Part Three: The Search for Ballacarran
The Isle of Man has a unique creation story. The events that created this tiny island have nothing in common with the miraculous events described in the holy book that St. Patrick brought to the island. There was no grand design or flash of light; only insults, anger, and lots of mud slinging. Local folklore recounts that the appearance of the Isle was the result of a quarrel between two giants throwing mud and rocks at each other from across the sea. Whatever landed in the water, piled up to form the tall coastal cliffs, and the snow tipped peak of Snaefel. The sheer volume of jagged shale and stones used for building here is a testament to the enduring feud surrounding this serene island.
Peel Castle, on Vannin’s east coast is a testament to the veracity of the tale about the warring giants; one chucking flat, jagged slate from Ireland and the other launching round, red stones at his Celtic enemy. The masonry of the castle reveals that both types of stone were hastily mortared into the walls by frantic Vikings. Every chink in the walls is filled with anything they could reach from where they stood. The oldest part of the walls look as if they were built hastily to prepare for an imminent invasion. Randomly shaped and colored stones are embedded in the rough concrete, stuffed into the drying mortar at sharp, protruding angles. The walls resemble the torn hull of a longboat plugged up with anything that could help hold back the water.
Local fishermen pass Peel Castle, perched on the crest of St. Patrick’s isle, just off the coast of Peel, where it has watched over the ancient fishing settlement for a thousand years. For centuries, sleuthing Manx fishermen have poached from schools of herring that ply the shore lines unseen. Once smoked by artisans in Peel, the ‘kippers’ are sold around the island, the United Kingdom and the world. Traditions and trades run deep in Peel.
In the town, the past is palpable. A sense of reverence and respect for the old Manx traditions hangs in every shop window. Here, the prehistoric and the modern dance around each other on the streets, occupying the same space; modernity built around the neolithic. Ancient ruins stand unguarded in a grassy park between the village shops, with no fences or cordon lines. A driveway wraps around an arcing formation of standing, half-exposed stones; the worn teeth of a giant’s jawbone. The fishermen, back from their early morning sorties, pause at midday for lunch in the windbreak of the castle’s wall. The people live reluctantly in the current millennium, straddling a legacy of stoic ancestors and working in an interdependent world.
The reluctance of modern Manx generations to move too quickly into a bold new future, has left a cultural inheritance of well preserved (pre)history and genealogy of the island. The historical artifacts and sites found all over the island, coupled with revelations from hobby-historians through the centuries, has created a priceless trove of information about Vannin’s families.
From both yellowed parchment from parish registers and electronic data from internet blogs, a meaningful picture of our family mosaic was beginning to emerge from the puzzle pieces we had already uncovered. We were fascinated to find that the Manx archives trace not only the pedigrees of the island’s families, but also of its homesteads, giving an exact account of who lived and worked the land. Through the historical references of Ballacarran in the cadaster, we were introduced to generations of our family who lived and worked on the farm.
Balley y Karran (Farm of Karran) a small holding in Marown Parish was first mentioned in the national records in 1705. At the time, the farm was worked by William Karran (1668-1730) & Catherine Kelley Karran (1685-1740). By deduction, William was already thirty-eight years old when the census cemented in history his ownership of the farm. How long had he lived there? Had he been born there, on that farm in 1668? If so, who were his parents? The history books tell us that the Karran name was first recorded in 1625, however, in 1417, our family line was called MacCarron. In 1540 the spelling changed to MacKerran. Forty-three years before William was born, his grandfather chose to simplify the name and dropped the prefix. For almost four hundred years now, this spelling of the name endures on the island, unchanged.
Fourteen years before William died, his wife gave birth to William Jr. (1714-1775) who married Abigail Karran (1717-1792), and together they worked the farm after William senior’s death in 1730. They were succeed by Thomas & Margaret, in which time the name of the farm changed from Ballacarran to Ballingan. John Karran was the last of the family to be born on the farm in 1826, before it was leased to tenants and then sold to a cousin; Captain George Christian Karran. George also traced his roots to the same homestead through a offshoot of the family tree.
With the exciting discovery of Ballacarran on paper, we became restless to understand our direct connection with our ancestral home. From a local historian’s website, we read about two families, each headed by men named Thomas Karren II. Both men were born in 1729. One of them was the son of Thomas & Margaret who lived at Ballacarran. The other decends from another branch of the family tree that cannot be definitively linked to Ballacarran. Without genetic tests, it was concluded, it is not possible to determine which Thomas Karran II was the son of Thomas and Margaret of Ballacarran.
This historical ambiguity in the family line made it an urgent matter for me, personally, to find Ballacarran; to feel to the stones, read the land and hope that the whisperings of the soul would confirm whether we had found the right place…or not.
Combined with the history gleaned from Stanley Karran, Cregneash’s oldest resident, and the data and dates from books and microfilms from the national archive, our confidence to find the old farm, swelled into courage as our last day on the island opened. It was today…or maybe never!
With a photocopy of a land survey of Marown Parish from 1869, we set out to triangulate the location of Ballacarran. By comparing the positions of three landmarks present in the nineteenth century with the modern road map of the area, we expected to quickly narrow the field. To our despair, the map of paved roads had only one of the needed landmarks, leaving us to search for a needle, hidden somewhere in the middle of one of many surrounding hay fields. But instead of a needle, we searched for an ancient graveyard.
The map from 1869 showed the ruins of the ancient chapel and burial grounds of St. Lingan bordering Ballacarran. It was after St. Lingan that our farm was now named: Bal-Lingan. (Lingan’s field). If we could find St. Lingan’s, we knew Ballacarran would be one hundred paces to the south.
We asked directions from farmers on tractors and knocked on doors, trying to identify which house was Ballacotch manor. In 1869, Ballacotch was one of only a few houses on the surrounding estate, next to Ballacarran. Many more homes had sprung up over the last one hundred-fifty years, which helplessly confused our search. We stopped at every ruined out-building visible from the road, hoping to find the ancient burial grounds. I jumped through hedges and climbed over slippery fences, scaring sheep and cattle alike as I traipsed through fields of wet, knee high grass. What was I looking for? Nobody could tell me and I didn’t know myself, but felt that I would know it when I saw it.
Disoriented, we returned to the chapel of St. Runius to calibrate our internal compasses and to mark our map of where we thought we had already searched. Somehow, west had become north on the narrow, winding roads, which meant that we had been searching along the wrong side of Ballacotch estate.
With our bearings reset, we started out again from the junction with the Douglas-Peel highway and drove slowly, counting the turns and crossroads we had marked to know where to turn due north. Watching carefully for the manor house to the right of us, we attempted to put ourselves directly west of it, but could only hope were were on the right road that would lead us directly past our farm.
As we drove slowly north from Braaid crossroads toward Glen Vine, and passed a cluster of working farms and farm houses, the road flattened and the fields opened wide on both sides around us. On the right side of the road, in the middle of a newly plowed field, I spotted a cluster of grass and trees, raised on an oval mound, untouched by tractors.
“Stop! That’s it. That is the old burial site. I know it. Turn around. Go back. We just passed Ballingan!”
Through a clump a trees set back from the road, we drove up to and stopped in front of a chained iron gate. In front of us, surrounded by a stone wall, covered by thick moss and ferns, we gazed, speechless, on a deserted, ghost-farmyard.
“This is it. This is Ballacarran,” I said reverently as we stepped out of the car and climbed carefully over the locked gate.
We stood without speaking for what seemed a very long time, letting the moment sink in. Silently, we fanned out across the yard as if we were inspecting a crime scene for vital clues. I ran my fingers over the gray stones; any clean lines separating brick and mortar had vanished after three hundred years of exposure and erosion. The mortar and the stones looked as if they had melded into each other.
I climbed the stone stairs leading to the upper floor and stood with both hands on the stripped frame of the old farmhouse door, leaning and peering into the darkness. Startled pigeons sprang from their nests in the rafters and staggered out through the hole in the roof, bumping into each other in mid air as they scattered. How long had it been since the last humans lived in this house?
The yard was filled with deep, muddy ruts caused by a modern tractor. The farmer’s mechanized tracks lead in and out of a modern, three sided structure, used for storing hay. Another building that could have housed either people or small livestock, looked to be in a process slow-motion restoration. Fresh building materials laid next to different repair projects in front of each of the buildings. Somebody was obviously working to revitalize the homestead, but who?
A small herd of cattle in the pasture behind the farmhouse watched us explore the grounds and the buildings wholly unbothered by our trespassing. We searched for a farmer in the nearby pastures, but found nothing but livestock; cows, ducks, and chickens. We inquired at a neighboring farm about the current tenant to learn that he only worked at Ballingan on the weekends. Was he family? Or just a tenant? Unfortunately the farmer couldn’t recall the family name of his neighbor.
A deep sense of both belonging and regret settled on my consciousness after exploring every corner of Ballacarran. As we scraped the mud from our shoes before climbing into the car, I wanted nothing more than to stay. I imagined pulling on my work boots and gloves to help restore Ballacarran to be a full working farm again. What did I know about agriculture? I hate the smell of animals and manure! Yet, my heart would have answered “Yes!” if I had been offered the opportunity to stay.
Our Manx-American grandfather, Thomas Karren III, made significant sacrifices to move his family to the ‘New World.’ Despite heart break and hardships, he never wavered. Thomas had a will of iron to secure the blessings of freedom and opportunity for his children in America. Only stalwart parents and grandparents could have raised such a man. It is such a shame we know so little about them! Standing in the muddy farmyard of Ballacarran, I wanted so much to continue the research we had started, and to bring the stories of Thomas and Margaret, and also William and Abigail to the family.
What I learned about Manx history and culture has helped me to understand my ancestors better and to recognize the inherited characteristics that I share with my father. I now have a good idea about where my unyielding work ethic, frugality and stubborn honesty come from. How comforting it is to know that these traits are shared and smiled upon by my ancestors.
Not until I stood at Ballacarran did I feel that I had truly connected with Ellan Vannin. It was not the ancient aura of Old Kirk Braddan that called to me, but this humble farm that made me feel that I had found my homeland. Despite the beauty of the family’s restored homestead in Cregneash, it was the deserted farm house of Ballacarran that I longed to call home. While nobody can be certain that Thomas II is the missing son of Ballacarran, I know that I am! Until genetic testing can disprove my conviction, I will enthusiastically point to this hallowed piece of land, called Ballacarran, when asked where it is I come from.
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If you’d like to read more from this author, V M Karren, check-out his new short story collection, The Tales of a Fly by Night, also about unique travel adventures throughout Europe, or his debut novel, The Deceit of Riches, set in Russia in the 1990s.