Turtle Bunbury

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Vanishing Ireland


Born: 1936
Tully Beg, Rathmelton, Co Donegal

At the age of 20, Jackie Wilson decided he’d had enough. All his life the soft-spoken Ulsterman had attended the Presbyterian Church in Rathmelton and listened dutifully as the various Ministers lectured and berated the congregation on the evil ways of the world. His fellow worshippers descended from men and women who had been meeting here since the 1630s when Robert Pont, a grandson of John Knox, was its first minister.

But for Jackie, the Presbyterian outlook on life just wasn’t hitting the right spot. It was 1956 and music was taking over. Elvis was wooing the States with ‘Hound Dog’ and ‘Blue Suede Shoes’. Another Jackie Wilson was about to unleash ‘Reet Petite’ upon the world. Cinemas across Ireland were showing musicals like ‘Carousel’ and ‘The King and I’. And the first Eurovision Song Contest began in Switzerland. Everywhere Jackie looked, people wanted to sing.

It was at about this time that Jackie was ‘born again’ and began to worship at the Pentecostal Church in Letterkenny. Over half a century later, Jackie is one of the Pentecostal regulars, taking his seat at 11 o’clock every Sunday morning. The 150-strong congregation is composed of people of every colour and creed, including many children. ‘We are all one’, explains Jackie. ‘You pray for your friends and for your folks but its all about prayers from the heart. It’s a much more direct experience’. The service lasts for two hours and involves a good deal of singing, sometimes accompanied by guitars. Many of the hymns were written by Methodists such as Charles Gabriel, author of one of Jackie’s favourites, ‘I stand amazed in the presence of Jesus the Nazarene’. But there are also a number of new hymns aimed at younger generation. After the service, members inter-mingle over coffee and tea. The whole experience impressed Jackie so much that he long ago named his two-storey farmhouse Emmanuel, meaning ‘God With Us’.

Jackie’s farm straddles an uppity-downy landscape a few miles west of Rathmelton. He inherited it upon the death of his 91-year-old father, Thomas Wilson. The Wilsons came from Scotland in the early 17th century. The 1630 Muster Rolls indicate a large number of Wilsons willing to present swords and muskets on behalf of the various magnates to whom Donegal had been granted. Indeed, one of those well-to-do undertakers was Sir John Willson. Jackie could feasibly descend from any of these. His grandfather, Johnny Wilson, married a girl from Enniskillen and ran a small farm near The Breen in Rathmelton. ‘And there were another two or three generations farming there before him’.

During the 1960s, Jackie’s father expanded the family assets with the purchase of 150 acres of the Swiney estate at Tully Beg. (ia) This was the farm that Jackie, the eldest of six, inherited and which he has now runs with his son Jonathan.[ib] He was perhaps lucky to inherit anything from his father. Many Presbyterians would have seen his conversion as an act of betrayal.[ii] ‘My father wasn’t too happy at the time but he understood’, says Jackie. ‘And my mother didn’t mind so long as I was going to some church’.

While Jonathan looks after the cattle and sheep today, Jackie keeps a close eye on the poultry, namely some forty chickens and ducks who waddle around a small, enclosed orchard of 200-year-old apple trees. Jackie sells the eggs to neighbours and occasionally a luckless drake might fetch up on the dinner table.

A nearby Nissan Hut opens out into a slightly sloping meadow where a dozen lean, white-faced Texel ewes are grazing. Every night, the sheep make their way into the hut to sleep. In another field, thirty beef heifers fatten upon the grasses in advance of their trek to the market at Carrigans. They are primarily black Aberdeen Angus and pure white Charolais.[iii] Beside the cattle byre, twenty large black silage bags have been daubed with white paint in the shape of a cross. Jackie says the paint keeps scavenging rooks and jackdaws at bay as it creates an illusion that there are other, bigger birds parping on these bags. It sound far-fetched until you see the silhouettes of a hundred crow’s nests in the treetops and note that the silage bags are parp-free.

Jackie says the landscape of his farm has not changed in fifty years. It certainly feels like it has been like this for at least 300 years. The trees are ancient, elms, beech and sycamore, although Hurricane Debbie devastated the woods back in 1961. The sounds are familiar – a startled rooster, a bleating lamb, a swinging gate. In an old cobblestone shed, a grey Massy 135 stands at ease. ‘I used to plough with horses’, says Jackie. ‘But then we got this wee girl’.' While we eye it up, Jackie’s dog Rover hops up and takes the seat. The tractor tour of the farm with Jackie is evidently the highlight of Rover’s day. ‘I didn’t know anything about how they worked when we got her’, continues Jackie. ‘ But she’s a great old tractor and I wouldn’t swap her for a new one’.

In 1965, a Faith Missionary from Duncannon called Gladys introduced Jackie to her sister Phyllis. ‘And that’, laughs Jackie, ‘is how you get caught up’. He and Phyllis were married soon afterwards and went on to have six children. They lost their second child to a rare blood complaint disorder some years ago. But, with eleven grandchildren and counting, Jackie is confident that ‘the Wilson name is not going to die out in a hurry’.


[i1] He purchased it from Charlie Swiney when the latter moved to Fermanagh with his wife Rita. Charlie’s father, Colonel William Daniel Swiney, farmed at Moyagh, adjacent to Tullybeg, as well as the Big Isle outside Manorcunningham and in Fanad at Croughan near Tamney. He was the son of the John H Swiney of Ramelton listed in ‘Owners of Land of One Acre and Upwards’ (1876) with 678 acres. The Tullybeg farm was almost certainly part of that holding. He served with the Donegal Militia. The Civil Survey of 1654-68 lists the Swineys (McSwynes) of Donegal as Irish Protestants.

[ib] Jackie’s only sister was killed in a car crash last year while turning into her own driveway. ‘She was ten days unconscious and died. And she’d been out on that road a thousand times. You never know’, says he.

[ii] Thomas married a Miss Graham from Milford. Thomas’s sister and brother emigrated to Southampton and London respectively.

[iii] There is also a rare young shorthorn of whom Jackie is especially proud. ‘That’s a very good bull calf, hey?’, he says, patting her back. ‘Isn’t she a fine looking animal?’

With thanks to Lauren Swiney, Rowan Hamilton and John Swiney.



Click here to see a full list of persons interviewed for the Vanishing Ireland project.