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Complexity of this island's history in one family's tale

Queen's historian Brian M Walker has long known of his family connection to John Lonsdale - 'the forgotten leader of Ulster unionism' - but to one of the leaders of the Easter Rising, too? Incredibly, it's all too true

Published 07/06/2016

Unionist politician John Lonsdale
Unionist politician John Lonsdale
1916 rebel Michael Mallin

As a historian, I followed with great interest the recent commemorations of the Easter Rising. To my great surprise, however, I discovered I had a family connection with those events.

I was aware of relatives in the unionist camp at this time, in particular John Lonsdale, MP for Mid Armagh. Growing up, I heard my maternal grandmother speak of Lonsdale, although I could not understand our family links with him.

Lonsdale was not only a leading politician. He was also very wealthy. There was very little written about him, few people today have heard of him and there was no evidence about how we were related to him.

Some 15 years ago, I decided to carry out research. Through a newspaper report of the family members attending the funeral in 1908 of my great grandfather, Robert Orr, of Ballymagerny near Loughgall, Co Armagh, I discovered Lonsdale was his first cousin and his mother had been a Lonsdale.

Further research revealed that, 50 years earlier, the Orrs and Lonsdales were tenant farmers in the Loughgall area. In the 1860s, however, the Lonsdales decided that, rather than producing and selling butter locally, they would buy other farmers' butter and sell it to the English market.

They established their first butter depot in Armagh city and then set up similar depots in many parts of Ireland. In the 1880s, they moved the centre of their operations to Manchester and imported agricultural produce from Ireland and countries of the Empire. The business was very successful

In 1901, the parliamentary seat for Mid Armagh fell vacant and 50-year-old Lonsdale returned from Manchester to be elected as MP. In 1903, he became secretary of the Irish unionists at Westminster and helped to revitalise unionism, leading to the establishment of the Ulster Unionist Council in 1905. In 1911 he was tipped as a possible leader of the party, but in the end he was the person delegated to ask Sir Edward Carson to take the position.

In 1917, when Carson joined the British war Cabinet, Lonsdale became leader of the party for a year. In 1918 he vacated his seat and entered the House of Lords as Lord Armaghdale. He died in 1923, leaving the very large sum of £300,000, none of which came to our family, unfortunately.

To my great surprise, however, just two months ago I discovered another relative with a very different political background. On March 10, I received an email with the message: "I think we are related".

It came from one Barry Cunningham, who lives in California. He revealed that he was the great-grandson of my great-uncle, Dr David Walker, an early student of Queen's College Belfast, who gained fleeting fame in 1859 as a member of the Fox expedition, which solved the mystery of the lost Sir John Franklin. Later, he joined the American cavalry as a surgeon before becoming a doctor in Portland, Oregon, where he died in 1917.

Barry wrote how his wife, Glenise, had been carrying out research and discovered that his grandmother was 11-year-old Blanche Walker, listed in an 1880 census as a daughter of Dr David Walker. They traced my address because of an article I had written on my great-uncle. He remarked they were planning a trip to Ireland for a reunion in May.

Then came the bombshell. He wrote: "My wife is related to Michael Mallin, one of the 16 leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising". I have to say that, while I knew all about James Connolly and Patrick Pearse, I didn't know about Michael Mallin.

A quick search of the web filled me in. Mallin served more than 12 years in the British Army and then became a Dublin trade unionist. At Easter 1916, he was chief-of-staff of the Irish Citizen Army and commandant of the rebel garrison in St Stephen's Green and the Royal College of Surgeons.

After his surrender, he sought to minimise his role. He claimed that, on Easter Monday, he turned up for what he thought were just military manoeuvres, not a rebellion. He stated that Connolly had told him nothing and that Countess Markievicz was the commandant at St Stephen's Green.

Some have held Mallin's defence against him. The family believe he was trying to avoid death because of his wife and his five children. He tried to blame Countess Markievicz, because he reckoned - correctly - that the authorities would not execute a woman, especially after the uproar caused by the German execution of British nurse Edith Cavell in 1915. His arguments were not accepted and he was executed by firing squad on May 8, 1916.

I emailed back to Barry to ask how his wife was related to Michael Mallin and why they were coming in May, rather than April during all the commemorative events. Glenise replied and explained that her grandfather, Thomas, was a brother of Michael Mallin. Her father went to England in the 1930s to play professional football, including time with Manchester United. She wrote: "My father, Irish Catholic, married my mother, English, Church of England, during World War II. This did not go over well with the Irish family at first." The family moved to Canada and finally to the USA. They lost touch with their Irish relatives, but these were re-established.

She explained: "The reason we are coming to visit in May is for a family gathering that is taking place on May 8 - the day that Michael Mallin was executed by the British."

I replied to Glenise to invite Barry and her to Belfast. They arrived in Ireland at the beginning of May. On Sunday, May 8, Glenise attended an official commemorative service at Kilmainham prison in honour of Michael Mallin.

Five days later, they came to Belfast and I showed them round places connected with David Walker. Then they departed for Scotland and England to visit Glenise's relatives.

The story had one final twist. Last weekend, I heard from my cousin, Ruth, in England, who met Barry and Glenise at the end of their trip. She showed them a copy of our family tree, researched by my uncle. It was noticed that David Walker married in 1872 and to a widow who had three children, including Blanche, grandmother of Barry. They had another four children. This caused great surprise.

However, Blanche was only three years of age when her mother married David Walker, so he was probably the only father she remembered. Blanche died in 1910, but the newspaper account of David Walker's death in 1917 recorded the presence at his bedside of his daughter Ethel and another of his stepdaughter's, Constance. Clearly, David Walker was close to all his children.

These events have reminded me of the complex nature of Irish history and of how our different community and family histories are interconnected. At a personal level, I am delighted to have discovered two very charming - and interesting - long-lost relatives.

Brian M Walker is Professor Emeritus of Irish Studies at Queen's University, Belfast and author of A Political History Of The Two Irelands: From Partition To Peace (Palgrave Macmillan)

Belfast Telegraph

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