Thursday, January 30, 2014

Creggan on the Peak

The 1879 Chronical and Directory.

Just thinking about old Trade Directories is likely to trigger a bout of narcolepsy in any sensible human being. Even so, I have recently been absolutely riveted while pouring over the ones from China. It isn’t because of what they reveal in isolation. It is because of the picture that emerges when you match up their data with maps, letters and other bits.

My recent focus has been the directories that cover the inhabitants of Hong Kong in the late 1870s and through the 1880s. In these directories, the names of the first residents of The Peak are listed separately. The Ladies Directory is also included in a separate listing, and the professions of the mostly European men, the ones who bought and used the directories, are in an opening section. When you cross reference these sections, a picture of the various social, political and business entanglements of the senior business, and government men begins to become clear.

Thomas Jackson was in the first wave of those who built family homes on The Peak, but he wasn’t the very first to build up there. That distinction goes to another Irishman, the 6th governor of Hong Kong, Sir Richard Graves MacDonnell from Dublin. His house got blasted away by a typhoon, but that’s another story.

It took well over three decades after the founding of the Colony for a building boom on The Peak to really take off. The challenges of the topography were substantial. Jackson’s home, Creggan – named after his home parish in Armagh, was built in the late 1870s, a full decade before The Peak tramway was installed. Construction materials had to be hauled up the mountainside by a mixture of human heft, horses, and donkeys. One of early inhabitants, the successful opium merchant Emanuel Raphael Belilos, used camels to cart his goods up to his home on The Peak.

I am particularly curious to learn more about the construction details of the early houses on The Peak, so if anyone knows more about it, then I am all ears. I do have some sense of what is required to build a house – at least in modern times. In the mid-1970s, my husband and I built a four-story circular tower addition to our mountain-side home. At least we had a reliable 4X4 to ferry our supplies up the switchback.

The coolies and tradesmen of the late 1870s in Hong Kong had nothing like a 4X4 or power tools to make their job easier. One team of coolies would carry materials part way up and a second team would then take on the next leg of the trip.  It was all done relay style. I can barely imagine the cost to these men. Certainly, it meant an early death for many of them.

Meanwhile, those with the wherewithal, and the right ethnic background, flourished on The Peak. They escaped the worst of the plagues and other episodes of communicable diseases that were rife in the Colony long before the underlying causes of many illnesses were both understood and addressed.

In the 1889 Directory, there are fifty-five men listed, and they are living in thirty-nine different residences. For twenty-three of these men, there do not seem to be any wives or daughters living with them. This may sound like a surprisingly high ratio – close to half of them – but the men on The Peak were more likely to be married than many men in this time and place. After all, these were the men who could afford a wife, if they wanted one.

These were also the men who were the social crème de la crème. Sixteen of them served as Justices of the Peace. That is almost one in three of the men on The Peak. Given that there were ninety JPs in all, drawn from the upper class of the entire island, this is a pretty high representation. The clubs and organizations they belonged to overlapped, and were part of the spark that began and the glue that ensured the ongoing success of many business enterprises.

According to the1889 Directory, Thomas Jackson served on the Chamber of Commerce, was a Steward of the Jockey Club, President of the Rifle Association, and served on committees with the Hong Kong Public School at St. John’s College as well as the Diocesan Home and Orphanage. Of course his mother would have preferred that he had been a member of the Temperance Society rather than the Jockey Club, but that would not have been a fit with who he was. In the Jockey Club, he rubbed shoulders with the likes of Hon John Bell-Irving, and the Hon Phineas Ryrie. Both men were like him, insatiable deal makers and successful businessmen. Both served on several other committees with him over the years, and both had significant connections to the bank that Jackson managed, now known as HSBC.

There are people who know way more than I do about the history of The Peak. Two of them deserve special mention: David, the animating spirit of the website gwulo where he has many posts on The Peak, and Annelise Connell who is responsible for many of these posts.  Given the day that I am posting this, it is appropriate to wish them both "Kung Hei Fat Choy".

NOTE: I have posted a ten page document on my website giving background on the men of The Peak who were listed in 1889. Soon, I will do this for other Directories so that we can better understand the trajectory of these men and their community through time. I will also write more about Creggan, and post some maps I have been creating to go with them, based on what I have been learning.
UPDATE: I have just uploaded my transcription of the 1887 Directory of The Peak residents.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Urker and Sir Thomas

TJ, aka Sir Thomas Jackson, was about seven years old in 1848. He and his brother and sister had all been born on a middling-sized farm in Co. Leitrim, but in the aftermath of the famine, their father had somehow lost the lease to this land. Along with his parents, his older brother and younger sister, he had then moved to his grandmother’s farm in South Armagh. The house was known as Urker Lodge. Perched atop a hill in the parish of Creggan, it had already been home to the Jacksons for at least half a century. It was later owned by their descendants for at least a hundred and twenty years more.

Later in his life, TJ would live in much grander houses, but unlike them, Urker Lodge had no indoor plumbing, and no electricity or gas. It wouldn’t get those amenities until the mid-20th Century. This never troubled him when he came to visit from Hong Kong or London. Urker was his real home, the home of his heart, and would always remain so. The views of the surrounding farmlands were lush and stunning, but when TJ spoke of Urker, it wasn’t only the charms of the landscape that held him, it was the memories of the open-hearted kindness of his childhood friends, family and neighbours.

In an earlier post, I tried to get a feel for the size of the residence and outbuildings.

In writing about his childhood for a book that I am working on, I often find myself grasping at straws. There is so little known about this stage of his life. I can imagine him walking dare-devil style atop the stone wall that bounded the gardens, or tagging along with his older brother as they kicked at the autumn leaves down the lane to Liscalgot on their way to the grounds of Creggan Church where they both went to school for a while. Sometimes, I imagine myself eavesdropping on the kitchen table craic, and then later in the evening listening to the bed-times stories read to him by his mother.

One day, as I was washing dishes and playing with such scenes in my mind, a question arose that I still cannot answer. Is there really a massive stone at Urker which is so huge that only a giant could have thrown it there? I do know that if such a stone existed, that TJ would have clambered atop it. He also would have known about the giant who tossed it there. Finn McCool aka Fionn Mac Cumhaill was a legendary hero of the common man, a giant who could outrun, outride, out-throw, and outfight anyone.

Fin M’Coul: The Giant of Knockmany Hill. Tomie DePaola. 1981
More than thirty years ago, I frequently read DePaola’s version to my own children when they were growing up, not knowing that the tales of Fin M'Coul were also connected to tales of Urker, a townland that would hook my curiosity in the decades to come. In one of the many versions handed down in the Irish oral tradition, Finn McCool threw two stones down from the Slievegullion mountains. One of these stones landed at Urker, while the other one landed on the north-western border of Urker, in the nearby townland of Carran. The story itself may have had its roots in the echos of language. The Irish word Urcur translates as: the town of the throw or cast.

 In Country Cracks, T.G.F. Paterson collected many of the same stories that TJ would have grown up with. In his introduction, Paterson described their magic: I have heard them round a blazing peat fire and in the listening have forgotten time and the world outside. The men and women who told him these tales in the late 1920s were as young as seventy and as old as ninety-three. They were members of TJ's generation, and TJ would have been well aware of many if not all of their stories:

Finn was playin’ on the mountain when he threw them. An’ the little stone at the side of the big one is a part that broke off in he’s han’ when he wus throwin’ the other. He was so annoyed he threw the wee bit after it, an’ that’s no word of a lie, for indeed it did happen. Shure the comrades of it are on the mountain above. He tuk it to be a hoult ‘tween his finger an’ thumb an’ that wus the way he sent it.

In 1838, John Donaldson, a relation of TJ’s, included two speculations concerning the etymology of Urker in his book: Account of the Barony of Upper Fews. He mentioned that these stones were several tons in weight, and had been placed on their ends. Donaldson would have seen these actual stones himself, which makes me curious. Are they are still there? Are there any pictures?

If there are, I am hoping that some kind reader will send them my way. It is a small thing, and perhaps unimportant, but is part of me trying to get inside the mind of a seven year old boy who lived there more than a century and a half ago.

For readers of this blog who are more interested in etymology, Donaldson also conjectured that the name of Urker was connected with an old burial custom which pre-dated Christian traditions. Back then, it was common to carry a stone to be thrown into a cairn or heap in memory of a deceased person.

In the 1992 Journal of the Creggan Local History Society, Hugh Macauley adds that there was a church between Crossmaglen and Creggan at Killyloughran and the throw or cast probably referred to the funeral practice of mourners casting a stone to form a cairn on or near the grave. It is also possible that mourners built cairns at Urker because it was on this hill where they could readily see Creggan graveyard, a graveyard that had long preceded the earliest known maps and the first appearance of the townland name Orcher aka Urker.

By the mid-1800s, these cairns were in such abundance at Urker that the Ball family and others used them to build dry ditches and/or walls. Clearly, cultural sensitivity was in short supply when it came to the actions of such landlords. There is evidence in TJ’s later life that he not only absorbed the tales of giants who had walked the land of Urker, but also had absorbed the impact of the injustice of cultural insensitivity.

A version of the Finn McCool saga was included in WB Yeats’ Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry, published in 1888. In that version, Finn outwits an opponent by following his wife’s direction, and hiding in a baby carriage. It is his wife who is all-wise and all-powerful, not him. He is merely noted for being physically strong. This state of affairs would have been no surprise to the young TJ. After all, it was his mother who was reputed to be the brains in their family. Would her tongue have been in her cheek when she told him this tale of Finn McCool? I can only guess.

NOTE: One more thing I should mention for readers of this blog who are not Irish. When the word ditch is used in Irish legends, letters, or leases, it refers to a wall. It does not mean anything like a long hole in the earth. It took me a decade to learn this.