A Time for Contemplation

Posted: April 13, 2022 in Uncategorized

I get enormous pleasure from our garden. It’s only a small suburban garden, but it’s become a haven for birds and wildlife, especially a quenda, or bandicoot. Spending time in the garden is an opportunity to detox from the pressures of life and enjoy the beauty of nature.

This video is a snippet of my own contemplation and I’d like to invite you to find at least five minutes to sit and watch and listen to this video, but to take some time afterwards to pause and reflect upon God’s goodness. If you don’t have a garden of your own, I’d like to invite you to enjoy ours, but most of all to stop doing all the things that press in on your day and simply pause.

The musical background is the old hymn, “His Eye is on the Sparrow” written by Civilla D. Martin in 1905. I haven’t confirmed this quote that appears in Wikipedia, but it is purported to be the words of the lyricist:

Early in the spring of 1905, my husband and I were sojourning in Elmira, New York. We contracted a deep friendship for a couple by the name of Mr. and Mrs. Doolittle—true saints of God. Mrs. Doolittle had been bedridden for nigh twenty years. Her husband was an incurable cripple who had to propel himself to and from his business in a wheel chair. Despite their afflictions, they lived happy Christian lives, bringing inspiration and comfort to all who knew them. One day while we were visiting with the Doolittles, my husband commented on their bright hopefulness and asked them for the secret of it. Mrs. Doolittle’s reply was simple: “His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me.” The beauty of this simple expression of boundless faith gripped the hearts and fired the imagination of Dr. Martin and me. The hymn “His Eye Is on the Sparrow” was the outcome of that experience.[4]

The Genius of Jesus

Posted: November 11, 2021 in Uncategorized

“How can you take the world’s greatest instrument of death and forever transform it into the greatest symbol of life?” (from “The Genius of Jesus: The Man Who Changed Everything” by Erwin Raphael McManus)

I read a lot, but every now and then a book comes along that stands out from the rest. For me it’s “The Genius of Jesus: The Man Who Changed Everything” by Erwin Raphael McManus. This is a book for everyone, and particularly for those who aren’t already followers of Jesus. If you’ve ever wondered what makes Jesus different from any other historical figure, this book is for you. If you’ve ever wondered what makes the followers of Jesus different from anyone else, this book’s for you.

McManus has spent his life studying genius. He’s fascinated by people like Rembrandt, da Vinci, and Michael Jordan and has studied the various elements of genius. In this book McManus explores the genius of Jesus and has come up with some qualities that make up what he believes makes Jesus unique from others. However, unlike others who stand alone in their genius

McManus comes up with some aspects of Jesus’ genius that may be surprising to many but he presents his argument in a way that is very convincing. He talks about the genius of empathy, the genius of power, the genius of grace, the genius of good, the genius of true and the genius of beautiful. Here are some quotes that I think give a picture of the clarity of his writing.

Empathy: If Jesus reveals one great insight about genius, it is that empathy is the highest form of intelligence… In the end, we will see that Jesus did not simply come to ensure that we understand God. He came so that we would know that God understands us.

Power: In the same way that humility is always more powerful than arrogance and generosity is the great power over greed, servanthood is the singular power that can overcome obligation. Obligation is false power. Intention is a power that elevates you to your highest freedom.

Grace: Grace by any definition is transcendent. Even in the most mundane environments, it evokes wonder. You know grace when you see it. It elevates. It transcends. It carries a touch of the diving. Grace manifests in favour that seems unfair, in works that can only be described as a masterpiece. It is undeniable.

Good: This is where the genius of Jesus gives us a new way to wade through the complexity of real life. Jesus does not simply teach us to see the difference between good and evil, or even to choose between right and wrong. He treats those as obvious distinctions. Instead Jesus teaches us to choose between the right and the good. It may seem counterintuitive, but the greatest enemy to doing the most good is living your life always trying to be right.

True: When Jesus says he is the truth, he is saying there is no gap between the source and the voice. He can be trusted completely, because instead of perceiving the truth or learning what is true, he is the singular source of all that is true. He is both the scientist and the science. He is the one who can be trusted. He can never get you lost, because he is the compass and the North Star. Truth exists because God can be trusted.

Beautiful: The cross is the story that words could not tell, the elegant solution to our most complex problems. The cross is tragedy. The cross is beauty. The cross is the genius of Jesus.

Here’s a suggestion, get a group together, read it then discuss each chapter individually. People have been writing about Jesus for centuries, but this is a book that’s worth a second look. I’d be surprised if after reading it you’re not convinced of the genius of Jesus.

What about Mound Building?

Posted: August 27, 2021 in Uncategorized
Photo: Rob Douglas

I love the termite mounds of the Kimberley. They are a familiar sight throughout the north of Australia. When we first got to Derby I did a video, as I do, about the termite mounds and I reflected on what they may teach us about the church. I talked about the way the termites worked together to produce these amazing mounds and how the termites can be a great example to us of working together and producing great results together.

Then I thought about what I said, and realised that there is probably another, and maybe a more important message for the church. As I looked at these mounds all across the environment, I pondered on the fact that the church is busy building its own termite mounds. Like the termites we work away creating amazing structures that protect our colony and everyone can see what a great job we do. Unfortunately, all our feverish work is only to make a comfortable environment for ourselves and all people can see is the outward structure.

That sounds very critical and I know it’s not typical of all of Christ’s followers or his church, but it’s intended to prompt our thinking.

In these COVID times I wonder if it is time for us to look beyond some of the things that have been important to the church in the past and to re-think about our role. The purpose of this video is to encourage followers of Jesus to think more about this, and to start a conversation about what the church may look like in the future. I’d love this site to be a place where people feel free to discuss their ideas and help us to look beyond termite mound churches, and discover God’s calling in a fresh new way.

Check out this video and let me know your thoughts.

Faith: A Risk Worth Taking

Posted: August 26, 2021 in Uncategorized
Photo by Rob Douglas

On going back to Derby, I couldn’t resist checking out the rodeo, one of the popular annual events right across the Kimberley region of Western Australia.

There was plenty of action, lots of dust, and more Akubras than a plague of rabbits trying to get over the rabbit proof fence. There is a risk involved in getting on a horse or steer and racing the clock to stay on longer than the next person. Falling off at some stage is without question, it’s simply a case of when … and how hard the fall.

Photo by Rob Douglas

Check out my latest video where I talk about risk and the way in which we take on a whole lot of risks in life, often with the knowledge that it’s going to end with a nasty fall. But despite the dirt in our eyes, the bruises, and sometimes, broken bones, we go back and have another go. Often our use of drugs, alcohol and other addictive substances and behaviours are accompanied by a thrill akin to riding a wild steer, and in the moment, we revel in the experience and this justifies the inevitable fall.

But there’s another risk that’s definitely worth taking. Faith in God is a risk because we can’t see God and we often don’t want to take someone else’s word that it’s OK. Like many, you’d rather sit on the outside of the fence and watch everyone else, rather than getting on that steer yourself. Even the Bible itself tells us that faith is the evidence of things we can’t see (Hebrews 11) but there are thousands of years of people who have attested to the wisdom of faith as a risk that far surpasses so many of the other risks we are prepared to take every day.

Photo: Rob Douglas

There’s a major difference between faith and the risks that are common to humanity. Faith involves trusting in a God who, unlike a desperate horse or steer whose main goal is to get rid of its rider, wants us to stay in the saddle. He invites us to give up control of our own lives and to allow him to lead us in directions that may take us out of our comfort zone, but which have eternal rewards.

The great apostle Paul put this this way: For I am not ashamed of this Good News about Christ. It is the power of God at work, saving everyone who believes—the Jew first and also the Gentile.This Good News tells us how God makes us right in his sight. This is accomplished from start to finish by faith. As the Scriptures say, “It is through faith that a righteous person has life.”

Now that’s a risk worth taking.

Spreading my Wings

Posted: August 25, 2021 in Uncategorized
Photo: Rob Douglas

I am delighted to advise that from September 1 I will start a new position as Presbytery Minister for Mission with the Uniting Church in Western Australia. The three year appointment will involve working across Uniting Church congregations in WA, resourcing and assisting congregations to undertake deliberate, wise and prayerful missional planning and assisting in exploring fresh expressions of church.

Robyn and I have already had the opportunity to connect with some of these congregations over the last few years in our role as regional coordinators for Messy Church in WA. 

Early last year as COVD19 hit, I began to think more deeply about the future of the church and how we might emerge from this time of change. I have observed how healthy fresh expressions of church are being explored in many parts of the world, and have sensed that God has been leading me to become an encouragement and support to those who are open to discovering unexpected spaces where the Spirit is already at work. 

The last 18 months or so have been a time of seeking God’s will and discovering more about the path ahead. Robyn and I have valued the opportunity to briefly serve the Perth and Riverton Baptist Churches and to spend four months as locum pastor at Derby Baptist Church. This has been a time of waiting and learning to relax into God’s timing and purpose, and we have found peace in knowing that a new door is about to open, along with all the opportunities it brings. 

I am appreciative of the Uniting Church in WA for taking on an “almost rusted-on” Baptist and giving me the opportunity to spread my wings in this exciting area of ministry. Thank you to all those who have encouraged me and prayed for Robyn and I as we have been seeking God’s leading for this next stage in our lives.  

People have asked me from time to time if I am retiring, but I have been convinced for some time that God had something more for me to do. God is a “sending” God who sent his Son; together they sent the Spirit, and Jesus sent his disciples with these words: “You didn’t choose me. I chose you. I appointed you to go and produce lasting fruit, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask for, using my name.This is my command: Love each other.” 

As one who is aware of having been sent my desire is to serve my Lord wherever I am sent, and be faithful in making disciples who will in turn, become disciple-makers. 

The Boab Speaks

Posted: August 24, 2021 in Uncategorized
This grand old Boab tree on Gibb River Road may be 2000 years old. Photo: Rob Douglas

The iconic Boab tree is a feature of the environment of the Kimberley region of West Australia but the Boab tree featured in the environment of my preaching during a recent locum pastorate in the remote Western Australian town of Derby.

Holy Habits was my theme over a period of 10 weeks, concentrating on the activities of the early church as recorded for us in Acts 2:42-47. There’s a tree along the Gibb River Road that scientists say could be 2000 years old. This got me thinking. If the dating is correct, this church was just a tiny sapling at the time the church was born. As a result that grand old Boab tree became a symbol for me of the church – starting from those seeds of holy habits as recorded for us in Acts, and growing to be a grand old lady that is still surviving in a harsh environment.

As I thought about the Boab tree I felt that it had so much more to speak about. Check out this video to find out what the Boab has to say about the church and how we can be a part of helping the church to grow into the future and to continue to influence our society. Enjoy

Photo: Rob Douglas

Hope and a Future

Posted: August 23, 2021 in Uncategorized

We have those moments from time to time when our history comes back in the most surprising way. The story in this video is about one of those moments. We’ve just come back from Derby where I’ve been working as a locum pastor with the Derby Baptist Church. We first went to Derby 35 years ago and it was a privilege to get back to the old town and see what has changed and what hasn’t.

This is a story that speaks of God’s hand in history and is a joyful reflection on how something fresh and new can emerge from what has been discarded. Enjoy.

Expect the Unexpected

Posted: August 23, 2021 in Uncategorized

I just had to do this video. We’ve just spent four months in Derby, in the north of Western Australia where I have been a locum pastor at the Derby Baptist Church. We lived on site and I loved the wildlife we encountered while there.

But some surprise visitors that we had each morning at 6am were completely unexpected in the harsh Kimberley environment. They were fairly timid so I had to set up a camera on a tripod and use a remote to start the video. Here’s the outcome. Enjoy this short video.

There are a few more videos that I have prepared during our time in Derby which I’ll be posting in the near future. Make sure you click “follow” so you get notification when I publish next.

Dark Emu: An eye-opener

Posted: February 3, 2021 in Uncategorized
Clochan on Ireland’s Dingle Peninsula. Photo: Rob Douglas

I commence this post by expressing my deepest thanks to the First Nations people of the continent in which I live that we now call Australia.

I have long respected these people and have been brought up to recognise that before Europeans arrived in this country, there was already in existence a sophisticated culture.

But somehow the prevailing attitudes and assumptions over the years have hindered me and, dare I say it, most of my fellow Australians, from honouring the achievements of those who shaped this land over many tens of thousand years.

My wife and I visited Ireland a couple of years ago and had the privilege of seeing the Beehive houses, or clochan, on the Dingle Peninsula that are believed to date back to the 8th or even 12th century. So I was fascinated to read about something that was perhaps similar in Australia. The source of this revelation was Bruce Pascoe’s fascinating book, “Dark Emu”.

“Elizabeth Williams quotes a graphic account from William Thomas, an Aboriginal Protector, which provides a neat summary of the scale and sophistication of Aboriginal housing, but also why so few people saw it after the first visits of Europeans: [The] first settlers found a regular aboriginal settlement. This settlement was about 50 miles NE of Port Fairy. There was on the banks of the creek between 20 and 30 huts of the form of a beehive, some of them capable of holding a dozen people.” (from “Dark Emu, New Edition” by Bruce Pascoe)

Pascoe has carefully investigated information that is readily available about what early European settlers recorded having seen on their first sojourns into Australian countryside, highlighting stories about agriculture, aquaculture and housing that debunk theories about an uninhabited and unsophisticated land. He argues that the paucity of knowledge that we have of these discoveries is based on an unwillingness by early settlers to accept that a sophisticated society could possibly exist outside of European civilisation.

“On seeing houses built to accommodate forty people in groups of fifty or more, both explorers resort to words such as ‘huts’ or ‘hovels’ to describe buildings that in rural Ireland would have been called croft houses.” (from “Dark Emu, New Edition” by Bruce Pascoe)

The use of language in this way has prevailed over many years to maintain cultural supremacy, according to Pascoe. He argues that the term “hunter-gather” is a lie that has been maintained to prove that western methods of agriculture were superior to methods that had proved successful and sustainable for thousands of years.

“Dark Emu” explains in detail some of the agricultural practices that were undertaken prior to white settlement and that were observed by early explorers, and the way in which these practices were quickly suspended as fences were constructed, and sheep, cattle and wheat were introduced. Pascoe speaks about the link that existed between the original inhabitants and the environment, and the care that was taken to maintain the sustainability of food sources. But he takes his argument further by suggesting that a sustainable future for agriculture in Australia would benefit from studying native vegetation and crops, along with agricultural methods that had served this country well long before the arrival of introduced animals and crops.

Language was only referred to briefly by Pascoe, but my father spent a lifetime studying indigenous languages across Australia and was convinced that he was dealing with high levels of sophistication. While these languages were originally unwritten, the process of analysing languages and writing grammars and dictionaries, proved that this was not a primitive people. My father’s experiences with language convinced me that First Nations people were far more advanced than popular narrative suggested, but Pascoe’s book has opened some new doors.

Views of cultural superiority, fuelled by prevailing Darwinistic philosophy, led the first white inhabitants of Australia to dismiss an existing culture and, in some cases to deliberately cover up the evidence before them that they were breaking and entering, without invitation, someone’s well organised home. This has been maintained over the past 230 years and still exists as we argue that indigenous people are better off as a result of colonisation.

I am immensely thankful to Bruce Pascoe for having put in writing what has been hidden for far too long, and it has caused me to be immensely thankful to those people who carefully and wisely managed this land long before white people arrived. It is time we expressed that thanks by honouring our predecessors through a thorough investigation into the methods that were adopted to achieve sustainability. As Pascoe puts it:

“In the excision of unpalatable parts of our history (the illegal occupation of land and the slaughter of the occupants, for instance), we have lost elements we never knew existed. Those elements — such as the crops, houses, irrigation systems, and fisheries — may hold keys to future prosperity.” (from “Dark Emu, New Edition” by Bruce Pascoe)

Eliza’s Wedding

Posted: January 2, 2021 in Uncategorized

Eliza Thompson was very excited. She was about to marry her childhood sweetheart, Charles Conn. The date was November 24, 1857 and the happy event was to be held in the Ballee Church of Ireland, not far from their parents farms at Ballyclander Lower.

The Conn and Thompson families had been preparing for weeks beforehand, and the whole community was involved in the detailed preparations. They were a close community and a wedding was always an opportunity for people to come together to celebrate.

The parish of Ballee was located in the Barony of Lecale, on a peninsula on the south east coast of Northern Ireland, tucked in between the Mountains of Mourne and Strangford Lough. Ballcylander Upper and Lower were Townlands situated on the road between Downpatrick and Ardglass – about five miles south of Downpatrick and four miles, or an hour’s ride by horse and cart to Ardglass. 

Map of Ireland showing counties. The parish of Ballee is in County Down.

Ardglass had been a fishing port for 2000 years and was an important town and port in the Middle Ages, though it wasn’t until after 1812 that a harbour was constructed. The picturesque fishing village and seaside resort on the Irish Sea was in its heyday as a fishing port at the time of Eliza and Charles’ wedding.  The harbour master at that time was Captain Bernard Hughes who invented and patented the keystone method of constructing sea walls in 1849-51 which involved stones being set together without the use of mortar to allow them to expand when being pounded by wave action.

Despite its economic importance the smuggling of contraband such as tobacco, rum and brandy occurred along the coast of Lecale. The cargo would be brought in from the Isle of Man at night and concealed in caves along the coast near Ardglass. It was later transferred by road to merchants around Ireland. Smuggling had occurred in this area for decades and during their childhood Charles and his brothers delighted in stories and games about smugglers. 

A walk of an hour or so west of Ardglass was the harbourside village of Killough. Charles’s grandparents, James and Ann Conn lived in Killough and on visits to them it was always exciting to visit the harbour and look south along the coast to where the Mountains of Mourne swept down to the sea. It would be another 30 years before Irish musician, Percy French wrote the song that would make those picturesque mountains famous worldwide. Charles’ mother Ann Hawthorn was born in Killough, on April 16, 1811. Her father William was born there in 1782 and died there in 1875. His wife, Anne Jane Brown was born in 1790 and died in 1840. In 1845 he married again to Catherine Caine at Coney Island, a tiny hamlet between Killough and Ardglass. 

While Downpatrick was a little further away it was the biggest town in the area and it was always a big event, on special occasions, to put on their best clothes, load the horse and cart, and head off to Downpatrick for a day’s outing. For the men, it was usually about buying tools and products to assist with farming or to make contact with farming agents who were prepared to buy their barley. The women enjoyed looking in the shop windows and wondering about the latest fashions that had come from Belfast and Dublin, and occasionally from London. 

Downpatrick had a unique history and strangers would often be seen in town, visiting what was believed to be the grave of St Patrick, after whom the town was named. St Patricks remains were said to have been buried in the grounds of the imposing Down Cathedral that towered over Downpatrick from Cathedral Hill. 

Charles would roll his eyes as a boy every time the family went into Downpatrick and his father would tell about coming to Downpatrick as a boy, and watching the stone masons at work building the perpendicular Gothic tower that was added to the newly built cathedral. This new cathedral was built on the site of the ruins of a 14th century cathedral, which in itself had been built on an ancient ecclesiastical site from the 12th century. 

Charles was born in Ballyclander on August 10, 1833. He was now 24 years old and knew nothing of the world apart from his life on the farm. He most likely attended school at Church Ballee, the closest school to Ballyclander. He loved the green rolling hills of his home town and when he left school quickly became involved in the various activities of their barley farm. Both Charles parents John and Ann Conn had grown up in the area. John was born here in 1815 and would die here only eight years later. His mother Ann would survive for another 43 years, dying at the ripe old age of 89 in Ballybranagh, just beyond the Mournes.  

Eliza was 20, born in 1837. Her father John Thompson was born in Ballywillen in 1805 and her mother Agnes Lascelles was born in 1806. Both lived their lives in or near Ballyclander and would end their lives there, John in 1886 and Agnes in 1879. 

Charles and Ann grew up on nearby farms. According to the Griffiths valuation they lived two farms from each other, both owned by William Johnston, possibly the same Johnston who was to become a politician.  In 1867, Johnston organised an Orange Order parade from Bangor to Newtownards in County Down despite the Party Procession Acts. The parade took part on 12 July 1867 and about 30,000 took part. Johnston was sentenced to a short term in prison the next year for his actions. He was elected as Member of Parliament for Belfast in 1868 and held the seat until 1878. He was called to the Bar at King’s Inns Dublin in 1872. Johnston was also a prominent early supporter of the campaign for female suffrage and other social reforms. But that was still in the future.

At the time of the wedding two of the neighbouring properties in Ballyclander Lower were part of the Magharafelt Charity Estate. The Griffiths valuation show that both Thomas and James Newell were tenants of properties in this estate, though Thomas Newell was a landlord of three houses in his own right. There were less than a dozen families living in Ballyclander Lower at the time, according to the Griffith Valuation.  

Hugh Rainey, an iron smelter and wealthy merchant in the Magherafelt district in the north of Ireland,  devoted one half of his estate in 1707 to fund a charity school for 24 boys, “sons of parents who were of good report and reduced to poverty”. The Rainey Endowed School in Magherafelt remains to this day. Following Rainey’s death the trustees purchased an estate that became known as the Ten Towns of Lecale. Ballyclander Upper and Lower were among these 10 towns that formed the estate. Half of the rent of these properties was to go to the Magharafelt School. Over time many of the tenants of the estate were given the opportunity to purchase for Mr Rainey an annuity of 50 pounds, thus providing security of tenure.

There were hundreds of flax growers in County Down, and a number scattered through the Ballee parish, but according to the 1796 list of flax growers in Ireland, there were none in Ballyclander. The 1796 list consisted of about 60,000 growers who were given incentives for growing flax. The Irish Linen Board decided on a scheme of incentives to get people to grow the crop. Individuals were rewarded with 4 spinning wheels for planting one acre of flax. As a result by the end of the 19th century, Belfast was the linen capital of the world. Perhaps the families of Ballyclander chose to stay with traditional crops rather than investing in the popular alternative. 

Today, hats were being doffed and children excitedly ran around the grounds of the parish church as people began to gather in preparation for the wedding. Charles, the eldest of the Conn children, was the first of his family to get married. Edward was just two years younger, then came William, a strapping young 19-year-old, followed by his two teenage sisters, Ann (15) and Catherine (13). James was only 11 years old at the time and his baby sister Bessy was just nine. 

Eliza only had a brother and sister, Jane who was 18 and John, aged 16. 

Catching up with cousins, uncles and aunts, and other family friends and relatives was an important part of a wedding such as this.

There were the Perry’s from Ballyhosset. John Perry was one of Charles and Eliza’s witnesses as well as Sarah Jane West. The West family lived on an adjoining farm to the Conns in Lower Ballyclander. Mary West was listed in the Griffith valuation as the tenant of a farming property whose landlord was James McDowell. Eliza’s mother’s family, the Lascelles lived in the nearby townland of Church Ballee. Charles’ aunt, his mother’s sister Margaret, was married to a Lascelles, so many of both Charles and Eliza’s cousins bore that surname, and were no doubt at the wedding in force. 

The Ballee Church was described as a plain building without a spire or aisle but was capable of seating 220 people. A graveyard was attached to the church, with the dates on gravestones going back to 1679. There had been a church on that site, though not the same building, since 1306. The existing building was constructed in 1749 on the site of the old church. The gravestones, if they had been able to speak, would have many tales to tell. 

But even before that first gravestone was laid the stones around Ballee would have had their own stories to tell.

In 1175 after a period of fighting between the Normans and Irish, the Irish High King, Rory O’Connor sued for peace with King Henry II of England who agreed to a status quo allowing the Normans to consolidate their conquests in return for no more incursions into Gaelic territory. Henry’s Norman vassals however remained restless. In 1176, John de Courcy came to Ireland and around the start of 1177, went about carefully planning an invasion of Ulaid in eastern Ulster. He took 32 mailed horsemen and some 300-foot soldiers north into Meath. Despite the small size of his force, de Courcy’s attack caught the Ulaid by surprise forcing the over-king of Ulaid, Rory MacDonleavy to flee.

About a week later, MacDunleavy returned to Downpatrick with a great host drawn from across Ulaid, however despite being vastly outnumbered, de Courcy’s forces won the day.MacDonleavy followed up this attack with an even greater force made up a coalition of Ulster’s powers that included the king of the Cenél nEógain, Máel Sechnaill Mac Lochlainn, and the chief prelates in the province.Again the Normans emerged victorious, even capturing the clergy involved included the Archbishop of Armagh, the Bishop of Down, and many of their relics.

Despite forming alliances, constant inter-warring amongst the Ulaid and against their Irish neighbours continued oblivious to the threat of the Normans.[4] De Courcy would take advantage of this instability and from his base in Downpatrick set about conquering the neighbouring districts in Ulaid.

The Battle of Down, also known as the battle of Drumderg took place on or about 14 May 1260 near Downpatrick.  A Gaelic alliance led by Brian O’Neill (High-King of Ireland) and Hugh O’Connor were defeated by the Normans.

The forces of Brian O’Neill has been raiding the Norman Earldom of Ulster after 1257 in an attempt to assert their independence and form a coalition of the Irish against the Normans. O’Neill allied with Hugh McPhelim O’Connor of Connacht and together with their men went into battle against the Normans. According to the Annals of Innisfallen, the Normans had gathered an army of mostly Irish Gaelic levies to fight against the coalition, and the Normans themselves played only a small role in the fighting. Many of the Irish clans in Leinster, Ulster, Munster, Meath, and Breifne, which were under Norman rule at the time, provided the Normans with the bulk of their fighting forces, serving as mercenaries and retained bands. Thus, most of the battles between the Normans and Irish at this time would have seemed more like battles between the Irish themselves. Brian O’Neill was defeated and killed together with a number of O’Cahan chiefs.

But the people who gathered for the wedding at Ballee that day had their own tales. For many of the Ballyclander folk it was the first chance they had to get first hand news about the events that had been occurring in Belfast in recent times. The men gathered in tight circles to hear the latest news from relatives who had travelled to the wedding. Belfast was only 30 miles away but it could have been the other side of the world. 

Voices were lowered as groups of men outside the Ballee church heard that only four months earlier confrontations between crowds of Catholics in Belfast degraded into stone throwing and two Methodist ministers were beaten with sticks. The next night Protestants from Sandy Row went into the Catholic areas, smashed window and set houses on fire. The unrest turned into 10 days of rioting. According to those who knew, sporadic gunfire had been heard all over Belfast in the following days. 

There was also news about the health and economy of the country as a result of what had become known as the Great Hunger. News that people continued to leave Ireland to head overseas where they hoped they would discover a better life. 

The close-knit families of Ballyclander and surrounding Townlands may have escaped the worst of the Great Hunger that overwhelmed Ireland during Charles and Eliza’s childhood years. Perhaps it was the isolated nature of the region or the fact they mainly grew barley, rather than potatoes, but there was no evidence from death certificates of the level of fatalities that occurred around Ireland during this tumultuous period of history. There is evidence, however, that six families in Ballyclander received famine relief in August 1847 (rosdavies.com) . Ulster counties of Cavan, Fermanagh and Monaghan lost nearly 30 percent of their inhabitants during this time. In 1847 the worst affected areas in Down including the Mournes and the fishing port of Kilkeel, only a few hours away from Ballyclander by horse and cart.

During this period known outside of Ireland as the Irish Potato Famine, about 1 million people died and 2 million more left the country,causing the country’s population to fall by 20%–25%. While the Ballyclander families may not have experienced the health crisis of others, there was undoubtedly an economic impact. 

All of the Conn children, Charles and his brothers and sisters, were baptised in the Ballee Non-Subscribing Presybyterian Church. The list of baptisms for that church showed that there were quite a number of babies with the surname Conn that were also baptised in the same church between 1820 and 1860, undoubtedly relatives of Charles’ family, but there is information that many of them, most of them residents of Tullinagrange, left for the United States of America, a favourite destination for many of the two million who left Ireland for better shores. 

Charles’s brothers were also among those who left Ireland over time. William was married to Ann Hill in Ireland in 1864, but by 1881 he was shown in an English census as living in Oldham, Lancashire. William and his family lived in England for their rest of their lives. James was married to Ann Larmour in Ballee. Their first daughter Catherine was born in Belfast in 1874, but when she died two years later they were living in Oldham, Lancashire. James too, died in Oldham where his family was established. Like so many other Irish families, the Great Hunger may have led the two Conn brothers to leave their homeland for a better life. 

Charles and Eliza welcomed their first child, Annie Eliza on February 20, 1858, just three months after their wedding and on March 7 she was baptised in the same church as her father and her uncles and aunts, the Ballee Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church. Their second child, John, was born two years later in 1860. 

Charles died in 1887, but had the privilege before his death to see his daughter married. Annie Eliza Conn married James Craig on October 1, 1885 at the Carlisle Memorial Methodist Church in Belfast. 

Eliza died five years later in 1893 just in time to see her first grandchild, my grandmother. Mina Craig.

Rob Douglas, Perth, Western Australia. 2021.