Friday 22 August 2014

My missing link: A visit to Patrick Brontë’s homeland in Co. Down, Northern Ireland – tracing the Brontë family roots!

Over the years I have been able to visit many places related to the Brontës, both in the UK and in Ireland, but there was one place that I had not yet visited and which is essential to the Brontë history: the place where Rev. Patrick Brontë was born and where he grew up. This was my missing link in the Brontë story. So this year’s mission on our holidays in Ireland was to be a visit to the area where Patrick Brontë was born and lived until he moved to Cambridge, the area around Rathfriland in County Down, Northern Ireland. I have always been fascinated by the Brontës’ Irish ancestry (probably a consequence of my fascination with Ireland in general) and have read all that I could find on this topic. So you can imagine that I was very excited to see the area where Patrick Brontë spent his early years and to visit the places related to his family.

The day of the visit was to be Saturday 26 July 2014. On our way back home from Boyle to Dun Laoghaire (Co. Dublin) a small detour was planned to Northern Ireland, where I booked us into a B&B in Rathfriland for one night.
In preparation of this visit I had been (re)reading some books on the Brontës’ Irish background. My main guidebook for the trip was to be “The road to Haworth – the story of the Brontës’ Irish ancestry” by John Cannon. This book tells the story of the Irish Brontës, it gives a very good picture of their family history (as far as it is known) and it reads like a Brontë novel. It gave me some background information for the visit of the Irish homeland.

We set off in the morning and planned to arrive in the  Rathfriland area around noon.
A few days before our departure I had phoned the secretary of the Irish section of the Brontë Society, Miss Margaret K Livingston, to see whether we could meet her when we were in the area. We decided to meet up at 1 pm for a picnic lunch  at Drumballyroney where the Brontë Homeland interpretative Centre is situated. The Drumballyroney Schoolhouse and Church are also the start of the Brontë Homeland drive.

The Rathfriland area breathes Brontë: a lot of houses or institutions have a Brontë-related name: Brontë manor, the Brontë primary school, a Brontë nursery unit, there was even a house called “Villette”.

We arrived at 12 o’clock on the dot, the time that the interpretative centre opened its doors. No need to say that we were the first visitors of the day. Since we were well before the time set to meet Margaret, I had some time to browse around in the Schoolhouse to see the video on the Brontë family and read all the information panels, giving information on the various members of the Brontë family, including Patrick Brontë’s parents and their unusual “country courtship”. The small schoolroom also contained some exhibits related to Patrick Brontë and the Brontë sisters, amongst others a replica of Charlotte Brontë’s wedding dress.

Margaret arrived well on time and was accompanied by another member of the Irish section, Mr Finny O’ Sullivan. The weather gods were not on our side that day, it was pouring outside. But a  picnic was planned, and a picnic we would have! Margaret decided to have a picnic in the schoolroom: since we were the only visitors at that moment, this was not a problem. We were treated to a real picnic feast: lovely fresh sandwiches, biscuits, cake, strawberries and cream, tea & coffee and juice, … too much for our poor bellies!

During lunch we received all the information about the Irish section of the Brontë Society, the Irish ancestry and the Drumballyroney site (schoolhouse, Church and Brontë burial plot).

The schoolhouse at Drumballyroney was the place where Patrick (at the age of 21) taught for 4 years, before going to Cambridge. Next to the schoolhouse is the Anglican Church where Patrick and his brother William were christened and where Patrick gave his first sermon after graduating from Cambridge  University.  We also visited the graveyard at the back of the schoolhouse and church, where the Brontë family burial plot is situated and where Patrick’s parents and other family members are buried.

Margaret and Finny had planned to drive us around the Brontë homeland sites, so we set off in Margaret’s car. In the meantime the weather had cleared up and the sun was shining again. The drive was very well sign-posted , we just had to follow the brown signposts with the book symbol. Next stop on the homeland drive was the Brontë Homeland picnic site at Knockiveagh where you have wonderful views over the Mourne Mountains and the area where Patrick grew up. The picnic site contains the ruins of an old shebeen (an illicit drinking house).


We continued to follow the “Brontë road”. We passed the two-storey house near  Lisnacreevy where Hugh and Alice brought up their family of 10 children, we passed the “dancing Glen” where they secretly met according to local legend, and arrived at the next stop on the drive,  Alice McClory’s cottage in Ballynaskeagh. This cottage was the childhood home of Patrick’s mother, and is still owned by the McClory family. The cottage was very overgrown with bushes and ivy, and it was very difficult to see how it would have looked like. Nothing has been done to keep it in a reasonable condition, and it is in a very bad state at the moment. What a shame!

The highlight of the homeland drive was of course the Birthplace Cottage at Emdale, a small two-roomed cottage where Patrick Brontë was born on St. Patrick’s Day 1777.  Or to describe it in Patrick’s own words (from the poem entitled “The Irish cabin”):

“A neat Irish cabin, snow proof
Well thatched, had a good earthen floor,
One chimney in midst of the roof,
One window, and one latched door.”

Little remains now of the original thatched cottage, but it gives a clear impression of how an Irish family must have lived in those days.  However, to modern standards, it is difficult to imagine that a family with two children could actually live in such a small space. A lot of work has been done  to restore the walls, the site is now protected and in 1956 a commemorative plaque was unveiled at the site.


We continued the homeland drive to its final stop, Glascar Church and Schoolhouse, where Patrick had his first teaching post in the 1790’s. He was said to have used creative teaching methods in order to bring out the best in his pupils. He was dismissed from this post because he had formed a romantic attachment with one of his pupils. After this incident he took up the teaching post at Drumballyroney schoolhouse and so the Brontë homeland circle is  complete.
In the Glascar Church graveyard we could see many headstones with the Brontë name. Descendants of the Irish Brontës are still being buried here.


We then went back to the Drumballyroney Schoolhouse, still enjoying the wonderful views and the countryside that Patrick Brontë knew as a child and a young man.

It had been a very interesting and  informative afternoon with Margaret and Finny. One can learn a lot about the Irish Brontë story from books on the subject but having actually seen and visited the sites and having received the information from Margaret and Finny who had so much more to tell about the Irish Brontës and the stories behind the sites, made the Brontë homeland drive so much more interesting to me and gave another dimension to my knowledge on the Irish ancestry.
I was really glad that we had the opportunity of doing the drive with people like Margaret and Finny who knew the places so well. I’m convinced that if we would have had to do the drive on our own, although it is signposted, we would have had great difficulty in finding some of the spots (eg Alice McClory’s cottage well hidden behind bushes and ivy).

We took our leave from Margaret and Finny, thanking them for the time they had spent with us  and the information we had received.

On our way to the B&B in Rathfriland (very close to the Drumballyroney site) I  reflected on the afternoon and enjoyed the satisfaction that I had finally completed my own Brontë circle!

View from our B&B

 For further reading, the following books can be recommended:
“The Road to Haworth – the story of the Brontës’ Irish ancestry” (John Cannon)
“The Brontës of Ballynaskeagh” ( W. Haughton Crowe)
“The Brontës in Ireland” (Dr. William Wright)
“The Brontës’ Irish background” (Edward Chitham)

Marina Saegerman
15 August 2014

1 comment:

Waterstones Brussels said...

I'm struck by 'Bronte Road'. When can we have a 'rue des Brontesstraat' in Brussels?