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"Youse the Bourkes?"
A Childhood in Cregganbane


Recorded by Mary Ann Bourn
Edited by her children

Reproduced, with the Society's permission, from the 1999/2000 Journal of The Creggan Local History Society



Today, at ninety, in Kingsland Nursing Home in Bangor Co.Down she is known as Mary Bourn. In Cregganbane she was always called Minnie Bourke.

Though born in Termonfeckin Co.Louth the fourth child and first daughter in a family of six, Mary Ann Bourke came to Cregganbane as a small child and lived there until she left for London in 1928 to become a nurse. In 1935 she married a Londoner, John Bourn, and settled in Whitton, Twickenham until 1976 when she returned to Ireland with her husband, to Bangor.

Mary Ann's parents - he from Templemore Co.Tipperary, she from Creggan Co.Armagh-met in Dublin when her mother, Catherine Hearty from Cregganbane, went to visit her older brother Francis. Because work prevented him from meeting his sister at Connolly Station, Francis Hearty asked a fellow lodger, already a friend, to meet his sister and bring her to the boarding house. That friend was Laurence Bourke. Was the year 1900? Because in her own old age Catherine Hearty, later "Nurse Bourke", remembered being in Dublin and seeing Queen Victoria "not ten feet away a little old lady" driving by in an open carriage.

Mary Ann's father Laurence Bourke was the eldest of nine children. He visited Cregganbane only twice, once upon his engagement and the second time to be married. His legacy remains, however, in both his formal studio portrait taken before his marriage and the garden planted below the barn where ancient apple trees and fruit bushes echo his advice to his Hearty in-laws.

Their marriage in 1902 took Laurence Bourke and Catherine Hearty to different places as his work as a gardener dictated, including Tennonfeckin and Monasterevin, Co.Kildare where Minnie Bourke first went to school at three years old. She has talked of the cocoa the nuns prepared for the children seated at their wooden desks.

Unhappily, Laurence Bourke fell victim to tuberculosis and was finally hospitalised in 1913. Before his death two years later Catherine Bourke returned to Cregganbane to settle her six children, the last only a few months old, on "Mulligans Lonan" with her parents- Patrick Hearty the Mason from Coolderry and Ann Moley from Cregganduff. Ann Moley's maternal grandmother was a Mulligan, and she and her husband had been given the farm upon their marriage in the early 1870's.

In the face of her husband's fatal illness Catherine Bourke took an unprecedented step: she left Cregganbane and her children to travel to Dublin where she studied midwifery in a nine-month course "passing her exams in her first attempt" says her daughter. As "Nurse Bourke" she returned to Creggan to become the well-known district midwife with a source of income for her family, an independent professional woman at the age of forty. Many of the babies she delivered are still living in the area today, though perhaps the most famous birth, in a career that lasted until the late 1930's, has to be the late Cardinal O'Fiaich.

Mary Ann Bourke, of course, first came to Cregganbane a small child when her father became fatally ill and unable to work. She remembers her father taking her to school in Monasterevin, but in Cregganbane she was kept at home "to help with the baby" and did not go to school until she was older than usual. Her older brothers, Patrick, Laurence, and Francis were ahead of her with Peter and Kathleen behind. They were the only Bourkes in Creggan at the time.

Minnie Bourke's memories of her childhood encompass Cregganbane and Glassdrumman School and going to Crossmaglen or to Creggan, long before the road at Creggan Bridge was straightened in the 1950's. She wrote these notes in pencil in the late 1980's when she was herself a widow almost eighty years old. They have been printed here as she wrote them, in order to preserve the conversational tone. In August 1999, when they were read to her, she reacted with further comments recorded here in inverted commas. Unfortunately one page is missing, yet what follows are historical musings of days long gone and people and places almost forgotten.

I never remember a dull moment. There was always something to do, plenty of company. Our nearest neighbours had five children and we played and played at all kinds of games often into the late evening with a full moon shining. Sundays all during the summer we spent at the river My close friend had two sisters and I had one. Somehow we had pennies and our treat was to start at the shop and buy Sharp's creamy toffee. "Oh, that was lovely stujf'. This was wonderful We often went under the bridge (Creggan) where there was a seat and all of us sucked to our hearts content. Then fortified we made for the river, not under the bridge, the turn hole was there ready to swallow us if we missed our step. We paddled in the shallow parts and gathered lovely jack stones - "We were always playing jacks ". In the spring we picked flowers, cowslips everywhere and bluebells and of course primroses, they grew in profusion beside every stream. When it rained heavily all the streams became swollen, all were so anxious to reach the river The river instead of being clear and gentle became brown and 'in flood'. We were frightened o fthe roar and remained around the fields or maybe in the graveyard reading headstones etc. It was a familiar place, almost friendly. We went to local funerals if there was no school and before the burial we called at the wake house if it was anywhere near our route from school It was suggested to us by the mistress 'call and pray'. I used to stand quite near the grave and have a good look at what was thrown out. Sometimes long bones and once a skull with teeth in it.

To go back a little I must say something about our local shop. It was a long low whitewashed house going round the far corner of the cross roads or as it was known locally 'The Green'. The only green I remember was a patch of grass in the middle where the three roads met but went round the grass. There was a front door and a shop door I never entered the front door in those days, I did afterwards in Traynor's time. To return to the shop it was owned or leased by McConvilles of Cross and run by a manager He was a bachelor a kindly man "nice looking". I was sometimes sent with a list of groceries and no money. "Everybody did that often ". I hated it but knew it was necessary. When all the purchases from my list were on the counter I looked up at him (the counter was high) and said 'Mammie said Book it'. He looked down at me and I stared shyly at him both of us knowing it should be paid for there and then - running up bills was a bad way to live. I rushed home with the much needed provisions. The shop I haven't described. There were two counters, the one I was standing by and one at my back which sold 'Drink'. Nearly always whatever time of day one entered the shop there were two men there. I knew they had families and they should be at home. After all these years I can see both clearly. We were taught about intemperance at school, "drummed into us!" its evil consequences etc. etc. I think that was the reason I felt so very sad. Although we were poor alcohol played no part. Uncle who imbibed I was told before we arrived, became teetotal. Whether it was the sight of the orphans or the fact that he suffered from eczema of the hands and hoped for a cure I know not. His hands were such a trial My memory goes back to the countless mornings I bandaged his hands before he put his gloves on. "Id sit down and do it 'Oh so painless' he'd say ". He was a builder in a small way and had to use materials injurious to his hands to make a living. They never improved much just sometimes becoming more red, swollen and painful They continued like that for the rest of his life except for a few months before he died from cancer I was told his hands were quite perfect. Strange, when he had something else to worry about the eczema disappeared. He was sixty nine when he died. "Dear Uncle ".

I was growing up, I liked learning and indeed the teaching I had was not wasted. I can still quote from The Merchant of Venice and Macbeth. My friends (close) "The Murrays " were going to boarding school but further education was out of the question for me, but I was and still am a seeker after knowledge and I read anything I couldfind. "I kept up with them ". A library opened behind the church in Cross and I borrowed from there and friends lent one another books. The first summer there was a six week crash course in Cross school, about two or three hours a day. I attended that, learning shorthand and book keeping. I still continued twice weekly during the winter I continued the winter attendance for years. Even if I didn't make use of it "I never did make any use of it" -in any other way it kept me in English practice.

(a page missing)

... either We sat about in our wet boots until it was time for the return journey. My grandmother and my mother when she was there were concerned, a great effort was made to dry out our clothes for the next day around the one fire on the hearth, much to the discomfort of everyone, callers and uncle alike.

The teacher, a young woman, consulted with the head mistress as to where to place me. I know I could read and write after a fashion. (I had been at school for two years). However I don't remember being given a test and my resting place was 'Big Infants'. For the first time I was given a slate and a lead pencil but what I wrote on the slate I don't remember I must have been seven when I was promoted to learning to write. An exercise book with dots on which we drew lines slanted across the page which led to separate letters, I think it was called penmanship. "I don't remember using a big word like that ".

The next year it was on to proverbs, 'necessity is the mother of invention, 'a rolling stone gathers no moss' etc. etc. I said in the beginning it was during the first world war and paper was scarce. As soon as a copy book was finished we rushed up the road to a little shop. The smell of it will stay with me forever, a mixture of paraffin and humbugs. Willie was so kind. "Was that Willie Batherson? "The counter was high and I and my friends presented our well thumbed specimens. In exchange we were given sweets in a triangle of paper twisted into a cone. Willie couldn't refuse. I'm sure he was out of pocket on the deal.

To return to my mother's plight. A telegram arrived on a Sunday morning while she was at Mass to say father had died. I remember grandma saying mother was not to be told until she had eaten her breakfast. In those days we fasted from the night before, - "We don't do that now, do we?" - then a three mile walk to the chapel and another three miles home. I remember the gloom and sadness and mother leaving for the station. Being Sunday she couldn't arrive in Tipperary in time for the funeral. Father was already buried. She had a piece of grass and earth in her hand from his grave. He left the sanatorium the week before. Mother said he took his own discharge but I have read since that he was more than likely sent home if they knew death was near Now I wonder how did she get there? It was miles away. Now we were orphans. I didn't like that word it pushed me down further. Autumn soon ran into the short days of winter, but the only days we missed school were if heavy snow was falling. Christmas came, there was no money for toys or extras but we understood. On Christmas day we were up very early and started walking the three miles to mass. No shortcut across the bogs, it was dangerous in the dark. As we started out I thought the country was like fairy land. Every little home had a candle in each window twinkling as far as the eye could see. It was the only day of the year that Mass was at 8 am. The [old] church [at Glassdrummanj was a dirty white and around the walls were wrought iron candle sticks each little candle flickering in its holder It was a ghostly scene but before the service was over the dawn light came through. In later years I was in the choir and helped to sing Adeste Fidelis. The roof was sloping and if you were placed on the steep side you sang with your head sideways. We retired to the back. We couldn't see the altar. We talked all through Mass. "Never said a prayer at all".

After the first Christmas Mother went to Dublin to train as a midwife. I don't know how my grandmother managed as I was sent to neighbours who had five girls of their own. They were well-off according to our standards. Wet days a pony and trap took us to school and there was ample room for home-work on our return away from the hub(bub) of the kitchen. They were very kind and although I was delighted to see my mother again I liked the more genteel way of life. But my brothers were great companions. We climbed trees, jumped ditches, played cricket with buckets for wickets and bats made by them. They played football too, I didn't join in . On wet days we played marbles in an outhouse and small coloured balls we called mebs played I think the same way. I can't recall the difference. The idea in both cases was to shoot with the thumb into a hole in the centre of a ring. Then skittles all home made. Cricket balls were made from cows hair and footballs from pigs bladders. They were always in demand, never enough to go around and they were dried very carefully and then blown up and tied securely. They didn't last long kicked with heavy boots, but great fun for a while. Boots were made of leather with soles covered in nails. New they looked as if they would stand up to any weather but the long grass, the marshy bogs, running along stone ditches soon wore them out. Mother waited as long as possible before sending them to the shoemaker "McAllister". He was slow and money was scarce. I seem to have been sent to his village two miles away very often with the family's boots one pair at a time. My brother one year older accompanied me sometimes and along the road we told stories and built castles in the air We were instructed to be given a time for the boots to be ready and came the time I was sent for them. More often than not the shoemaker was in the pub. He worked in a corner of the kitchen cum family room. "Everything went on in the kitchen ". His pale faced wife made excuses, but I remained firm, I daren't go home without the boots and there I sat. I couldn't make up my mind which was worse, to sit with fighting crying children or face the wrath if I returned without the boots. Sometimes the shoemaker returned and I waited while he soled the boots. More often than not having to pay first so that he could go next door to the shop for the leather before he could begin.

Autumn was blackberry time. We started early and roamed the fields with our buckets and cans, sometimes taking bread with us, not returning for food if we found ourselves far from home. We hardly ever returned without full cans. A good price we thought was paid during the war After tea my brothers began the ritual of preparing the berries for sale. I'm afraid they weren't above adding a little water "and things heavier than water". We carried them to the shop a mile away meeting more children on the way. There we took our turn watching the weight anxiously. I sometimes, even now, wonder what they were used for, must have been for jelly so much rubbish went in. We spent very little, I loved running home to present my mother with my earnings, "and, by jingo, we did that, we wouldn't spend a penny ", she in turn shared it for boots. The return to school came all too soon, but we picked many stones of blackberries in the late afternoons. Oh, our poor hands were in a sore state "couldn't get the dye off'. The jobs around the little farm were waiting too! Picking potatoes I especially remember Two diggers spent all day in the Field leaving long lines of potatoes to be gathered. They were collected into pits, long lines wider at the bottom, they were covered with straw and then earth enough to keep out the frost "hard work for small children ". Snedding turnips another chore - "cleaning them with a knife " - also made into pits. Raw turnips were juicy and delicious. On our way home from school in October November we jumped into apzyone's field and took a turnip. We cleaned it with a sharp stone and ate it. We never considered it stealing and I don't remember anyone stopping us.

November brought the mill, not to us, we were much too small, to the bigger farms. It couldn't come up our narrow lonan. My brothers would say 'the mill will be coming up the brae on its way to Murrays.' We knew the struggle ahead. The black monster belched out smoke and noise alerting all of us living on the top of the hill. We ran from far and wide to watch its painful progress. It made the flat as it always did and finally settled in the hay-yard. The next day neighbours all around went to help. I don't know how many were needed, but the ricks were prepared by removing the ropes and thatch. Men with forks then fed the sheaves into the mill More men bagged the grain and cleared the chaff and stacked the straw. It was hard and constant while it lasted. Dinner was served, usually bacon and cabbage or turnips and of course potatoes ,'very little meat". Then mugs of tea and bread and butter. The mill then moved to the next farm. Great was the good humour and fun had by all. It was different for us. There were a couple of stacks to be threshed and they were dealt with flails. A winnowing sheet made of many sacks sown together was spread over a wooden base usually doors from the cart house or byre. Two sheaves of corn laid ready. Two men standing opposite one another began the fearful operation. The flail was raised in the air and moved in a circle and brought down on the sheaves. While one man's flail was in the air the other was hitting the sheaves. I marvelled at the rhythm and how close they looked to disaster at each raising of the flail, but they were masters at their work. Again the straw was piled into stacks for winter bedding and fodder, the oats bagged and the chaff went flying round. The next operation was to get the oats to the mill to be ground into meal. Bags of oats were loaded into the asses cart and left at the mill taking one's turn. It was called for in x number of days and oh the delight at the new porridge. It was delicious. Porridge was the supper every night. About six-seven o'clock grandma hung the pot filled with water on the hook. When the water was nearly boiling in went the meal to be left simmering for hours. Children were given tins with milk and spoons and we helped ourselves; no sugar but salt was added in the cooking. Some liked sour milk and no doubt the flavour was good once the taste was acquired but the hot porridge and sour milk formed curds and I couldn't or wouldn't touch it. "Uncle always took sour milk". The days shortened and the nights round the fire longer Games were played, the sitting variety, ghost stories told and a caller or two would turn up. 'Cailiers' we called them, porridge was offered and welcomed by bachelors living alone, then tea and bread and butter Sometimes there were musical evenings. Every boy or so it seemed to me coveted a melodeon, but most owned a mouth organ. I can see one brother learning the melodeon from a piece of paper on which was written press draw etc. and he soon learned the tune. Everyone was expected to sing and did, but my best friend was tone deaf and not to be outdone she recited. The one I remember well was very long and told of the bitter strife to free Ireland. It was listened to with great respect. Sometimes there were local visitors and they were invited to a party supper and there would be dancing in the kitchen. The popular dance was the half-set. The kitchen would be hard pushed to take a full one. But sometimes four sat down and then another four performed and at the end the eight turned round the floor very close together

During these years Mother was often away. She became a popular midwife. It was a hard life. She was often called in the small hours and trudged miles to deliver a new baby. Sometimes families were so poor they couldn't pay the 1 her fee for the major event and then visiting and finally seeing the mother up "going every day ". Ten days was the time allotted in those days. I think she liked the life, she got to know so many people and was very highly thought of We were the losers, no one to help us get out to school or prepare breakfast. Grandma was getting on and didn't get up until after we left. I took charge at a very early age making sure everyone had lunch "in a bag". This consisted of two pieces of bread joined with marg or butter Butter was very scarce during the war and for sometime afterwards. I hated margarine and would sneak a little jam or syrup, but whatever we had was eaten ravenously at 12.30pm when our only break of the day occurred. Lessons began again at ]pm. Infants let out at 2pm and the rest at 3pm.

Now a word about games. The spring began with skipping. I never knew there were bought ropes until I was married and had children. We all managed apiece of rope and the one usually older that procured a long length was greatly in demand. Some girls were expert. "I wasn't as good as some ". They could run in while the rope was turned very fast and jump so high their feet scarcely touching the ground. They had very strong legs. Thinking back I was very thin and timorous. Skipping went on every day for some time and it stopped suddenly and games started like London Bridge, Colours, Tig, Swings. On fine days say in June we played Jacks on the way home. Usually at the bottom of a lonan where a friend had to go a different way, but not content with that another stand or should I say sit before the final trek home. I often got into trouble about being late. The meal would be waiting. It was nearly always a large pot of potatoes. This would be hanging on a hook from the crane to keep it warm or by the side of the fire. Then perhaps bacon would be fried, very often fat and streaky called American "cheaper than the other sort". The fat from this was poured onto plates as well as the bacon and we loved it. The potatoes were very good. I never taste anything like them now. Meat was very seldom seen in the average home. True it came into the village on Thursday evening and was sold on market day Friday. Any left over Saturday and after Mass on Sunday for outlying folk, but with no refrigerators and a poor way of hanging it, the country people seldom bought meat. It was dearer than bacon. A side of bacon sometimes, not often, hung in our kitchen. My uncle I haven't mentioned him often so far would buy one if he sold a calf or a pig and hadn't too many bills to meet. I think coal was a very expensive item. A fire had to be always burning summer and winter because it was our source of hot water and cooking. A large black kettle was always dangling from the crook filled to the brim. Grandma saw to that. Water was another problem. When it rained a well beside the house filled up and remained like that except during dry spells. The large black kettle was filled from the local well for washing etc. The water for drinking had to be carried across two fields. Two earthenware crocks were filled with spring water, but they often went down below a certain level and someone had to go to the well. Sometimes I cajoled my brother nearest to me in age. Often I scolded and all else failing went myself

Providing turf for the winter was another summer chore. The simplest form was cutting the slane we called it. It was peat and it was left to dry and then carted home. Most local people owned a piece of bog. The ass and cart was very useful. We could get the cart very close to the drying sods. But the best material for the winter took time and patience to prepare but it made a wonderful fire. The banks of a certain bog hole were cut and thrown into the hole making a kind of mud pie. It remained for some days and then men would roll up their trousers very high and go into the bog hole and with shovels throw the mess on to the banks where it was left to dry. When nearly dry it was cut into shapes very like toffee. Then when half dry it was cut and two or three together stood up to dry completely. Finally it was carted home. I felt so proud seeing a stack in the mould, a small garden opposite the kitchen doors. When put into the fire it lasted a long time (not at all like the peat we buy now) and it was marvellous for bread making. On a Friday or Saturday the pot oven was got ready. Grandma would then make soda bread. The dough was placed in the pot the lid placed on top and the blazing turf placed on the lid. On a good day she would make a currant soda cake and a treacle and ginger No fancy cakes. I don't think she knew how. This bread was very good eaten with lots of butter.

As the millennium draws near, Mary Ann Bourn in her nineties is the surviving member of her generation of Cregganbane Bourkes. Though she has a nephew and a grand-nephew, Peter and Stephen Burke(sic), in Amersham, Bucks., the name Bourke is not to be found in Cregganbane. Nevertheless, Minnie's children, Nurse Bourke's grandchildren, have returned to the area and have re-established themselves in Cregganbane at 'Bourkes' as the place has always been called in the 20th century. "Youse the Bourkes?" has become a neighbourly greeting yet again.