Terrible tragedy of the Sea…

Princess baxter funeral855 The funeral of Roseanne Baxter, one of those lost in the Princess Victoria disaster of 1953

AS the Merchant Vessel Princess Victoria set sail from Loch Ryan that January morning it should have been a routine voyage across the short sea channel to her berth in Larne Harbour.

But the Princess Victoria would never arrive and the empty berth would become a terrible symbol of the disaster which came about during the awful storm of January 31, 1953.

Gales lashed Britain and when the vessel emerged from the mouth of Loch Ryan and into the North Channel, her stern doors were breached by the sea. It set in motion a series of events. The ship’s car deck was flooded by the incoming waves and she lost power as she was flooded, drifting helplessly further into the dangerous waters of the channel.

Princess leaving port856An old photo of the Princess Victoria leaving Larne Harbour

Her captain sent an SOS which said that the vessel was not under command. The rescue got underway but confusion as to where the Princess Victoria actually was led to precious time being lost in locating her. The gale and the waves were unforgiving.

As the tragic drama unfolded, people in Larne began to fear for the safety of the ship that morning. As a journalist with the Larne Times from 1988 to 2003 I covered many of the anniversaries of the disaster and interviewed many of those who remembered that day as if it had been a few hours before.

There were common threads to what they remembered. One was a sense of disbelief that the ship would sink so close to land, another the expectation that she would still somehow get into Larne despite her difficulties.

One lady recalled how she had been at the cinema at a matinee with her sister and that when she came out people were shouting that ‘the ferry’ was in trouble. Initially, she thought it was the small Larne to Islandmagee ferry, which conveyed people across several hundred yards at the mouth of Larne Lough.

But it soon became clear that it was not. For Margaret Martin, who was 19 years old at the time, the enormity of the tragedy was, as for many in Larne and Stranraer in Scotland, deeply personal. Her uncle, Hugh Brennan, was on the ship and his body was found the next day.

“I remember his funeral. I went out to see it and the whole area down to the Inver Bridge was black with people. He was a very nice person – my favourite uncle – and he was well liked in the town,” she recalled to me in 1989 when I was writing a special feature for the Larne Times.

Hugh Brennan was just one of 133 men, women and children who lost their lives that day in 1953. There were no women and children who survived because they had all been put in the one lifeboat in an effort to get them to safety away from the ship. But the gales were so strong that they dashed the lifeboat against the side of the Princess Victoria and they were all tossed into the angry seas below. There were no survivors from the lifeboat.

Among the women who died was a young crew member named Roseanne Baxter. She had formally served in the WRENS (Women’s Royal Naval Service) and was a popular local resident of Larne.  In 1989 Betty Apsley, who knew Roseanne, recalled the news that she had been lost in the disaster, “It was a dark, dull, dismal day and people flocked to the harbour to see the raging sea when they heard the news,” she said.

Roseanne Baxter’s funeral was said to have been the largest ever seen in the town. But there were many more in Larne and Stranraer, where most of those who were drowned were from. Most local people attended them all. Betty Apsley’s mother told her that Larne was affected the way it had been when the news of the loss of the Battle of the Somme in 1916 filtered back to the town.

“I had known many of those men (on the crew) since I was a child,” Betty told me in 1989.

When the Belfast Telegraph produced a special edition the day following the disaster, Apsleys Newsagents opened despite the fact it was a Sunday. It was the only time the devoutly religious family opened their shop on the Sabbath and there was a queue of locals to buy the paper, which sold out in a half hour.

Princess Captain Ferguson858Captain James Ferguson; saluted the ship as he went down with her

Among those who would have been well-kenned on the route was the Captain, James Miller Ferguson, a Stranraer man. As the disaster reached its terrible climax, Captain Ferguson maintained the finest traditions of seafarers and went down with his ship. The last sighting of him was at the wheel, with one hand raised in salute to the ship.

Frantic efforts were made by the Donaghadee lifeboat and other vessels to try to save those on board and there were many individual and collective acts of heroism. Down through the years the efforts of the Donaghadee Lifeboat men have been remembered as has been the support of the vessel Pass of Drumochter, an aerial photograph from the time showing the ship sheltering one of the lifeboats in her lee until the passengers could be rescued. The Pass of Drumochter was captained by Master Mariner James Kelly from Carnlough in the Glens of Antrim.

Princess Pass857A photograph shows the Pass of Drumochter providing shelter for a lifeboat

A Royal Navy vessel, HMS Contest, also raced to the scene and one of the officers threw himself into the sea to save two men on a raft.

Of the 177 passengers and crew on board the Princess Victoria, there were only 44 survivors.

“Larne is town of mourning. So many of her sons and daughters, as well as friends, who have for so long and often walked her streets, perished when the Princess Victoria foundered to near to the home shores on Saturday afternoon,” said the Larne Times in its edition following the tragedy.

“Memories dim but people will never forget the day the Princess Victoria went down,” the Galloway Gazette on the other side of the channel noted in 1989.

It was the Rev. Victor Lynas of Gardenmore Presbyterian Church who summed up the poignancy when he said at a memorial service at the harbour that Sunday that as an empty chair in the house reminded people of a loved one departed, so the empty berth at the harbour brought home the loss which had occurred.

In the years since the disaster there have been many commemorations. As a local journalist the most poignant for me was the 40th anniversary in 1993, when civic representatives from both Larne and Stranraer were taken on a contemporary ferry to hold a service and cast wreaths into the waters in the middle of the channel. Watching the waves and the darkness of the sea that cold January day it was possible to imagine the horrors of a January day decades before.

Princess wreath859

Each year at Stranraer in Scotland and Larne in Northern Ireland civic ceremonies are held at the harbours to mark the great loss which both towns sustained. There were people from different parts of Ulster and Scotland who perished that day, but most were from the twin towns united by the sea passage across the North Channel.

This year will be no different; the Royal Antediluvian Order of Buffaloes Princess Victoria Lodge fittingly organising the event in Larne. The ship is remembered primarily by a large memorial on the Larne seafront. An Orange lodge in the town also carries an image of her leaving Larne Harbour on the banner.

The ship finally went down off the Copeland Islands near the County Down coast, where she rests on the bottom of the sea. One can only imagine the terror and fear on board the vessel after she left the safety of Loch Ryan that day.

The loss of the Princess Victoria was the worst sea disaster in United Kingdom waters; it is still a loss felt by the families most directly connected to the tragedy.

Princess paper860

1953 report on the memorial service at Larne Harbour; the loss of the Princess Victoria was Northern Ireland’s worst maritime disaster




Historic Scottish links lap the shore of County Antrim…

DSCN5876 The rugged Antrim coast road near Glenarm

SOMETIME in the 1460s stonemasons from Kintyre carved intricate designs and images at the new Franciscan friary being built at Glenarm bay by Robert Bisset and Alexander MacDonnell of the Isles, who had found new homes in the Glens of Antrim.

It overlooked the North Channel, where, on a good day, the Scottish coast was clearly visible. Kintyre would not have appeared too far away for the men who had journeyed across to work on the friary. At one part of the Antrim coast, north from Glenarm, Scotland is 14 miles across the channel.

mainly glenarm may 2010 038

A stone carved by a Kintyre mason at Glenarm in medieval times

Today little remains of the medieval friary, which was once an important element of the religious and physical landscape of the area. Only a few foundation walls can be seen in the cemetery beside St. Patrick’s Church, and some of the stone carvings which once adorned the structure are now on display inside the more modern church, built in or around 1760 by Alexander MacDonnell, fifth earl of Antrim.

The visitor to the picturesque and historic little parish church can enjoy exquisite stained glass windows, including one close to the MacDonnell family pew highlighting the family’s claim of descent from Milesius, king of Spain, and the Pharaoh’s daughter who supposedly found Moses in the bulrushes.

Whatever the veracity of such a claim, there is no doubt of the Scottish influence in this part of Northern Ireland.

It is also interestingly, a Scottish connection with a difference. The Highland families who settled here and retained their Roman Catholic faith would later be joined in the townlands of Glenarm and elsewhere by further Scots from Kintyre during the Plantation period, the new arrivals themselves product of plantation of Lowland Calvinist families into Kintyre.

The Norman Bisset family, who were involved with the friary, settled in Glenarm from Scotland in the 13th century.  It is said that the connection began after John Bisset and his uncle Walter murdered Patrick de Galloway, Earl of Athol. Banished from Scotland after being found guilty, they were supposed to undertake a crusade in the Holy Land, but instead of going east John headed west and settled in County Antrim.

He probably received lands from Hugh de Lacy, Norman Earl of Ulster, who had earlier seized the land from the de Galloways. We know that in 1278 the Bissets had lands near Larne, at Cairncastle and in Glenarm as well as controlling Rathlin Island.

The last of the line was Margery, who married John Mor MacDonnell in 1399. His family were Lords of the Isles.

The MacDonnells had developed connections with Ulster from the 13th century, acting as gallowglass, or mercenary, soldiers to the Irish O’Neills and others. Their presence in County Antrim developed to a point where it was one of the main power blocs in the region, and from the 1570s they were often at loggerheads with the English authorities, based in Carrickfergus.

In 1597 James MacDonnell inflicted defeat on the English when he defeated Sir John Chichester in battle, at Aldfreck outside the modern village of Ballycarry, the culmination of a series of encounters between Highland Scots and English rulers in Ulster.

Also in 1597 the MacDonnell castle at Glenarm was partially pulled down after the family moved to Dunluce to a more fortified residence. By 1603, however, Sir Randal MacDonnell had made his peace with King James I and been re-granted lands in the Glens and the Route. He built a new castle at Glenarm, continuing to make additions until his death in 1636. The family continued to live at Dunluce until the 1750s when they moved to Glenarm Castle.

mainly glenarm may 2010 034Glenarm Castle

Glenarm Castle itself has much of historical interest, including a heavy chest believed to be a relic of the Spanish Armada and one of the ill-fated Spanish ships which foundered off the Ulster coast.

The history of the castle and the family who lived there has been better preserved than another family, possibly kinsmen, who once lived in Glenarm.

Unlike the MacDonnells, who were Earls of Antrim and Roman Catholic at that time, the Donnellsons of Glenarm were Presbyterians and in 1655 James Donnellson was an elder in the Presbyterian congregation in Glenarm. Another of the family was a Rev. Nehemiah Donnellson, and the Christian names Nehemiah and Gideon were common in the family.

The family were said to have been kinsmen, legitimate or otherwise, of the MacDonnells, but history is not clear on this point. They lived at what was once known as Donnellson’s Castle in Glenarm and also had property in neighbouring Carnlough.  The castle was recorded as the only slated house in the village in 1683. By the latter part of the 19th century, however, no trace remained.

In October 1626 the Earl of Antrim had provided a land grant to John Donnellson of Glenarm for lands at Owencloughy, Ballytober, Inver and Glenarm, and in 1631 John rose to become High Sheriff of County Antrim. However, in 1634 John Donnellson was murdered in his own house by Archibald MacDonnell and others, his estate passing to his son John, who was around 20 years old at the time.

There are other historical references to members of the family. Oliver Cromwell planned to transport Presbyterians from Ulster to Tipperary and the name of John Donnellson and his son James appears on the list of those who were to be removed. Nothing came of this scheme, and in 1661 the Donnellsons were proving a thorn in the side of the authorities after Presbyterians ministers were ejected from the established churches; the Donnellsons provided a barn near Carnlough for Presbyterian worship and were regarded as the patrons of the Presbyterian community in the area.

In the period 1688-1691 the Donnellsons would again be out of favour with the authorities, supporting William of Orange at a time when James II was still ruler in Ireland. In 1688 John Donnellson of Glenarm was among the signatories of the Antrim Association of Protestants and another member of the family, a Robert Donnellson, was among the signatories on a petition to the Duke of Schomberg the following year.

Such a stance did not escape the Jacobites in Ireland, and in 1689 the Irish Parliament declared that the lands of John Donnellson were forfeit. The outcome of the War of the Three Kingdoms meant that John held his lands, and indeed in 1697 history records that he was Commissioner of Poll Tax in County Antrim under William III.

The family continued to be supporters of the Williamite inheritance. In 1715 when the ‘Old Pretender’, James II’s son James, invaded Scotland, Lord Antrim was suspected of being sympathetic towards the Jacobite cause. Alexander Donnellson, who was His Lordship’s agent at that time, seized racehorses belonging to Lord Antrim for fear they would be sent to Scotland to assist the Jacobites.

By the middle years of the 18th century, the Donnellson family seemed to be in a decline.

Some family lands in Antrim were assigned to others in the 1740s, while one of the line appears to have squandered his inheritance through the agency of alcohol. The last male of the line died unmarried in County Down and his sister, Mrs. Matthews of Springvale, County Down, became head of the family. Some of the family had also moved to Castle Dillon in County Armagh.

Today there is no reminder in Glenarm of the Donnellsons or their castle.  In fact, there would appear to be few if any Donnellson families in Northern Ireland today. The surname may have altered in the spelling, of course, and its equivalent in the United States would appear to be Donelson.

Statistics show that 94% of the Donelsons in the world are to be found in the United States, and 3% in Canada, with only 1% found in the United Kingdom.

One of the more famous Donelsons was Colonel John Donelson, an early settler of Middle Tennessee, who was born around 1718. He led over 100 settlers to the Cumberland settlement of Tennessee in the winter of 1779-80. A prominent figure in Tennessee in his lifetime, he was one of the early settlers in Pittsylvania County in Virginia and his father and grandfather were involved in commerce and shipping, and encouraging plantation in America. John Donelson’s daughter Rachel was 13 at the time of the Cumberland settlement and would later marry Andrew Jackson, who was destined for the White House as the seventh president of the United States.

Jackson was the son of Andrew and Elizabeth Hutchinson Jackson, who sailed from Larne in 1765 for a new life in the Carolinas. The Scotch-Irish, as they are known, kept together in the new world, hence the Jacksons were heading out to an area – the Waxhaws – settled by Crawford and McKemney relatives.

It is difficult to find more about the pedigree of the Virginia and Tennessee Donelsons. I wonder if the Donelsons of Glenarm were in any way related to this American branch of a noted Scotch-Irish family? It would be no surprise if they were.

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Glenarm River

Why the Union horrified and digusted the Orange Order in 1800…

12th pics 2011 145Union Defenders: but not in 1800

There can scarcely be a body more symbolic of unionism than the Loyal Orange Institution.

In 2014 the Grand Orange Lodge of Scotland was to the fore, through a massive rally in Edinburgh, in bringing vigour to the ‘Yes’ campaign for Scotland to remain within the UK.

The Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland is seen as the largest pro-Union body in Northern Ireland, in terms of retaining Ulster’s link with the rest of the United Kingdom.

And, you might be tempted to say, it was ever thus.

Which is where you would be wrong.

There were at least two occasions in the history of the Orange Order when it vocally opposed the Union. Indeed, one prominent Orange leader, Lord Cole of Fermanagh was quoted as saying that he would oppose the Act of Union “while he had life”.

Two other Orangemen, both members of the old Dublin parliament which was about to be swept away by the Union, told colleagues in a debate that they deeply opposed the Union; George Ogle, who had been a member of the parliament for Dublin City, said that the Union was ‘a measure fraught with every ill to Ireland and Great Britain.’

John C. Beresford, also from Dublin, was quoted as having said “I am convinced that no alteration in the Legislature, by which the Parliament of Ireland is to be incorporated with that of England, could be of service to us…Proud of the name of an Irishman, I hope never to exchange it for that of a Colonist, or to see my country governed by laws enacted by a Parliament over which she can have no control.”

Individual Orange lodges also issued resolutions opposing the Act of Union of 1800, which had flowed on from the ill-fated 1798 Rebellion in Ireland.

The British statesman Walpole remarked that “The most violent of the Anti-Unionists were the very people who had supported the Government through the recent troubles – the Protestant nobility and gentry and the Orange lodges, amongst whom prevailed universal horror and disgust at the idea of a Union.”

That this was so was largely down to a sense of betrayal. As far as those Walpole described were concerned, they had stood up against insurgency and been rewarded by the loss of political power. The Act of Union which came about in 1801 swept away the old Establishment Parliament in Dublin (to be a member one had to be a member of the Church of Ireland; thus Roman Catholics and Presbyterians were excluded).

the-last-parliament-of-ireland-enacted-the-act-of-union-of-1800The old Irish Parliament in Dublin

The Orange Order at the time was also dominated by Anglican figures and while there were undoubtedly Presbyterians and other non-comformists among the membership, those who were in positions of power were often, it would appear, from the religious and political establishment.

There was an irony in the fact that many of the northern Presbyterian leaders of the rebellion would welcome the Act of Union (because it swept away the corrupt parliament in Dublin in their eyes), while Church of Ireland figures would oppose it.

One of the factors which may have influenced some Roman Catholics in not seeing the Union as any bad thing aside from the clear demotion of the Established Church figures was the fact that the Union was cementing order whereas the United Irish Rising, with its rather rose-tinted views of the French Revolution, had potentially threatened the position of the Church.

There were divided opinions with the Orange Institution, however, as is evidenced by an order from the Grand Lodge for silence to be employed in response to the issue of Union.

Orange historian R. H. Sibbett, writing in 1939, says that the action of the Grand Lodge saved the Orange Society from disruption.

Nevertheless, some continued to make their views on the Union known. Members of LOL 500 in Dublin held a special meeting and issued a resolution which pulled no punches as far as the Grand Lodge was concerned: “We cannot think it the duty of an Orangeman to submit implicitly, in all cases of the utmost moment, to the directions of a lodge which is principally composed of persons who are under a certain influence, which is exerted against the rights of Ireland; and while a lodge under such influence shall give the law to all Orangemen, we fear that our dearest interests will be betrayed.”

The resolution went on to make further interesting comment: “We consider the extinction of our separate Legislature as the extinction of the Irish nation…” and it called on the election of a new Grand Lodge which would defend ‘the independence of Ireland and the Constitution of 1782’.

It is clear from Orange annals that not all members or lodges would have agreed with the sentiments, and it was this division which probably prompted the edict from the Grand Lodge which had so annoyed LOL 500 in the first place.

The Act of Union did, of course, come about, and would continue to excite debate and controversy throughout the 19th century.

It was voted through in both parliaments, London and Dublin, an initial complication in the Irish House of Lords being settled by the offer of peerages and honours for critics in order to obtain their votes, changing a 109 to 104 defeat for the Act to a second vote of 158 to 115 in favour in 1800.

The debate would continue. Initially the Roman Catholic hierarchy was supportive, believing that rapid reforms would follow. But this proved difficult and reform had to be fought for, Catholic Emancipation (the right for Catholics to sit in parliament) only being granted in 1829 after the election of Daniel O’Connell in the County Clare by-election.

DSCN4073    daniel o connell
Daniel O’Connell’s Irish Round Tower memorial dominates Glasnevin cemetery in Dublin

It was the first time since the Reformation that a Roman Catholic had been elected to Parliament. A loophole in the law said that Roman Catholics could not sit in parliament, but did not address the fact that they should not stand for election in the first place. Refusing to allow O’Connell to take his seat would, it was feared, result in others being elected and a de facto separatism to develop – much in the manner of Sinn Fein MPs elected in 1918 who formed Dail Eireann and refused to sit in the Union parliament in London.

During the century there were efforts to address majority grievances in Ireland, and they included Disestablishment of the Church of Ireland in 1869, the special position of the Anglican Communion having been a cause for annoyance to Presbyterians and Roman Catholics, who had to pay taxes to a church they did not attend or wish to attend.

But when Disestablishment came about in 1869, there was an angry response again from the Orange Institution.

The Grand Lodge meeting in December 1869 heard a resolution that “this Grand Lodge having expressed its conviction that the passing of the Irish Church Act was a direct violation of the Act of Union, and adhering to that determination, it is now resolved that the obligation to maintain the Legislative Union should no longer be continued as binding upon the members of the Institution and that the statement contained in the ‘Basis of the Institution’ and all provision in the Rules and Rituals and other forms of the Institution, imposing or recognising such obligation be expunged therefrom.”

There was, according to the Grand Lodge report, “an animated discussion” after the reading of the resolution. An amendment was proposed that the resolution be postponed until the next day, with 19 voting in favour and 8 against (there may have also been a number of abstentions, given the low number recorded). On the third day of the Grand Lodge the matter arose once more, and the proposer, W. H. Nunn, was defeated by a resolution from Rev. Hugh Hanna of Belfast (Roaring Hugh Hanna, as he became known) which stated that “While protesting against the action of the Government and particularly on the Disestablishment of Irish Protestantism, this Grand Lodge yet maintains it to be the duty of the Orangemen of Ireland to maintain the Legislative Union between this country and Great Britain.”

The Grand Lodge went further, supporting another resolution as well, which said that any support for Home Rule was “utterly inconsistent with the spirit of Orangeism, and we therefore condemn it.”

Realpolitik had stepped in. The Orange Establishment did not like the legislation which dis-established the Church of Ireland. But it was already becoming clear that, while the Order may not like everything emanating from London, there were potentially worse alternatives.

The fractures which existed within Orangeism did not disappear, continuing to emerge during the 19th and 20th centuries and often based on political liberalism, radicalism and labourism versus the dominant conservatism within the Order.

But the opposition to legislative union with Great Britain had largely gone, as Orangemen witnessed the rise of political nationalism combined with Roman Catholic support for Home Rule harnessed particularly by Daniel O’Connell and his movement for Repeal. O’Connell mobilised and organised Irish Catholics in a way not seen before and in a way which would lay foundations for political developments long after his death.

And while he had famously toasted Repeal with Boyne Water, attempts to re-visit the Orange opposition to the Union of 1801 were ultimately to fail…

Mary Ann McCracken and the tragedy of 1798…


DSCN4163LAST YEAR in our Radio Ulster history series The Long and the Short of It, comedian Tim McGarry and I explored the life and times of Mary Ann McCracken. Mary Ann is one of Tim’s heroines and although at the start I knew more about her slightly more famous brother, by the end of the work for the programme we had met a variety of people to talk about this extraordinary woman and I had a greater knowledge and a decided appreciation of her.


That story is, of course, wrapped up in the story of Harry, her beloved brother, better known as Henry Joy McCracken. But the story also involves other members of the family as well, for Henry’s brother William was also imprisoned with him for a time in 1797 and was involved in the same activities as his brother, while another brother John was diametrically opposed to their activities to the point where Mary Ann distrusted his motives.


The story of Mary Ann and Henry Joy is a story of Presbyterian times, of increasing middle class prosperity, of new political ideals, of radicalism fostered in Belfast and the villages and towns around. A story of a hoped for political alliance across the religious divide.


The McCrackens were a prosperous Belfast middle class family, but Presbyterians – as a rising middle class – were disadvantaged in a society which legislatively had side-lined Roman Catholics and Nonconformists. Hence the discontent and the desire to prompt change against political and social injustice.


Mary McCracken was born on the 8th of July 1770. She was the youngest but one of a large family, of whom four sons and two daughters lived to grow up, and several, including herself, attained to an advanced age. She was a delicate child, and thought to be suffering from consumption. She appears to have also been an active child and she was very fond of animals—a liking she retained to the end of her days.
Mary Ann was extremely fond of her bother Harry, or Henry Joy as was his proper name.


Henry Joy McCracken was born on August 31, 1767. He was a devout Presbyterian and one of those involved in founding the first Sunday School in Belfast and also a circulating library to encourage the habit of reading among the people and an increase in knowledge. He served his apprenticeship to the linen trade but later became a cotton manufacturer.


Henry Joy was a liberal thinker and was drawn to the movement for reform in society and to the cause of Catholic Emancipation. In 1790 he had become an intimate friend of Thomas Russell, librarian of the Linen Hall Library and a man admired too by his sister Mary Ann, although historians are divided as to whether this was an unrequited romantic admiration on her part. Russell and Henry Joy were the earliest supporters of Samuel Neilson in founding the Society of United Irishmen in Belfast in October 1791.

United Irishmen


The original aim of the United Irishmen had been to seek change through reform. However McCracken became convinced that the government would not reform and he witnessed the outworkings of this in actions against the radicals, which forced them underground.


In June 1795 McCracken was one of a small band who, having ascended to the summit of the Cave Hill, took an oath never to desist from their efforts until independence had been achieved. He had set himself on a fatal course.


McCracken had come to the attention of the authorities and on 10 October 1796 he was arrested and taken to Dublin, where he ended up in Kilmainham gaol, his brother William already being imprisoned there. After 11 months his health broke down and he was released. In February 1798, however, McCracken was back in Dublin to meet the national executive of the United Irishmen and to advocate insurrection even without the assistance of the French, as he feared that continual attrition by the authorities would disable the movement. His view that it was better to act while they still could.


Dickson suggests in his work that McCracken was quite radical and had suggested the capture of the officers of the Belfast garrison while they were attending a musical entertainment on 21 May 1798 and the holding of them as hostages. The rejection of this proposal by the Belfast leadership is believed to have had a damaging effect on morale and suggested that once the reality of revolution had emerged, some were not so keen after all.


This comes across in the decision of Robert Simms, who had been appointed Adjutant General for County Antrim, to resign his post owing to disagreement over imminent rebellion. His place was taken by McCracken. In addition he became Commander in Chief of the army. There were just six days in which to prepare.

Battle of Antrim, 1798


McCracken assembled on the morning of June 7 at Roughfort, where he led a small but growing detachment of men towards Antrim town. He had served in the Irish Volunteers and wore his Volunteer uniform, which is now in the care of the Ulster Museum. McCracken led the action at Antrim but disaster overtook the actions of the rebels and he was forced to retreat towards Donegore and then Slemish, where, among those who were in his band was James Orr, the Bard of Ballycarry.


One of Orr’s poems, The Wanderer, was about seeking shelter at Slemish and the Spartan Band did so but word reached them that the military was to seek to dislodge them, and they instead headed towards the Collin above Ballyclare. At Wee Colin, they were said to have heard the sounds of the cannons at Ballynahinch, where the United Irishmen under Henry Monroe had engaged in battle. McCracken decided to join the County Down rebels and travelled to the vicinity of Divis Mountain. But as he made his way he learned of the defeat of Monroe and briefly hoped to get south to Wexford to join the insurgents there.

Instead he remained on the Cave Hill, where his friend David Bodel gave him and others shelter. It was a far cry from the expectations which he had entertained at Roughfort on the morning of June 7.


Mary Ann went in search of her brother, something which would not have been easy amidst the furore and danger of a rebellion and a military crackdown. She found him at the Cave Hill.  The authorities were undoubtedly looking for him but he managed to evade them for three weeks, while Mary Ann sought to make arrangements for his safe departure from Belfast. A pass was procured for him using an assumed name and an arrangement was made with foreign-bound vessel to take him on board, either at Carrick or Larne. The aim was that Harry would find a new and safe life in America, which was to be refuge for so many of the 1798 participants.


McCracken and two companions, John Queery and Gavin Watt, then began the journey from the Cave Hill on July 7. The spent the night in a safe house at Greencastle and next morning set off again, McCracken wearing workman’s clothes and carrying a bag of carpenter’s tools.


Accounts now differ as to where there were when they were detected. One account says they were walking from Greencastle to the outskirts of Carrick, another that they were on the Commons above the town (which would make more sense if they were heading towards Larne).


What is not in question is that they had the misfortunate to meet some yeomen and that one of them recognised McCracken. There was an attempt made to buy their silence and also a scuffle in which a musket was disabled by Watt, who urged McCracken to run. The latter would not leave his two companions. The account of Edna Fitzhenry talks of the yeomen having halted at a public house to discuss an offer by McCracken to buy their freedom and that while three of the men were tempted, a fourth went off and returned with an officer, which ended the debate.


Mary Ann learned of his arrest on July 8, her 28th birthday. Her father was 78. When they visited her brother in his cell she noted that he had scratched a line from a poem which his mother had sent him on the Cave Hill: “A friend’s worth all the hazard we can run”.


On July 16 the prisoner was brought under heavy military escort to Belfast. He was tried there by court martial on July 17.


Before bringing the prosecution witnesses to the stand, the prosecutor, John Pollock, took Captain McCracken aside and told him he had enough evidence to hang him but that his life could be spared if he would say in whose place he had acted as Commander in Chief during the Rising. McCracken remained a man of principle.


The Prosecution was unable to persuade William Thompson, an English calico printer, to testify against his employer, while Samuel Orr, who had defected at Antrim, similarly failed to take the witness stand. But two men whom McCracken had never seen before, named Miniss and Beck, did give incriminating evidence and his fate was sealed.


The time between the sentence and the execution was extremely short – McCracken was told that he was ordered for immediate execution, something which visibly shocked him. The body was given to Mary Ann on the basis that interment must take place that evening otherwise the military would take charge of her brother’s corpse.


After failure to resuscitate Henry Joy by a surgeon which Mary had arranged, she stayed with her brother’s body while mourners filed past to pay their last respects. When the funeral procession set off to St. George’s churchyard, she was initially the only member of the family to follow the coffin, although a kindly man took her arm in his as they walked and her brother John ran after her and stayed by her side. When the first shovelful of earth fell on the coffin, she fainted, and it was John who brought her home.


Mary Ann McCracken lived into old age, dying in 1866 at the age of 96 years. She devoted the rest of her life to social reform, improving the lot of women, children and the poor. As an old woman of 88 she was to be found often at Belfast docks handing out literature opposing slavery to those emigrating to the United States.


Historians debate over whether she was a revolutionary or a reformist in her politics. In the late 1830s as Queen Victoria came to the throne, she wrote “And now a better day has dawned…in looking forty years back, and in thinking too, of those who were gone, how delighted they would have been at the political changes that have taken place – which could not possibly in their day have been anticipated, by peaceful means…”  It is likely she was thinking not of the Act of Union (although some Presbyterian rebel leaders welcomed that as well in 1800) but of two measures which had been brought about – Catholic Emancipation in 1829 and the Reform Act of 1832.




However, at an earlier stage, in 1797, a different Mary Ann McCracken appears to speak, in correspondence to her beloved brother when he was in Kilmainham jail.  She predicted in a letter to Henry Joy “If the complete Union of Ireland should demand the blood of some of her best Patriots to cement it, they will not sink (from) their duty, but meet their fate equally unappalled, whether it be on the scaffold or in the field convinced that in the end the cause of Union and of truth must prevail.”


This view was backed up by a strong faith in divine providence, expressed to her bother on the morning of his execution: “During the early part of the day, Harry and I had conversed with tranquillity on the subject of his death. We had been brought up in a firm conviction of an all-wise and over-ruling Providence, and the duty of entire resignation to the Divine will. I remarked that his death was as much a dispensation of Providence as if it had happened in the course of nature, to which he assented.”


Modern republicans would dispute that Mary Ann became a unionist, although she was henceforth involved not in revolution but in social reform. Presbyterians could point to the long established radical and reformist tradition which she represented and some would argue that, like most Presbyterians of north east Ulster, Mary Ann settled into the new political arrangements which came about with the Act of Union. Similarly some see her as a proto-feminist, an admirer of Mary Wollstonecraft, whose 1792 book A Vindication of the Rights of Women is cited by Mervyn Bragg (2006) as one of the 12 books that changed the world. Others see her as a social reformer who was interested in educating Belfast working-class girls not to be equal but to be more practical and position themselves better for their future lives, which would still be unequal. Yet there is the legacy of David Manson and his co-educational approach to be borne in mind too.


Perhaps ultimately Mary Ann is a figure of such stature that interpretation is entirely feasible. She will be remembered for her charitable works. Of her humanity there is no doubt, both in general terms and at a personal level.


After the death of her brother Rev. Steel Dickson came to Mary Ann to tell her that Harry had an illegitimate daughter, a little girl called Maria who was almost four. It is believed that her mother was Mary Bodel, whose father had sheltered McCracken on the Cave Hill. Her mother and family were assisted to emigrate to America by Mary Ann. The child had been left to the care of the McCracken family and despite initial objections from John, she was brought into the family, where she would grew to be Mary’s constant companion and a willing helper in all her charitable enterprises; Maria was a direct link to the brother she could never forget, and perhaps the child that she never had herself. In middle age Maria married William McCleery, a widower, another Belfast radical, and it was in their home that Mary Ann McCracken spent her last years.


In 1827 a Ballycarry man died in his new home in Charlottesville, Virginia. His name was John Neilson and he was personal architect to President Thomas Jefferson and designer of his famous house Monticello. John had lost his two brothers to the 1798 Rebellion, Samuel died on a prison ship and William (16) was hanged by the authorities outside his mother’s door. The family were deeply involved in the Rising. Consigned to a Plantation in the West Indies, John was freed when his ship was captured by the French and he ended up in Virginia and became an American citizen.


He had left a wife and his mother back in Antrim and for whatever reason was not reunited with the former, who is buried in Loughmorne. But before he died Neilson’s had made a request that his likeness would be taken back to Ireland to his mother. There was a circle of United Irish exiles and supporters around Jefferson in Virginia; one of the women, a lady named Leitch from Tyrone brought back the likeness across the Atlantic.


It was to be given to a women in Belfast to be taken to the Widow Nelson in Islandmagee. The woman it was handed to in Belfast was someone who would not forget any man who had stood with her brother at the Battle of Antrim. Her name? Mary Ann McCracken. One small act of kindness in a lifetime devoted to others.


The Famine is over now…but it’s no laughing matter


THE Irish Potato Famine was a cataclysmic event in history and in the psyche of Irish Catholics in particular.

The famine did not just impact on Catholics, but the areas worst affected were largely Catholic and the forced emigration to England, Scotland, Canada and the United States saw hundreds of thousands flee a land of blight and disease. There was a perception, shared by some Irish historians, that the famine afforded an opportunity for English genocide of the Irish race. I don’t subscribe to that view, but I do see evidence of indifference at best among some of those in positions to potentially make a difference.

Landlords get a bad press and it is true that there were absentee landlords interested only in getting their rent and not aware or concerned of the disaster which was unfolding on their Irish estates.

But there were also landlords who did their best to help. One used the winnings from his horse in a race to alleviate conditions for the tenants. The Leslies of Glaslough in County Monaghan were kind and supportive to their tenants, which is believed to have prevented the IRA burning down their home during the War of Independence.  The Northern Whig of May 13, 1847, reported practical efforts in the village of Ballynure, County Antrim, to assist; “In December last a few of the principle people of the district anticipating destitution arriving had entered into an agreement, assisted by their landlord, Mr. Dobbs, by these means they were able to distribute nearly five pounds weekly among those in need in the neighbourhood. A meeting had been held in the parish church as funds were running low and it was realised there was need elsewhere in the area. The meeting was chaired by Conway R. Dobbs and Edward Bruce, another landlord was also present. The tenants and landlords agreed at the meeting to an increase of five pence in the pound on the Poor Law valuation” it was reported.

Protestants died during the Famine, of course, the most significant being Lord Lurgan, whose efforts to alleviate the circumstances of those who had been brought into the town’s workhouse resulted in him dying from typhus in May 1847, a fate which had previously befallen many others at the workhouse. Unknown to any, burials of typhoid victims from the workhouse were taking place close to the water source for the workhouse well, which spread the disease with lethal effect.

In the Belfast News Letter at the start of 1847 a report appeared concerning the death of a young man who had died in the rural area of Tartaraghan near Armagh city.

The report on the inquest stated that “he and his wife and three children had existed for some months past on miserable food given to them by the farmers of the place. Four days previous to the death the whole family had nothing to eat except raw kale and turnips, without a particle or meal or any other food and further, that he died begging a drink of water. He was a young man of about 45 years of age, strong and healthy previous to this winter.” The young man was named Tomlinson according to the article.

There is supposedly a famine grave at Kilwaughter outside Larne and I remember initially doubting the providence of this some years ago as I was told by a local that it had been lined with lime. However those buried there were likely to have died of typhus, as quick lime was traditionally used to counter disease.


(The Famine Window in Belfast City Hall)

The famine was not really on my historical radar because it was never taught to us in school and as a largely prosperous agricultural area (and a largely Protestant one too) it did not seem to be part of our history. But a famine grave at Kilwaughter in the hills above Larne suggests the famine was part of the history of the area, and that while many of those who died might have been poorer Roman Catholic tenants or farming folk, typhus would not have had any religious preference.

One of the programmes which was made with Tim McGarry for BBC Radio Ulster in our ‘Long and Short of it’ series in 2014 was on the Famine in Ulster and we visited a mass grave at Friar’s Bush cemetery and another one in Newry and heard of the impact of the famine in rural Ulster and in Belfast itself, where an influx of rural poor caused problems. There are, sadly, quite a few famine graves around.

Two points come to mind. One is that as a Protestant, whether the famine was as big a thing for our community or not is really quite irrelevant. Starvation and disease were terrible catastrophes for any community. The silent famine graves should speak to us as well.

Secondly, given the magnitude of the event it seems scarcely credible that someone would really consider a comedy series about it.

Thankfully the plans by Channel Four for a ‘comedy’ series to be titled ‘Hungry’ have now been shelved. There was an online petition of more than 40,000 people and 890 direct contacts with Channel Four of what the station said were of a ‘predominantly negative’ nature. There was apparently also protest outside the company’s offices, according to reports this week.

Producing a comedy series about the famine – whether we consider it to be in the best tradition of Irish black humour or not – raises questions about how far we should go with historical representation, or indeed misrepresentation.

The so-called Famine Song (including the catchy words “The Famine is over now, why don’t you go home?”), which sensible people will see, at best, as in poor taste, is another example of a dysfunctional sense of history. It is used antagonistically towards those of a different background, is it not? I remember at the time of the infamous row over the tune being played outside St. Patrick’s Church in Donegall Street in Belfast on the Twelfth of July, the Grand Orange Lodge offices received a postcard with the message “The Plantation is over now. It’s time to go home.” The two ‘messages’ betray any lack of understanding of historical events.

But in the context of the Famine, we might as well suggest a comedy series on the Holocaust. One million people died, most of them agonising and lingering deaths. Even those who got out of Ireland were not free of the dangers of contacting disease on the famous ‘coffin ships’. At Grosse Ile in Quebec, new arrivals on the coffin ships were not allowed onto the mainland and several priests went across to minister to them, knowing that they would not be allowed back either from this quarantine island. Several thousand people died on Grosse.

The loss of life in history is a serious issue, just as it is serious in our everyday lives. We should all view history as something to understand better and respect. There are occasions when we can use humour in relation to it. This is not one of them.


A part of Ulster that was enemy territory…

Kilwaughter Castle2Kilwaughter Castle today is a shadow of its former self.

It is believed to have been designed by John Nash and was built in 1807 for Edward Jones Agnew, but the first of the family had arrived with the Normans. Philip d’Agneaux was one of 22 Norman knights who came north from Dublin with John de Courcy in 1177 and received the Lordship of Larne. An original Norman motte near the castle ruin is a reminder of the earlier presence.

The Norman presence in the area generally suffered through the Scots invasion of 1315 when Edward Bruce (ironically of the de Brus family, also Norman) arrived to seek the Lordship of Ireland. Normans such as the Mandevilles, Logans, Bissets and others set out to stop him but were routed at the Battle of Mounthill when, said the contemporary Scots poet Archdeacon John Barbour, “the fleur of Ulster fell.”

History records that an early 17th century castle was built at Kilwaughter, probably by Patrick Agnew between 1636 and 1641. This was a distinctly Scottish-styled affair, according to the Rev. Classon Porter, writing in 1900. When Nash designed the 19th century castle it was with a mind also to the Scottish style.

Kilwaughter Castle 1907The castle was home in the latter years of the 19th century to John Galt Smith, who was well known as a linen merchant on both sides of the Atlantic. His American wife Betsy was from Wilmington, Delaware, her family living at Rockwood, which is now a museum.

Betsy witnessed events at Kilwaughter, but the most significant were those that occurred during the war years and she details elements of the Home Rule for Ireland debate, noting the strong presence of the Ulster Volunteers (who were against Home Rule and became the army of the Provisional Government of Ulster) and the divided opinions of castle staff, the maidservants being unavowedly Sinn Feiners (supporting not only Home Rule but separation from Britain entirely).

Betsy’s letters have been preserved at Rockwood and some years ago a student from Delaware who was working at Rockwood spent time in Larne and the fascinating letters were shared.

On May 18, 1915, Betsy Galt Smith wrote to her friend Polly “I know nothing more harrowing than trying to comfort parents whose eldest son has gone to the front!!!! I am just home from that errand and feel thoroughly used up!!!!”

“Edward will remember Mr. and Mrs. McKeown, our Kilwaughter School Master and Mistress? Their eldest son – who will only be 18 next Sunday – left today for the 4:20 train!!! I got the word this morning so at once got a scarf and socks and went off to see him. But he had already started as he had some things to put away at his office in Larne. He is a clever boy who has a fine post at the Aluminium Works. He has joined the Royal Engineers and goes over to England tonight. He had only been gone about 20 minutes when I arrived on the scene and it was hard!!! Of course Mrs. McKeown never expects to see him again, but I spoke as encouragingly and patriotically as I could and came away leaving her – apparently – in better form.”

(As far as can ascertain, young McKeown did come home from the war, albeit no doubt a changed man…)

The Galt Smith letters are a real treasure trove of information and continue through the war years.

John Galt Smith had died in April 1899 in New York. Betsy was his second wife and he was survived by her, a son and a daughter.

During the war years Kilwaughter was also utilised as a hospital for wounded officers and some Americans were among them.

Also during the war years a death in Italy cast a die which would have fatal consequences for Kilwaughter Castle.

Count Ugo Balzani, who was married to the last of the Agnews of Kilwaughter Castle, was in his 69th year and regarded as a highly learned man, with a honorary literary degree from Oxford University. He was also a Corresponding Fellow of the British Academy. His wife was Mary Augusta Simon Agnew, who had predeceased him by a few years and the Count had not, as a consequence, been a frequent visitor to northern Ireland.

The family still owned Kilwaughter, though.

And when world war came a second time, Kilwaughter Castle was declared enemy territory by the Northern Ireland Government. Truth be told there was more of a danger from a Nazi invasion of Ulster than any threat from the Balzani family.

Kilwaughter news articleBut the declaration resulted in the castle’s decline. A Larne Times correspondent of November 2, 1940, recounted that “it gave one quite a shock a short time ago to read of a sale of furnishings at Kilwaughter Castle, Larne, by order of the Custodian of Enemy Property for Northern Ireland.”

The paper described it as an irony of fate. It also was correctly pessimistic about the future of the castle as a result of the turn of events.

It was occupied by the military during the Second World War and there were American and Belgian army camps in the area. Unoccupied after that point it was stripped of lead, fittings and other usuable materials in 1951.

Kilwaughter has had a rich and varied past. The present owners, facing, one suspects, an uphill struggle, hope for better days ahead.