Natives of Rathlin

John McCurdy tracks down emigrants from Rathlin

Five hundred people left Rathlin Island between 1840 and 1850. The population of the island would have been around 2,000, so this would have been a terrible shock to the community. Sitting having great craic with my grandfather, uncles and aunts about the ould times gone by, fuelled my interest to hear more. I endeavoured to find out where the people in these wonderful stories had gone.
To find where all these hardy islanders had gone would be impossible, so I decided to try to follow a few. Father McAteer was the island priest and provided information from the parish records along with information from public records.
The search for information was greatly improved by the visit of an American, Patricia Townsend McCurdy. Patricia McCurdy’s great, great grandfather had left Rathlin when he was 17 years old on a ship called The Napier. This ship had come to Church Bay to take some of the five hundred islanders to America. Their destination was St Johns, New Brunswick. This ship had been organised by the Gage family, who were the landlords.
Patricia spoke of a town called Lubec, in northern Maine on the border with Canada. A whole community of Rathlin people had settled in this area. This is where Patricia’s ancestors had settled.
Patricia had fulfilled a lifelong dream to visit her great, great grandfathers place of birth. Father McAteer erected a commemorative stone on the island to remember those 500 islanders who took their families and crossed the vast ocean into the unknown.
Some years passed and in 2001, my wife and I decided we must make the trip to America to follow the trail of my ancestors. Unfortunately the tragic events of 9/11 happened a month before we were due to leave which cast doubt on the safety of our trip. Then again, considering the hardship of the islanders in the 1840s this trip wouldn’t compare.
We flew from Belfast to Heathrow to Washington, where we spent a few days exploring the city before flying to Bangor, Maine. On arrival we hired a car to drive up the coast to Lubec.
There were lots of little harbours with lobster fishermen. At one harbour a couple were coming in with their lobster pots. During the conversation I learnt that his surname was Morrison, a name common to Rathlin. This gentleman had ginger hair, just as those on the island. He only knew his ancestors came from Co Antrim.
On arrival in Lubec, I discovered my name – McCurdy – all over the town. McCurdy’s smokehouse at the harbour had been owned by James McCurdy and employed 12 workers, all of whom, like himself, were from Rathlin. Unfortunately this building is derelict and decaying away.
McCurdy’s featured on the war memorial in the centre of town. The chapel had stained glass windows donated by the McCurdy families. I was slowly building up a picture of the islanders who had left their island home and settled in Lubec.
The landscape was actually quite similar and fishing, particularly lobsters, was plentiful. I met a local fisherman, another McCurdy, whose ancestors had come from Rathlin. He agreed to take us and show us around the local graveyard.
We drove about a mile out of town with our local friend, or perhaps my relation, to a place called Trescott. The graveyard was at the side of the road. The headstones had all the familiar names – McCurdy, McFaul, McQuaig, Smith, Craig, McCoy, Black, Anderson, Horan, Morrison and so on, all family names familiar to me on Rathlin. On the bottom of each headstone the inscription read, ‘Native of Rathlin Island’.
This was a very emotional moment. I could feel the hairs rise on the back of my neck! I felt these people had been waiting for me and wondered what had kept me all this time. I was the first Rathlin islander to arrive there since their journey over 100 years before. I was happy to stand there among those proud islanders.
Further research in the land records showed that the islanders owned quite a lot of land. They helped each other to purchase land. At one stage collectively they would have owned 12,000 acres. They sold land to mining companies who found coal and silver.
I took lots of photographs and made new friends but unfortunately it was soon time to return to Rathlin. I have shared my trip with everyone with a slide show and lots of stories. One such story is about an Islander called John Horan, son of Alexander Horan. In 1825, John and two others, one named John Anderson, signed on as crew on a ship to make a voyage to America.
The ship came into Church Bay, Rathlin Island and the three started without a day’s notice. John Horan was a ship’s carpenter and the other two were seamen. When they arrived in America, John Horan went to visit his brother who had settled in New Orleans. Later John then travelled North to New York. In 1826, he wrote for his father, wife and family to come to America.
In those days there were no ocean steamers, so emigrants travelled by sailing vessel. The journey often took eight to ten weeks. The ports nearest to Rathlin with ships sailing to America were Derry or Glasgow. These sailed to St. Johns, New Brunswick. The Horan family sailed on a ship called the William Pitt.
John Horan travelled from New York to St Johns to meet the family. After waiting some weeks he gave them up for lost and took a ship to Eastport to take up employment. The family arrived a few days later in St Johns and by a twist of fate took up lodgings in the same place that John had stayed a few days earlier. They were able to make contact a few days later.
The family could easily not have met up at all – pure luck. John bought a farm at Pembroke, which is still there to this day. This story was among Judge McFaul’s papers in Pembroke.