Monthly Archives: February 2015


[Article 2  on theme of Eugenics]

Promotional letter purportedly written by
James Murray of New York to Rev Baptist Boyd of Aughnacloy – 1737

Reverend Baptist Boyd,
Read this Letter, and look, and tell aw the poor Folk of your Place, that God has open’d a Door for their Deliverance; for here is ne Scant of Breed here, and if your Sons Samuel and James Boyd was but come here, they wad get mere Money in ane Year for teechin a Letin Skulle . . . .
The young Foke in Ereland are aw but a Pack of Couards, for I will tell ye in short, this is a bonny Country, and aw Things grows here that ever I did see grow in Ereland . . .

A few years ago my wife and I decided that where possible we should centre our summer holiday on some cultural event. Accordingly we have visited Vancouver at the time of their Fringe Theatre Festival and Chicago for the Blues Festival. For me however the highlight was our visit to Wilksboro, North Carolina for the Merlefest. This has become an annual event in commemoration of Merle, son of Doc Watson, who tragically died in an accident a couple of decades ago and feeds into our liking for American Folk and Blue Grass music.

It was probably only in my twenties or even later that I became aware of how lacking my south Ulster Presbyterian upbringing was in respect of indigenous culture.  Perhaps I caught a hint of the culture of my Scottish ancestors on the BBC around Hogmanay or Burns night but no more. The family home was well stocked with books but very little music apart from some rather dull church music.
Now I know where my culture went. The Presbyterian emigrants seem to have taken it with them when they left in the eighteenth century. They also took their religion. Wilksboro is a small town with as many different churches as Aughnacloy (where my McWilliam ancestors originated) would have had whisky houses in the 1830s.

Apart from my paternal grandmother,  born in Dublin to Ulster parents, all the ancestors that I know of back to 1800 were born in south Ulster on either side of a line stretching from Newry (in Counties Down & Armagh) to Ballyshannon (in Co Donegal).
Accordingly, although I was aware of Presbyterian emigration to America in the eighteenth century and the more widespread and general emigration from Ireland throughout the nineteenth century, I had never considered emigration as part of the family story.  The results of my DNA test radically changed my perception of this. The test identified over 1,000 genetic cousins of varying degrees. Most people who have taken a DNA test are American  with a few Canadians and Australians so the vast majority of my new cousins are emigrants.

When I examine my genealogy back before 1800 some of the lines simply drop out from lack of information; many of the rest are still in south Ulster. There is however one line that originated further north.  This line first appear in the records when Samuel Murrell leased land in Ballyquin townland, Balteagh parish near Newtownlimavady in Co Londonderry from William Conolly in 1700.

Emigration is recorded from there early in the 18th century and one of the most famous emigrants from the area was Samuel Hamilton, John Steinbeck’s maternal grandfather, who is memorably described in the latter’s novel, ‘East of Eden’. This emigration and John Steinbeck’s search for the birth place of Samuel Hamilton is described by Bobby Forrest in the second post on the linked message board.

My understanding is that East of Eden was originally intended as a family memoir but that Steinbeck subsequently incorporated a fictional element into it.  The book is about two families – the Trasks and the Hamiltons. While the former are fictional the Hamiltons are closely based on Steinbeck’s maternal relations. Two of the books themes’ speak very directly to my interests.  At its heart it is a modern day reworking of the biblical story of Cain and Able with an interesting linguistic analysis of the story. As someone who grew up in a Presbyterian family where the bible was ever present this approach felt familiar. However as a genealogist, it was Steinbeck’s beautiful description of his grandfather, Samuel Hamilton, that most captivated me.

Samuel Hamilton was born in Co Derry about 1830 to a Presbyterian family.  My (3x) great grandfather of mine, Rev James Morell, was born 50 years earlier, in a neighbouring parish. If I adapt the words of Christie Moore in ‘Brendan the Navigator’ – “Is it right or left for Gibraltar?” – Samuel Hamilton in the late 1840s turned right and landing in New York kept going till he reached California while James Morell just before 1800 turned left and landed in Ballybay, Co Monaghan and was ordained a Presbyterian minister. He and many of his descendants remained in this area until quite recently.

There is a scene in East of Eden where Samuel has received an invitation from his daughter, Molly, – Steinbeck’s mother – to come and visit. Hamilton accepts that this visit will be one of a sequence through his family, that he is leaving for ever the farm where he raised his family and that the invitation, in practice, signals the end of his active life. The invitation is not, of course, couched in those terms. Molly has booked tickets for upcoming events in Salinas – Billy Sunday – a noted evangelist – is going to wrestle with the devil while William Jennings Bryan is going to give his ‘Cross of Gold’ speech on the Chautauqua circuit. Hamilton remarks that
“it’s an old fool of a speech but they say he gives it in a way to break your heart”.
At the time I read the book – as a teenager – I’d never heard of Bryan or the Cross of Gold speech but the detail was tucked away in a corner. Recently during an idle moment on the internet I googled it.

Bryan, also a Presbyterian and known as the ‘Great Commoner’, was a three time contender for the American presidency for the Democratic party – in 1896, 1900 & 1908 although he was unsuccessful each time. The main plank of his first candidacy was to go off the gold standard. He believed that this measure would loosen up credit and make money available to farmers and businesses in the mid-west. The measure was opposed by the bankers & financiers in the major eastern cities who profited from the tight money supply and of course characterised Bryan as a mad populist who would wreck the economy.

In the speech he said;
“There are two ideas of government. There are those who believe that if you just legislate to make the well-to-do prosperous, that their prosperity will leak through on those below. The Democratic idea has been that if you legislate to make the masses prosperous their prosperity will find its way up and through every class that rests upon it.”

William Jennings Bryan was a professional politician not an expert in economics; neither am I!  In 1896 I would have voted for Jennings, not on the basis of his economic expertise, but rather because he best reflects my political, social & economic biases.

As a former  professional geneticist I am perfectly aware that there are other issues on which I would disagree sharply with Bryan.