On being a Lapsley: A visit to St Johnston

“Hello my name is Rachel. I’m a Lapsley” I said to the dry stone waller. He was working on the walls to the churchyard of St Johnston Presbyterian Church in Donegal. By describing myself as a Lapsley, what I meant was that I was a member of the Lapsley family. My maternal grandmother was a Lapsley before she was married and had been born in St Johnston in 1908 – the youngest daughter of John Lapsley, who was Grand Master of the St Johnston Orange Order. The family had moved to Londonderry in 1916 when his shipping business had gone bankrupt and he had to get a job on the docks. But St Johnston was where he belonged and every Saturday, he would cycle home – a journey of 7.5 miles each way – to see his friends and family. Of course, when partition came in 1921, this meant cycling over an international border and back. It was perhaps apt that when he died in 1932, his coffin was carried over the same journey – from his home at 10 Georges Street in Londonderry to the graveyard of St Johnston Presbyterian Church- and he was carried on foot across a frictionless border.

Granny still lived at 10 Georges Street in the 1970s, 80s and 90s but by then, Londonderry was a very different place. Bloody Sunday had taken place in the city in 1969 – only a few hundred yards away – and from that point the city was a hotbed of terrorism. Granny lived in the Fountain area – perhaps the most notorious Protestant enclave in the whole of Northern Ireland. The west bank of the River Foyle lost 90% of its Protestant population during the Troubles – representing one of the most significant population movements in Europe since the Second World War. Granny was unable to visit her late husband’s grave for decades due to safety concerns arising out of the Troubles.
Needless to say, we never visited St Johnston during those years. We would have had to go through a checkpoint. And anyway, the border was often where things flared up.
So, while there was always this corner of a foreign field where I had roots, I had never visited. And I was determined to find it, despite the quite arduous journey. The satnav kept sending us down the backroads wherever we went across Northern Ireland – and had got completely confused by Londonderry’s city walls! We were weary but we had arrived – and with some sense of achievement!
But my conversation with the dry stone waller was a moment I will never forget. I was a stranger in a foreign land. Like many people whose ancestors had endured penal laws, the potato famine, civil war, economic depression and political turbulence, I now lived elsewhere and I had returned simply to find my roots. But this dry stone waller welcomed me home. You see, he knew the Lapsley family because they still lived in St Johnston – in fact, there were Lapsley graves in this very graveyard dating back only a few years. He said he knew someone in the village who was hot on local history – and while we stood there – he phoned him up. “And he was master of the lodge!” he said to his friend. I don’t think I’d ever really appreciated the status my great grandfather had held in his community. And I think had we planned on staying any length of time, he would have arranged an introduction. I felt like a prodigal who had returned home – and I never imagined I’d feel like that on Irish soil.