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Promoting Irish Culture and History from Little Rock, Arkansas, USA


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Birth of Reverend John Abernethy

john-abernethyJohn Abernethy, Irish Presbyterian minister and church leader, is born at Coleraine, County Londonderry on October 19, 1680. He is the grandfather of the surgeon John Abernethy.

Abernethy’s father, also named John, a Presbyterian minister, accompanies Patrick Adair on a deputation from the general committee of Ulster presbyterians, who present a congratulatory address to William III in London in 1689, and obtain from the king a letter (November 9, 1689) recommending their case to Meinhardt Schomberg, 3rd Duke of Schomberg.

At the age of 13, Abernethy enters the University of Glasgow and, upon concluding his course there, goes on to the University of Edinburgh, where he soon moves in the most cultured circles. Returning home, he is licensed to preach from his Presbytery before he is twenty-one. In 1701 he is called to accept charge of an important congregation in Antrim. After an interval of two years, mostly spent in further study in Dublin, he is ordained there on August 8, 1703. He becomes a noted debater in the synods and assemblies of his church and a leading evangelist. He has been described as being at this time “the young minister of Antrim … a man of studious habits, heretical opinions, and remarkable ability.”

In 1712, he is devastated by the loss of his wife, Susannah Jordan. Five years later, he is invited to the congregation of Usher’s Quay, Dublin, and also to what is called the Old Congregation of Belfast. The synod assigns him to Dublin. After careful consideration he refuses and remains at Antrim. This refusal arouses disapproval and a controversy follows, with Abernethy standing firm for religious freedom and repudiating the ecclesiastical courts. The controversy and quarrel bears the name of the two camps in the conflict, the “Subscribers” and the “Non-subscribers.” Abernethy and his associates sow the seeds of the struggle (1821–1840) in which, under the leadership of Dr. Henry Cooke, the Arian and Socinian elements of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland are thrown out.

Much of what Abernethy contends for, and which the “Subscribers” oppose bitterly, is silently granted in the lapse of time. In 1726, the “Non-subscribers” are cut off, with due ban and solemnity, from the Presbyterian Church of Ireland. In 1730 he moves to Wood Street, Dublin. It is said of him that, although a “Non-subscriber,” he is a Trinitarian. However, Dr. Cooke states that Arianism “made very considerable progress under the patronage of high names, as Abernethy, the author of a very excellent work upon the Attributes, who gave it a great deal of eclat.”

In 1731 comes the greatest controversy in which Abernethy is involved. It is nominally about the Test Act, but actually on the entire question of tests and disabilities. His stand is against all laws that, upon account of mere differences of religious opinions and forms of worship, exclude men of integrity and ability from serving their country.

Abernethy is nearly a century in advance of his age. He has to reason with those who deny that a Roman Catholic or Dissenter can be a “man of integrity and ability.”

John Abernethy dies on December 1, 1740.


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Magee College Opens in Derry, County Londonderry

magee-college-1870Magee College opens on October 10, 1865 as a Presbyterian Christian arts and theological college in Derry, County Londonderry, Northern Ireland. Since 1953, it has had no religious affiliation and provides a broad range of undergraduate and postgraduate academic degree programmes in disciplines ranging from business, law, social work, creative arts & technologies, cinematic arts, design, computer science and computer games to psychology and nursing.

The Magee Campus gains its name from Martha Magee, the widow of a Presbyterian minister, who, in 1845, bequeathed £20,000 to the Presbyterian Church in Ireland to found a college for theology and the arts. It opens in 1865 primarily as a theological college, but accepts students from all denominations to study a variety of subjects. It is a college of the Royal University of Ireland from 1880 and later becomes associated with Trinity College, Dublin when the Royal University is dissolved in 1909 and replaced by the National University of Ireland.

During World War II, the college is taken over by the Admiralty for Royal NavyRoyal Navy operational use, becoming with Ebrington Barracks (HMS Ferret), a major facility in the Battle of the Atlantic. A 2013 BBC report describes a secret major control bunker, later buried beneath the lawns of the college. From 1941 this bunker, part of Base One Europe, together with similar bunkers in Derby House, Liverpool and Whitehall is used to control one million Allied personnel and fight the Nazi U-boat threat.

In 1953, Magee Theological College separates from the remainder of the college, eventually moving to Belfast in a 1978 merger that forms Union Theological College. Also in 1953, Magee College breaks its ties with Dublin and becomes Magee University College. It is hoped by groups led by the University for Derry Committee that this university college would become Northern Ireland’s second university after Queen’s University Belfast. However, in the 1960s, following the recommendations in The Lockwood Report by Sir John Lockwood, Master of Birkbeck College, London and former Vice-Chancellor of the University of London, the Parliament of Northern Ireland makes a controversial decision to pass it over in favour of a new university in Coleraine. Instead it is incorporated into the two-campus New University of Ulster in 1969. The next fourteen years see the college halve in size, while development focuses on the main Coleraine campus.

In 1984, the New University merges with the Ulster Polytechnic, and Magee becomes the early focus of development of a new four-campus university, the University of Ulster. Student and faculty numbers recover and grow rapidly over the next ten to fifteen years, accompanied by numerous construction projects. Magee grows from just 273 students in 1984 to over 4,000 undergraduates in 2012. In 2012, the University continues to lobby the Northern Ireland Executive for an additional 1,000 full-time undergraduate places, leading to 6,000 students at Magee in 2017.

On September 14, 2013 Magee hosts, for the first time on the island of Ireland, the 23rd International Loebner Prize Contest in Artificial Intelligence based on the Turing test proposed by the renowned British computer scientist Alan Turing in 1950. Turing also works on cracking the Enigma machine code at Bletchley Park which is instrumental in the Battle of the Atlantic.

In October 2014 the University of Ulster is rebranded as Ulster University.

(Pictured: Magee College, c. 1870)


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Birth of Henry Joy McCracken, Irish Republican

henry-joy-mccrackenHenry Joy McCracken, Irish Republican and industrialist, is born in Belfast on August 31, 1767. He is a founding member of the Society of the United Irishmen.

McCracken is born into two of the city’s most prominent Presbyterian industrial families. He was the son of a shipowner, Captain John McCracken and Ann Joy, daughter of Francis Joy, of French Huguenot descent. The Joy family made their money in linen manufacture and founded the Belfast News Letter. He is the older brother of political activist and social reformer Mary Ann McCracken, with whom he shares an interest in Irish traditional culture.

In 1792, McCracken helps organise the Belfast Harp Festival which gathers aged harpists from around Ireland, and helps preserve the Irish airs by having them transcribed by Edward Bunting. Bunting, who lodges in the McCracken’s Rosemary Lane home, is a classically trained musician.

McCracken becomes interested in republican politics from an early age and along with other Protestants forms the Society of the United Irishmen in 1795 which quickly makes him a target of the authorities. He regularly travels throughout the country using his business as a cover for organising other United Irish societies, but is arrested in October 1796 and imprisoned in Kilmainham Gaol in Dublin. While imprisoned with other leaders of the United Irishmen, he falls seriously ill and is released on bail in December 1797.

Following the outbreak of the Irish Rebellion of 1798 in Leinster in May 1798, the County Antrim organisation meets on 3 June to decide on their response. The meeting ends inconclusively with a vote to wait for French aid being passed by a narrow margin. A new meeting of delegates is held in Templepatrick on June 5 where McCracken is elected general for Antrim and he quickly begins planning military operations.

McCracken formulates a plan for all small towns in Antrim to be seized after which rebels will converge upon Antrim town on June 7 where the county’s magistrates are to hold a crisis meeting. Although the plan meets initial success and McCracken leads the rebels in the attack on Antrim, the Catholic Defenders group whom he expects assistance from are conspicuous by their absence. The mainly Ulster Scots rebels led by McCracken are defeated by the English forces and his army melts away.

Although McCracken initially escapes with James Hope, James Orr, and James Dickey and is supported in his month long period of hiding by his sister Mary Ann, a chance encounter with men who recognize him from his cotton business leads to his arrest. He is offered clemency if he testifies against other United Irishmen leaders but he refuses to turn on his compatriots.

McCracken is court martialed and hanged at Corn Market, Belfast, on land his grandfather had donated to the city, on July 17, 1798. According to historian Guy Beiner, his corpse is spared the indignity of decapitation in order not to provoke renewed agitation. He is buried in the Parish Church of St. George in Belfast, but a few years later the grave is demolished.

McCracken’s remains are believed to have been re-interred by Francis Joseph Bigger in 1909 at Clifton Street Cemetery, Belfast, alongside his sister Mary Ann. His illegitimate daughter Maria, whose mother is speculated to have been Mary Bodell, is raised by her aunt Mary Ann McCracken.


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Birth of George Clinton, Soldier & Statesman

george-clintonGeorge Clinton, American soldier and statesman considered one of the Founding Fathers of the United States, is born in Little Britain, Province of New York, British America on July 26, 1739. A prominent member of the Democratic-Republican Party, he serves as the fourth Vice President of the United States from 1805 until his death in 1812. He also serves as Governor of New York from 1777 to 1795 and from 1801 to 1804. Along with John C. Calhoun, he is one of only two vice presidents to hold office under two presidents.

Clinton’s parents are Colonel Charles Clinton and Elizabeth Denniston Clinton, Presbyterian immigrants who had left County Longford in Ireland in 1729 to escape an Anglo-Irish regime that imposed severe disabilities on religious dissenters. His political interests are inspired by his father, who is a farmer, surveyor, and land speculator, and serves as a member of the New York colonial assembly. He is the brother of General James Clinton and the uncle of New York’s future governor, DeWitt Clinton. He is tutored by a local Scottish clergyman.

Clinton serves in the French and Indian War, rising to the rank of lieutenant in the colonial militia. He begins a legal practice after the war and serves as a district attorney for New York City. He becomes Governor of New York in 1777 and remains in that office until 1795. He supports the cause of independence during the American Revolutionary War and serves in the Continental Army despite his gubernatorial position. During and after the war, he is a major opponent of Vermont‘s entrance into the union due to disputes over land claims.

Opposed to the ratification of the Constitution of the United States, Clinton becomes a prominent Anti-Federalist and advocates for the addition of the United States Bill of Rights. In the early 1790s, he emerges as a leader of the incipient Democratic-Republican Party and serves as the party’s vice presidential candidate in the 1792 presidential election. He receives the third most electoral votes in the election, as President George Washington and Vice President John Adams both win re-election. He does not seek re-election in 1795, but serves as governor again from 1801 to 1804. He is the longest-serving governor in U.S. history until Terry Branstad surpasses his record in 2015.

Clinton is again tapped as the Democratic-Republican vice presidential nominee in the 1804 presidential election, as President Thomas Jefferson dumps Aaron Burr from the ticket. Clinton seeks his party’s presidential nomination in the 1808 presidential election, but the party’s congressional nominating caucus instead nominates James Madison. Despite his opposition to Madison, Clinton is re-elected as vice president.

George Clinton dies in Washington, D.C. on April 20, 1812, leaving the office of vice president vacant for the first time in U.S history. He is buried in the Old Dutch Churchyard in Kingston, New York. His nephew, DeWitt Clinton, continues the Clinton New York political dynasty after his uncle’s death.

(Pictured: Portrait of George Clinton by Ezra Ames, 1814)


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The Battle of Saintfield

battle-of-saintfieldThe Battle of Saintfield, a short but bloody clash in County Down in what is now Northern Ireland, takes place on Saturday, June 9, 1798. The battle is the first major conflict of the Irish Rebellion of 1798 in County Down.

A rebel force, over a thousand strong, converge on a large house owned by the McKee family. The McKees are a family of loyalists, who are unpopular in the region because they had provided information to the authorities leading to the arrest of a radical Presbyterian minister and some members of his congregation. The McKees know that they are unpopular and are thus armed to the teeth. As the house is surrounded, shots are fired from the fortified house, hitting some of the attackers. Gunfire holds the insurgents back for a short while, until one of them, a fiddler by the name of Orr, manages to sneak around the back of the house with a ladder and sets the roof alight. The house is destroyed, and all eight members of the family inside are killed. News of this quickly reaches the British forces in the area, and a 300 strong force under Colonel Granville Staplyton, consisting of Newtownards Yeomanry cavalry and 270 York Fencibles, as well as two light cannon, march to the region.

The rebels, however, anticipate the move and are waiting in ambush. Stapylton sees the road ahead twisting into woods, and orders a pair of scouts to check for anything suspicious. The men do not seem to be particularly vigilant, as they return and declared the road ahead to be safe.

The redcoats march into the wooded area, a dense hedge snaking along the road on one side. On the opposite side, the ground steadily rises, with the areas higher up the slope dominated by demesne woods. This provides cover for the Irish. The Irish rebels are mostly armed with pikes and the terrain allows them to quickly swarm the soldiers on the road below. In the fierce hand-to-hand combat that follows the British forces are overwhelmed. One of the fencibles, a veteran of wars in Europe who manages to survive the attack later states that he had never before witnessed such fierce fighting.

Over fifty men are piked to death before Staplyton manages to order the soldiers. He then brings his cannon into play against the mass of rebels before him, inflicting enough casualties with canister and grapeshot to blunt their attack. In the meantime, Staplytons force uses the situation to march to safety.

The Battle of Saintfield is largely regarded as a victory of the United Irish rebels. Long after, in the 1950s, two skeletons, a sword and bayonet of the York fencibles are found in the area.

The rebellion in Down proves to be short lived. Only a few days later the rebel army is slaughtered at the Battle of Ballynahinch.

Many of the dead from both sides of the battle are placed in a mass grave within the grounds of the nearby Presbyterian church. Although there is a plaque signifying the location of these graves, the area seems largely neglected with what appears to be temporary vehicle access over the belligerents final resting place. In May 2010 a memorial park is finished and opened. The area has been cleared and landscaped, with several new plaques and information boards being erected. The graves have been refurbished and the headstones relaid.


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Birth of Helen Waddell, Poet & Playwright

helen-waddellHelen Jane Waddell, Irish poet, translator and playwright, is born in Tokyo, Japan on May 31, 1889.

Waddell is the tenth and youngest child of Hugh Waddell, a Presbyterian minister and missionary who is lecturing in the Imperial University. She spends the first eleven years of her life in Japan before her family returns to Belfast. Her mother dies shortly afterwards, and her father remarries. Hugh Waddell himself dies and leaves his younger children in the care of their stepmother. Following the marriage of her elder sister Meg, she is left at home to care for her stepmother, whose health is deteriorating by this time.

Waddell is educated at Victoria College for Girls and Queen’s University Belfast, where she studies under Professor Gregory Smith, graduating in 1911. She follows her BA with first class honours in English with a master’s degree, and in 1919 enrolls in Somerville College, Oxford, to study for her doctorate. A traveling scholarship from Lady Margaret Hall in 1923 allows her to conduct research in Paris. It is at this time that she meets her life-long friend, Maude Clarke.

Waddell is best known for bringing to light the history of the medieval goliards in her 1927 book The Wandering Scholars, and translating their Latin poetry in the companion volume Medieval Latin Lyrics. A second anthology, More Latin Lyrics, is compiled in the 1940s but not published until after her death. Her other works range widely in subject matter. For example, she also writes plays. Her first play is The Spoiled Buddha, which is performed at the Opera House, Belfast, by the Ulster Literary Society. Her The Abbe Prevost is staged in 1935. Her historical novel Peter Abelard is published in 1933. It is critically well received and becomes a bestseller.

Waddell also writes many articles for the Evening Standard, The Manchester Guardian and The Nation, and does lecturing and broadcasting.

Waddell is the assistant editor of The Nineteenth Century magazine. Among her circle of friends in London, where she is vice-president of the Irish Literary Society, are William Butler Yeats, Virginia Woolf, Rose Macaulay, Max Beerbohm and George William Russell. Her personal and professional friendship with Siegfried Sassoon apparently makes the latter’s wife suspicious. Although she never marries, she has a close relationship with her publisher, Otto Kyllmann of Constable & Company.

Waddell receives honorary degrees from Columbia, Belfast, Durham and St. Andrews and wins the Benson Medal of the Royal Society of Literature.

A serious debilitating neurological disease puts an end to her writing career in 1950. She dies in London on March 5, 1965 and is buried in Magherally churchyard, County Down, Northern Ireland. A prize-winning biography of her by the Benedictine nun Dame Felicitas Corrigan is published in 1986.


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Birth of William Drennan, Physician, Poet & Political Radical

william-drennanWilliam Drennan, physician, poet and political radical, is born on May 23, 1754 in Belfast. He is one of the chief architects of the Society of United Irishmen and is known as the first to refer in print to Ireland as “the emerald isle” in his poem When Erin first rose.

Drennan is son the son of Reverend Thomas Drennan (1696–1768), minister of Belfast’s First Presbyterian Church on Rosemary Street. Thomas Drennan is an educated man from the University of Glasgow and is ordained to the congregation of Holywood, County Down in 1731. Drennan is heavily influenced by his father, whose religious convictions serve as the foundation for his own radical political ideas. His sister, Martha, marries fellow future United Irishman Samuel McTier in 1773.

In 1769 Drennan follows in his father’s footsteps by enrolling in the University of Glasgow where he becomes interested in the study of philosophy. In 1772 he graduates in arts and then in 1773 he commences the study of medicine at Edinburgh. After graduating in 1778 he sets up practice in Belfast, specialising in obstetrics. He is credited with being one of the earliest advocates of inoculation against smallpox and of hand washing to prevent the spread of infection. He also writes much poetry, coining the phrase “Emerald Isle” and is the founder and editor of a literary periodical, Belfast Magazine. He moves to Newry in 1783 but eventually moves to Dublin in 1789 where he quickly becomes involved in nationalist circles.

Like many other Ulster Presbyterians, Drennan is an early supporter of the American Colonies in the American Revolution and joins the Volunteers who had been formed to defend Ireland for Britain in the event of French invasion. The Volunteer movement soon becomes a powerful political force and a forum for Protestant nationalists to press for political reform in Ireland eventually assisting Henry Grattan to achieve legislative independence for the Irish parliament in 1782. However Drennan, like many other reformers, quickly becomes dismayed by the conservative and sectarian nature of the Irish parliament and in 1791 he co-founds the Society of United Irishmen with Wolfe Tone and Thomas Russell.

Drennan writes many political pamphlets for the United Irishmen and is arrested in 1794 for seditious libel, a political charge that is a major factor in driving the United Irishmen underground and into becoming a radical revolutionary party. Although he is eventually acquitted, he gradually withdraws from the United Irishmen but continues to campaign for Catholic Emancipation.

On February 8, 1800, Drennan marries Sarah Swanwick, “an English lady of some wealth” from Shropshire. They have one daughter and four sons.

Drennan settles in Belfast in 1807. In 1810 he co-founds the non-denominational Royal Belfast Academical Institution. As a poet, he is best remembered for his poem The Wake of William Orr, written in memory of a United Irishman executed by the British. Despite his links with revolutionary republicans, he gradually becomes alienated from the post-Union nationalism of the period. His abiding concern for Liberalism and post union realities make him contemplate his political ideas anew.

Drennan dies on February 5, 1820. He directs that his coffin be carried by an equal number of Catholics and Protestants with clergy from different denominations in attendance.

Drennan’s son, John Swanwick Drennan, is a noted poet who, along with his brother William Drennan, write a biography of him for Richard Davis Webb‘s A Compendium of Irish Biography. Through his daughter Sarah, who marries John Andrews of a prominent family of flax merchants, he has several notable descendants, including William Drennan Andrews, judge of the High Court of Justice in Ireland, Sir James Andrews, 1st Baronet, Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland, John Miller Andrews, Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, Thomas Andrews who drew up the plans for the RMS Titanic and was aboard and drowned when she sank, and Thomas Drennan, performance artist known primarily for his seminal work ‘Journey to the Centre of Drennan.’