By Joseph Kelly
Coyle’s Cottage is situated in Co. Tyrone, on the western shore of Lough Neagh and is estimated to be at least 300 years old.
Many generations of the family lived there until quite recently, the last inhabitant passed away several years ago.
The cottage is of simple construction; just one living room and a bedroom. The walls are made from mud which supports a heavily thatched roof. There is no ceiling just a lattice of old oak trusses propping up the roof.
One large open-fire communicates with the outside world through a little chimney on the gable wall. Four tiny windows allow daylight in.
This humble dwelling sheltered the Coyle family, who for many generations, had to eke out an existence, fishing the Lough for perch, pollen, eel and trout.
Today the old house stands as a reminder of what our forebears had to endure throughout our troubled past.
To get an idea of what it was like for the Coyles to have lived in such an ill constructed cabin during the last remaining years of the 17th century we can turn to the writings of Arthur Young.
In his book ‘A Tour of Ireland’ he gives a description of the inside of a poor Irish cabin, “the smoke warms them, but is certainly injurious to their eyes as it is to the complexion of the women which in general in the cabins of Ireland has an near resemblance to that of smoked ham”. He goes on, “Beds are not found universally, the family lying on straw, equally partook of by cows, calves and pigs.”
Although Coyle’s Cottage is situated about a quarter of a mile from Lough Neagh’s shore it wasn’t always that way. Until they lowered the level of the Lough, by deepening the River Bann in 1830, the cottage was beside the waters edge. One can safely suggest that flooding occurred frequently.
Contrast this simple shelter with the imposing ‘mansion’ that is Springhill, which is situated, five miles as the crow flies, from Coyle’s Cottage, and a few hundred yards from the Co. Derry village of Moneymore.
This building dates back into the latter years of the 17th century and was the home of the Lenox-Conyngham family. It is approached via a long gravelled path, and on each side of the path spacious lawns spread away towards woodland. The building itself is two-storeyed, with seven bay-windows at each level that ‘peer’ up the avenue at approaching visitors. Attached to each gable is a single-storeyed extension; they were built in 1765.
The interior of the house is comprised of a drawing-room, a dining-room, a hall and staircase, a gun room, library, nursery; and of course bedrooms.
In this large house there is furniture dating back to the reign of William and Mary. On the walls are hung many portraits of the Lenox-Conynghams and their relations from the last three centuries.
A painted portrait of a lady called Harriet Molesworth in the drawing room has an interesting story.
In her book ‘An Old Ulster House’ Mina Lenox Conyngham tells us that Harriet Molesworth lost one of her legs trying to escape a fire in Brook Street, London. It seems she became impaled on railings when she jumped from an upstairs window.
Harriet managed to survive the fall and live a full life, even though she had a wooden leg fitted. This accident occurred during the reign of George III. When he was informed of her plight he gave her a pension for life.
The gun-room contains a number of weapons; flintlocks that were converted to muzzleloaders and used at the Siege of Derry; blunderbusses that protected the occupants of horse-drawn coaches in the eighteenth century, and a pike that was said to have been used in combat at Vinegar Hill, Co. Wexford in the 1798 rebellion.
The Lenox-Conynghams and their connections had a prominent military background. ‘Good’ Will Conyngham commanded a regiment in the Jacobite Wars of 1688-1745. A Sir Albert Conyngham commanded the Enniskillen Dragoons, and a kinsman the 3rd Viscount Molesworth was ADC to the Duke of Marlborough, during the war of the Spanish Succession.
Whenever a ball or dance was arranged at Springhill, it was customary for the guests to take a walk through the camomile lawn. The reason they did this was not just to observe an old tradition; it had a more practical purpose.
It seems that foot hygiene got scant attention in those times, and the Conynghams insisted that their guests take a walk among the ‘perfumed’ camomile before entering the dance hall. You could well imagine the smell in the ballroom if this custom had been ignored.
Ghosts are no strangers to old houses such as these and Springhill is no exception. The most famous haunting is that of Olivia who married George Lenox-Conyngham after his first wife died.
The origin of this haunting dates back to 20th of November, 1816 when Olivia’s husband, suffering for many months from deep depression, decided to take his own life.
A pistol shot was heard coming from one of the bedrooms. Olivia rushed to the bedroom to find her husband badly wounded, but death didn’t come quickly for him.
George Lenox-Conyngham lingered for two days before succumbing to the terrible injury he had inflicted on himself. In a brief entry written into a family bible Olivia recorded the fact, which seemed devoid of emotion or feeling.
What went on within their marriage we will never know but in time Olivia too passed away. As the years went by after Olivia’s death there were sightings of a ghostly figure. The description of the spirit fitted that of Olivia. Suggestions have been made that Olivia’s spirit could not rest because of the part she might have played in George’s suicide. Whatever the reason for the appearance of Olivia’s ghost it did emerge that Olivia, though a stern stepmother, had a caring side to her personality.
Consider the fact that she nursed six small children, successfully, through a smallpox epidemic. Some people have suggested that it was this traumatic episode in her life that led to her disturbed spirit haunting the building.
Springhill House, though only several miles from Coyles Cottage, belies the distance these two families were really apart. They were culturally, politically and economically light-years away from each other. Indeed the Lenox-Conynghams lived a privileged life, while a few miles down the road the Coyles endured dreadful deprivation. The Coyle family have left no written records of their life in that humble home; basic survival was their priority. They could not afford the luxury of education and leisure pursuits.
On the other hand the Lenox-Conynghams arrival, progress and eventual demise has been recorded. This family came from Ayrshire, Scotland probably around 1670. In 1680 ‘Good’ Will Conyngham married a lady named Anne Upton from Templepatrick. When he married Anne Upton part of the marriage contract required him to build, “a convenient house of lime and stone, two-storyed and with necessary office houses”. “Time and tide wait for no man” and indeed it hasn’t waited for either of these two families. Springhill passed into the hands of the National Trust in 1957 after the last inhabitant William Lennox-Conyngham died.
Without the support of the National Trust this building, which is part of our national history, would have deteriorated with the passage of time and become a crumbling ruin.
Similarly Coyles Cottage was going the same way when the last inhabitant Kate Corr (nee Coyle) passed away several years ago. Timely intervention by the local Muintirevlin Society saved the cottage from inevitable destruction.
Today, both houses have been preserved for posterity, so that the children of future generations can have a window on two families that lived distinct and separate lives, just a few miles apart, for almost 300 years.
It will be recorded that one of these families, the Lenox-Conynghams had power, influence and prestige, while the other, sadly, exerted little influence within or outside its own parish.