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The farming family almost destroyed by slaughter of Somme

The World War One death of 23-year-old Tom McKinney had seismic effects that were still being felt a number of generations later

Brian M Walker

Published 01/07/2016

Tom McKinney on his last visit home to Sentry Hill in 1915. Tom stands at back with his sister Elsie. At front, left to right, his aunt Meg McKinney, father John McKinney and aunt Janet Dundee. Photo by his grandfather WF McKinney
Tom McKinney on his last visit home to Sentry Hill in 1915. Tom stands at back with his sister Elsie. At front, left to right, his aunt Meg McKinney, father John McKinney and aunt Janet Dundee. Photo by his grandfather WF McKinney
Postcard from camp in England in early 1915. Tom in centre, Inst school friend Jack McDowell kneeling

For many thousands of families in Ulster in July 1916, the arrival of a telegram from the Infantry Record Office in Hounslow, England, was something to be dreaded. It usually meant that a son had been seriously wounded or killed at the Somme. On July 6, 1916, the McKinney family of Sentry Hill, Carnmoney, in east Antrim, received such a telegram.

It stated: "Regret to inform you your son 5265 Pte McKinney dangerously wounded. 23rd clearing Stn. Regret permission to visit him cannot be granted."

Over the next two weeks, a series of letters would flow between Sentry Hill and the hospital where 23-year-old Tom McKinney lay seriously wounded, until his death on July 19. This correspondence can be viewed today at Sentry Hill, which has become a major visitor centre.

Here, visitors can appreciate in a special way the impact of the war on one family, thanks to the survival of their house and its unique collection of photographs, documents and artefacts.

The McKinneys were Presbyterians who first came to east Antrim as political refugees from the Highlands of Scotland after the Battle of Sherrifmuir in 1715. The family of James McKenzie (as the family was originally known) were Jacobites, while the family of his bride-to-be, Helen Campbell, were government supporters.

By the late-18th century, they were tenants of a small farm at Sentry Hill. Several family members were United Irishmen who were "out" in 1798.

During the 19th century, they "wrought hard" and, by the early 20th century, they were very prosperous, with a farm of 76 acres. They became liberal unionists. In 1914, 82-year-old William McKinney, daughter Meg, son John, grandson Tom and granddaughter Elsie lived at their home at Sentry Hill.

In 1912, Tom had been sent to agricultural college in Co Cavan to prepare him to look after the farm. The outbreak of war changed everything. Tom did not enlist in an Ulster regiment as might have been expected. Instead, in late-1914, with a school friend, 21-year-old Tom joined the Public Schools Regiment in England, for which he was eligible because he had attended the Royal Belfast Academical Institution. He was sent to the 20th Battalion, Royal Fusiliers, at Epsom.

At Sentry Hill, there are many cards and letters sent by Tom to all his family, especially Elsie, from his training camp in England and then from France. This correspondence reveals the countryman's interests, which he carried with him.

On May 6, 1915, he wrote from Epsom: "We are having fine weather here at present and the trees are becoming green. I don't think this country is any earlier than Co Antrim and certainly not so early as Co Down."

When he arrived in France, he continued to write to his family about the countryside. The letters now carried the seal of the Army censor, so there was little detail about the war.

In early-July 1916, however, correspondence of a different type began to arrive at Sentry Hill. No doubt, the McKinneys would have read of the Somme offensive, but they would not have realised that Tom was involved in it until a telegram on July 6 informed them that he had been seriously wounded.

Over the next two weeks, a series of letters arrived at Sentry Hill from France concerning Tom, and a series of letters was dispatched from Sentry Hill to him.

In spite of the war, the postal service was remarkably efficient and fast. Neighbours and friends gathered daily at Sentry Hill to hear the latest news about Tom's condition.

A letter dated July 4 from a J W Ekin gave hope. He wrote: "Dear Mr McKinney - Your son was slightly wounded yesterday with a piece of shrapnel which struck him on the hip. I can assure you that you need not have the slightest anxiety as to "Mac's" (as he is known to everybody) condition.

"I don't know if he has ever mentioned my name to you, but we were at Inst together and came over to Epsom together."

Then from No 1 General Hospital, a letter, dated July 10, arrived from Tom: "Dear Father - I am sure that you have been told a few times already that I have been wounded.

"I am going on as well as can be expected, but it will be a very slow business. I cannot write much as I am very tired and sore. Hoping all at home are quite well, I remain, your affectionate son, Tom."

A series of brief notes began to arrive daily from a Sister Dempster at the hospital. The patient seemed to be improving, until July 14, when they were informed that he was not quite so well as the previous day. By July 17, he was dangerously unwell and, three days later, the family was told of his death.

Two more letters were received from France. The first, written on the day of Tom's death, was from a Sister Harrington. She explained that, as she had recently come from a military hospital in Belfast, he "asked me to write and let his parents know if anything happened to him and to say that he was quite happy and resigned".

She went on: "His wounds were very severe - the right hip being shattered and he suffered greatly from shock. I wonder how he lived so long - he must have been a very strong boy. He was always talking about his home and Belfast."

The second letter, dated July 20, came from a Presbyterian chaplain, Rev J Lynn. He wrote: "I saw him (Tom) the day before yesterday and he spoke of you all at home and only wished he was back again in Carnmoney, where he was sure he would get well, but of course it was impossible to move him.

"I saw him again yesterday, and I think he knew the end was coming and was resigned. I prayed with him and he knew me, but later in the aft, when I went again, he was fast losing consciousness and really past all pain. He passed away quietly at the last."

Subsequent official communication informed the family that Tom had been buried at the Souvenir Cemetery, St Omer. In early 1917, his uniform and personal effects arrived back home.

Tom's death, at the early age of 23, was a stunning blow to the family at Sentry Hill. Besides the personal loss of a much-beloved son, brother and grandson, it also meant the collapse of well-laid plans for Sentry Hill.

William McKinney passed away the following year and John McKinney died in 1934. At Sentry Hill, there now remained only Meg and Elsie McKinney, who were unable to run the farm.

Fortunately, at this stage, Dr Joe Dundee, the son of another of William McKinney's daughters, took over ownership of Sentry Hill, but left his Aunt Meg and Cousin Elsie undisturbed in the house. Joe moved to Sentry Hill only in 1976, after Elsie entered a nursing home.

I first visited Sentry Hill in 1976, by coincidence 60 years after the Somme. If I had visited earlier, I would probably not have been able to view all the letters, photographs and artefacts relating to Tom and the other McKinneys, as Meg and Elsie were very private people.

Now, Joe invited me to write a history of the place and this was published by Blackstaff Press in 1981 with the title Sentry Hill: an Ulster family and farm.

Following the death of Joe Dundee in 1996, his sons, John and Robin, sold Sentry Hill, with all its contents and remaining fields, to Newtownabbey Borough Council, so that the house and the story of the McKinneys could be preserved. After careful restoration, Sentry Hill is now run by Antrim and Newtownabbey Borough Council as an historic house and visitor centre.

Thousands of soldiers from Ireland died during the First World War, but we know very little about them as individuals and family members. At Sentry Hill, the personal story of one such soldier is illustrated in a unique way.

Visitors to Sentry Hill are able to gain a special insight into the life and family background of one 23-year-old soldier who died at the Somme.

A play about Tom McKinney, Tom, written by Philip Johnston, is being performed tonight at the Theatre at the Mill, Newtownabbey (7.45pm; www.theatreatthemill.com) and tomorrow at The Old Courthouse, Antrim (7.30pm, www.antrimandnewtownabbey.gov.uk/boxoffice). Brian M Walker is Emeritus Professor of Irish Studies at Queen's University, Belfast

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