An ULSTER History Circle plaque in memory of Archibald McIlroy was officially unveiled in Ballyclare on Saturday afternoon (October 8).
Born in 1859 in the townland of Ballylinney, Archibald McIlroy was a successful businessman, a man of principle, and, not least, a gifted writer. Forgotten for decades, his life and work are now receiving renewed attention.
It was his young son’s insatiable demand for bedtime stories that triggered McIlroy’s writing career. Many of those tales formed the basis for his first book ‘When Lint was in the Bell’ (1897), a series of sketches based largely on his youthful experiences around Ballyclare. The book’s great popularity encouraged him to follow it up swiftly with ‘The Auld Meetin Hoose Green’ (1898), a humorous, yet sometimes rather sad depiction of life and love in an east Antrim village during the nineteenth century. Much of its appeal comes from the colourful characters and their lively dialogue in the Ulster-Scots of the area. Five more books followed between 1900 and 1910.
The success of his books had McIlroy in constant demand on the lecture circuit as well (for which he refused to charge), but by 1902 this effort, combined with the pressures of business and other activities, resulted in his health failing. He travelled to Europe to recuperate, but never recovered sufficiently to pursue his life-long ambition of becoming an MP.
In 1912 he took up the call to work for the Presbyterian Church in Canada, and remained there for three years. With the Great War raging in Europe, it is believed that McIlroy intended to return to do missionary work on the front. He sailed from New York to Liverpool on the RMS Lusitania, but on May 7 1915, ten miles off the coast of Cork, the ship was hit and sunk by a torpedo from a German U-Boat. Almost 1,200 people perished in the tragedy, including Archibald McIlroy.
The ceremony at Ballyclare Town Hall on Saturday was followed by the launch of a reprint of McIlroy’s book ‘The Auld Meetin Hoose Green’, published by the Ulster-Scots Language Society.
Chris Spurr, Chairman of the Ulster History Circle said: “In a year when the fame of an Ulsterman called McIlroy has rung around the world, it is appropriate that we remember another McIlroy, internationally famous in his day as an author whose books made an important contribution to writing in Ulster-Scots. Forgotten for too long, Archibald McIlroy is now rightly celebrated by an Ulster History Circle blue plaque and the republishing of one of his best-loved books.”
The plaque unveiling, which was attended by members of Ballyclare Historical Society, was supported by Newtownabbey Borough Council, The Ulster-Scots Agency and the Heritage Lottery Fund.
Mayor Billy Webb commented: “Within Newtownabbey we already have blue plaques commemorating the pioneer aviator Lilian Bland, Sir Edward Coey of Merville House, Dean Jonathan Swift and Francis Joseph Bigger. Archibald McIlroy now joins this notable list and we are delighted to be able to support the Ulster History Circle in these worthy endeavours.”
Martin McDonald, a member of the Heritage Lottery Fund NI Committee added: “We are delighted to support the unveiling of this plaque to honour the life and works of Archibald McIlroy and of his connections to Ballyclare. The blue plaque is a wonderful way to raise awareness of the achievements of these local heroes, men and women whose contribution to the fields of the arts, science, academia and politics have helped to shape our society today.”
An exhibition of McIlroy’s life and works, which was on show in the Town Hall at the weekend, can now be viewed in Ballyclare Library. It will be on display for the next two weeks.