James Harshaw

Biography of James Harshaw

James Harshaw was born in 1797 in Ringbane, Parish of Donaghmore, County Down, Ireland. His parents were James Harshaw and Mary Bradford. The names of all the children of James and Mary arenít known, but there were at least 4 sons, William, Hugh, John, and James, and one daughter, Jane. His brothers all died when they were still young men. James, as the only surviving son, inherited all his fatherís property.

Many Irish men waited until they were well established to marry. James didnít have that concern, so he married very young, sometime early in 1816 to Sarah Kidd, daughter of William Kidd who was in the linen business.

The young couple proceeded to have a large family: Hugh, Mary, John, Jane, James, William, Andrew, Robert, Samuel Alexander, who died young, Samuel Alexander again, and Sarah Anne. Their last child, Elizabeth Martin also died young..

Jamesís sister Jane married Samuel Martin and had a large family as well. The children of the two families formed a large, and very close extended family unit.

From his early years, James must have helped on the family farm, for he had a deep love for the land that never left him. He was no gentleman farmer, he worked the fields in old clothes, mud to the knees. His special love was the sowing of the seeds in the spring, a part of the farming process that was very important and required considerable skill.

Because his future work was established when he was quite young, he never had an extensive education. That didnít prevent him from becoming a student for life, reading the newspapers with great interest. He wrote with a clear hand and creative spelling. When he needed to write an official letter, John Martin would frequently help him. Throughout his life, he maintained a great belief in the importance of education, and saw to it that his children had the best education he could give them. Despite his lack of formal education, he was called on to perform many services for his neighbors, writing wills, keeping accounts, arbitrating land issues etc.

As his children grew up, he was able to turn some of the farming over to them, and devote himself even more extensively to civic and church projects. His son Andrew was much like his father in his love for farming. He became a great help to his father at an early age. His particular interest was the care of the animals on the farm. John also worked on the family farm, and later managed the Martin property for his cousin John. Hugh was in the linen business in nearby Banbridge. James Jr. was interested in business, participating in the grocery business in Newry and Mountnorris. William was apprenticed to a linen company in Banbridge, Robert became a Presbyterian minister, and Samuel went into the banking business.

James hoped that these efforts would ensure that his children would remain in Ireland. Unfortunately, he wasnít able to persuade them all to stay in Ireland. Like so many Irish parents, he endured the pain of seeing his sons sail away for America. James Jr. and William went first in 1849. Later, in 1856, Samuel went away leaving his father devastated. Both James Jr. and Samuel lived out their lives in America, but James Jr. returned to Ireland after almost 10 years in America. He went to work on the family property, and remained in Ireland the rest of his life.

Despite all the work that farming entailed, James spent many hours attempting to provide services to improve life in his community. He worked very hard during the famine to save his poor neighbors from starvation. He helped establish a system of medical care, so that they could receive medical care. He also led an effort to build a school in Donaghmore. After years of effort, the school was finally built, and James enjoyed dropping by the school to watch the children at work.

James was an active and devout member of his Presbyterian Church. As the Ruling Elder, he carried out many of the administrative affairs of the church. For years he led the effort to build a manse for their minister. In 1863, after years of false starts, he had the pleasure of attending the ground breaking for the manse on land donated by his John Martin and his brother James.

As was appropriate for practicing Presbyterians, he believed that his conscience, based on a through understanding of the Bible, should govern his day to day activities, and that in all his interactions, he should treat others as he would be treated. There was in him no intolerance toward his Catholic neighbors. Therefore he differed with many of his Protestant neighbors who feared that a Repeal of the Union would result in confiscation of Protestant land and Protestant murders at the hands of a Catholic government. Though he wasnít a political activist like his nephew, they shared an intense love of Ireland and confidence that the people of Ireland could and should govern themselves. He followed John Martinís efforts at repeal with interest, even going with John to Newry for a private meeting with the leader of the Young Irelanders, (see the John Martin site) Smith OíBrien and possible some of the other leaders of the Young Irelanders as well.

The arrest, and trial of John Martin devastated the entire family. They well knew that he had committed no crime at all. His conviction broke Jamesís faith in the English government. On a most personal level, he knew that the English imperial system was a disaster for Ireland. When Queen Victoria made a triumphant visit to Ireland in 1849, James never mentioned that fact though she made a triumphant visit to nearby Belfast.

As the years passed, political positions in Ireland hardened. Protestants and Catholics were expected to join others of their faiths into two militant groups, everyone on the outside considered an enemy. This change in others produced no change in James. Unfortunately, his entire life of kindness, friendship, service was not enough to prevent him from being viewed as an enemy of the Protestant faith. Ironically, it was his widespread reputation as a "good and honorable" man that made his independent point of view a threat to Protestants who had once been his friends. He would be redefined as a "evil man." He would be silenced.

The attack that was made on him in 1862 was met defiantly. His defense against the criminal charges that were placed against him was so valiant that some of those who participated sought forgiveness, which James promptly offered.

James died on January 30, 1867. He was buried in the Glascar Church with his beloved daughter Mary.

Article written by Marjorie Harshaw Robie, March 27, 2000


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