Category Archives: Northern Ireland

250 Years Ago Today — March 17, 1764

Londonderry, Ulster/Northern Ireland
On St. Patrick’s Day in 1764, somewhere in Ireland, a little baby boy was born. He was christened James. Born to a man named Boal and a mother whose name is lost.

It was a Saturday. An ocean away, in British North America, New York City had just begun the tradition of celebrating the day, the first five years without a parade.

Meanwhile, in Ireland, life went on for James. He became a linen and carpet weaver, trades probably learned from his father. James wed in 1787.

James left for America in 1790 with his wife Elizabeth and two children, Margaret and George. They left from Londonderry in the North.

ireland_mapBeing poor, “the trip was made by the cheapest passage.”

It was not a pleasant journey.

“The voyage of three months was a stormy one, during which the ship sprang a leak, and much of the cargo, including some of the goods belonging to the Boal family, was thrown overboard.”

They were devout Presbyterians.

At least one grandson of James, John Shannon Boal, fought in the Civil War.

I doubt James could fathom the chain of events he had instigated with his decision to leave Ireland. How could he foresee that a descendant would write about him on the two hundred and fiftieth anniversary of his birth and that the day, a truly Irish one, would be so widely celebrated?


The Union Jack

I haven’t been keeping up with news from the UK lately, so it was disappointing to hear of rioting and protests in Northern Ireland. It stems, at least superficially, from not hoisting the Union Jack, the flag of Britain, everyday at government buildings, which had been the practice for a very long time.

Some of the clan, the Boal branch, lived in Derry for a time. (Loyalists/Unionists/Protestants call it Londonderry.) Surnames of women who married into the Boal clan include Shannon and Welch. While proud of my Irish heritage, I am so glad my ancestors made the trek to America.

The story of the Union Jack goes back to 1606, the same year Guy Fawkes was tried and executed for his plot to blow up Parliament. The flag was officially adopted on April 12 of ’ 06.


1. Ancestry, the genealogy company juggernaut, has some general information on the Shannon name in the United States, England and Wales, and Scotland.

The Presbyterian Tradition

The First Presbyterian Church in Derry, Northern Ireland
The First Presbyterian Church in Derry, Northern Ireland

While at the central library the other day, I walked down an aisle and noticed some books on Scottish and Irish ancestry.

One, the Handbook on Irish Genealogy, had some good notes on the Presbyterians. It was published by Heraldic Artists Ltd., Trinity Street, Dublin.

My Boal ancestors and related lines were Presbyterians, in Northern Ireland and America. Because of this fact, it is overwhelming likely that they were originally from Scotland.

PRESBYTERIAN RECORDS. The Presbyterian tradition has always been very strong in Ireland ever since the first Minister Edward Brice settled in Ballycarry near Larne in County Antrim in 1613.

I’ve never heard of Brice before nor read of the significance of the year 1613.

[T]he Presbyterian Historical Society has an impressive list of baptismal and marriage registers prior to 1820. Also among the Society’s records are copies of the Religious Census of 1766 for many parishes in Ulster, lists of Protestant householders for counties, Antrim, Derry and Donegal 1740 as well as a census (or what virtually amounts to one) of Presbyterians taken in the year 1775.

Being a rebel in church matters was frowned upon.

Another source of information are the Certificates of Tranference which were given to members leaving a district to show that they were free of church censure. They took the form of brief life histories.

The Presbyterian Historical Society’s HQ is listed as Church House, Fisherwick Place, Belfast. I don’t know if they are still there.

After looking through lists of records on microfilm, sadly, the ones for Derry (also known as Londonderry, which I finally found an explanation for) are quite limited. I am hoping I might find what I’m looking for in Catholic or Anglican archives.

Finally do remember that for historical reasons records of Presbyterian births and marriages will often be found in the registers of the Established Church. So do not overlook that source if your ancestors happen to be of Irish Presbyterian stock.



Another blog I just found thanks to one of my Google Alerts (searching for the keyword Boalsburg) is written by a doctor from Philadelphia. He’s written a series of posts on central Pennsylvania, including one devoted solely to Boalsburg, a town named for the Boal family from Northern Ireland, of which I am a descendant.

They were what’s known as Ulster Scots. Their namesake town is five miles east of State College, home of Penn State and Joe Paterno, who’s been the football coach there for ages. According to the doc, Boalsburg “is by far the most interesting place in Central Pennsylvania” and describes it as “a photographer’s dream, and well worth anyone’s drive around the main streets.”

He gives a tremendous amount of background on just how and why the Ulster Scots, including my Boal and Welch ancestors, decided on specifically immigrating to this part of Pennsylvania.

The Scots in Northern Ireland were much resented by their Roman Catholic neighbors, and gladly accepted James Logan’s offer to come to William Penn’s haven of religious freedom, in return for their settling near the Indians. This was Logan’s solution to the problem of keeping peace between the pacifist Quakers in Philadelphia, and the sensitivities of the Indians about settlers on their ancient lands. The Quakers wanted to avoid conflict with the Indians, wouldn’t sell them either liquor or gunpowder, while Logan was under orders from Penn’s descendants to sell the land. So, being Scotch-Irish himself, he felt confident his relatives would find ways of coping with the problem. Much of the turmoil of Pontiac’s War and the French and Indian Wars, the marauding Paxtang Boys and King George’s War, grew out of the resulting conflicts between the two notoriously combative groups. In any event, this decision explains why Scotch-Irish settled the frontier early, and surprisingly far west of the centers of Pennsylvania Dutch settlement.

One of the traditions among the Ulster Scots is the town diamond, a section of land often used as a public space.

[T]he town itself is laid out around the most perfect surviving example of a Scotch-Irish diamond. . . . The Scotch Irish had a tradition of favoring the cross-roads of two main highways. Their habit was to cut off the four corners of an intersection, leaving a diamond-shaped park in the middle. Traditionally, the enlarged intersection would have a flagpole in the middle.Naturally, the diamond was a good place to put a post office, a general store, or a tavern. A man named Boal put up an early tavern, and this diamond became Boalsburg. . . . [T]here is a log cabin near the diamond, with a dozen Boal tombstones in front of it.

Figuring out how my Boal ancestors fit into the family tree hasn’t been easy. The research on this is far from comprehensive. The details get a little murky. There are so many with the same names that tracking pedigrees is difficult.

At some time, the Boal family moved out of the center of town to a mansion about half a mile away.

It’s not as simple as one Boal family. There were many branches, and whether or not they were all related isn’t clear. However, moving on, the mansion is now a museum.

The walls are hung with dozens of sabers and swords from many different wars, each with its story. There are muskets and rifles, dating back to the Revolutionary War.

Then the story starts getting over-the-top weird, with claims of connections to Spain, Columbus, and Jesus Christ himself.

. . . The walls are covered with trophies and mementos, with five signatures of US Presidents identifiable. Lots of Boals seem to have married lots of European nobility, perhaps in one of these rooms. One old rake is quoted as saying he inherited three fortunes — and spent ’em all. Over and over again the theme emerges: the Boals were a military family, often raising their own regiments. Across the road in what seems surely to have once been Boal property, is the Military Museum, with real battleship cannons at the gate. Memorial Day was started here after the Civil War, and it is the headquarters of the local National Guard Division; it’s by far the most popular tourist attraction in town.

But off in one corner of the side yard of the mansion is a little stone house, perhaps two stories high. It is a replica of the Columbus family chapel in Spain, copied stone for stone. The stories vary somewhat between guides, but apparently two or more relatives were descended from Christopher Columbus, and while one Boal was Ambassador to Bolivia, he married a lady in waiting to the Queen who was also descended. . . . [T]he personal belongings of the Columbus family were judged to be the property of the Boals, so they were moved here to the chapel replica. . . . Two pieces of wood are still shown as pieces of the True Cross of Jesus, with authentication going back to the 5th Century, and numerous hand written journals are there. The Goya paintings and tapestries, and a solid gold crucifix are among the pieces which are now somewhere else. The matter is one of considerable embarrassment. Most of the many pieces which remain, are seemingly of the nature of things which would be enormously valuable if you knew what they were, but just about worthless if you don’t. In a sense, the best protection is the ignorance which surrounds them. The guide last month remembers one day when 27 visitors came to the Mansion, and many days when no one came. As he spoke, you could see at least five hundred cars parked in the Military Museum across the road. There may have been five cars parked in the diamond in the center of Boalsburg. It’s sort of a shame that this would be true, just as it makes you grit your teeth to imagine the indifference the whole place would receive if you moved it to Times Square. But, let’s face it, the main protection for these invaluable pieces of history lies in that general lack of interest in them.


On the Streets Of Belfast

Although the writer gets his facts wrong, it’s nice to know about the monument to the American Expeditionary Force in Belfast, Northern Ireland. It’s on the grounds of the city hall. It’s known as Donegall Square.

My great granduncle was on a ship in Belfast Harbor for a day or two, before disembarking at Liverpool. The troops then took overnight trains, making their way to Winchester, the ancient capital of England, where kings were crowned in the cathedral. They camped for about a week in Winchester, before heading to Southampton to board ships for France.

Various statues stand in the grounds, including one of Queen Victoria by Sir Thomas Brock. There is also a granite column dedicated to the American Expeditionary Force, many of whom were based in Belfast prior to D-Day.

Note that the American Expeditionary Force was the name of the American army during World War I while D-Day was the cross channel invasion of Nazi-occupied France in World War II.


Eight Years of ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ UK

I just read about the latest season of Who Do You Think You Are?, the UK series, and ever since getting hooked on the American version‘s second season, shown on NBC, I am keen to watch, though I don’t recognize any of the so-called celebrities. I’ll be checking YouTube for episodes, which begin airing on BBC1 on August 10. David Suchet’s episode from a previous season is enjoyable. The British incarnation is going into its eighth year.



Since today is Wednesday, I thought I’d write a bit about the origins of the word. It’s odd that Christianity has dominated Western culture for so long, but the days of the week remain, holdovers from the time of paganism. I have a feeling quite a few of my ancestors spoke a variety of Germanic tongues, everything from Old English to proto-German.

Ever since learning my paternal line is Nordic—at least the Y chromosome—I’ve been paying more attention to the Germanic languages and cultures. Wikipedia has some good background on the word.

The name is derived from Old English Wōdnesdæg and Middle English Wednesdei, “day of Wodanaz“, ultimately a calque of dies Mercurii “day of Mercury.”

What I find particularly curious is the change in German, apparently influence from the Slavs, from Wodanstag to Mittwoch. This may have happened in the 10th century.

The German name for the day, Mittwoch (literally: “mid-week”), replaced the former name Wodanstag (“Wodan’s day”) in the tenth century.


William Boal’s Grave

Photos of William Boal’s grave have been posted at the Find A Grave site. These were posted by a volunteer with the Solon History Group. He was buried in the Oakland Cemetery in Solon, Iowa, which is about midway between Iowa City and Cedar Rapids.

William Boal is my four-great grandfather (as in great-great-great-great or 4G). He was the father of Civil War vet John Shannon Boal, grandfather of Nettie Ann Boal, mother of my great grandmother. William was born in 1801 and died in 1880.

The stone is covered with some sort of moss and possibly lichen, so it’s rather difficult to read.

William’s parents were Presbyterians who lived in Northern Ireland, commonly known among the Protestants and the English as Ulster.


Irish Intrigue

Baron Carrickfergus, a royal title recently given to Prince William, is causing some consternation among some Irish folk.

The British decision to revive the title and clearly make sure that nationalists who live in the town are under His Royal Highness is a curious one.

Is it “a deliberate effort to state categorically that a part of Ireland was still under British rule and that the Irish could like it or lump it?”

Carrickfergus is the oldest town in County Antrim. It has been a major port and town in the Province of Ulster for centuries. Its name means Rock of Fergus and it is an older settlement than the capital city of Northern Ireland, Belfast.

I find the historical background fascinating, especially given the fact that some of my ancestors lived in Northern Ireland and were Presbyterians.

Baron Carrickfergus certainly lays claim to disputed land between the Irish and the British, one settled by Protestant planters in the 16th century when the native Irish were driven off.

It was also the landing point for King William of Orange when he arrived in Ireland to enforce Protestant domination.