‘A remarkable tale of our history’

Heritage assistant Deirdre Byrne and Sentry Hill custodian Wesley Bonar .INNT 16-423-RM
Heritage assistant Deirdre Byrne and Sentry Hill custodian Wesley Bonar .INNT 16-423-RM

NESTLED in the Ballycraigy farmlands lies the impressive Sentry Hill, a site of immense significance and importance, not just for its huge collection of historical documents from around Carnmoney, but also for the personal story behind the paper, pictures and artifacts.

The McKinney family, who lived in Burnthill after moving from Scotland, relocated to the site in Ballycraigy in the 1700s and since then there has been a descendent of the clan living there right up until 1996.

William Fee McKinney

William Fee McKinney

The original farmhouse was knocked down and replaced with a new building in 1835 and since then it has remained relatively unchanged.

And because of this, implements from the Victorian era such as a marmalade slicer and a water pump remain in the house along with a 1970s twin-tub washing machine and VHS cassettes.

William Fee McKinney was born in 1832 and throughout his life he built up a remarkable collection of diaries, letters and books along with souvenirs and artifacts from his family’s travels around the world which forms the bulk of the farmhouse’s history.

He even had a small museum of his own in one of the rooms in the house, archiving, among other things, exotic birds from around the world.

McKinney had seven children with the majority setting off to find their fortune in far off lands.

One son, Jim (above), became incredibly wealthy, managing sheep farms in Australia of over 125,000 acres and was a collector of luxurious cars. He was even consulted on roads legislation given his status as one of the few to own a car in Australia at the turn of the 20th century.

William Fee McKinney was one of the first people in Carnmoney to own a camera and in his photography and documents there lies a wealth of history detailing the growth and development, not just of the area but also the industrial expansion of Belfast.

At the farm’s peak it totalled over 110 acres, but it was the sad and untimely death of grandson Tom which brought about the farm’s eventual demise.

Tom, being the sole remaining male member of the family to stay at the farm, would have been expected to take over the running of the site and continue its development.

With the outbreak of World War One the 23-year-old was dispatched to the Battle of the Somme where he later died of a shrapnel wound.

With only McKinney’s daughter and granddaughter remaining the farm wound down. Grandson Dr Joe Dundee took over Sentry Hill in the 1930s and pursued his interest in breeding and training racehorses. He eventually retired to Sentry Hill in 1977 and lived there until his death in 1996.

In 1997 the land and buildings were procured by Newtownabbey Borough Council and in 2005 it opened its doors to the public.

Custodian Wesley Bonar has lived and worked on the site for the past nine years - spending two years living on the farm while preparations were made for the public opening.

His tour gives a tremendous insight into the life and times of the McKinney family, the development of Carnmoney parish and the tragedy of war and how it changed the course of one family’s destiny.

It is, at times, humorous, insightful and tragic.

He told the Times: “William Fee McKinney was a remarkable man. Not only did he keep and retain so many documents and photographs and pieces, he also meticulously labelled them and preserved them.

“People would think he was a hoarder, but he was so much more - he was a fine collector. He recorded everything from family histories to every service he attended in Carnmoney Presbyterian Church for 70 years.

“He has also retained all the letters his family sent to him during their travels of the world - and the result is a fascinating history.”

Wesley worked in the insurance industry before taking up his post as custodian of Sentry Hill.

He added: “I’ve always been involved in the local history scene and as a born and bred Carnmoney man I played around the area of the Sentry Hill as a child.

“And as a member of Carnmoney Presbyterian Church I always remember the memorial to William Fee, which was put up to honour his work for the church and I love working here.

“McKinney was a fascinating man, by documenting everything we are able place and date items which give artifacts a history and a value which makes it all the more important.

“There is a wealth of information; we have boxes and boxes of pictures and documents which have been preserved well.

“It is incredible to think that had Tom McKinney survived the First World War then we may not have this fantastic resource.

“Had he came home, the farm would probably have continued to thrive and prosper and of course change over time.

“All the items his grandfather documented and saved may also have been lost.”

He added: “We cater for a lot of groups, there is an education resource room for schools to use and we would have a lot of historical groups and societies visit.

“And of course the McKinney family is spread far and wide and more and more return to the site to learn about their ancestors.

“I could go on for hours about the history of the house, the site and the family. But in the tour I touch on the main areas of the family and William Fee McKinney - from his involvement in the church, emigration, his extensive collection and of course how the war hit this one family.

“It really is a truly remarkable tale.”

Sentry Hill is open to the public from April through to September. For more information telephone 9083 2363.