Wholeschool Portal | Home 23 March 2018

assembled in Drumalis and then marched through the town to the harbour where guns were brought in from Birmingham on the Clyde Valley and then loaded into cars from all over the north in a spirit almost of carnival.  The ‘Larne gunrunning’ - as it came to be known - had been planned in the drawing room of the house. [Need a little more detail/colour here]

By the middle of the 1920s  it became clear to the ageing dowager Lady Smiley that she would have to sell Drumalis.  None of her children had decided to make their lives in Larne but were settled in Scotland and England.  The Catholic religious order which was to occupy the house eventually, did not do so immediately.  In the Larne of the time, the sale of one of the local ‘big houses’ to an order of Catholic nuns would have been unthinkable and so it was a more protracted process. 

The house was first sold in 1927 to a local developer Mr William Crawford, who had started Ireland’s first ever Electric Light Company.  There was talk that he would build houses on the land but the house was sold again in 1929 to a Mrs Magill, the wife of a local JP, who then resold it within a year to the nuns of the Cross and Passion order - its present owners.

This began a new era in the history of Drumalis and thwarted the wish of a friend of the Smiley’s who had written at the time the house was built:

Drumalis house

“  I trust I may be allowed, without offence, to express a hope that the two purposes of the respective buildings which have successively occupied Drumalis Hill  [the early monastery and the 19th century house] may not be incongruously mixed; that the spirit of celibacy may not again settle down on this once conceptually holy, but I trust henceforth socially happy knoll”!

The ‘spirit of celibacy’ would indeed settle down again well in the old house but the arrival of the nuns there on March 19th 1930 was, what their annals describe as, a ‘Red Letter Day’ in its excitement.  Moving in was almost a military operation because of the apparent need of secrecy!  The women were told to be on the veranda of the house for 6pm and to enter the grounds in pairs and at different entry points. One sister tells in a letter how they had taken apart their iron bedsteads that morning before going to the school where they taught, labelling each of the three parts so that they would be able to put them together again that night.  They dined “al fresco” at the school after the children had gone home and then trundled little hand-carts with their bed and bedding up the hill to the big house at dusk.  As they walked up the driveway a limousine, more reminiscent of the previous owners, announced the arrival of  Dr Mageean, bishop of Down and Conor, who had come to oversee their first night in their new home.  But it was after he had left that the fun began as each sister was granted the freedom, for that one night only, of choosing any one of the many grand bedrooms to sleep in, the proper allocation of rooms being left to the following day. The nuns had chosen the feast of their founder as the moving day and the feast is kept special still, commemorating both Mother Joseph and their ‘going up’ to Drumalis.

Like the original owners of Drumalis the new occupants also originated in England, the order having come to Larne in 1906 - their purpose, to teach children and to provide spiritual care to morally vulnerable young women.  This work had grown since their arrival occasioning moves to bigger premises.  The head of the order visited Larne in 1929 and declared Drumalis “designed by heaven” for a Retreat House and so retreat work began almost immediately upon the move into the house. Transformation happened when on June 22nd 1930 , “Fr Mangan gave Benediction at the temporary altar in the Ballroom” and the first retreat for  “thirty ladies” began the following day. One set of house ritual was replaced by another.

It would be easy to romanticise the life of the nuns who ran these early retreats  - now in such beautiful surroundings and in a massive house - the beauty of which was remarked upon repeatedly by its early visitors.  Indeed Dean Crolly, visiting with the bishop in the first autumn of the nun’s residency, expressed his fear that the sisters might “become luxurious”!  He needn’t have worried - it was a life of very hard work.  These were days when religious orders were semi-enclosed, the women gave up the right to see their family for the first years of entry.  An inventory of what they brought with them on that cold March evening, an institutional list which included “eight chipped good glasses” and “two cracked water jugs”  gives a poignant sense of the paucity of their possessions.  They were themselves replacing that  army of gardeners, maids and cooks who had departed with the Smiley household..  One sister, Sr Joan Kirby, who cooked in the house for seventeen years, remembers how in the early days there was neither hot water nor modern sinks, and dishes for hundreds of retreatants had to be washed in cold water.  Jam jars were placed  at the end of long wooden tables in which people put their cutlery to steep. There was no help, no mod-cons and it is a measure of the harshness of the early experience in the house, that the Christmas Day treat of a day spent in a warm room with a roaring fire and warm food is written of as a  novelty in their lives.

To the women coming on the retreats, however,  Drumalis seemed like “something you’d read about in a book” and to go there they needed things they had only ever read about also!  One woman who remembers arriving at Drumalis for the first time in the 1930s is May Brownlee, interviewed at the time of its seventy year celebrations in  the year 2000.  She first heard of the place from a new primary school teacher who told her that it would cost half a crown to go. Even more worrying than this was the list of other accoutrements she was instructed to bring but did not possess  - a towel; a night-dress; soap - all things she had to gather up from her granny and her aunts.  The journey down to Larne by train was itself an adventure.  Her vivid memories of the house itself are of “small nuns in crinoline”; chamber pots under the beds; beautiful candlewick bedspreads; wonderful food  (but the children watching one another to work out the use of knives and forks )...and soldiers - she had arrived just at the beginning of the war.

While both the first World War and the armistice had passed without mention in the convent annals of 1914 to 1918, the second World War impacted directly upon the life of the house.   Gas masks were distributed amongst the inmates of Drumalis on September 1st 1939.   May Brownlee vividly remembers the forty to fifty army tents pitched in the driveway and on the slopes at the front of the house that rolled down to the sea and American soldiers strolling in the grounds.  Dr Mageean, the bishop, handled the negotiation with  the Military over the requisition of parts of the house for Military use.  Details of what was agreed were sent to the Reverend Mother in August 1940.  Major parts of the building were requisitioned including the ladies’ chapel and