An Introduction

This is a series of writings inspired by my ancestors, their families and their imagined lives – Stan McWilliams.

Ena, Cecil, Phyllis, Herbie, Wallace, Annie, Alf, Reco and Jack (John) Davis

My mother Ena, was a Davis from County Leitrim and my father Thomas was a McWilliams from Co Antrim. The stark contrast between my mother’s origins in north County Leitrim and my father’s in Ballymena, in mid Antrim, where I was raised, has always seemed like a fault line: one county agriculturally and economically poor and the other rich and productive; one predominantly Roman Catholic and culturally Irish and the other predominantly Ulster Scots and Presbyterian; one looking to Dublin and the other more commonly “across the water”; the Leitrim farm house with no plumbing and a small outside toilet and our modest Ballymena home with plumbing and inside toilets. Both families were Protestant but of very different sorts. Trying to come to terms with these apparent opposites has been challenging but ultimately enlightening.

My early memories are hazy but it is there I start; they are not much help in clarifying the bigger picture of where I have come from. Faded sepia pictures of unknown men and women on walls around the Larkfield farm house, a mouldy leather side-saddle in the hayloft over the cow byre, fragments of hushed night time conversations not meant for my ears. The latter as I recall, sitting on my grandfather’s knee by a large open turf fire just before my bedtime, a black kettle steaming on the crook, the simple room lit by a soft glow from a single oil lamp. It is the barely-seen and half-heard that hooks our attention; the shapes and voices in the shadows of memory. And so now I want to know; who are these sepia strangers, what was a side saddle doing on a Leitrim hill farm, and who whispered what, and about whom?

My Granny Davis told me about Elward Burnside’s research on the Davis and Duncan family and years later I read his simple stapled document completed about 1963.  As a youngster I had heard of his visits to Ireland but like the visit of many of “The Canadians” they came and went barely noticed, often during summer school holidays.  On an eye-opening my visit to Canada at the age of eleven – sent as a family substitute for my mother and father – I remember being taken to the annual Davis reunion near Shelbourne, Ontario during the summer of 1963, organised by the same Elward. The crowded outdoor event had hundreds of people all claiming a connection to John (1797-1859) and Mary Davis (1800 – 1876) from Glenboy, Manorhamilton. I was lifted up onto a trestle table, introduced to the crowd and asked to say something “as gaelige”, in Irish; I was dumbstruck.

Elward Burnside met my grandfather by chance on a visit to Ireland in 1961 and found a rich vein of Davis family recollections and memories which became the basis of his research. Elward, an accountant by profession brought rigor and organisation to the family genealogical records and it will be hard to better it as a place to start when looking at this particular Davis history. He traces the line from John and Mary Davis, Glenboy to the present generations detailing all the descendants he could trace. More recently thanks to Alistair McAlister, a cousin, Elward’s work has been put onto a data base, updated and extended.

Elward Burnside said in the introduction to Davis Family History, “Irish History is one of great trouble, suffering and persecution, and while a knowledge of this history is essential for a fuller understanding of our ancestor’s thoughts and actions, it is beyond the scope of this small pamphlet.” 

Elward Burnside circa 1960

A family genealogical record is vital to know who our ancestors were and when and where they lived, however it is the trajectory of their lives that has my interest here. What I will try to do is add to the genealogy and draw out a few stories around a character or event that has caught my imagination, while giving myself the freedom to fill in some of the many blanks. I’ll start with the Davis family, my maternal grandfather’s family and plan to move on the Gillmors, my maternal grandmother’s family, and then on my father’s side the McWilliams and Logans. They will get mixed up and there will be surprises along the way.

Resources and Acknowledgements:

Brian Friel, from Translations, “It is not the literal past, the ‘facts’ of history, that shape us, but images of the past embodied in language.”

A big thanks to Alistair McAlister for re-awakening my interest family history and for his energy and diligence in researching and compiling an up-to-date “Family Tree Maker” database. Alistair sees potential connections everywhere, a very positive way of seeing the world.

Davis Family History by Elward Burnside, an unpublished pamphlet, circa 1963.  RCB Library, Church of Ireland, Churchtown, Dublin 14, Ireland.  This library contains records of birth, marriages and burials for Cloonclare and Lurganboy churches, among many others has been very useful.  A wealth of historical data bases are now online and I have accessed many of them through a subscription to I have turned up much that is new to me including quite a few unexpected twists.   This website has a very good introduction to sources of genealogical information, with links, and summaries of the various data bases.  A source of local information on the Manorhamilton area.

Finally, thanks to Berenice for her interest and encouragement, and particularly for her animated reactions to the surprises that the research has thrown up; to my siblings Ivor, Elaine and Nigel for their help in getting to the root of these stories; and to Dave Duggan for his support and direction on how to start and keep writing.

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