When a flute band played at Fir Fields in Antrim to celebrate Primrose Day

TO this very day daffodils still flank the path on either side of the old Cooley homestead at Crew Hill in Glenavy.

There are still folk who recall visiting Sarah Jane Cooley in her quaint cottage and purchasing sweets from her shop.

The daffodils that grew in the vicinity were regarded by the local as special and, despite numerous attempts, the flowers could never be successfully transplanted to other areas.

Sarah Jane was known to take bunches of them to town where she sold them.

The daffodils were undoubtedly in bloom when Sarah Jane made her final journey from her home at the Crew to her resting place at Glenavy Parish Church in the spring of 1956.

But a closer look at the beautiful sea of flowers reveals clumps of primroses in the stone-lined bank.

These days it might well land you in bother if you were to disturb wild flowers but in 1881, when Sarah Jane Cooley was in her second year at Killultagh National School, the little yellow flowers were the centre of attention on April 19 each year - Primrose Day - when they were picked all across the country.

In 1880s London Benjamin Disraeli, a novelist and twice British Prime Minister during the reign of Queen Victoria, had aligned himself with the Conservative Party.

He had previously served as Chancellor of the Exchequer and Leader of the House of Commons. He served as PM for a short spell in 1868, losing out to William Ewart Gladstone and the Liberal Party.

Gladstone was to oversee the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland - which caused consternation among some Irish Protestants.

It was reported locally that Orange Order meeting were held throughout the country during this period to demonstrate opposition to the Gladstone Bill.

The Orange fraternity were further enraged when Gladstone proposed to open a ‘Roman Catholic university’ in Dublin. Speakers at Orange Order meetings and soirees pledged support to Disraeli - who had already voiced his opposition to the plan.

In 1874 the Conservatives returned to power again and Disraeli was against Prime Minister.

Two years later Queen Victoria bestowed on him the title Earl of Beaconsfield.

Lord Beaconsfield continued at Downing Street until 1880 when the Conservatives were outvoted and returned to the opposition benches.

In early April 1881 the public were made aware that Disraeli was seriously ill. The situation was so grave that many prepared for the worst.

On Tuesday, April 19 the Press Association received a telegram informing them that Lord Beaconsfield had breathed his last at 4.30am that morning.

Enter the humble primrose.

It was reported that Queen Victoria sent a wreath of primroses which were placed on Disraeli’s final resting place at the Church of St Michael and all Angels in the grounds of his former home at Hughendun Manor in Buckinghamshire.

It was said that the primrose was his favourite flower.

The following year it was suggested that the anniversary of the popular statesman’s death should be commemorated by the wearing of primroses in the lapel. The practice soon became an annual tradition.

Several years after his death a Primerose League was formed for Conservatives and groups, similar to Lodges, were established all over the country.

Locally there were those who were keen to promote and participate in the Primrose Day commemorations.

In October 1881 a lecture on Lord Beaconsfield’s life was given by the Reverend William Moore, a local minister in Glenavy Protestant Hall.

One Belfast Orange Lodge undertook a name change from the Bachelors’ LOL to Beaconsfield LOL 337 and they carried a portrait of the late Earl on their banner.

In 1883 the Ballymena Observer reported that the tradition of wearing the primrose had become every bit as popular as the ‘drowning of the Shamrock’ on st Patrick’s Day.

Three years later it was reported that such was the surge of popularity that there was actually a scarcity of primroses.

In April 1888 there was such a demand in London that flowers had to be imported from France.

The following year there were floral displays in many towns, including Antrim, Lisburn and Coleraine.

Due to April 19 falling on Good Friday that year, the Belfast Newsletter reported that a picnic had been organised in the Fir Field in Antrim on Easter Monday with musical accompaniment courtesy of the ‘local Conservative Flute Band’.

By the 1920s there were still reports of Primrose Day events - but its days were numbered. Indeed now it is largely confined to the history books.

The current owners of Disraeli’s former home at Hughendun are the National Trust and they keep the tradition alive. A floral display is unveiled each year, accompanied by several spring Primrose Walks.

You might just want to ‘tip the hat’ to the former Prime Minister the next time you spot one of the distinctive yellow flowers in the wild.

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