Friday, June 22, 2012

The Graveyard Chronicles - Three Miles from McLaughlin's Corner

One evening at the beginning of June, while I was enjoying a cup of tea in the company of some friends, one of them mentioned that he’d discovered an ancient cemetery belonging to a community that had emigrated en masse to the United States almost 250 years ago. Some of the graves, he said, were around three hundred years old and bore family names that have since died out in this area. My ears pricked up immediately, “Where is this place?” I asked, reaching for my notepad and pen.
So, here I am, back again in a cemetery, wandering its solitary paths in search of the oldest headstone. This time it’s Vow Graveyard, the small burial ground that my friend came across in the countryside of north Antrim, about 20 kilometres from Ballymoney. I did some prior research but only scant information is available on the Internet; the best I could come up with indicated the cemetery is “3 miles from McLaughlin’s Corner.” So, I’ve come with Brenda, who knows the back roads of this locality well and found the isolated spot almost effortlessly.
Three miles from McLaughlin’s Corner we see the brown heritage sign pointing to The Vow Graveyard and follow it. The car halts and I step out into the lane leading to the cemetery, I step into a world where birdsong is not blunted by the roar of traffic or even carried off on a breeze. The tranquillity around me amplifies the high-pitched whistles of swifts that flash by, just above tree-top level. In the hiatus before their sweeping return a blackbird lands on the ivy coloured wall and commences to serenade the sun, which has just emerged from clouds drifting over the nearby Movanagher Canal.
Brenda and I pass through the gate which opens on to a small path leading up to the cemetery, or rather graveyard, which is the official name. Cemetery somehow seems too modern, too clinical to describe this place. “Vow Graveyard,” says Brenda, pronouncing the words slowly, “You have to pause for a moment in order to articulate the words correctly. There’s a solemnity about them that demands to be honoured.”
A couple in their late ‘50s or early ‘60s is leaving and we are soon in conversation with them about the plaque beside the gate commemorating the Reformed Presbyterian minister, the Reverend William Martin. According to the plaque, he was ordained on this spot and subsequently led the mass migration of 460 families from here to South Carolina.
The couple – Vivienne and Jim - tells us that there was a church here at one time but nothing remains of it now, not even ruins. I venture that the Rev. Martin must have been a very persuasive man to convince so many people to abandon the only life they had ever known and set out on a voyage across stormy seas that took many weeks to complete. Disembarking in America was really only the beginning of their journey into hostile and alien territory. What hardships had these people of Ulster Scots origin been enduring to make them pack up and leave? How completely did they trust the Rev. Martin when he promised them freedom from poverty and from religious constraints? How would they have reacted had they know that three quarters of a century later, in the 1840s, the native Irish, the very people whose rebellions the Ulster Scots feared, would follow them in their millions fleeing from the horrors of starvation,
These are my thoughts as we chat to Vivienne and Jim, who have come to Vow Graveyard in the hope of finding the burial place of Vivienne’s ancestors. Many of the oldest headstones are covered in moss and are illegible, they tell us, the inscriptions worn away by time; very few have been cleaned and restored. Vivienne is disappointed but is determined to return and continue her search with the aid a scraper or scrubbing brush.
I discover that Vivienne and I have several things in common; we are both teachers, we grew up in the same neighbourhood in Belfast and went to adjacent schools; hers was Protestant and mine Catholic. These days differences in ethnic background are rarely a reason for strangers to improvise an excuse to hasten on their way. Times have changed since the Rev. Martin set sail with his followers.
Half an hour later I leave Brenda engaged in conversation with Vivienne and her husband and make my way up the path toward the second gate leading directly into the cemetery. Vow Graveyard stands on a slope in a small field where about three score headstones are sheltered by aged yew trees, home to a vibrant population of crows, magpies and blackbirds, judging by the chorus that has intensified in honour of the brief shower. A mower has recently passed through the long seeded grass leaving a sweet damp scent in the air. I follow its path from the gate, past the hazel copse through the daisies, nettles, buttercups and clover and around to some of the graves.
I scan the headstones nearest me and choose what I think may be the oldest. It declares Here lieth the body of John Steen who departed this life on the 14th February, 1818 aged 63. John Steen, it seems, remained here when the others embarked on their voyage to America. Why? What doubts did he wrestle with as he watched his community leave? How much more solitary was his life without them? Did he feel threatened when the biggest rebellion of the 18th century, led by the United Irishmen, shook this island in 1798? Or jubilant? Presbyterians, together with Catholics, were among the ranks of the rebels.
In the right-hand corner at the back, a headstone with a skull and crossed bones attracts my attention. Moving closer I see there is a temple also carved into the surface and Brenda informs me that the symbols are Masonic. The inscription reads Robert Hannah of Arlnagrof who departed this life on April the 5th, 1823, aged 32 years. In the adjoining grave are other family members who died between 1886 and 1946. A scattering of the graves are recent, dating up to the 21st century but most are 19th and 20th century. I pass by a whitethorn in full bloom, and crouch beside a few ancient headstones to pick at the moss covering their faded inscriptions, hoping to uncover numbers, a year, a century, hoping to make a connection with an era before nuclear weapons, space travel, melting ice caps and a time when wolves paced these lands. After a few minutes I conclude that I too will have to return with a scrubbing brush in order to get a sharper glimpse of history.
And then Brenda and I are no longer alone in the graveyard. An elderly couple has arrived in search of their ancestors’ grave. Mr and Mrs Purdon are from nearby Cullycapple; I remark that the name of their hometown sounds very poetic. The woman laughs,
“That’s nothing, What about Aghadowey, Culnady, Cullybackey, Maddykeel, or Aughnacleagh”?
Such chunky earthy words require a slick choreography between the tongue and jaw to get the phonetics right. But these are invented words, the meaningless Anglicised version of the original Gaelic. I wonder aloud how the Gaelic name sounds and what it might tell us about the place. Irish place names are typically topographical, revealing something about the location.* The couple shrug their shoulders.
The Purdons have thick country accents, north Antrim accents. They tell us they are frequently mistaken for Scots by other (northern) Irish people, even when they go shopping in nearby Ballymena.
Scotland is forty miles away - across the sea - but Ballymena is just down the road. So how can they make that mistake?”
I hear the voice of the Purdons’ ancestors when they speak, the tens of thousands of Ulster Scots who were “planted” here in the 17th century, whose descendants retain their distinct cultural identity three centuries later.
We are still talking to the Purdons when a tall white-haired woman pushes the gate open and ascends the slope toward us. Mrs Fidgeon, who lives nearby, has come to visit her husband’s grave and is surprised to see so many (4) people in the cemetery.
“Have you all come together?” she asks.
We explain that we’ve only just met and that the Purdons are here in search of their ancestors’ graves while Brenda and I have come because we are curious.
“Elderly folk often visit here hoping to learn about where they’ve come from because at this time in their lives, more than ever before, they’re aware that they don’t know where they’re going to next. But yours, she says glancing at me, is a different kind of curiosity.”
Leaving her remark hanging in the air, Mrs Fidgeon turns quietly to face her husband’s grave, the place, I imagine, she knows she’ll be going to one day. There’s a presence this woman emanates; she’s wise, dignified and confident, a sort of guardian of this place, I suggest to myself. As if reading my thoughts, Brenda whispers,
“Maybe it’s the living that you learn about here in Vow Graveyard. Not the dead.”

For example: Aghadoewy - Achadh-Dubhthaigh in Irish means Duffy’s field.
     Culnady – Cúil Chnáidi – corner of the place of burrs
    Cullycapple – Cuil-a-Cappal – corner of the horses

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