The Antrim Torchbearer

On this day in 2012, 17-year-old Gemma McAllister of Glengormley, Northern Ireland, carried the Olympic torch through Antrim, cheered on by thousands of local people.[1]

The opportunity to carry the torch was an appropriate honour for someone who has done so much to advance the cause of youth sports in her country – and beyond. In addition to playing football (soccer) internationally, she also represented her school in hockey and girls’ rugby and played water polo for Belfast team the Donegall Diamonds. Since 2009 – the year it began in Northern Ireland – Gemma has been part of the Youth Sport Trust’s Young Ambassador programme, which has as its goal “changing young people’s lives through sport”.[2] 

She served on the programme’s steering group and has worked to encourage young people to participate in sports. She even held a mini-Olympics event, in which a hundred primary school children participated.[3]

In January of 2012, Gemma’s love of sport took her all the way to Egypt, where she attended a youth sport conference as part of the British delegation. The conference focused on creating sporting opportunities for young Egyptians.[4] While there, Gemma gave a speech on behalf of the British Council in Egypt.[5] At home, her position as ambassador involved promoting last year’s Olympics and Paralympics in London, and in this role she was involved in a project that brought athletes from several middle eastern countries to train in Antrim during July and August in preparation for these major sporting events.[6] 

Gemma was selected to be a torchbearer by the Youth Sport Trust “for her outstanding contribution as a Young Ambassador”. The experience, she recalls, “was unbelievable.”[7]

Copyright (c) Lynn McAlister, 2013


[1]‘Olympic Torch Relay: Antrim’s Moment to Shine, in Active Antrim, issue 14, September 2012-January 2013): 4.
[2] Youth Sport Trust:About Us

[3]‘Moment to Shine’, Olympic Games Official London website: Torchbearers: Gemma Mcallister

[4]Sporty Gemma on British team off to land of pyramids for conference, Belfast Telegraph, 3 January 2012.
[5]Successful Year for Antrim Grammar, Antrim Times, 26/12/12.

[6]FiveAthletics and Paralympics teams to train in the north‘, Athletics Northern Ireland, March 2012.
[7]‘Young Ambassador Carries Torch in Antrim’, Youth Sport Trust: news, 7 June 2012.

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James Alexander, Earl of Caledon

On this day in 1800, James Alexander was created Earl of Caledon in the peerage of Ireland.

James was born at Londonderry in 1730. His great-great-great-grandfather, John Alexander, was an Ayrshire tenant farmer who followed his landlord, James Cunningham, to northern Ireland in the early 1600s. By his grandfather’s time the family had acquired land of its own, and his father became an alderman in Londonderry. James made his fortune with the Honourable East India Company, a relatively unusual path for an Irishman, holding several important positions in India before he returned to Ireland[1] with enough money to purchase the Caledon estate, as well as several other properties, in 1776. Caledon House was built in 1794.[2]

Although earlier genealogies claimed that the Caledon family descended from the Alexanders of Menstrie, no details of this descent were given, and as John Alexander’s parentage is not known, this connexion cannot be proved.[3] If they are related, then the Alexanders of Caledon, like the Menstrie family, belong to the Clann Alasdair. Regardless of their ancestry, however, the two Alexander kindreds are linked by history. James Cunningham, who obtained the Donegal lands on which John Alexander originally settled, had sold his family’s properties in Scotland to pay off his debts. The purchase of his Irish lands was made possible by means of two substantial loans: one from Robert Alexander, ‘a scion of the Menstry family’, and the other from Sir William Alexander himself. Several years later, when Cunningham’s creditors caught up with him, Sir William foreclosed on the loan. By doing so, he kept the property out of the creditors’ hands until Cunningham’s son was able to purchase it back in 1629, allowing the tenants, including the ancestors of the Earl of Caledon, to remain on the land.[4]

Copyright (c) Lynn McAlister, 2012


[1]Service with the HEIC was quite common for younger sons of landed families in Scotland and England, and more than a few family fortunes were established or restored in this way, but few Irish families followed this path (Introduction to the Caledon Papers, p. 5, Public Records Office of Northern Ireland).

[3]Sources for the information about James’s descent from John are given at The Peerage.

[4]C. Rogers, ed., Memorials of the Earl of Stirling and the House of Alexander (Edinburgh, 1885), pp. 59-63

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

The Last Earl of Stirling

On this day in 1739, Henry Alexander, the fifth Earl of Stirling, died. The earls of Stirling belonged to the Alexander family of Menstrie Castle in Stirlingshire. They are thought to descend from Gilbert ‘de Insula’, a son of Alasdair Mòr, who settled in the Lowlands in the mid-1300s. Although the exact descent is unclear, it has always been accepted that the Menstrie family – unlike many other Scottish Alexanders – do in fact belong to the Clann Alasdair. Certainly earlier generations of this family had a good deal of interaction with the Macalisters of Kintyre.

The fifth earl was a private individual who refrained from civic participation, and little is known of his life. His family, however, once wielded considerable influence. They first appear on record in 1505, when Thomas MacAlexander ‘de Menstray’ is named as arbiter in a local land dispute. The fact that he is ‘of’ Menstrie suggests he was the owner of this property; his role as arbiter suggests some degree of local authority. Thomas’s descendant Sir William Alexander (d. 1640) was part of James VI’s court in Scotland and in 1603 he followed the king to London, where he served as tutor to both of James’s crown princes.[1]He was acclaimed as a poet and was an active coloniser, establishing a settlement in Ireland and a colony at Nova Scotia. He already held several titles by the time he was named Earl of Stirling in 1633. Sir William’s eldest son was knighted, briefly governed the Nova Scotia colony, and served on the Privy Council; the second son, a noted architect who served as King’s Master of Work in Scotland, was also knighted. Henry’s grandfather, the third earl, succeeded his brother as Master of Work[2]and established a trading company, and his father was elected Member of Parliament for Berkshire.

The Alexanders’ close association with the Stuarts cost them their position in Scotland after the Civil Wars, and by Henry’s time Menstrie Castle had long since passed out of their possession. With Henry, the family’s titles too would be lost. The fifth earl left no heirs, nor did his brothers, and when Henry Alexander died on this day in 1739, his titles fell dormant. Although the earldom has been claimed by other branches of the family[3], none of these claims have ever been recognised.

Copyright (c) Lynn McAlister, 2012


[1]Sir William’s first charge was James’s eldest son, Crown Prince Henry. After Prince Henry died in 1612, William became tutor to the second son, the future Charles I.
[2]R. S. Mylne, ‘The Masters of Work to the Crown of Scotland’, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, vol. xxx (January 10, 1896).  
[3] Unlike titles in the English and, later, British peerage, some Scottish titles can pass to female heirs should the male lines fail. Although none of the 4th earl’s sons had children, some of his daughters did.

This Week in Macalister History . . .

Major events in the history of the Macalisters take a bit of a break in October, so I thought it might be fun to take a look at what’s happening in the Macalister world at the start of October of this year. Macalisters in the arts and entertainment have certainly been busy. David McAllister, artistic director of the Australian Ballet, is hard at work preparing for the 10 October opening of Romeo and Juliet. The company celebrates its 50th anniversary on 2 November of this year, which has led to quite a bit of media attention. Back in the UK, Irish actress Amy McAllister (whose television work includes roles in Call the Midwife and Emmerdale) is currently appearing as Nellie, the female lead in The Man on Her Mind at Charing Cross Theatre in London’s West End. Performances are given six nights a week, with an additional matinee performance Saturdays. The play runs through 27 October. To the north, award-winning Scottish comedian Keir McAllister (whom the Edinburgh Evening News called “…a gifted comedian destined for much bigger things”) has been touring the west coast with his Walking in My Shoes tour. This week he appeared in Tyree, Fort William and the Isle of Mull.

Macalisters were also busy studying insects, of all things. Dr Erica McAlister, curator of entomology at the Natural History Museum in London, undertook the last Specimen Collecting Field Trip of the season. This is part of a research project she and others in her department have been doing for the Ministry of Defence at a ‘top secret military testing station called Porton Down’. Details of the excursion can be found in her blog. Meanwhile, in the US, mosquito control expert Janet McAllister of the Center for Disease Control has been kept quite busy working to contain this year’s deadly outbreak of the West Nile Virus.

Charitable undertakings by members of this clan were also celebrated this week. On Sunday, the Wellesley (Mass.) Mothers Forum celebrated its 21st birthday; this non-profit community organisation, now 600-members strong, was established in 1991 by Lisa Macalaster and Maureen Bousa. Also on Sunday, but across the ocean, Leona McAlister, her daughter Maria McAlister, and her sister Pauline Murty, all of the Isle of Bute, were featured in the Buteman for their participation in September’s Great Scottish Run (a half-marathon), by which they raised £2,676 for the Beatson Oncology Centre.[1] Taking a slightly different approach to helping others was Don McAlister in Cape Town (S. Africa), whose latest editorial beseeched his readers to pay building contractors fairly.

Other Macalisters have been occupied with violence prevention this week. On Monday Detective Sergeant Randy McAlister of the Cottage Grove (Minn.) Police Department was interviewed by the local television news after a recent workplace shooting in that state. McAlister is a pioneer in the emerging field of threat assessment, which attempts to predict and prevent such events. He and his colleague spoke about the ‘red flags’ that often precede these tragedies and how to recognise them in time. The next day, Fort Morgan (Colo.) mayor Terry McAlister signed a proclamation making October National Domestic Violence Awareness month in his town. Various activities and programmes have been planned “to work toward improving victim safety and holding perpetrators of domestic abuse accountable”. The town council will be working in conjunction with S.H.A.R.E., Inc., a nonprofit group that serves battered women and their children in northeast Colorado.

And finally, Macalisters were also busy in politics this week. Wayne McAllister, Controller of Naugatuck Borough in Connecticut, reported on Wednesday that the borough had finished its fiscal year with a surplus of about US$1 million. Perhaps he should be running the country. The following day the Scotsman named Colin McAllister as one of those chosen by Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond to serve as political advisers to the Scottish government. This follows the loss of two senior advisers who left to serve in the Scottish National Party and the Yes Scotland independence campaign. And on Friday, Sinn Féin councillor Noreen McAllister was also in the news, doing what she was elected to do: speaking for the people. Councillor McAllister is trying to get the Moyle District Council (N. Ireland) to make structural changes that will eliminate the flooding problem experienced by some of her constituents.

Copyright (c) Lynn McAlister, 2012


[1] This is probably cheating, as neither his accomplishment nor his media recognition took place in the past week, but 10-year-old James McAllister of Darlington (England) also ran for charity in September. He completed the 4km Junior Great North Run in 22 minutes, running to raise money for leukaemia and lymphoma research. Well done, James!

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.

The Bishop and the Irish News

On this day in 1891, Patrick McAllister, Roman Catholic Bishop of Down & Connor, established the Irish News as a rival to the Belfast Morning News.[1] The Right Reverend Dr. McAllister (1826–1895) was, by virtue of his vocation, leader of the Catholic community in the north of Ireland. His leadership was not only spiritual but political as well, as he fought to win for Catholic ratepayers the same voice in civic affairs that their Protestant fellow citizens enjoyed.

Establishing the Irish News is one of the things the Bishop did to give his community a voice. The paper was founded in the wake of the scandal that ended Charles Parnell’s dominance of Irish politics, but the Irish News had a purpose beyond opposition to one politician. Classified as a ‘Constitutional Nationalist’ publication, it advocated Irish freedom by constitutional means rather than violent rebellion.[2] In its early years it was the only nationalist daily in Ulster, and its nationalist stance explains its continued relevance in the years after Parnell – and McAllister – had faded from the scene. Clearly, the new paper struck a chord: Only a year after its founding, it was one of the most widely circulating papers among Catholics in the province.[3] 

Like other Ulster-focused newspapers, the popularity of the Irish News reached its height in the early years of the modern Troubles (late 60s-early 70s) and has declined since then. Today it is known mostly for its coverage of Gaelic football. Nevertheless, circulation figures show that the Irish News (now online as well as in print) is still the second most widely read regional paper in Northern Ireland, with a circulation just under 44,000.[4] It is still nationalist in outlook and still primarily aimed at a Catholic audience. Although the world has changed a great deal since Rev. McAllister’s day, the newspaper that he established on this day in 1891 continues to represent the community he served.

Copyright (c) Lynn McAlister, 2012


[1] This is not to be confused with several Irish-American newspapers of the same name, the best known being New York City-based Irish News founded in 1856 by Thomas Francis Meagher. That paper had ceased publication by this time.

[2] “Progress of the Sinn Fein Movement”, in J. Castell Hopkins, Canadian Annual Review of Public Affairs for 1919 (Toronto, 1920): pp. 217-19.

[3] Parliamentary Debates, fourth series, vol. XI, 1893, p. 688

[4]  “ABC Figures: How the Regional Dailies Performed”, 31 August 2011.