Scalp native Henry McLaughlin in conversation with Mick Conway

I first met Henry McLaughin about three years ago during the Scalp walk organised to raise funds for Concern Worldwide. Henry generously hosts this event every year.

I met him again on the most recent walk. We agreed to cooperate on an interview about his life and times. A few days later we met in his house on a beautiful June evening.

Mick: The first time we met you told me about your early life – to say the least it was not easy.

Henry: My father died when I was about five years old. There was myself and two brothers. Another brother had died when he was two years old. When I was about six my mother contracted TB. She was moved into isolation in hospitals in Carndonagh and Killybegs. From then I only visited her about once a year. I also remember seeing her in an ambulance at our school at Birdstown. The driver would stop and we could talk to her in the back of the ambulance. We were not allowed to touch her.

Henry and Annie McLaughlin

Mick: I was brought up in Tyneside, a place that could not be more different from here, but the generation before me suffered very badly from TB. There were aunts and uncles I never met who died before the War. TB obviously had a devastating effect.Aged six you and your brothers were virtually orphaned – how did you survive?

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Mick: My uncle Tommy also fought in WWI. He volunteered and fought at the Somme. Like many veterans, he was very badly treated on his return. They said he had taken a break in service and did not allow him to complete his apprenticeship as a skilled plater in the shipyards. He was forced to work as a unskilled labourer all his life - a poor reception for a returning hero. He believed the war was a terrible waste. I remember him saying, ‘I was trying to kill lads and they were trying to kill me. There was no reason for it’. I had great respect for Uncle Tommy. You obviously have a very high regard for your uncle Micky.

Henry: The two brothers returned to Ireland after the war. Micky bought a small farm. My father’s connection with Yorkshire allowed him to operate as a cattle dealer in a small way, sending cattle to England through Derry port. After he died and my mother went to hospital, we were taken in by Micky. It was especially tough for him because his wife was an invalid, she needed a wheelchair, but they looked after us very well. They had no children of their own so I suppose in a way it made it a bit easier for them.

Mick: Even talking to you for a short while, it is obvious you are very articulate. What sort of education did you enjoy?

Henry: Well with all the upsets, I did not get to Birdstown school until I was six and a half. Micky had taught me a lot of maths so I was as advanced in that subject as the older pupils in the school. Micky suffered badly from asthma so I left school when I was 13 to help on the farm.

We move from Henry’s house near the road and go further up the hill to Micky’s old house. Henry gives me a guided tour of his old home.

Henry: It was a typical Irish cabin. There is just one room. The living quarters were at one end with a large open fire. The other half was the bedroom. Attached to one end of the house was the byre where the cows were kept. When we arrived Micky built an extra room at the other end to accommodate me and my brothers. There is another building which was the stable for the horse we used to plough.

Where have all the flowers gone? Who killed Cock Robin? Where’s Dopey Dick?Mick: We’re higher up the mountain and the views towards Derry are fantastic on a wonderful evening like this. I can actually see my own house from here. Like many people in Derry, I can study the various moods of the mountain. Sometimes idyllic on an evening like this but more often than not it is hidden behind mist and rain.

Not surprising as it is over 1500 feet. The seasons make a big difference. Winter lasts longer on Scalp. It gets the first snow which persists long into the spring.

We move back to the house and Henry’s wife Annie joins our conversation. You were a farmer Henry, what sort of a farm was it?

Henry: It was typical of most farms in Ireland at the time. It was about 20 acres, excluding the commonage on the mountain top. We grew a variety of crops potatoes, turnips and oats. We milked the cows and had eggs from the hens. We also kept a few sheep.

Annie says they were self-sufficient, baking their own bread and needing little outside help.

Mick: It reminds me of my own grandfather telling me of his early life in Co. Monaghan. He left home when he was just 14 around 1876 and never returned. He spent his life working in a chemical factory. He lived to 93. There is no point in being romantic about people living an ideal existence. Hunger and lack of work forced so many people to emigrate. Even until relatively recently, in the fifties and sixties, many people were living lives much like any subsistence farmer in the developing world today.

The Concern walks make a small but valuable contribution to those people when disaster strikes. We have already talked about TB. It had a serious impact on your life. Those damp cabins obviously contributed to the disease becoming rampant.

Henry: Yes, I was able to build a modern bungalow nearer the road. It had all the mod cons. The only exception is we have continued to use spring water from the mountain. During my life, farming has also changed a lot. Like many farmers, the only way to survive on the land was to change. Scalp is very marginal land so we had to specialise on sheep rearing.

Mick: During my student years, I did a lot of work on building sites but I learned almost nothing about construction. I certainly could not attempt to build a house.

Henry: Well, these skills go with living on a farm. As I told you, Uncle Micky built an extra room for us. I suppose I picked it up from helping him repairing stone walls around the farm. I also built walls around the church at Fahan. I also decided to construct a road up the mountain to make it easier to bring down the sheep from the commonage. I was able to quarry the stone from up the mountain. In later years the road was a bonus to us because it was used by various companies for communication masts. They pay us a rent for the use of our land.

Mick: Annie, tell me where you and Henry first met. Don’t tell me it was Borderland? (Borderland was a famous local dance hall, one of the many ‘ Ballrooms of Romance’ in post-war Ireland).

Annie: Yes, but there was but no harm in that. I was from a townland close by. It was the obvious place to meet for many local people and those from Derry. In time we had eight children.

They did not have the same difficulties as we experienced. They are all doing well. Michael and Kevin have their own houses on the farm. The others have built their own homes nearer the road.

Greencastle Shore Path - Ten thousand years in half an hourMick: Yes, I noticed a cluster of houses when we were up at the old house. It was like a modern day Clachan. (A clachan is a collection of houses belonging to close relatives that is a feature of many places in Inishowen.) Henry, I know you have had recent troubles with your health. Tell me about that.

Henry: I had a serious heart attack while attending a funeral in Burt chapel. It would have been the death of me but luckily four Red Cross people were at the same funeral.

They gave me CPR until the ambulance arrived. I would not have survived without their help. More recently I was diagnosed with prostate cancer but it was in the early stages and I have done very well since my treatment. I would advise anybody to get treatment as early as possible.

Mick: We are both in our mid-70s. Like everyone else we are individuals but we have lived our lives in the times allotted to us. We have been shaped by those circumstances. You obviously had a very difficult start in life but you seem to have survived very well. You have been a family man, a farmer, a builder, helped with modern day communications and supported many charities. There have been many changes in your lifetime.

Henry: Yes, my family my mother, my brother and Micky’s wife would receive much better medical treatment today. I would not be talking to you this evening without the advances in medical care. My father and uncle Micky were forced into emigration and your grandparents left Ireland and never came back.

Today Ireland is as much a place of immigration as emigration. I only saw my mother very rarely after she moved hospital but Carndonagh and Killybegs seemed much further away because almost nobody had a car.

The masts at the top of the hill help with different kinds of communication from which we all benefit. Housing is much improved allowing us to lead far more comfortable and healthier lives. Agriculture has changed.

The horse has gone and the pig is no longer brought in front of the fire to have its piglets. There has been a price for that as there has been a big loss of wildlife. We no longer hear the Corncrake. We had little choice if we wanted to survive.

Mick: Thanks Henry and Annie for your time. Great talking to you. I hope we meet before the Concern walk next year.