Starting the new year with some of last year’s less-told local links with history

Bathers, painting by George William Russell
Bathers, painting by George William Russell

The year that’s just ended was punctuated with numerous intriguing life stories on Roamer’s pages.

And along with the host of local folk who’re known world-wide for their historic contribution to the march of civilisation were many lesser-told tales about people who didn’t quite make it into the annals of mainstream history, yet they left a substantial legacy to mankind.

George William Russel

George William Russel

Back in March, Englishman Frederick Weatherly was noted as the writer of Danny Boy.

In 1910 Weatherly penned the words to a haunting melody written down by Limavady’s Jane Ross after she heard a blind fiddler playing it in the street.

Today the world knows the words and the tune.

In April last year portraits of the Rev James McGregor, a Presbyterian minister from Aghadowy, adorned several Roamer-pages.

George William 'AE' Russell with Pamela Travers 1934

George William 'AE' Russell with Pamela Travers 1934

Born in Magilligan around 1677, the Reverend McGregor sailed with a large part of his congregation to the New England colonies in the summer of 1718 – the historic Bann Valley Migration that was the genesis of a full-scale exodus from Ireland across the Atlantic.

Rev McGregor became known as ‘the Moses of the Scotch-Irish in America’ and his congregation was one of the ‘foundations’ of today’s USA.

Berkeley Deane Wise was recounted here last Spring, the railway engineer who started chiselling into the Gobbins rocks in May 1901, opening an awesome, coastal cliff-walk to the public that some say is more impressive than the Giant’s Causeway.

And last summer there was a photo here of Last Stand Hill, a shrine to troopers of the US Seventh Cavalry, who fell in what came to be known as Custer’s Last Stand.

Reverend James McGregor

Reverend James McGregor

Amongst the dead were 29 native-born Irishmen, four of them from Ulster.

Later in 2018 the story was told on these pages about Professor Thomas Sinclair, the Belfast surgeon who one of the first doctors to examine the body Baron Manfred von Richthofen after the famous First World War German air ace known as the Red Baron was shot down over France.

And Daniel Houghton, born in Co Tyrone in 1740, was remembered here last year as the explorer who almost discovered Timbuktu in 1791.

One story suggested that he was murdered as he begged for water at a village 200 miles short of the semi-mythical city.

Explorer Daniel Houghton from Tyrone

Explorer Daniel Houghton from Tyrone

Another account said that he died of starvation in the desert.

Several other European explorers perished while attempting to find Timbuktu before Edinburgh’s Major Gordon Laing finally got there in 1825, only to be murdered in the desert on his way home.

Many women had a prominent profile on Roamer’s pages during 2018, but today’s final, seasonal, lookback focuses on just one of them, from last July, who’s suddenly very popular again.

With the old year ended and a new one just beginning, and after their first adventure with their magical nanny in 1964, Jane and Michael Banks have grown up, and Michael has three children.

And yes – ‘Mary Poppins Returns’ to help them again!

The film is here and around the world, a magical family epic perfectly appropriate to the collective festive mood that we all share at this time of the year.

Custer's Last Stand. Painting by Edgar Samuel Paxson

Custer's Last Stand. Painting by Edgar Samuel Paxson

But last July Roamer-readers discovered a little-told local link, revealed by Portadown-based historian Brian McKernan, who told News Letter readers that he’d discovered a very important grave at the top corner of St Mark’s graveyard in Armagh.

The grave is the last resting place of the family of George William Russell (1867-1935), a hugely distinguished poet, painter, writer (and lots more besides!) who originally came from Lurgan.

Better known as ‘AE’ Russell, George was very friendly with the Australian author of Mary Poppins, Pamela Travers, during the last 10 years of his life.

“They holidayed together and he helped her to develop the characters, plots and stories which became the Mary Poppins books,” said Brian McKernan.

Having studied and researched AE Russell’s life and work for over a year Brian explained “it was almost like discovering the true story of Saint Patrick!”

The newly-discovered gravestone listed Russell’s grandparents, parents, sister and aunt, something that local historians have long wondered about “given that the family moved to Dublin when Russell himself was an 11-year-old.”

The key to unlocking the mystery first turned when Brian found that Russell’s grandfather had resided, towards the end of his life, at the Sheil’s Almshouse at Tower Hill in Armagh.

From there, a little further investigation led to the Russell family’s headstone in nearby St Mark’s.

Brian was “delighted to uncover the information” and to find that “although they lived their lives out in Dublin, Russell’s parents and sister returned to Armagh for burial.”

“This adds real strength to our picture of Russell as a ‘Northerner’” added Brian.

Russell was a brilliant painter with his own unique style and a celebrated poet and close friend of W B Yeats.

“He was a leading political and economic commentator and reformer throughout Ireland’s revolutionary period,” Brian told me. “But unlike many of that generation, he 
remained a committed pacifist.”

So the link was authoritatively established between Lurgan-born Russell and one of Walt Disney’s most iconic film characters. Just about every one of us has seen Julie Andrews as Mary Poppins, singing along with Dick Van Dyke, and now we can celebrate the New Year by seeing ‘Mary Poppins Returns’.

Have a very happy one and please keep sending your stories to Roamer during 2019.