Samuel and Agnes McConnell
New Zealand pioneers who returned to Antrim





Other sources

  1. The Parkgate Presbyterians - the First Donegore Story, by Donald Alexander, 2011
  2. Various correspondence with Donald Alexander

Family trees

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


Other information

Robert Gawn wagons
Some of Robert Gawn's wagons

Photo courtesy of Billy Gawn

Wagons on their way to the goldfields

The coloured picture, above right, in the possession of Donald Alexander, is signed "A. McConnell, Feb '05". It is presumably a print of the above photo which has been coloured, or a very good freehand watercolour copy of the photo. The signature is probably Agnes, or possibly Annes Jane or Alexander. The photo itself is from the time in New Zealand, i.e. ca. 1865-1877, and the painting is thus from some 28 years later.

Laurel Hill Farm


Laurel Hill Farm, Strand Road, 2018
Samuel McConnell in Dunedin
Samuel McConnell in Dunedin

Photo (ca. 1875) courtesy of Donald Alexander

Agnes McConnell
Agnes McConnell (daughter of Thomas McConnell)

Photo (from 1862) courtesy of Donald Alexander

The wave of emigration from Ireland to the colonies and former colonies that started in the 18th century, accelerated by the famine of 1840s, brought many Irish families to the United States and Australia. The latter country became especially attractive following the discovery of gold in Victoria and New South Wales in the 1850s. This was followed by the New Zealand gold rush of the 1860s, centred around the Otago region. Many 'pioneers' from Ireland set down roots there, including Martha Ann and two others of Thomas McConnell's children, and four members of the Gawn family. Some came back to Ireland, for example Martha Ann's brother James, and Samuel and Agnes McConnell, who were able to use their new-found wealth to provide a university education to several of their children.

Samuel McConnell, my great-great-grandfather, was the younger of two sons of James McConnell (snr.) of Ballysavage and Anna Ridges. Samuel's elder brother James (1821-1902) lived at Ballysavage. (See the map of southern Antrim for most of the places mentioned here.) Samuel was born at Four Mile Burn, just outside Parkgate, in 1836 and trained as a carpenter. He married Agnes ('Nancy') McConnell, daughter of Thomas McConnell of Ballywee, at the First Donegore Church (see below) in 1862. (It is possible that the fathers of the couple, James and Thomas, were related.) The couple lived at Four Mile Burn for just a few years, where their first child, Rachel, was born.

Gold rush

In about 1865 Samuel, Agnes and baby Rachel sailed for New Zealand to join Agnes's sister Martha Ann, who had married Robert Gawn in Australia in 1860 and subsequently moved to New Zealand (see the page on the Gawn family). Robert and Samuel, and later Robert's son William Robert, became successful carters in the Otago gold rush. Sam and Agnes lived in Caversham, now a suburb of Dunedin (the photograph on the left shows the kind of house and carting business they had there). The next four children (James, Samuel, Annes Jane and Agnes Margaret) were born in Caversham.

McConnell Gawn wagons painting
"McConnell and Gawn on their way to the goldfields"

Painting, possibly by Samuel's wife Agnes or one of their children, dated Feb '05 (see also photo below left)

Photo courtesy of Donald Alexander

Samuel became successful and moderately wealthy in New Zealand. There is a story that he was attacked by robbers who stole the provisions and wages money he was carrying. The robbers drank the whiskey in the haul, and while they were in a stupour, Samuel recovered his possessions, including a sack of valuables, but which turned out to contain other booty as well.i


Unlike Robert and Martha Ann Gawn, Samuel and Agnes did not stay in New Zealand, but returned in 1877, living in Belfast for a time (where their daughter Sarah Frances was born), before moving into Laurel Hill Farm on the Strand Road (near Four Mile Burn), where their last three children were born. Now effectively retired in his early forties, Samuel used his comparative wealth to send five of the children to Queen's College, Belfast: James studied medicine and became a doctor in London; Samuel Ridges, Annes Jane and Sarah Frances became schoolteachers, and Thomas William joined the civil service. Alexander took over Laurel Hill Farm from his father. (See the page on the Children of Samuel and Agnes McConnell for details.)

In 1912, against a background of growing unease at the prospect of the whole of Ireland being ruled from Dublin (known as Home Rule), Samuel and Agnes signed the Ulster Covenant (for men) and Declaration (for women), effectively asserting Ulster's allegiance to the United Kingdom. This text ("...being firmly persuaded that Home Rule would be disastrous to our Country...") was one small part of the movement that eventually led to the division of Ireland in 1921.2 The document can be viewed on the Public Records Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI) website: Samuel and Agnes McConnell of Lower Holestone signed it in Kilbride Presbyterian Church in Doagh some time on or before 'Ulster Day', 28th September 1912.3,4

Also in that eventful year, Samuel and Agnes celebrated their golden wedding in some style in the First Donegore church.1,i That November their granddaughter Sarah Agnes was born in Birmingham, but this happy event was sadly followed by the death of the mother Annes Jane three weeks later.

Samuel died in 1915 - the probate indicates a very comfortable financial situation. He had in fact made a will in 1876 before leaving New Zealand: the £3,000 he had at his disposal then were probably quite a reasonable fortune.1 His wife Agnes died in 1918.

First Donegore, Parkgate


First Donegore Presbyterian Church, Parkgate

First Donegore

The First Donegore Presbyterian Church in Parkgate played a central role in the lives of many families in the area. It was established in the early 1700s as a place of worship for Presbyterians in Donegore (the parish church of that village, St John's Donegore, is Church of Ireland).5 Samuel McConnell was an Elder of the church, and its Treasurer. His son Alexander also held both posts. Samuel's brother James was also an elder, as was his father-in-law Thomas McConnell. The list of communicants in 1872 includes the following McConnells:

The church, which I had the pleasure of visiting in 2018, is still a flourishing centre of worship. Donald Alexander's book The Parkgate Presbyterians provides much of the background information used here.i A short history of the church, available online, is also by Donald.5