Wednesday, 24 December 2008

CS Lewis on Christmas

My family spent a very nice evening last night reading while seated around the fire on the hearth. I had chosen to read from CS Lewis’s 'The Business of Heaven'. The book is more of a CS Lewis reader than a book by CS Lewis. It takes excerpts from CS Lewis’s books and arranges them by a daily reading for each day of the year which follows the ecclesiastical year. What you have is a very pithy eloquent paragraph to read each day, a very nice format for the busy world in which we live. Yesterday, the 23rd had a very nice reading and as it is Christmas Eve I thought it would be fitting to post the paragraph, written by one of Ulster’s most talented sons. Merry Christmas to all, Barry R McCain

23 December

Pagan ‘Christs’ and Christ Himself

Theology, while saying that a special illumination has been vouchsafed to Christians and (earlier) to Jews, also says that there is some divine illumination vouchsafed to all men. The Divine light, we are told, ‘lighteneth every man.’ We should, therefore, expect to find in the imagination of the great Pagan teachers and myth-makers some glimpse of that theme which we believe to be the very plot of the whole cosmic story – the theme of incarnation, death, and rebirth. And the differences between the Pagan Christs (Balder, Osiris, etc.) and the Christ Himself is much what we should expect to find. The Pagan stories are all about someone dying and rising, either every year, or else nobody knows where and nobody knows when. The Christian story is about a historical personage, whose execution can be dated pretty accurately, under a named Roman magistrate, and with whom the society that He founded is in a continuous relation down to the present day. It is not the difference between falsehood and truth. It is the difference between a real event on the one hand and dim dreams of premonitions of that same event on the other. It is like watching something come gradually into focus; first it hangs in the clouds of myth and ritual, vast and vague, then it condenses, grows hard and in a sense small, as a historical event in first-century Palestine.
CS Lewis

Thursday, 18 December 2008

Merry Christmas To All

Beannachtaí Nollaig Daoibh

The Spirit Photographer

Family historian Chris Paton delves into the psychic world to uncover an extraordinary experiment carried out by his great great grandfather in 1926…

I have always been fascinated by stories of the supernatural and of things that go bump in the night, but little did I realise that through my family history research I would soon discover that I was not the only one to share this fascination. In the case of one ancestor, such a belief had once led to an extraordinary experiment in an Irish cemetery which had created headlines across the British Isles.

Coming from both an Irish and Scottish heritage, as a child I was no stranger to hearing stories about the otherworldly folk known in Gaelic as the ‘Sídhe’, who were said to have inhabited the Fairy Mount on the golf course in Carrickfergus, and in particular the ‘banshee’ (bean sídhe), also known as the “White Lady”, who was supposed to haunt the nearby Lover’s Lane. Despite never believing such things, I would nevertheless still find myself walking quickly down the lane on a winter’s night when finishing my paper round, a nervous glance occasionally thrown over my shoulder to make sure that the banshee was not behind me, ready to wail uncontrollably at the forthcoming death of a family member.

Eventually I left Northern Ireland to attend university in Bristol, and from there I moved on to Scotland. An interest in Highland history developed, and I discovered the most amazing stories about Highland Scots who had the so-called supernatural gift of ‘an da shealladh’, or ‘second sight’, whereby they could see the spirit world and predict the future. On one particular occasion, on a return trip back home to Ireland, I mentioned this to my mum, to which she replied, “Och, my granny had that in Belfast”. Really?! Sensing that I didn’t believe a word of it, she sought to clarify the situation…

My mother’s name is Charlotte Harper Graham, named after her own grandmother, Charlotte Harper Montgomery, who was married to Ernest Graham. Both of her grandparents had apparently been very active in the Christian Spiritualism movement in Northern Ireland, attending a Spiritualist church on Belfast’s Shankill Road, and both were said to have been ‘gifted’ mediums. Ernest, a painter for Harland and Wolfe shipyard, died in 1942, but family tradition has it that this was not the last the family were to see of him! When my aunt Edna visited her grandmother at Esmond Street in Belfast a few years later, aged just three or four, the story goes that she was at one point found staring transfixed up the stairs to the landing at the top. When asked by my granny what she was looking at, Edna turned and said “Grandad is standing there, waving down to me”, to which my great grandmother gave an all knowing and enigmatic smile…!

Despite a few seconds of experiencing the heebie-jeebies upon hearing this, I cast it to one side as just a playful family myth, but a few years later I would learn that there was in fact a lot more to this alleged Spiritualism connection than even my mother knew!

I traced my mother’s Graham line back, through her father and grandfather, both called Ernest, to her great grandfather, Edwin Graham. All were Belfast born and bred, but Edwin was particularly hard to trace, as the Irish censuses before 1901 largely no longer exist. I was fortunate, however, to discover that he had in fact lived for a time in Barrow-on-Furness in England, and was thus recorded in the 1881 census as a 19 year old shipwright from Ireland.

Having placed what I had found on a website, I was delighted to be contacted some time later by Edwin’s granddaughter Renee Fisher, who still lives in Belfast. From her I learned that Edwin had regularly crossed the Irish Sea to take up shipbuilding work at both Belfast, Glasgow and Barrow-in-Furness, and had at one stage even travelled to Boston in the USA to find work, though had soon returned. Whilst I am descended from Edwin and his first wife, Florence Halliday, to whom he had married in Belfast just prior to 1883, Renee was in fact descended from Edwin and his second wife, Sarah Ann Stitt (nee Wilson), who he had married in 1915, with Florence having died in 1911. I managed to obtain a photograph from Renee of Edwin with his new wife Sarah, and having had such good luck, I did not think I would find out too much more about him.

It was not until I discovered that the Irish Independent newspaper had been digitised and put online at that I was to make a truly extraordinary discovery. Whilst searching for any articles that might name Edwin, I found a story from Wednesday, July 28th 1926, entitled “Spiritualism in Belfast”, about a funeral service held at the City Cemetery for a Mrs McDermott, under the auspices of the Belfast Christian Spiritualists’ Association, where almost a hundred spiritualists had gathered to conduct an experiment in the supernatural. With her son John leading the service, the attendees took photographs as her coffin was lowered into the ground, in order to try and capture images of the “spirits of the departed friends of those around the grave”.

This was remarkable enough until I read the next bit. “Mr. Edwin Graham, secretary of the Association, said it was a very hard thing to obtain spirit photographs, and he added that the plates would be developed in a day or two, and they would then see if they had been successful.”

Edwin had been their secretary! I was disappointed to find no follow up to the story in the Irish Times, but soon discovered that the Manchester Guardian newspaper, the Scotsman and the Daily Mirror in Britain had also covered the story, as had the Irish Times, which on August 18th also had an update to the story. The photographs had apparently been out of focus, showing ‘small white clouds’ over the people assembled round the grave, though this did not deter the spiritualists. “Mr McDermaid claims that in the photographs he can see the spirit forms of three departed relatives. Mr Edwin Graham, the Secretary of the Association, is convinced that he can see his brother. The Association invites inspection of the photographs.”

Keen to find out more, I searched for information on the Belfast Christian Spiritualist Association, and from their current website I discovered a potted history. It stated that Spiritualism in Northern Ireland had started amid the furore of religious and political activity surrounding the signing of the Ulster Covenant of 1912, where thousands of Ulster born Protestants had put their name to a document protesting at the possibility of Home Rule in Ireland (these signatures are available to see online at As interest in Spiritualism had spread, the movement had often changed its headquarters over the next three decades until it was bombed in an air raid on Belfast in 1941. Again, I was to find a mention of the Grahams: “The Alliance then accepted an invitation from a group meeting at 45 May Street which was functioning well under the leadership of a truly excellent Medium of high spiritual character, Sarah Graham.”

I contacted the Association, but they were unable to provide any additional information. They put me in touch with a Liverpool based spiritualist association, as Edwin and Sarah had lived on Merseyside for a time, but again, I could find no further clues as to their spiritualist activities.

I did, however, make one further find. There is a wonderful Belfast based website called the Glenravel Local History Project (, and in the ‘Belfast Timeline’ section, which has stories from many local newspapers, a story about John McDiarmad showed that he had been prosecuted for fraud shortly after the experiment! As president of the Belfast Christian Spiritualist Association, he was charged that he “did pretend to tell fortunes to deceive and impose on his Majesty’s subjects.” He was put under bail of £10 for his future good behaviour.

Edwin eventually died in Belfast on February 2nd 1943, aged 80 years of age, and was buried in the very cemetery where he believed he had once photographed his deceased brother’s spirit. The next time I visit Belfast I intend to visit his grave, armed with my own trusty camera, as I may just be lucky enough to catch him standing nearby with his family, smiling at my humble efforts to find out exactly who he once was…!

About the author

Chris Paton is a professional genealogist and former BBC television producer. He has a Postgraduate Diploma in Genealogical Studies and runs the Scotland’s Greatest Story research service (

Wednesday, 17 December 2008

A Scots Irish Christmas Tale

This is a delightful Christmas scene by Joe McMaster, born in Ballymena, County Antrim and now living in
Orillia, Ontario, Canada.
The rising smoke from the old stone chimney had lost its battle with the cold night air as it floated and floundered and fell back down to earth. Aye! down it came and gently curled around the red-berried tree. Smoke from Stone Chimney
If perhaps you had paused to wonder if the night wind had wrapped the twisting, turning wisplike strands of smoke around the old holly tree like a Christmas ribbon. You are not alone.
For this very same image had not gone unnoticed by the old woman staring out through the frosted glass of the drafty old window. A window, which by now, needed an occasional wipe from her tattered sleeve to help remove the frost. Aye! an old woman with many long winter nights far behind her.
Too many Christmas eves had come and gone and were relived only in her memory, where once again the joy and the laughter of her children sitting around the fireplace excitedly making up their Christmas lists brought life and love, and the happiness back into this sparsely furnished cottage.

But now in the quietness of her little thatched cottage, she watched the swirling smoke outside and wondered Snow-covered Thatched Cottage where and how her children were on this special night. Her children, who as young men had left their childhood wishes far behind them and gone off to a distant land. Little did she know that her sons would go on to help shape that land. Her children, aye! and her grandchildren too, would help build the foundation for a new country.
Letters home as sparse as they were, told her of the many wonders of that country far across the Atlantic. The scribbled words now held in her aching fingers had taken her to places she knew she would never get to see. But by now they were names recited so often in her loneliness in front of the open Fireplace & Christmas Tree fireplace, that the names and the words from the letters rolled off of her tongue with such smoothness that she could almost taste them.
Names like the Blue Ridge Mountains, Kentucky and the Shenandoah river. Places steeped in so much wonder and beauty that her sons talked about them with a reverence and respect.
As the smoke outside her window caressed the shiny red berries of the old holly tree, the first snow flakes began to fall and she knew that Christmas was indeed all about the giving. For had she herself not given three fine sons to a land she would never get to walk upon.
And so it was with pride that night that she read once again the last few lines of one of the letters in which her son made mention of a new name in that new land.
"Scotch Irish, that's what they call us here in America Ma ... they call us the Scotch Irish."
By Joe McMaster
P.S. - I would just like to say Merry Christmas to all of the sons and the daughters in far off lands who won't be home for Christmas. And to the families who will miss them all so very much.

Irish Language Newspaper Launched

Irish language newspaper launched - Tá Lá Nua le dul as gno Déardaoin ach tá nuachtán laethúil nua anois ar líne - uasdatú 3 uair sa lá - féach - breaking news na Gaeilge - ach nios fearr Lá Eile.

Thursday, 11 December 2008

The Old Thatched House

Ach Tay live in an auld thatched hoose,
A hoose to ca mae’ ain.
Tay sit by an auld herth fire bay Dy.
Or stroll doon a wee country lyne.
Tay ga ootside in the winter’s naght,
And to view the Milky Wy
Tay see the rise O the morning sun,
And the start O a new born Dy

Nay mere fay me the polluted air,
Or the smoke O the passing car
Fay me it’s the life O the young an the free,
An the country life bay far
Tay sit and to see the flight O the birds,
An to hear the howl O the fox by naght
It’s a sight an a soond that you’ll ne’er firget
An it will cheer your hearts delaght.

Nay mere fay me do I hear ye siy,
Nay mere, nay mere fer us.
Turn bak; turn bak to the dys of auld,
Tay the dys O nay flatter or fuss;
Tay sit at a table spread wiy food,
Prepared in the auld, auld wiy.
Tay hae an tay eat that natural meat,
An to sup that auld boul of tae;

Tay smell the air O the grilling fish,
O’er a fire O the Tirf and the Glow.
Tay pick the bones bare O that beautiful fish,
That we done in those yiars lang ago;
Nay mere fay me this man made meat,
That is tinkered wiy in every wine.
I’d rather eat grass and know that it’s guid,
Than to eat O the meat O the Dy;

Nay mere fay me this fat, and that Oil
Or food that’s been tampered with;
Just gae me the food that is naturally grown,
On the natural soils O earth;
To think O the naght’s O the candle laght
When we played in the frost and the snaw.
Tak me back, tak me bak, to that beautiful time
That, we, lived in those long years a gae.

By Ivan Knox, 22nd day of September 2003. ©
2nd Prize Winner in the Frances Brown Poetry Competition Sponsored by Ulster Scots Association and organized by The Finn Valley Voice News Paper Oct 2008.

Wednesday, 10 December 2008

Finding My Family Roots in County Antrim


Bob Wilson

Beaufort SC USA

Back in 1997, after having been away from my original hometown at Newburgh, New York, for some ten years, I traveled there from my home in nearby Connecticut to begin the task of tracing the roots of my several ancestral families’ roots to their origins in Scotland, Northern Ireland, the Irish Republic, and in England.

To begin with, I went to the Old Town Burying Ground in Newburgh where I made note of the markings on my paternal grandmother’s grandfather’s plinth/headstone in the Wiseman family plot there.

His name was Archibald Wiseman and the inscription on the stone says he “died at sea” on May 9th, 1853” at age 40. Aside from the fact that I had once heard from my grandmother that Archibald’s origin was from somewhere in Ulster, that was all that I knew about him at that time. Beginning with that information, and from a subsequent visit to the Local History Room of the Newburgh Free Library, I learned that Archie had married in the local Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church on December 25th, 1838.

At the same time, I posted an inquiry on the Wiseman Family Message Board at Rootsweb, and also contacted the official historian of the Wiseman Family Association in the US, who keeps collected genealogies of any Wiseman family in the US, regardless of their origin. The message board posting soon brought two responses: one from another Wiseman family descendant now living in Ballymena who believed we might have a common family link, and another from a professional genealogist in New Jersey who was on an assignment for another Wiseman descendant whose ancestry had been traced back to Newburgh where an ancestor of his was born in 1844. From Ballymena, my contact referred me to an item in the “Ordnance Survey Memoirs 1833-1835 for County Antrim” that reported that a young 20-year-old man named Archibald Wiseman, from the Ballywatermoy Townland (now in the Glarryford area of Antrim), had left his home land in 1833, “bound for America.” I believe that he went to Liverpool at that time, and in the autumn of 1836, left from there to New York on the bark “Lanark”, perhaps in the company of a young wife or female relative with the same surname.

Soon after learning of Archie’s 1838 marriage (to my fellow ancestor, Susan Clyde), I consulted the 1840 US Census, and failed to find him… at first. Then I did find him there, under the name of “Achabad” Wiseman, with a wife and two young children, and employed as a clerk in a grocery store. This led me to the 1850 Census, where he and several members of his family appear with their ‘correct’ and complete names, and he is listed as a ‘brewer’ by profession. One of his children was a daughter Elizabeth, born in 1842, who was my maternal great grandmother.

The last reference I have to Archibald is that his marker in the burying ground says, as I noted above, that he died at sea in 1853. I have found no explanation or elucidation on that fact even though I’ve been looking for something for the past seven years. But I now know much more about Archibald than I did when I began this hunt.

And as a footnote to this, my son and I took a trip to Antrim while on the island, during a trip to the Republic. There, in Ballymena, we met with my presumed remote Wiseman family cousin and his son. He took us on a drive out to Cullybackey where there are several Wisemans interred in a churchyard there, and then over to the BallywatermoyTownland now in the area of Glarryford, where we visited the site of property at one time owned by Patrick Wiseman. Patrick was evidently part of our mutual family, gave the land on which a Gospel Hall was built in the mid-19th Century, and has his picture on page 22 of “Sandy’s Story”, a pamphlet published in 1991 by the Ballymena Borough Council.

Footnote: Another of my ancestral lines, the Wilsons, I believe may have originated in Ulster with the birth of my great grandfather and namesake, Robert Wilson, in 1826. However, because this name is so ordinary in all parts of the U. K. and Ireland, I’ve never been able to determine exactly from whence he came. He first appears in an early, circa 1860 New York City directory as a milkman, but that’s the absolute sum of all that I know of him prior to his later residence for 30-some years in Brooklyn, New York.

...a picture of the Patrick Wiseman farmhouse/barn just up the lane behind the present church on the grounds of the old Gospel Hall and churchyard

...a photo of the headstone of Patrick Wiseman in that churchyard

...a photo of our presumed cousins with my son at the right, taken in the parking area for the present church on Ballywatermoy Road