Rural Ireland – Life & work of Margaret Gallagher

Although she might survive in another lifestyle she would never be happy

The words ‘rural Ireland’ bring up images of nature and culture, agriculture and heritage. One Northern Ireland county renowned for country life is Fermanagh. This border county is home to Margaret Gallagher, an inspiring lady who lives and works within rural Ireland for rural Ireland.
On 8 August 1988 Margaret founded Belcoo & District Historical Society and as part of that created the Rural Repository of Heritage which contains items and information about the 86 townlands in County Fermanagh, focusing on the rural and parish life of Belcoo. There are photographs under the topics Industry, Pagan, and living history.
In the Repository there is a life sized sample wattle chimney brace made of hazel rods bound with pigs blood and cow manure, a sample cottage with a rye straw thatched roof, a hens nest from straw, bog oaks examples, straw kneeling mats for churches and finally mummers hats. The Historical Society encourages visits from primary schools where the children can learn about the Vikings, Early Christians, Victorians, Famine and Immigration. As part of the experience they are shown traditional crafts which utilise the earth’s waste.
There are many lectures and events organised by Belcoo & District Historical Society supported by various awards including the Heritage Lottery Fund and Natural Resource Rural Tourism Initiative (EU Programme for Peace and Reconciliation). In the past there have been sessions: charting the progress of people who lived of the landscape without immigrating and drawing attention to vernacular architecture.
Chimney BraceOne of the Society’s aims is to keep rural life on top of the European Agenda because Fermanagh as a county deserves to be recognised. There is a lot of stigma connected to the county and anything West of the Bann is identified as unimportant. Families go to Fermanagh from Belfast on holidays because it is so far, and yet an inhabitant of Fermanagh will go shopping for the day in Belfast. This is a typical rural response and one which the Society wants to get away from. It is important to them that the role rural people play is recognised. There is a tenacity and work ethos in rural life that is not elsewhere.
Margaret says, ‘Problems come with not bringing your origins and past with you. You should know your roots and be aware of who you are and do not be ashamed that you come from peasant stock.’
She certainly has brought her past with her as she inhabits a small thatched cottage in the heart of the mountain behind Belcoo village. Although the area is quickly developing this is still quite barren land.
This quaint typically ‘Irish’ cottage is surrounded by a white stone wall and in a nearby field the spring is waiting to supply her with fresh water. As you enter there is a huge chimney which resembles the one on exhibit in the Repository. The floor tiles are at an angle to allow the water to flow out of the front door after cleaning the house.
It is very surreal to sit by the blazing fire with the front (and only) door open for circulation. On the walls are double oil burners whose flames are reflected in mirrors to provide extra light. This cottage is not just a show house for tourists this is and has been a family home.
There was never any heating installed, there was never any electricity, and there was never any running water. To sit in this house and think of it as a home is quite unnerving… Where is the television? Where is the telephone? Where is the washing machine?
The number of books on the shelves in the bedroom far outreach those in most homes. Margaret is without a doubt an intellectual, reading about history, theology, listening to the wind up radio and the ticking of the wind up clock. The cottage was bought by her grandfather in 1887 from relatives who were immigrating to America, and soon after her father was born in the main bedroom.
He grew up, married and Margaret was born in the same room 63 years ago. Her sister was also born in the house and was sent to boarding school in Enniskillen. Margaret’s mother died at a young age and when Margaret was in her early twenties her father was confined to his bed. He remained there for 14 years and died in the room he was born in.
I asked Margaret what made her decide to remain in the cottage without the benefits of modern life and she said that it hadn’t been a decision. This is her life and although she might survive in another lifestyle she would never be happy.
This lifestyle cannot be imagined. Traditionally rural life forces people to depend on their own skills in order to live off the land. Related to this, over the open fire Margaret: bakes her own bread, boils water for tea, cooks in a box oven, heats water for washing and irons with a box iron filled with the fire’s embers.
Rural life greatly differed and still differs from urban life and there are two things I wish to mention on this point. Firstly, Belcoo is an example of an isolated area and, as I have mentioned, Margaret lives in a barren part of the townland. Neighbours are therefore very important as humans are such social creatures. In the past especially, neighbours were an extension of the family and vital to the feeling of community. This is not so prominent in urban life.
Secondly, transport in and to the countryside is important as most people live away from towns. Now walking is encouraged for health reasons but in the past it was the only way to travel in the countryside and this encouraged dependence on the land. With the progression of trade, rural life altered to allow for public transport. Roads, bridges and railways were built to enable the use of cars, buses and trains.
The Enniskillen to Sligo railway line meant produce could be transported around Fermanagh and the surrounding areas. Although the same things were happening in urban areas, the impact was not as great as facilities were in closer proximity.
Margaret’s cottage is now a listed building and she therefore opens her home to many visitors. Her life is a mixture of rural past and present as she leaves her 19th Century home every morning and drives her Peugeot to Belcoo to encourage people to remember the customs, trades, religions and environments that provide the roots for rural life.

By Andrea Stewart
Supported by the EU Programme for Peace and Reconciliation