Margaret Kiernan – The landscape of north Wexford

Margaret Kiernan writes poetry and short stories. She is published in both.
She is part of the Thursday poetry workshop at Galway Arts Centre, 47 Dominick Street, facilitated by Mr Kevin Higgins, Poet.

She has a background in Public Policy and Social Justice. Margaret enjoys painting in watercolour and in acrylics.

She has four grown-up sons. She lives in Mullingar.


The landscape of north Wexford

By Margaret Kiernan

The landscape of north Wexford sparkled: rolling countryside with beech trees and pasture fields surrounded by earth ditches. The blue hills on the horizon added to the beauty. Cranford village lay within this vista. It would be difficult to imagine any ugliness arising from the scene, but it had. Trevor West concluded that moving lock stock and barrel out of the country was the only remedy. The dissenters had won out. Night-time in the rural glens had taken on a ghostlike existence. The curlews forlorn and faintly human sounds had assumed an eerie resonance.

Sarah Jane West, a teenager, recalled the moment when she heard her father state his decision. They were to move to Australia, to live. She had feared that would be the outcome. Ballard House, and estate, had known its share of sorrow and strife. However, the events on the front lawn the previous year had been the catalyst for the major decision her parents, would take. What had happened to their son, would change many lives but not least, Sarah Jane’s.

Ireland was in political turmoil. Violent retributions resulted from agitation and dissension about land rent and grazing. On January 22nd 1919 the First Meeting of Parliament was held in Dublin. All members were Revolutionaries. Many Barracks of the Royal Irish Constabulary were being closed, leaving vast areas of the country without any police presence and the safety of officers could no longer be guaranteed. Ambushes by Rebels and Dissenters were frequent, and reprisals were swift and brutal. Court-martials, not courts, were the order of the day. Crown forces of Black and Tans and State paid auxiliaries roved the countryside. Paid one pound a day, auxiliaries were the aristocracy in uniform.

Trevor West was a Magistrate as well as being a large landowner with strong links to the Orange Order. He had been involved in many land dispute cases brought to County Courts by landlords seeking rents and evictions. Ballard House Estate was a substantial farm and Charles West, one of Trevor’s brothers acted as steward there. Living across the valley in the farmyard in his assigned house, he acted as a driver for many of Trevor’s outings. Violet, his wife, kept house Another brother, Andrew, had settled in Australia where he worked for the Commonwealth Service. Charles was a busy man: farming, animal husbandry and horse breeding. He rode to the Hunt as, did Trevor. Ballard House took its turn at hosting a Hunt meeting. The stirrup cup got filled with Port and whiskey and served as a stiffener before the Hunt party set off. Jumping large stone walls and broad earth ditches, chasing the foxes. Many followers travelled on foot after the hounds. It gave the appearance of a carnival, almost.

Agitation at Ballard House came to crisis point in1919.  At Ballard groups of men camped at the back-gate watching the house. It was feared that they would shoot Trevor, if given the opportunity. He could no longer come and go as he pleased. He was an agent to other landlords and had a great deal of daily travel attending to collection of rents, and paying wages to workers, leasing tillage lands and seeding the ground. His duty as a Magistrate was severely compromised. Many big houses in the surrounding Counties had been torched and set alight. Plumes of smoke filled the skies over South Kildare.

One- night loud voices and shouting on the front lawn woke Trevor. He got out of his bed and tip-toed downstairs to the drawing room. The scene, he found sent shivers down his back. Trevor could see in the moonlight that, there were five men, some smoking cigarettes. They scuffed and kicked the sod with their heavy boots. One man carried a gun. Trevor went back upstairs to check on his family. There was no help to hand or anyone to call.

Henry West had returned home after serving in the War and it was assumed, he’d follow in his father’s footsteps. However, he’d got caught up in a mob in nearby Gorey town where sixteen-year-old Toby Doyle was arrested. Doyle’s widowed mother couldn’t afford bail. Henry was asked to intervene but refused, stating ‘more of the same ought to be locked up.

Trevor West was sure that Toby Doyle’s older brother was one of those on the lawn. Toby had died in custody under suspicious circumstances. No post-mortem was held.

Bullets riddled the front wall of the house, shattering the windows. Return fire came quickly, from a first-floor window. From the front lawn, a voice called for Henry.

Eventually, Trevor West came to a window and offered himself to the Rebels. The demand was repeated for Henry. Henry stepped out. He was surrounded, forced to the back of the house and bundled into a waiting car. Across the fields, a fox barked loudly.

The following day a Constabulary Inspector called to Trevor and Anna at Ballard House. Henry was dead. Shot in the head.

Within a few months there was a for sale sign on the Estate. Everything was going under the hammer. Livestock was first to go. Goods and chattels were next, and a good many men, women and youths made unemployed. It caused mixed feelings among the locals. Not everyone loved the Rebels. They exacted their own rewards and did not pay wages. The Wests travelled first class, arriving in harbour at Sydney.

North of Sydney, New South Wales lies the Hunter Valley Region. From early 1800s viticulture was well established. Semillon and Shiraz grapes grew excellently there. Temperatures in summer, could reach thirty degrees centigrade and in winter fall below zero. To the western direction lay the Blue Mountains, with Parramatta forty miles away. Andrew West was stationed in the Military Area of Singleton. Trevor purchased a ranch for his family: Anna, his wife, daughters Sarah Jane and Isobel and Bertrand now their only surviving son. Doctor DeCourcy attended Sarah Jane had advised she leave her memories, even that of her first kiss and gift of pressed violets from Willie Gibson, behind her.

In the following months, Sarah Jane got healthier and made the decision to go to college in Sydney to train as a teacher. Her independence grew.

John Mitford was a rancher and fifteen years older than Sarah Jane. They were married in the Anglican church in Cess Fort. They went on to have four children: twins Billy and Jack, then Claire, and Florence, forever to be known as Flo.  John and Sarah Jane had many great ideas for their future. They build a beautiful new house with a veranda and a porch named, Ballard Wisteria grew up the walls and it was built in a style to be warm in winter and cool indoors in summer. Down a back drive were the stables where they children learnt to ride. Dogs everywhere, some were working animals and others, pets. The house was John’s gift to his bride. Sarah Jane spoke at length to their children about her childhood and suffered abouts of melancholia. Their children felt as if they had vicariously lived the life of Irish people.

Billy was to replace his father as the farm proprietor. In the meantime, life was busy and both men worked well together.

One morning Sarah Jane woke to find that John had passed away in his sleep at eighty-five years old. He was buried in the graveyard at St John’s Anglican Church in Cessnock. All the extended family were present.

Afterwards, Billy worried about his mother being alone while he was out on the ranch. His wife Cindy drove to the hospital an hour’s drive away to work each day. Cassie their daughter, began to spend more time with her grandmother at Ballard. She listened to family secrets, tales about Willie Gibson and stolen kisses. Cassie began to write down stories that Sarah Jane told her. Occasionally Cassie drove her grandmother into town and visited Museums and coffee shops. Adventure days they called them.

Sarah Jane’s last wish was for her ashes to be returned to Ireland and the task fell to Cassie. She had to wait until 2017 to action it.

Grandmother never could have said how remote and small this rural place was. A lady walked her bicycle along the road. She wore a faded blue dress and her hair scattered loosely in the breeze. Weathered features hinted she was not young. She waved to Cassie.

“Nice day” she said.

“Not bad” replied Cassie.

“You are a stranger here”, stated the woman with the bike. “Long ago many of those derelict houses held families. They are all dead or gone away”

“Where did they go to”? asked Cassie.

“Oh Dublin, London, Liverpool and America Some went as far away as Australia. All over the world”, she sighed. “Never to be heard of again.” She pulled herself upright from the handlebars of the bike and she said, “I’m Lizzie Murphy.”

Cassie told Lizzie her name and, about her bus journey to the area. “A family once lived hereabouts by the name of West, somewhere near the ancient Castle. Did you ever hear the name mentioned or know anything about them?”

“Yes, I heard their name mentioned and they are all long gone.” Lizzie took her leave and cycled off.

Cassie remembered that she had something important to do. Walking quickly, she made her way as if by instinct. When she arrived at the dark and crumbling entrance pillars and the large gates with overgrown shrubs and hedges, she slowed her pace. The front lawn had long lost its shape. Sheep had grazed the shrubs back to the earth dirt. This had to be the house. It was in partial ruins, but it still had beauty. All her family’s stories had begun in Ballard House.

Eventually she stepped forward and lifted the latch on a tall iron gate. It resisted her command and only slightly budged the iron from its settings. She pushed harder and stepped inside, squelching on something in the undergrowth. Cassie walked up the overgrown driveway.

All she felt was the thud of her own racing pulse. Green lichen hugged the stone steps in front of the entrance. Mottled grey and white forms lay upon the step. She lifted the heavy brass knocker, now dark grey and uncleaned. Letting it drop, she heard it echo back. She leaned forward and peered in through the dirty leaded side window. Making out shapes was difficult.

On an overhead landing, light filtered down a stairwell. Books lay strewn under a side table on the wall facing her view. Some had covers hanging off in shades of green and red. Cobwebs hung from a wall-mounted stag’s antlers and added to the image of long neglect. A slight breeze caught across the back of her neck. Shuddering, she stepped back and faced the other way. Retracing her steps, she headed towards the gate.

Walking quickly, she arrived back in the village of Cranford without having met another person along the way. She stepped into the small hotel on the main street. Cassie asked if any food was available. A woman in a green Aran sweater said there was sandwiches only. Cassie ordered a beef on rye with pickles and a glass of Guinness.

 

Cassie settled into a snug corner. Pilgrimages she thought, are tiring. A bell ringing startled Cassie from her daydreaming. The food was served, and she ordered another drink. The bar server told her that they did not have many visitors from Australia. Cassie realised that not everyone was seeking to hear her own story.

Cassie drank her beer and headed out into the street to the graveyard. Finally, she came to a headstone with the name West recorded on it. Beside it lay a big tomb, like an altar. It was surrounded by iron rails and decorative posts. She stood and read the records of birth and death dates. All still and quiet and resting in formation. The name of the house was listed so there was no doubt.in Cassie’s mind. She knelt beside the tombstone and extracted from her carry-bag, an urn made from dried eucalyptus wood and carefully poured out the contents into the ground, underneath the family name.

She waited for the ashes to settle and stood up. Taking out a camera she clicked and recorded the family headstones. A sombre, few minutes reflecting on the pilgrimage of life and death. Putting the camera carefully back into her hold-all, she looked at her watch. Gathering herself together, she headed out the gate.

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1 Response to Margaret Kiernan – The landscape of north Wexford

  1. Margaret Kiernan says:

    Deeply grateful to the administration at The Galway Review. Such generosity from the Team. A wonderful service and resource to the writing community in 🇮🇪Ireland and Internationally too.

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