Sunday, 30 January 2011

James McHenry (1785-1845) - an Ulster author

There are a number of notable grave in the little graveyard at St Cedma's parish church in Larne and oen of them is the grave of the Ulster-born author James McHenry.

He was born on 20 December 1785 at Livingstone's Court, off Dunluce Street, in Larne and he was the son of George McHenry and his wife Mary Smiley.  His maternal grandparents were Samuel Smiley of Larne and Christina Robinson of Fox Hall, Cairncastle.

James McHenry was educated at an academy in the home of Rev John Nicholson, minister of the Seceding Presbyterian congregation in Larne.  He studied for the Presbyterian ministry but turned away from this and studied medicine in Belfast and Glasgow. 

McHenry wrote poetry and in 1807 some of his poems appeared in a Belfast newspaper under the pseudonym McERIN, which is a combination of the Scottish prefix with an alternative name for Ireland, a combination that could be described as Scotch-Irish.  These and other poems were published in Belfast in 1808 in a volume entitled The Bard of Erin and Other Poems, Mainly National.

He practised medicine in Larne and Belfast and then in 1817 he emigrated from Ulster to America with his wife, Jane Robinson, and their infant son. 

His first publication in America was The Pleasures of Friendship (1822), a collection of poetry, and this was followed by Waltham: An American Revolutionary Tale (1823), a poem in three cantos about George Washington's experience at Valley Forge.  This was one of the earliest poetic treatments of an American patriotic theme.

Also in 1823 he published in three volumes a novel entitled The Wilderness, which was signficant in that it portrayed the first Ulster emigrant family in American fiction.  It told of a family of Ulster pioneers on the Pennsylvania frontier during the French and Indian War during the 18th century.  In the foreword he noted that: 'The language spoken by the Presbyterians of Ulster, the class of Irishmen to which the character, with whose adventures the following tale commences, belonged, is, with some slight shades of difference, the same as that of the Lowlands of Scotland.'

The family settled in Philadelphia in 1824 and there he became a draper but in that same year he published O'Halloran; or The Insurgent Chief; and Historical Tale of 1798.  This was the first of his Ulster novels and according to ERR Green: 'These novels are of great interest as they mark the first appearance of a distinct consciousness of a separate Ulster identity.' 

It was followed the next year by The Hearts of Steel and in the preface he wrote that 'the majority of actors in both works belonged to the population of Ulster; the lower and middle classes of whom speak a dialect very similar to that spoken by the Scotch Lowlanders, from whom they are mostly descended'.

His other works included The Usurper (1829), a five-act play, The Betrothed of Wyoming (c 1830), Meredith or The Mystery of the Meschianza (1831) and several volumes of poetry.

In America he took an active interest in politics and he was a close friend and ardent admirer of President Andrew Jackson, whose parents had emigrated from Carrickfergus, just a few miles from McHenry's birthplace in Larne.  In 1829 he published a volume entitled Jackson's Wreath or National Souvenir.

In 1842 or 1843 McHenry was appointed United States consul in Londonderry but he he spent much of his time in Belfast and he died in Larne on 21 July 1845.  He was buried there in St Cedma's graveyard alongside his mother.

His son James McHenry (1817-1891) was a well-known financier who moved from America to Kensington in London. and his daughter Mary, who married J Bellargee Cox of Philadelphia, was widely known for her philanthropic work.

McHenry is just one of the notable figures who were buried in St Cedma's.  He is now largely forgotten but deserves to be remembered as a notable Ulster author.

There was another James McHenry (1753-1816), who was born in Ballymena and became an early american statesman.  Fort McHenry in Baltimore was named after him and this was the scene of the battle that inspired the American national anthem.


  1. I wonder if his maternal grandfather, Samuel Smiley, was an antecedent of the Smiley Baronets, of Drumalis. They ran the Northern Whig, I believe.

  2. Yes he was related to the Smiley family of Drumalis. Indeed his grave is beside that of the Smileys.

  3. Hi Nelson.Just out of interest can I ask who the other famous people buried at St Cedmas are? After reading a few articles and watching a couple of programmes about Ulster Scots recently it sounds like the Scots are all Presbyterians the English COI and the native Irish Catholic. But when I look at the names on the gravestones at my COI most if the names seem to be lowland scots, a lot of the Catholics in my town also have lowland scots names. Would it be fair to say that nearly everybody in Northern Ireland would be a mixture of the three. I also notice Gaelic and Ulster Scots get promoted heavily in Northern Ireland but yet Ulster English gets left out. Have the English blended in so much they have disappeared or are people ashamed to admit to having English ancestry for different reasons?


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