Day 17, Bann River to Londonderry (my ancestral home)


I’m actually half a world away in Canada, but my roots are very much in Ireland—in County Derry, as a matter of fact. At least that’s what it says on the grave marker of my great-great-grandfather, John Burnie (1772-1856). In addition, my great-grandfather James Burnie (1821-1906) was born in County Tyrone, on the west bank of the Bann River.

Bann River

The valley of the Bann River (an Bhanna in Irish) is considered the cradle of human habitation in Ireland, dating back 9,000 years. The epicentre of the river’s history is Mountsandel, where evidence of these prehistoric pioneers was unearthed in the 1970s, making it the earliest known settlement site in Ireland. Here the Mesolithic ancestors picked a spot (Coleraine) in the wildlife-rich and densely wooded landscape beside a large, fordable, fish-filled, navigable artery into the interior of ice-free Ireland.

The Bann flows into Lough Neagh, the largest freshwater lake in Ireland, and which is noted for its eel fishing. There is a charming myth associated with Lough Neagh, as well.

The Legend of Finn McCool

The warrior giant, Finn McCool, was in hot pursuit of his rival the thieving Scottish Giant. The Scottish Giant could run faster than Finn and in a short time had almost reached the coast. Fearing he would lose him, Finn scooped up a mighty handful of earth and rocks and hurled it far into the sky towards the fleeing giant. But not knowing his own strength, he overthrew his target and the Giant Scot made his escape. The great mass of rocks and clay flew far out into the sea where it became the Isle of Man. In the place from where the rocks where taken, there remained a giant hole. Gradually it filled with water to become Lough Neagh.

Londonderry (“Derry”)

County Derry is located on the northern most coast of Ireland. It has been populated since prehistoric times by several groups, including a population of pre-Christian Celts who worshipped around the abundant oak groves (i.e., doire), from which “Derry” derives its name. A later conversion to Christianity came with the founding of a monastery in 541 AD by the great Irish saint Colm Cille (Columba) (521-597), making Christianity the predominant religion.

The next group to inhabit northern Ireland were the English who first came to Derry in 1566, but the garrison they established at that time lasted only a few years. A second, more successful garrison returned in 1600 during the ‘Nine Years War’ against the Gaelic Earls O’Neill and O’Donnell. On this occasion the English managed to hold on.  However, in 1608 the infant city of Derry was attacked by Sir Cahir O’Doherty [perhaps related to my g-g-grandmother, Rose Ann “Rosa” Doherty], and the settlement was virtually wiped out. It is abundantly evident, therefore, that the resilient Gaels of Derry were not about to give up their homeland without a fight.

Meanwhile, the new king in London, James I (son of Mary, Queen of Scots), decided on a revolutionary plan to once and for all time subordinate Ulster. He therefore instituted the “Plantations in Ulster” by colonising the area with loyal English and Scottish migrants who were to be predominantly Protestant. One part of this so called “colonization” was organized by the ancient and wealthy trade guilds of London, and so Derry was renamed “Londonderry” in 1610. This renaming was not without controversy, however, and was rejected outright by the Catholic Irish who defiantly stuck to the original name.

In search of the family patriarch

As mentioned above, it appears John Burnie was born in County Derry in 1772, married Rosse Ann Doherty, and produced six sons—that we know of. Moreover, we know he died in 1856 (age 84), and is buried in St. Malachy Cemetery (Brock Mission, Roman Catholic Church), in Vroomanton, Ontario. Sadly, however, after years of searching we know nothing about his life or ancestry in Ireland.

No date exists for his arrival in Canada, either. However, according to the census records two of his sons (i.e., John and James) were born in Ireland in 1820 and 1821, respectively. The next recorded date refers to the marriage of his son, James, to Mary Ann Lowery in Orillia, Province of Canada, 1846. Therefore, It appears certain that his arrival was sometime between 1821 and 1846.

Neither are we aware of what prompted him to migrate, but it may very well have been due to the political, economic and religious oppression which followed the conquest in 1690. This crushing subjugation of Catholics and dissenting Protestants (Presbyterians) was codified in the so-called “Irish Penal Code,” by which Catholics were forbidden to exercise their religion; receive an education; hold public office; live in a corporate town or within five miles thereof; own a horse worth more than five pounds; purchase or lease land; vote; etc, etc. In addition, and probably most objectionable, Catholics were obliged to pay a tithe (i.e. “tax”) to the Angican Church. Many of these conditions were subsequently repealed, but some remained in effect well into the twentieth century.

Another reason may have been an economic depression that occurred in Ireland following the Napoleonic Wars in 1814. Prices had dropped significantly in Europe, affecting agricultural exports, and manufactured goods could be bought more cheaply than domestic goods. Therefore, from 1815 to the start of the Great Irish Famine (1846–1852), 800,000 to one million Irish sailed for North America with roughly half settling in Canada.

Two Irish Lads

It is not surprising, therefore, that when I came to write my first novel, Two Irish Lads, it was very much with my Irish ancestors in mind, i.e.,

March 17, 1820: St. Paddy’s Day, and what a grand day it is for an adventure. My name is Sean McConaghy, third son of John McConaghy, a master printer of Derry, Ireland, and his wife Rose Ann Doherty. Some people call it “Londonderry” these days,but I am a Derryman and not readily given to change. Therefore, “Derry” it is in my mind, as it has always been.

This morning I boarded the Lovely Nellie with my second cousin Patrick McConaghy of nearby Antrim, and together we are bound for Canada across the sea. He is a good lad with a pleasant disposition, and I think we will fare quite well in our new land. It will be a fresh start from the turmoil that has plagued us Ulster Catholics since the English came to stay, as well as the hard times that currently beset Ireland, and for these two reasons we have decided to seek our fortunes elsewhere.

Nevertheless, I record that I leave my native land with great remorse. In her soil are buried my kinsmen both ancient and recent, and my loved ones, whom I am not likely to see again in my lifetime, still walk her emerald hills. I will also admit to this private journal that I have a certain fear of the unknown, and it is for this reason I am especially grateful for the company of my young friend and cousin. We will be the first of our line in this new land, and perhaps we will start lines of our own in time. What remarkable thoughts these are!

However, we are now under sail, and my beloved homeland is quickly disappearing behind me. Therefore, I must hurry to a higher vantage for one last glimpse of Ireland before it fades from my sight.

Sean McConaghy of Derry, Ireland, a Derryman of the Catholic faith, son of John and Rose Ann McConaghy, bound for Canada on this 17th day of March, in the year of our Lord 1820. Éireann go brách!




About Gerry B.

I am a writer of Canadian Historical fiction from a gay perspective. The type of history I refer to is seldom found in textbooks, and yet it is very much part of the Canadian experience. I call it "pioneer social history" because it deals with the lives and times of ordinary citizens. However, since these stories usually went to the grave with them it is necessary to reconstruct their lives from journals and fist-hand accounts. This, then, is the function of historical fiction: ‘historical,’ because it is a reasonably accurate reconstruction from existing records; and ‘fiction,’ because it is a composite of the lives and attitudes of the times--both the good and the bad. It also serves to mark a lifestyle that might otherwise be forgotten. All these elements are certainly true of gay pioneers because, quite understandably, there are few published diaries or first-hand accounts of them. Not only was it an extremely dangerous thing to do, but most GLBT men and women were not ‘out’ to their families or friends. Moreover, they were even loathe to reveal a lifetime of secrets after death--often directing that their personal papers be destroyed by a trusted friend. Without historical fiction, therefore, this very real and important aspect of pioneer life might be overlooked and forgotten, and along with it many of the contributions these individuals made--including the recognition of homosexuality as a fact of life.

8 responses »

  1. Researching family history can be full of persistent plot bunnies. I have connections to the other side of the settlement – my great-grandmother was an Irish born Scot, but returned to Scotland and married a Scot. I don’t know if they ever went back to Ireland to visit or if they were too busy working and raising children.

    • Thanks for taking the time to comment, Mara.

      We think that the Burnies were probably Scots/Irish, too. There are more of them in and around Dumfries than there is in Ulster.


      Gerry B.

    • Thanks for taking the time to comment, Elin. If you decide to add Two Irish Lads to your reading list, itis available in e-book format.

      Erin go brach

      Gerry B.

  2. From a girl who was named for the Irish county, I wish I knew more of the country. My grandfather’s family was Irish, until they moved over here and he fell in love with my East End nana! Now we’re all assimilated into the English. We’ve had many happy holidays in Ireland, and hopefully plenty more in the future. This was an entertaining and informative post, many thanks 🙂

    • Thanks for the response.

      I guess I’m assimilated, as well. I’ve never actually visited Ireland. Wish I had, but now my handicap makes it very unlikely. Still, God wiling, I think I have another Irish book in me sometime down the pike.

      Nice to hear from you,

      Gerry B.

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