Frances Sarah O’Connor

Cut and run,

Wring it and hide,

There will be plenty more,

That comes in on the tide

These were the memories in 1941 of a 95-year-old woman referring to the many ships that washed up around the shoreline of Ballycastle during her youth. She remembered a very different Ballycastle from the one that she found herself living in. In 1941 Ballycastle was at the height of war in the fight against Nazi Germany. It was in Ballycastle that a reporter from the Ballymena Weekly Telegraph was sent to record the memories of small lady who was an important figure in the town. This lady was none other than Dr George O’Connor’s daughter, Francis Sarah O’Connor or as she was known locally, Fanny.

Dr George O’Connor monument, The Diamond Ballycastle. Father of Frances Sarah O’Connor

Fanny was born in 1846 within the grounds that we now have the Marine Hotel standing on. The Marine Hotel was built later in the century in 1881 by Barney Boyle and initially consisted of 30 bedrooms. When Fanny was ten years old she remembers her family moving up the road to Hybla House and it was here that she spent the remainder of her long life. She was a great woman and story teller. She took great pleasure in telling the stories that she remembered from her time as a young girl. An avid historian in her own right she would tell those who listened about the origins of Ballycastle and how it really was a story of two towns, of two distinct communities; the hamlet at the seafront built up around the River Mairge, and the town that shot up around the castle in the Diamond. Fanny especially loved the story of the castle and the rebellion of 1641 and how the Countess Alice, daughter of Shane O’Neill had to go on the run seeking refuge after the events of the rebellion. Some of you might think why I mention this story from 300 years before but the young any being just nine years old remembers the last remnants of the castle being brought down.

In 1855 one of the walls of the castle was still standing in the Diamond but I will let Fanny herself tell

Fanny remembers standing in the Diamond when a man known as John Johnston made his way over to the side of the church. With him he had in his possession a pickaxe and a hammer and was paid ten pounds to take the last remnants of the imposing fortress away with the materials being reused in the building and extension of local properties.  Fanny old this story from her bed as she had been for the previous two years due to ill health, much like her brother and her father in their later years. But her mind was as clear then as it was that day in the Diamond all them years before. The newspapers were delivered daily from McCahan’s on Anne Street and she was up to date on all the current topics of conversation. Whilst bedbound in her 94th year, she still partook in knitting daily for those who were not as well off as herself. Fanny herself was christened in the Ramoan Parish Church and would tell the history of how it had been demolished in the troubles of 1641.

In the days of her youth, she highlighted the fact that there were no trains, buses or cars, nor did the paper arrive in town the day they were published, but that Ballycastle always knew what was going on via the comings and goings of those using the Harbours. The townsfolk knew about the colonial wars that were being fought across the continents and how Ballycastle aided the efforts of the crown. As the Crimean war was being fought against the Russians, medical supplies were always needed and the women of Ballycastle would tear sheets and old pillow cases to be sent out as medical aid. Fanny listened and had a great respect for Florence Nightingale carrying out the nursing duties. The story of Florence Nightingale was of much interest at the time both locally and across the province. Indeed, when Florence returned from the Crimea, one of the first volunteers in her new hospital was an Ulster woman, Agnes Jones from Donegal. Fanny as a little girl recalled the great fun of the tearing of sheets. She remembers one of the housemaids saying to her “my dear, always remember never to throw away a worn linen sheet or pillow case because they are sure to be wanted someday”.

Hybla House, just out of view behind the large tree in the centre. Reportedly the oldest house still standing in Ballycastle. One time home of the O’Connor family.

Fanny also recalled with great fondness the exciting social calendar of the Ballycastle area around this time and said the warren was always full of sports and festivities. She remembered with great delight the first person to play golf in Ballycastle. This was a retired sea captain living in the town who used to take a club and a ball and would walk around the warren many times a week. He was always the subject of much interest and amusement. Fanny’s fondest memories were reserved for the regatta day when the sea came alive with little boats, although she remarked there was little sailing actually done. Little ponies and donkeys with their side carts and tax carts could be seen taking the many picnickers up and down the strand. She recalls the red and white quilts drying along the hedgerows in the spring. The interviewer then saw a change in direction of the story and noticed the old lady’s mood deteriorate when the drying quilts led her on to tragic stories associated with the town. Fanny called the many quilts a “cut and run quilt”. These quilts were made from salvaged material that had washed up along the shoreline. It was during one particular storm she remembered that a ship was lost with all crew in close proximity to Torr Head. In the immediate aftermath of the ship sinking, bales of red and white calico were washed up with the locals going out to scavenge what they could on the shoreline. It was very much a cut and run operation due to the coastguard trying to stop the recovery process.

The interviewer then asked Fanny about the terrible years of ‘An Gorta Mhor’ (The Great Hunger) and while Fanny couldn’t remember the famine first hand she did remember the food, or to be more exact, the Indian meal from America. She recalls how throughout Ireland the food was mixed in huge pots into a porridge called stirabout throughout the towns. The country folk had to walk many miles into town from their homes to then carry it away home in pots and cans. In Ballycastle milk was much scarcer so the porridge was made into scones which in turn were more easily carried home but unfortunately not much better tasting.

The final story that we were left with was that of a tragic accident, whereas a little girl watching from the Boyd Manor House she recalls a large storm hitting the area. This storm continued for days with the rivers of the Glenshesk and Carey full to bursting, The Margy Bridge was close to collapsing, taking a battering from trees, dead sheep, stacks of hay and turf. It was evident that the bridge was going to collapse so a large crowd of people had gathered to see what they could do to save it. Fanny talks of standing at the bay window when a horse and cart with a drunk farmer from Glenshesk who was wanting to make his way home before dark arrived at the bridge. The farmer told the crowd to get out of the way or he would drive over them but still they protested. The farmer then jumped from the cart, prepared for a fight. As the crowd struggled with the farmer, the old bridge had had enough and gave way.

Born on the 13th October 1843, Francis (Fanny) Sarah O’Connor lived to be 94 years old and died on the 20th September 1941. Fanny lived in Hybla House on the Quay Road for 84 years of her life and had a great interest in the poorer members of society. She was involved with the society for protection of animals as well as the society for the protection of children. As a final wish, Fanny requested no flowers at her funeral.

Photo: Courtesy of James McMichael.

I would imagine she would have been the last person in Ballycastle to remember the famine and the structure of the two castles.

The O’Connor monument was erected by public subscription in 1898.

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