A Lisburn headstone in an unusual story

by “The Digger” – March 2008

There was a story that grabbed my attention in a copy of the Lisburn Herald, dated July 1942.

“A Lisburn Tombstone helped pension applicant”

A Lisburn Tombstone helped pension applicant

A Lisburn Tombstone helped pension applicant


It was reported that an unnamed female applicant to the Dublin Old Age Pension Committee had been unable to produce any evidence of her age. Her birth certificate was destroyed in 1920 and no record of a school entry had been found. The only evidence of her age she could produce to the committee was to state that she was three years old when her father died. The committee was informed that her father died on the 25th September, 1863, according to the inscription on her father’s tombstone in a Lisburn Churchyard. The committee accepted the evidence and concluded the applicant must be at least 80 years old since her father was over 78 years dead. It was reported that this was the first occasion evidence of this kind had been produced.

But who was this mystery lady and what had happened to her birth details?

There would be no record of her birth in the civil registration of births. Births under this system were first registered in Ireland in 1864. The alternative to the civil registration system would be to find a baptism entry in local church records. It appears in this instance that this record had been destroyed in 1920.

The shooting of the Royal Irish Constabulary Detective Inspector Oswald Ross Swanzy on 22nd August, 1920 in Market Square, Lisburn resulted in sectarian rioting in the town. Many years ago an elderly lady, no longer with us, related to me one of her childhood memories from that era. She recalled one horrific incident that involved persons being forced into wooden barrels through which nails had been driven. The barrels were then rolled along some of Lisburn’s streets.

One of those buildings to be destroyed in the rioting was the Parochial House in Priest’s Lane, located off Longstone Street. An old friend of mine, Harry Mulholland, recalls going into Lisburn on the bar of a bicycle with his brothers Joe and Paddy, several days after the arson attack on the property, and seeing it still smouldering. The fire not only destroyed the building, but destroyed the church records, which were irreplaceable. A new Parochial house was designed by Belfast architects Messrs. McDonnell, Lamont and McDonnell and built adjacent to the church at Chapel Hill. It is no longer with us and the area has been recently re-developed. A description of the house in 1923 referred to it as a “simple and dignified domestic Gothic Style” building with 77 feet frontage and a depth of 70 feet. At a fundraising fete in that year, to raise funds to cover the erection costs, the local Parish Priest, Father O’ Boyle commented that “one thousand of their people were compelled to seek homes elsewhere and many amongst those were the wealthiest in the parish.” The repercussions of the destruction of the records at that time are with us to this day and continues to frustrate family history researchers, amongst others.

I suspected at this stage that the baptism record of our mystery lady in the story had been lost in that fire.

A death notice in the Belfast Northern Whig on Saturday 26th September, 1863 assisted me in my search to find some more clues to identify the lady or her family.

A William Connolly had died at Lisburn on September 25th 1863 and his remains were removed for interment in the Chapel Burying Ground on the 27th. A search and inspection of the headstones at St. Patrick’s burying ground proved fruitless. It transpired however that there was in fact a headstone in this burial ground bearing the Connolly family details and the transcription had been recorded by the Lisburn Branch of the North Of Ireland Family History Society and published in their book titled “These Hallowed Grounds.” I had missed the headstone on my first visit, due to the fact it was broken and was in such a position that it was unreadable to a passer-by.

Mary Connolly had erected the headstone in memory of her husband William who died aged 42 years. Her name would be added to the headstone in 1893 when she died aged 74 years. Three of their children are also named – Edward who died in infancy, Mary Ann who died in 1870 aged 18 years, and James F.(rancis) who died in 1905.

This inscription on this Connolly headstone was the one that had been presented to the Dublin Old Age Pension Committee in 1942 and assisted in providing proof of age of a living member of the family.

The Connolly family were well-known in the Lisburn area. William Connolly, who died in 1863, had been a publican in the town. After his death his wife Mary took over the business, at that time located at 33 Market Square, Lisburn. Her sons James Francis and William Henry Connolly would eventually take over the wine and spirit business. They also owned property in the Largymore area of Lisburn. Their sister Catherine was married to Michael O’Shea, another Lisburn businessman. He had a confectionary and hardware shop located at 39-41 Bow Street, Lisburn. The 1920 riots would not only cause difficulty for a family member proving her age in later years, but would also have a detrimental effect on some of the family’s business premises. It was reported that during the 1920 Lisburn riots the premises of both the Connolly and O’Shea families were burnt out.

William and Mary Connolly had 4 other daughters. Ellen married George Hewson in 1866, Sarah married William Walsh in 1867, Isabella married Edward Gilmore in 1887, and Teresa, a spinster.

Mary Connolly could never have envisaged how the inscription on the headstone she had erected after her husband’s death in 1863 would eventually make its way into the annals of local history.

Thanks to the Lisburn Branch of the North of Ireland Family History Society for permission to use extracts from their publication “These Hallowed Grounds” Volume 1. Copies are on sale at Eason’s, Bow Street, Lisburn or by contacting the Linen Museum.

“The Digger” can be contacted via our Contact page or by contacting the Ulster Star Office.

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