Anne Hailes: Antrim farmhouse Sentry Hill a place that brings the 1800s to life
IN ONE big country house two miles from Glengormley, the spring cleaning is completed, shelves are polished, silver shining and cutlery sparkling. The range too is shined and the carpets swept – now, bring on the visitors.
William Fee McKinney would want everything ship shape and Bristol fashion if he was around today because 7,000 people came to his house last year and a similar number is expected over the summer.
Sentry Hill was his family home in 1832, a farmhouse in the parish of Carnmoney in Co Antrim and I’m sure he’d be pleased that the current owners, Antrim and Newtownabbey Borough Council, have restored inside and outside to the way it was, thus giving a rare insight into life at that time.
Archivists have examined diaries, family letters and the extensive library of books and pamphlets and have put together a realistic opportunity for the public to see the house as it was more than 180 years ago.
In what was the old dairy house I sat with Wesley Bonar, the council's museums and heritage officer for over 15 years, and Deirdre Byrne who has worked at Sentry Hill since it was opened in April 2005, and we talked about days gone by.
When William Fee McKinney took over the running of the homestead in the mid-1800s, the 110-acre farm was buzzing. He was married to Eliza and they had five sons and two daughters. As they pursued their own interests, one boy in Africa and three in Australia, his daughter Margaret stayed at home and in his later years looked after her father.
His family worked in the fields and with the cattle just as he had done as a boy. One entry in his diary spoke of his father scolding him for being slow cutting the corn with a billhook and taking over to do it himself, leaving the boy to stack the turf.
For four generations the family grew potatoes to feed the animals as well as the workers; they had flax and retting dams, with milk being their main product as well as making butter to sell at market.
During the harvest McKinney would visit the Ballyclare and Carnmoney fair to recruit young men and women. There he also hired 12-year-old Hannah Hunter for six months as a scullery maid. He’d walk up the village and if there were boys hanging around he'd sign them up to give them employment. It was ironic that on my way home through Glengormley that McDonalds had a sign up saying HIRING NOW.
The Eldest Son
Being the eldest son, he was taken away from school when he was 11 to help his father run the farm. Obviously he became a pillar of society, secretary of the local Presbyterian church, member of the debating society and a man who kept learning, self-educated and a collector.
Although there are hundreds of boxes filled with memorabilia, everything is listed and labelled including a New Testament in Irish. There are vivid reports of soirees in the church hall, barn dances on the farm and neighbours from far and wide who delighted in joining in the family festivities.
It’s a delight to see the house with rooms frozen in time yet warm with memories. Now a 23-acre estate, the table is still set for afternoon tea with fine china; the kitchen has all the old-fashioned implements around – butter pats impress the children.
Deirdre delights in visits from school groups and the opportunity to ask the children where do they think butter comes from – the answers are varied and inventive. Some think milk comes from a carton in Asda. As Deirdre says, she asks them where would Farmer McKinney get his toast – again Asda comes into the conversation.
She takes them back to basics, the corn to be ground, the cow for the milk, the turf for the range, the churn for the butter and the homemade marmalade. Isn’t it amazing what we take for granted?
Such is the importance of this history house that the project has won the Sandford Award for Excellence in Education Programmes in Museums and Historic Houses three times.
Thanks to the care and love lavished on Sentry Hill, there remains a feeling of welcome; you can get married in the cow byre – no cows but plenty of atmosphere; you can roam the grounds, have morning coffee or afternoon tea and, as Wesley puts it, when you cross the threshold you will stand where the past shakes hands with the past.
Check opening times or to arrange a talk by Wesley to groups and organisations email firstname.lastname@example.org. See sentryhill.net for more information on the house which is open to the public April to September – school group bookings are welcome throughout the year.
UNLEASH YOUR POTENTIAL
Alternative therapist, teacher and trainer in the field of natural health Eoin MacCuire will be holding his popular workshops in Belfast on April 21 and Eglinton April 22 from 9.30am until 5pm. For further details contact Mary McGuiggan (028 7181 0626) or Christina Benson (028 9071 0856). Remember, as Thomas Morton said: ‘Happiness is not a matter of intensity but of balance order, rhythm and harmony.'