‘Richhill – A Portrait of an Ulster Village’

Brett Hannam - author of Richhill 'Richhill - A Portrait of an Ulster Village' with a copy of the book.
Brett Hannam - author of Richhill 'Richhill - A Portrait of an Ulster Village' with a copy of the book.

A new book telling the story of Richhill will be launched at this year’s Apple Harvest Fayre.

‘Richhill – A Portrait of an Ulster Village’ is written by local historian Brett Hannam and covers the history of the Co Armagh community from the earliest times to the 1950s.

Cover of 'Richhill - A Portrait of an Ulster Village' by Brett Hannam

Cover of 'Richhill - A Portrait of an Ulster Village' by Brett Hannam

It shows how Richhill was not only affected by the great events in Irish history such as the plantation, famine and world wars, but also played an active role in them.

Famous characters such as Cromwell, Carson and Casement appear, as do less well-known stories such as the burning of Richhill Station and the infamous Richhill Poisoning Case.

The launch will be held in a marquee in front of Richhill Castle at 8pm on Wednesday, October 24.

Admission is free and the format for the evening will include refreshments, a presentation by the author and the opportunity to buy a copy of the book.

Brett will be talking to Anne Marie McAleese about Richhill on BBC Radio Ulster’s ‘Your Place and Mine’ at 8am on October 20.

‘Richhill – A Portrait of an Ulster Village’ was commisioned by the Richhill Preservation Trust to mark the completion of a major restoration and regeneration project in the village, which is a conservation area.

Over a six-year period the Trust brought many neglected buildings back into use and restored others to their former glory. The Heritage Lottery Fund financed much of the work.

Here are a few stories from the book...

THE NAKED PRIEST

In the early years of the nineteenth century, a family was one night asleep in their farmhouse near Richhill when they were awoken by a furious knocking at the door.

Cautiously the farmer, Mr Carroll, opened the door and immediately a naked man pushed his way in, clearly in great distress and begging for help. Mrs Carroll threw a blanket over the poor man, who explained that he was a Catholic priest fleeing from a group of ‘Peep o’Day Boys, local Protestant thugs who usually attacked their victims at dawn.

Mr Carroll immediately picked up his blunderbuss and his wife a bayonet. The priest hid under their bed. When the Peep o’Day boys arrived, Carroll – a loyal Orangeman – went out and rebuked them. Faced by such resolution, the ruffians slunk away and the priest’s life was saved.

THE FAMINE ORPHAN

Mary Littlewood was born in Ballybreagh, Richhill in 1831. Her father was a weaver who worked at home, supporting his wife and three children.

These were hard times for weavers as the big factories in Lurgan and Belfast were producing cheap cloth and driving down wages. The family only managed because they grew potatoes on their small plot of land. When the potato blight arrived they had not enough to live on and, in 1846 ,they were forced to enter Armagh Workhouse.

The workhouse register described Mary as ‘thinly clothed and hungry’ and her parents as ‘ragged and dirty’. The family was separated but at least had enough food to stay alive.

However, in 1847, Mary’s father died of fever and a few months later so did her mother. Mary was now an orphan. She was not the only one. There were at this time over 4,000 orphan girls in Ireland of about Mary’s age and the government didn’t know what to do with them.

Lord Grey, Secretary of State for the Colonies, was aware of a substantial demand for servant girls in Australia and established a scheme under which the colonial government would pay the passage of young female orphans and direct them into employment on arrival. Mary, along with 25 other girls from Armagh, was sent to Australia to become a maid. She hated it. In 1849 she was accused in court of assaulting her mistress, a Mrs Curtis. This was a lie as it was Mrs Curtis who was violent to Mary. Fortunately, Mrs Curtis’s neighbours came to Mary’s defece and she was aquitted. However, ten years later she was still working as a maid and still falling out with her employers, one of whom called her ‘excessively insolent’. We don’t know what happened to poor Mary after that, but her name appears with those of all the other orphans Lord Grey sent to Australia on a memorial in Sydney.

SIR ROGER

CASEMENT

Sir Edward Carson, the leader of Unionism during the Home Rule crisis before the Great War, described Richhill as the most loyal village in Ireland.

So why did the famous Irish Nationalist Sir Roger Casement stay here at about the same time? Sir Roger was visiting the then owner of Richhill House, Major Berry. Berry was a widely-travelled man who had fought in the Boer War and written a book on the cannibals of Sierra Leone. Berry met Roger Casement in South America and they became firm friends, although they had very different poltical views.

In 1913, Berry and Casement had an argument that led to their immediate and complete estrangement. Casement was visiting Richhill and – as always – the two men discussed Irish politics. Casement tried to persuade Berry to resign his commission in the British army and join the ranks of the nationalists. This was too much for Berry and words were exchanged that could not be retracted. Casement immediately packed his bag and, at three o’clock in the morning, left Richhill and walked to Portadown – a distance of some six miles – where he took the train to Belfast. Although Casement later wrote to apologise for his behaviour, the friendship was over. Casement was later involved in a plot to bring arms to the Irish rebels and was executed for treason. At the time of Casement’s trial, Berry told his son that he thought Casement had become a changed man because of the horrors he had witnessed in the Congo. The British government had sent him there to investigate the appalling treatment of the indigenous peoples by the Belgian rubber traders. His experiences led Casement to suffer such ‘devastating nightmares’ that he ‘[woke] the whole house with his screams’.

BURIED THREE TIMES

An unfortunate farmer from Richhill, known only as ‘JM’, took his own life in August 1818. He was taken for burial in Mullavilly, but ‘certain wretches’ dug up the coffin and left it outside the churchyard. He was then conveyed to Kilmore, where ‘the assembled multitude denied him a grave’. The body was next taken to Mullabrack, again buried, and again disinterred. The unfortunate man’s friends finally buried him in a corner of one of his own fields.

THE MILLIONAIRE GROCER

Frank Smith (1822-1901) was born in Richhill but emigrated to Canada when he was a young boy. Here he worked as a grocer and was so successful that in 1849 he moved to London and set up his own grocery business, Frank Smith and Company.

He made a series of canny investments and built up a large fortune. Returning to Canada, he established another company there. This was also a great success. One of his shops sold goods to the value of C$154,000 on a single day. The profits from the business were invested in banks and railways, which boomed. Smith became the owner or director of telegraph, gas, canal and railway companies, together with several banks. In 1891, he retired, a millionaire many times over.

In parallel to his career in business, Smith pursued his political interests. He was a committed Catholic and did much to help his co-religionists, for example assisting to establish a Savings and Loan company for immigrant Irish. Smith became a Senator in the Canadian Parliament in 1871, and from 1882 to 1891 he served as a minister in the government. In 1894, Smith was knighted and later that year he was, somewhat to his own and others’ surprise, asked to become Prime Minister of Canada. His health was failing, however, and he declined.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Brett Hannam is an Englishman who married into Richhill. His wife is from a long-established Richhill family descended from the Richardsons and Sacheverells, early owners of the Richhill estate.

Her grandmother was one of the first teachers at the Hardy Memorial School and relatives ran a furniture factory here for several generations. This is Brett’s second book on local history. His first, ‘Mullavilly – Portrait of an Ulster Parish’ is available on Amazon.