Historians, Headstones, and Holy Hill

Today was the first day of our trip south to discovery some of our Ulster ancestors and visit places where they lived and died. Both Dave and I believe our ancestors came from this area of Northern Ireland to America, although a hundred years apart.

Sadly, we first had to say goodbye to Theresa and the Ropebridge House B&B in Ballintoy. Dave and I truly enjoyed our stay here. The location was spectacular, the hosts couldn’t have been more gracious, and the breakfasts were fantastic! Neither one of use wanted to leave this little slice of heaven at the coast. I’ll have more about the B&B in a later post.

The weather was spectacular again today. Warm and sunny, but areas we were going weren’t that photogenic and we were on a schedule.

Our first stop was at a Presbyterian Church in the town of Aghadowey to meet local author, historian, and former teacher Jennifer Cunningham. Dave had been communicating with Jennifer and was interested in meeting her regarding McCausland history in the area as it related to the 1718 migration of Ulster-Scots to America.

Jennifer had spearheaded a wonderful exhibit in the church and we were excited to see it. She and another member of the church arrived to let us into the church, show us the exhibit, and give us a tour of the church that was built in 1830.

The exhibit was a wonderful mix of true antiques & documents. From delicate Irish linens and an antique flour-sack quilt, Jennifer did a great job on the exhibit and couldn’t have been nicer to us.

Afterwards, Dave drove through Garvaugh to drive by the Woodbank House that used to be owned by a McCausland. Beautiful home!

Onward south! Today was mainly going to be about looking into my Magee family tree. Dave arranged to have historian/genealogist & teacher, Boyd Gray meet us at our hotel in Strabane to help us find a few locations.

The first place we wanted to find was the Old Leckpatrick Graveyard in Strabane where we believe my 10th great grandfather, John Maghee is buried. Dave had found a photo of a map of the graveyard online indicating where the stone may be. However, finding it proved far more difficult than we had anticipated.

The cemetery itself is overgrown and not very well maintained. Large carpets of dense prickly, stinging nettles and vines had found it’s way in, under, over, and around many of the older stones. Of those we could read, none matched the stone we were looking for. Dave and Boyd climbed through some serious overgrowth and finally…past a heavily-traveled modern roadway, we heard Boyd yell “Found it!”

Dave and I rushed over and in a sunken area of ground beside an old iron gated section of the cemetery, we spied John Maghee’s name on the stone laying flat on the ground. The vines, dirt, and moss needed to be swept away to be sure. Dave and Boyd did their best to clean it off with absolutely no tools at our disposal. Then the rest of the words on the stone came to light and proved this was the stone on the map we were looking for. It read:

HERE IS THE BURIAL PLACE OF JOHN MAGHEE DECEASED 26 FEBRUARY 1617 AND HIS FAMILY

On it is carved a coat of arms, a hand bearing a sword and a Celtic cross. It’s a large stone, especially for that time period. We believe he is from the Dumfries area of Scotland and was born in 1548 around the Elizabethan Era. (Queen Elizabeth I). Boyd said it’s the oldest stone he has found in a graveyard and the graveyard touts it as one of the earliest stones in Ulster/Northern Ireland.

Needless to say, it was a special moment for me and I was beyond thrilled we hadn’t given up looking and Boyd had discovered it. It was basically right where the map said it was but because it was so overgrown, you could hardly see the stone. He just happened to see the edge of it.

In the hopes that we’d find this cemetery and the grave of John Maghee, I brought some of my mother’s ashes with me in a lovely cremation necklace with the tree of life on it. I wore the necklace today and once we were able to clear off the stone a wee bit, I spread the small amount of ashes on the stone and told mom I had brought her home. I had to crawl back out of the nettle-lined hole to get some wild flowers at the graveyard, then I had Dave place them on the stone.

So, what could top that adventure? Why, having tea at an estate that used to be owned by a Captain George Magee in the late 1600’s, of course!!

Boyd had spoken to the current owner of Holy Hill estate and had arrange for us to meet him at Holy Hill. It’s a little difficult to find. Which is probably what you’d want with an estate.

The shiny white walls of the buildings displayed brilliantly with the lush green lawn and gardens. We were met by current owner Hamilton Thompson who purchased the housed and 230 acres in 1983. Hamilton is a soft-spoken sort who didn’t let an arthritic hip keep him from sharing his home with us.

We started the tour in a lovely sitting room with many windows and seating areas. He had Boyd read aloud, a few passages about Magee’s involvement with Holy Hill. And, although Hamilton didn’t give us any new information, we truly appreciated the fact he did look into it.

The next few rooms he took us into were rooms straight out of Downton Abbey! Beautiful, old country estate rooms and opulent decor and furniture. He had some unique and beautiful pieces and you could tell he loved talking about them with others.

During the tour, his wife Margaret came in an introduced herself. Then she excused herself We Hamilton continued. Then last room we visited was their personal sitting area and I felt very bad for Mrs. Thompson because she was enjoying her crossword puzzle and these three strangers are brought into the room.

However, she then offered us tea and out came the tea tray, crisps (cookies) and shortbread. The four of us continued to talk history and Holy Hill. As a teacher and historian, Boyd himself, was thrilled to have had this opportunity.

Margaret asked us to sign their guestbook, then we were on our way. We had only scheduled to stay there an hour, but ended up being 2 1/2 hours!

Boyd drove us back to our hotel. We said our goodbyes and thanks him so very much!

What a special day and I hope my mom and sisters were looking down and smiling at our adventures.