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16 October 2014
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History from Headstones
Page 2

Ronan Lundy visits the Churchyard at Ballywillan near Portrush.

Ballywillan Graveyard near Portrush, Co. Antrim

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Page 2

Ballywillan was once a place of some importance. The name means “The Town of the Mill”. The area of salt flats that lay between here and the sea was known as Magheramena, meaning the Plain of the Monks. Yes, there was an Abbey here too... Later this name was changed to Magherabuoy, meaning “The Yellow Plain” so called because of the large amounts of Rape that was grown here in the fields.

General view from the graveyard at Ballywillan

William Roulston explains that it was a tough life here in those days and many people died in the prime of their lives. For example many women died in childbirth. He says that looking around the graveyard it is possible to see evidence of some very sad stories of hardship and sorrow. Some graves reveal that numerous children had died within days or weeks of each other, suggesting disease. Others can be seen where a mother and father had clearly outlived all of their children. “For those who would have farmed the land for their income, life could be very tough indeed” he says.

Audio Clip 3: The hard life they lived...



Hugh McGrattan is a resident of Portrush as well as being a historian. He is particularly fascinated by this graveyard and tells us of some of his favourite headstones.

“There are 3 poignant headstones to 3 lifeboat men who lost their lives on the 1st Nov 1889 in the infamous Portrush Lifeboat tragedy” when the "Robert and Agnes Blair" capsized just off Portballintrae.

He tells us… William McNeill, William McAllister, both local men, and Galbraith Hamilton-Grills, an Englishman, all died in this accident.

Back in those days, Lifeboats were powered by 12 oarsmen and by sail if the wind was right. The ironic thing about this incident was that the vessel they went to rescue managed to avoid being dashed on the rocks of the Giant’s Causeway and actually made it safely to the port of Larne.

The Lifeboat on the other hand was unable to make a return to Portrush because of the winds from the North West. Its crew tried to get it onto the beach at Blackrock Bay but in their attempts it overturned twice, flinging some of them out into the sea. The three men mentioned above were all lost as a result.

There are also several lonely war graves with simple inscriptions such as “To a Sailor of World War II” or “To a Sailor of the Great War”. Nobody knows who they were but they are buried here.

The headstone on William Adams's grave
Headstone on William Adams grave


Hugh takes us next to two graves, side by side, of local historians. They are William Adams and Canon Ford. Both of these men did much to reveal the history and increase the knowledge of this area. William Adams published a book in 1906 called “Dalriada”, now a much sought after volume which has just been republished. Canon Ford wrote a book called “Sketches of olden days in Northern Ireland” in 1924 .

Audio Clip 4: Some interesting headstones.



William Roulston mentions one particular grave with sea connections to Captain William Clarke who for a period of about 40 years commanding vessels around the British Islands and distinguished by many acts of heroism and humanity particularly the rescue of 64 persons from the wreck of the steamer “American” on the 24th January 1865. William points out that in the above inscription “British Islands” refers in fact to The West Indies.

There are numerous graves here where members of wealthy, important or influential families are buried. It was quite common in early days for such wealthy people to be buried in their finery. Outside the graveyard you will find a watch-house. The purpose of this was so that families could sit and watch over their graves in case they were robbed.

Hugh reminds us that whilst there was a vigil kept to prevent the graves of the rich being invaded, at the other end of the spectrum there were the poor peasants such as the fishermen. When they were being prepared for burial, the families kept watch over the little houses by the harbour to stop the rats coming in and attacking the body.

Hugh says that one of his great delights on a spring morning is to come and wander around this graveyard. “Here is history” he says “here are so many stories.”

Audio Clip 5: Vigils for the rich and the poor



View of the graveyard and ruins at Ballywillan

If you enjoyed this article you may like to read some of the others in this series, exploring community history through headstones... click here


Jean Clayton - June '08
I wonder does anyone have any information on a large house that used to be situated in Ballywillan around the year 1912. I believe "The Shola" (which is now a B & B) was the original Coach House to this larger house. Thank you.

Peter H. Templeton - February '08

I have been tracing my Scots-Irish ancestry. My ancestor Adam Templeton emigrated to New Hampshire, USA in 1735 from Ballywillan. I would very much like to discover if there are any Templeton ancestors buried in the churchyard at Ballywillan, or if anyone would have any knowledge of the Templeton family in the Ballywillan area in the early 1700's? I believe Adam emigrated to America with his brother-in-law Alexander Simpson. Any help in re-discovering my lineage through Ireland and Scotland would greatly be appreciated. Sincerely, Peter Templeton

Hall Maxwell - Dec '07
I recently checked back to this website, and was delighted to find a response from Robert William Maxwell. I contacted him and he put me in touch with another family member. Working together, we have been able to dig out some more details of the family background. Robert W. Maxwell's observations on my great-grandfather were correct and mine were erroneous. From this contact I have now seen photographs of my great-grandfather and great-grandmother for the first time. I appreciate the help that your website provided.

Ginger - May '07
Does anyone know anything about the Hasson family? I am almost positive my family ancestors are burried in this grave yard. My gg grandfather was James Hasson. I am coming to Ireland May 17 to the 27, 2007 and would love some help finding family.. Ginger

Robert William Maxwell - Feb '07
ref. Hall maxwells response, The Robert Maxwell referred to was my grand-father,either Hall is mistaken or he has information that is news to me. Robert was born in 1863 and died in 1943.Inthe family,although in formation can be sketchy,we were not aware that he was married three times,nor think it possible.There were 18 children,3 from the 2nd. marrige.His wife Margaret(nee Thompson),it was her mother who was a McKinley,died in 1908,and before they buried her at Ballywillin,they exhumed the bodies of 2 of her children,who had died in 1906,a boy named JohnAnd a girl named Anne.They were re-buried in the same grave.If Hall reads this he can view my family on Genes Re-united,or contact me at my e-mail address
An excellent web site,thank you.

Karene M Rush Foster - Sep'06
Is there a list of those buried at the grave yard. My ancestors I am told were from Portrush?

Mary Ann Rankin - Sep '06
My husband and I travelled to Ballywillen in 1969. Most of the pictures we took have seriously deteriorated. My husband has ancesters buried in this cemetery. I believe the headstone has the name Catherine Rankin on it. Has anyone taken pictures and or transcribed any of the stones. We would like to know. I am not sure our health will allow us to return for another visit.

Thank You, Mary Ann Rankin

Yvonne - Aug '06
I wish to enquire about me great , granpa and gran. I am doing a family tree and i have traced the wedding back to this church.

Could anyone check if the marrgage of John Thomson and Jane Farren took place on the 12th Jan 1909. Thanks and let me know how u get on.

Glenys Archibald - Aug '06
A lovely site. We are grateful to distant relatives for photographs of the Archibald headstones
Great-grandfather George Archibald (1835-1888) son of John Archibald and Sarah Wylie, came to Australia 1854.

John & Sarah's only (known) descendants with the surname Archibald are now in Australia.

Mariee Hawkins, nee Dougherty - July '06
I was glad to see the comments from Beth Mahan. I was more interested in this site, as my Grandfather Robert Dougherty was born in Ballywillen his father was James Dougherty born around 1854. He married an Elizabeth Thompson, I think in Dumbarton. My father, William Carmichael Dougherty immigrated to New Zealand around 1929. It would be nice to find out more information about the family. I know that my father's uncle was James Clark, and he was raised by my Greatmother Elizabeth Dougherty in Dumbarton.

Yvonne - May '06
I wish to enquire about me great granpa and gran. I am doing a family tree and I have traced the wedding back to this church.

Could you check if the marrgage of John Thomson and Jane Farren took place on the 12th Jan 1909.

Thanks and let me know how u get on.

Hall Maxwell - March '06
I remember being shown, when I was young, that my Great-grandfather Robert Maxwell (1846?-1945?) was buried in a grave marked Thompson that is beside Dorothea Ross's grave. He married three times and had twenty-one children. Three of them were adopted when he married his second wife, Margaret Thompson (1850-1909), née McKinley. She was from Runkerry and was descended from the same family as U.S. President McKinley.
I now live in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, U.S.A. and it is interesting that some of the movers and shakers in this community were also McKinleys, descended from the same family. We now have a McKinley Hospital and a McKinley YMCA named after one of the more prominent members of the family.

Lorna Finch - March '06
I am delighted to read about the interest in Old Ballywillan. My grandfather, Thomas Hamill, is buried there, and the rest of the family in "new" Ballywillan. Also, on my maternal grandmother's side, Annie Hamill, nee Adams, related to Willie Adams, daughter, and reared on Princess Street, Portrush. What I know of Willie Adams is that he was a pilot for ships coming into Portrush and prior to that was on transatlantic sailing ships. There are other family who may know of the book-the children of my great aunt, Maria Adams, nee Esdale. I know reside in St. Louis, Missouri and my family name was Millar, my mother being Hamill and daughter of Annie Adams and Thomas Hamil of Portrush. I welcome any information on the above.

Enrique Fernandez - Oct 05
I search for the book: Dalriada or North Antrim by William Adams.
Yours sincerely.E.F.
[Can anyone help with this request? - Ed.]

Robert James Lilley MBE - Oct '05
I found this an intriguing article, as I have been caravanning in Portrush for the past thirty years. When I travel to the Hilltop Caravan Park from Ballymena, I mostly go past the old church and graveyard on my way via Magerabuoy and Hilltop. It would be nice to see some attempt to put a covering over the site to prevent further deterioration by the elements.

Beth McMahon (nee Clarke) - Sep 05
Hello I would like to say how much I have enjoyed reading and hearing your article on Old Ballywillan Graveyard, I am researching my family history and my grandmother Mary Elizabeth Clarke and great grandparents William and Mary Jane Dougherty are buried in that graveyard, I believe in an unmarked grave in the right hand corner as you enter the main gate. My family left Portrush for Australia in 1951. I am not sure but think Hugh McGrattan may be related to Willie Clarke my late father. I will look forward to reading your other articles in the future.


Some relevant weblinks:

History from Headstones:

Portrush Lifeboat disaster:


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