The Harshaw Diaries

Forty million people in America have ancestors who came from Ireland, the vast majority of them farmers with small bits of land or laborers without any land at all. We know so little about them. Perhaps we have seen photos or drawings of the small cottages in which they lived or pictures taken after they came to America. But we know virturally nothing about how they lived.

This is the information that James Harshaw left to us in his journals. Without these books, the small details of life that would have been so familiar to our families would have been lost. These extraordinary volumes tell us about weather, daily activities, holidays, farming, famine, emigration, and the sectarian and political controversies that so often divided neighbor from neighbor.

And but for the most fortunate set of circumstances this unique source of information would have been destroyed.

James wrote his Diaries on separate sheets of ledger paper. At some point, these pages were gathered together and bound into six large volumes, maroon with gold lettering. His family and friends were well aware of his unusual history. After James died, others in Donaghmore read them, including Rev. J. Davison Cowan. When Rev. Cowan wrote his book on the parish of Donaghmore, he quoted from them.

However, at some date, most probably in 1896, the books were packaged up and sent to James's son William Kidd who at that time lived in Paterson NJ. Willy lived only 6 more years. Before he died, he arranged that the Diaries would be sent to a cousin William Harshaw who lived in Grove City PA. William was a director for the Grove City Bank, and he placed the books for safekeeping in the basement of the bank.

As the years passed, everyone who knew where the books were, died. Most of the 20th century had passed before they surfaced again. In the mid 1980s, the bank made plans for renovation of the basement. An employee found the Diaries, noted the name Harshaw, and called Sally Harshaw Lowing, the great granddaughter of the man who had placed them in the basement. She was asked if she wanted them. Though she knew nothing of them, she said "yes." And so they were saved from incineration.

Sally put them in a cabinet in her office in the Harshaw Realty Co. in Grove City. She intended to return them to their rightful owner, but had no idea how to do that.

Shortly afterward, she got an unexpected phone call. A distant cousin, Karen Hickey, was searching for information on her Harshaw ancestors, one of whom was a James Harshaw. Karen had found a reference to that part of Pennsylvania in a letter that her James had written to a son 100 years before. She called the library in that town in search of information. A very helpful librarian told Karen there were no Harshaws in that town, but there were some close by. She found a number for the Harshaw Realty, and gave it to Karen. And so Karen found Sally.

Sally immediately sent one of the volumes to Karen to see if the two James's were actually one. Karen opened the package, and sat down to read the Diary. She knew quickly that the author was a different James, and that the Diaries were very important. Some time later, a box arrived with the other 5 volumes. Sally was leaving Pennsylvania and entrusted the complete set of Diaries to Karen.

Karen read them, shared them with her sister Brenda, and used them when she taught students in the local Parochial High School how to research family history.

In 1992, I entered the adventure. My father, Harold Harshaw, had a copy of the book that had been written by Rev. Cowan in 1914. So I knew about the Harshaw Diaries. That year, my son Stephen sent me a computer and an address list for Harshaws throughout the United States. Finally, I had the equipment I needed to conduct a search. I began by composing a letter which inquired about the Harshaw Diaries and running off many copies, one of which went to Grove City. There were a number of interesting responses, but none from Grove City, and none from anyone who had heard of the Diaries.

In September of that year, my husband and I were planning our first trip to Ireland. We were to spend two days in Belfast, so that I could search in the Public Record Office for the Diaries. Shortly before we were to leave, on a memorable Friday night, the phone rang. A voice on the other end said, "My name is Karen Hickey. You don't know me, but I'm a cousin, and live in Keokuk Iowa. And I have the Harshaw Diaries." Someone had forwarded one of my letters to her, enabling her to find me.

What a moment that was!! She just had time to send me some of the information she had on the Harshaw family in Ireland before we left. One of the items she included was a listing of names and addresses of Harshaws from an Irish phone book.

The first stop on our way to Belfast was a hunt for Loughgilly where my great grandfather Michael Harshaw had lived before he came to America. I knew something about him, as his son had written a pamphlet about his immigrant father. I was very disappointed to find nothing that would locate the area where Michael lived. So we gave up our search and headed for Belfast.

As we drove along, I noticed a signpost for a place called Poyntzpass, and remembered that a Harshaw lived there. We turned off the main road, and headed for the little town. I asked for Hugh Harshaw at the local grocery, and was quickly directed to his home. The house was easy to find, and with pounding heart, I headed for the front door. No one answered my ring, and again I was dreadfully disappointed. But as I turned away, a car pulled up in front of the house, and a very friendly gentleman, Hugh Harshaw, got out and came up to me. "Can I help you?" he asked..

I pulled out a picture of Michael which I had brought with me for identification, showed it to Hugh and told him I was Michael's great granddaughter.

"Ah, I know," he replied, inviting Gene and I into his home.

While his wife Maisie prepared tea, Hugh disappeared upstairs. He returned with a copy of my grandfather's book. I was stunned.

Over tea he told me about his great grandfather, James Harshaw. He pulled out the a copy of Cowan's book, and turned to the section of the Diaries. "That's my great grandfather he said. But we don't know where the Diaries are."

Now it was my turn for surprises. "I know where they are. They are in Keokuk Iowa." When I saw the look on his face, I knew that somehow I would have to get them back to Ireland.

This proved to be somewhat more difficult than I had anticipated, as Karen was uneasy about sending them without permission from Sally, and we didn't know where she was. Finally, Karen agreed to send one copy so that I could photo copy it for Hugh.

Early in 1996, a box arrived unexpectedly at my door. Karen had sent me the rest of the Diaries in hopes that I could have the contents filmed to ensure the information would never be lost. Fortunately, the New England Historical Genealogical society agreed to do that. When the filming was done, they advised me to transcribe the Diaries. This seemed a daunting task, but I set to work. After many months, the last word was on computer disks. With some help from the new owners of Harshaw Realty, I found Sally Lowing, and heard with horror how close they had come to destruction. She agreed that they should be returned to Northern Ireland.

I contacted the Public Record Office in Belfast, and they agreed to accept the donation of the Diaries with the condition that the family should have them to read first. So, in November of 1996, I headed off to Ireland with the Diaries carefully stowed in my carry-on bag. For the first time in 100 years the Diaries were home.

Hugh's brother James drove me to Belfast to make a symbolic presentation for a feature that was shown on TV in Belfast. For the first time, David Huddleston, the historian in charge of the Diaries, saw what they were. I watched his face as he flipped through the pages, and knew Karen and I hadn't been wrong to think they were important. I asked him what other comparable information they had. When he told me there was nothing like them at all, I understood for the first time what a treasure they were.

David had a final surprise for me. The Diaries had ended in 1864, though James had lived 3 years longer. David handed me a film which had the last section of the Diaries on it. Included on the film were the last entries in the Diaries and a description of James's death that was written by his son Andrew. After I got home, David sent me a copy of the film, and I transcribed that section as well.

The well traveled Diaries survived their adventures in America. They have come home, to be kept in safety for use by scholars for generations to come. And through James's account, we can read of the lives our ancestors left behind them in Ireland.

Article written by Marjorie Harshaw Robie, June 1, 2000