Saturday, March 17, 2018

My Irish Orange

I am going to admit in this post that it sometimes takes much longer than it should for certain facts to get past the fences in my brain to settle on my psyche where the ideas about my family history roost. It is fitting that it should be on St. Patrick's Day 2018 that I should come to an important realization about my Gillespie family of Armagh, Northern Ireland, and that is that they belonged to the Orange Order.  I have been deeply involved in genealogy for over eight years now, but today this news comes as some surprise to me.

Given that I made the early-on mistake of bypassing the very words of one of our beloved family historians, Mary Gillespie Henderson, I think it is now only fitting to quote from her book, "Memories of My Early Years" published in 1937, page 33:

He [Mary's father] "walked" in the Orange procession there [Ontario, Canada] on July 12th with a lot of other men in carts, carriages, or on horseback. Father rode a white horse and wore his regalia, including a sash made by Mary Walsh. He had been a member of the Orange Lodge in Ireland and used to speak in familiar terms of King James, King William, the Battle of the Boyne, and the Seige of Derry, as though they were events of yesterday. On Orangeman's Day he decorated himself with an orange lily or bow of orange ribbon, yet on St. Patrick's Day he wore the green."
That seems to make very clear the Gillespie political persuasions. And yet eight years ago, when I went to study the history of Northern Ireland in the 1790s, I could hardly imagine how my Presbyterian Gillespie family could have fit into such a chaotic scene. On the one hand, Aunt Edith Gillespie had written how our ancestor, John Gillespie, was "instrumental in raising a company of volunteers for Lord Charlemount (Charlemont) in the Rebellion of 1796." This sentence seems to imply that the Gillepie's were loyalists, and interested in defending Ireland from foreign invasion. On the other hand, the Gillespie's were known to be Presbyterian, and Presbyterians in Northern Ireland had some religious freedom but limited civil freedoms, so I let myself imagine that they did not favor the English and left Ireland to practice their faith more openly. With that thought, I justified dismissing the words of Mary Henderson by thinking that her memories were only second-hand stories. After all, Mary's father, James, was born in 1810, Mary herself was born in 1840, and the story of Mary's memories was being recounted when she was in her 90s. Mary could not really have understood the politics of her grandfather's lifetime in a country she had never even visited (to our knowledge). That thinking was mistaken.

It could be that both premises were true - Gillespie's were loyalists and they had limited religious freedom - because it was a complicated time, as explained more fully in this article, Irish Presbyterians: Church, State, and Rebellion. But why does the idea of Gillespie's as English loyalists just land on my brain today? Because I recently found a British military record that could well belong to our family. The Thomas Gillespie documented in that record was born about 1778 in or near the town of Armagh in the parish of Richill. He was 18 when he joined the English military forces and he served over 16 years with the 5th Dragoon Guards, finally ending his service because of severe wounds received at Llerna in April 1812. This Thomas Gillespie fought for the English in the Napoleonic Wars. Sound familiar?

Based on all the research of our family over the past many years, I suspect this Thomas Gillespie could be the mysterious Thomas Gillespie in our tree, the one who was enumerated in Oakland county, Michigan in 1840, later declared incompetent, and died in 1859. Not only might this man have been a brother of our progenitor, John Gillespie, but he was probably also a 1/2 cousin to Nancy Gillespie, his wife (whether he ever had a first marriage is unclear), and a 1/2 grand-uncle of Mary Gillespie Henderson whose descendants recounted Mary's memory of an uncle who served in the Napoleonic Wars. Full circle. Unbelievable.

So with that, I beg the forgiveness of Mary Gillespie Henderson for second-guessing her memories, and having the wisdom and patience to pass them down to us both verbally and in writing. And for myself, I am grateful to finally get past my own preconceptions to arrive at a better understanding of our wonderful Gillespie family history.

Happy St. Patrick's Day!

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