Lydia Mary Foster

From an Article by Gordon Lucy

image - Lydia Mary Foster

Lydia Mary Foster published novels and short stories depicting the inhabitants of her native Tyrone. Her work was very successful and popular in Ulster in the 1930s and 1940s and even attracted approval in both London and Dublin. Today she is little read and is probably largely forgotten, except by a small but select band of enthusiasts and specialists. Although the title of one of her books – ‘Tyrone among the Bushes’ – has entered popular consciousness, few people necessarily appreciate its source.

Born in 1867, Lydia Foster grew up a daughter of the manse at Newmills, near Coalisland. The Rev James Foster was the third minister of Newmills and wrote an account of the 1859 Revival which he welcomed ‘with open arms and entered into with joyous enthusiasm’. Lydia Mary was the second daughter and the fourth of six children, and was named after her mother. Lydia and her elder sister, Jane Wallace and younger sister Susan Margaret Elizabeth (Bessie), were probably educated at home and then at Miss Black’s school in Holywood where they boarded during the week. Bessie attended Victoria College, Belfast, before entering Trinity College, Dublin, where she matriculated in 1892 and from which she graduated in Ancient and Modern Languages in 1896.

Newmills offered few opportunities for well-educated young women, so after Bessie’s graduation the three sisters established a private school, the Ladies’ Collegiate School, Balmoral, in Belfast. The school began life in Myrtlefield Park, then moved to 434 Lisburn Road and finally to 16 Maryville Park. The school was attended by local girls but also attracted some boarders who, with their teachers, attended Malone Presbyterian Church on Sundays and sat in pew No. 21 in the gallery.

The school flourished for 20 years until the death of Lydia’s two sisters in the final years of the Great War. Bessie died on Christmas Day 1917 and Jane on October 26 of the following year.

Lydia became increasingly deaf and turned to writing, publishing short stories, plays, verse and poetry in magazines such as ‘Ulster Parade’, a light-hearted collection of local writing, enough to provide her with a modest income to support her frugal lifestyle. Lydia published several books: ‘The Bush that Burned’ (1930), ‘Tyrone among the Bushes’ (1933), ‘Manse Larks’ (1936) and ‘Elders’ Daughters’ (1942).

She had long aspired to write about Newmills Presbyterian Church and life in that part of east Tyrone and ‘The Bush that Burned’ was the realisation of that dream. A best seller, one reviewer enthusiastically observed: ‘We have been awaiting a novelist who knew Ulster life intimately and who could depict it with understanding and sympathy. The author of this novel is the author we have been eagerly expecting.’ ‘The Bush that Burned’ even merited favourable mention in London journals, an accolade rarely accorded to local writing in that era. The Dublin-based Irish Independent perfectly accurately described it as a ‘brilliant portrayal of Presbyterian life’. Dr John T Carson notes that the book ‘saw the funny side of things connected with the Presbyterian meeting house, such as the precentor’s tuning fork, the long- handled collecting ladles, the old smokey coke stoves, the boots that squeaked down the aisles on Sunday mornings and the romances that affected the heads of the daughters of the manse.’

While ‘Tyrone among the Bushes’ is a collection of poetry and shorter pieces of prose, ‘Manse Larks’ depicts life in Newmills manse. If ‘Manse Larks’ focused on the lives of the daughters of the manse, ‘Elders’ Daughters’, her second substantial volume, endeavoured to perform the same the same service for ‘elders’ daughters’ – young women whom she understood perfectly and about whom she was equally well informed. ‘Elders’ Daughters’ was described as ‘good ... but hardly as fresh as the first’. Nevertheless, it was an immediate success.

Lydia remained in Belfast, living at 16 Maryville Park until the early 1940s, latterly along with another single lady who was traumatised by the Belfast blitz in 1941. Foster herself, almost totally deaf and living several miles away from the raids’ epicentre , took the raids completely in her stride. Dr Carson informs us: ‘When the bombs began to fall the visitor’s calm was shattered and she came near to panic. Lydia’s deafness was an advantage and she took command of the situation. They took refuge under the dining-room table and in order to restore the shattered nerves of her companion Lydia read to her from the 46th Psalm.’

By the time Lydia was completing ‘Elders’ Daughters’ she was unwell and unable to write, so she dictated the concluding chapters to her niece at ‘Hollowbridge’ – her niece’s home near Hillsborough. Lydia died there on December 13 1943 but she lived long enough to see two editions of ‘Elders’ Daughters’ sell out before her death. She was buried in accordance with her wishes in the graveyard of Newmills Presbyterian Church.

In the words of John C Arnold KC: ‘Newmills received her back to rest almost within sound of the river that gurgles down under the viaduct to find its home in Lough Neagh, and well within sound of the Psalms when they float out through the open window. She would rather be there than in the nave of Westminster Abbey.’

A new edition of The Bush that Burned, with an introduction by Dr Colin Walker, footnotes to the text and a glossary, was published in 2015 and is available on Amazon.

We are very grateful to Mr Gordon Lucy for permitting us to place an edited version of his article on our website.