Anthony  D  Buckley

Anthony D Buckley, 1983b

‘Neighbourliness, myth and history’

Oral History 11, 44-51.


Let me begin on a personal note and refer to my own experience of neighbourliness. I live in a cul-de-sac in a small town in Northern Ireland, where, as elsewhere in the province, the quality of `neighbourliness' is much valued. If I wish to borrow a ladder, or a pint of milk or a five pound note, I know that I may ask my neighbours; and I know too that these neighbours, none of whom in any real sense are my 'friends' will ask for favours in return. Indeed, on coming here, it was pleasant for a nomadic English anthropologist, who had lived his thirty six years in twenty two different homes to find himself welcomed into such a thriving community.

It was not long, however, before it became clear that I was not the only nomad in town. It turned out that hardly anyone in my little cul-de-sac community had lived there for more than eight years. Most did not even originate in the town. More than this, it became possible to assert as a rule of thumb, that the less time a person had lived in the street, and the more he had travelled around, the more neighbourly he was likely to be. With only occasional exceptions, those who had lived there longest were the least friendly.

This paper is an historical study of the seaside village of Kearney in the Upper Ards of County Down in which a major theme will be a question of neighbourliness. It is set roughly in the nineteen twenties, although, because much of its data is oral history, it is difficult to present any of that sense of process which normally characterises historiography. The reason for this is that the oral history which was collected had that timeless quality which is associated with myth.

The Upper Ards is a predominantly Catholic area which has a large Protestant minority. It is, as it has always been, an agricultural district. In the past, I was told, farming was 'mixed', and it thus contrasts with the present-day tendency to concentrate upon a limited number of crops. Whereas `labouring the land' was once the main mode of production, now the emphasis is upon the raising of beef and dairy cattle. Here, as elsewhere in Ireland, there has been a steady decline in the number of labourers employed on the land. Partly as a result of this change, the character of the area as a whole has altered. A significant proportion of the working population now commutes to the more industrialised towns near at hand. Kearney village itself, now owned by the National Trust, is indeed totally bereft of a local population, and is inhabited by comparatively wealthy retired people from outside the area. Despite these changes, it has been possible to find a sufficient number of people of all social classes with a lively memory of Kearney in the period between the wars who were willing to discuss it with me.

There are two themes to be explored in this study of Kearney. The first will be to challenge that popular wisdom which associates 'community spirit' with settled 'communities'. The second will be to explore some aspects of the complicated relationship which exists between history and myth.


The myth of the Upper Ards

This paper arises in counterpoint to themes discussed in an earlier work in which the oral history of the Upper Ards was treated as myth. 'Myth' may here be defined as a 'significant true story about the past'. The definition is of course a loose one. Here it will suffice to regard the truth of such a story as being decided by the people who tell and who listen to it. Following Levi-Strauss' it was assumed that my informants in telling their stories were 'bricoleurs'. They had collected together bits and pieces of cultural bric-a-brac----their own direct memories of events and the stories of others—and, though they had to remain within the criteria of truth set by their peers, had pieced together from this their own true stories.

It was further assumed, following an anthropological tradition at least as old as Malinowski, that oral history was more informative about the present life and culture of the informant than it was about the past which it purported to reconstruct. This approach is roughly equivalent to reading A. J. P. Taylor's Bismarck not in order to find out about Bismark, but to find out about A.J.P. Taylor. The myth was to be studied in order to find out about the culture of the teller of the tale.

Though it is intended to give in barest outline, an indication of how I think the present preoccupations of my informants affects their version of history, this is not to be the prime focus of this essay. Instead I intend to construct my own true story of the history of Kearney. Like the oral testimonies of my informants, it will be pieced together from the bric-a-brac at my disposal and be subject to the criticism of my peers.

With only a single exception, the interviews which were held on the subject of Kearney village were with people whose home was still in the Upper Ards. And for a variety of reasons, the people of that area tend to give a remarkably uniform version of local history. One reason, undoubtedly, is that the subject of local history is much discussed in the area, and in consequence there is a tendency for an overall consensus to emerge. I have found that in other areas of Ulster, where the population has little interest in the subject, spectacular divergencies of opinion can exist. Another reason however is that there is in the Upper Ards a remarkable lack of antagonism between social classes and religious groups, and this harmony reflects itself in the broad unanimity about the overall pattern of the area's history.

My informants are from the remnant of the different social classes which existed in the past. I spoke to retired farmers who lived around the townland, and to the relatives of those who lived within it, including several who lived in the farmhouses up to the second World War. Also I have discussed the village's history with retired labourers who worked in and around the village. Each of the three major religious denominations is also represented. With only subtle shifts of emphasis, the members of these different social and religious groups were able to use the same basic story to express their distinctive views of the world.

Because of this unanimity, it is possible to speak loosely of 'the myth of the Upper Ards' and the `myth of Kearney'. Here, for the sake of brevity, a version of the myth of Kearney is presented made up of bits and pieces of the various stories that were told to me but keeping the predominant emphasis of the original. It dealt on the one hand with 'independence', and on the other hand with its opposite, 'neighbourliness'.


Farmers of Kearney — independence

There were basically only two groups of people discussed at any length in the oral histories, the farmers and their servants. Skilled workers, businessmen and others were merely fitted into this basic dichotomy. The village farmers were entirely Protestant—indeed Presbyterian—and as such they formed part of a deeply interrelated group of wealthy Protestant farmers and businessmen living in the Upper Ards. Farm servants, on the other hand, were Church of Ireland or Catholic.

Farmers stood quite significantly aloof from the remainder of the community, their dealing with the lower classes being offhand and formal. Former labourers speak of them with respect, even fear, humanising their coldness and distance by recounting their eccentricities.

Hugh Hastings, for example, was reputed to have been a 'dealer'. As well as being a farmer, he dealt in horses and cattle, but he would buy and sell anything if he could make money at it. It is said that as his car drove along the road, each turn of the wheel meant that money was being made. On one occasion, a worker mentioned that he needed boots. Hastings, so the story goes, took off his own boots and offered to sell them.

The three McMullen sisters owned a farm on the edge of the townland where still stands a ruined mill. They worked the farm with the assistance of a farm manager. They are little spoken of, save that Hessie McMullen, a sometime school teacher and nearly blind by the end of her life, was wont to give slices of turnip to children while she dug the fields.

John Orr was also noted for his eccentricity expecially when as occasionally happened, he got drunk. Such an event, especially in a Presbyterian farmer, is always worthy of comment. It seems that, when one day inebriated, Orr took up a shotgun to kill a rat. He ended up killing all of his neighbour's geese. For all this, when sober, On could be 'a kindly man'.

Robert John McNab, however, was 'a vicious man'. He too was not above being eccentric. On New Year's Eve, at midnight, he would take a long horn,perhaps an alpine horn, and blow it for an hour or more to welcome in the New Year. But McNab was 'not the sort of man you could get intimate with' and it was not possible to discuss this unusual custom with him.

The farmers of this period were noted for being hard taskmasters. Hastings in particular had this reputation, but the difference between him and other was one only of degree. Hours were long, work beginning as early as 5.30 a.m., continuing through to 6.30 in the evening. Breakfast at 6.00 and dinner at 1.00 were served at the farm with a brief break at 11.00. The labourers worked alternate Sundays and had Saturday afternoons free from 3.30 p.m. to allow the women to walk to the shops in Portaferry.

A certain bitterness is expressed about the nature of those meals. The most favoured dish in Kearney was salt-herring, which, especially when it had been obtained through being unfit for sale, was particularly cheap. This could be given to the labourers daily, or even, on occasion, twice a day. The fanner and his family would eat separately from the workers at a second table in the kitchen, eating superior fare.

The farmers of Kearney were willing to dismiss their workers summarily for the most trivial offences. High unemployment assured that, following such a dismissal, there would be a queue of workers seeking work within hours.

Because of their eccentricities, the farmers of Kearney are remembered with an ambiguous affection, but all are recognised to have had the capacity to be 'hard men'. I have heard both Hastings and On described as kindly, but on each occasion my suspicion was that this reflected an incorrigible tendency of my informant to see the best in everyone. It is clear, at all events, that this kindliness is only so regarded by comparison with other farmers of the district, not by the standards of the community at large. Hastings, for example, was called 'kind' because he did not turn a family out of their cottage merely because the man no longer worked for him.


The life of the working class

The lot of the poor was indeed hard. Incomes from farm labouring were low, and alternative work hard to find. With employment always precarious, and unemployment relief (the turoo') meagre, a sense of insecurity pervaded the whole of life.

It was possible, however, to supplement one's income. By the 1920s, the fishing industry as a means of full-time employment was in absolute decline. There are distant memories of a fishing fleet of some thirty vessels operating out of Kearney and nearby Tara. There is talk of one boat, the She Cruiser, crewed entirely by women. But between the wars, fishing off Kearney was little more than a peripheral, if vital, activity, to be engaged in full time only if there was no regular employment. Most people confined their fishing to the gathering of whelks, crabs and the edible seaweed called `dulse', the latter being sold, then as now in Portaferry, for the Belfast market. Fish caught during the summer months could be salted and dried on the roofs of houses and stored for the winter.

The sea provided another source of income through the looting of ships. Although improved navigation and shipbuilding had much reduced this activity by the nineteen twenties, it reached a last and splendid climax when the wartime blackout brought convoys and cargoes in profusion on to the rocks of the coast near Kearney.

Less romantically, and more legally, labourers would strive to keep a garden stacked with vegetables. Potatoes were the principal crop. and it was the custom for farmers to give their labourers the use of their ploughs and horses on St. Patrick's Day to allow them to plant the seed.

Women, too, made a contribution to the family income. If they could find employment, they would work in the farmhouses or even on the land, but in the evening many women would sit up into the early hours embroidering.

The possibility of engaging in occupations such as these made the life of the poor more secure than it might otherwise have been. Employment may have been precarious, and the future always  uncertain, but except through ill-health, mismanagement or unusually bad luck, it was always possible to stave off absolute destitution.

Yet the main thread running through all accounts of the history of Kearney, and indeed of the whole Upper Ards, is the neighbourliness of the past. It was possible, said one man, to walk into any house in the village and find your tea waiting for you. The neighbourliness of that time was not altogether a matter of sentiment. Another informant argued that it was an economic necessity. You could not afford to fall out with your neighbours, he said, because you could never be certain that tomorrow you would not need their assistance. The low standard of living, but more than that, the danger of a sudden and unexpected drop in income made it a matter of first importance to get on well with your neighbours. Nowadays, he said, you can afford to do without your neighbours. But in the past, you had to stay on good terms.

Life, however, was not all work, and evenings and weekends could provide an opportunity for villagers and those who lived in the countryside round about to visit each other and to exchange `news' and 'yarns'. There were the 'ceilidh houses', acknowledged meeting places where one would go to meet not especially the occupant of the house but other people who had similarly dropped in. Men gathered too on the top of the nearby Dowey Hill, and at the crossroads near the mill or simply around the houses, and outdoor games were played and stories were told.

This was a life rich in folklore. One man told me how in his childhood, he was advised by an old woman to dig gently at the foot of a fairy thorn. There he would find, and there he did find, the tiny clay pipes said to belong to the fairies. He told me too of an old man—a 'harmless sort of a man' who 'wouldn't tell a lie' —who confided to him that he had seen a fairy outside the Hasting's byre. When he recovered from his fright, he was rewarded daily by the appearance of a half-crown in his wheelbarrow.

People, it is said, were far friendlier in those days. They would stop and have a yarn or give you a hand if you were in trouble.


The significance of the myth

The broad outline of the Upper Ards myth may be quickly summarised. There were in the past two groups of people. On the one hand were the farmers, the wealthiest of whom were Protestant, and these particularly were cruel, acquisitive and independent, keeping themselves apart from the warm 'neighbourly' spirit which characterised the lives of the other type of person, the labourer, Preoccupied with an over-formal morality, in the form of teetotalism, Sabbatarianism and a rather obsessive tidiness, the wealthier farmers despised the more easy-going ways of their workers. For the latter, however, morality consisted in more than the outward observance of moral rules. It was more to do with having a genuine and practical concern for the needs of others. The two sets of values portrayed are set out in Figure One.


Figure One: Upper Ards myth

Farmersrichacquisitivecruel`independent'Formal moralityteetotalsabbatarianTidykeeping up appearancesLabourersPoorGenerousKindNeighbourly(mild)rebellion against formal moralitydrinkingNon-sabbattarianUntidygenuine concern for others

This dichotomy has direct significance for the people of the Upper Ards in the present day. It still finds expression in the stereotypes of Protestant and Catholic, even though the growth of influence of Catholics in the area has eroded this stereotype and has created a general desire to transcend it.

Its categories are also to be discovered in family life.  Women are recognized to be preoccupied with formal morality, with tidiness and with keeping up appearances; and their attitudes contrast with the easy going demeanour of their menfolk. More generally it is felt that individuals, social groups and society itself are torn between the ‘old’ rural values of neighbourliness, community, kindliness and so on, and the ‘modern’, urban values of acquisitiveness and independence. People are said to be more and more inclined (rather like the farmers of old) to devote their lives to making money. hiding from their neighbours behind lace curtains, emerging on Sundays only to polish the car and go well-dressed to church. While acknowledging the pressures which lead to the adoption of such behaviour, allegiance is still given to the 'old' way of life in which a man was willing to sacrifice his own interest to that of his neighbour. The demise of these rural values, associated in the myth with the kindly labourers, and the rise of self-seeking independence are seen to be the root cause of sectarian cruelty in modern times.


Mobility and immobility

Having indicated in this brief manner that the myth of Kearney has relevance for the people who still live in the Upper Ards and who tell the story, it may now be used to construct my own history of the village. If it is possible to study the biography of Bismarck in order to find out about his biography, it is also possible to use it to find out about Bismarck. And with good reason: for there are constraints imposed by an historian's peers which prevent a lapse into pure fiction. Both the speaker and the writer of history must be confined within the bounds of what the community asserts are the facts.

It is thus permissible to use my informants' stories in my own history but only as long as they are in conjunction with other material collected from other sources. Most important among these other sources were Valuation Records.'

What was most immediately striking about the evidence in the Valuation Books was the high geographical mobility of the labouring class. Between the years 1863 and 1918--years selected purely for ease of computation—farmers are shown to have occupied property for an average of 27.54 years. In striking contrast, property occupied by members of the labouring class was held for only 12.22 years. Of the fourteen different surnames listed as occupying propertv in 1863. all but six had disappeared in 1918. Of these six, four were the names of farmers. All of the farming families found in the village in 1863 were to be found there in 1918. In the same period. more than three quarters of the families of labourers had moved out and been replaced by others. In short, labourers flowed into the village, and they flowed out. Farmers on the other hand were born in the village and they lived there until they died. They were the permanent residents. the basic community of Kearney.

It is now possible to moderate the rather extreme picture portrayed in the oral histories by building up a clearer picture of the social circumstance of each group. First of all. there is reason in to suppose that the castigation of the wealthier farmers for failing to participate in community life is over-simple. A closer look at the interview evidence shows that they did not merely hide behind the closed farmhouse door, but did in fact have quite a full social life.

On the one hand, even within the context of the Upper Ards myth, there is reported the practice known as 'neighbouring'. It appears that very few farmers were able to perform all of the necessary tasks of farming entirely by themselves. Particularly at busy times of the year. when intensive labour was required, for example with threshing, they were dependent on their neighbours. Informants were often pleased to talk about 'neighbouring' both because it provided an opportunity to describe communal activity; and because neighbouring provided a good example of the neighbourliness of the past, for it transcended religious boundaries.

Of greater significance was an interview which I held with the daughter of a former farmer of Kearney. She had not lived in the Upper Ards for some thirty years, and was, therefore, innocent of the present day myth. The childhood she recalled was one in which there had been a succession of visits usually by invitation to the relatives who lived scattered throughout the Upper Ards. It was very noticeable that she knew hardly anything about village life, but she was very familiar with the Protestant farming and business community in the wider area. It looks as it the farmers of Kearney did indeed cut themselves off from the village poor, but it was so that they might participate in a social network of kin which lay largely outside the village.

An important diffeence between the farmers and their servants is clearly that the farmers were rooted in the landscape which gave them their livelihood. When one investigates the network of affinity and kinship both by sifting the oral tradition and by looking at wills, it is clear that many of their relatives and in-laws were also largely compelled to live in the same place for the whole of their lives. Except for the major upheaval of marriage, changes in the social networks of farmers were slow. Unlike their labourers, farmers had a whole world of interrelationships mapped out for them, fixed by genealogy and geography.

In contrast to the edifice-like permanence of the interrelated farmers of Kearney, the labourers lived a more transient existence, moving house whenever they changed jobs. And it does appear that men and women of the labouring class did indeed change jobs every few years almost as a matter of course. Despite unemployment, workers seem to have been unwilling to remain with even a good employer for more than a few years. Their frequent changes of job and changes of house are reflected in the Valuation Records.

Labourers, therefore, unlike farmers, did not have a single set of relationships which evolved slowly and steadily throughout their lives. On the contrary, they found themselves frequently uprooted and living among strangers. 'You came home when you went to a farm', said one of my informants. But it was a home populated by strangers.

Farmers, who in this sense were forced by their occupation to live in one specific place for their entire lives, were in another sense more mobile than their workers. For though a labourer could move house with relative ease, he was, on a day to day basis, restricted in his social contacts to people who lived within walking or later bicycling distance. Farmers, on the other hand, had horses and later cars, and were more immediately free from the confines of their neighbourhood.

This new evidence from the Valuation Records, supplemented by data on kinship and an interview with someone living outside the Upper Ards, gives fresh insight into the modes of behaviour described in the oral histories.

First of all, it is possible to understand the position of the farmers with greater sympathy. Gone is the implied picture of the oral histories in which the farmers appear as alien beings standing aloof from the community of workers. Instead, the farmers are now to be seen as the basic community of the village participating in the wider life of the Upper Ards. In and out of the village flowed a tide of workers living a transient life.

Confronted with this flow, the farmers kept themselves to themselves, ignoring their workers as far as possible. Thus they were able to cultivate relationships along familiar and long established lines. Thus too they could preserve an appropriate social distance from their employees, the better to command them.

Secondly, it is possible to understand the neighbourliness of the workers. Their lives were not irrevocably tied to a single neighbourhood, nor to a single set of relationships. The workers were, on the contrary, frequently having to make their homes among strangers. So, once residence was established in a neighbourhood, economic insecurity, and the need for fellowship made it necessary to cultivate intense, if short-lived relationships with people whom at first they scarcely knew.

Farmers had no such deep seated need to be 'neighbourly', for they had a permanent network of neighbours and kin already established. The pattern of behaviour which is described as neighbourliness seems therefore to have been a strategem of cultivating ties with strangers. And it was one which was appropriate to people who felt themselves to be insecure outsiders, constantly on the move.


Myth and History

What has here been shown is that an awareness of the mythical nature even of first hand testimonies is by no means incompatible with an appreciation of their value as historical documents. The oral testimonies are in effect a moral tale speaking of the value of an old neighbourly way of life and pointing to the divisive and evil affects of self-seeking and acquisitiveness. My own account has removed much of the heaviness of this moral perspective. Of smaller importance are questions of class and religion. More significant now is the issue of geographical mobility.

However, in telling a new tale it is necessary to complete the cycle of my argument. What is the significance of the new story for the storyteller? It may be, for example, that by moderating the starkness of the dichotomy between the villains and their victims, the storyteller has appeased a latitudinarian English conscience which balks at seeing Presbyterians as unequivocally and irrationally bad and Catholics as wholly good.

Yet this story, like most stories,' still contains both good victims and wicked villains. They have merely been differently defined. Now the villains are the permanent residents, while the good, kind, gentle people are the ones who frequently move house.

So to return to the question: does the new story reflect the social reality of the person who tells the story? The answer, of course, is that it does. At the beginning of this paper, it was stated that the myth-maker was someone who had lived in twenty-two different houses in seventeen towns and villages. And now he finds that he has discovered a sense of community among people who, like himself, are permanent strangers.



1 Anthony D. Buckley, A Gentle People—a Study of a Peaceful Community in Northern Ireland. Ulster Folk and Transport Museum, Holywood, C. Down, in press. Chapter 2 et passim.

2 Claude Levi-Strauss. La Pens& Sauvage, Plon, Paris 1962, pp.26ff.

3 The Valuation Books for Kearney are located in the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland.

4 The 'drama triangle', much used in transactional psychology, was conceived in the context of 'scripts' or models for action by Stephen Karpman, 'Fairy tales and script drama analysis'. Transactional Analysis Bulletin, 7,27.