Tuesday, June 5, 2007

James Harshaw, Irish Farmer

James Harshaw was an ordinary farmer in most respects. He worked in his fields, and worried about the weather and market prices for his produce. But in several important ways, he was very different. Like most Irish farmers, he owned no land, though he leased over 100 acres of Donaghmore Estates in County Down. During a time in Irish history when most farmers struggled to hold on to a few acres, holdings this extensive were unusual.

James believed that such good fortune came with major responsibilities. He was the ultimate good citizen. There was no beneficial project that he didn't support. He was particularly interested in education for his poorer neighbors, and for their health as well. The school he helped build for residents of the eastern part of Donaghmore Estates still stands near McGaffin's Corners. He participated in the first efforts to secure a doctor to service the needs of those forced to live without any health care. Later he helped found the Donaghmore Dispensary.

In a land where most people were participants in one of three main religions, James was particularly active in the Donaghmore Presbyterian Church. He and his family participated in daily prayer and reading of the Scriptures. When they finished Revelations, they began again reading Genesus. He was the Ruling Elder of his church for many years, meaning he was the administrator of church affairs day by day. Every Sabbath, he and his family could be found in their pew near the pulpit for at least one service. For years, he led efforts within the church to build a manse for the minister. Before he died, he was able to visit the minister in his manse.

This information would have been long forgotten, except for one other unusual activity that James performed every day. When the day's work was over, he would sit in the "wee parlour" to record the details of the day, writing with pen and ink on ledger pages. His records were later bound into books, and now provide a different perspective of a critical period in Irish history. They are preserved at the Public Record Office in Belfast and are considered a national treasure.

Still, James was different in another important way. He as an Irish nationalist. He held no hostility to the Catholic majority, so he was free of the necessity to cling to English control. He was a man who loved Ireland and greatly wished to see her free, though his responsibilities at home prevented any active political life.

The Harshaw home was in the townland of Ringbane. James was the last born of the children of James Harshaw and Mary Bradford. He lived almost 70 years from 1797 to 1867. married Sarah Kidd before he was twenty. James always referred to Sarah as the "Dandy" during their 50 years of marriage. They had 12 children, ten of whom lived to be adults. Three of his children came to America, though one of them later returned home. These children, Willy and Samuel, lived in Paterson NJ. Some years later, a granddaughter, Sarah also came to live in NJ. It was always a great sorrow to James that he couldn't keep all of his family in Ireland.

Times were hard when James died, so there was no stone placed to mark the grave. The site was finally located in 1996, and a proper stone erected. The inscription is simple. "James Harshaw, Ringbane, 1797 to 1867. A noble man." No tribute could be more suitable.

Dwelling Place of Dragons follows James from 1830 to 1849. The later part of his life will be included in my next book, now under preparation.

Sunday, June 3, 2007

The Beginning

I never had any intention of writing a book on Irish history, though I enjoyed both writing, and reading Irish history. Most of the things I had written were small pieces, bits of autobiography, essays, curriculum materials, and one sport story which was rejected by Sports Illustrated. Dwelling Place of Dragons was an accident. I had read and reread all the Irish histories in the Ipswich Library.

When my family was grown and I had some free time, I discovered that genealogy was a great hobby. So, from time to time, I tried to add bits of information about my Irish family. One item of interest was a journal written by a relative, James Harshaw. Through a set of very lucky circumstances, I was able to locate them, and then later read them. The six Diaries were written in a simple handwriting and inventive spelling by an Irish farmer during the middle of the 19th century. I knew almost at once that I had stumbled on a very important story. Somehow, it would have to be prepared in book form for the many people who would find the information intereting.

I would have been very happy to find someone to whom I could pass off this project. But somehow this task seemed to be my responsibility, one I could not ignore. With great reluctance, I began the additional research that I recognized would be needed to complete the story of James Harshaw and his time.

Years passed before I finished. Finally, I had the material for a different kind of history, and two more major characters. Through the writings of James Harshaw, his nephew John Martin, and John's friend George Henderson, readers can follow the history of Ireland as it unfolded rather than having to look back at it from our very different perspectives and agendas of today. The years from 1830 to 1849 which are covered in this book were difficult years full of anger, confrontation, sorrow and death. Small wonder then that many of our Irish relatives left then to come to sanctuaries in Amercia, Canada, and Australia.

I will introduce James, John, and George in my next posts.