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The McGills
On the Old Sod and Across the Sea


On the banks of Belfast Bay, twelve miles seaward from the city, in County Antrim, Ireland, about one hundred and fifty years ago there stood a comfortable stone dwelling facing the bay, with barns, sheds, hayricks and other outbuildings, all of the most permanent character, attached.

The grounds sloped gently toward the water and there was an ample green lawn in front. A hedged lane led from the rear to the highway several rods distant, leading, probably from Carrickfergus to Belfast. A never-failing spring brook flowed through the grounds, west of the residence, and emptied into a little cove in the margin of the lough. Around the buildings were fruit trees of many varieties suited to the soil and climate, and other shade trees and clusters of shrubbery, vines and flowers. The place was attractive, commodious and comfortable.

The house bore evidences of age. The walls were constructed of massive masonry laid up in the style known in these days as "broken range," and might have withstood a siege in the days when men fought with clubs. The large stone steps were worn with the tread of many generations. The windows were small, but sufficient for the purposes for which they were intended; the roof semi-gothic and tiled.

This was the home of the McGills from whom our descent was derived, as described by our ancestors. How long it had been in their possession is not known, but probably from 1608 or thereabouts. They were tenants holding leases under the London-Belfast Co.'s patents of James I.

Whether the buildings which were of the most substantial character, were erected by the patentees, or the tenants, is not known, though it is quite likely that the tenants were responsible for the improvements. It must be remembered that a lease in Ireland was a vested right passing from generation to generation under the laws of primogeniture, the oldest son being the heir and scion of the house. This makes it altogether possible that the premises had been in possession of the McGills for one hundred and fifty years before the time of which we write; and for all we know may yet be in possession of some of the family.

The character of the improvements, as well as the nature of proprietary rights of the tenants would certainly indicate that those commodious buildings had been erected and were maintained by the tenants during their extended occupancy under this perpetual lease. Foreign landlords did not erect, did not put up such buildings for their tenants, and the "cotters" on the great plantations in other portions of Ireland had no such tenure to the lands as was held by the proprietary occupants in the Belfast district of Antrim.

The celebrated Rev. John Hall, D. D., late of New York and Dublin, was of the sixth generation, holding proprietary rights to the homestead of his ancestors in County Antrim, near the seat of the McGills under lease from the London-Belfast Company, which held patents from James I., 1602-1610. Dr. Hall's ancestral holdings were not only in the same neighborhood of the McGills, but were of the same perpetual tenure, running parallel for many generations. Dr. Hall being the eldest son was the hereditary heir to the estate of his father, just as Roland McGill, being the eldest, inherited the ancestral home down by the Bay of Belfast-Roland, however, lived before Dr. Hall's time and must have been the neighbor and contemporary of his grandfather.

Roland McGill married Margaret Dillon. She was a large woman of fine presence, and her maternal intuitions were strongly developed. She belonged to a respectable Antrim family. Early in the last century, one Bernard (Barney) Dillon, visited my grandfather in Crawford County, Pa., and remained several months before returning to Ireland. He was a small, natty, compactly built man, very neat and tidy in appearance, and possessed scholarly instincts and attainments. He was versed in mathematics, the physical sciences and the languages and had been a professor in some school in Antrim before coming to America. He was probably a cousin to Patrick and Arthur McGill.

Roland and Margaret (Peggy) had ten children - nine sons and one daughter. The sons were Owen, Hugh, John, James. Henry, Arthur, Robert, Patrick and Charles. We are not sure of all these names or of the order in which they are mentioned, but they are names spoken of by our grandfather in connection with the family.

Owen is mentioned first because he was more frequently named, or spoken of, than any other member; but he may not have been the eldest born and some other brother may have been the successor of Roland as the head of the house.

Nancy was the name of the only daughter. She was remembered by Patrick with sentiments of great affection, and he described her as being tall, graceful, affectionate and kind; with hazel eyes, auburn hair and a very fair complexion; that she was loved and petted by all who knew her; and he further remarked that "Nan" had a horse and gearing of her own, and could take a ditch or a hedge "like a huntress." This remark leads me to the conclusion that she was older than Patrick, who was a mere youth when he sailed away. He attested his esteem for his sister by naming his eldest daughter (1798) after her, and Nancy was his pride and pet. Aunt Nancy (Burchfield) was very proud of this distinction, and deservedly so, and often remarked that her father said she very much resembled her beautiful aunt across the sea. She was the old man's pet and when in her society, his natural reticence and reserve gave way and she was the recipient of more folk lore than any other member of the family, and to this we are indebted for many interesting details herein recorded.

These nine sons of Roland were a husky lot, and each contributed his part to the honor of the house. They were well educated for the times, having the advantage of excellent schools and the superior instructions of learned ministers of the Scotch Presbyterian church. In those times, to teach as well as preach, was a part of the work of the pastor, and they were equipped for the business.

Roland was a Godfearing man with a will of his own. He maintained family worship in his household and all his children were baptised according to the rites of the Scotch Presbyterian church. Their educational facilities were much better than those enjoyed by the generations that followed after them in America.

Roland ruled with a firm hand, and Peggy, while smoothing with a mother's love the austerities of domestic discipline, was nevertheless a factor in the economy and thrift of the home. Every one had something to do, and did it. As the older ones grew to maturity and went forth to grapple with the world the younger bairns remained at home to cultivate the place to the limit of production and scutch the flax.

Several of Roland's sons were seafaring men, and it would seem strange if they were not, located as they were on the waters of the bay, with their own family craft moored in the cove at the mouth of the brook. One of the sons, Henry, was the owner and master of a trading vessel that plied between Belfast and Baltimore, and was known as the ship "Good Intent," while others of the family were spoken of as connected with maritime enterprises.

But, situated as they were, every man who was not a preacher was more or less of a sailor, and the fact of his being so was not sufficiently novel to occasion remark; it was not alone a business, but the management of sailing craft was an accomplishment essential to the safety of those who were frequently obliged to battle with the waves.

Roland and his forbears do not seem to have suffered seriously from the turbulent times following the bloody foray of Phelin Roe O'Neill in 1641. They escaped confiscation under James II. (1688-1689), by paying an indemnity, being included in the capitulation of Belfast and that portion of Antrim occupied by the Jacobins.

The battle of the Boyne (1690) gave them security from the Irish, and the succeeding generations dwelt in their ancestral home in comparative safety. It was not many years, however, until the Church of England began to assert her ecclesiastical prerogatives as the Established Church, and Presbyterian clergymen were barred from publicly exercising the functions of the ministry. The McGills did not demur to the payment of tithes for the support of a system of worship in which they did not believe, but made their arrangements to meet the liability just as they did to pay any other tax, but there was something came to pass that pinched and without doubt was the real cause of the appearance of our people in America, something of deeper import than spoliation under the garb of religion.

It was the custom with well-to-do Scotch Irish families where there were a number of boys, and an estate entailed, to select one of the brightest of the younger fellows and set him apart to be educated for a professional career, and to this end all the members of the family who could contributed of their means, and he thus became practically the care and the ward of the household. It was expected of him that he would acquit himself with credit and by his achievements reflect great honor and glory on the "house," and his career was watched by all with absorbing interest. He became the center of earnest solicitude, and no sacrifice was too great to promote the ambition of the fortunate youth.

It mattered not that he might prove an ingrate and in the hour of his success cast aside his benefactors as beneath him and unworthy of the notice of one in his exalted station, but if he only took his degree in the University and became a Doctor of Divinity, or a Doctor of Laws, or an eminent barrister or statesman, they were amply rewarded by the luster his great name and high rank shed upon their humble station.

It were a boon indeed that their children might point with pride to the great one and claim kinship with one so high in the world's affairs. Even his snubs, slights and contumely were made to redound to his honor as attributes of his greatness, and their hearts swelled with gladness at these visible evidences of his superiority over other men, themselves included. Anyone conversant with the Scotch folk of the middle class has observed this peculiar tendency. Family pride is the strongest passion of the race.

That Roland and Peggy, with the consent and approval of the older members of the family, selected young Patrick, perhaps their youngest, for this favored career, there is not the shadow of a doubt. He was not of the robust build of the other boys, and though his proportions were manly for a youth of seventeen, and his muscles hard as steel, he lacked the mighty thews of his elder brothers and seemed better fitted for a sedentary life than they. He was also of a quiet, studious habit, and from choice resorted to his books for recreation, rather than the athletic bouts usual where so many big brothers come together under the shelter of the paternal roof. He was afforded better opportunities than any of the other boys, though their educational advantages were by no means neglected, but were shaped as was the custom of the times, to best fit them for the pursuits of their choice, or for which they were intended.

Henry was versed in navigation, other sons in such learning and accomplishments as were best suited to their prospective pursuits, and every one in that well regulated household was equipped with such essential rudiments of learning and such accomplishments as would enable him at will to develop the strong commercial instincts inherent in the race.

But Patrick's training was different, his instructors were of a higher grade. His course of study indicated some contemplated pursuit out of the common. Latin was not pertinent to scutching flax, nor would the classics be any material aid in digging potatoes. He was learned for his day and generation, above other men of his class, and many years after when visited by Dillon, early in the last century, his children, John, William and Nancy, were astonished to hear the old men conversing fluently in some unknown tongue. They had fallen back on the Latin of their schoolboy days.

But something had occurred to break in on his career and change the whole tenor of his life. We have but to read carefully the history of the times in Ulster at that period to find the cause. He was a Presbyterian born and bred, and as such, the doors to promotion in any of the learned professions were closed against him. His instructors had been silenced. He could enter no college or university outside of Scotland, nor could he be heard in any of the courts or temples of his native land. To pursue his course meant expatriation to a land where every profession was crowded to the limit. It meant great expense with no profits in sight.

To be sure, he could renounce his faith, become a High Church man, and go on swimmingly, but he was made of that moral and mental fiber that would not permit him to deny his God for all the universities in the Three Kingdoms.

Appalled by the failure to realize the bright and promising hopes he had entertained, the young fellow determined to leave the kingdom and go to a land where the blighting hand of the Anglican could not reach, and that goal was among the peaceful Quakers in Pennsylvania.

But Patrick could not leave without the consent of his parents. They were deeply afflicted with the turn affairs had taken, and while sympathizing with his ambition could not consent to his going alone to that far off land beyond the sea. It was then that the great, big-hearted Arthur came to the fore and declared that he would go along with the boy and take care of him. To this Roland consented, and with many tearful admonitions to Arthur from Peggy and Nan to "keer for the bye," and the blessing of the old, hard-headed Patriarch, the brothers took their departure never to return.

No other members of Roland McGill's family came to America permanently, so far as we know, and Arthur's promise was sacredly kept through out an eventful career.


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