Downings, Donegal 1930

Agnes McBride was born in 1911 to Grace and Stephen McBride, the middle child of five siblings. She grew up on a townland which had been passed back and forward between her mother’s family, the Shevlin’s, and her father’s, the McBride’s, as tenant farmers. The townland formed part of the Northerly peninsula of Rosguill, Donegal, reaching out into the Atlantic Ocean. This slight jutting out of land was framed by a shoreline, which revealed the unforgiving and formidable conditions which sea and weather delivered to those who lived there. The sea represented an imperilling presence, as main source of trade and personal harvest.


The McBride’s and the Shevlin’s, and indeed the branches of related Gallagher’s and Clafferty’s, had farmed and fished in the area for what seemed like always. There was a whispered legacy that Agnes’ great-great-grandfather taught at the local Hedge school, a man who many relied on for community counsel.


Agnes’s mother, Grace, was twenty years younger than her husband Stephen. Census’ and family memory narrate that they grew up neighbours with their families sharing occupancy as tenant of the same townland[1]. He died before my father and aunt were born, with any stories of him being passed down through Grace, Agnes and other extended family.


There was a distinct and acknowledged McBride look, one that still lives on, of a small petite figure, with a thick black head of hair, pale skin, and green eyes. The latter of these, the green eyes, being bestowed on a treasured few. My grandmother, who herself was of this special green-eyed set, would often tell me – myself having this badge of honour – that we had special connections with the land.


At the start of the 20th Century the Rosapenna Golf Hotel and Resort opened in Downings. Renowned for the famous Hollywood clientele who visited during the summer months, the hotel would become a bustle of glamorous activity each year. From the age of thirteen Agnes worked at the hotel, both in service and working as a waitress in the opulent restaurant. My father talks of how she would tell stories of the people she saw come and go whilst she worked at the hotel.


When she reached fifteen, Agnes – along with her cousin – decided to run away from Downings, hearing word that there was work and opportunity to ‘make their own way in the world’ over in Glasgow, Scotland. Through a sequence of walking on foot and catching lifts from those driving through, Agnes and her cousin made their way across the border to board the boat at Derry.


Arriving at the Broomielaw area of Glasgow, a popular point of disembarkation for those on similar journeys, Agnes and her cousin made their way to nearby Paisley where there was word of work and board.


[1] A rocky enclosure of land which often proved difficult to farm, where out of the 184 1⁄4 statute acres it made up only 25 1⁄4 acres were arable.