I don't think they are still held, but back in the thirties and forties the cottage meeting was an important part of Methodism. The meetings took place monthly in various homes in the country areas. The service was conducted by one of the ministers and the neighbours, not all of them Methodists, would attend. My grandfather was a local preacher and meetings were held in his house for many years. Indeed, I understand that I was baptised by the Reverend McIlwrath at one of these gatherings in my grandfather's house.
My grandfather was a widower and, with only a maid to do the rough work in the house, the preparations for these meetings was a major operation, undertaken by my aunt and my mother,` who were his daughters-in-law.. When my aunt and uncle moved from Kilmoriarty to Ballinagone, my mother found the task too much, so the meetings were moved to our house, at Ballybay Mill in the next townland.
I suppose it must have been easier to some extent to organise them in our house, but it was still an enormous task for my mother. For one thing, our house was much smaller than my grandfather's. The cooking was done on an open fire in the kitchen and this same room then had to be cleared in preparation for the arrival of the congregation, which would usually amount to around thirty people. Obviously, we didn't have seating for such a crowd, so, in the afternoon, my father would go with the horse and cart to the nearby Orange Hall at Kilmoriarty and borrow about twenty chairs which, of course, had then to be returned the next day.
The minister would arrive on his bicycle for his tea about five thirty and after that the table was taken out and the chairs arranged in rows ready for the meeting. We had a stock of Alexander's hymn books and these were distributed on the chairs. By seven thirty all was in readiness, the fire was stoked up with plenty of turf and my grandfather would arrive to take his place of honour in a big armchair close to the fire. The neighbours would come, some of them whole families with several children, and soon our kitchen would be full and overflowing.
Methodists have always been known for their joyous singing and cottage meetings were no exception. There was no instrument to accompany us, of course, but grandfather, as proficient at singing as he was at praying, would start us off. I marvel that the roof remained on our little house, so great would be the volume of those thirty-odd voices raised in unison, as they sang the grand old hymns so beloved of Methodists down through the years.
Neighbouring families I remember attending including the Spences, Magees, Morrisons and Abernethys, along with various members of our own Dunlop clan. However, one neighbour stands out particularly in my mind. Eddie McCullough, who was related to the Morrisons, had spent some years in America in his young days and he still retained a slight American accent, earning him the nickname Yankee McCullough.
Eddie was a lovely and generous man and, during the war years, he and his wife May showed great hospitality to soldiers from other countries who were briefly stationed around Portadown on their way to or on leave from the battlefields in Europe. Whoever happened to be his guests at the time he would bring along with him to the cottage meeting and I can recall young men in uniform from America, Wales, England and Belgium joining lustily with us country folk in the singing of the hymns.
By nine thirty the meeting would be over and you might expect that everyone would then go home, but not so. Instead, they all stayed for a supper of tea, oven bread, apple tart and sponge cakes, all prepared in readiness by my mother and all baked in a dutch oven over the open turf fire.
I often wonder how she coped and this she did once a month throughout the autumn and winter. I have more facilities and equipment than she could ever have dreamed of, but I couldn't contemplate doing it once a year, never mind once a month!
When the minister departed on his bicycle, the atmosphere would naturally relax somewhat and many of the neighbours would stay on till eleven o'clock, or so. The women would exchange bits of gossip, while the men talked farming and the children played.
The meeting followed the pattern of a normal Methodist church service, with hymns, bible readings, prayers and a sermon. As a noted local preacher, my grandfather would be invited to deliver a prayer. He was of the old school of fire and brimstone preachers and this prayer would usually be a long as the sermon.
Being a large man of considerable girth, his exertions as he prayed and his proximity to the roaring fire would cause him to sweat profusely. I can remember peeping through my fingers and having difficulty containing my mirth as he continually mopped his face with a large handkerchief, but undeterred, he would pray on with vigour and eloquence.
Times were hard in those years before and during the war. Nobody had much money and work, both in the home and in the fields, was arduous. Maybe it is a classic case of the rose-tinted spectacles or of the nostalgia that accompanies our advancing years, but it seems to me that they were good times. People had more time for each other.
There was a greater sense of neighbourliness, with folk always keen to gather with their friends. The cottage meeting certainly had a strong spiritual atmosphere, but I suspect it was also as good an excuse as any for a group of neighbours to come together and for a good night's craic!