A LARNE pensioner has released a fascinating new book documenting her life growing up in the Glens of Antrim.
A blend of local family history mixed with folklore, customs and superstitions, Raking the Ashes by Margaret McIllgorm provides an insight into how life has changed in the borough over the past eight decades.
Throughout her eye-opening journey through the 20th century, the 88-year-old recounts how she was almost born in the byre where her mother was milking cows, her happy years as a child in Cushendall, and her move to Larne in the 1950s, right up to the present day, when she finally mastered how to use a computer at the grand old age of 86.
Margaret’s decision to write a book came on a warm summer’s day back in 2010, following a conversation with her neighbour. She recalled: “We sat looking up at the brae and started talking about the old people. I was amazed at the knowledge he had about the people. It was that day I decided to write down everything that I could remember, warts and all. Once I started, things came flooding out.
“In my mind I could hear the voices of the people and I could see their faces and their expressions. So I started scribbling on to an old exercise book. I have tried to transcribe the dialogue exactly as it was said. Some of the words may look like a mistake, but it is my trying to convey the word as it was spoken.”
Margaret fondly remembers her youth in Cushendall, playing with her friend in a make believe house and searching for birds nests. And in one particularly amusing chapter, she recounts the various superstitions held by a local woman called Mrs Dan.
Margaret said: “She believed so many things brought bad luck, such as cutting one’s nails on a Sunday, or never letting a baby under one year see itself in a mirror or it would die within a year. If a red haired woman came to your house on New Year’s Day, the door was closed in her face, or if anyone was starting out on a special journey and met one such person, the traveller would turn and go another day, such was the fear of the red haired women.”
Margaret also vividly remembers hearing the howls of a banshee on the night her friend’s father died. “It was about ten o’clock at night and I was coming in from the toilet when I heard a piercing wail. It sounded like a dog after he barks two or three times and finishes off with a long cry,” Margaret said.
Her love of local folklore continued right through to her adult life, when she became an integral part of the Larne Folklore Society when it was established in the late sixties/early seventies.
Margaret also recalls in detail her first job at the age of 18, when she worked for the civil service in Belfast. She described her time in the “big city” as that of “a young foal coming out of the stable for the first time”, and vividly remembers her fear of the rattling trams and “immense traffic”. It was a drastic change compared to the slower pace of life back in Cushendall, and while Margaret came to enjoy her time in Belfast, she often pined for Sunday night dances back home in the Glens.
Her time in Belfast did not last long however, as she was soon transferred to Greenmount Agricultural College in Antrim. This was at the height of the Second World War, and in 1944 German prisoners were being held in huts just across the road from Margaret’s place of work.
Margaret remembers feeling sorry for the prisoners, and she and her friends took it upon themselves to show these men “a little bit of friendship” by throwing chocolate or sweets over the fence to them.
“I hope in some way it gave the prisoners some hope or brightened their day a little. I don’t think we would have been shot at dawn for fraternising with the enemy, but we would have been dismissed instantly,” Margaret recalled.
Following her time at Greenmount, Margaret spent a few years working at Ballygally Castle Hotel, before getting married in 1952 and moving to Larne, where she became a housewife and went on to have three children and six grandchildren. Although her husband passed away in 1969, Margaret has remained in Larne ever since.
Margaret revealed the name of her book stems from a conversation she had with her grand daughter Rachel. “I had been describing the old fire place that we had when I was a child, and she drew me a sketch of it from memory. I liked it so much I used it as the front cover of my book,” she said.
“I have been getting quite a lot of good feedback from people who read the book and I am delighted with how it turned out.
“I never thought that writing a book would ever be something that would appeal to me, but I am so glad I did it,” Margaret concluded.
Raking the Ashes is available to purchase now in Book Nook, Main Street, Larne, priced at £8.99.