A late Victorian binding sat unread and untouched on my shelves for so many years that I could not remember where it had come from or why it was there.
Countless times my eye must have passed over that green cloth spine without pausing long enough to have it even register in my thoughts.
Then, one evening, as is often the way, by pure coincidence or some unfathomable act of fate, I found my attention drawn to it, and curiosity urged me to lift the book from its cosy slot on the shelf.
Blowing dust from the top edge, I opened it and began to read. The passage I alighted on happened to be a discussion of high theology conducted in a most practical and uncomplicated manner by a group of County Antrim rustics, speaking in their native Ulster-Scots tongue.
The comicality of the situation was handled so deftly by the author that it elicited an audible chuckle from me. Not since reading Spike Milligan's Adolf Hitler, My Part in his Downfall in my youth had this happened, so this was no mean feat. Even the most accomplished of humorists could generally only raise an appreciative smile from me at most.
Something then distracted me from my reading and the book was replaced on its shelf for at least another year; but, now, whenever I scanned the miscellany of volumes on the shelves, this book, with its gilt-leafed title lettering, invariably attracted my eye and almost seemed to nag me to return to it.
Eventually, when I found myself with an idle hour or two to pass, and could bear the guilt no longer, I plucked it from the shelf again, and this time read it straight through, cover to cover.
From its pages I experienced as much pleasure and variety of emotion as in reading Dickens, Hardy, Trollope, or any other of the author's internationally revered near contemporaries. Quite likely more erudite people than me could point out flaws in his style and characterization, suggesting that he is not as polished as those great men of literature forementioned, and perhaps the book meant more to me because of its setting in my own homeland, but its impact was as profound nonetheless.
The Auld Meetin'-Hoose Green was first published in Belfast in 1898, but the edition in my possession was printed in Toronto, Canada, in 1899. This in itself tells a story, in that a Canadian publisher considered that there was a large enough population of exiled Ulsterman in late 19th century Canada to merit the printing of a book with dialogue in Ulster-Scots.
The immense enjoyment that I got from reading it evoked a curiosity in me to find out more about the author's life.
Archibald M'Ilroy had fallen into virtual obscurity as far as I could tell, even in his place of birth, and information on his life was not to be easily had. I discovered that he had been born near Ballyclare, County Antrim, and had died on the Lusitania when it was torpedoed by a German submarine in May, 1915. I knew also, from the title page of The Auld Meetin'-hoose Green that he had previously written a book called When Lint was in the Bell. I went in search of a copy and was able to procure one from a secondhand bookdealer in County Armagh for the sum of £40. Disappointed though I was in not being able to find a first edition of the book, it turned out to be a blessing in disguise. The third edition of 1903 that I acquired contained sixteen pages of autobiographical information, and photographic plates, which were not present in the first edition.
M'Ilroy was born in 1859, the year of the Great Revival. It appears that he was of farming stock and spent much of his early life working in the fields and conversing with local workmen, some of whom would no doubt come to feature in his books. His education was at first rural and basic but either he or his parents, or a combination of both, had enough ambition to drive him constantly onwards and upwards in that respect. In 1875 he entered the Mercantile Academy in Belfast, then later became a pupil at the Royal Academical Institution.
He writes that he had notions at this time of preparing for college, with a view to entering the ministry, but suggests, without accusation, that he was persuaded instead to sit an examination for a clerkship in the Ulster Bank, which he duly passed.
Having spent over a decade at the bank, M’Ilroy began to feel unfulfilled, that he was somehow wasting his time, and shortly after marriage he began to deal in the commercial world on his own account. Working hard for a few years he found himself wealthy enough to ease off from his activities and turn his attention to literature.
When Lint was in the Bell proved successful, encouraging the author to quickly follow it up with The Auld Meetin’-Hoose Green. Thereafter came By Lone Craig-Linnie Burn, A Banker’s Love Story and The Humour of Druid’s Island. He also wrote many articles for The Witness and other papers and magazines.
He set up home in Drumbo, County Down, and subsequently became a Justice of the Peace and member of Down Council.
At some point, post 1903, M’Ilroy emigrated to Canada and this may explain his voyage on the ill-fated Lusitania which left New York bound for Liverpool on the 1st May, 1915. I would like to think that he was returning home to visit the people and places of whom he had so affectionately written.
However, I wish to return to where I started, with The Auld Meetin’-Hoose Green.
Setting aside the wonderfully informative social history contained within the pages of the book, M’Ilroy possessed enough skill in the art of characterization to bring long dead people back to life and have me feel that I had almost known them personally. Combining these intriguing characters with both sad and humorous situations, he created several stories which are funny and touchingly poignant at the same time, and ones which I would rate amongst the finest I have ever read.
The story of the unspoken love between Liza Lowry, the mill worker, and Sam Bailie the horse and car driver, has no equal in my mind, or heart. It is a tale of self-sacrifice and selflessness disguised behind formality, humour and pique, and made more affecting by the innocent simplicity of the country folk that they were. Dickens, I feel, could not have handled the narrative better and, in fact, might have been more inclined towards over-sentimentality.
Another character, Scobes, the village `natural’ or eccentric, is very sympathetically portrayed, and how the community accepted him and communally looked after him was truly heart-warming, and inclined to elicit nostalgia in the reader for a simpler, more caring, and tolerant time.
M’Ilroy may have progressed intellectually and socially since his early life in Ballyclare, and certainly he used the ignorance and naiveté of his subjects for comic effect at times, but it was not done in mockery, for it is evident that he held them in the highest regard and remembered them with the deepest affection.
This is not intended as a biography of the author, nor as a critique of The Auld Meetin’-Hoose Green, but as a plea to the reader to seek out this one book at least, and rediscover a quality writer, Archibald M’Ilroy, yin o’ oor ain, who thoroughly deserves a revival and recognition from a new generation of readers.
Derek Rowlinson 2009