The old school house at McConnells, South Carolina – a new home for Scotch-Irish families from Antrim and Tyrone in the 18th century.
IT’S the time of year for people to make their journeys home.
The arrival of family at our airports or ports for Christmas or New Year is often an opportunity for a news piece when things are, to be honest, slack and stories are welcome, even the predictable.
And for those who return, even though content with their lives elsewhere, there is still a little something that strikes a chord in coming back.
I have always been intrigued by this sense of belonging. It means more than just where you come from, but is, I suspect tied up in a wealth of other inherited and cultural traits.
I once had to explain in a prolonged discussion with someone of a nationalist background how I felt absolutely no sense of being Irish. It was not a political statement. I like Irish people, and I enjoy visiting the Republic, but crossing the border does not make me feel Irish. To be honest, I like London as well but it does not make me a Londoner either.
I’m mindful of the famous comment from the Duke of Wellington that being born in a stable did not make one a horse – rather topical at this time of year.
Wellington was supposedly responding to someone who had referred to him as Irish since he was born in Dublin.
I would imagine that someone from a nationalist background would feel more at home in Dublin or Galway than a unionist, because the sense of ‘home’ is connected to upbringing and world view.
I have had the good fortune to visit the United States and have felt strangely at home in South Carolina, where many of the people are descendants of Ulster settlers from the 18th century.
At the little cemetery at Waxhaw in the Carolina Piedmont, I was amazed that almost all the graves were of Ulster families and their descendants, some of them mentioning place names on the stones such as Derrykeighan, Loughgiel, Newry and County Antrim. Waxhaw was the home of the Jacksons of Bonnybefore and there is a memorial to Andrew Jackson Sr. and an outstanding monument to his wife, Elizabeth Hutchinson Jackson, mother of the seventh President.
On a warm Spring day I remember having an overwhelmingly sense of peace at the Waxhaw as I wandered through the cemetery and the sound of birds and breeze in the nearby trees was all that disturbed the day.
Some years later, at Brattonsville in the rural community of McConnells, I was part of a delegation from Larne which included a local accordion band. We were all there as part of a twinning celebration with Clover in South Carolina and the plans included a wreath laying at Brattonsville, site of the Battle of Hucks Defeat on 12 July 1780 (a date which is hard to forget).
After our group had laid a wreath in honour of the County Antrim men who fought against the King’s troops in the Battle, Larne Harbour Accordion Band played in the open air, watched by a small crowd. The sound of the Green Glens of Antrim was a fantastic tune to hear and when we were leaving the park manager came over and said he had ‘felt a presence’ at Brattonsville that day.
What he meant, I think, was a sense of connection to the ancestors. Something that transcends everything else and gives a sense of connection.
For the park manager the real life Scotch-Irish had come back to Brattonsville to pay their respects, making a direct connection back to the Brattons (from Seskinore in Tyrone, by the way), the McConnells and others who had once lived and farmed there.
I am always intrigued by the Barry family of Victoria in Australia. In the early 1920s they set sail from Larne Harbour on a journey that would take them to Melbourne.
James Barry and his wife Sarah took their young family with them, eager for a new land far away from the Troubles in Ireland at that time.
The farmers around Magheramorne put them all up overnight and one day in the 1970s a tall Australian came back to our farm as part of his visit ‘home’ to Northern Ireland.
His name was Wilson Barry and he had been a young boy who spent his last night in the old land in our farm cottage. Next morning two farm carts gathered up the Barrys and their belongings and conveyed them down to Larne Harbour.
Wilson, who was one of the last survivors of the 1920 family, was not the only one of the Barry children to come home. Interestingly, Barry grandchildren and greatgrandchildren were making a pilgrimage every few years back to County Antrim too in the 1990s.
I found it amazing that the main focus of these visits was not to see the sights of Northern Ireland (although I am sure they did that as well) but rather to visit the farm James and Sarah had left with their children and the farms and families who had been connected to them.
Home for them appeared not to be only about geography but also about people.
My grandfather wrote a farewell song for the family called James Barry’s Farewell. It had a catchy wee chorus;
“Farewell to the green fields of Erin
Farewell to the land I was born
Farewell to Aul Whassagh, Ballyedward
And the dear friends of Sweet Magheramorne”
A copy of the song was sent back some years ago now by Heather Barry, one of the granddaughters. James had been given it by my grandfather when he was leaving and it was still in his possession in the 1950s when he was sadly killed in a car accident.
For James ‘home’ was clearly about more than where you lived. Location may be part of it, but so too is memory, people, experiences and culture. It is a tiny word with enormous meaning.
PHOTO: the Barry family, who left County Antrim in the early 1920s but whose descendants still regularly came ‘home’ to Northern Ireland