William Diver (1864-1943)

William Diver, Meendoran, Clonmany, Co. Donegal.

Aidan Hodson, December 2016

William Diver
William Diver

William Diver, my mother’s father, was born on 21 October 1864 at Meendoran, Clonmany, Co. Donegal. Meendoran is a townland south of the town of Clonmany in the Inishowen peninsula and north of two lakes, known as the Upper and Lower Loughs, officially called Lough Naminn and Lough Fad respectively. The road to Clonmany, about two and a half miles away from the Diver household, runs sharply downhill at a point known as Meendoran Brae before joining the road from Drumfries to Clonmany.

Diver house
A view of the Diver household in the 1940’s

The Diver family, like their neighbours, scraped a living from the hilly and boggy land about them. According to family information, William’s father, Paul, had set up the homestead when the land was divided into individual holdings. Previously a number of households in the area had been grouped together in a cluster called “the Oul’ Town” and the land was shared among them. This seems to be an example of the land management system called “rundale” whereby a group of families jointly farmed plots of land, sharing the better and poorer parts of the holding. The Griffiths Valuation map shows a cluster of houses called “Meendoran Upper” and lists seven occupiers, including William Dever (sic.), Paul’s father. Six of the seven occupiers, including William, jointly held leases for two plots of land around the house cluster, one comprising 42 acres and the other plot of poorer quality being 224 acres of hilly bog on Meendoran Hill, running down to the near lough, Lough Fad.

Griffith’s Valuation indicates that the immediate leaseholder was the Lohery (otherwise spelt Loughrey) family, who lived at Binnion, a townland north of Clonmany village.

The breakup of the rundale system in Meendoran took place in the late 1870’s, around the time Paul had taken over his father’s share. In other parts of Inishowen it seems the breakup of rundale and creation of individual farm holdings took place earlier in the 19th century. In September 1880, Mr. John Loughrey gave evidence to the Irish Land Act Commission, known as the Bessborough Commission, established that year to inquire into the workings of the Landlord and Tenant (Ireland) Act 1870. Mr. Loughrey stated that in one of his townlands, “Mindoran” , which had been held in rundale, the tenants had two or three years previously pressed him “to cut up the place”. Each had five to seven different patches in different parts of the townland. “This made the place almost worthless – they were constantly trespassing on each other and annoying each other and quarrelling. They asked me to take it out of rundale and each man to have his own holding. I did so and in this instance every man upon the townland, except three, were satisfied.” He named the three tenants as Hugh McAlleny, Widow McAlleny and Neil McAlleny. He stated that he had the holdings revalued three years ago and all but the three agreed to pay the revised rent. He stated that the tenants on his property “have mostly very small holdings and I must say if they were let alone they would give very little trouble. Of course with men like that a bad season, sickness in their families, or any unforeseen misfortune throws them back and half a year’s rent is gone; but it is a thing that cannot be avoided and you are very well off if you get the rent the following year.”

Eventually, in line with the national land reform initiatives, the occupiers of holdings became the full owners of their properties and in the case of Meendoran this may have happened after the turn of the century.

The new Diver holding was part of the 224 acre plot referred to above and according to family tradition, was reclaimed from heather. This was done by digging and by bringing sand and gravel from the coast. The land around the Diver house was called the “park”.

William Diver and children
William with daughter Grace and son Patrick, probably mid 1920’s

William was one of seven children of Paul and Rose Diver. His mother Rose, nee Doherty, was from Cloontagh, the neighbouring townland to the east of Meendoran. William had three brothers and three sisters. Of the seven, only William and a sister remained in Ireland, the other five all emigrating to America. William’s father, Paul, had also made a trip to America, as William’s birth certificate states that the address of his father at the time of William’s birth was America.

The sister who remained, Grace, married a man named Willy Kerr and lived in Letter, a townland in the nearby district known as Urris. William’s other sisters were Rose and Kate. Rose settled in California, marrying a man from Carndonagh, named Kavanagh. Kate settled in Boston, marrying man from Dublin, named Nolan. William’s brothers were Dennis, Barney (Bernard) and Eugene. Dennis married in the USA and had nine children. Barney lived and worked in Belfast and married a girl there before they emigrated to the Boston area. They had five children. Eugene went to California for the gold rush. He remained unmarried.

Like many in rural Ireland at the time, William did not receive much formal education but could read and write and was said to have been self-taught. As a boy he worked for the priest in Clonmany and learned some Latin. In later years he would read letters for neighbours.

William and Mary Diver
William and Mary Diver

William married Mary Doherty, from Bunnakille, Urris, on 20 September 1900 in the parish church St Mary’s, in Clonmany. They lived in the Diver house with his father, Paul, his mother having passed away in 1897. Paul passed away in 1903 aged 80.

The house was thatched with the floor made of compacted clay. The area around the hearth was covered with flagstones from a nearby quarry. Later, in the 1920’s, a new house was built with the original house converted to a farm building. The new house was slated. The County Council made grants available to assist in the cost of building new houses. William arranged for a teacher, by the name of Reynolds, who lived at Clonmany Cross, to sketch the drawings of the design they wanted. An architect, named Doherty, from Derry, but living in Buncrana, then did the drawings. The builder was a local man. William and his sons brought lime from Glentogher and burned it in a kiln before using it as plaster and mortar. The kiln was on the land of a neighbour known as the Hecklar. The lime was built up in layers between earth, burned for three days and cooled for a few more before being used. A number of the neighbours built new houses around that time.

The floor in the kitchen of the new house was made of concrete, but around the hearth were flagstones. The other rooms in the house had floorboards. William’s wife complained about how cold the concrete was. The cat and dog would not sleep on the concrete but would only sleep on the flagstones. On a cold day, William would dig a big sod of turf – it would be damp and still have heather on the top of it – and it would be put to the back of the fire and turf banked up in front of it. It made a great warm fire. The new house was quite dry as the walls were made of stone and were quite thick. The lime mortar and wash also enabled ventilation and helped to reduce the damp.

Farming was the main livelihood. Apart from farming an opportunity for work arose when the extension of the Londonderry and Lough Swilly Railway was built. This extension to Carndonagh was completed in 1901. William was employed on the construction of the extension. The train brought about great mobility and opportunities for the people. William went on a pilgrimage to the Doon Well, near Kilmacrennan, by train. Special trains were put on. During heavy rain a number of the pilgrims including William sheltered in a carriage. The carriage began to move and soon ran away on its own. The passengers became worried and began to pray. Eventually the carriage stopped, possibly of its own accord and disaster was avoided.

The farming was mixed with a small number of cattle, goats and fowl. The Divers had geese and ducks as well as chickens. The geese were reared to be sold in order to earn a little income. Mary often put a creel over the chickens to prevent them from breaking out into the corn. The creel was made of sallyrods. They had a sally tree which was cut down from time to time to make creels. The sally rods were put into an open fire to make them supple and the bark was taken off. The creels were also used to carry turf on the back.

The main food eaten by the Diver family was potatoes, buttermilk, eggs and some vegetables, mainly onions, cabbage and carrots. They occasionally had meat on a Sunday.

Flour was bought to make home-made bread. Indian-meal (corn) was also bought and this was used to make porridge and as a feed for animals. They also occasionally bought oatmeal which made nicer porridge, although it was dearer than Indian meal. A business named “Swans” imported the indian meal into Buncrana and transported it by lorry. Supplies stopped during the Second World War.

Occasionally, the children would walk with friends to Binnion strand to pick dulse. The dulse was spread out on a hedge, on paper or on a cloth to dry and it was later eaten at leisure. Mary, coming from Urris, near the sea, liked dulse. A neighbour, the Hecklar, often went to Buncrana in springtime and came back with a cart-load of herrings which he sold fresh. The rest he salted. The Divers would occasionally buy some from him.

When they were old enough to work many young men spent most of their time hired out on farms owned by landowners around Carndonagh, with the names Scott, Moore and Henderson being mentioned.

The men also went to Scotland to work at “tatty-hoking” for seasonal work, usually for the months of May to August. The work involved digging early potatoes or haymaking.

Another source of income for the young men was to collect bog wood (“fir”, as it was called) and sell it in Buncrana or further afield in Burt. They would set off from Meendoran in the evening on a cart, meet up with friends in Drumfries and travel through the night to be early in Burt. They had cooked jacket potatoes in their pockets to eat on the way. They might return with straw or other needed materials.

Harvesting flax was one of the jobs in which the young men were engaged when they were hired out. The flax was pulled by hand and then steeped in a pool for ten days. A man had to get into the pool to pick up the strands, which at that stage had the bark removed, and throw them up on the bank. It was left to dry in the field. The person who was put in the water was given a whiskey.

William was a friend of Charlie McGlinchey, whose stories were published in the book “The Last of the Name” (Blackstaff Press 1986). William would meet him on the way to Mass in Clonmany. Charlie was often accompanied by his two large dogs while out walking or visiting neighbours and friends. William also had conversations about the issues of the day with Willy Diver, a cousin from the “Oul’ Town”. Willy Diver was a great conversationalist. When they were out saving turf the Diver children were pleased to see Willy Diver coming because they knew they would be able to go easy on the work when the men got absorbed in their discussions.

Gracie Doherty (nee Kearney) lived next door to the Divers. Next to her was Henry Doherty, who was a brother of Gracie’s husband, Owen. Their lands were originally a single farm, which their parents split between them. Next to Henry was the Oul’ Town. Between the Divers and the lough was Neil Margaret. Across the road were the Hecklars and the John Jimmy’s (McEleaney).

Gracie Kearney was born in Lenankeel. Gracie and Owen had two sons Mannie and Edward, (both unmarried). She never wore shoes when going about her daily business, although when dressed up she would wear a pair. Also when dressed up she would wear a white apron. She always wore a shawl. She would come to the Divers to ask William for something, saying “I want to speak to the holy man”. She often addressed William: “You’re the holy man”. Sometimes she would ask William to read a letter for her. Gracie would say when she had trouble: “This wee while will go by”.

The Hecklar (real name, John McDaid) originally came from Mintiagh, a nearby district. The nickname was supposedly given due to his prowess at “heckling” potatoes when he worked in Scotland The Hecklar was a hard worker and was able to make a better living than most through selling herrings, hay etc. from Derry and Burt. He may have been a distant cousin of William Diver.

Other neighbours in Meendoran included McGeoghegans , McGonagles, Tolands, McEleaneys and Harkins.

Occasionally there were “big nights” or “ceilidhing” where there were dances and sing-songs in neighbours’ houses, including the Hecklars’. The sing-songs included slower airs or “come all ye’s”, which appealed less to the younger people. The dances which were danced included “The Lancers”, barn dances, and military two-steps. There were also card games in the John Jimmy’s house.

William and Mary had thirteen children, of whom eleven survived until adulthood. Five of the first six children, Hugh, Paul, Dennis, Rose and Bridget, went to America, the other, Patrick, eventually taking over the family farm. Of the younger five surviving children, only one, Joe, went to America, with two, Grace and Cis (Celia), settling in Dublin and the other two, Margaret and Kate, in England.

William lived until 1943, aged 78. He lived through a period of great change in rural Ireland including periods of great turbulence over land reform, the Home Rule issue, the Easter Rising, the war of independence , the Civil War and the establishment of the new State with emigration a continuing feature throughout. He and his family, along with many others of the time, survived great poverty and were able to experience better quality of life in later years as the new State grappled with improving the conditions of its citizens.

Sources: Interviews with Diver family members, Griffith Valuation records, Census returns, Church and Civil records, “Donegal History and Society” , ed. Nolan, Ronayne & Dunleavy, Geography Publications, 1995, Bessborough Commission Report 1881, Minutes of Evidence (National Library of Ireland.

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