Florence Mary Addy was born in 1874, the daughter of Robert Charles Addy and Margaret Loughlin. Her father was the mill manager of the Island Spinning Company, a major Linen manufacturer established in 1867 by the Quaker Richardson family, it produced linen yarn and cloth on power looms. Production finally ceased at ‘the island’ in 1983 and the site now houses Lisburn’s Island Arts Centre. The Addy family lived in Island House, close to the factory and the canal, in Lisburn.
Robert Charles Addy held at least one patient relating to linen production and was well-known amongst the merchant society of Belfast and the surrounding area. He was an active mason and a member of the Orange Order. His death was covered by the Belfast Newsletter, the major newspaper for the area, on 6th August, 1890. He is described as ‘the most popular of our townsmen’ and an ‘efficient manager of the Island Spinning Company’s mills.’ It notes that he died in Saintfield after becoming ill on a journey to join his daughters in Newcastle, County Down. It continues that he was well-known in Belfast where in his early career he held a position in the Malcolmson Mills on the Falls Road. It adds that the family had already been bereaved by the recent death of his wife who had died in March of the same year. He left three daughters and a son, Albert William, who was at that time in the army in England.
The wider Addy family had associations with the small town of Glenavy, close to Lough Neagh in Country Antrim, and to the area around Loughgall in County Armagh, a small village best known for the founding of the Orange Order in the late eighteenth century. Florence’s grandfather was Edward Addy, a notable and very active Primitive Wesleyan Methodist preacher originally from Loughgall who had married Margaret Lewis, from a first generation Methodist family in county Antrim. The Addy family in all its branches (and variant spellings) was generally Methodist.
Florence was one of five surviving children, three girls and two boys. She was a well-educated woman, attending Friends’ School in Lisburn and then a girl’s boarding school in Londonderry. In January 1898 she married Frederick Hugh Graham Wilson in Shore Street Presbyterian Church in Donaghadee. Her husband was a solicitor with offices in Bangor and Belfast; his father had been a tea merchant in Belfast. In the 1901 Irish Census they are living in Ballyholme near Bangor in County Down and have two daughters and son. By 1911 they are living at 4 Groomsport Road there with four daughters and a different son. On the 1911 census form it is noted she has six living children with two who have not survived. Her husband died in April 1915 and his will left all his effects to ‘Florrie’ M Wilson.
In the years after his death she remained at Groomsport Road in the Ballyholme area of Bangor, a small seaside town at the end of Belfast Lough. Alice Milligan, a writer and journalist of some note, lived nearby and was Florence’s close friend and mentor. During this time Florence wrote poems, stories and essays for a number of British and Irish magazines, including The Spectator and Westminster Gazette. Her writings deal with a range of topics including local history, folklore and the natural world. She was adept at writing in the local dialect which she had heard amongst the servants and workers in her County Down childhood. It was a period when Ireland’s growing nationalist identity had attracted many writers including such major figures of W.B.Yeats and George Russell, who both praised her work. Although from a Protestant background she wrote from a nationalist perspective, not uncommon in Ireland at that time and very much in keeping with her interest in the United Irishmen. She admired Irish culture and saw cultural value in the folk traditions of the Irish peasantry.
She was an artistically gifted woman, not only a writer but a good amateur artist and musician. She also had a scholarly interest in local history, antiquaries and archaeology. She knew Francis Joseph Bigger, the notable Belfast antiquarian and Celtic revivalist, like her friend Alice Milligan, was associated with his circle and their activities. A number of letters between her and Bigger are located in the Bigger Collection in Belfast Central Library.
In 1918 she published a collection of poems The Coming of the Earls which were highly influenced by the romantic nationalist vision that was a feature of the period. It was in this collection her most famous poem appeared, The Man from God Knows Where. This poignantly rousing ballad concerns Thomas Russell, Librarian of Belfast’s Linenhall Library, a major figure in the United Irishmen and who was executed in Downpatrick in 1803 for his involvement in 1803 in the rebellion. One of the ‘heroes of the 98’ he was part of the radical Protestant tradition that fought for a United Ireland. This aspect of Ulster history was a theme in the work of many of her associates. The poem opens with a mysterious visitor arriving on a winter’s night at a snowy townland and being offered hospitality by the local people; it ends two troubled years later when the nameless narrator recognises the stranger as Russell, who is being publicly executed. The ballad has remained popular and has been set to music. With its subtle use of dialect and politically rousing theme it is her finest work and the one by which she is rightly remembered.
Florence Mary Wilson died in 1946 at the age of 72 and was praised by the County Down Spectator, whose obituary concluded with the words, ‘may the friendly earth of Co. Down which she loved so truly lie lightly upon her.’ She is buried in Bangor’s Newtownards Road graveyard.
Two of her sons, Nial and Frederick Manus Wilson moved to North America in the 1920s. Nial died in Minnesota in 1966; Frederick Manus lived in Canada, marrying a girl from Saintfield in 1934 in Vancouver and died in Winnipeg in 1995. Frederick Manus Wilson has surviving descendents in North America.
(Florence Mary Wilson is part of my tree through my husband. Related names are Addy/Addey, Hayes, Lewis and Canning).