Roamer: Dramatic tales of body snatching in Doagh

Still dizzy from perching apprehensively on the topmost girders of the Forth Bridge near Edinburgh, Roamer returned to his office (near Newtownabbey’s Doagh Road) to find a reader’s note in his in-tray headed “Body snatchers in Doagh: counter measures!”

Still dizzy from perching apprehensively on the topmost girders of the Forth Bridge near Edinburgh, Roamer returned to his office (near Newtownabbey’s Doagh Road) to find a reader’s note in his in-tray headed “Body snatchers in Doagh: counter measures!”

The reader’s note about Doagh’s body snatchers came with some information and photographs from a local Ancestry and Townlands Project.

The project, which was started in 2013, is entitled An Old World Place.

Enthusiasts have compiled potted histories of a host of remarkable people who came from in and around Doagh, with details from times past to the present day showing how the area has grown and changed over the centuries.

The project’s website at www.doaghancestry.co.uk opens enticingly - “Few places in Northern Ireland of comparable size have as rich a history as the village of Doagh in the Sixmilewater valley of County Antrim.”

The district boasts some extraordinary individuals, including the pioneer of education William Galt and the mechanical genius John Rowan.

Born in the middle of the 18th century, schoolmaster William Galt was instrumental in setting up the Doagh Book Club in 1768.

As well as educating the village’s young folk, he instigated what is thought to be one of the first Sunday Schools in Ireland in 1770.

His Book Club acquired a large collection of literary tomes, as well as books about science, history, mechanics and divinity. The Club also purchased a pair of 18 inch world globes, items that would have been unaffordable to its individual members.

The desire for learning spread throughout the countryside and other reading societies followed suit in Ballyclare, Ballynure, Roughfort, Parkgate and Haytown.

John Rowan built a foundry in Doagh in 1824.

He was a self-taught mechanic who trained and employed 16 workmen, including his three sons.

Rowan was responsible for building Ireland’s first steam coach, and he invented and patented the piston ring.

He nurtured his interest in mechanics in Doagh’s Library.

Other local notables were poet and Book Club member John Alexander, an Irish Volunteer and Freemason who amassed a miniature museum containing antiquities found in the area, and acclaimed historian Samuel McSkimmin who received his early schooling in the Doagh Sunday School.

There were “countless others, whose names have been largely forgotten” the Townlands Project recounts, adding “in the 1790s the village was alive with revolutionary fervour and suffered as a consequence in the wake of the 1798 Rebellion. In the early 1800s it witnessed the excitement of a hunt when the gentry of south Antrim descended on the village. In the later nineteenth century many people found work in the spinning mill. The twentieth and twenty-first centuries have brought their own changes and challenges.”

One of the challenges local folk had to face was body snatching!

Writing about Rashee Old Graveyard just north of Ballyclare, one of the project’s historians, Paul Richmond, refers to the inscriptions on the headstones in the “ancient and well-hidden burial ground screened by mature trees.”

Many of the area’s best known inhabitants are buried there.

Spanning three centuries, the stones “tell of emigration, religion, revolution and attitudes to death, whilst the surnames which appear on the stones, almost all of which are of Scottish origin, highlight County Antrim’s deeply rooted ties with Scotland.”

Paul Richmond beckons us to “the simple, but robust, stone corpse house (or ‘mort house’) of 1831 which stands in the north-western corner.”

The Rashee corpse house of 1831 is similar to one in the nearby Kilbride Parish recorded in an Ordnance Survey memoir written in October 1832:

“The dead bodies are deposited in this vault for six weeks before interment; subscriptions from one guinea to one shilling, non-subscribers pay 10 shillings, which sums are kept. It is supposed to defray the expense of building a new wall round the graveyard, which is now in contemplation.”

However, Richmond’s intriguing account refers to an incident in 1875 “more than 40 years after the threat of bodysnatching had ended” when an elderly man’s body disappeared from a plot at Rashee “under rather different circumstances.”

79-year-old James Johnston had been dug from his plot by Mary Boyce and William Todd who claimed that he had ‘no right’ to it!

When it came to court it was reported that “the place in which the body was finally put had not yet transpired.”

Todd and Boyce were fined five shillings and five pounds.