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Reunion in Glenboy

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1. Robinson descendants welcomed back to Leitrim after 150 years

by Loreley Morling © All rights reserved
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Leitrim's lakes, tumbling waterfalls and green hills shrouded in mist make it one of the most beautiful areas of Ireland. Perhaps because of its rugged landscape however, it has always been one of Ireland's poorest counties. The townland of Glenboy, in a picturesque setting about three miles southeast of Manorhamilton, is quite small. In the 1850s there were just twenty-five houses, including several occupied by families named Robinson.

Leitrim's population expanded greatly in the first half of the nineteenth century, but by the early 1850s it had declined by about a third. Perhaps typical of the families in the area, John and Jane Robinson and Henry White and his wife each had six children prior to 1839. The famine during the 1840s made life difficult for everyone.

Neither Henry, a weaver, nor John, a labourer, had permanent jobs. Supporting their families was a real struggle, often emigration was the only answer. It was with reluctance that the Robinsons and Whites joined the exodus from Ireland, swapping the sparsely populated green hills of Leitrim for the crowded outskirts of Manchester. Some of their feelings of homesickness would have been tempered by the fact that many of their neighbours in Ashton under lyne, in the foothills of the Pennines about seven miles east of Manchester, were also Irish-born. The local cotton mills provided employment for most of them.  

It was in Ashton that John Robinson junior, son of John and Jane, married Elizabeth White, daughter of Henry, five days before Christmas in 1846 and John's sister Ann married Elizabeth's brother William White on Christmas Day. While the Robinsons were employed in the cotton mills William White worked as a surveyor and quarryman, travelling further afield to toil in the construction of reservoirs.

Over the next few years John and Elizabeth Robinson and William and Ann White each had four children. The families remained close. When Ann White died after the birth of her daughter Ellen in 1860 John and Elizabeth cared for her older children: Robert, William and Ann Jane, as well as the baby. William remarried the following year and moved to Yorkshire to work as a road surveyor. Cousins Mary Jane Robinson, eldest daughter of John and Elizabeth, and Robert White, William's eldest son, were married in 1872.

Robert found work on the railways but life was not easy. Mary Jane had given birth to their first child in 1875 and they were lured by the opportunities available for their children in Australia. Early in 1878 Robert sailed for Queensland, leaving his pregnant wife and baby daughter behind. He secured a job as a railway signalman in Sydney and Mary Jane, their daughter Elizabeth Ellen, baby son John William and Robert's sister Ann Jane joined him in Australia in June 1879. Ann Jane married not long after her arrival and the two families remained close, living in the same or adjacent suburbs and sharing child-minding responsibilities.

Robert and Mary Jane's son John William returned to England where he married in 1906. It was thought that he also visited Ireland. Over the years the White and Robinson nieces, nephews, uncles, aunts and cousins in Australia and England kept in touch. During the 1960s, however, communication began to decrease. By the time I showed an interest in the family contact had been lost. Ann Jane was my great grandmother and, when I began the search for my origins, I only had second-hand information to guide me. There was some hint of an Irish origin for the Whites and Robinsons, but no details, so it took a considerable amount of research to trace them to Glenboy in Leitrim.

In 1992 my husband and I were fortunate enough to have a couple of weeks holiday in Ireland. The day we drove from Sligo to Manorhamilton was most unpleasant weather-wise. A gale was blowing, it was freezing cold and pouring with rain. The conditions, however, highlighted some of the beauty of the countryside. Waterfalls flowed upwards and through the mist we could discern the bright green rugged hills interspersed with raging streams. The scenery would have changed little since the Robinsons and Whites lived there. I couldn't help wondering how they felt about leaving this beautiful place.

By mid-afternoon we had arrived at the bed and breakfast establishment we'd chosen from a guidebook. It was a relief to be out of the car and relax over the tea and cakes provided by our host. She enquired what had brought us to the area and I explained my interest in the Robinson and White families from Glenboy. Imagine my surprise when she said there were still Robinsons living there, then suggested we visit them.

Although I was sceptical of any relationship and reluctant to brave the rain and wind again I persuaded my husband and we found the Robinsons: two spinster sisters and their bachelor brother, all aged in their seventies. They lived in the old school house, where they had once been students themselves. We were welcomed with open arms and plied with tea and whiskey in front of a roaring fire. A family Bible was brought out so we could trace the family's descent. Unfortunately some missing links mean we couldn't establish whether we were descended from the same Robinson family. We were able to ascertain, however, that our families lived in Glenboy in the 1840s and, even if they were not related, must have known each other.

It took 150 years for a descendant of the Robinsons of Glenboy to return to a wonderful, albeit impromptu, Irish welcome.

Last Updated on Sunday, 06 October 2013 10:36

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