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James Harshaw was born in 1799, the son of James Harshaw of Ringbane in the parish of Donaghmore, near Newry, and his wife, Mary Bradford. The Harshaws were a prominent farming family in Donaghmore and played an important role in local affairs. Much is known of the Harshaw family and day to day life in the parish due to the diaries written by James Harshaw which span the period from the 1830s to the 1860s. 

James Harshaw was primarily a farmer and his diaries offer a fascinating insight into agricultural practices in the Donaghmore area in the mid-19th century including the cultivation of potatoes, various types of crops, particularly the growing of flax, and the rearing of cattle and sheep. Ploughing features regularly as do measures taken to maintain and improve farmland including spreading lime, hedge cutting and collecting stones from the fields.

Donaghmore National School. James Harshaw played a leading role in the effort to build this school in 1859. Newry and Mourne Museum Collection
Donaghmore National School. James Harshaw played a leading role in the effort to build this school in 1859. Newry and Mourne Museum Collection

As a farmer, Harshaw documented the first appearance of potato blight on his crop during the years of the Great Famine. On 7th August 1848 he records ‘Desease first appeared in the potatow tops on the footridge of the brirybray’, followed a week later with ‘Desase has sprad over the potatow tops this week’. 

In an effort to alleviate the poverty and distress of families in Donaghmore during the Famine, the local Relief Committee was formed in December 1846. On 8th February 1847, James Harshaw records that he was appointed the Treasurer of the Committee’s Medical Fund. The committee purchased and distributed blankets for the poor of Donaghmore and Glen and distributed yarn to make socks. Early in 1848 Donaghmore Dispensary was set up and Harshaw became Treasurer in July the same year. He also appears to have sat on the Newry Board of Guardians in the early 1850s.

Integral to James Hawshaw’s life was his membership of Donaghmore Presbyterian Church where he was an Elder. Weekly services are described and Harshaw also records his annual visit to General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Belfast each July. An impression of the impact of the Evangelical Revival of 1859 on the Donaghmore area can also be gleaned from entries in the diaries. Various prayer meetings and extra church services are mentioned as well as how the Revival affected individuals.

James Harshaw’s grave stone at Glascar Presbyterian Church. Newry and Mourne Museum Collection
James Harshaw’s grave stone at Glascar Presbyterian Church. Newry and Mourne Museum Collection

In 1816 James Harshaw had married Sarah Kidd of Kiddstown and had twelve children. Although one died in infancy, Harshaw devotes a lot of space in his diaries to his relationships with his family. He often gave his family members nick or pet names and, as such, they appear in the diaries. His wife was known as “The Dandy”, Ellen Todd, wife of his son John, was referred to as “The Sparten” or “The Sparten Queen” and his son, Andrew, was the “Chieftain”. 

One who is given particular attention is Samuel Alexander, known as ‘Absolam’, his youngest, and favourite, son. Harshaw’s diaries are peppered with numerous references to ‘Absolam’ including his work on the farm, attendance at church services, fishing trips and shopping excursions to Rathfriland with his mother where he satisfied a passion for waistcoats! Although Samuel worked in banks in Belfast and Portadown, he emigrated to America in September 1856 to join his two elder brothers, James and William, who had gone in 1849. Samuel’s departure caused his father much grief and his leaving is recorded in detail in the dairies. 

Donaghmore National School. James Harshaw played a leading role in the effort to build this school in 1859. Newry and Mourne Museum Collection
Donaghmore National School. James Harshaw played a leading role in the effort to build this school in 1859. Newry and Mourne Museum Collection

Like many Victorian families, the Harshaws had their share of illness and early death. During the Great Famine, James Harshaw’s sister, Jane Harshaw Martin, died from fever in July 1847 after nearly two weeks of illness. An event which had a more lasting impact on Harshaw was the loss of his daughter, Mary, who died from Scarlet Fever in March 1859 a few days after the birth of her son. 

James Harshaw’s diaries continue until he suffered from ill health in 1866 and were completed by his son Andrew after his death in January 1867. They were taken to America in the late 1800s where they remained until they were donated to the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland in Belfast in 1996.

Newry and Mourne Museum is temporarily closed.

by Ken Abraham

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