United Irishmen to workhouse guardians - Limavady ancestry
WITH a reunion event for those with ancestry in Limavady planned at the new Arts and Cultural Centre next month, the Sentinel caught up with one man who has been researching his family history for a number of years now.
Morrison Stewart, who lives in Limavady but spent a large portion of his life in England, has searched through Church records, legal documents and public records to find out the colourful story of his own family history.
Among the most interesting family connections Mr Stewart has uncovered in his own ancestry is one of the founders of Wolfe Tone’s revolutionary United Irishmen movement, as well as one of the first ‘guardians’ of the somewhat notorious workhouse in Limavady.
Mr Stewart, who enjoyed researching his family history so much that he soon developed a love for the study of local history for its own sake, now works with the Ulster Historical Foundation.
The Historical Foundation recently led a project somewhat reminiscent of the ongoing BBC documentary series ‘Who do you think you are?’ whereby television stars go about tracing their own ancestry.
Just last week, people travelled to the Roe Valley Arts and Cultural Centre on Main Street in Limavady’s town centre, to take part in the ‘Tracing your Limavady and Roe Valley roots’ workshop. Specialists in local and family history from the Ulster Historical Foundation were able to highlight the most useful records, as well as explain how best t use and read records, with a few useful tips also given out.
Morrison Stewart’s time searching his own family history gave him a wider interest in and appreciation of local history, he told the Sentinel.
“I just started off with my family – I was a bit late in starting. I wasn’t able to talk to my parents or grandparents (who had passed away when Mr Stewart began his search), but I was able to get in touch with some of my relatives as a starting off point.
“I later found out my grandfather was one of the first Guardians of the workhouse in Limavady – Alexander Morrison. In 1839 he was elected from the Gelvin electoral borough. He was one of the first batch of guardians. At that time you had to be a £10 rate payer to vote and £20 to stand. It was shortly after Catholic Emancipation so technically Catholics were allowed to vote, but the £10 rate effectively put a stop to that. I can’t imagine there were were an awful lot of voters for my great-grandfather.”
The workhouse in Limavady, or Newtonlimavady as it was known at the time, opened in March 1842 and admitted its first inmate on the same day. Built in response to the Irish Poor Law Act of 1838, the workhouse system aimed to force the ‘lazy and idle’ into work, and help was given only to those who entered the workhouse, where conditions were made deliberately hard.
Hard it was, and around ten people died in the Limavady workhouse every week, while many others chose to die of starvation during the worst years of the Great Famine rather than enter the workhouse – it was certainly a place of great suffering.
One of the best preserved workhouses in Ireland, it is now used by the Limavady Community Development Initiative. Among the most famous stories printed in the Roe Valley Sentinel in recent years was one published in October 2008, under the headline “Unexplained happenings at Limavady workhouse”. The article carried the reports of staff in 2008, who experienced more than a few unusual goings-on. Stories of a ghostly image of a nurse, others of a one-legged spectre pacing the corridors and the disembodied sounds of crying babies filled the pages of the Sentinel in 2008, alongside ghostly images caught on camera.
Newtown Limavady Poor Law Union was formally declared in September 1839and its operation was overseen by an elected Board of Guardians, 24 in number, representing its 19 electoral divisions. The Board also included eight Guardians, one of the first of whom was a direct ancestor of Morrison Stewart.
Another famous ancestor uncovered in Morrison Stewart’s research was Henry Hazlett, one of the founding members of the United Irishmen. Morrison Stewart said: “He would have been my great-grandfather three times removed. He came from Clooney in Aghanloo – he inherited the farm. That is one of the useful things about researching my family history, they were mostly farmers on my father’s side and they didn’t move around a lot. My mothers side is a different story. They were weavers and went all over the place.
“The story of Henry Haslett is quite an interesting one. He was arrested for high treason, but he had apparently done quite a lot to calm tensions in the Roe Valley during Wolfe Tone’s rebellion.”
The United Irishmen were founded as a group of liberal Protestant men interested in promoting Parliamentary reform, and later became a revolutionary movement influenced by the ideas of Thomas Paine and his book ‘The Rights of Man’.
In 1791 Theobald Wolfe Tone published the pamphlet ‘Argument on Behalf of the Catholics of Ireland’ where he set out that religious division was being used to balance “the one party by the other, plunder and laugh at the defeat of both.” He put forward the case for unity between Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter.
A group of nine Belfast Presbyterians interested in reforming Irish Parliament read Tone’s pamphlet and liked his ideas. They invited Tone and Russell to Belfast where the group met on October 14, 1791.
The group became known as the United Irishmen, and among their number was the Roe Valley man and ancestor of Mr Morrison Stewart Henry Haslett.
Mr Stewart said: “That is one of the great things about tracing your ancestors and it is something which has given me a great love for history in general. You find out that one of your ancestors was one of the founders of the United Irishmen and then you begin to ask; well who were the United Irishmen and what did they do? I found myself becoming ever more interested in local history.”
A Limavady ancestry exhibition will be held at the Roe Valley Arts and Cultural Centre from November 10 to January 26.
The exhibition draws together information collated as part of a project to provide people with the knowledge to source their own family’s ancestry. From census records and wills to church records and gravestone inscriptions, the exhibition will look at the different types of sources and documents that exist and will explain how these can be of use when researching your family’s history.
A programme of talks and demonstrations will be taking place alongside the exhibition. For further information contact the Roe Valley Arts and Cultural Centre on 028 7776 0650.
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Wednesday 19 June 2013
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