Thursday, February 26, 2015

Thomas McDowell 1832(?) to 1912

Thomas was born on a farm probably located in the Townland of Drumnagoon, Seagoe Parish,  County Armagh, Ireland to Andrew and Sarah McDowell. The land that Andrew leased was good farmland, not far from the town of Portadown where they could market their produce.

The exact year of his birth is unknown. But life was difficult when he was born and didn't improve as he grew up. Farming was an exhausting occupation before the invention of farm machinery. Thomas would have been expected to help in the fields when he was still a child. Crop yields were frequently greatly reduced by blights, and bad weather.  As American farmers developed new lands and increased exports, crop prices in Ireland fell. Still, Andrew remained successful enough to keep his hold on the land.

To make matters more difficult, religious confrontations between Protestants and Catholics had been raging across Armagh for over 4 decades. In 1795, Protestants had established a military force called the Orange Order to protect Protestants from bands of Catholics, and threaten them into submission. When the British Parliament banned the organization in 1835, Armagh Protestants took their army underground. Thomas was too young to understand what was going on. But when Parliament allowed the Order to resume in 1845, Thomas  certainly happily joined the group.

These problems were part of everyday life for Thomas as he grew older. The bright spot of his early life was the ascension of Victoria to the throne of England in 1837, Grand illuminations and fireworks were greeted with great joy by rich and poor alike.

Armagh was the birth place of the Orange Order, a society of Protestants whose annual marches were designed to intimidate the Catholic population and remind them of their inferiority. Thomas's family were Presbyterians, many of whom joined the Orange Order with great enthusiasm.  While the Order had been abolished when Thomas was young, it was reactivated in 1845. It is most likely that young Thomas joined the Order with great enthusiasm.

The reactivation of the Orange Order wasn't the only earth shaking event in the life of young Thomas. Just a few months after the rebirth of the Orange Order, the potato crops in Ireland were struck with a deadly new virus. Potatoes that were healthy when sun set, were black and rotten the next morning when the sun rose. Since millions of Irish depended on the potato as their only source of food, starvation swept across Ireland.

The Ejectment (of Tenants)
Without crops to plant and huge new taxes to pay, many previously comfortable farmers like Thomas's father, joined the ranks of the farm laborers or became paupers. Fortunately, Andrew's family possessed sufficient resources to avoid this fate. But with few jobs available in Ireland, the English Army saw the famine as an opportunity to entice the Irish to join the British army as an alternative to starvation in Ireland. Recruiters set up stations in the major towns. With Ireland in such terrible difficulties, service in the British army seemed like a positive step and great adventure for supporters of British actions in Ireland like Thomas. So,Thomas decided to enlist probably during the years the famine killed millions of his fellow citizens. At least in the British army, he would not starve.

Private and Officer--1855 British Army
There is no record of where his service in the Army took him. But during his years of service, British soldiers fought the Crimean War and put down the bloody Indian Mutiny. Since Irish members of the British Army were considered expendable, they often served in the front lines of  the most dangerous battles.

If Thomas saw action in deadly battles, he was able to survive them. Thomas had been in the army for about 20 years when he was posted in the 1860s to Halifax, Nova Scotia. British troops were assigned there in part to ensure that the union of Canada in 1867 went smoothly.

This was a most pleasant posting for Thomas. It was there that he met a young woman named Margaret Young, a native of Cape Breton Island, who had moved to Halifax. The young woman seemed attracted to the older soldier, and on March 3, 1869, they were married.

Perhaps at this time, Thomas was reassigned, as there is no record of the couple for several years. By 1875, Thomas had returned to Halifax, for that was where their first recorded child, James, was born. Thomas and Margaret had 4 other sons, Thomas, William, Andrew and Charles. Andrew lived two years and then disappeared from the records.

After he left the Army, Thomas had a series of jobs, sometimes working as a truckman, sometimes as a common laborer. He and Margaret and the children were able to rent a nice home at 4 Hollis Street in Halifax. This was only one block up from the docks where work would have been plentiful.  When he was too old for physical work, he became a sexton at St. Matthews Presbyterian Church where the family had long been members.

4 Hollis Street is now 1234 Hollis.

St. Mathews United Church Today

Anti Irish feeling was prevalent in Canada. So Thomas made sure that everyone thought he came from Scotland. This was an easy deception. His name, his service in the British army and his ability to play the bagpipes made his claim of nationality seemed very logical. But the anti Catholic hatred he learned in Ireland was still obvious. He used to march to church on Sunday mornings past a Catholic convent. He would play the pipes as loudly as he could to make sure his children weren't contaminated by the sound of Catholic music.

Sadly for Thomas and Margaret, the children began to leave Canada for the United States and the city of Boston. Thomas went first in the 1890s. Charles, the youngest joined him there in time to appear in the 1900 census. When William left a few years later, the oldest son James and his wife Julia, stayed in Halifax to care for his aging parents.

Thomas and Margaret continued to live on Hollis Street, and James and his family lived on the other side of the two family house. Thomas was still alive on 1912, when news of the sinking of the Titanic captivated the world. Halifax was the nearest major port to the site of the sinking, so ships immediately left to help rescue any survivors or retrieve the bodies.

Dead from the Titanic on Halifax Docks

This was the last major event of Thomas's life. An attack of gastro enteritis swept him away after just a week's illness on May 15, 1912.  Thomas was buried in Camp Hill Cemetery, an ocean away from the green hills of Ireland where he was born. Margaret lived another 8 yeas before she too died and was buried with Thomas in Camp Hill Cemetery.

Camp Hill Cemetery, Halifax, Nova Scotia

Thomas McDowell > Charles McDowell > Dorothy McDowell (Robie) > Eugene D. Robie