Tuesday, June 09, 2015

From Ballyfrench to the US Army

My dad bought our farm at Ballyfrench - Ireland's most easterly townland - around 1973. The photo above is of the farm in 1968. All his life he had laboured to the owners, the Johnstons. Prior to the Johnstons a family called Ralston owned it. The Ralstons went to America, and some years ago a bus load of them came back from California to see the old place. In the late 70s my dad had built the family a new bungalow, so the old house was disused then, but still pretty well preserved - the Ralston visitors peeled some of the wallpaper from the walls to take home with them. The old house was renovated a few years ago, and we lived in it for a while during the build of our current house just down the hill.

Christina "Tina" Johnston was the one who hired my dad when he was wee. She had a small table in the corner of the scullery where she'd feed him soda bread and jam after he'd done his morning's work. There's a dignity in working hard to buy something of your own – he inherited nothing, but with sweat and graft he bought the place not long after I was born. It became the second Thompson farm at Ballyfrench; the one he grew up on just two fields away has been lived in by Thompsons since at least the 1750s.

In digging a bit recently I found the Great War memorial of Glastry Presbyterian Church on Barry Niblock's excellent website. It lists a number of Ballyfrench men, including three Johnstons who presumably had emigrated to the USA but signed up to fight.

Browne H – Ballyfrench – Rifleman – Royal Irish Rifles
Donnan H – Ballyfrench – Rifleman – R.I.R. – Gassed
Donnan T – Ballyfrench – Private – U.S. Army
Johnston H T – Ballyfrench – Private – U.S. Army
Johnston J G – Ballyfrench – Private – U.S. Army
Johnston W – Ballyfrench – Private – U.S. Army

The 1901 Census of Ireland includes a large Johnston family at house 18 Ballyfrench, with six sons and three daughters. The sons include a Hugh Johnston (11), a James Johnston (9) and a William Johnston (12). Presumably these are the same men, who would have been aged 24, 22 and 25 when the Great War broke out 13 years later in 1914.

I have no idea what became of them, but they farmed our fields and were born and grew up in our old house. They may even have planted the red fuschia hedge that my dad and I cut on Saturday morning - shown just behind the white garden wall in the photo. They may also have used the scythe sharpening stone I found a broken end of, under the hedge.

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From neighbouring Ballyeasboro (I went to Ballyeasborough Primary School) are these men:

Hagan J – Ballyeasboro – Lance Corporal – R.I.R. – Wounded
Hanna W – Ballyeasboro – Sergeant – R.I.R. – Killed in Action
Palmer R – Ballyeasboro – Sergeant – Canadian Expeditionary Force
Tibbs H – Ballyeasboro – Corporal – U.S. Army

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It's hard to imagine how the countryside of Ulster was torn apart 100 years ago by the loss of a generation of young men through emigration and war service. And if you survived those, the "white plague" of tuberculosis wasn't too far away.


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