Hands up, who thinks that a good day out is walking around graveyards? OK, so it’s just me then! I must confess that I find reading headstones fascinating and intriguing. I wonder what stories lie behind the brief details given. Take this gravestone for example.
It is in Donacloney Presbyterian graveyard in County Down. Around are fertile green fields that once grew heavy with flax for the Ulster linen industry. Nearby, the River Lagan wanders its way towards Belfast and the ports that shipped linen to English merchant houses and onwards to America. In fact, the name Donacloney means, ‘the church in the meadow’ and to this day it is still perfectly named.
The inscription on the gravestone reads like this:
Sacred to the memory of David Stuart Late of Rose Hall Who departed this life January 1st, 1825 aged 59 years. Also his daughters, Mary died July 7th, 1825 aged 29 years, Magdalene October 25th, 1817 aged 3 years, Also his son William Who died in the Isle of Wight July 17th, 1840 aged 40 years, Likewise, Margaret the beloved wife of the above named David Stuart Who departed their life December 1st, 1848 aged 79 years.
At first glance this gravestone does not seem that extraordinary. Yes, it records the sad death of a three-year-old child and maybe some fancy place called Rose Hall. Nothing reveals the remarkable story and journeys of the Stuart family of Rose Hall that I’m about to tell you.
The story begins, like many Ulster families, in Scotland where the Stewart or Stuart clans once ruled. Some of their descendants moved to Ulster to start a new life.
We pick up the Ulster story with David Stuart living in Ballydogherty townland outside Markethill in County Armagh. He is a successful farmer growing flax for the linen trade and running a scutching mill. In 1791 David and Margaret Gillis marry. Eleven of their twelve children are born in Ballydogherty. They then move to a farmhouse in Lawrencetown in County Down called Rose Hall.
Rose Hall has a fascinating history. I want to take some time to say something about the family that first lived in it.
Built in the 1600s, Rose Hall is the ancestral home of the Monroe family of Tullylish. This family can trace its roots back to the shores of Lough Foyle and takes its name from the River Roe. The Monroe family living in Roes Hall, as it was first called, made an impact in Irish politics and society.
Henry, builder of Roes Hall, was at the 1689 Siege of Derry. Dolly Monroe, born 1740, was a socialite in Dublin circles, famous for her beauty. Her cousin Henry was a linen merchant and one of the leading lights of the United Irishmen movement.
Another branch of the Monroe family in Scotland went to America and provided the fifth president, James Monroe. This is a tenuous link between Roes Hall and an American president. As we will see later, a boy born in this very house became an influential figure in two presidential administrations.
In what year the Monroe family left Roes Hall I know nought.
Sometime before 1816, David Stuart bought the house which was now called Rose Hall. The last of David and Margaret’s 12 children was born here, giving them six girls and six boys.
Daughter Magdalene sadly died as a young child. Magdalene and her younger brother George were in a horse cart when the horse ran away. She was fatally injured. David Stuart and his daughter Mary died in 1825.
Ann Jane, John, William, James, Joseph, David and George all emigrated to the United States.
Sarah, Margaret and Rachel stayed in Ireland. Rachel married David Aughiltree and lived in Markethill. Her mother Margaret moved in with them. She lived there until she died in 1848 aged 80. With no one left in Rose Hall, the farm was sold. Margaret Stuart's death notice in The Newry Telegraph describes her. 'In her were combined the affectionate wife, the kind and indulgent parent, the agreeable and hospitable member of society.'
From Rose Hall in Lawrencetown, David and Margaret Stuart raised a family that went on to establish merchant houses in Philadelphia, New York, Manchester and Liverpool. Some opened banks in Philadelphia and New York. They were elders and Sunday teachers in the Presbyterian Church in Ireland and America. One was a close aide to two United States Presidents.
The family in America never forgot about their Ulster roots. They made frequent visits back to Ireland.
In 2018, a family descendent from Massachusetts kindly donated a collection of lace passed down through generations of the Stuart family in America. There are pieces of Irish-made lace among this collection, a link to home.
In the next blog I will tell you more about the Stuart family in America.