The Hamiltons of Ballydown

The Hamiltons of Ballydown


For all my readers who ask for my novels in libraries with thanks for their encouragement


Ballydown, June 1896

The rain came in the night, sweeping in from the south, pattering softly on the bedroom windows. Rose stirred briefly and listened to the gentle, persistent beat on the thatch and the steady drip into the stone gutters below. The garden needed it and the neighbouring farmers would be grateful, she thought, as she drifted back into sleep.

It was still raining when Rose knelt to rouse the banked up fire and boil the kettle for breakfast. Great swags of low cloud made the kitchen dim and the stove sulky, even with the front door propped open to improve the draught.

‘That was a good drop we had in the night,’ John said, as he tramped downstairs and paused in the doorway, his tall, broad-shouldered frame cutting off the misty light.

‘You’ll all get wet on the way to work,’ Rose laughed, as she moved back and forth across the low-ceilinged room bringing the teapot from the dresser and fresh bread and butter from the small,
chilly outshot beyond the kitchen, an addition to the house when it had been a farmhouse with enough cattle to need a dairy.

‘Well, Sam and I might get wet, but I think it’ll clear,’ said John thoughtfully. ‘There’s a bit of a lightness out to the west. Give it another hour,’ he advised, as he dropped into his armchair by the stove and pulled on his boots. ‘Will I give Sam another shout?’ he asked, as the kettle began to sing and she reached up to the mantelpiece for the tea caddy.

Rose paused and listened. After a moment or two they heard the heavy tread of stockinged feet on the wooden stairs. A robust figure, already as tall as his father, Sam glanced silently out at the rain, disappeared into the cupboard on the window side of the stove and emerged clutching his own

‘Boiled egg, Sam?’ Rose asked, as he drew up his chair to the table.

He nodded, half-asleep, the soft skin of his face shining from the touch of cold water. He’d washed so quickly, there were still traces of soap behind his ear. He looked younger than his almost sixteen years.

‘Are you for town today, love?’ John asked, as she poured tea and cut them thick slices of the previous day’s baking.

‘No,’ she said, looking out at the rain and shaking her head gently. ‘I might have gone in, but I
want to get on with Sarah’s dress. Only a week now to her birthday,’ she added smiling.

There was no danger whatever of anyone forgetting Sarah’s birthday. At thirteen, she was quite capable of reminding them all of the event, but she never failed to point out that her day was also her mother’s day. She’d been born on Rose’s thirtieth birthday in the house in County Armagh when they lived with John’s mother, Granny Sarah.

Rose dropped the eggs neatly into John and Sam’s waiting egg cups, filled up their mugs and went to the foot of the stairs.

‘Hannah, Sarah,’ she called firmly. ‘Time to get up.’

The voice that replied was Hannah’s. It usually was. Hannah was often awake long before anyone else. She would lie and listen to the familiar morning sounds, enjoying the quiet and the warmth of her own bed with her own special quilt, the one she’d designed when her mother and her friend, Elizabeth Sinton, had offered to make it for her.

Rose turned away from the steep, twisty staircase. If Hannah was awake, she’d make sure Sarah got up. Not always an easy job, but Hannah had the measure of it. She listened for another moment to the footsteps overhead, then, satisfied, she turned to Sam.

‘I have cheese or cold bacon and baker’s loaf,’ she began. ‘Or you could have some of each.’

He smiled sheepishly and nodded. Sam always had a good appetite. When his lunch box came back in the evening there wasn’t so much as a crumb to throw to the birds. She watched him scrape out the very last morsel of his egg, invert the empty shell in his egg cup and stab it with his spoon before she turned away to the dairy.

‘Well, the fairies never sail far in your egg-shells,’ John laughed, as he looked across the table. ‘But I’m afraid we’ve left it too late. They’re gone. That’s the fault of those that neglected their egg-shells.’

‘Is there any more tea in the pot?’ Sam asked, hopefully.

‘Aye, there is. Plenty.’

‘Are ye still workin’ on the stenters?’ he asked, glancing up at the clock, as his father refilled both their mugs.

‘No, we got them sorted out. I’m not sure what Hugh has in mind today. We might even get lookin’ at those drawin’s I told you about. Ivery time he goes to lay a hand on them doesn’t someone arrive with trouble at one mill or t’other.’

‘Here you are, Sam, and a big piece of cake too.’

He got up from the table, bent down and kissed her and took the lunch box from her hands.

‘You’ve got a grey hair, Ma,’ he said suddenly, as he straightened up.

‘Only one, Sam?’ she said, throwing her soft morning plait of dark hair back over her shoulder
and laughing up at him. ‘I’m glad you can’t count. I’ve had to stop pulling them out or I’d have no hair left.’

‘Ach sure what’s a few grey hairs between friends,’ said John, stroking the crown of his head as he stood up and reached for his cap on the row of hooks by the door. ‘Better grey than nay. I’m beginnin’ to feel the draught rightly wi’out m’ cap these days.’

He moved across to the foot of the staircase, stepped up the two bottom treads, his head bent in the low stairwell. ‘Cheerio, Hannah. Cheerio, Sarah. See you tonight.’

A small chorus returned his greeting.

‘Will I see you midday?’ Rose asked, as she handed him his jacket.

He slipped an arm round her waist and kissed her.

‘All bein’ well,’ he said cheerfully over his shoulder as he and Sam stepped out into the swirling mist and tramped down the garden path.


John was right about the rain. By the time Hannah and Sarah finished their breakfast, collected what they needed for school and wheeled their bicycles round to the front of the house, the fine drizzle had stopped. As she followed them to the gate, Rose caught the first glimpse of the sun gleaming sporadically through cloud from which only the
finest beading of moisture swirled around them as they freewheeled down the steep hill.

She stood at the garden gate, watching them go, Hannah’s slim, composed figure following more cautiously as Sarah wove her way expertly between the potholes on the unmade road. Dark haired, with startling blue eyes and pale skin, her chin jutting forward as she pedalled, Sarah was always in the lead. Hannah might be four years older and almost ready to leave school, but these days it was Sarah who led the way, just as James had done when he and Sam went everywhere together.

Rose cleared the remains of breakfast, washed up in the deep Belfast sink in the dairy, cleaned the Modern Mistress stove with black lead and emery paper and scrubbed the long wooden table. She swept the floor and added the crumbs from the bread board to those she’d flicked on to the garden path where the small birds could carry them off to the fledglings that chirped and squeaked in the nearby bushes and trees.

She paused a moment and drew back in the doorway, floor brush in hand, to watch a blackbird, a robin and a thrush swoop down one after another and disappear with full beaks. Though it was only the first week of June, their bright summer plumage looked worn and faded already, so hard did they work raising their broods.

By mid-morning, the first beam of sunlight
glanced across the large, white-washed room. It threw reflections of the south-facing windows across the floor, lit up the solid legs of the table and caught the fine motes of flour dust hanging in the air as she slid cakes of wheaten and soda bread into the oven. She wiped her hands on her apron, moved lightly across the flagged floor and leant against the doorpost, her eyes half closed in the brightness. She turned sideways to let the sunlight play on her shoulders, always stiff and sometimes sore after the effort of cleaning the stove and kneading the bread. The deep warmth was like an embrace, reassuring and comforting.

The last of the mistiness had gone and the sky was patched with blue. She drew in a deep breath of the rain-washed air, full of the mixed scents of summer. Cut grass from their own meadow behind the house, pollen carried on the light breeze from the mature lime trees in the avenue of Rathdrum, the handsome gentleman’s residence at the top of the hill, and the mixed perfumes from the deep herbaceous border that followed the line of her own garden path.

Almost seven years now since they’d moved, the best of their old furniture carefully loaded on Sinton’s dray. There was Granny Sarah’s sideboard, the dresser they’d bought when she died and they’d had to sell the rest of her well-loved pieces, because their landlord was able to turn them out of the
house at Annacramp. There’d been no space for fine pieces in the abandoned two-room cottage opposite Thomas Scott’s forge.

What excitement there’d been that day, driving fifteen miles into unknown country and a new home only John had seen. A new place with new neighbours. For the four children, it was the longest journey any of them had ever made. Once she’d settled them in, she’d begun planting her garden, trusting her cherished cuttings to a different soil, a changed aspect and a slightly different climate. As she walked the length of the path, nipping off dead leaves and the odd faded bloom from the flourishing border, she nodded to the old friends who’d come with her, tiny fragments when they arrived, now vigorous plants or thriving bushes.

Down by the gate, she leant over a clump of foxgloves and dropped her handful of bits into the old bucket carefully hidden among the luxuriant growth. Everything she’d planted had grown and flourished. ‘And so have we all, thank God,’ she whispered.

She rested against the gate and gazed out across the broad lane that ran up and over Rathdrum Hill. The fields they owned on the southern slopes below the lane were rented out to a neighbouring farmer, but John himself made sure the hawthorn hedges were cut low each autumn so that nothing interrupted her outlook over the rich lowlands of the Bann valley.

The low hills here were steeper than those in Armagh, but they had just the same gently curving shape. One behind another, like eggs lying in a basket, they ran away into the distance as far as she could see, until the now familiar outline of the Mourne mountains rose on the horizon, sharp and clearly drawn against the sky, the miles between so reduced in the clear light, she felt she could stretch out her hand and touch them.

The bright sunlight bathed the richness of the new growth, the hedgerows and trees fully leafed, but not yet quite mature, the whole countryside a sea of green, rippled and dimpled. No wonder the people who came in their carriages to visit Banbridge said that only now did they understand why Ireland was called the Emerald Isle.

‘All this and mountains too,’ she said aloud.

Until she’d married John and travelled north to Ulster, there’d always been mountains in her life. As a child, born in Donegal, she’d lived with the Derryveagh mountains all around her. She could still remember setting off one day to climb the long ridge that ran along their valley, because she’d so wanted to see what was on the other side. Later, when she and her mother had lived in Kerry, she never tired of climbing the lowest of the mountains near Currane Lake so she could stand under the vast expanse of the sky, the mountains around her, the Atlantic beyond.

She still thought of her mother so often. At times, she wrote letters in her head, telling her all the news, just as she’d done after she and John were married in the little estate church close to Currane Lodge and he’d taken her away to a new life in a far country. Hannah and Rose had served the Molyneux family for so many years, Sir Capel made her wedding day a holiday. She’d had gifts from servants and family alike and been seen off with her John in a cloud of good wishes. That she’d never see her mother again was the last thing she’d ever imagined.

Over the years, she often saw herself back in the housekeeper’s quarters, drinking tea and sharing her news. Even now that Hannah had long lain in the shadow of the church tower, she did it still, calling up her mother’s steady gaze as she would listen so carefully to all she had to say and respond with the shrewd, kindly wisdom so much a part of her.

Could she or Hannah have foreseen that Rose would own a two storey house with ten acres of land, the gift of a wealthy man, James Sinton, because she’d saved his life and those of his wife and children?

Night after night, after the rail disaster outside Armagh, from which the Sintons, Rose and the children had all escaped unscathed, she’d woken up gasping for breath, struggling to get back to them, running and running and making no headway, calling to them and they never hearing. It was only
when she tried to find words to tell her mother what had happened that Rose found comfort. The more she let her mind move back into that room where they’d shared so much of their daily life, the more she was sure Hannah would have said that some good may come from even the most heartbreaking events, if only you have the courage to accept what

Events had proved how right Hannah would have been. That event, the cruel and bitter disaster, which tore the heart out of a community and left no one free from grief or anxiety, had actually lifted Rose and John out of a hard and limiting life and set them down in a brighter world, full of hope and possibility for them and their children.

She smiled to herself, thinking how pleased her mother would be if she knew John was too busy repairing and inventing textile machinery to shoe horses. Not only did his employer pay him handsomely, but he’d encouraged him to put down his first patents. Already, they’d yielded more than his year’s earnings when he’d worked in Drumcairn mill.

Hannah might have smiled with pleasure at their good fortune, but John’s own mother would have laughed out loud.

‘Aren’t you the lucky one?’ she’d have said.

She could still hear Granny Sarah’s voice. Arriving in her home, a new bride, weary from a
long journey, her mind full of images of countryside she’d never seen before, Sarah made her laugh the moment she crossed the threshold, welcoming her son with an irreverent gaiety.

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