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Address by Ronnie Hassard, Principal of Ballymena Academy


This, for me, is a very happy and long overdue occasion; we are commemorating and honouring the memory - and the work - of Archibald McIlroy, a local man who lived from 1859 to 1915. He was to find wealth in his commercial ventures and gained fame as a writer. He was also one of 1,195 victims to perish in sight of the Old Head at Kinsale, when The Lusitania, on her 202nd Atlantic crossing, was torpedoed at 2.10 pm on the 7th May 1915 by German submarine U-20, under the command of Lieutenant Walter Schweiger.

Ronnie HassardBook CoverDespite the acclaim he received as a writer, and that was in other countries as well as in this one, McIlroy is relatively unknown today. Now a much wider audience can be acquant wi' the man and wi' his words. I applaud the Ulster History Circle, for this blue plaque, and the Ulster Scots Language Society, for the re-publication of The Auld Meetin' House Green.

Both organisations are helping McIlroy's voice to be heard once again in the 21st Century, and that notion of 'voice' is one to which I shall return. Plaque and publication confirm the rich social, communal and linguistic history of this place and its heterogeneous culture. McIlroy met his untimely end some years before Northern Ireland was established; his work is part of the shared heritage that belongs to all of us on this island, however unashamedly Presbyterian his own allegiances may have been. We should, perhaps, remember that the Presbyterian Church, the denomination with which he had such close affiliation, remains The Presbyterian Church in Ireland to this day.

For a number of years I have been reading McIlroy's work and intermittently researching his life, from his birth in 1859 (the year of the Great Revival) on Archibald McMurtry's farm (his mother's home). That farm was in the townland of Ballygallagh, just a short way from the fit a' the toon, to his death in 1915, en route from Canada to work as a missionary amongst the soldiers at the front. I'll have more to say about McIlroy but perhaps we might briefly place some features of the townscape which McIlroy knew as a boy and of which he was to write with unforced familiarity.

The National School which McIlroy attended, a two storey, stone-built establishment is no longer there, but it stood just across the street from this Townhall, where a wide entry now runs. It was known as 'Fractions School', we'll see later why it got that name.

From Education to Salvation

Ballyclare's earliest Presbyterian congregation may have formed about 1646, with the first known Meetin' Hoose dating from 1655, on the main street site, still used by the congregation of the Old Presbyterian Church.

That congregation divided in the mid-1850s and McIlroy's family was prominent from the very beginnings of the fledgling congregation. His maternal and paternal grandfathers Archibald McMurtry and William McIlroy respectively, made up half of the Ruling Elders in the inaugural Kirk Session. William McIlroy, a shopkeeper in the town, was to become congregational Treasurer.

Archibald McMurtry and Ezekiel McIlroy, the writer's father, both became Trustees. The first child to be baptised into the fledgling congregation, on 11th Jan 1857, was Margaret, McIlroy's elder sister, born 9th December 1856, taken in childhood, by the fell disease tuberculosis, as McIlroy tells us in the autobiographical sketch with which he prefaces the third edition of When Lint Was In The Bell.

That church, diagonally to the rear of this Town Hall, contains two memorial tablets, erected to McIlroy and to his wife Anna Caroline nee Montgomery. McIlroy was a lifelong Presbyterian. Beyond the family connection here in Ballyclare, he married a daughter of the manse, became an elder and was active in the wider life of the church, including pioneering work, after he emigrated to Canada in 1912, assisting the Reverend Doctor McQueen to establish Edmonton's 1st Presbyterian Congregation.

Ballyclare grew up on a river known variously as Owen-na-View, Ollar, and now the Six-Mile-Water, as it follows its course from the lovely townland of Ballyboley (where I live) to Lough Neagh. The river and the Brig, or the bridge, which spans it, feature in McIlroy's work. Indeed it is with that river, as it wimples through the village, that he begins The Auld Meetin'-Hoose Green and the Brig has honourable mention in When Lint Was in the Bell.

Ballyclare was a natural place for markets and trading. A wooden market house was erected here in the 18th century, replaced in 1866 by a stone building; an upper storey was added in 1873 when the building came into use as a Townhall. Further extension and renovation in 1935 gave it today's profile.

The position, core and substance of this building, however, would have been known and familiar to McIlroy. It is entirely appropriate, therefore, that it is on this building, in the place to which he returned imaginatively and creatively, in his mind and in his heart, that the plaque commemorating Archibald McIlroy's name should be placed.

The Writer and his Work

McIlroy's portrait of Fractions is based on David John McCune, Master of the National School from 1845 to 1880. This is one of McIlroy's most enduring and endearing characters, and oral tradition suggests that McIlroy's representation of the man is authentic. Fractions could be fractious and, to say the least, he was an eccentric who was to meet a sad end.

We find in the colourful character of Fractions an educator at odds with the narrow utilitarian view held by many parents: Keep him at the readin', writin', an' coontin. Dinna waste his time on jography, fer efter a', whor's the use o' his learnin' the names o' a wheen o' places he's nivver likely tae see?

Fractions was keen on elocution and defied this orthodoxy by advising his charges:Haud up yer heeds like men and dinnae be fear'd tae let oot yer voices.

For ears unaccustomed to the Ulster Scots' tongue, we might render Fractions' instruction as hold up your heads like men and do not be afraid to let your voices be heard. I find in those words a metaphor for McIlroy's work. He does let oot his voice, albeit in written form, and, in doing so, his is an Ulster Scots' voice. He gives voice to a people who were seldom heard. He is one of very few writers to give a voice to the farming stock and working class folk of 19th Century Co Antrim.

These were not a people much inclined to literature. Their literary tradition, if such it can be called, was mainly in verse not prose. Their schooling equipped them, with rudimentary skills of readin', writin', an' coontin', but they were hard wrought and, for the most part, they had little energy, leisure, inclination or reason to turn their minds to imaginative literature. McIlroy himself only took up his pen when he found himself able to do so because he was in a very fortunate financial position. Even then he was careful to emphasise the moral and uplifting purpose of his writing.

A comment from Tam Junkin, another of McIlroy's characters, illustrates an attitude to writers in general: Tam's spreading bundles of retted flax which were heaved dripping wet and stinking from the lint dam: a dirty job, heartbreaking and backbreaking in equal measure. While they might be able to debate high flown matters, says Tam: A'm thinking the craturs wud mak'bit a puir shape at stannin ower the knees in spring water a'day, throwin' glitty lint oot o' a dam.

['Glitty' is defined in a Scots dictionary as 'slimy' and James Fenton's Hamely Tongue, glosses 'glit' as 'motes or scum in water'.]

Ironically, although we find him in the act of expressing this less than complimentary opinion, Tam is one of the very people whose authentic voice we hear in McIlroy's writing. The author allows the voice of his people to emerge, in their own words, with their habitual diction, customary syntax and rules of linguistic engagement, intact.

That voice, as we encounter it in McIlroy's writing is more humane and more humorous than the crude stereotype of dour, tight-fisted and humourless Presbyterians would allow. McIlroy's writing enjoyed great popularity. Written in the Kailyard tradition [Kail Yard = cabbage patch] the label, which was not always intended as a compliment, identified sentimental localised fiction written in or about Scotland of the late 19th century.

McIlroy, as I indicated earlier, was born in 1859, the year of the Great Revival. The outworking of the issues that arose within the Presbyterian denomination in the years following that evangelical upsurge, are evident in McIlroy's work. They include doctrinal disputes, fainting fits during overly emotional worship, the arrival of populist music and, many other matters.

Above all else, however, I believe that McIlroy's unfulfilled wish to be a minister, a teaching elder had a potent influence, not just on the themes he explored in his writing, or indeed on the events of his life, but on how he led that life and how he met his end.

That wish, at his own admission, haunted him from his early manhood. It seems to me to be not unreasonable to suggest that it may have been that heartfelt but long-frustrated aspiration which led him to the church work in Edmonton and then on to The Lusitania as he sought to serve his Lord as a missionary to the troops in France.

His parents were Ezekiel McIlroy and Margaret Sara McMurtry. Unusually for a girl from a small farm, Margaret received some education in the Moravian school at Gracehill, near Ballymena. She and Ezekiel were reared in the neighbouring townlands of Ballywalter and Ballygallagh, (also occasionally found as Ballygallough or Ballygallach). After marriage in Ballylinney Presbyterian Church, the couple set up home on the McMurtry farm. McIlroy, third of four children, two of whom died in early childhood, was named for his maternal grandfather.

The trilogy of When Lint Was in the Bell, By Lone Craig Linnie Burn and The Auld Meetin' House Green, can be characterised as episodic, anecdotal recollections of his upbringing in the middle of the 19th Century, supplemented by a rich fund of tales and stories enlivened by exchanges between Ulster Scots speakers.

McIlroy's writing, with the exception of A Banker's Love Story, is not plot driven, in the sense of a sustained narrative. He makes no grandiose claims for his scraps of reminiscence. The essentially unconnected chapters are well-crafted and woven into a series of what amount to short stories. There are comments and asides from the unnamed narrator who places himself in the community and the place, by assumption of belonging, rather than any direct statement or explanation of entitlement though birth or ancestry. The first person singular is avoided throughout, replaced consistently by we and ours, reinforcing the sense of ownership and belonging, from which the work derives great strength

He writes comically but disparagingly of the elementary education he received in Fractions School. He then went to the Royal Belfast Academical Institution for a year, followed by a spell at the Belfast Mercantile College, and succeeded in gaining employment in the Ulster Bank. He claims to have been 12 years in the bank, but the records show he was an employee between 1876 and 1890.

Initially, he was sent to Ballymoney but he refused to accept the posting and, according to a curt note in the record, he parted company with his employers. Possibly because his father Ezekiel was a substantial shareholder, he was soon reinstated, this time placed in Belfast. He was to spend the remainder of his service as a clerk in Waring Street.

McIlroy left the bank in 1890, shortly after marriage to Anna Caroline Montgomery, only daughter of the minister of Ballycairn Presbyterian congregation, to the south of Belfast. Their only child, James Montgomery McIlroy was born in 1891. McIlroy's four brothers-in-law were successful businessmen, and one cannot help but speculate that McIlroy's departure from the Ulster Bank and progress in the business environment of the growing city of Belfast were facilitated by his timely connection to such a family.

He became a stockbroker and made upwardly mobile improvement in the size and addresses of the homes in which he and his family lived. Between 1890 and 1903 he made four moves, eventually separating himself and his family from the industrial pollution of the city, which he called Spindletown, presumably to reflect the ubiquity of its sweatshop mills.

Those homes were on the Lisburn Road, Balmoral Avenue, then Deramore Park, where his neighbour at the time of the 1901 census was a member of the very wealthy Cleaver family, of Robinson and Cleaver fame. The final move was to Drumbo, to a magnificent house on the Hill, still standing relatively unchanged. He had that house built on the site of what had previously been his father-in-law's manse, at a cost of over 1000, and I have been unable to find evidence in the surveyors' notebooks of any comparable residences built around the same time in that district. The imposing Royal Irish Constabulary station in Saintfield, for instance, cost 820.

Meanwhile Ezekiel having sold the farm at Ballygallagh, was living with Margaret on Belfast's Antrim Road, where he died in 1896, aged 77. He left effects valued at 11,800, a very sizeable sum indeed, as well as various other properties, and shares in the Ulster and Northern Banks. The entire estate was divided between McIlroy and his younger brother James. A year after he came into this substantial inheritance, McIlroy tells us he was able to ease off a little from the pressures of business and took to the cultivation of literature.

Alongside his literary endeavours, his lifelong involvement with the Presbyterian Church continued, as a committee member then as a ruling elder in the Ballycairn congregation and, on a wider front as a prominent and well-respected churchman.

McIlroy emigrated with his family to Canada in 1912. Then he felt called to missionary work amongst the soldiers at the front. He had a missionary tract The Way Of Life printed, and, when the printing was delayed, he rescheduled his journey. Unfortunately for him the rearranged voyage was on The Lusitania, the vessel on which he perished in a catastrophe which is generally taken to signal America's entry to the First World War.

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