Convoy man Aubrey Oliver is very aware of the historical heritage of his adopted home town of Stranorlar.
Nine years into his retirement he has used much of his time to delve into the local history of the area and in particular that of the town’s Church of Ireland church and its graveyard - which is the resting place of one of Donegal’s most interesting political figures - Isaac Butt.
Aubrey is the chair of the Ballybofey and Stranorlar District Historical Society which has been formed in recent weeks to help promote and develop the profile of the area’s historical heritage.
The first two meetings have been well attended and Aubrey says he is encouraged at the age profile of those attending which spans almost 50 years.
The area boasts a healthy number of dedicated local historians and the society will be aiming to publish material about the history of a town which celebrated its 400th anniversary in recent years.
His long-standing interest in history has found an outlet through his voluntary work with the church where he has become archivist. His role grew out of queries that were coming to local minister Tony Adamson was getting from people researching their ancestry.
“Tony was getting queries about the graveyard and I agreed to map the graveyard and record all the headstones.” Aubrey was the given the keys of the church safe which contains all the church records. “He said you seem to enjoy this so anything he gets now I go and research it. So I get people coming to the church all the time.”
The graveyard goes back to the 1600s and is shared by five churches and has seen people from all denominations buried there. The church is dated to at least 1609 and the church’s minutes go back to 1817, the time of Isaac Butt’s father who was an Anglican minister in the town.
Through his interest in the history of the church he has run tours of the graveyard during Heritage Week. This illustrated to him the interest in local history as 80 people turned up at his first tour on a Monday night.
He greatly enjoys genealogy and helping people trace their ancestry
“There is a great feeling when you find something and disappointment when you can’t help. They mostly come from Donegal, a few from Northern Ireland and some from Australia, the U.S. Canada and England. One man came looking for a headstone, he lives in China and his father was a former manager of the railway. It is nice to be able to show people around.”
He has been working on his own family history as well and only last year he discovered that his great great grandfather, John Oliver, came from nearby Dreenan and was baptised in Stranorlar Church of Ireland in 1803.
A member of the executive of the Donegal Historical Society, Aubrey is passionate about the extent of history in the area and promoting this is his motivation in becoming involved in the new historical society.
More should be made of two of the town’s most important former residents – Isacc Butt and Frances Brown, he says.
Butt is of course the big figure associated with Stranorlar. The last two years have seen talks held in the town as part of celebrating Butt’s links with Stranorlar.
Local man and former RTÉ director of television Joe Mulholland delivered the first talk followed by Senator David Norris last year.
Frances Brown was born at Upper Main Street, Stranorlar in 1816 and became a well-known poet and novelist despite being blind from birth.
Figures like this can be at the centre of a renewal of the town’s historic profile, Aubrey says.
“We have Issacc Butt, and Frances Brown, the blind poetess, who were from here and I think we have neglected that in this area and we suddenly released that we should highlight them. We have an awful lot of history in this area but a lot of it gets lost. When you look at how many different parts of the county have historical societies it was time we had one here.
“It would be great that instead of just sending visitors to other parts of the county, like Glenveagh, that we could promote the different things we have here like the old graveyard, Isacc Butt, Drumboe Castle, Frances Brown, Stranolar’s role in the railway and the old houses and families that we have.”
He also believes that the promotion of local history can be an economic driver that can help local businesses and create jobs.
There are several local historians writing about the area including Pat Holland, Tony Gallinagh and Ivan knox so Aubrey believes there is a renaissance in local history and the society is the next stage of that.
He has an admirable passion for the town that has been his home since the early 1970s. His parents owned a grocery shop on Convoy’s Main Street and his father also farmed.
Aubrey had a passion to see the world that found its outlet in joining the RAF. He joined a signals unit and a five-year stint saw him assigned to Borneo and he arrived there just days after hostilities ended. From there he was then sent to Hong Kong for a two and a half year posting. His wife Bonnie and their young son Stephen joined him. Stephen would be followed by two more children - Lara and Alan.
The young couple enjoyed Hong Kong immensely and spent over two years there. They have returned since on holiday and on one visit located the nanny who looked after their young son.
On completing his time in the RAF Aubrey returned to Convoy hoping to buy a farm but ended up going into pig farming and established a business in Dunwiley outside Stranorlar. Dunwiley, with its woods and stunning views, became the family’s home.
Aubrey retired nine years ago and two years ago Bonnie joined him in retirement after a long career in the VEC. Their life now includes a lot of time with their six grandchildren who are spread between Dunwiley, Galway and England. Such is their dedication that last year they won the title of Donegal Grandparents of the Year after being nominated by their granddaughter Emma.
Aubrey was also active in the Scouts movement and was a keen sportsman playing hockey, football and badminton a sport he still plays regularly.
He says his appointment as chairman of the new historical society follows a pattern that has reoccurred during his life - that he can’t keep quiet. “But someone has to do these things.”