Born in Strabane, County Tyrone. Studied Micrbiology TCD, Education NUI Galway, Biblical Studies NUI Milltown. Worked in charity leadership for 40 years in Ireland, UK, Germany and with teams in a dozen countries.
Married to Pam
Writing the real-life three-generation saga of our family, starting with my mother in the 1920s on a remote mountainside in County Donegal and ending up in every continent of the world. That’s because each succeeding generation – until today – has produced a vastly diverse set of missionaries. The story uses unpublished first-hand accounts through these years.
“Mother often washed the clothes in Fermanagh and dried them in Donegal! They were rinsed in the river (the dividing line) and that saved carrying rinsing water – then in good weather she spread them out on the Donegal side to dry. Blanket washing was a big job. They were washed outside in a big tub and we got our turn at tramping them with our bare feet. At least our feet were clean afterwards.”
This entry in my own mother’s journal gives a sneak preview into her family’s life in the 1920s, on a farm perched on the border between Northern Ireland and what was then the Irish Free State. Now in her seventies she was reading it out loud to four of her siblings, poised sedately on bench seats in a caravan scarcely 100 meters from that same river.
The siblings chatted amiably, with the odd glance out of the window at the changeable weather. Had the weather been clearer they would have been able to see the top of Breesy mountain on which the lone caravan was permanently parked. Had they climbed to the top of Breesy (which they often did in mid-July) they could see five counties from there – Tyrone, Fermanagh, Leitrim, Sligo and of course their own Donegal. Five counties on the horizon – but there wasn’t much human habitation to be found on that mountain. There never had been.
All of them were in their seventies now, except Jim who was almost – and he owned the caravan. One person who sadly wasn’t there at all was Molly who had passed away at the age of sixty-six. In a certain sense it was Molly who drew them together more closely this time because her other sister, my Aunt Bessie, had come up with a way in which the surviving siblings could hold on to their past.
Bessie had been a teacher in Greencastle in north Donegal and her amazingly effective primary-school-type proposal was for everyone to take a simple little notebook and write down their memories of the 1920s and 30s. She wasn’t asking them to do it right there in the caravan (she was cannier than that). The plan was that they would write for a year and come back to the same spot in 12 months.
On my desk I have my mother’s notebook from that one-year reunion. She was Molly’s other sister. You can feel the granular detail of an eyewitness in her notes.
Sibling John was also in attendance that day. He had been famous among us for years as Mr Taciturn. He didn’t have a bad word to say, let me stress. It’s just that he seldom had any word to say at all. Somehow the notebook allowed him to take flight and he became veritably verbose – if not in speech, at least in writing.
He expounded further on the vast range of country skills practised by the family, like plaiting hay into rope and making bee skips (who knew?!) and yes, I have to keep a dictionary handy when I read the now loquacious John Myles. He and his wife Joie eventually transformed his notes into a hand-made hardback book. You almost knew it was going to be handmade, like everything else.
Interruptions to life on a quiet rural Donegal hill farm creep in here and there. John records that he and his friend Joe Mulhern listened to the ordnance disposal unit dealing with the bombs jettisoned by a Sunderland flying-boat which crash-landed in the Cashelard bog in August 1944. I’d never heard of such a thing! He informs us that it came down “in bogland near Deveney’s home”. Now we know! Somebody asked me, “Have you checked that on Google?” Why should I? Uncle John was obviously there and Google obviously wasn’t.
The whole story tumbles out through the notes of the siblings who have, at that point, weathered seventy years. For me, it’s like reading an Enid Blyton “Famous Five” adventure book for children and finding out it that it was all true and that your mother was one of them.
Their father, Robert Myles, was born in 1859, ten years after the Famine, and had emigrated to the United States back when there weren’t quite so many states in the union. After seven years in Philadelphia he changed his mind, returned to County Donegal and at the age of 60 married my grandmother, the 22-year-old Helen Stevenson. She first set eyes on him at Ballintra cattle mart and that did the trick (she was on a summer holiday from Glasgow!). They set up home beside Breesy mountain in a three-room thatched cottage (no running water, bathroom, toilet, ceilings or flooring) and Helen bore him six children, three girls and three boys, in fairly rapid succession.
He soon died, while most of the children were still at home, and she set forth on the considerable work of bringing up the six – Molly, Annie (my mother), Bertie, Bessie, John and Jim.
But the six remembered their Breesy start in life as a mostly care-free adventure. John, and the others, chronicles a childhood full of wonder at the natural world. They were almost spell-bound by the making of hay (which I had always imagined to be a tedious chore). In fact they wrote that “Haystack day was the highlight of the season”. Mowing was done by scythe and as Bessie remembered that skilful work she saw “the rhythm in it was soothing to watch and almost poetic”.
Mowing was only the start. Not every single blade of hay they saved went into the haystack. Some was kept to make ropes (again, in my imagination I thought you just bought ropes in rope shops). All it needed was an armful of well-chosen hay and “twisters” – a hand crafted tool made from a wooden handle and a piece of strong wire.
The whole show was a family production. Each member of the family was likewise a part of thrashing their crop of oats – with another set of wooden implements. Everybody took a hand with the cows. “I didn’t milk until I was nine”, my mother writes, “In the winter I held the lamp – an easier job”. That’s the point in the story I realised they were milking in the dark! The inseparable Molly and Annie were carrying bags of turf from the bog one day when they saw their first aeroplane. They dropped the turf and ran home because they reckoned that if the plane fell out of the sky it would cover all their fields.