The Man from Craig-Linnie
The life & times of Ballyclare's most celebrated writer Archibald McIlroy.
Archibald McIlroy was born at ‘Fluther Loanin’, the local name for a small lane situated on the Mill Road, previously Templepatrick Road, until the Paper Mill was transferred to this site from Millvale on 22 September 1859. Now the site is occupied by the modern homes of Millview Drive.
He was one of four children, two of whom, a brother and a sister, died from tuberculosis while still in early childhood. James, his remaining brother steeled in Birmingham where he married and developed a prosperous business. His son studied medicine to become a prominent surgeon and later accompanied Sir Ernest Shackleton on one of his Antarctic expeditions.
The great-grandfather of Archibald was noted for his piety and the good works he wrought amongst the villagers. He lived during the 1798 Rebellion and the story is told that one night a party of the Tay Fensibles, a Scottish Regiment stationed at Carrickfergus, who occupied the village for a day or so immediately after the Battle of Antrim, approached his door with the intention of plundering and burning his house. Hearing a loud voice from within, they stopped to listen. It was the old man engaging in worship with his family, praying for ‘his afflicted country, for the misguided rebels, the soldiers and all who were trying to bring about peace’. The soldiers quietly stole away.
Archibald’s grandfather was sought after as a ‘humorous turn’, at village parties and wakes as he seemed to have a never ending repertoire of amusing stories and songs, and with his fiddle was the ‘life and soul’ of many a country dance. The first few years of Archibald’s life were spent working in the fields and herding cattle on his father’s farm. His early education was received at a small private school, which was a room on the ground floor of Ollar Lodge on the Main Street. Here one schoolmistress tended the elementary education of the thirty or so children who attended it.
His next seat of learning was the old school-house in the Square, where he studied under the careful eye of the famous local teacher David John McCune, who was better know as ‘Fractions’. After spending some time here, his parents transferred him to the old wooden school-house in Foundry Lane, which was locally known as ‘The Wooden Box’. The principal was Robert Percy who had the assistance of one young lady.
McIlory had cherished a deep longing to dwell amongst the fold of Belfast, and his desire was fulfilled, when at the age of sixteen he attended first the Mercantile Academy, then later the Royal Belfast Academical Institution. His primary object in studying at ‘Inst’ was with a view to entering the Ministry, but yielding to the persuasion of friends, he instead passed an examination for a clerkship in the Ulster Bank. ‘Fractions’ who frequently lapsed into the local dialect, especially when excited, had often told ‘Arty’ that he had a ‘guid heid for coontin’, so it is not surprising that ‘Arty’ eventually found his was into ‘the coontin’ hoose’. It didn’t take him long to discover the bank life was anything but congenial and shortly after his marriage he resigned. He took over a commission business in Belfast which proved to be highly successful and in a few years provided him with a comfortable income.
In appearance he was a tall man with erect figure, dark expressive eyes, a black moustache and slightly greying hair. He was a man of staunch religious convictions and a strong supporter of the church of his fathers. Because he had a keen eye, a retentive memory and a flair for writing, he became the successful author of quite a number of books. All these portrayed the characteristic of the people among who he had spent his youth. Indeed, his books show us in a remarkable way the brilliance with which he captured the spirit of the age in which he lived and the quiet peaceful countryside that was typical of East Antrim in the latter half of the 19th Century.
Archibald McIlroy’s storytelling powers were latent until middle life. He gives an account of his own discovery of his gift. His five-year-old son kept asking him for stories until on day his stock ran out and he promised to write him a tale.
In 1897 he wrote, The Sound of a Voice that is Still, which was in fact a true life story of his first schoolmistress in Ollar Lodge. Still his son kept asking for more and so the book grew. The title When Lint was in the Bell, he chose from a passage he had read in a poem, The Cotter’s Saturday Night, and if had an astonishing reception by the public. This was his most popular book and also his own favourite. In it the reader gets a fascinating glimpse, of the quaint country life and village scenes of long ago. These are sketched so vividly and so sympathetically that names and places become home-like long before the book ends.
The ice broken, other slowed from his pen as a matter of course. The Auld Meetin’ Hoose Green followed in 1898 and By Lone Craig Linney Burn in 1900. Others were Burnside, The Snow Wreath, The Humour of Druid’s Island and The Banker’s Love Story, which was published as a successful serial in a national paper. In America, Australia and many parts of the colonies his writings become very popular, so much so that his publishers received numerous orders from the Irish beyond the sea who were keenly interested in his sketches of life in the old country. In addition to these works, he wrote many articles for The Witness and other papers and magazines.
He received glowing reviews. The Manchester Guardian commented Mr. Archibald M’Ilroy has given us a very faithful picture of rural manners in an Ulster village some forty or fifty years ago. Another magazine added We have read with much interest these graceful and humorous sketches of village life in Ulster. They are the work of a close and original observer, of a writer who sips at no glass but his own. There are many delightful characters and the book, as a whole, leaves a sweet and pleasant impression on the mind. We hope Mr. McIlroy will follow up with other picture of old days and old customs in the North of Ireland. Some like The Newcastle Daily Leader noted the religious undertones In two or three of his sketches, such as the one in which he tells of the conversation of Jamie Miskimmon, the Calvinist, or what which describes the idiosyncrasies of the quaint pastor of a quaint congregation, or those in which the love difficulties of Davy are set forth, he gives evidence of considerable insight into character – and of a true appreciation of the thoughts and feelings of the generation of villagers that as passed away.
In later years he spent a great deal of time travelling, extensively throughout the country lecturing on various topics. His first attempt, Allan Ramsey was given in the Assembly Hall, Belfast, and was a dismal failure. The following winter he had a striking success with The Chief of The Cameron Men. This was accompanied by a fine selection of lantern views and became so popular that he was engaged for a long period in many parts of the country, repeating the lecture on an average of twice weekly. The following winter he produced Life and Love in an Ulster Village, and being interspersed which characteristic anecdotes and droll sayings, it popularity was unbounded. Two more of his productions were Wit and Wisdom and The Market Place. The latter, he himself considered his best work.
Archibald McIlroy had from his youth up, taken a keen interest in the affairs of the political world. Having been brought up under bad landlordism, he was a staunch Liberal and frequently addressed their meetings. A Liberal in those days, and even up to a few years before the First World War, was commonly referred to in this district as a ‘Home Ruler’. One of his earliest recollections of a bad landlord was, standing beside his grandfather one day, when the landlord called soliciting (in actual fact demanding) his vote. The old man boldly claimed his right to vote as his conscience directed, with the inevitable result that the next term the rent of the holding was substantially increased.
Archibald had long cherished the ambition to enter Parliament. In fact, arrangements had just been completed for his nomination for an Ulster constituency when his health broke down and he was compelled to spend a lengthy period in Switzerland recuperating. His favourite hobby was collecting pictures, and many rare beautiful painting adorned the walls of his home in Deramore Park, Belfast, and also at Gelenvale, Drumbo, Co Down, where he spent the eventide of his life. Archibald McIlroy was drowned at sea when the Lusitania was torpedoed by a German submarine on 7th May 1915. His son, James, had a memorial tablet placed on the wall of Ballyclare Presbyterian Church, beside the old family pew, but what better memorial can a person leave than ‘written words of yesteryear’ that will always keep Archibald McIlroy’s name alive?