‘When I sense Kate beside me as I write, I turn and smile... she was a darling and I miss her so’
The villages and towns of Co Fermanagh are bursting with amazing and wonderful tales, according to author Doreen McBride, who has written a new book on the subject. The 79-year-old, who lives in Banbridge with husband George (82), tells Una Brankin why she dedicated the work to late writer and friend Kate Muldoon.
It’s the laughs she used to have with her friend and fellow writer, Kate Muldoon, that the folklorist Doreen McBride misses the most. Kate, a legend in Belfast community arts circles, died of a brain tumour at the end of 2016.
But Doreen, who’s currently writing books on Co Down and children’s folklore tales, believes that the spirit of the Ardoyne storyteller isn’t too far away.
“I sense Kate sitting beside me when I’m writing sometimes,” she says. “It’s lovely. I’ll turn and smile. We didn’t need to say anything, she and I. She was an absolute darling. I do miss her.”
Doreen, originally from east Belfast, dedicated her latest quirky publication, The Little Book of Fermanagh, to Kate, who passed away aged 66. The book is a collection of fascinating and sometimes strange facts about Co Fermanagh, including stories about its sporting heritage, arts, culture and famous faces.
It made headlines recently for Doreen’s story of Sir Van Morrison writing classic hit Brown Eyed Girl at a piano in a bar on Derrygonnelly’s Main Street after meeting the girl during a summer he spent in the Fermanagh town.
Kate, who was better known for her plays, would often help Doreen with her research, sometimes accompanying her on folklore gathering expeditions.
“We met at a writing course in the Cathedral Quarter in Belfast, led by this exotic woman from LA,” Doreen recalls. “We discovered we were amused by the same things and we’d smile at each other in the class.
“We had some wonderful days out and phoned and emailed each other in between. I’d always bring her a little fairy from my travels, something not very expensive.
“I was away in Belgium the September before she died. I was talking to her before I went, and she’d said she wasn’t well, but I didn’t know how bad it was. She never complained.”
Kate’s daughter phoned Doreen on Boxing Day 2016 to say her mother had passed away.
“She said ‘at least she’ll be at peace’. Kate was only 66 and she was an absolute inspiration to me and so many others,” says Doreen, fondly.
“The funny thing is, I couldn’t find a fairy for her in Belgium, so I’d bought a tiny wooden angel instead. I told her daughter, and she told me to keep it, to remember her.
“Her husband helped her a lot at the end. She told me she could still see what she saw in him at the very beginning. She was so delighted when he asked her to go on holiday with him.”
The two storytellers once collaborated on a play Kate wrote on the theme of suicide prevention.
“She got a grant of some sort for £150 for this play, and she insisted on splitting it three ways, giving me £50 for filming it on my video recorder, and giving another friend £50 for editing it.
“I told her I was helping ‘because I love you, and you wrote it’, but she was a true democrat. She always divided everything equally. She was always a very peaceful person and very broad-minded. She could manage people beautifully. She always knew the right thing to say; she had this gift for healing things.”
Doreen, a former biology teacher, credits Kate with inspiring her to write and helping to research her book, Louth Folk Tales. Although Kate was more focused on writing about community issues, she enjoyed Doreen’s folklore tales, many of them recounted to her as a child by her grandmother, who had a grocer’s shop on the Shankill Road.
“Granny had a ‘fairy’ living with her and Kate was fascinated by her,” Doreen laughs.
“Her name was Maud Brown, and she was a dwarf. When Maud was born, she was so small, her mother thought she was a fairy, so she brought her to an old fort, hoping the fairies would take her back.
“Well, Maud cried her eyes out, and a Presbyterian minister found her and brought her to the local orphanage, where granny came across her when she went there to look for help in her shop.
“She saw Maud and they clicked immediately. Somebody there told her the child would be no good to her, but granny said, ‘I like her’, and brought her home.
“It was the best thing ever. Maud was like a daughter to her. She was the same size as me when I was five or six, and I thought she was a real fairy. But she was this perfectly normal person in a funny wee body.” At 79, Doreen is full of such yarns. She has a keen memory for detail, even for stories stretching back to her childhood years with her brother and sister in east Belfast, where her father worked in insurance.
Doreen attended Queen’s University to study biology and went on to teach in Dungannon, Lisburn and Dromore, before deciding to take a year out to work in the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum.
“I was teaching and listening to these teenager’s problems, and all I wanted to do was go home and make the dinner,” she admits. “I’d tell the kids these terrible tales, relevant to whatever they were studying, to try to put them off their lunch, like When You Are Dead!
“So, I took a year out and started these talks and storytelling at the folk museum — what my granny used to tell me. Then, Linda Ballard (the former curator) heard me and got me involved with the Yarn Spinners. It took off from there.”
Doreen and her husband George (82), a former headmaster she met at a dance on the Ormeau Road, now live in Banbridge. They have a daughter, Leona, and a son, John, and three grandchildren.
“They all think I’m crazy,” Doreen deadpans. “My husband gets terribly worried about me getting into trouble approaching people when I’m doing my research. He comes everywhere with me, but I drive — he gets too excited and flaps his arms about.
“I go into cafes, and hotels are good because you find people who have been sitting a while, or I go up to innocent strangers on the street, as my husband calls them. He stays 100 yards behind me in case I get a slap in the jaw.
“He says I’m not right in the head; I tell him I’m a Gemini and I’d be worse if I’d been born at the start of the month, rather the middle. I do think astrology influences the personality.”
Through her research and writing, Doreen has discovered that Fermanagh is full of people who will “tell you a joke”, whereas Tyrone “is full of ghosts” and people who will tell you about them. The paranormal isn’t something she dismisses, having lived in an apparently haunted house in her youth.
As she recounts: “My mother and my brother both saw the ghost at home. I remember coming home from Queen’s one day and finding my mother sitting at the kitchen table drinking a glass of whiskey.
“I asked her if she was a secret drinker; she said she’d had a shock. My brother described the same thing — this girl, like a maid, coming down from the attic in a black skirt and blouse, and a cap and a white apron tied in the most perfect bow, and they both noticed the embroidery.
“My mother said she was wearing the oddest shoes, and that she’d walked past her and said, ‘Good morning, ma’am’, and disappeared into a white mist.
“She wasn’t frightened, but she just felt strange. No sudden change in temperature or anything like that.”
Doreen turns 80 in June and shows no sign of slowing down or becoming any less colourful — she tells me her book on folk tales for children will be “full of dirty words, like piddle and poo and knickers”, which she tried out on local schoolchildren, who “loved it”.
And she has me in stitches with her story about a Catholic cow, Eimear, and a Protestant cow, Lily, running about with a bull at the Folk Museum, and the resulting messy birth of a calf, called Liam, as William was “too Orange”. I can easily picture her and Kate Muldoon getting on like a house on fire.
“Kate inspired me to write; if I was feeling down about something, she’d tell me to write. Not for money — you’d spend more doing the research than you’d make,” she concludes.
“I think our cultural heritage should be treasured. It’s what makes us different from others — and I’m not being bigoted. I mean our shared heritage. When I was young, my granny and my aunts would tell me all sorts of stories, which I am truly grateful for. I have always been fascinated by them and I want to hand them down to children today.
“And I’m sure darling Kate knows what I’m at. And I know she’d approve.”
The Little Book of Fermanagh, illustrated with a series of line drawings, is published by the History Press Ireland, £12.99. Doreen McBride is reading from her book at Newry Library on Thursday as part of a Women Aloud event to celebrate International Women’s Day. Anyone interested in reading from their own writing can contact Lilian Russell at Newry Library, tel: 028 3026 4683