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
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
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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