Saturday, 31 August 2013

A Unique Diary of Ballyshannon Life in the 1840s

Some years ago, in Ballyshannon, a dusty bundle of papers was discovered inside an old piano. It was a diary, written by a young Ballyshannon woman, Mary Anne Sheil, during the years 1844 to 1848, a diary that, today, opens a window on to Ballyshannon’s living past.
Mary Anne was a daughter of Doctor Simon Sheil, land agent for the Conolly estates and holder of fishing rights on the river Erne. Her mother, Alicia O’Conor, was sister of the O’Conor Don, and lineal descendant of Roderic, last high king of Ireland. 
Life in the Big House
The diary begins in 1844 when both parents are already deceased. Mary Anne and her sisters have assumed housekeeping duties for their brother Simon who, like his father, is a doctor. The girls take turns to supervise domestic staff, keep accounts and receive visitors. However life is not all duty and so there are piano lessons with Mr. Walton Roberts from London who also teaches them to dance the polka and the waltz. Old Halloween on the 11th of November, sees the family playing parlour games. Mary Anne records: “Julia, Catherine and I put apple peels over the door. Thady Carmichael came under the first, Owen Kean, the second, and the Rev. Coyle under mine, as if to prove its veracity.”
The Circus arrives in Ballyshannon 1844
The arrival of the circus on the 1st of July 1844 throws Ballyshannon into a state of excitement. There is a circus parade and Mary Anne finds the scene in front of Sheil House “equal to Donnybrook Fair” with jugglers, tumblers, people riding on stilts, dancers,” and seven pairs of beautiful horses. An announcement that Hughes’s Modern Roman Amphitheatre of Arts is to perform next day at the circus ring on the Mall, and that the largest elephant in the world will be there, prompts Mary Anne and her sisters to bring a small boy for a sneak preview. The diary records “a peep through a keyhole” and a glimpse of the elephant which the small boy “particularly enjoys.” 
Poverty and Emigration  from the Mall Quay
However the 1840s are not only a time for circuses. A visit to the workhouse fills Mary Anne with dismay and she writes, “To the poorhouse we went. Oh! What a misery is in this world. I would pray never to die in a Poorhouse.” She is saddened too by the departure of emigrants and records:
We went to the Dungravin Hills to see the ship sailing off to America with 90 passengers from this town and neighbourhood for the Land of Liberty. They had music, which in some degrees removed the sadness of the scene, as they only played merry airs. Anne Rogers has been in floods of tears all this day after Susan Magrath who is gone.
Two Wedding Ceremonies
When a suitor enters Mary Anne’s life, she is reluctant to confide in her diary, telling us only that she “forgot to mention a remarkable event of yesterday, which was that Mr. John Allingham of Willybrook House sent us his picture to look at. Mr. J. Allingham surprised me in the garden, where we had a long walk. He said a great deal. I listened and said nothing.”
Mr. Allingham proposed marriage and Mary Anne accepted. He gave his betrothed a present of a starling in a cage and shortly afterwards they were married with two wedding ceremonies, one Catholic and one Protestant because theirs was a mixed marriage. Their four children were born during the terrible Famine years that followed and the young parents were fearful for the health of their babies, especially Alice, the youngest, who had to be vaccinated three times. 
A Window on Life in Ballyshannon in the 19th Century
Mary Anne writes less often in her diary now as family cares take precedence and eventually it comes to an end with the lines:
I should be very fond of this Journal, for often when I have set to it with a heavy heart, I have risen from it quite consoled.
And so our window on mid-nineteenth century Ballyshannon closes. 
I am ever for dear sweet Ireland in general, but Ballyshannon in particular
Mary Anne once wrote, leaving us to wonder whether she had any inkling, as she put pen to paper, that she was bequeathing a valuable historical legacy to her beloved town.
Radio Broadcast: This week's blog above contains the script of a Sunday Miscellany piece I researched  for RTE national radio a few years ago.

50% Reduction on postage for orders for this book to all destinations. Genuine special offer. 

Ideal local gift for Christmas and all special occasions. 

Contact for further details and for orders of the book.

Signed hard back and soft back books available at special  price for postal delivery or collection. 

A New Local History Book suitable for those at Home and Away

A new book entitled: "Ballyshannon. Genealogy and History" reveals newly researched history and genealogy of the town, extending as far as the Rossnowlagh, Cashelard, Corlea, Clyhore, Higginstown and Finner areas. Includes the parishes of Kilbarron and Magh Ene.

The genealogy material provides detailed guidelines for anyone tracing their roots in the area or anywhere in County Donegal or Ireland. 

The book contains 500 pages and is richly illustrated with stunning colour, aerial photography, original illustrations and rare photographs of the area not seen before.

Topics include: How to go about Tracing your Roots/The first settlers in the area/ Newly researched history of the town of Ballyshannon and the townlands in Kilbarron and Mágh Éne parishes/ Records of the first travellers and tourists to Ballyshannon, Bundoran, Belleek, Rossnowlagh and Ballintra/An aerial guide to place names along the Erne from Ballyshannon to the Bar/Flora and Fauna of the area/ A history of buildings and housing estates in the locality/Graveyard Inscriptions from the Abbey graveyard, St. Joseph’s and St. Anne’s /Rolling back the years with many memories of the Great Famine, Independence struggle, hydro-electric scheme, Gaelic games, boxing, handball, Boy Scouts, soccer, mummers, characters, organisations, folklore and lots more.

Book Available from Anthony Begley West Rock Ballyshannon.  Enquiries welcome for postal and other details. Also available at The Novel Idea Bookshop Ballyshannon, Ballyshannon and District Museum, Ballyshannon Tourist Office, The Four Masters Bookshop Donegal Town.

The blogs are original and are not taken from the book above.

Final  Blog

7th September Complete Guide to Ballyshannon Musings 2012-2013
The blog archive of Ballyshannon Musings will still be available to read on the internet.

Ballyshannon Musings:  Good to hear that people connected to the Ballyshannon area enjoyed the blog worldwide and the site received thousands of hits. The site is called Ballyshannon Musings and there are a number of back issues available on the internet. Copy this link and it can be googled at 

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