My own version of Antiques Roadshow, Downton Abbey, and the London Blitz began when my father was rummaging around Aunt Josie’s house in 1928.
She had died, her house about to be auctioned off. Dad found a small box of letters from the 1790s on an upstairs closet floor just before workers would have pitched the box onto a bonfire.
Nine old letters saved from the flames — stranger yet, nine more of 1790s vintage then turned up in a small metal box. Where? Under a hay mound in a barn being torn down. True story. Unlikely finds, and both of them here in Ohio.
Tracking these lost letters led to a small farm in Northern Ireland. And, yes, the same family that wrote the letters still lived there — meaning their descendants, distant cousins, did. I had found my long-lost relatives two centuries later.
Antiques Roadshow then evolved into Downton Abbey. Two cousins in a nearby cottage — Maggie Jane and Emma, both spunky gals in their 80s — had tales to tell the visiting American. Maggie Jane had been head cook at Moyola Park, Northern Irish aristocracy who hosted royalty and took Maggie with them on winter holidays in Switzerland to cook for crown princes and regal ladies. The family’s son, James Chichester-Clark, was the province’s prime minister who summoned the British Army when riots spun out of control and Belfast burned in 1969.
It was not the first time Belfast burned — soon after the London blitz began, the German Luftwaffe turned their attention to Belfast, bombing factories and shipyards three times in 1941. The Easter bombing killed over 1,000 people and destroyed 56,000 houses as well as factories. Churchill praised the resiliency of Northern Ireland for helping to defeat Hitler in a phase of history little known here in America.
My family letters foretold the sectarian turmoil that would tear Northern Ireland apart in modern times. A 1796 letter reported: “We have had great Troubles here between protestants or Orange Boys and Deffenders [sic] or papists, several killed on both sides in their various scuffels [sic] and some executed. The truth is there was faults on both sides, bringing Trouble on peaceable people. The innocent suffer with the guilty.”
I began writing and teaching about the modern Troubles, making eight trips to Belfast and meeting with politicians, professors and paramilitary men. While loyalists did their share of damage, the Irish Republican Army perfected car bombs and made Northern Ireland a byword for terrorism. My one friend’s wife lost her legs to an IRA car bomb while another blast killed Ian Gow, a member of parliament who met with me in London.
It seemed bizarre that old family letters led to bullets and bombs, as well as new-found family. Even my cousins’ farm was caught in the crosshairs, two nearby terrorist attacks killing four policemen and a female prison guard just before my first visit.
After three decades of writing on the Troubles, I had retired — until jolted out of retirement by having a family friend get caught up in the Boston Marathon bombing. Kris and her handicapped daughter Kayla, competing in the wheelchair division, were nearing the finish line at Copley Square. But so were the Tsarnaev brothers.
As Kris’ fiancé, Brian, came to help her and Kayla across the finish line, the first bomb exploded, bathing Boston in blood and sending a shock wave of shrapnel toward them. Brian was hit in the head but survived — and shielded Kris and Kayla from the full force of the blast. I immediately picked up my pen and began writing again about a new brand of terrorism that’s become more deadly, devastating and disgusting than Northern Ireland’s. But, yes, the innocent suffer with the guilty — perhaps more so.
A final chapter of my letters story is more personal. The 1790s letters were written to my ancestor in Pennsylvania. By 1804, he was married with two children; by 1805, his “fine garrel named Jane and fine boy named Alexander,” ages three and one, were dead, victims of a raging frontier fever. Devastated, the grief-stricken parents moved on to Ohio for a fresh start. They had eight more children, a mark of American resiliency.
May that same resolve resonate with us today in fighting terrorism.
James F. Burns, an Ohio native, is a professor emeritus at the University of Florida.
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