Death of Samuel McAllister

On this day in 1903, Samuel McAllister, Irish-born recipient of the American Medal of Honor, died at sea. Samuel was born in Belfast on the 23rd of January 1869, though both of his parents were born in Scotland.[1] He moved to the United States in 1886, and by the time of the 1900 federal census, he was already serving in the US Navy. In June of that year, when the Boxer Rebellion in China finally broke out into open war, Samuel was serving on the USS Newark

The Boxer Rebellion was a war against foreigners. The spread of foreign influence through trade, religion, and (in one case) actual invasion was resented by many Chinese, and this resentment led to the rise of a nationalist movement called the Society of Righteous and Harmonious Fists – soon dubbed ‘Boxers’ by the Europeans. The Boxers comprised mainly peasants and artisans whose jobs or land had been lost as a result of foreign involvement in China, but they had friends in high places: In early June 1900, as violence increased, the Dowager Empress authorised war on foreign powers. By the end of that month, hundreds of foreigners from various places, and literally thousands of Chinese Christians, were trapped in two locations in Beijing, where they remained under siege for 55 days.[2]

The governments of eight nations, including the US and Great Britain, sent military forces to try to free their besieged citizens. Among the ships carrying American troops was the Newark. According to his citation, on “20 June 1900, while . . . [c]rossing the river in a small boat while under heavy enemy fire, Ordinary Seaman McAllister assisted in destroying buildings occupied by the enemy.” This “extraordinary heroism in action against the enemy at Tientsin, China” earned him the Medal of Honor, which he received from President Theodore Roosevelt on the 22nd of March 1902.[3]

Just over a year later, while serving aboard the USS Wisconsin, Samuel McAllister was lost at sea.[4]
Copyright (c) Lynn McAlister, 2012.


[1] “1900 United States Federal Census,” database, Ancestry.com (accessed 12 December 2012), entry for Samuel McAllister, [b.] 1869, in Ireland. 
[2] For more information on the Boxer Rebellion, see Cultural China, “Origins of the Boxers, and Department of the Navy, Naval History and Heritage Command, “The Boxer Rebellion and the U.S. Navy, 1900-1901“. (This site also links to an extensive bibliography.)
[3] Military Times Hall of Valor:  Samuel McAllister (accessed 10 December 2012).
[4] Find-a-Grave: Samuel McAllister

Macalisters and the Ulster Covenant

On this day in 1912, the Ulster Covenant was signed by nearly half a million people, including more than 900 Macalisters (McAllisters, McAlesters, etc.) – nearly 1,000, if you count some of the Alexanders and Alisters.  Although the Covenant was signed by people in places as diverse as China and the United States, the only Macalister signators outside of Ireland were in England and Scotland – and nearly all of them gave Irish addresses.[1]

The Ulster Covenant was a response to Prime Minister Asquith’s introduction of the third Irish Home Rule Bill on 11 April 1912, which aimed to set up a parliament to govern all of Ireland from Dublin. The proposed Dublin parliament would have limited powers, but many in Ulster saw it as the first step towards Irish independence. Although the majority of those in what is now the Republic of Ireland supported independence, Ulster was in many ways a very different place. Primarily Protestant and more heavily industrialised than the counties further south, Ulster was home to a large pro-Union constituency. Many there feared that an independent Irish parliament would impose Catholicism and create economic difficulty in the north. Emotion was high – so much so that for many years it was widely believed quite a few people had signed their names in blood.[2] Those who signed the covenant pledged to resist the establishment of government from Dublin ‘by all means which may be found necessary’. 

There is a degree of irony in all of these Macalister signatures. The Ulster Covenant was initially patterned on the Scottish National Covenant of 1638. That Covenant was aimed at limiting control from London (in the form of King Charles) over the Presbyterian church of Scotland. It led to the later Solemn League and Covenant (1643) and ultimately to Scotland’s Civil War, in which the Macalisters were among those violently resisting the Presbyterian government. In fact, some Macalisters settled in Northern Ireland after the war to escape the victorious Covenanters. Other Irish Macalisters descended from Scots who had come as mercenaries to support the MacDonalds of Antrim in their fight to keep the English (and, to be fair, most of the Irish) out of northeast Ulster. Yet centuries later, their descendants queued up all across the north to sign a Covenant aimed at maintaining English control of Ireland and protecting the mostly Presbyterian Protestant establishment.

Asquith’s Home Rule bill was defeated in the House of Lords in January 1913, though it is not clear that the Ulster Covenant contributed directly to its defeat. World War I ultimately led to a different solution for Ireland, but the Covenant did have other results. For one thing, with the defeat of the 1912 bill, Unionists began to organise and train a military force whose members were drawn from men who had signed the document. Called the Ulster Volunteer Force, it was a forerunner of the numerous paramilitary groups that perpetuated the late 20th-century Troubles; indeed, one of the pro-union paramilitaries even adopted the UVF name. However, for modern Macalisters whose roots are in Ireland, the signing of the Ulster Covenant had another, very different kind of result – one completely unrelated to politics or religion and probably not anticipated by those who signed it: It provides us with a rich source of genealogical information, which, thanks to the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland, can now be searched on-line. 


Copyright (c) Lynn McAlister, 2012


[1] Chris Paton, in his blog post on this topic, suggests that the ‘address’ column is best read ‘place of origin’; if so, these Macalisters were probably permanent – and maybe recent – migrants to England and Scotland rather than visitors. Also see How Ulster Covenant Drew Support across England and Scotland.

[2] According to an article on the PRONI website: “Contrary to popular belief, only one signature is believed to have been signed in blood, that of Frederick Hugh Crawford, who was to become the  Ulster Volunteers’ Director of Ordnance”. However, even this is now disputed.

Macalister Clan Centre Established

In September of 1984, Angus Macalister of Glenbarr presented his home, Glenbarr Abbey, to the Macalister clan worldwide for use as a clan centre.

The Macalisters of Glenbarr descend from Ranald Mòr, a younger son of Angus vic Ean Dhù who was chief of the clan c. 1515. More specifically, their ancestor was Ranald Macalister of Skerinish (1715-1762), factor to the MacDonalds of Kingsburgh in Skye. Ranald married Anne MacDonald, Kingsburgh’s daughter, and together they had twelve children, although not all of them survived. The family is most famous for its role in sheltering Prince Charles Edward Stuart as he escaped after Culloden: Flora Macdonald (Anne’s future sister-in-law) brought him to Skye disguised as her maid; he left the following morning wearing one of Ranald’s kilts.[1]

But the family’s later adventures were also impressive. One of their sons, Norman, became the governor of Prince of Wales Island (now Penang). Another, Alexander, purchased the Strathaird estate in Skye (his daughter Janet married into the dispossessed Tarbert line), and Keith purchased the initial properties from which his brother Matthew would build up the Glenbarr estate. Later generations were prominent in the East India Company and in law, and they played a key role in colonising New South Wales. Two of them died in shipwrecks.

The Abbey, which was built by Ranald’s son Matthew (and completed in the 1840s by Matthew’s son Keith), is on the Glenbarr estate in western Kintyre. Glenbarr itself was purchased bit by bit during the early 19th century; it includes most of the lands that once made up the Loup estate. It is the last property in Kintyre to be owned by one of the clan’s leading families. (Nearby Torrisdale Castle was owned by the Strathaird family, but it was sold by them in the late 19th century. The current owners are called Macalister Hall.) By 1843, Keith Macalister was the only heritor in Killean & Kilkenzie parish who lived on his property year-round rather than leaving it to the care of factors.[2]

Angus Macalister died in 2007.[3] Today as he wished Glenbarr Abbey serves as a clan centre, and Macalisters come from all over the world to learn about their history and celebrate their heritage.

Copyright (c) Lynn McAlister, 2012


[1]Kingsburgh manuscript, copy in my possession. Original copies are held at Glenbarr Abbey.
[2]New Statistical Account, vol. 7, p. 391 
[3]Angus MacAlister of Glenbarr“, the Scotsman, 17 April 2007. 

By Order of Hitler

On this day in 1944, John Kenneth Macalister died at Buchenwald concentration camp, executed as an Allied spy on the personal order of Adolf Hitler. He was 30 years old.

Macalister, a native of Guelph, Ontario, was the only son of the editor of the Guelph Mercury. After completing a degree at the University of Toronto, he went as a Rhodes Scholar to Oxford, and then passed the Bar exams in London. He was studying at the Institute of Corporate Law in Paris when WWII broke out in 1939 and immediately tried to enlist in the French infantry, but his need for thick eyeglasses disqualified him for active service. Instead, he returned to Britain and joined the Special Operations Executive. This organisation, established by Churchill specifically to locate, support, and build resistance groups in occupied countries, was “like something out of a John le Carré novel”. U.S. General Eisenhower believed that its efforts “shortened the war by months”[1], but the work was so dangerous that hopeful agents were warned they had only a 50% chance of surviving the war.[2]

On 24 June 1943, Captain Macalister and another Canadian, Frank Pickersgill, were parachuted into occupied France to set up an SOE wireless network, codenamed ‘Arch-deacon’. Although the men connected with resistance agents as planned, they were almost immediately arrested by the Gestapo – as spies rather than prisoners of war, which meant their rights were not protected by the Geneva Convention.  Several explanations are given for their quick capture. Most sources suggest that the Gestapo had been tipped off, possibly by a mole within the resistance, though such a person has never been identified. One of the other airmen captured by the Nazis blamed their exposure on Macalister’s ‘terrible French’ (which seems odd considering he had studied the language enthusiastically for years, had lived in France, and had a French wife). In fact, it seems likely that the Gestapo needed neither a mole nor bad French to discover the spies. Only days before the men were dropped in France, a preparatory drop of explosives had been made. The explosives went off upon landing, and about 2,000 German soldiers “poured into the area to investigate.” If the Germans thought these explosions suspicious enough to send so many soldiers, surely they would have been actively looking for the explosives’ intended recipients. The SOE agent on the ground certainly believed Archdeacon endangered: He immediately radioed London advising that the second drop (of Macalister and Pickersgill) be aborted. Whether the message was received or not is unknown, but the mission went ahead.

Macalister and Pickersgill were interrogated and tortured by the Gestapo for some time. The Nazis hoped to convince the men to set up the wireless network as planned; the Nazis could then use it to lure other Allied agents into a trap. But SOE agents were trained to resist torture, and neither would agree to help. They were finally sent to Buchenwald[3], where they arrived on 27 August. Only two and a half weeks later, as the Allies closed in, Hitler ordered they be hanged and their bodies destroyed, so that their fate would never be known. Several of their fellow inmates survived, however, and before too long the story of Macalister and Pickersgill emerged. Today they are remembered as war heroes.

John Kenneth Macalister is commemorated on a memorial in Surrey, England, and by a plaque in Scotland (where the SOE men underwent training) as one of the agents who died for the liberation of France. He is listed in the Roll of Honour at the Valençay SOE memorial in France itself; there is a park named after him in Guelph, and a Pickersgill-Macalister garden at the University of Toronto. In 1995, late University College principal Douglas LePan, who was also a poet and had known Macalister personally, produced the epic poem Macalister, or Dying in the Dark in his honour.

Copyright (c) Lynn McAlister, 2012


[1]A. Scott, Behind Enemy Lines, University of Toronto magazine on-line, Autumn 2012. The SOE was originally intended to be part of the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6), but its particular mission led to its establishment as a separate organisation. Known as ‘Churchill’s Secret Army’ and ‘The Baker Street Irregulars’, its existence was not even officially acknowledged until years after the war had ended. When the group was dissolved in 1946, most of its responsibilities were given back to the SIS.[2] Of the first 10 Canadians parachuted into occupied France, seven – including Macalister – would never return (Requiem for the Brave, University of Toronto magazine on-line).
[3] Buchenwald Concentration Camp was one of the first camps established on German soil. Between July 1937 and April 1945 about 250,000 people were imprisoned there, roughly 56,000 of them dying. It was the first camp to be liberated by the US army, 13 months after Macalister’s death.

A Titanic Connection

One hundred years ago today, Hugh McAllister, 34, of Carrickfergus and Daniel McAllistor, 29, of Belfast disembarked the RMS Titanic, on which they had temporarily served as crew.[1] Both men were stokers (‘firemen’) on the ship’s journey from its Belfast birthplace to Southampton, England, where it would take on passengers for its very first Atlantic crossing.

After arriving at Southampton, some of the engine crew stayed on for the remainder of the voyage. Whether by choice or because they had not been hired for the longer job, Hugh and Daniel headed home to Ireland. Perhaps this was a disappointment – after all, Titanic was one of the most remarkable (and luxurious) ships that had ever been built, its passenger list a contemporary Who’s Who, and its maiden voyage the event of the season. But any disappointment they might have felt surely changed to relief – and perhaps disbelief – twelve days later, when they learned of the ship’s fate. Had they stayed on for the rest of the journey, they would probably have perished – only 17 of the Titanic‘s 321-man engine crew survived.

Copyright (c) Lynn McAlister, 2012

Macalisters in Viet Nam

On this day in 1973 the Peace Paris Accords were signed, officially ending the United States’ part of the Vietnam War, although the last troops did not leave for months. There were certainly Macalisters among the Americans lost in the conflict (the name appears in various forms twelve times on the Vietnam Wall memorial in Washington, DC), and many others served but survived. 

But Americans were not the only Macalisters to serve in Viet Nam. Among the nearly 60,000 Australians who fought there were at least eighteen members of this clan.[1] New Zealand sent about 4,000 combatants altogether, including Squadron Leader D G McAllister and Sgt. R L McAllister.[2] Canada was officially a neutral country, but “while Canada as a nation was not involved, Canadians themselves formed the largest foreign contingent in the U.S. military during the Vietnam era”. Perhaps 12,000 Canadians saw combat in Viet Nam[3]; it is not unlikely that some of these were Macalisters. (For several reasons, details about individual Canadians who fought in Viet Nam can be difficult to find.)

All of the Australian and New Zealand Macalisters appear to have survived the war, but Vietnam veterans of these countries faced the same difficulties back at home as their American comrades. They returned to fellow citizens who were at best indifferent and at worst actively hostile to them. Veterans of their nations’ previous wars often refused to acknowledge their service and suffering. For years their governments denied that exposure to chemical agents like Agent Orange might have caused the lingering physical problems some of them faced, and so the medical help they needed was often not forthcoming. In Australia and New Zealand, as in the US, it was not until the late 1980s that the sacrifices of these veterans were recognised and they were formally welcomed home.

The experience of Vietnam vets who returned to Canada has been a bit different. The war in which they fought was not a Canadian war, and so they are not recognised as veterans in their own country. This means that many of the support structures available to other Canadian veterans are not open to them. They are not usually included in Remembrance Day events or admitted to official veterans organisations.[4] Many Canadians (and most Americans) are unaware that they even exist. It can certainly be argued that since their government didn’t send them to Viet Nam, it has no responsibility to acknowledge or reward their service there. However, the isolation of these vets and the lack of any official support have made the lot of Canada’s Vietnam veterans (and any Macalisters among them) perhaps the most difficult of all.

Copyright (c) Lynn McAlister, 2012


[1]Australian Government Dept. of Veterans’ Affairs, Nominal Roll of Vietnam Veterans
[3]Fred Graffen of the Canadian War Museum, in an article that first appeared in Vietnam Magazine. It is now available on-line.
[4]Ibid. That said, there are several informative web sites operated by individual veterans of Canada’s own military which have attempted to make people aware of these veterans, and they are honoured along with veterans of other conflicts in the Canadian War Museum.

Death of a Librarian

On this day in 1925, Sir John Young Walker Macalister died in London, aged 69. Sir John was one of the Macalisters of Tarbert, though the Tarbert lands had been lost long before his time and he was raised in Aberdeen and Liverpool. His memory is often overshadowed by that of his illustrious brother, Sir Donald Macalister, who was principal of Glasgow University for twenty-two years and chancellor for four years after that, but it could be argued that his influence was felt much more widely. 

Forced by ill health to abandon a medical degree at Edinburgh University, Sir John instead pursued a career in librarianship. After working in Liverpool and Leeds, he settled in London, where he combined his two interests to become the resident librarian for the Royal Medical and Chirurgical Society. He then joined the struggling Library Association, which he completely transformed: From a handful of mainly London-based library clerks with expertise in a variety of subjects but no proper training as librarians, he built it into a nationwide organisation of professionals. He organised international conferences so that librarians from different countries could learn from each other. When, in 1877, the Library Association received its Royal Charter, it was almost entirely due to Sir John’s efforts.

Macalister also wrote extensively on librarianship. At a time when open access was controversial, he advocated public libraries that would make information accessible to all. His concern that there should be uniformity in the standards of librarians’ knowledge and service was part of what led to the establishment of the first library school, at University College, London. For years he edited the Library Journal, through which he was able to spread his ideas about librarianship as a profession. In fact, many of the principles valued by the library profession today were first articulated by Sir John Macalister. 

During the First World War, Sir John was founder and secretary of the War Office Surgical Advisory Committee; he organized an Emergency Surgical Aid Corps for the Admiralty, War Office and Police, and in 1919 he was knighted in recognition of these services. By all accounts he was well liked, counting many respected intellectuals among his friends, including the writer Mark Twain (whose personal archive includes their correspondence). One scholar observed that the “life and career of Sir John Young Walker MacAlister reads like a history of librarianship in Britain.”[1] But his influence is felt far beyond his own country. By the time of his death, he had transformed librarians’ views of their profession, which in turn transformed the profession – not only in the UK but in much of the Western world.

At his own request, Sir John Young Walker Macalister was laid to rest with his ancestors in Tarbert.

Copyright (c) Lynn McAlister, 2011


[1]Anne M. K. Collins,  review of The Incomparable Mac: A Biographical Study of Sir John Young Walker Macalister in the Bulletin of the Medical Library Association, 72(3) July 1984: 321.