Dad and I would often enjoy long chats at the kitchen table.
We covered all kinds of topics and had a good laugh at things while Mum stayed in the living room to watch the soaps.
There was one conversation that has stayed with me to this day. Although it took some time to unravel, I uncovered a tragic mix of child kidnapping, religious fear and Irish politics.
In Northern Ireland politics is a sensitive issue, making current USA divisions look amateur by comparison.
People worldwide know our recent troubled past, but as our small country commemorates its centenary, the year 2021 only serves to remind us that the country has never truly settled.
Indeed, Ireland has endured a troubled history for centuries, mainly down to citizens being pro or anti-British/English.
A Family Secret
When Dad said I wouldn’t believe our family’s connection with Ireland’s history, you can imagine the sense of dread that came over me.
“Don’t tell me we are related to Ian Paisley”? I said tongue-in-cheek.
But it was nothing like that.
The year was 2007, and its relevance became apparent later. Dad didn’t elaborate, and Mum didn’t give me any clues.
It was only when my Dad was seriously ill in 2010 that he revealed a long-held family secret. Or as I describe it, a long-held belief. I questioned Mum and other relatives about the story, and they seemed convinced of the family’s link to an incident in Irish history.
In some ways, it seems appropriate to share this story today as Northern Ireland reaches its centenary and I have cast aside my associated fears of talking about it.
The Madeline McCann kidnapping in 2007 evoked my Dad’s memory of another McCann abduction.
The story is not about sexual motives, but of two young children taken away from their mother by their father, acting under the Roman Catholic Church’s alleged instructions.
What is my family connection?
My grandmother, Dad’s mother, was adamant; she was one of the abducted McCann children. If so, it would provide a part-solution to one of Ireland’s political mysteries.
Whatever happened to the disappeared children belonging to Agnes and Alexander McCann?
Decree Ne Temere and the McCann Family
On 19 April 1908, the Roman Catholic Church passed a law that virtually made mixed marriages (between a Catholic and Protestant) void unless the wedding took place in a Roman Catholic church.
While records infer Ne Temere also stipulated parents must raise children of mixed marriages as Roman Catholics, this was not the case.
A report published by Queen’s University Belfast, states Ne Temere did not refer to the religious upbringing of children. The report attributes Pope Benedict XIV’s encyclical Magnae Nobis (1748) for the stipulation that parents should raise their children as Catholics.
Critics and opponents cite the decree for splitting or preventing marriages and fuelling further division in an already divided country.
The McCann case would become worldwide news, and Pro-UK politicians would use it to influence the UK government. They aimed to prevent Home Rule in Ireland (devolved government).
Agnes Jane Barclay, a Protestant, married Alexander McCann, a Roman Catholic, in a Presbyterian church on 16 May 1908. By all accounts, the marriage was a happy one.
Some records state they had two children, Joseph and Mary, but I rarely come across their names in literature. Ironically my grandmother’s name was Mary, but it doesn’t constitute proof of a connection.
Two years into the marriage, a Roman Catholic Curate visited the family and insisted a priest repeat the union under the rules of the Decree Ne Temere.
Sometime later after Agnes returned from a trip to the shops, she discovered her husband and others had taken the children. Several days later, someone returned and removed the furniture.
The husband abandoned Agnes and vanished.
Devastated, as any mother would be, Agnes wandered the Belfast streets, knocking on doors, looking for her children.
A Presbyterian minister, William Corkey, saved Agnes’ life by taking her into his care.
They became friends, and Corkey raised public awareness of the case, wrote to newspapers and politicians. He and others preached against the decree.
The Home Rule Context
Irelands’ history is replete with pro-British versus pro-independence movements. Various rebellions failed. It would be too simplistic to say Roman Catholics were pro-separation and Protestants were always pro-union with England.
For example, Protestant Presbyterian activists planned and executed the 1798 uprising under the name of the Society of United Irishmen.
However, in early 20th century Ireland, the self-government campaign was primarily a Roman Catholic nationalist one.
Opponents of Home Rule seized on the McCann’s circumstances and used it to warn, or scare, the country of what would happen if the Roman Catholic-led Home Rule movement won.
There was a saying used by Home Rule opponents; that “Home Rule was Rome Rule”.
The language and debate were sectarian and shaped the destiny of the island to this day. Westminster MPs (lawmakers) debated the disappearance of Agnes’ children in Parliament.
The public never heard of the husband and children again. I’m aware of some speculation the father took them to America.
But someone, or something, convinced my Dads’ mother, my grandmother, that she was Mary McCann, one of the stolen children.
My grandmother never knew her parents. A single Roman Catholic woman raised my grandmother in the countryside nearby where she eventually settled in marriage with my grandfather.
I can remember Dad telling me a priest handed over his Mum to Miss Duggan in the middle of the night. One day Miss Duggan lived alone, the next she had a young child.
No one could tell my grandmother where she came from, who her parents were or anything.
My grandmother’s search for her birth parents began early in her life.
I hold copies of letters addressed to Agnes Barclay (her maiden name) by Dudley Fletcher, a Church of Ireland Canon and author of anti-catholic booklets.
One letter reproduced here shows Dudley Fletcher to be an acquaintance of Agnes Barclay and her mother and familiar enough to speak on behalf of my grandmother.
Fletcher was an expert on the case and somewhat biased, having used the circumstances to write against Roman Catholic laws on marriage.
Fletcher urges Agnes in one letter:
It would be worth your while to make inquiries into the claim of the young woman who thinks she is your daughter.Dudley Fletcher, 1946
I have never found evidence to support my grandmother’s case. All of the material I have read or listened to relates to the backstory.
Early in my parent’s marriage, Mum and Dad took my grandparents for country drives in their car. They searched out connections to Agnes Barclay. They visited families called Barclay, in Ballymena, who didn’t react well.
Politicians and historians didn’t want to get involved either.
On one occasion, my grandmother found Agnes and to prove who she was my grandmother showed Agnes one of her breasts with a birthmark. But Agnes rejected her.
Was my grandmother just one in a long line of others making similar claims, or was the pain of a reunion too much?
Mary smoked about 100 cigarettes a day. It’s hard to imagine how anyone found time to smoke that much. Dad always had to check his school lunch before eating it, for cigarette ash that would have fallen from my grandmother’s mouth as she made his sandwiches.
Smoking killed her.
I only have vague memories of my Dads’ mother. She was thin, dark-haired with dark eyes and pale complexion. I recall her being somewhat of a ghostly figure but that’s maybe because of her ill health.
Dad recalled her funeral.
Two mysterious strangers stood a distance from the other mourners. No one knew who they were, and they did not speak to anyone else. Who were these silent observers?
Dad thought they were there to confirm Mary was dead, and with it, all chances of uncovering the truth. All I remember, as a five-year-old, was standing by the graveside and surrounded by men in overcoats.
Where these strangers at the funeral because of the McCann connection, or for a more mundane reason?
What Does This Mean to Me?
As I examine the story through 21st-century eyes, it is easy to overlook the sectarianism, religious fear and political propaganda the children’s disappearance generated back in 1910.
The language of Fletcher, Corkey and others would have sowed fear into anyone with reservations about Home Rule, though I have read some of Rev. Corkey’s statements and he preferred to be non-political.
In a country where opinions can cost lives, Dad firmly believed our lives would be in danger should anyone discover our alleged connection to the affair.
Fortunately, I have a more laissez-faire view.
Nobody cares anymore, or remembers.
We will never know the truth about what happened to Alexander McCann, or the children.
The Roman Catholic Church needs to address other issues such as child sexual abuse and the devasting maltreatment of unmarried mothers and their babies.
Regardless of the lack of evidence of a family connection, the McCann affair has reinforced how I feel about politics in Ireland.
In my country, people do not decide to be pro or anti-British through deep thought or assessing a list of strengths and weaknesses for each standpoint.
Our family of birth, the culture we are born into, and our childhood peers determine our politics.
It may sound over-simplistic, but I’ll be honest. I am a Protestant purely because I was born into a Protestant family. Not because I made a series of rational deliberations with myself in front of a mirror.
My family background could be more complicated than I had ever thought. Perhaps, more importantly, having been a UK-facing Protestant, I have become open to persuasion of what a new Ireland could offer.
I believe in the possibilities of a brand new Ireland. One where the focus is on the present and future instead of the past.
I invite the nationalist and republican movement to paint a picture of a new Ireland.
And I mean a New Ireland; new flag, anthem, statute book; new public sector system. The full works.
Make me a better offer compared to what I enjoy now, and I’ll consider it.
Putting political thoughts aside, we must take time to consider the human tragedy of the McCann’s.
A mother lost her children.
Two children lost their mother.
Families have questions.
All I can say is the story does not define me. If I am related to Agnes Barclay, I’m glad the kidnapping took place. Otherwise, I may not have been born.
However, my history only dates back to 1968, and that is far enough.