Song Of Erne

Jenny Cathcart takes a bus tour in Enniskillen celebrating Robert Harbinson's famous book

Robert Harbinson’s Song of Erne was published by Faber 50 years ago this year. Often funny, sometimes poignant and peopled with characters aplenty, it records with great accuracy a way of rural life that was soon to disappear.

The pseudonym Harbinson, which Bryans used when writing about his early life, was the name of his father’s drinking pal, Bob Harbinson. Poet Frank Ormsby described Song of Erne as one of the best books ever written about rural Fermanagh.

To mark the anniversary, Enniskillen Festival has organised a bus tour taking in the key locations mentioned in the book. The inspiration behind the tour was local author Marion Maxwell, who has a deep affection for the author. 

Song of ErneThe tour started from the Railway Car Park in Enniskillen. Although there is no longer a railway, it was here on July 7, 1940 on a warm Sunday afternoon that a train bearing 400 to 500 evacuees arrived from Belfast. Aged 12 and already nearly six feet tall, Bobby Bryans was pale and gangly, and carried a gas mask, a borrowed suitcase, a lot of attitude and, like all the other children, a buff label spelling out his Fermanagh destination.

In Song of Erne he refers to a horsy woman with a goitre throat and a fine range of la di da who brought him to a country rectory. This was at Tamlaght and the house remains largely unchanged to this day.

The tour bus stops at the gate. Bryans felt lost in the dark corridors, looked aghast at the magnificent bathroom with its lotions and potions and was so intimated by the vast bedroom and the enormous bed, bedecked with frills and valances, that he got out his sacred sash of the Orange Order and wore it under his nightshirt. He got over his initial homesickness when he watched the sunset from a rectory rooftop and knew he had fallen in love with Fermanagh.

Through narrow country lanes, the bus heads back to Enniskillen, where Bryans was next billeted in a semi detached house in Celtic Park. He swam in the lake at the Weirs Bridge just as the police cadets did. At the Ardhowen Theatre the tour party is able to view the spot. 

Passing the county hospital which stands on the site of the former workhouse where Bryans spent one night, we hear that anyone wishing to visit the workhouse had to cross the river on a ferry boat. 

Bryans's sojourn at Monea began promisingly enough at the home of the kindly Harold Irwin, but on his first day at Monea school he got involved in a playground fight and was immediately expelled. At Monea church, Maxwell, in one of her many asides, informs the party that Anthony Blunt, surveyor of the Queen’s paintings and later linked to the spies Burgess and McClean, had attended the church with his friends the Grosvenors. Bryans was to encounter Blunt in later life.

According to one of Maxwell’s contacts, Helen Patterson, Bryans and other evacuees made life difficult for the headmaster of Shanmullagh school. Mr Pinkerton used to get so exasperated that he would send Bryans outside with a bucket of water and a cloth to clean the outside of the school windows; that way he could get rid of him yet keep an eye on him. It all ended badly once again. When the boys sang 'Nelly Keep Your Belly Close to Mine', the headmaster cursed the arrival of these boys from the slums of Belfast. It was too much for Bryans, who picked up the master’s cane and walloped Pinkerton. Another move.

Bryans wrote home: 'I am now living with the gentry but the place stinks.' Since Bryans had not been too complimentary about the family he did not go out of his way to reveal who they were. Sleuth Maxwell has all the clues but no name for this billet. A 100 acre farm; large herd of Friesian cattle; four sons and four daughters; eldest girl worked in a shop in Enniskillen. The nearest creamery was in Ballinamallard, though this might just be to throw us off the scent. Any ideas, she asks the group?

The bus draws up at Crownhall school, now the home of Mr and Mrs Ford, who kindly display original school desks for inspection. Here our evacuee found an inspirational teacher. Under her tuition he won a scholarship to Portora but his mother declared that he should give up all notions of going there and return to Belfast to follow the family tradition of working in the shipyard.

In Song of Erne Lizzie and James Graham became Maggie and Christie. Bryans spent longer at their Granshagh Little farm than at any of the other eight billets. It became his spiritual home, a place to which he would return again and again, especially at key moments in his life. James was a surrogate father. Lizzie, with her big hearted generosity, offered the unconditional love that changed his life for ever. They called Bryans 'our cub'.

The Grahams were able to combine their involvement in Orangeism with an old fashioned generosity of spirit that left their home open, unquestioningly, to people of all classes and persuasions. Something which made the young evacuee refine the narrow attitudes he had grown up with. At nightfall the paraffin lamp was lit and one of Lizzie’s hairpins was slipped on the glass to save it from cracking. The fire would be going strong and the door open to all comers. James Graham played the tin whistle, and Lizzie herself played the fiddle for the ceili.

With his 14th birthday came the certainty that Bryans must now go back to Belfast. He loaded his belongings on the ass-cart and he and Christy set off down the lane. Maggie ran beside them with one hand on the cart until they reached the main road.

The bus is parked up at the place where they parted close by Granshagh Orange Hall with a good view of Graham’s house, now a modern farmhouse. It moves off to the final stop of the tour, Cleenish churchyard in Bellanaleck. Here Bryans is buried close to the Grahams. Headstones have recently been erected on both graves. One reads ‘Grahams of Granshagh Little celebrated in Song of Erne by Robert Harbinson’ and the other ‘Robert Harbinson Bryans April 1928 – June 2005. Author of Song of Erne'.