By DR David Hume

James McHenry, poet, novelist, and doctor is buried in a modest grave in the Smiley family plot at St. Cedma’s Churchyard in Larne. The small gravestone accords him his literary due, as “Author of O’Halloran, &”. But it does little to explain that buried here is Larne’s greatest author, and someone who also made their mark on American literature in the 19th century.

McHenry, who was born in Larne in 1785, had friends including Edgar Allan Poe and was publisher of early words by Longfellow when editing an American literary journal.

He is also the writer who introduced the first Ulster-Scots family into American literature: the Fraziers from County Londonderry, who appear in his novel The Wilderness in 1824.

Another claim to fame is that James McHenry is one of (if not the) founding fathers of ‘American Frontier Gothic’, a genre which comes across clearly in The Wilderness and other writings.

I first came across McHenry when I was an Irish history student and read about him in the Francis Joseph Biggar collection in Belfast Central Library. I delved deeper because of a historical interest in the particular periods in which McHenry had chosen to write as a novelist – the Hearts of Steel agitation of the 1770s and the 1798 Rebellion of the United Irishmen.

The novelist was born too late for the Presbyterian Hearts of Steel, who attacked landlord’s property and were an early radical movement. When the authorities clamped down on the ‘Steelboys’ many made their way to the American colonies, to precisely those areas where the American Revolution took hold early.

But back in Ireland, the example of their American kin was an inspiration to the Presbyterians who established the United Irish Society in 1791 in Belfast. In 1798 the Rising (or Turn Oot as it was referred to in the Presbyterian communities of Antrim) saw an unsuccessful revolution, with the aim of French support establishing a Republic.

The young James McHenry, living with his parents at Livingstone Court in Larne, was right in the midst of the rebellion in that town, with the insurgents battling against the Tay Fencibles and local loyalists and much folklore and stories being passed down as a result. McHenry apparently promised his aunt that he would one day write a novel based on the events, and the end result, in 1824, was O’Halloran, or The Insurgent Chief.

I am proud to have a copy printed in London that year but was equally proud to chair a book launch recently in Larne’s Carnegie Arts Centre and Museum, when O’Halloran was reprinted by local exile Ian Hooper, who runs a publishing company in Australia. The new reprint has explanatory forewords by historians and writers but remains true to the original text as written by the Ulster-American author.

By the time that McHenry published his novels he was living and working in the United States. Early work was written in his native area, however, including his first published poem “The Maid of Tobergell”, which was published in a Belfast newspaper in 1804. Four years later, to help defray his college expenses, he published The Bard of Erin, a volume of poetry.

In 1823 McHenry published The Wilderness, or A Tale of the West, and this was followed by other novels including Hearts of Steel, another County Antrim-based novel like O’Halloran. His novel The Wilderness introduces the Fraziers of County Londonderry “the first Ulster Protestant immigrant family in American fiction.”[1] The Antediluvians, or The World Destroyed is seen as his epic literary contribution and was a narrative poem in ten books. His poems date back to at least 1808 when he wrote An Elegy written on the Banks of the Inver, near Larne Churchyard (where he was subsequently buried).

McHenry married Jane Robinson of Cairncastle and the couple lived in America, where their four children grew up. He worked in Baltimore, then Butler County in Pennsylvania and Pittsburgh before moving to Philadelphia, where he edited the American Monthly Magazine. The family lived at South Second Street in the latter city, where two of their children, Mary and George, were born. Although their father practiced medicine there, it was very clear that his main interest lay in literary matters. As editor of the American Monthly, which only lasted a year, he came into contact with the poet Longfellow, publishing his early poems.

McHenry was also a playwright, although not with a great measure of success. He was also very impressed with Andrew Jackson, a first generation American of East Antrim parents, and Jackson would win the Presidency in 1828. McHenry composed a poem to mark the occasion and achievement of the politician, who introduced Jacksonian Democracy to the United States and, on occasion, spoke in an Ulster brogue.

In October 1842 McHenry was appointed American Consul in Londonderry by President Tyler and he held this post until his death in Larne in 1845.

His novels O’Halloran and The Hearts of Steel are extremely valuable social histories as well as their obvious value as published early 19th century Ulster literature, particularly since it brings to life two significant – almost pivotal – periods in northern Irish history.  The Wilderness takes us to a place on the frontier where Ulster emigrants were settling and getting used to their new, and often very different, surroundings.

In his novels, meanwhile, McHenry captures the Ulster-Scots tongue of his native area in much of the dialogue which he provides for the reader. In O’Halloran we read: “Come in awee, an’ tak’ a dram, said Jemmy, an’ I’ll gang wi’ you directly.” It reminds me of a line from the poet James Orr, whom McHenry undoubtedly was aware of, in his poem The Wanderer;

But I’ll sit up: my bed’s no cauld,
Gae till’t awee an tak’ a  nap

In The Wilderness, Gilbert Fraser has a dialogue with a young Philadelphian whose grandparents were from Londonderry:

“Then ye hae been in Ireland, sir?”
“Yes: within these last six months I sailed from Londonderry
“Frae Derry! frae Derry! – an’ hoo did the auld country an’ the aul city look? An were ye at Maugherygowan too, dootless?
Yes, I spent part of the last winter there
An’ was every thing the same? Ah! I doot na, there are mony changes there syne I saw it. But I need na ask sae fool a question frae you, that was na then in the lan’ o’ the leevin.”

There are other scattered uses of the Ulster-Scots of McHenry’s native area; they interest me in that those who were reading these works in the United States clearly must have understood them, perhaps suggesting an audience among the Ulster emigre community.

The body of McHenry’s work, overall, places him as a significant 19th century literary figure.

At a local level, I was fascinated by the accounts he gives of events in the Larne area in 1798. The characters in his novel were given different names, but in 1844 McHenry provided a glossary of who was who. One figure in particular was not named, but the event surrounding his appearance was so notorious that he did not have to be. When 16-year-old William Nelson was hanged outside his mother’s door for taking part in the Rising, it was landlord Richard Gervas Ker who, as magistrate, had charge of the literal execution of the order of the court martial.

In 1844 McHenry said that “So long as the fate of the youth victim William Nelson shall be remembered in the North of Ireland, the name and character of its unaffecting authors shall not be forgotten” He went on to the real name of the personage was but little disguised by that given him in the novel “and in consideration of his respectable connexions shall not be more precisely expressed here.”

It did not take much detective work to figure out that Sir Geoffrey Carebrow in the novel was Richard Ker in real life, however.

The O’Halloran of the title is identified as James Agnew Farrell, whose estate was at Magheramorne, and who commanded the Larne Company of the Irish Volunteers. McHenry witnessed the review of the Larne ‘Independents’ at Ballygally when a child of seven. The Irish Volunteers had been established and were privately funded to act as a deterrent to the prospect of French invasion of Ireland when troops had been sent to America to try and quell the Revolution there. They later became very politically radical in Ulster and were eventually side-lined by the authorities once events permitted. When the Independents were disbanded, Farrell gravitated towards the United Irishmen, as did others.

In all of this life story and literary history, of course, there are strong threads of connection. The French Revolution, American War of Independence and United Irish Rising are all related and were part of a radical world at the time. McHenry’s move from County Antrim across the Atlantic was a journey that was taken by at least a quarter of a million other Ulster-Scots. He introduced the first Ulster family in American literature, but he was not the first or last writer with Ulster blood; Edgar Allan Poe and John Steinbeck are two other giants of literature who spring to mind.

McHenry may not be on a par with them in terms of their literary output, material, and their profile in the modern world.

But there is a quiet spot in St. Cedma’s churchyard, disturbed occasionally these days by the cheers from the adjacent Larne Football Club ground at Inver Park, where a formidable literary figure rests from his labours. Dr. James McHenry, who was more interested in literature than medicine, deserves to be remembered.

It is fitting that he lies close by the banks of Inver, of which he wrote;

“By Inver’s banks so green and gay,
I’ve joined each little warbler’s song,
And poured to love the rural lay,
The fragrant hawthorn shades among.
Fate ne’er can scenes like these restore.
And I must sigh farewell to joy:
Ah! Lovely Larne, shall I ne’er see – ne’er see thee more!

In 1842 McHenry was appointed to be United States Consul in Londonderry by President Tyler. His family remained in the United States and Dr. McHenry held the position until his death in July 1845 in his native town. It was said that he caught a chill while riding from Connor to Larne on a very wet day. He passed away in Stewart’s Hotel in the town.

He was buried in the Smiley plot in Larne Parish Churchyard at Inver, beside his mother Mary, where the modest gravestone marks his final resting place. His wife Jane died in Philadelphia in August 1878 and was described in the Philadelphia Inquirer as “a venerable lady well-known in this city.”[2]

McHenry’s son James, who married a Miss Gardner of Belfast, was a well-known financier and once entertained Louis Napoleon III in his London home after he fled from France in 1870.  He was also financial agent for the Queen of Spain and Empress Eugenie of France, while French royalists were regular visitors to his home in the 1860s. His brothers Alexander and George were prominent merchants in Philadelphia and their sister Mary McHenry Cox was well-known for her philanthropy and benevolence in the American city.

[1] Charles Fanning, The Irish Voice in America: 250 years of Irish-American Fiction, University Press of Kentucky, 2000

[2] Reported in the Larne Weekly Reporter, August 31, 1878

Picture of Dr David Hume

Dr David Hume

Dr David Hume is from Ballycarry, County Antrim, and grew up in a community where Ulster-Scots was all around in language and culture. He has written several local history books and is a co-presenter with Tim McGarry on the popular 'The Long and Short of it' Irish history series on BBC Radio Ulster, as well as presenting on television and radio generally. He is a member of the Ulster History Circle.