2. Sligo and Tullaghcullion

“Under bare Ben Bulben’s head
In Drumcliff churchyard Yeats is laid.
An ancestor was rector there
Long years ago, a church stands near,
By the road an ancient cross.
No marble, no conventional phrase;
On limestone quarried near the spot
By his command these words are cut :

Cast a cold eye
On life, on death.
Horseman, pass by !”

– W.B. Yeats, Under Ben Bulben.

James Hamilton was born above a tailor’s shop on Castle Street, in Sligo town, on 29th January 1918, the only child to Joseph and Jessie. Joe had moved to Sligo from the family home at Tullaghcullion, near Killybegs, some years earlier to take a job as the manager of the shop. This had gone quite well and he had eventually bought out the owner.

Singer sewing machines were causing a revolution in dressmaking and Joe would have cause to visit the Singer Company head office in Belfast in order to purchase machines. On one of Joe’s visits to Belfast in about 1914 he met Jessie Mackay, who worked at the office and sales shop. Courtships and engagements could be long at that time and it was no different for Joe and Jessie. In April 1917 they got married and Jessie moved to Sligo.

The first three years of Jim’s life were spent mostly in Sligo, a beautiful town on the west coast of Ireland. The water known as Sligo Harbour is protected to the west by Coney Island, affording good shelter for ships. On its north side the town is overlooked by the broad mesa of Ben Bulben. The port of Sligo was of considerable importance during the 19th Century, there being no other effective means of transport until the railway came in 1862. During the famine years of the late 1840s an estimated 30,000 people left Ireland through here (many emigrants did not survive their journey, they would already have been close to death, furthermore some carried typhus aboard the ships). From the 1860s there came some relief around Ireland in the form of the Industrial Revolution which provided railways, and employment in shipyards and mills. Additionally, for those who remained employed in agriculture, the ‘Land War’ of the early 1880s laid the foundations for tenant farmers’ rights. There was considerable trade through the port of Sligo. By the early 20th century there were various sources of relative prosperity – sufficient for Joe’s business to be successful.

The young Jim had pale blue eyes, not unusual in Ireland. A photograph of him from just a few months old shows a ready smile. Joe and Jessie later said that he had not been troublesome. Joe was 33 at the time Jim was born. Joe’s parents had already died some years earlier, but the old house was still there in Tullaghcullion, and the family visited frequently. In his early years Jim became friendly with other children at Tullaghcullion, he and Bertie Boyd became lifelong friends. Throughout his life Jim would have a special attachment to Donegal.

Under what circumstances the Hamiltons came to Tullaghcullion is a matter for conjecture. Joe had been born there in 1884, as had his father Andrew in 1834, and his grandfather John in 1787. This man’s father, also John, may have been the first Hamilton in Tullaghcullion, though the family may have arrived one generation earlier.

While Joe was alive, local word of mouth had it that three big, strong men had arrived in the area one day in about 1745 : one was reputed to have worn a twenty-two inch shoe. Perhaps this is an exaggeration, however one of the descendants – still in Tullaghcullion at the time of writing – takes a size fourteen shoe. The men were Hamilton, Boyd and Greenlaw and they had come most likely from Scotland. They were not herded here as Plantation workers, nor is it likely that any of them were overspills from Plantation areas – most of the disruption caused by the Plantation had already taken place. G. Hill (‘The Plantation in Ulster, 1608-1620’) states that the ‘British undertakers’, that is the plantation landlords, arrived in Donegal in 1610 (sweeping away all the old Irish families of rank).

Joe’s conclusion was that the three men had served as soldiers in the Stewart v Hanoverian wars and had been rewarded by tenancy of Tullaghcullion. It was not land that was considered good for farming and the existing inhabitants nearby had laid no claim to it. He did also allow that the original three may have been yeomen out of employment, seeking unoccupied land. All three surnames may still be found, in some numbers, in the western counties of Scotland from Lanarkshire down to Wigtownshire. G. Hill points out that there was considerable contact between southwest Scotland and Co Donegal, in particular using the ports of Derry, Donegal and Killybegs. Killybegs especially had a very good harbour, offering a good degree of safety in a storm. Transport for any distance by land was pretty well impossible at that time.

In his later years, Joe wrote : “The newcomers settled in peace and friendship with the earlier settlers or inhabitants, who seemed quite poor, as some remains of their earlier dwellings testify. It may be instructive to say that there are no battlefields around, nor massacre hills nor broken treaty stones. It is a blessed county of Ireland that has no history.” The established inhabitants were mostly Catholic and the newcomers were not, though they were not Orangemen. A matter of historical note is the signing of a declaration of allegiance in 1796, before the rising which occurred in other parts of Ireland. Catholics and Protestants alike were encouraged to sign this document, but none of the Hamiltons from Tullaghcullion appear in the list which survives.

They built a little town, as they called it. The houses were not joined to one another, but were all within an area of less than an acre of ground, and near a spring that has never once failed to supply a running brook. The houses in those days were small, originally there would have been one large room to accommodate all the family. The walls were built of red clay mortar and stones : some of them, when kept warm and dry, resisted the weather for 200 years. Rough beams supported the roof which was ingeniously constructed by laying carefully cut scraws, that is stretches of clean, firm grass sod about a yard wide and as long as the roof from ridge to eave. These were deftly unrolled on the roof on the top of rough laths, the earthen side showing from the inside of the room. Thatched with a good coating of yellow straw they had a comfortable dwelling, even on a winter’s night. They were particular that the building was not debased by being called a ‘cottage’. There is something feminine about the word cottage that the Irish do not appreciate.

In the old days chimney funnels were difficult to construct, so they did without. The smoke from the big turf fire was left to make its way as it willed to the opening in the roof above the fireplace. Most of the smoke never got out that way. It curled upwards to the roof and in time coated the rafters with a jet black covering like varnish. No wood worm or dry rot could prosper in those roofs.

The land of Tullaghcullion, the ‘Townland’, comprised 177 acres. They neatly divided the land by three and these portions were again apportioned into three classifications of the better land and the middle and the hilly parts, so that any section was about equal in size to any corresponding section. Only small portions of the best parts could be classed as really good.

Joe’s account continues : “This was a hardy breed in their settlement days. They found some land good enough to live from here, land not previously thought fit for growing crops, but they had to clear scrub and briers and rushes, to drain and dig it first. Poor soil had to be enriched by bringing from the shore creels of seaweed to be spread where potatoes were to be planted and black mud from turf bogs to be mixed with the seepage from byres to make blades of grass grow where none had grown before. They toiled, not with ploughs and tractors, but with spades and graips and scythes and harrows, and the harrows were drawn neither with oxen as in the East, nor by horses as in the more prosperous North, but by themselves, men and women. Out of poor soil and with antiquated implements they reaped the making of stacks of good oats and heaps of the staple food, the valued potato. When the harvest was gathered, each house had several stacks of oats, a barnful of potatoes. a big stack of turf and greens still in the fields.”

After some successful years they were able to trade for livestock, a couple of pigs and some cows. There was also good fishing, one of Joe’s great uncles was drowned when caught out in a fierce storm while fishing on nearby Bruckless Bay.

The families of Tullaghcullion survived the Great Famine of the 1840s, and even were able to give help to some less fortunate neighbours (the famine only partially affected western Donegal, perhaps because breezier conditions prevailed there : and for the people of Tullaghcullion in particular, the diversity of their agriculture would also have benefited them). The famine caused loss of life in Ireland estimated at between 1 million and 1.5 million, and emigration of over 1 million others during the 1840s alone.

In the 16th and early 17th century the Irish aristocracy had been stripped of their lands. The new landlords were English and Anglo-Irish and many of them lived in England. Under a system known as ‘conacre’, the landlords leased land to Irish farmers but did not give any security of tenure : a tenant farmer could be thrown off the land if, for example, the landlord decided that the land should instead be used for sheep-farming. And if a tenant had experienced a bad year and had got into arrears with the rent, he could be thrown off. Even prior to the famine, many tenant farmers had been evicted and many others were in difficulty.

During the years 1845-9 there was a succession of unusually humid and calm summers, conditions ideal for potato blight. Crops failed repeatedly, the tenants were obliged to sell what reserves of other crops they had in order to pay the rent. The absentee landlords either were not well informed of the resulting destitution or were not concerned and, when many tenants could no longer pay the rent, evictions escalated. The British Government failed to provide adequate relief, moreover food continued to be exported from Ireland to England.

The famine, and the insufficient assistance from England, were a watershed in Irish politics. The first failure of the potato crop in 1845 coincided with tabling of the ‘Coercion Bill’ in the House of Commons, a bill giving even more power to landlords. Within a year a group called the ‘Young Irelanders’ had formed, a group prepared to use force. At this time the issue was not religious : two of the three Young Irelanders’ leaders, John Mitchel and William Smith O’Brien, were protestants. Many protestants were among the famine victims.

Mitchel later wrote : “The Almighty, indeed, sent the potato blight, but the English created the famine.” Other sources of nationalist inspiration emerged. With the continuing famine, in 1847 a writer by the name of James Fintan Lalor independently submitted some letters to the ‘Nation’ newspaper on the subject of the protection and well-being of Irish tenant-farmers. One letter began : “Society stands dissolved…” The ideas of organized withholding of rent and of Irish nationalism continued to grow during the following decades.

Rural western Donegal was for the most part isolated from the political unrest but was not immune to tensions due to tenants’ rights issues. The quiet area of Killybegs did not escape entirely without difficulties. Joe recalled an incident which would have occurred one day in the 1890s, as he was on his way to school in Killybegs : “When nearing the Five Points junction a frightening column of men, mounted and walking, surely not less than twenty, we saw coming along the main road. We dallied to give them time to pass, instead they swung round to confront us. It took us a split second to get off the road to give them clearance to pass. Big men in dark uniforms and several of them on big horses with guns clearly displayed. They did not seem to be in a hurry, as if most of them were not on a pleasure hunt or treasure hunt. I had seen ‘Big Den’, as we called him, who lived in the very wee house at the foot of the Carn road. It was to evict Dan that this display of force was called out from Killybegs. They were too strong, although the talk when we came home was that Dan had resisted, armed with a scythe, but he might as well have walked out. He, and was it his wife or sister, and their miserable belongings were thrown on the roadside and the wee house, or its roof, were smashed. They likely were sent to the big Workhouse in Glenties to enjoy the comforts of the needy and aged for the rest of their days, but the ruin of their shanty still remains, like the bones of a skeleton, after nearly eighty years.”

Around this time, say the late 1880s or the early 1890s, there were 84 people permanently housed in Tullaghcullion in eleven houses, living without outside help and none of the old people in the Workhouse. From that time, William James Boyd, who had a splendid memory right up to his last years, and he lived to be over 93, was able to recollect the names of all 84 of them for Joe.

Joe also recalled from his childhood the recollection of a stormy night, no uncommon thing in Donegal, when everybody leant a hand in securing a neighbour’s roof : “Few examples are left now, but there used to be straw ropes wrought into the pattern of a very wide mesh, like a netting : ‘cur-muggling’ (if it can be spelled) it was called, which kept the thatch from ruffling by the wind. The ropes that came over the roof from one sidewall to the other were made fast by wooden pegs in the wall. When the straw ropes were still sound and the pegs in the wall properly fastened, all was well unless the whole house was lifted by a hurricane, but the ropes might have been used oftener than was good for the roof, or some of the pegs became loose or damaged – repairing jobs like these in good weather seemed unnecessary, and very hard to do in rainy weather, but more difficult still in windy weather – so that some roofs suffered even to the extent of being carried away by a strong wind. Then the rushing here and there, the frantic efforts to throw ropes over the vulnerable houses, the howling of the wind in the big trees and the shouts of the helpers even louder, gave a sort of exhilaration to a lad who treated it all as a necessary part of life.”

As for relations with the earlier settlers, the general politicizing of some parts of Donegal during the 1880s and 90s, along religious lines, does not appear to have touched the Killybegs area : “They treated each other as simply and as sincerely as if no religious division existed, or as if it were a private matter that ought to be respected. Meeting, one coming from his church, the other going to his, was the occasion for good wishes and smiles, each trying to express the idea that your church is better than mine, only just that we don’t like to change.”

The day the “Praytchur” came from Killybegs to visit Tullaghcullion was a great event. For some reason that was not clear to Joe as a child, or even later, there was a general clean-up. “Had there been a competition of ‘Tidy Town’, Tullaghcullion would have been placed high. Everybody swept everything that was loose, the cows were expected to behave like humans.” People living in Tullaghcullion at the time of writing have remarked that the place became known locally as “Jerusalem”, though this was said with a smile.

Joe recorded : “It seemed rather odd that on that day the women were more in evidence than the men. The men all had very pressing jobs to do that day which necessitated their absence, so that it was only the women got the benefit of the preacher’s service.” It was customary in those times for the preachers to work themselves into something of a frenzy during their sermon. They would shout a lot, but generally the more noise they made, so the less sense they made. Joe later learned that the folks who went to the other church suffered in a similar way.

From 1889 to 1893, the construction of the narrow gauge railway from Donegal to Killybegs provided a lucrative source of employment for the men of the area. Killybegs had become a big fishing port and the railway was considered essential for conveying fish outwards and commodities inward. Joe’s eldest brother, William John, got involved in this work, but one day received terrible injuries when a dynamite charge exploded by accident. One man had been killed and others were hurt. William John had been brought home broken and bleeding. He died in 1902, aged 30 only. Joe’s parents both died a year either side of William John : it would have been a very difficult time for Joe, his sister and two remaining elder brothers. Joe, at 18, would have been at work himself for a number of years and possibly may have already been working as a tailor’s apprentice at this time.

By the time Joe left Tullaghcullion for Sligo, Killybegs had become established as one of the principal fishing ports on the west coast. Further into the 20th century there was good employment, both with boats and in the fish processing plant nearby the quay.

More recently Killybegs is the most productive fishing port in Ireland and recent initiatives for exploitation of Atlantic oil and gas resources are bringing new prosperity – Killybegs benefiting from its status as one of only a few natural deep water ports on the Atlantic coast. It has been predicted that the town should benefit from recent wind power initiatives too. And there is always tourism, though the income from this is markedly seasonal and does not significantly benefit many of the local population. The Killybegs area remains a beautiful and largely unspoiled place.

As for Tullaghcullion, it is many years since the inhabitants attempted to survive by arable farming alone. The grass is good enough for grazing, but much of the land is either rocky or boggy. It is hard to imagine that it supported crops to feed 84 people. Willie Boyd still keeps cows, as his father Bertie did : his only concessions to modern agricultural methods have been milking machines and a silage-cutter (for a fit man the silage is manageable when dry, but more often than not it is damp and heavy).


Foster, R.M., Modern Irish History, 1600-1972, Penguin 1989
Hill, George, The Plantation in Ulster 1608-1620, Irish University Press 1970
Lyons, F.S.L., Ireland Since the Famine, Weidenfeld & Nicolson 1971
Murphy, Desmond, Derry, Donegal and Modern Ulster 1790-1921, Aileach Press 1981