Intriguing local family connection behind headlines of world history
A Blue Plaque in the townland of Conagher, Dervock, marks the ancestral home of William McKinley, the 25th president of the United States (1897-1901) and of Scots-Irish ancestry.
His Conagher ancestor, Francis McKinley, was hanged in Coleraine (from a tree in front of St. Patrick’s Church, the legend goes) for his part in the United Irishmen rebellion of 1798.
But there’s much more to the story, as frequent Roamer-contributor Mitchell Smyth found.
A lot of it is told in a New York Press article, a newspaper that flourished in the late 19th century and into the 20th.
It’s a story of victory, defeat, loyalty and betrayal.
Here is the article, from 5 October 1896, when William McKinley, then aged 53, was running for the presidency. (Francis McKinley is mistakenly called Wm., short for William).
The article was headlined ‘Major McKinley’s Brave Ancestor’; McKinley had been a Major in the U.S. Civil War.
“In a little graveyard in Derrykeighan, among the fair hills of Antrim, is a moss-grown, ivy-wreathed monument. Long ago it was erected there by the hands of sturdy Presbyterian patriots who wished to honour the memory of one who had passed from among them, sacrificed to the cause he and they loved.
“The body of their comrade a few months before had dangled from a gallows in the public square in Coleraine. That comrade was Wm. McKinley of Dervock.
“In the valley below the town by the bank of the Bush, night after night before the outbreak of ‘98 the young farmers of the neighbourhood led by McKinley, their Captain, prepared to take a part in the coming struggle which they fondly hoped would bring to Ireland the blessings of liberty which their kith and kin had won in the land beyond the eastern ocean.
“McKinley and his men went south past Ballymena until they joined McCracken’s forces. They were with him at the battle of Antrim when victory for a time blessed the army of the patriots and they were among the last to seek safety in flight when accident working for the British turned the tide to defeat and disaster.
“McKinley ventured back to Dervock believing himself safe among his old neighbours who would be sure to baffle the hunting parties.
“At Dervock lived a family named Smith. The Smiths were not in the best of odour in the community. No one would think for a moment of taking one of these Smiths into the United men and the head of the house, Chestnut Smith, always made expression of his loyalty to the Crown.
“McKinley’s hiding place was kept a close secret and except to the most trusted it was given out that he had escaped to America. The Yeomen (British Army citizen militias) frequently searched the homes in Dervock and all around it.
“Four months passed and McKinley’s home was a blackened ruin and his family had to depend on neighbours for shelter. The visits of the red-coated marauders to Dervock had grown less frequent and McKinley and his friends began to think he could come out of hiding and make an effort to get out of the country…”
“Before they could put their plan in execution Smith happened to call in the house in which McKinley was concealed and an indiscretion on the part of one of the inmates aroused his suspicions. Not many minutes later he was on his way to Coleraine with word for the Captain of the ‘Yoes.’ That afternoon a strong force of soldiers took possession of Dervock and McKinley was captured.
“The redcoats set fire to the home in which he was concealed and he was obliged to surrender. In those days in Ireland there was little delay or ceremony about the trial of a patriot.
McKinley was marched to Coleraine where before sundown he was tried by drum-head court martial and sentenced to be hanged.
“That night he was swung off a cart and when the soldiers got tired of jabbing his body with their bayonets his head was cut off and fixed on a spike at the Town Hall.
“Two of McKinley’s uncles, James and William, had come to this country (America) several years before, having been driven from their homes for their opposition to English misrule and from one of them is descended from the William McKinley who today seeks the highest honour within the gift of the people.”
That is the end of the New York Press article.
The last sentence, of course, refers to McKinley’s run for the U.S. presidency. He won the presidential race in November 1896, one month after this article appeared. He won re-election in 1900.
William McKinley was assassinated in September 1901, while attending the Pan American Exposition in Buffalo, New York.
The two uncles mentioned in the last paragraph of the New York article, William and James McKinley, settled in Ohio, and Francis’ family joined them there.
James’ great-grandson, William, was the father of the future president.
And to end the story he so kindly shared here today, Mitchell Smyth added this fascinating snippet of information.
“We all have skeletons in our closets. Mine is the Chestnut Smyth (or Smith, as spelled in the article), who betrayed Francis McKinley to the Redcoats. That family later sold up and moved to Gortconney, Ballycastle, where in the fullness of time Samuel Chestnut Smyth was born. Samuel Chestnut Smyth was my father.”