Ballynahinch gararge owner is inspiration for debut novel

Ballynahinch gararge owner is inspiration for debut novel

17 February 2021

THE true life origins of a well-known Ballynahinch garage owner has inspired the first novel from his daughter.

Ruth Kirby-Smith (née Brown) has written The Settlement, which is set in a fictional Co Armagh village of Lindara but features locations such as Spa, the Mournes and a former rectory which is now the Millbrook Lodge Hotel.

Garage owner Jim Brown died in 1993 having lived in Ballynahinch all of his life.

Born to John and Sarah Brown from Co Armagh, he was fostered out to a family from the Spa at just three days old and grew up never really knowing his birth parents. His foster parents were Ellen and Robert Brown, who were not related.

Now retired, university researcher and businesswoman Ruth became fascinated with her father’s early life and that of his parents to write the book which focuses on the life and times of a female protagonist called Sarah.

“Chapters three and four are absolutely on father’s life and the stories he told us as children; the rest is fiction,” explained Ruth.

“The book goes back into his parents’ life and that’s totally fiction. It takes off from what I knew about him as I grew up with stories at how he was kidnapped and how he was taken at three days old to a foster home.

“After he died, I began to wonder why he was fostered as they were very wealthy and had a big business and I couldn’t understand it and wondered if he was illegitimate. I looked into it and he wasn’t but his parents were only married four months before he was born. It seems to be the reason perhaps that my father was fostered out. Sarah went on to have three other sons whom she also didn’t really raise herself.

“My grandmother died when I was about seven but she was quite a cold, stern woman. Her mother was Elizabeth Montgomery who was related to Field Marshal Montgomery.”

The ‘kidnapping’ that Ruth refers is a true incident when an 11-year-old Jim Brown was sent to a grammar school in Armagh as he was showing signs of great intelligence.

His primary school teacher had noted his intelligence and wrote to John and Sarah Brown, who arranged for him to go to the boarding school.

However, he hated it and three weeks later two of the elder sisters from his foster family came at his bidding to take him home in a borrowed car to Ballynahinch.

Ruth added: “It caused an uproar but after a family discussion he was allowed to stay at the Spa. When the young man grew up, he trained as a motor mechanic and started Brown’s garage in Ballynahinch, which is still owned today by his son.

“I had such fun writing the book and including events and people from my childhood. I used the Spa, Ballymacarn Lough, the Mournes, Belfast, Methodist College and Queen’s University as well as a fictional village in Co Armagh for the setting. The book is peppered with names from my childhood.

“One anecdote in the book is based on a true story. An old handyman nicknamed ‘The Colonel’, worked for my aunt and uncle, Jane and Andy Shaw, who lived in the rectory in Ballynahinch, now the Millbrook Lodge Hotel.

“He features in the book as the gardener of the main character, Sarah. He was known to say what he thought, no matter who he was talking to and in the book, he is rude to church ladies who are having tea with Sarah. The event actually happened although in real life it involved Aunt Jane and a local titled lady.”

Ruth’s father was fascinated by cars and engines and, in the book, the character he is based on declared that he would one day he would be the finest mechanic in Ireland. When Ruth’s brother, Junior, read the book he pointed out at that this was in many ways true.

Their father, Jim, tuned and raced motorbikes and won many Irish championships with his stable of young racers. He collaborated with British manufacturers BSA in the 1960s which gave him two works bikes each year to tune.

Mr Brown’s development work made an important contribution to the BSA team and rider Jeff Smith winning the motocross world championship in 1964 and 1965. He also worked with Professor Gordon Blair of Queen’s University Belfast.

The research into her father’s family background proved interesting but it was the historical period which proved the most fascinating for Ruth.

In the decade 1910-1920,  there was the Home Rule movement, the Anti-Home rule movement and World War One. Ruth wondered about her biological grandparents who lived on the border of Armagh and Monaghan and how the division of Ireland affected their lives and business and realised there was a story to be told.

The Settlement begins in 1984 with the funeral of Sarah, the main character, as  someone spits at her coffin and the reader wonders would someone want to do this to the respected village matriarch.

The story looks at Sarah, a Suffragette and a Home Ruler, who gets involved in gun-running. One morning in 1919, she opens a letter and gets the shock of her life.  As the truth unfolds events occur which change her life for ever. After Sarah’s funeral, her granddaughter finds a red leather notebook and discovers that Sarah has taken the secret of that fateful night in 1919 to her grave.

Ruth, a grandmother who now lives in Leeds, drew on Johnathan Bardon’s A History of Ulster for a lot of her research of how life was in the days before Northern Ireland was formed.

She studied at Methodist College and Queen’s University where she gained a degree in Politics and a Master’s in City Planning.  She worked in Stormont and London and then joined a research team at Cambridge University.  After her children were born, she designed baby products and ran a successful business for 30 years.  Her brothers and sister still live in Ballynahinch.

The Settlement can be purchased from Amazon books on Kindle or paperback.