The McConnells and related families
 

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Links


Family trees

McConnell / Gawn family tree
Family trees of the McConnell and Gawn families

Meharry family tree
Family trees of the Meharry and Parr families

Maps

Northern Ireland

The branch of the family from which my paternal grandfather descends has its origins in Northern Ireland, in particular County Antrim. James McConnell (snr.), Thomas McConnell, Agnes Gawn and probably Anna Ridges were all born within a few miles of each other in the land between Ballyclare and the town of Antrim, at around the turn of the 18th/19th centuries. The Meharry family came from Crawfordsburn in nearby County Down. At that time the whole of Ireland was part of the United Kingdom: the process (and the conflict), out of which today's division into Northern Ireland (part of the UK) and the Republic of Ireland emerged, began in the 1920s. Whereas the Republic of Ireland is largely Catholic, in Northern Ireland (six of the nine counties of the historic province of Ulster) both Protestant and Catholic churches are strongly represented; the Presbyterian church (which had its origins in Scotland) is the largest of the various Protestant denominations.

Holestone

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The Holestone in Co. Antrim

Many families in Ulster came over from south-east Scotland (which is visible from the Antrim coast), and the names McConnell and Gawn probably had their origins there. 'McConnell' may derive from Scots Gaelic, 'Mac Dhomhnuill' (the dh would have been pronounced like a k), meaning son of Domhnall (= Donald, Daniel etc.). It may also derive from Irish Gaelic, 'Mac Conaill', meaning son of Conall (which may come from 'cú gal' meaning 'wolf valour').1 The name Gawn, also imported from Scotland, is the Irish version of Gavin, Gawain, Gawayne etc.2 Meharry is the Ulster version of the Irish group of names McGarry etc., meaning 'son of the fearless one'.3

My earliest Ulster ancestors were farmers in these lush, gently rolling hills. Although the families were not landowners, they led a reasonably comfortable existence for the period and the location. In some cases money could be found to send promising sons and daughters to college, who then went on into the teaching or medical professions (see below).

New Zealand

The lives of these families changed completely when gold was discovered in the state of Victoria in Australia in the 1850s, followed by the gold rush in Otago (New Zealand) in the 1860s. Many ambitious young men and women from the McConnell and Gawn families, including the carpenter Samuel McConnell and his wife Agnes, made the arduous journey to these colonies (as they were then), attracted by the prospect of wealth and a new life. They worked as wagoners, farmers, horse breeders and the like. Most stayed there; some, including Samuel McConnell and his family, came back. The main protagonists in this wave of emigration (with initials of the relevant page in brackets) are listed below.

Except where mentioned, all these people and their descendants stayed in New Zealand.

London

In the late 19th century the centre of gravity shifted to London. (The last McConnell of our direct family to live in Co. Antrim was Thomas William, who died in 1972.) Dr. James McConnell, eldest son of Samuel, trained as a doctor in Belfast before moving to London - by 1901 he was living in Battersea. His father-in-law Dr. William John Meharry lived in London during his medical training before starting a practice in Belfast. William's daughter Janie was born in Clapham, and she and James married in Bermondsey in 1898. Their son William Samuel ('Mac') was an anaesthetist in London, and his sons Peter and James were born there.

Family doctors

Some groupings of my ancestors have common threads running through them. One such for the McConnells and the Meharrys is medicine: as mentioned above, several family members entered the medical profession and two rose to the top of it.

More details are given in an article by Donald Alexander, 'Some doctors of Donegore', 2019.

Research

Finding the details and dates of family members in Northern Ireland is not that easy. As well as Familysearch.org and Findmypast.com, I have used Rootsireland.ie; the website of the Public Records Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI) also looks promising (see left for links). But even then, the whole information map is patchy. The first reliable, complete census was not until 1901; birth and death records are sometimes nonexistent, and marriage registers sometimes list only one partner!

Billy Gawn

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Billy Gawn and his wife May in Halftown, 2018
Donald Alexander and Mark

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Donald Alexander in the McConnell pew in First Donegore church, 2018

Unlocking this branch of the family was in fact only possible through the work and generosity of two cousins, without whom my whole family history project would not have got off the ground.

Billy Gawn (born 1933), great-grandson of Thomas Gawn of Halftown, has put together a truly amazing website containing the details of all possible family members, together with transcribed documents and hundreds of photographs, which Billy has given me permission to use. I had the pleasure of meeting him and his wife on my first visit to Ireland in 2018.

Donald Alexander CBE was born in 1937, the grandson of Rachel, Sam and Agnes McConnell's eldest daughter. Polymath, economist, diplomat, historian (like Billy, he has published a history of his local Presbyterian church), and collector of family photos and memorabilia, Donald lives in a beautiful old family farmhouse outside Doagh. When Iris and I visited Ireland in 2018 he put us up in some comfort, and the tour he organised of various McConnell sites had the character of a state visit.

Uncovering my Northern Irish roots, which had initially seemed rather daunting, thus became a great pleasure, thanks to these two kind gentlemen. I thank them for their hospitality and for welcoming me 'back' into the Antrim family.