Robert disappears

There is a generation of my father’s family that I have barely mentioned in these stories. His uncles and aunts.  They were born in Alexander Street in Ballymena to Robert and Eliza McWilliams between 1871 and 1884. Two of them, Thomas and James were alive when I was a youngster.

Alexander Street c 1934

Robert, my great grandfather, was born about 1821 and died in 1886.  He appears to have done a disappearing act. To have become invisible to the rest of his siblings. For whatever reason contact was lost and as a result I grew up around cousins I never recognised or knew. We had no stories of relatives that emigrated to north America, nor any from those that remained. ‘He was married twice,’ was all we ever heard about Robert. It carried an air of censure.

James, one of Robert’s brothers, had emigrated to north America in the 1850s and settled near Ottawa. Around 2007 Nancy Howard, one of James’ descendants, with her husband Robert researched their family tree.  They recorded and detailed hundreds of ‘cousins’ in North America and Ulster – many of them living in and around Ballymena. Robert’s sparse record notes his name, and the year of his birth and death. Nothing else. And none of us.

Robert married for a second time in 1867. To Elizabeth Bamber.  Lizzie was twenty-one years his junior. Both were from the rural townland of Kildowney some six miles north of Ballymena. Robert was a labourer while his father William, who died some thirty years earlier, had been a weaver. Robert’s marriage witness, Jane McWilliams, most likely a daughter from his first marriage, his new wife Lizzie and her witness Jane Craig, all signed the marriage documents with an X. They could not write.

A few years before Robert and Lizzie were married, the Ulster Revival of 1859 garnered tens of thousands of converts, mostly into the Presbyterian churches in County Antrim.  When their church could not accommodate these converts a new one was built nearby. West Church was completed in 1863, built in dressed, black basalt stone.

While you can only speculate on Robert’s first marriage and his life before it, I have a hunch that he was a convert during the fervent religious times. A reformed sinner, perhaps, with a newfound religious zeal. He certainly had a passion for his faith with its strict Sunday observance and prescribed Christian life. He expected the same from his family.

His son Hugh, my grandfather had a similar strong faith, and all of his children were believers in his Presbyterian mould.  Including my father who, as a Faith Mission preacher, spent time evangelising in Scotland and the south of Ireland. Later to become a church elder. And on to the next generation and my own upbringing in the same church, the subject of some earlier blog posts.

Robert had six children by his second marriage, Robert, Elizabeth, Thomas, Hugh, Catherine and James and in 1901 they lived on Alexander Street. Robert junior married Maggie Allen, and in the early 1900s they moved to Belfast. Hugh was the only other one to marry. Hugh was a coachbuilder and has appeared in other stories in this blog.

The other four remained unmarried. After Robert’s death around 1905, the family moved to nearby Greenvale Street. Lizzie was a flax spinner in the Braidwater Mill. Thomas was a shoemaker. Catherine was a dressmaker of some renown, although at the time of her death, she was a housekeeper. James was a cabinet maker.  My father never spoke much about his aunts and uncles, although they lived only ten minutes walk away from our home.  As far as I know, he had little contact with them.

Greenvale Street 1953 Coronation celebrations (possibly some McWilliams are in here)

There is an odd silence from their generation, from their lives.  Whether introverted or subdued, they seem to hold few surprises. There are no photographs. No stories, except of the illnesses of their later years. Only a few of Thomas’s shoemaking tools survived.

Their lives appear constrained. By their father’s puritanical influence? By the perceived sharp focus of The Saviour on their daily lives. Lives lived for the prize of eternal salvation. And later, burnished by an evolving northern Protestant culture and its insular love of our ‘wee Ulster’.

In 2020 I took a DNA genealogy test. To my surprise, I made a quick connection with the branch of Robert’s family that had emigrated to Canada in the 1850s. Robert and Nancy Howard gave me a copy of their family tree. It had hundreds of McWilliams with lots of detail. They put me in touch with cousin James McWilliams in Cullybackey. And suddenly our connection was much broader and deeper, with threads of emigration and movement that seemed to be missing.

Their research indicated that Robert had four siblings: James who emigrated to Canada, and the others, Margaret, John and Thomas who remained and married in and around Ballymena. Robert’s parents William and Martha, and grandparents, James and Margaret, were noted, all buried in the Old Graveyard in Ahoghill. And now I can add Robert and Eliza’s family, that quiet generation as I’ve described them, and on down to my grandfather’s family and those of us that come afterwards.

The DNA test would later throw up another surprise, but that’s for a later blog. The next one will include the details from this story.


Print and pdf version here.

My maternal line

This is a short blog with supplementary information relating to the last blog. First, my mother’s maternal line. For those interested, these women all carry the same mitochondrial DNA (mDNA) which only transfers along the maternal line – right back to their ‘Eve’.

Ena Davis with her grandmother Margaret Eliza Gillmor, Boihy, Dromahair, c 1925.

Jane Taylor (nee ?) 1805-1881, Co Sligo (?), married John Taylor, Clooncunny, Taunagh Parish, Riverstown, Co Sligo.

Margaret Graham (neé Taylor), 1829-1893, Clooncunny, Co Sligo, married Patrick Graham, Knockalass, Emleghfad Parish, Ballymote, Co Sligo.

Margaret Elizabeth Gillmor (neé Graham) c1864-1933, Knockalass, Co Sligo, married William Hunter Gillmor, Boihy, Dromahair, Co Leitrim.

Annie Elizabeth Davis (neé Gillmor), Boihy, Dromahair, Co Leitrim, 1889-1978,  married Richard Davis, Boggaun, Co Leitrim.

Annie Helena (Ena) McWilliams (neé Davis), Boggaun/ Larkfield, Co Leitrim, 1923-2015, married Thomas McWilliams, Ballymena, Co Antrim.


Thanks to Owen Duffy and Balymote Heritage Group for their research – ‘The Graham family of Knockalass, Co Sligo’, link here, and ‘Jane Taylor’ link here.

Thanks to Michael Farry’s for forwarding his notes on Charles Graham’s application to the Irish Grants Committee seeking reparation from the UK government. These notes detail Charles Graham’s version of crimes committed against him and his losses, some of which were made good by the UK Government. Link here.

Will of Patrick Graham, transcribed here.

Will of Jane Taylor, transcribed here.

Charles Graham’s Obituary in full, here.


The side saddle and other clues

Writing the last post, and the article ‘Richard and Annie Davis through the years of revolution.’, I tried to get a sense of how my grandparents accommodated and lived through these turbulent years. However, I missed the story of Annie’s Uncle Charles Graham from Knockalass in south County Sligo. Undoubtedly Annie, keenly aware of the tribulations of her uncle, would have been more anxious for the future when she married Richard and began a new life in the minority Protestant community at Boggaun in County Leitrim.

Margeret Elizabeth Gillmor, neé Graham, c 1900

There were clues that have taken some time to make sense of; that didn’t fully register until I had uncovered the story of Charles Graham. This helped me form a stronger sense of my grandmother, of her family roots and her sensitivities.

Firstly, a women’s side saddle sat across a rough beam in the hay loft over the cow byre – previously a single-story pre-famine cottage – at my grandparent’s farm. I discovered it as soon as I could climb the homemade ladder into the loft. I sat on its dusty dry leather, bumping my head on the rafters, pretending to be on a horse. It was a Victorian side saddle with one long curved pommel.  The rider would have been formally dressed in black, assisted up, with one leg hooked unobtrusively over the pommel. Most likely she would have sat on or walked her horse, watching a men’s fox hunt. Very few women cantered or jumped from such an awkward position.

There it sat gathering dust for as long as I can remember. A strange thing in an odd place. No doubt it had been used at some point by my Grandmother Annie, or her mother, Charles’s sister. Perhaps it also carried my Grandmother’s aspirations into her new home after her marriage. But like the farm into which her mother had married at nearby Boihy, Annie’s new home at Boggaun was on poor land on the lower slopes of a mountain. Where all was work and toil.

The farm yard was full of men’s work and busyness. Muck and cow dung. The stable, opposite the back door of the farmhouse, had wall hooks for the collars, hames, traces – the harness of working horses. Nothing about that dark place with its two nose bins suggested riding for pleasure. The side saddle had been elevated to the loft.

My grandmother’s mother Margaret Elizabeth Graham was born and raised at Knockalass near Bunnaddaden in south County Sligo. Her father Patrick had by the mid-1800s built the house and established a significant road-making business.  Charles, his 19-year-old son was forced to return home from a Sligo school with a serious illness. An illness that thwarted his wish to become an Anglican Minister. On his return, Charles first opened a loan office. And later a grocery and hardware shop, and traded as an agricultural merchant. The rural business thrived.

Graham house at Knockalass, Co Sligo c 1966. Owned by Brennan family.

While theirs was not a big house, they were relatively wealthy. One servant lived in a house built for him on the property. Charles, who never married, regularly had family members staying with him; cousins, nephews and nieces who helped out in the business. There was money to lay out gardens and later a tennis court. It was the sort of place where you would expect to see a woman riding side-saddle for pleasure, watching the men hunt.

Charles was a very public Unionist. He campaigned against any suggestion of Home Rule and against the dwindling privileges of the ruling Protestant Ascendancy and Protestants generally. This brought him to the attention of revolutionaries some years later. As a large cattle grazer, he was first targeted by Land League activists and was forced to break up and sell some of his landholdings.

Secondly, there were a number of clues as to my Grandmother’s strong Unionists sentiments. Clues that now point to her mother and uncle, and her Knockalass family.  Annie’s husband Richard, and later her children were much more relaxed in their expressions of Unionism.

Annie had railed against the defacer of the portrait of Queen Elizabeth II on a rusty coronation tea caddy; one that had been discarded to the stable to hold nails. Some hired man, she suspected – alluding to some undercurrent I knew nothing of. And her nightly tut-tuts and harrumphs as we were absorbed by the various RTE tv commentaries and dramas around the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising. Her expressions of disapproval now seem more like the tip of an iceberg.

Annie Davis neé Gillmor at Larkfield, Boggaun, c 1950

Her Uncle Charles’s tribulations during the War of Independence are well summarised in Michael Farry’s book, Sligo: The Irish Revolution 1912-1923.

“Charles Graham, Knockalass, was a Protestant shopkeeper and farmer, owner of over 200 acres. He had been the victim of continual persecution from 1920 and his business was boycotted from October 1921. His shop was looted by masked and armed men on at least four occasions in 1922 and twice in early 1923. He closed down his premises in December 1922. In October 1921 he was arrested by the IRA and taken to a camp where he was ‘court-martialled’ and charged with refusing to resign his commission of the peace, of having spoken against Home Rule ten years previously and of having brought civil proceedings in a British court for debts due. He was held for three days until a fine of £200 was paid. He remained in the area and reopened his shop after the Civil War.”

Charles Grahams Obituary in the Sligo Champion of 25th January 1930 was more guarded:


The late Mr. Graham was one of the best-known and most respected men in South Sligo, and although he had reached the age of 79 years, his death is deeply and widely deplored.

Although he lived in a Roman Catholic district, his different religion proved to be no bar to the friendship of his neighbours or those who knew him, as was shown by the large number of people numbered among his regular guests. On Mr. Graham’s tennis court were to be found clergymen of all denominations, students of Trinity and Maynooth, as well as business men, solicitors and bankers from Bunninadden, and thesurrounding towns. On August 3rd , 1923, he was presented with an illuminated address by the Roman Catholic clergy and laity of the parish, an act of friendliness and kindness which he deeply appreciated. The address he highly valued up to the end of his life, and it is now highly valued by his successors.”

While Annie and Richard settled into married life at the Boggaun farm, or Larkfield as Annie preferred to call it, her Uncle’s tribulations must have regularly come to her mind. Did she encourage Richard to become involved in a cattle shipping business? A venture that would, within a few years, almost bankrupt the family. With the War of Independence raging throughout the island, I’m sure there were days in the early years of their marriage when, to Annie, the family’s prospects in an evolving Ireland looked less than rosy.



Michael Farry,  Sligo: The Irish Revolution 1912-1923. Chapter 9, Sligo Protestants after the Revolution.

Thanks to Owen Duffy and Ballymote Heritage Group for their research ‘The Graham family of Knockalass’ and ‘Jane Taylor’ This will be summarised in a future blog post.

THE PROTESTANT COMMUNITY IN SLIGO, 1914-1949, by Patrick Deignan, M.A., H.D.E. Thises for PhD 2008 Maynooth University.

PDF version here.

Richard and Annie Davis through Years of Revolution.

A Protestant family living Boggaun, County Leitrim.

First, to take a look back at the family’s roots.  My grandfather’s oral family history puts his Davis family coming from County Antrim in the late seventeen hundreds. Preceding this, it is assumed that they came from Scotland as part of the Ulster Plantation when the first colonists arrived from the first decade of the sixteen hundreds onwards. Richard’s story tells of a family dispute over the inheritance of an ‘unnatural’ son. This is possibly Richard’s grandfather.

(Richard’s words as noted by a historian – family from Antrim in North Ireland, had lots of property, illegitimate, could have fought for the property but stood to lose all. Grand Uncle pulled yoke (?) from sled (?) to stop brother from getting to partner – this is certainly a story of passion and family intrigue. Added for blog by SMcW.)

At this time, favourable leases in Glenboy, County Leitrim, were advertised in the northern newspapers hoping to attract those with various linen-making skills. This was part of the landlord Nathaniel Clement’s plan to establish a ‘linen colony’ at Glenboy outside Manorhamilton. However, his plan never matured, leaving Glenboy the rural townland that it is today, although traces and remains of the mills can easily be found.

The first known record of the linen scheme appeared in an advert in the Belfast Newsletter in March 1768 for the letting of a bleach mill, weaver’s houses and workshop looms at Glenboy. As in other development of the time, there was an intention of ‘protestantising’ the development. 

One of the first leases issued was to run the mill. This was taken up by the Robinson brothers from County Down. It seems likely that a favourable lease at Glenboy would have attracted the ‘unnatural’ disaffected Davis son to move into the area.

Comparing mid-nineteenth century Griffith’s Valuation records of family names to those living there today, it appears that, while the linen industry never took off, many of the ‘linen families’ stayed. John Davis is listed in Griffith’s Valuation as having just over eighteen acres at Glenboy, at the location known to be my great grandfather’s birthplace.

Continues in full article here.


Note: A longer piece on the Glenboy Linen Colony is in this unpublished article by Barry Bradfield, 2014, here.

Moving On, Part 2

I have been crossing the Border in Ireland for as long as I can remember. Back and forward many times each year. It divided our family: my mother from north Leitrim and my father from mid-Antrim. Separated my home from my grandparent’s farm. Places I loved. Early crossings were marked by the tension of an Irish Customs inspection, of car and baggage. Pass, and you got into the Free State. Fail, and you returned to the North to offload the contraband. A pound of butter? Later the frontier was marked by police and army checkpoints, with high green security sheeting that became unremarkable.

An early satellite image of Ireland and Britain (Wikipedia)

In Derry I discovered the Border again, harder and more fortified. It’s close to the City. Cuts it off from a large part of its historical and cultural hinterland. The few roads out to Donegal were heavily militarised, gated security checkpoints. Elsewhere along the arc of territory that was incorporated into Northern Ireland was a network of blockaded side roads. I ran, walked and cycled over many of these unauthorised cratered crossing points. Areas that were regularly patrolled and observed by the Army. Fields on either side often became grim places with a sense of no-man’s-land; abandoned cars and machinery, dumped waste, and sometimes bodies.

The reality for those who live around political Borders is that they divide us. They are a hindrance to the ebb and flow of our daily lives.  We work around them as we can. Living on the Donegal Derry Border is no different. And worse, this hundred-year-old Border remains a fudged Imperial solution that institutionalised sectarianism, difference.

In the early nineteen eighties, we had been living in Muff for about two years; a small village right on the Border. Daily trips to Derry meant going through the permanent checkpoint at Culmore.   Mostly this was routine with little delay. However, one evening was more memorable. On my way to a Derry meeting of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, better known as CND. I was pulled over, probably at random, and questioned by two soldiers.  One, a tall young man with a South of England accent. He held a clipboard. After the usual boot-and-bonnet search, he began to ask familiar questions in a friendly but formal tone. The other was shorter and I recognised him as a member of the Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR).  

‘Where are you coming from, Sir?’ the English soldier asked.

‘Muff,’ I replied swiftly, wanting to get along.

‘Place of birth?’

‘Ballymena.’ The answer written down on his clipboard.

‘How long have you lived there, Sir? In Muff?’ the UDR man asks in a mid-Antrim accent very similar to my own. I turned to him and answered that it’s been a couple of years.

‘Is this your car?’ the English voice again.

‘Yes, it is.’

‘You like it there? In Muff? Sir?’ The Antrim man again, adding emphasis on the ‘sir’. I switched my attention.

‘I do, yes.’

‘Date of birth, please?’  the Englishman asks, who’s given the answer he wants, and follows up with, ‘And where are you going to?’

‘A CND meeting in Derry.’ I replied and he wrote that down.

‘A CND meeting. What’s that, sir?’  I turn to the UDR man and explained what it is – a campaign aimed at removing the threat of nuclear weapons.

‘Thank You. You can go now.’ The English soldier told me after I gave him the address of my destination.

‘Is it a large group then, sir? CND?’ The Antrim accent continued, getting sharper with each question.  I answered that it was fairly small.

‘You can go now, Sir.’ I looked again to the English voice and nod.

‘Does your country have nuclear weapons? Sir?

And I really didn’t know. Does my country have nuclear weapons? My country? Muff? Antrim? What was my country?  Where did I belong? Had my Antrim mates come to get me back? Northern Ireland, UK, or the Republic of Ireland?

‘No.’ was all I said eventually. He flicked his head for me to leave; my fellow Antrim-man seeming happy at some achievement I couldn’t figure. And to a degree, I still remain confused by that question. At having to decide between one and the other. Of course, we can claim multiple identities, and I do. We have multiple identities. Yet the circumstances on the Border that night demanded a singular choice.

On a slightly different note, the best Border, and train song I’ve come across is one by Kevin Doherty on All Aboard, a track from his album Strange Weather. Enjoy the carriage-swaying rhythm and the sharp lyrics, as the train makes its way from Buncrana to Derry, across the Border. I caught a live version many years ago in Buncrana, where we now live. That night the train rolled on and on, past the Border, past Derry. Superb.

All Aboard, Kevin Doherty

“We’re heading South… to the North

You can keep your East you can keep your West

It’s the North and South that I like best

We’re heading South

To the Border, Why always a Border?

Why always a border?”


Strange Weather, Kevin Doherty is available on CD and on some online platforms, link here.

Print and pdf version here.

Moving On, Part 1

Six years living away from Northern Ireland, I decided to come home, to Ireland. To live on the island of my birth. Reconnect. To touch places and communities familiar and unfamiliar. Derry was a good place to start when I was offered a job there in 1978.

During my time as a volunteer in the British Solomon Islands Protectorate, living on local wages, I had hoped to make a small contribution to a country on the verge of independence; I carried the notion that perhaps I could do the same on my return. It came as a surprise that a group in the City had fundraised for my project in the distant Western Pacific.  Meeting them was my first contact with Derry.

A detail from Bishop’s Gate on Derry’s Walls (Wikipedia)

The City was in effect in the middle of a war. The Troubles. Deaths had peaked in the early years of the decade, yet in the late seventies, there were still around one hundred fatalities each year. The widespread relief across all communities at the signing of the Good Friday Agreement was twenty years away.

I lived on the west bank of the City, mostly Catholic and broadly republican. I enjoyed the music and social scene. Dated girlfriends. Met friends in bars. The place was alive with political debate. Among my friends, there was a sense that change was always possible. Actually inevitable. That it would get better for everyone.

A few things came as a shock. I’d never seen a city get its foreheads darkened with ash, on Ash Wednesday. Never. I’d never stood for The Soldier’s Song. Beside young men upright to attention. The a.m. disco beat just faded, the room bristling. Never.

I settled in and went about my work as best I could. It was a new project that sought to improve understanding and action around issues of global inequality and poverty. I worked in schools and with community groups. Catholic schools were generally more sympathetic to reducing inequality. Protestant ones often suspicious of action for change. It was a challenge.

There were high levels of poverty across the City. The Catholic population seethed with resentment against past and present discrimination. I knew this but had never really come face to face with it. The gerrymandering of housing allocation had stopped. The City Council had begun to reflect a more democratic voice. Though I didn’t need to look far to see that sectarianism was alive and kicking. The new Ulster University had been sited in green fields outside Coleraine rather than at the obvious location at Magee College in Derry. A decision cloaked in secrecy.  The understandable anger initially shocked me.

Suspicions abounded in the security-conscious City. Who was who? A Ballymena prod wandering in and out of the Bogside Community Association, where I was generously offered admin support, must have raised an eyebrow, a question asked. I had my list of trusted friends and community contacts at the ready, though it was never needed.

I had the good luck to have an office in 45 Clarendon Street; a Victorian red-bricked terrace. The building housed four or five community projects, no one knew for sure how many. In my spare time that first year, I delivered a local magazine, Community Mirror; getting to know the geography of the City’s communities. The sweep of the river, its hills and tight old streets. Discovering elevated viewpoints where the visitors looked in awe. The last walled City built in Europe. Walls again used for defence.

The small office on the first floor had a beautiful large oak desk. It had been used previously by Paddy Doherty – Paddy ‘Bogside’ as he was known. Often, sticking his head around the door to enquire how I was settling in, he would point to the desk, ‘My desk,’ he would remind me, ‘I’ll want it back,’ he said in a tone of parental authority, one Paddy was noted for.

Derry took on a facade of normality. Yet gaping holes in city centre streets and the numerous screened security locations with tall camera towers told another story. You quickly became blind to much of this. To the visitor the place looked grim. A night-time bomb would send a hollow boom across the river leaving an eerie silence, a heartbeat stalled. Then at the next dawn you woke with the City, got up and got on with it.

The music scene was alive with rock and punk bands. The Undertones got Teenage Kicks and The Casba rocked. The Casba Bar that is; its floor and tables swayed as we pogo-danced, bunched in the small bar just outside the City’s walls.

People I was aquainted with were killed by one group or another, others lost loved ones in Bloody Sunday’s carnage, others damaged by the overarching violence and trauma. It’s a terrible picture, its detail sharpening with time.

Some years earlier at the height of the Troubles, while living at home in Ballymena, I jumped at the chance of escaping the bloody insides of a small chicken factory to drive a regular delivery run to Belfast. Dropping off boxes of chickens all across the city. Winding through street barricades and checkpoints, past burnt-out cars, changing routes around ‘ongoing incidents’. The old Transit liable to backfire, potentially lethal if it happened in the wrong place. I don’t ever recall mentioning any of this back home. These were regular working days.

Travelling with a friend one Friday night on our way from Derry to Ballymena, we were stopped at an army checkpoint a few miles north of the town.  On the dark roadside, we answered their questions, but on the request for our date of birth, we tried the ‘I’m-not-legally-obliged-to-give-you-that’ answer. A term that was legally correct, if uncooperative. As the minutes past the repeated questioning took on an edge. I was pushed back against the car and told, with a rifle on my chest and the soldier’s breath on my face, that he could spend all f******* night at this game. Our choice. They weren’t going anywhere. We gave them our dates of birth and went our way.  Chastened. Raised in an entirely Protestant community I had no experience of this type of policing with its edge or threat, though it was common for many on a daily basis. And this was relatively mild.

A year after arriving in Derry I met Berenice in Dublin. Two years later, on a journey that took us over a pot-holed road to a ‘mixed’ marriage, we were looking for somewhere to live in Donegal. Not Derry. Across the border in Donegal.

Concludes in Part 2

A note here on my use of Derry as opposed to Londonderry or L/Derry. Growing up in Unionist Ballymena in the 1960’s I recall it always being referred to as Derry. Whether in conversation or referring to the Apprentice Boys of Derry, or the Derry Feis where my father had sung as a child. Later political agencies started to use the more formal Londonderry to further the case of the City’s Unionist and Protestant roots and allegiances. I don’t recall this use in our family. So, I’ve stuck to what I’m most familiar with.

Print and pdf version here.

Where’s this going?

I’ve been writing these blogs for the past three years. It has been a journey of discovery. I’ve uncovered lives, connections and stories that I never imagined. It’s part family and social history, and part memoir. But where are they going? I plan to collate and edit them into a form that might make them suitable for publication. There are a few more I have already drafted, but I see an end in sight. Looking through the blogs some highlights jump out.

Martha McWilliams, back left with her Logan cousin in front, Ballymena 1934.

The pieces collectively sketch the overarching story of my maternal and paternal families from a few generations after the Plantation of Ulster.  Themes of religion, emigration, farming, and Orange activism stand out.

There was the discovery of my McWilliams great grandparent’s connection to the religious Ulster Revival of 1857 and the generational echo down to my own church upbringing. And on my mother’s side, the Davis family had a challenging transition from late nineteen century Orange Unionism to active participants in an Independent Ireland.

There has been a rich mosaic of stories from the generation of my maternal grandfather, Richard Davis, the siblings born between 1861 to 1882:  of brothers James and Robert and their army service; of William and his emigration to join the South African police force; of John and his bumpy journey from his Leitrim roots to County Meath; of Thomas’s emigration to Toronto, followed by his Dromahair sweetheart Minnie Gillmor, their marriage and his transition from house painter to real estate businessman; and of putting some colour on the undoubtedly strong, yet almost invisible character of Mary Jane, Richard’s only sister; and of Richard himself, his challenging fortunes and the impact on his family’s lives. And added to that of Herbert Gillmor, Richard’s brother-in-law, through his numerous near-death experiences in World War One, to emigration and a colourful farming life and tragic death in Goodfare, northern Alberta.

Through these stories I’ve discovered many relations, cousins I’ll call them all. For example, Clive and Cedrick Davis in South Africa, the McWilliams cousins noted below and Davis cousins in Alberta and the U.S.

A recent genealogical DNA test I took turned up McWilliams cousins in Canada and the U.S. ‘Do you know your Cullybackey cousins?’ they asked. No. For some reason, we had very little connection with wider family members. The initial contact was with the DNA of Willard McWilliams and his family outside Ottawa in Canada. Similar to some members of the Davis family, they had emigrated from Ireland around the 1850s, to settle on the Trim Road, Navan, Ontario, where they are today. Their family’s thorough genealogical research traces our roots back to my great great great grandparents, James and Margaret McWilliams both buried around 1817 in the Old Cemetery in Ahoghill.  That puts their births around the middle of the 1700s. There are more stories to come here, I think. One possibly tracing the McWilliams North Antrim roots back to Scottish planters drawn into North Antrim in the early 1600s by Randall MacSorley MacDonnell at Dunluce. (Any additional DNA by Davis or McWilliams family members would help deliver better results here. Volunteers? I used the genealogical specific site Family Tree DNA who have links to the North of Ireland Family History Society  and  There are links to DNA testing and results at NIFHS. )

An early discovery was the contribution of my mother, her sister and her brother to The Schools Collection, a 1937 compilation of folklore by National School children. Their school books are part of this collection which resides in the National Archive of Ireland.

In some cases where the lives of distant relatives have been faint or near invisible, I’ve enjoyed bringing a few of them to life with a certain amount of creative licence.

I followed another Davis family who settled at Lurganboy near Manorhamilton during the 18th century, thinking that they might have been related to the Davis families from Glenboy and Boggaun. It appears that they have no connection and their family trajectory is very different. The Lurganboy story tells of their nineteen-century movement into the professions and commerce in Ascendancy Ireland. One family member, Thomas, was MD at the workhouse in Manorhamilton and then at Derry where he died and is buried. His legally-trained brother, R.E. Davis was, for many years, Secretary to the Sligo Leitrim Northern Counties Railway Company. Their story is worth writing up at some stage.

There will be a few more blogs before this series of stories comes to a close. However, if the experience of writing them over the past three years is anything to go by, I expect another new twist at any moment. The photograph above was posted on a website by June Norton, a cousin, a few days ago.


Print and pdf version here.

Join us

The church was empty when I pulled open the heavy two-way vestibule door one evening in late summer. The sun beamed obliquely through the tall plain frosted glass windows, casting long shafts of sunlight across the empty pews, the front of the church in shadow. The raised central pulpit was set in a stage of blue deep-pile carpet, its only decoration, carved in a wooden relief, the Old Testament’s burning bush. It was six years since I had been there yet the place resonated strongly with me. The deep shuffling groan as the Sunday morning worshippers stood to sing. Not an empty seat. Rows of chairs brought in along the ground floor aisles.  A bold choir swamped by the congregation’s massed voices, swelling in praise.  

Wellington Street Persbyterian Church (Congregation moved in 2010 to a new location)

To the right of the pulpit, a solid oak door stood ajar; the Committee Room where I had arranged to meet the Reverend G.

I had left Ballymena not long after my twenty birthday. Spent three years as a student in London before going to the Solomon Islands in the tropical Western Pacific as a UNA volunteer. For most of that later three years I lived and worked in a Melanesian culture, learning the Pidgin language, making long-lasting friendships and contributing in a small way to an island country on the verge of independence. Taking cash instead of a return air ticket I travelled home by a long and complex overland route through Papua New Guinea, Indonesia, Thailand, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Turkey and across Europe. The Troubles continued to rage when I was away. If I thought I was more aware and knowledgeable on my return, I was still confused by it all in equal measure.

Living back home while I figured out my next steps, it wasn’t too long before I got a phone call from the Reverend G.  I was surprised – my church experience then seemed so distant, I wasn’t part of it, or any organised religion anymore. Yet I wasn’t really surprised – the church needed new blood and given my family background, I was an obvious candidate. My mother had often told me that I would make a good Minister. But I never had any passion for the role or the message.

I agreed to meet the Reverend G in the church the following week. And as I put the phone down, I could hear myself agreeing to his further requests. I needed a plan. Maybe this was how my father had become to be a church elder: don’t fight the inevitable, take the easy route. And so, I thought about how I would respond. Turned it over in my head a few times. And wrote it down.  I knew I wouldn’t be taking up his offer. But I had to do this face-to-face.

The Reverend G was an authority figure to my father. And to the family. Like in most Irish homes the Minister or Priest’s visit brought out the good china and plates.  As we grew older, we knew to clear out of the house on these occasions. If caught there you were expected, at least, to pray with him before he left.  At the time we saw it as adult’s business.

“When Tom retired and went over to the other side …” The Reverend G said years later, when leading my father’s funeral service in Coleraine, before the long journey to his burial in Dromahair, County Leitrim. In Northern Ireland the term ‘the other side’ is redolent with meaning – often inferring threat or danger.

My parents had moved from Ballymena to Dromahair, near my mother’s home, after they retired.  There, daddy could enjoy a cigarette and a drink beyond the judging eyes of his religious and family peers. In his Ballymena community and church, partaking in tobacco and alcohol was considered sinful and would bring its opprobrium, particularly so for a church elder. (‘Let me smell yurr breath!” Ian Paisley was often heard to roar at journalists, sniffing for signs of the ‘Devil’s Buttermilk’)

When I went to meet the Reverend G I was tanned with a head of curly sun-bleached hair and a tight beard. I drove a couple of miles to meet him in a casual top and jeans. I was confident and prepared. That was, until my soft shoes squeaked on the aisle’s shiny linoleum. I should have met him somewhere different, a neutral venue. I looked at the upper gallery and the seats where I used to sit with friends, Sunday after Sunday. I’m a teenager again, standing beside my father on a Sunday evening. The church half full. His rich tenor voice filling the space around us, never seeming happier.

I knocked and pushed open the heavy door.  He was sitting one leg across the other reading his Bible, my chair beside him. Behind him a large oval boardroom table.

The Reverend G was a physically impressive man, particularly when preaching from the pulpit in his ermine-collared gown. He had a mop of dark curly hair atop his round open friendly face. The wealthy congregation looked after its minister well, and he had no ‘calling’ to go elsewhere. His sermons tended to reflect his more liberal, socially aware version of Presbyterianism. Yet he saw the trickle of church members starting to drift off to Ian Paisley’s fierier and more evangelical Free Presbyterian Church.  

“Hello. Good to see you again!” He said rising from the chair, smiling, extending an open hand. Not like the village preachers in the Solomon Islands in their colourful T-shirts and shorts, I thought, his sombre grey suit and collar. “I heard that you were back and wanted to have a chat. How are you? Have you settled?”

“Thanks. I’m very well, but I can’t say I’m settled. ‘Not even sure I want to either, you get a great buzz from travelling,” I replied, and we exchanged some conversation about my volunteer work and the experience of being abroad.  He talked about the challenges of being a church leader amid The Troubles, of trying to keep everyone onside.

“But I didn’t ask you here to talk about that. You have probably guessed. We need new blood in the Church. You were very involved when you were last here; a leader in the BB and the youth club. And your Dad is a stalwart elder. We need young people like you for a thriving church community. Have you given any thought to becoming a full member? Of getting fully involved? We have prayed for it. The elders too. I think it is God’s will that you give your life to Jesus in this way.”

“Yes, I thought you would ask me that.” I said hiding my unease best I could. “Since I’ve left I’ve made many friend’s. Some of different religions, some of none. Some are Buddhists, some Animists. Yet they are as ‘Christian’ as we are – in the way they live their lives. In the way they treat each other. Treated me.  Where do they fit into this Church? Are they welcome as they are? Can they become church members without giving up who they are? I want to be part of something that includes them, doesn’t put them on the outside.  They live rich and full lives. They are good people.  If I can’t bring them with me, then I’m not really interested.” There I’d said it, unsure if it came out right or coherently, but it was done.

“I understand completely. I do.” He replied. And I believed him. “But …”

I don’t recall the rest of the conversation. A few minutes later he wound up with a prayer. Nor do I remember exactly how we left it. But a few minutes later I was on the street, breathing deeply into the warm air of a summer evening and making plans.

Shortly afterwards I moved to Belfast to take up voluntary community work. But before leaving I had heard of a job coming up in development education in Derry. To my surprise, the originators of this new project had supported my UNA work in the Solomon Islands and knew I was back home. I was bound for Derry and the North West.


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You Have My Ear

I was brought up very strict. Presbyterian strict.  Almost daily church activities became part of the amalgam of who you were then. You’re unaware of any other way of being. But teenage years bring change. It can go any way. The eldest gets it hardest, I say. No sibling examples to follow, or scoot around.

I was going to church two to three times on Sundays then. At the church’s Boys Brigade and youth club four times a week. Enjoying most of it: camping out on the Antrim Hills in summer, weekends away, helping out on social schemes, a winter full of activities and a Saturday evening trip to an indoor pool in Portrush.

A still from the video that accompanied the released of A Whiter Shade of Pale

On Sundays wearing a suit I never liked, never wearing it out. I couldn’t say it was against my will. I was the fourth generation steeped in that church and its Ulster Revivalist traditions. Following my father, a church Elder and ex-missionary. Once or twice year hellfire preachers were brought in to get our souls over the blessed line. These were uncomfortable occasions, feeling the heat of God’s stare on you. There in your seat. To be told that maybe this could be the last offer of salvation. Feelings of relief, then guilt as a decision was fudged again. By mid-teens, the world of Princess Street, Ballymena and our church was beginning to feel claustrophobic. I sensed a bigger place elsewhere. Sensed change.

A couple of years later with a group of friends, we started to skip Sunday morning service. We would be at the tail end of the crowd going into the church – the meeting house the early Presbyterians called them – then we’d turn sharply and walk off up the empty street. We had about an hour and a half to ourselves and headed for the People’s Park, walking its many paths and messing about.  One or two always offering stories of recent exploits with girlfriends, different to the ones they’d told in church weeks before. Our return would seamlessly join the worshippers leaving the church and looking forward to their Sunday dinner. Morning service was always full. No one ever noticed a half dozen missing souls. Not daddy anyway. And the subject of the sermon never came up at Sunday lunch. Though I strongly suspect that six young fellas in suits strolling the quiet Sunday morning streets was a giveaway.

Before that came music. And girls. But music started it, with Procol Harum’s Whiter Shade of Pale. I was fifteen, hormones starting to surge. It was the number one hit all summer long. Playing on the radio. In shops and cafes. It drifted through open doors onto the sunny streets. Played over the Tannoy at the agricultural showgrounds on show day, over the preened cattle and shiny new-model tractors. The sound of the churchy Hammond organ and the cryptic lyrics wrapped me in pleasure and hope.  The Summer of Love, they called it later. And it was one of those innocent summers before all hell broke loose.

I had no idea what the song’s words meant. It didn’t matter. The song painted my imagination in colours that wouldn’t fade.  The images were brighter and fresher than the repetition of Bible stories that reduced them to doom-laden prophecies.  Perhaps the organ made it instantly familiar. There were snippets of the lyrics I knew. They created images that were gossamer yet sharp, evocative yet ambiguous, heavenly yet earthy. The familiar chorus. The organ lifts and surges. I’m gone. 

And so it was that later
As the miller told his tale
That her face, at first just ghostly
Turned a whiter shade of pale

We skipped the light fandango
Turned cartwheels ‘cross the floor …

As the ceiling flew away …

She said “there is no reason”
And the truth is plain to see …

One of sixteen vestal virgins
Who were leaving for the coast …

And so it was that later
As the miller told his tale
That her face, at first just ghostly
Turned a whiter shade of pale

Turned a whiter shade of pale

If the song opened a window on an alluring world, it also started a struggle between my conscience and my increasing secular self that would see-saw on for years.  For a while, in late teens, this seemed relentless. The squabbling would eventually quieten, but would take years to go away. In our faith, it’s a personal crusade. It’s my battle with the Devil in all his forms. An internal battle for the most part. That is until you win out and proclaim that you are ‘saved’, or don’t and remain beguiled by Satan. There’s no middle way. It’s stark, God or the Devil. The first line of our BB anthem goes ‘Onward Christian soldiers, marching as to war.’  Despite all, I was beginning to turn my back on that march and move in another direction.

That year was peppered with great songs: The Monkees’ I’m a Believer, The Beatles’ Strawberry Fields, The Stones’ Ruby Tuesday, Scott McKenzie’s San Francisco, Pink Floyd’s See Emily Play, Jackie Wilson’s Your Love, Jimmy Hendrix’s Hey Joe, and that’s not half of them.  They all helped colour my world, and lift the grey skies of Ulster.  But it was a Whiter Shade of Pale that for me marked a beginning. To Gary Brooker and Procol Harum, thank you.


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Four sisters, three aunts – Part 2

Before we were old enough to go to Sunday school Martha and Lily read us Bible stories from colourful picture books. God’s Heaven with white-winged angels for the saved, the horned Devil stoking his fires for sinners. And always, God watching you, knowing what you were thinking and doing. While the Ten Commandments were beyond us then, we were gathering a list of sins. And quickly got a sense of how simple it was to err under God’s eye:  disobedience, fibbing, fighting. Other more serious ones were later added: stealing, cursing, playing with the Devil’s cards, gambling, smoking, the list got longer. They taught us the Lord’s Prayer; although its nightly refrain never settled in our own house.

Lily, mother Lizzie, cousin Peggy, Jean and their Aunt May, Stranmillis, Belfast
c 1950.

We spent some Sundays there too, flat inside days. No playing or laughter outside. A day for church and bible study.  Maybe ‘Songs of Praise’ on TV. To Martha and Lily at that time, life appeared full of danger and risk. When hunger drove us back from the field red-faced, panting hard, with scrapes and the odd bruise we would hear dire warnings that our ‘hearts might burst’. One that I particularly remember was being told that so-and-so ‘got blood poisoning from a rusty nail, and watched a poison move up his arm, into his heart and killed him.’ Ferocious cleaning with splashes of Dettol would follow. Inside the house there was danger too, ‘You’re sitting too close to the fire, you’ll melt like a jelly baby.’ And one that frightened me at first, after I swallowed chewing gum, ‘That dirty gum it’ll stick to your insides, and everything will stop working.’

While much of this apprehension must have been related to Lily’s early diagnosis of heart disease, the impact of the failure of their father’s coachbuilding business must also have come to bear. In later years he was said to be painfully shy, almost a recluse. My father too had an aversion to risk, unlike my mother, and was happy to let life run smoothly with no appetite for change as long as problems stayed away from his door.

Over time the influence of Martha and Lily’s cautious natures was offset by experiences elsewhere. Particularly so at our grandparents’ farmhouse in County Leitrim. Here farm life was a more basic struggle against the forces of nature; more precarious, with some level of jeopardy part of daily life.  From a young age, we were regularly called upon to help with some farm job or other.

Halfway through my time at primary school, Martha opened a small shop on High Street. She had for some years been an agent for Kays mail-order catalogue, garnering sales from friends and neighbours. The shop sold biscuits, sweets and some basic foodstuffs. It was next to the family’s first home and her father’s coachbuilding workshop. For two years it was on my route home from school, and a welcome stop. Martha was generous with sweet treats.  

After about ten years of shopkeeping, she applied to be postmistress of the new post office in the Ballykeel estate. There was spare floor space for a shop as well. She sold babies and children’s clothes this time.  Martha’s sister Jean and my mother soon became involved. Small in stature, Martha didn’t lack grit and resilience and in time appeared to throw off any effects of her father’s timidness. She clearly was a good bookkeeper and had enough business acumen to keep both enterprises running through difficult years. During the Troubles, the post office was raided by gunmen a couple of times, but she kept going. Martha had a wicked laugh, often in response to something that went against her religious instincts.

The sisters were happy in Ballymena and had little desire to travel. The Free State was a foreign and distant place. And I am not sure if they ever understood, or even forgave, their brother for marrying a woman from County Leitrim. While my mother was a member of the Protestant Church of Ireland, among Ballymena Presbyterians the church appeared closer to the ‘Church of Rome’ than to their own faith.

Over the past couple of years, while I have been writing these pieces on my families in County Antrim and County Leitrim, I have been struck by different patterns that appear across several generations. Patterns that influenced individual lives and their journeys. In Leitrim, as part of a Protestant minority, there appeared a restlessness, a hunger for something different, whether through emigration, ambition or simply expanding their farms. In Ballymena, by contrast, there was apparent contentment in lives dominated by strong religious belief and practice; where there was no desire to look too far beyond their own place, happy in their trades and with their lot.


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