by Susan Clarke
car park, in the grounds of the Folk and Transport Museum at Cultra,
lie the remains of Dalchoolin.
the magnificent family home of Anne Brann (nee Hughes), built in
1839, and the memories she has of it reflect the passing of an era
of 'the big houses', butlers and governesses, and a surprising lack
of class consciousness.
with Mrs. Brann in her current home, the Somme Nursing Home, and she
shared some of those memories with me. She is directly
descended from Brian Boru and a great granddaughter of William Smith
O'Brien. Given her historical background, she is anxious that
the tales are not lost, and has even asked her granddaughter to
write them down so that they will not be forgotten.
her stories is about the butler at Dalchoolin, Martin
Fitzsimons. He held the position for 60 years and the
relationship between Martin and the family was not the sterile
servant/master one that most people imagine.
at the front gate lodge with his wife (who was the cook in the big
house) and two sons. He never had an idle moment Mrs. Brann
said, as she outlined his average day. "First thing in
the morning he unlocked all the doors in the downstairs rooms and
pulled the curtains. Then he took early morning tea up to the
master and mistress. Normal household chores followed,
including seeing that the enormous coke stove in the hall was
stoked, lighting fires in the dining room, drawing room and school
room and perhaps the billiard room and folding the morning
"Helped by the parlour maid, he served the morning elevenses,
lunch at 1pm, afternoon tea at 7.30pm. Nightcaps were brought
in at 9pm. Blinds were drawn at a suitable time and at bedtime
all the doors were locked again for the night." He was
also given the duty of polishing the silver, keeping the five
grandfather clocks, grandmother clocks and several mantle clocks wound
up, cleaning the boots and shoes, and was in charge of the loose
cash in the house. Mrs. Brann was taught from an early age how
to polish silver and clean boots and help ease his workload.
Martin became part of the family and, when his health started
failing, he was cared for in the house. The housemaid Aileen
gave up her large sunny bedroom to him, and moved into the bedroom
next door. "She loved him dearly and looked after him for
the rest of his life, with help from my mother," Mrs.
Towards the end he became very frail. "Every afternoon he
would struggle to sit up in his bed. He was too weak but he
would try and try, saying: 'I must go downstairs and give the master
his tea.' One day he just went to sleep and didn't wake up, the
right way to go for him." said Mrs. Brann.
Mrs. Brann was very close to Martin. "He was a wonderful
man, much loved and respected by everyone. To me, he was a
surrogate grandfather," she said. "I am glad to say
that he lived to attend our wedding. I have a photograph of him
dressed in his best, sitting in a canvas chair in the walled garden
drinking a glass of champagne and smiling broadly."
She also tells of her governess, Rosie Cowan, who 'had the greatest
talent of educating and entertaining children at the same
time.' Her childhood sounds as if it came out of an Enid Blyton
book, and Rosie Cowan sounds like Mary Poppins. "We had
tremendous tracking games, making our own home made wooden
arrows," she said.
Rosie also taught us how to lay fires, light them and keep them
going. We did quite a lot of basic cooking and learned exactly
how to cook beautiful baked potatoes, cooked through but not
burnt. They lay in the dying embers for hours. No potato
has tasted as good since."
Her unconventional governess also taught the children the art of tree
climbing, and the use of ropes. "In fact it was a whole
survival course, tremendous fun and very useful," Mrs.
Brann said. The gardens at Dalchoolin were particularly
impressive thanks to 'Old Magill' the head gardener, and her father
who had a "tremendous knowledge of plants and plant care."
There was a walled garden of about an acre with herbaceous borders, a
rockery in a ruined cottage, many rose beds and a pond with a
fountain. There was a greenhouse with a vinery and
peaches. Another acre accommodated more fruit trees and
vegetables and fed eight households! Other areas of the estate
were set aside for shrubs and specialist trees.
Mrs. Brann remembers the war years well and describes what it was
like during the Blitz when bombs were dropped on Cultra and
Craigantlet. "The first air raid was so unexpected, no-one
had taken any safety precautions. The situation at Dalchoolin
was chaotic! There was a very large, heavy table in the kitchen
and the children and several dogs were told to get under the table
and stay there.
Her mother, meanwhile, went out and searched for unexploded bombs
with an Aga saucepan on her head as a helmet. She admits that
her family did not go hungry because of the rationing because when
the war came they had eggs, milk, butter, vegetables and pigs.
Her father 'the Major' joined the North Irish Horses and when war was
declared in 1914 he was among the first troops sent to France.
He stayed there until 1920 when his father died and he returned to
take over Dalchoolin. She shows obvious adoration for her
father and his skill in handling horses. "Now we see and
read of famous men who are horse whisperers and who are rightly
acclaimed as pioneers in their field. I wish that they had
known my father who had been doing similar things more than 50 years
She herself loves horses and was involved with North Down Harriers
for almost 50 seasons and many of her stories are about horses she
had or horses her father trained. her husband Norman was the
previous Lord Lieutenant of County Down and the president of the
Burma Star Association for more than 20 years. Mrs. Brann
travelled the world with him, but she said her favourite duty was to
attend functions of the Burma Star Association.
"I have the most enormous admiration and respect for the
members, men and women, and their families." she said. She
told how she never could wear eye make-up at V.J. Day celebrations
because when her husband stood back and said: "When you go
home, tell them of us and say, for your tomorrow, we gave out
today," her eyes filled with tears. "Norman is
not a sentimental man, but even he finds those words very hard to
say," she said.
Mrs. Brann herself was very involved in the war effort. When
she was 18 she left school and joined the wrens as a coder. She
served in Larne, Belfast, Liverpool and London and worked the
remainder of the war for 75p a week. "It was extremely
interesting work," she said, "coding and decoding
messages to and from naval ships."
Mrs. Brann has many other memories including her mother buying the
first caravan in the North of Ireland. It was a cabin cruiser
shown at the Balmoral show in the early 30's and cost £120.
"When we went out in the open road, people would stand by the
verge and clap. We waved back like royalty," she told.
She also remembers Sir Ian Fraser taking her appendix out on the
kitchen table because her mother did not like hospitals!
When she married, she moved to Drumavaddy in the Craigantlet Hills,
where she raised three children, Victoria, Stephen and Catherine.
After her father died in 1963 the family decided the house was too
big to keep. They did not want to sell to developers and risk
the house being demolished so they decided to sell it to the
government, thinking it would keep it in good repair and perhaps open
it to the public. However, the building fell into disrepair
and, overtaken with rot, was demolished.
Folk and Transport Museum admitted that perhaps the house would have
been saved today but back then, neither the knowledge nor the money
would have been available. Now all that is left as a reminder
of Dalchoolin is a walled garden in the grounds of the Folk and
Transport Museum, and Mrs. Brann's memories.