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.