Thursday 31 May 2012

Celtic Roots Craic! 52 – 'On the wings of an eagle'

Eagle Wing at sea
Last show I talked a bit about Belfast's new Titanic Quarter and the Titanic Belfast centre.  Last Saturday we had a bit of a wander down there in the sun and checked out the facilities on offer.  There's no free parking and you have to be prepared to do a bit of walking to get anywhere.

The SS Nomadic – sister ship to Titanic, Britannic and Olympic, and the only ship remaining of the White Star Line – is currently in the dry dock at Abercorn Basin being re-furbished.  Nomadic was used to carry 1st and 2nd class passengers from Cherbourg out to the Titanic and Olympic.

At the moment there is also a small Belfast Harbour Marina, with temporary facilities, in Abercorn Basin at the back of the Odyssey building.  Eventually, as the Titanic Quarter is developed this marina will move to the dock below the famous Harland and Wolff cranes, Goliath and Samson.

The Titanic wasn't the only ship to leave Ireland for the USA and not to arrive.  In fact, the very first ship to leave here for America was the Eagle Wing, which set off as early as 1636!  The ship was named from verses in Exodus and Isaiah, referring to the children of Israel being "carried on eagles' wings" and "soaring on wings like eagles".  This ship was built at Groomsport Harbour, on the southern shore of Belfast Lough, from 1631 on.  In 1636, 140 Presbyterian men, women and children – including four ministers – set sail for the New World in order to escape the limitations on their religious freedom, being imposed upon them by the Church of England and the English government.

Although the province of Ulster had been planted largely with Scots Presbyterians in the early 1600s, the province had subsequently been divided up into Anglican parishes, with some Presbyterian and Puritan ministers being allowed to minister in a few parishes.  Four Scots Presbyterian ministers – Blair, Welch, Livingston, and Dunbar – twice excluded from ministering in their churches, began to make plans to travel to the New World.  They made contact with Cotton Mather in New England and were assured that they would be free to practise their own unique form of Christianity there.  They sent over an agent who selected a tract of land near the mouth of the Merrimack River, on the border between Massachussetts and New Hampshire,

Groomsport Harbour and village, Co. Down
The 150 ton ship set sail from Lockfergus (present day Carrickfergus) on the north shore of Belfast Lough – with Blair, Livingston and two other preachers, Hamilton and McClelland, aboard.  They immediately had some trouble with unfavourable winds off the coast of Scotland, and grounded the ship to look for leaks in the keel.  Setting off again, they managed to cover more than half of the journey, but then encountered very stormy seas, high winds and heavy rain, resulting in a broken rudder – mended by the captain, Andrew Agnew – torn sails and other serious damage to the ship, which also sprung a leak.  Even when several passengers became sick and two died – a child and an old person – they remained 'cheerful and confident'.  One child was born during the journey and was baptised by Mr. Livingston, who named it, Seaborn.

The captain and crew told the ship's company that it was impossible to hold out any longer, with more storms to be expected before they could reach their goal.  Eventually, after much prayer and discussion, the passengers agreed to give in to their urging.  The Eagle Wing turned back for Ireland and entered the harbour at Lockfergus again on 3rd of November, after an absence of about eight weeks.

The company of the Eagle Wing, having sold all their possessions to buy goods to trade in America, and with people they had hired to help them to fish and to build houses there demanding their wages, were a good deal worse off than before they set sail.  The four ministers, still not accepted in Ireland by the ruling authorities, returned to Scotland the following year, where they had more success.  They were welcomed by the people there and became instrumental in the subsequent overturn of the episcopal form in Scotland, which has been largely Presbyterian ever since.

Eventually, more settlers from Ulster did make it to Boston and Portland in 1718, the passengers immediately inquiring about the piece of land on the Merrimack River – very likely Londonderry, New Hampshire – where they then settled.  More and more ships brought Ulster Scots settlers to America, in turn becoming pioneers and frontiersmen.  As they established each new settlement, they would first build a fort for protection from the natives and then they would build a church and a school. 

The Rev. Francis Makemie came from Ulster to America in 1683 and organised the first Presbyterian Church in America, becoming the "Father of American Presbyterianism", and in the years that followed, Ulstermen played a tremendous part in the spread of Presbyterianism in America.  Ulster Scots settlers founded schools all over the country. One of the most notable being William Tennent's Log College, founded at Neshaminy in Pennsylvania, which became the forerunner of Princeton University.

They were also involved in politics and were instrumental in the Declaration of Independence, at least eight of the signatories being of Ulster Scots background.  The document was originally handwritten by Charles Thompson, from Maghera, Co. Londonderry, and it was printed by John Dunlap, an Ulster Scot from Strabane.  At least fourteen US presidents have had Ulster Scots origins, with several others having maternal links.  From 1881-1904 the US had a continuous 23 year run of Ulster Scots presidents!  Hopefully, we've made a positive contribution, rather than otherwise!