, who had one of the butcher's shops in High Street, along with the Flemings and McCabes and it was the Sloan family who bought Dunsilly some years after the Donnans left.

“Most of our groceries were got from Kirk's shop at the corner of Railway Street, likewise hardware.

“Clothing was obtained from McManus's mainly.

“Barr's cycle shop was the one we remembered best, as any repairs to push-cycles or tricycles had to be done there and we often called there on our way home from Massereene school.”

Both farms were sold in 1917 and the family of ten moved to Bangor but they often returned to visit friends.

Leo recalled visiting Ballycraigy House and playing cricket for Sircocco Works against Muckamore, while Ernest often called with James Graham of Newpark and with James' brother David, who lived at ‘Clonlee’ in Muckamore.

Ernest died in December 1946 of heart failure and Arthur passed away in December 1958.

Leo concluded: “In recent years, Antrim has seen many changes. Many of the old houses have gone, the roads have been changed and made wider, and the shops are more akin to those of a major city.

“The old days have gone. We are now supposed to be more advanced in our ways of living, but I doubt we are any happier.

“Change is inevitable! Yes, our stay at Dunsilly was very happy in many ways.”

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