I was born around 6pm on Saturday the 19th March 1898 in a house called Grace Cottage in the townland of Ballee, about a mile and a half from the market town of Ballymena, Co. Antrim.
At the date of my birth Queen Victoria was in the sixth-first year of her long reign over the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. At Westminster, a Conservative Government was in office led by Robert Arthur Talbot Gascoyne Cecil, Marquess of Salisbury, whose third and last premiership was to end in 1902. In Europe, Turkey and Greece were again at war. McKinley was midway through his first term as President and in a few days time the USS Maine was to blow up in Havana harbour, thus precipitating the Spanish-American War.
My father, Joseph Skillen, was born in the village of Milford in Co. Armagh on the 28th November 1865. He was the youngest child of a family of seven. His father died at the early age of 42, when Joseph was 9 years old and, as the family was in poor circumstances, he had received only a brief elementary education and had to start work at an early age in the linen trade. Fortunately, he was equipped with a good brain, a retentive memory, a thirst for knowledge and great energy and power of organisation. In consequence, and by night studies at the College of Technology in Belfast he raised himself until in December 1893 he was appointed manager of the Lambeg Factory of Messrs. Richardson and Niven. He then became manager (In February 1895) of the Phoenix Weaving Factory in Railway Street, Ballymena, which was then owned by the Gault Bros., also the proprietors of a large saw-mill.
My mother, Mary Graham Morrow Skillen (previously Rutherford) was born on the 31st January 1866 in Belfast, where her father had a grocery business. She was a lovely person with masses of dark brown hair, gentle and kind. To me, as a small boy, she gave a feeling of security and warmth which I shall never forget.
The house, Grace Cottage, belonged to the Gaults and was occupied rent free by my father as one of the perquisites of his office of factory manager. It stood on the road to Toome (or Toomebridge) eleven miles away at the north end of Lough Neagh where the Lower Bann river emerges from the Lough on its journey to the sea.
The River Braid, having passed through Ballymena, flowed a few hundred yards from the house. The river, rising on the Antrim Plateau, gives its name to the Braid Valley, which is one of the best farming areas in Ulster and really is the reason for the town coming into existence to supply the farmer’s needs.
Grace Cottage was approached by an avenue running off the Toome road which, after crossing below the railway, climbed the hill as a sunken road some twelve to fifteen feet below the ground level. The house was pleasantly situated with a large area of grass in front with scattered trees and shrubs. On the left of the avenue was a considerable garden, criss-crossed by paths and high hedges of box. On the right was a line of Scotch pines where my brother and sister used to play. Behind the house were good outbuildings, stabling, a pig-sty, etc., with no evidence of recent occupation.
Although my family left Grace Cottage when I was quite young I knew it well as it was untenanted for years and was visited often by my parents on Sunday afternoon walks with the children. They often talked of buying the property and it is now clear to me that they had been very happy there.
My memories are dim and are mixed with happenings related by my mother and father. My brother and sister attended a small ladies’ school in Ballymena and were driven there each morning by friends named Ferguson, who lived at Slatt. After school finished, Fred and Dorothy walked home, which was a long walk for children as young as they were then. They had certain difficulties to overcome each day. The principal terror was two goats tethered together grazing along the roadside and which, through continual teasing, attacked any children on sight. They were owned my Mr. McQuiston and were known over a wide area as “McQueeston’s Goats”, and though I never saw them they bulked largely in my childish calendar of horrors.
One afternoon Fred and Dorothy rushed in, told me they had been followed from Ballymena by a man. They dragged me to the field adjoining the house where we lay hidden under a thornbush looking down into the sunken road. We watched the man trudge up the hill and on past our entrance gate. He was merely a tramp making his way from one workhouse to another and quite harmless but I can recall my fright and the fact that I must have held my breath for nearly five minutes.
My father used to walk along the railway when going to the factory as it was more direct than the road. On one occasion he had a narrow escape from being killed and had to jump off the line when the train was almost on him. The engine driver, who knew him, came to our house and begged him to discontinue walking on the track and my father did so for quite a long time.
The pigsty at the back of the house had a sloping roof which came down at the rear to within a couple of feet of the ground. My brother and sister and the dog, an Irish Terrier named Carlo, could get on the roof and sit there. It seems that I used to stand crying impotently with rage because I was too small to climb up.
On on me occasion, Dorothy and I did something we were not allowed to do, so she took me outside and we hid in the laurels. Soon my mother appeared calling “Dollie”, “Willie” in a seductive voice but we could see that she was carrying the tawse in her hand so we remained in concealment until her auger had abated.
The weaving factory managed by my father was sold by the brothers Gault to Joseph Lamont of Ballymoney. As Grace Cottage was the property of the Gaults we had to move out of our rent-free house and go to live in Ballymena town. The house to which we moved was in Thomas Street on the outskirts of the town. It was a semi-detached villa, called Rosemount, which stood (as it still does) on a slight rise of ground with a number of sycamore trees at the further side of the lawn along the line of the street. The left hand boundary of the property was common with Ballymena Academy, the grammar school I afterwards attended as a pupil. I think it was while living here that I first went to school in the Infants section of the Model School. Oddly enough, throughout my life I have never had any recollections either of this first school or my first teachers. In fact, the only thing I can remember is being allowed out to see a Battalion of infantry, marching up from the coast where they had been on manoeuvres. I got my foot caught in the railing and as I could not free it, began to cry bitterly. A man passing by told me not to cry, then removed my shoe and when I got my foot clear he reached through and replaced my shoe. It’s odd how I remember this and do not remember anything about my school. The soldiers, who wore scarlet jackets of the Line, bivouacked in the demesne and in the late afternoon my mother, who was acting as a hostess during the entertainment of the soldiers, took me with her and we wandered through the camp with my mouth open in wonder, I am sure.
It was about this time that I staged my only rebellion against education. Following after a holiday – probably Easter – I tried unsuccessfully to get an extra day off. When forced out to school I dragged myself so unwillingly that when I reached the school all the pupils were inside and the road deserted. I made my way home and reported that there was no school. I was promptly beaten and sent to bed and the following morning was escorted to school and thrust firmly through the door.
Our dog, Carlo, had moved with us and I was fascinated when he taught himself to open the gate by depressing the latch and allowing the gate to swing open by its own weight. I think he may have died or been put down while we were living here but it must have been kept from me for I have no memory of the incident.
There was a large tiled porch at the front door and it was here that I first succeeded in spinning a top (which we called a “peery”). I did so with my left hand for I was what was called ‘clooty’. I never wrote with my left hand as this was forbidden at school but I have always performed certain actions, e.g. opening a door, with my left hand and still do.
My mother and father went away for a week to the Exhibition in Dublin and our great aunt (Mrs. Mary Morrow) stayed at our house to look after my brother and sister and me. (Many years afterwards Aunt Mary came to live with us and remained until her death in 1924). While in charge, her ideas were rather primitive. Each day she made a large saucepan of rice with plenty of milk and half dozen eggs. When cooked she placed the saucepan on the kitchen floor and gave each of us a dessert spoon and we sat round the pot and ate until the rice was all gone.
Behind our house and some distance away were some pig houses owned by a Mrs. Barr. She was a widow, a pig dealer, cattle dealer, a member of the Urban District Council and a member of the Poor Law Guardians. She was what was known as a ‘character’ and in the town was usually referred to by her full name of Lily Ann Barr. She always wore a tight, fawn jacket with puffed sleeves and shoulders which dated from a fashion of many years before. On her head she wore a man’s straw hat ( a ‘boater’) skewered by a couple of hatpins. She was formidable in debate and in controversy but possessed a heart of gold. Her employees used to carry buckets of swill to feed the pigs in through our gate, up the path and along the side of the house and as they did so, they spilled the swill all over the place. This used to make my father extremely angry but he felt he could do nothing about it when he made enquiries and found that the practice had been going on for some years. The only other thing I recollect about this house was a summer day when it rained heavily for a short time leaving large pools of water on the open ground beside the house. My sister and I built a number of islands and constructed bridges between them; then we collected a number of caterpillars (probably Pieris brassicae) from the cabbages in the garden had an enjoyable afternoon making them walk the plank from one island to another.
Eventually we removed from Rosemount to a house in Clonavon Terrace which was a short distance from the road bridge over the River Braid and consequently much nearer my father’s factory, situated in Railway Street in the district called Harryville. My memories of this house are vague. It was an undistinguished house in a dull terrace of identical houses without any garden at the rear. There was only a small, paved space opening on to the premises of John Carson, a master builder. They were a fairly large family consisting of four boys and four girls. Hugh Carson, the second son was a close friend of mine when we were at Ballymena Academy together some years later.
At the time we lived in Clonavon, the Congregational Church commenced building a church hall in the street. The material used was hewn basalt blocks which had razor sharp edges. My brother when passing the site jumped from one block to another as a boy will but unfortunately missed his footing and fell face downwards on the blocks. His upper lip was badly split and was stitched leaving him a permanent scar which in later years he disguised with a moustache. I was still going to the Model School on the Ballymoney Road near Parkhead and Fred and I usually accompanied some of the Carson brothers. At this time I had a difficulty in distinguishing my right boot from the left. One morning we were about halfway on our walk when Johnnie Carson pointed to me and said “What’s wrong with the child’s feet?” I had the right boot on the left foot and vice-versa. Fred was quite angry as he had to unlace my boots, change them and lace them up again. I still remember his wrath. He sat me down with a thump on the wall of the Methodist Church, tore off my boots roughly and finally placed me back on the road with another thump. I’m still puzzled how I managed to walk as far as I did that morning. It was about this time that my sister and I had mumps for I remember being isolated in an upper bedroom at the front of the house and spending long hours gazing out of the window. I think we missed the celebrations of the Coronation of Edward VII on 9th August 1902 and I think the ceremony had to be postponed owing to the illness of the new king. I am informed that I asked the cause of his illness (expecting to be told ‘mumps’) and was told that it was due to the fact that he ate orange peel, so I deduce that this must have been a weakness of mine. I remember one Saturday afternoon in the deserted builder’s yard when I was present at a water drinking competition between my sister and Johnnie Carson. They had a bottle which they filled at a stand-pipe and drank alternately and it ended in a win for my sister after each had drunk quite a lot.
My parents made another change of residence and we went to Gladstone Terrace on the Galgorm Road, near the railway station. This again was a house in a terrace without any garden apart from a small patch of grass in the front and a cobbled yard at the back. It was while living here that my brother shattered my belief in the Santa Claus myth. He told me that our stockings were filled by my mother and when I refused to accept this he said I was getting a clockwork train and that it was hidden under Mother’s bed. We crawled in and I had to admit that my trust in Santa Claus was ill-founded. We had a cat at this time which was always very curious and if a parcel was left on the hall table she used to tear it open to see what it contained. I think it must have been this cat that inadvertently got me into trouble. We had some people to tea and the cat and I found ourselves alone in the dining room before the table was cleared. I gave the cat a piece of cheese which it liked and gobbled up so I kept feeding it with more cheese. At last the cat was sick and made an awful mess of the room and I had an exceptionally early retirement to bed. My mother always had a maid to assist with the housework who lived in and I think her name was Maggie Kennedy. The family on our left had a maid too called Phoebe who had flaming red hair. She was a friend of Maggie’s and came into our kitchen often. My father had a row of querns in the yard and Phoebe always walked along these which incensed my father when he saw her. The people on the other side were named Martin. Mr. Martin was a Scot whose Christian name was Archie. He always was called “Captain Martin” for he was the manager of an iron-ore mine in the hills near Waterfoot and it seems to be a mining tradition that the headman is always given the courtesy title of ‘Captain’. Actually there was another Scot who had a similar job to Archie Martin’s and who lived further along the same terrace. He was a Captain Dryburgh (pronounced Dryborough).