Tag Archives: County Tyrone

Ireland Under Coercion, Revisited: Sion Mills

This blog serial explored the 1888 book Ireland Under Coercion: The Diary of an American, by journalist William Henry Hurlbert. Previous posts and background material are available at the project landing page#IUCRevisited 


“Everywhere we found order, neatness and thrift.”
–William Henry Hurlbert

In contrast to the Dublin slums, Hurlbert arrived 3 February 1888 at the “model village” at Sion Mills, near Strabane, County Tyrone (now part of Northern Ireland), 125 miles northwest of the capital city.

He described Sion House, the mill owner’s residence, as “a handsome Queen Anne mansion [that] stands on a fine knoll, commanding lovely views on all sides. Below it, and beyond a little stream, rise the extensive flax-mills which are the life of the place.” The village contained a reading room, cricket clubs, and other amenities for the 1,100 employees, which Hurlbert reported were an even mix of Catholics and Protestants.

“I find it wise to give neither religion a preponderance, and to hold my people of both religions to a common standard of fidelity and efficiency,” mill owner Emerson Tennent Herdman told Hurlbert. This quote is used in a 2014 BBC profile of the village, which it says has maintained a reputation as “completely non-sectarian.”

The 2009 video below by the Sion Mills Buildings Preservation Trust provides more history of the mill and village. In September 2017, The Architects’ Journal reported about efforts to “remasterplan” the village.

While late 19th century Sion village and mill life under Herdman’s watch was arguably more progressive than in Belfast or other Irish linen factory locations, it’s worth remembering that workers typically toiled for 12 hours weekdays, plus time on the weekend. “Wages were low and injuries and illness were common among factory workers,” according to this Ancestry overview.

Hurlbert sneered at the “ineradicable objection of some of the peasantry to continuous industry.” He wrote of “a strapping lass of 18 who came to the mills, but very soon gave up and went back to the parental shebeen in the mountains rather than get up early in the morning to earn 14 shillings a week. Three weeks of her work would have paid the year’s rent of the parental holding.”

This chapter of the book also contains an example of 19th century sexism. Herdman steers the American reporter and some other men touring the mill to get “a glimpse of the ‘beauty of Sion,’ a well-grown graceful girl of 15 or 16 summers.” Noticing the gawking visitors, the girl focused intently on her work, proving “how completely she saw through our futile and frivolous devices,” Hurlbert wrote. Next, Herdman tells his visitors about “the ugliest girl ever employed here.” She was engaged to a blacksmith, “who lost heart of grace on the eve of the sacrifice” and “fled Sion forever” on a ship to America.

I leave it to 21st century readers to decide whether such actions and comments are felonies or misdemeanors.

Sion House

NEXT: Glenveagh evictions

NOTES: This post is based on pages 71 to 76 of Ireland Under Coercion: The Diary of an American

Copyright 2018 by Mark Holan

Sinn Féin names new leader in Northern Ireland

A 40-year-old mother of two children has replaced an aging and ill former IRA commander as the new face of republican politics in Northern Ireland.

Northern Ireland Assembly health minister Michelle O’Neill has been selected by Sinn Féin to lead the party in the province. The Mid Ulster representative takes over for Martin McGuinness, 66, who resigned earlier this month due to health problems and lingering questions about his unionist counterpart’s role in a troubled energy program.


“I have no doubt that I am following in the footsteps of a political giant,” O’Neill said in a statement.

The McGuinness resignation resulted in the assembly being dissolved and triggers fresh elections 2 March.

“In the aftermath of the election, there can and will be no return to the status quo,” O’Neill said. “Sinn Féin are only interested in participating in the power sharing institutions if they deliver for all of our citizens and operate on the basis of equality and respect.”

O’Neill has held elected office since 2005 and was first woman mayor of the Dungannon council area, according to a detailed bio on the party website. She lives in Clonoe, County Tyrone, about an hour west of Belfast.

The political landscape continues to evolve in Northern Ireland. As The Guardian reported a few days before O’Neill’s selection, demographics are driving a lot of the change. The ratio of Protestants to Catholics is close to even, and more immigrants are living in the province.

“Brexit may also mean an independent Scotland, the Unionists’ most natural ally in the U.K., which would leave Ulster as an even more isolated appendage than ever. And hemmed in to the south [by the Republic.] In such circumstances, the case against a united Ireland might seem absurd.”


U.S.-Irish relations at St. Patrick’s Day: 1916-2016 (P1)

This blog series focuses on U.S.- Irish relations at St. Patrick’s Day over the past 100 years. Since this is the centennial of the Easter Rising, I’m looking at 1916 and each 25 years afterward: 1941, 1966 and 1991. I’m also writing a post on St. Patrick’s Day 1976, the year of the American bicentennial.

Part 1: Before the Rising & afterward

St. Patrick’s Day 1916 arrived in the second year of the Great War and a month before the Easter Rising. The Washington Post reported that President Woodrow Wilson was wearing “a bright green necktie and a little shamrock fresh from the ‘ould sod,’ a present from John Redmond, the Irish nationalist leader.”

Woodrow-Wilson_Health-Crisis_HD_768x432-16x9.jpg (768×432)

Woodrow Wilson was re-elected president in November 1916.

The Post also published a short message from Redmond, datelined London: “Ireland stands united with the allies in the cause of liberty and civilization, and looks forward with confidence to the union of all her sons in the service of their common country under home rule at the termination of the war.”

The events of April 1916 made sure home rule never came to pass as the war on the continent dragged longer than Redmond and others imagined.

Whether the reporting about Wilson’s sartorial selections for St. Patrick’s Day was accurate or a bit of strategic blarney is impossible to know. But in the years following the Rising the descendant of Ulster Protestants, “deceived Irish America and ignored the execution of Roger Casement,” charges Robert Schmuhl, the author of “Ireland’s Exiled Children: America and the Easter Rising.”

In an adaption from his book for Irish Central, Schmuhl writes:

For too long as president, Wilson refused to concentrate on the Irish question. Despite the leadership he tried to exert on the world stage and the radical changes within Ireland after the Easter Rising that deserved his attention, he kept ducking and dodging in public while fuming and fulminating in private. Over time, he appeared weak and indecisive.

Public opinion in the U.S. and elsewhere crystallized that Wilson was not inclined to do anything for Ireland. Though he blamed the American Irish for the failure to ratify the Treaty of Versailles and involve the United States in the League of Nations, they, in turn, blamed him for abandoning Ireland at a critical time.

More on Wilson, Irish exile John Devoy and American poet Joyce Kilmer in this 2012 piece by Schmuhl: ‘All Changed, Changed Utterly’: Easter 1916 and America.

For something less political, read about Wilson’s ancestral home near Strabane, County Tyrone.