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John Carson

John Carson - Ulster Farmer
(Photo: James Fennell)

Vanishing Ireland
JOHN CARSON
Farmer
Isle View, Inishmore, Co Fermanagh
Born 1928

County Fermanagh is a beautiful and wet landscape. Rainbows arch over its grassy drumlins and slate-grey streams. Roads wobble uncertainly along the boggy earth. Cattle meander through misty meadows and survey the fine views without any apparent interest. The island of Inishmore occupies just over 2,500 acres in the upper reaches of Lough Erne, approximately midway between Lisnaskea and Florence Court.

There is history a-plenty on Inishmore, from the 10th century standing stone to the ruins of a white-washed cottage stripped back to its bare bricks in 1822 by the bullets that whizzed between Catholics and Protestants in a gun-battle, known as the Inishmore Fight. John Carson’s uncle once witnessed a gypsy woman having a baby on the side of the road near here while her family carried on about their business all around her. ‘There was no more remarks passed than if a cow was calving’, said the uncle.

Saint Patrick came her long ago, on horseback so they say. It must have been a powerful steed for there were no bridges in that time. The Inishmore viaduct, a mighty metallic structure, was not completed until 1897. And Carybridge at the other end of the island was only built fifty years earlier, reckons John Carson. When it opened in 1847, there was even talk of running the railway across the island.

John should know. His grandfather, also John, was one of the men who built the viaduct. The elder John came from Kinawley, a townland 4 miles south west of Inishmore. He farmed pigs, bringing them to the market in Enniskillen. Fair Day in Enniskillen was a lively day but many a farmer was bankrupted by swiping hands amid the jostling crowds. To confound the pickpockets, Granny Carson made her husband a special wallet to keep in his crotch. The younger John recalls an old neighbour who had a similarly located purse, although his was designed to protect his fortune from his two insatiably drunken sisters. This man subsequently fell in love with a pretty girl and told her of his wealth. ‘Aye’, said she, ‘I hear the bee but where’s the honey’. He said: ‘Put your hand down there and you’ll find all the honey you need’.

Old John Carson found the land ‘terrible heavy’ to farm pigs. With his young family growing fast, he needed a quicker income and so he took to building roads. And when an employee of the well-to-do Graham family crashed a steam tractor into the old bridge at Cloonatrig, that’s when he got his break.

A Scottish engineer was employed to build a new viaduct where the old bridge had been. It wasn’t easy. The foundations kept sinking into the bog, no matter how many carts of stone and clay his men brought in. The Scotsman gave up and a new engineer arrived with a wily solution, namely securing the base with hessian sacks of cement. Grandfather Carson helped pack these sacks and you can still see them at the foot of the viaduct today.

But the Carsons were always farmers at heart. It was in their blood at least since John’s ancestors left the fertile fields of Devon in the late 17th century. They had crossed the Irish Sea into Ulster, settling on the banks of Lough Melvin at Garrison, right on the border between Sligo and West Fermanagh. During the 1860s, John’s great-grandfather broke away and moved first to Letterbreen and then on to Kinawley, always in pursuit of better land.

In 1918, John’s father Hugh and uncle William crossed into Inishmore and purchased the farm in Sessiagh where John now lives. This included the highest land on the island where John’s cattle graze today by the walls of an old rath. The Carson brothers cleared away the bushes and created fields for their cattle.

The Moore family who once owned this land named their house Isle View, in reference to the fine vistas across the water to the lush fields of Belle Isle. It was to this house that Hugh returned to live with his bride in 1926. Miss Chamber came from Mackan Glebe, just west across the water ‘on the mainland’.

Born in 1928, John was the first of their three [check] sons. Like most children on the island, he attended the now ruined Methodist school at Slee, established during the Great Famine. John’s aunt was the teacher. A photograph from 1934 shows the young lad smiling with his school pals. Sometimes they would go out and catch the pike as they were mating, ‘or schooling as we call it’. They’d gather the fish in loops, behead them, salt them, dry them and sell them by the dozen. If many of the boys in the photo look alike it is perhaps because ‘one family had seventeen children in it’. At that time, just twenty six families lived on the island. John does not know how many live there today but new-builds have been advancing steadily towards his farm for many years now.

The Carsons, a Church of Ireland family, went to church by horse and trap. ‘The Grahams were the only ones with a motorcar at that time’, says John, and the wooden spoke wheels from that car are still on the island.

John Carson left school in 1944 to help on the farm. The following year, his father dislocated a hip when a horse reared on him. ‘He was never able to work at the markets after that and had a terrible pain for the rest of his day’.

Meanwhile, William Carson, now an aged and somewhat contrary bachelor, put his part of the farm up for sale. Seventeen-year-old John realised his time had come and bought his uncles farm. It took him five years to pay it off. ‘It was a tough days work at that time, I can tell you’.

By the age of 22, John was effectively running the 80-acre Carson farm. What was missing? The older generation shook their heads. You’re too young, they said. Florence was 19 years old. They were married in Maguire’s Bridge in 1952 and went on to have six daughters and a son. It was a very happy marriage and lasted nearly fifty years before Florence’s untimely death in 2001. Their first grandchild was born in Australia on the first anniversary of Florence’s death, an event that greatly moved John.

It was not long after his marriage that John experienced one of his spookier nights. It was 1954, a particularly wet year and the mud was higher than normal. John and a friend were herding cattle. His friend had to drop some groceries off with two spinster sisters who lived nearby in ‘a wee tin house’. John accompanied him up to the house. ‘The first thing we seen was one of them dead at the end of the house. I looked at him and I don’t what I was like but he was white as a ghost. And then I backed into the hayshed – there wasn’t much hay in that time – and I found the other one, lying there dead’. The coroner’s report suggested pneumonia. The house had been levelled since. ‘It was a bit of a shock, I tell you’, he says with an awkward chuckle. ‘I could see it above me every night when I closed my eyes to sleep’.

John is an expressive man, with a kindly, crinkly face. Photographs mean a lot to him. They hang on walls, stand upon shelves and sleep in albums in every room of the house. We flick through one his albums. There’s his parents, standing straight, out by the old house; it collapsed after an accidental fire in the 1960s. And that’s wee William, his younger brother, who ‘died last harvest’. Here we have a smattering of his thirteen, often gorgeous, grandchildren. They’re scattered through the latitudes these days from New Zealand to Belfast. The young ones come up to play on the farm sometimes, pow-pow gun-games behind the cattle troughs, sliding in the muddy lanes. And there’s his daughter and her husband, the man whose head was blown open when the bomb exploded during that Remembrance Day service in Enniskillen back in 1987. And there’s John, in his UDR uniform, attending the funeral of one of the three Graham brothers, Lisnaskea boys, gunned down in the 1980s.

When John talks of the bad times, his voice becomes suddenly sterner, his sentences brusquer, his posture stiffer. ‘It’s still there at the back of the whole thing’, he says. ‘And it always will be’. The trouble with the Troubles is that they don’t go away. Not for John Carson’s generation. He was 19 when he joined the B-Specials of the Home Guard and he stayed with them for 22 years. During that time they went head-to-head against the IRA in an aggressive border campaign that the B-Specials eventually won. That said, John says: ‘I never saw anyone insulted or upset when I was in the B-Specials’. In 1967, the B-Specials were disbanded as part of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights agreement. Two years later, John joined the Ulster Defence Regiment with whom he remained with for the next ten years. He is considerably more open than many on the subject but it is still not an area he feels comfortable talking about.

The views from the Carson farm are splendid. The windmills of Derrylin, the snow-capped peaks of Belcoo, the primeval waters of the Erne. It is a quiet, peaceful landscape. The cattle survey the view without interest.

During his time, John built up a herd of pedigree black Aberdeen Angus from thirty to a couple of hundred. Twice a year, he brought them into Enniskillen, a long 10-mile march to the bridge and onwards up the main road. ‘It was awful if you didn’t sell them and had to walk them home again.’ Today, he and his son Robert farm seventy cows, half milk, half sucklers. Back in the 1940s, his father would go to Hiring Fairs to recruit sturdy young fellows who wanted a few months work. Today, it is just the Carsons, another young lad and three Massy Fergusons.

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Click here to see a full list of persons interviewed for the Vanishing Ireland project.