Oaklawn Manor Plantation Louisiana and the 1798 Irish Rebellion:

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Oaklawn Manor Today located in Franklin, Louisiana.

This is Part One of a Two Part Post:

Last year while doing some History/Genealogical and Travel research online, I literally bumped into a story I had been following for years as it involved the 1798 Irish Rebellion and the tragic story of Rev. James Porter.

Backing up a little bit. I moved back to Texas a couple of years ago and had not traveled in Louisiana at all (ok – I did drive across it from Northern Mississippi once), and I was looking for a place to spend a long weekend and came across Breaux Bridge, LA. Deciding on that locale I then looked at things to do and discovered there was a Plantation about 30 minutes south in the town of Franklin in St. Mary’s Parish, called “Oaklawn Manor”.

Oaklawn Manor is a 1830’s plantation house located on the banks of the Bayou Teche on a stretch called “Irish Bend” so named for the owner Alexander Porter’s place of birth in Donegal, Ireland and who overcame family tragedy in his native land, and adopted America as his own, eventually became a leading Louisiana statesman. 

But what of his past?  While touring the historic home Oaklawn Manor in 2014 with the knowledgeable Docent, I asked her if she knew of Alexander Porter’s family in Ireland?  She replied “she did not” and regarding his life in Ireland that all “she knew was that he and his brother were born in Ireland.”

Porter Family:

I.Alexander Porter b. Scot. d. Donegal, Ire. married ________ Sims

II.Robert Porter b.

III. James Porter b. 1753 Donegal, Ire. d. 1798 Donegal, Ire. married Ann Knox

IV. Alexander Porter b. 1785 Donegal, Ire. d. 1844 LA &  James Porter Jr.

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Strabane map

So, here follows the remarkable historical and heroic story of the Porter family of Ballindrait, Donegal, Ireland.

“The story of James Porter is one of the saddest in the history of our church, and his fate may serve as a warning to ministers of the gospel who devote to politics the time and talents that ought to be exercised in their own profession.” (From The High Presbyterian, March 1906)  ~~I will make further commentary on this topic in a future post.

ReverendJames

The Porter Family of Ballindrait, Donegal Ireland:

The Porter family were part of the 17th Century Ulster Plantation, that gave land in Northern Ireland to Loyal Scots of Scotland.  The Porter’s lived on land that had been inhabited for centuries by the Indigenous Irish in the Parish of Conleigh, Co Donegal and were connected for generations with the Presbyterian congregation of Ballindrait.

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The Following is from”Ulster Biographies, relating chiefly to the rebellion of 1798.” by William Thomas Latimer 1897  pp.62-72

“James Porter was born in 1753, about half-a-mile from Ballindrait, a village situated between Lifford and Raphoe, in a beautiful valley through which the Deele slowly meanders around the base of heath-clad Croghan. The Porter family had, for several generations, resided near Ballindrait, and they have been distinguished in the persons of Miss Jane Porter, the novelist, and Sir Robert K. Porter, the artist and diplomatist. The last representatives of the name, who resided in this locality, lived in the house now occupied by Mr. Alex. Weir. But the residence of the Patriot’s father was at Tamna Wood, which is near Ballindrait School-house.”

“James Porter was the son of a Presbyterian farmer (who was also an elder in the local Presbyterian church) and mill-owner*, and was the eldest of a family that consisted of four sons and four daughters. When a boy he was distinguished for the rapidity with which he acquired knowledge, and the extent of his attainments. Having left school, he began to work on his father’s farm, and, cultivating a taste for mechanics, was soon able to make most of the repairs necessary in the machinery of the mill. During the winter evenings he read books and added to his rapidly increasing knowledge.

There still exists at Ballindrait a beautifully engraved sun-dial made by James Porter for his relative Andrew Stilley with the following inscription : — “By James Porter, anno 1771, for latitude 54° 58″, for Andrew Stilley.”(now in a small historical museum of the Presbyterian Church in the Assembly Buildings, in Belfast)

*In 1768-9. a map and survey were made of the Lifford Estate of Abraham Creighton, Baron Erne. From these it appears that James Porter was then tenant of a small farm at Tamna Wood, and had a ” tuck ” mill at Ballindrait, on the north bank of the Deele, a few yards west of the bridge. The water power of this mill must have been the same as is now used by Mr. Robert MacBeth, although his mills are on the south bank, inasmuch as there could not be two weirs on this part of a stream so sluggish as the Deele, up which the tide ascends to the very bridge at Ballindrait.”

“In this way the time passed until he was twenty years of age, when his father died, and soon afterwards James left home to push his fortune. There is a tradition in Ballindrait that, having dressed himself in his “Go-to-Meeting” suit, he walked off one day without telling any person of his intention, taking with him two or three of his own shirts, which happened to be drying on a thorn hedge that he passed. After some vicissitudes, he became a tutor in the house of a gentleman in County Down. Being a remarkably fine looking young man, with good conversational powers, he won the heart of one of the young ladies of the family —Miss Anne Knox — to whom he was married in 1780, by the Rev. Robert Black, of Dromore. Afterwards, when minister of Derry, Dr. Black told the Rev. William Porter, of Limavady, that Mr. James Porter was, at the time of his marriage, the handsomest man he had ever seen. The bride’s Grand-mother was present at the wedding, and on wishing the newly-married pair “great happiness,” as- is usual on such occasions, added that she saw but ” small signs of it.” Soon after his marriage, Mr. Porter opened a school in Drogheda. There he continued his own studies assiduity and success, that, about 1784, he was enabled to enter the Divinity classes of Glasgow University — his previously – acquired attainments being accepted by the Presbytery as equivalent to a degree in Arts. After studying there for three sessions, he was licensed by the Presbytery of Bangor. The Rev. Classon Porter states, that, soon afterwards, he was an unsuccessful candidate for the Congregation of Ballindrait. But certainly he could not have been then a candidate for that congregation, as its minister, the Rev. John Marshall, did not die till 1795, and never had an assistant. Soon after Mr. Porter was licensed, he received a call to Greyabbey, then vacant by the resignation of Dr. Stevenson, in which charge he was ordained on the 31st of July, 1787, being thirty-four years of age. His yearly income may have then been about £50 of stipend and £12 of Royal Bounty, but in 1792 the Government grant was raised to a sum sufficient to pay every minister about £32 annually.”

The following is from  James Porter Jr. reminiscing (written 1840’s USA) and describing with detail his early childhood.

“In 1796 or 1797 my father resided on a small farm of about 14 acres forming part of the estate of the Rev. Hugh Montgomery of Rosemount, from whom it was rented. He had previously resided in the village of Greyabbey and also in the farmhouse of Ballynestor in the same neighbourhood.

Cabinvale was the name my father gave the little “snuggery”* where my memory was born. It was a long, low, thatched cottage about half a mile from Greyabbey, on the left-hand side of the road leading to Donaghadee, and stood near the road, from which it was separated by a small strip of green sod without enclosure or shrubbery. The building was not unlike the engravings of the cottage in which Burns, the poet, was born, perhaps rather better, but still an humble dwelling. Here, attending to his farm, his professional duties and the care of his children, his life passed in peace and poverty. The life of a Presbyterian clergyman was at that time a life of constant struggle. With the education and manners of gentlemen they were unable to live as such, but had frequently to earn their support by the sweat of their brow. It was genteel starvation. To this we add, as in my father’s case, the consciousness of talent and the promptings of a mind which no doubt sided with the people and eagerly longed for better government for their sake as well as his own, I cannot conceive a situation requiring more fortitude, philosophy and Christian resignation.” (By James Porter’s son James)

*Snuggery is a charming Irish term for a place that is snug, warm and full of loved ones. Larger Pubs in Ireland (North and the Republic) have separate closed off booths which are called “Snugs.”

“Like many clergymen of our Church, Mr. Porter cultivated a farm. In this avocation his mechanical tastes came into operation, and he constructed many models of improved agricultural implements. At the same time, he prosecuted his literary, scientific, and studying there for three sessions, he was licensed by the Presbytery of Bangor.”

“At the same time, he prosecuted his literary, scientific, and experiments by way of illustration.* These lectures were exceedingly popular, and were sometimes attended by members of Lord Londonderry’s family. Happy for James Porter had he kept to literature, science, and theology, and left politics to others! But he was a kind-hearted, unselfish man, and he was pained by the oppression of the people among whom he lived. For, at that time, tenant-farmers were little better than serfs, and the legalized robberies committed by landlords and rectors had driven them to the verge of rebellion. Indeed it appears that the general oppression inflicted by the State was not nearly so galling as the particular oppression of those who claimed the fruits of their labours and administered ” justice ” among them.

* His great grand-daughter, Mrs. Harris, in a very interesting sketch of Mr. Porter, states that her family possess portions of an electric machine which he used in these experiments. It is now converted into a looking-glass, and has a brass plate with a suitable inscription. Charles H. Teeling writes of Porter : ” His school was resorted to by the most ardent votaries of science, and the first in rank were proud to be numbered amongst his pupils. His discourses were plain — unostentatious— but adorned with a native simplicity of eloquence which riveted the attention of his auditors. If I have ever derived any pleasure in the pursuit of these delightful theories, I owe it to the early lessons of the eloquent and scientific Porter.” Sequel to Personal Narrative, p. 204.

“But there is no evidence to show that Mr. Porter ever became a United Irishman, or did anything more unlawful than to sympathize with those who suffered political and religious oppression, and to exhibit his sympathy by attacking abuses in the press, on the platform, and some times even in the pulpit. In the years 1794 and 1795, he published several songs in the Northern Star, which, with others, were afterwards republished under the title of ” Paddy’s Resource.” One of the most popular of Mr.Porter’s effusions was “The Exiled Irishman’s Lamentation ”

— Green were the fields where my forefathers dwelt.Tho’ our farm it was small, yet comforts we felt. At length came the day when our lease did expire, And fain would I live where before lived my sire ; But, ah ! well-a-day ! I was forced to retire.”

“At this period there were neither police nor stipendiary magistrates, and accordingly the maintenance of order and the local administration of justice was in the hands of land lords, agents, and rectors, who were often guided by the information of spies and base informers, that accused the innocent as well as the guilty. Mr. Porter’s sympathy was touched, and his anger aroused by the treatment experienced by his friends the farmers, and he applied the lash of satire to some of their oppressors in a series of letters, signed “Billy Bluff,” which, in 1796, appeared in the Northern Star. These letters were then circulated far and wide;  they have been several times reprinted, and they present the very best picture that we have of the relations that prevailed between landlord and tenant during the latter part of the last century. In attacking a system, Mr. Porter held up to ridicule the persons by whom that system was represented. ” Lord Mount-mumble,” represented the Earl of Londonderry ; “Squire Firebrand,” Mr. Montgomery, of Greyabbey (not the Rev. J. Cleland, as stated by some Historians), and “Billy Bluff,” one Billy Lowry, bailiff and spy on Mr. Montgomery’s estate. Lord Londonderry recognized his own likeness, and, it is generally believed, awaited patiently the time when he would be revenged.  Although those letters contained some strong language, charging Mr. Pitt with bringing the country to the verge of destruction, with invective quite as fierce could be found in Coleridge’s Fire, Famine, and Slaughter, written a short time previously. The following extract may serve as a specimen :

— “You will talk of Ireland — of Ireland, my Lord, not of the blood-thirsty, supercilious, unprincipled ascendancy, who watch over the public that they may destroy every thing great and good in the mind of man ; who herd together for the purpose of forging heavier chains for their country ; who distrust the people ; belie their spirit ; scoff at their com plaints, and imprudently call themselves Ireland. Your duty and inclination will concur in leaving off this deceitful veil ; your sovereign will know the truth from your own lips ; he will hear that a few proud aristocrats hold the representation of the country in their own hands ; that three-fourths of the people are excluded from participating in the benefits of the  people are excluded from participating in the benefits of the constitution;  that 800,000 Northern’s are insulted and reviled because they talk of Emancipation, Union, and Reform ; and that forced oaths, overflowing bastiles(sic), and foreign troops, are the only means taken for extorting loyalty from his Irish subjects.”

“Towards the end of 1796, a French fleet that was carrying an army to invade Ireland was dispersed by a storm, and soon afterwards the Government appointed a thanksgiving for this deliverance. On the appointed day, which was Thursday, the 16th of February, 1797, Mr. Porter preached a sermon, in which he tried to prove that the Government were saved from disaster by the intervention of Providence, working through the elements, and not by their own foresight or the valour (sic) of their army. The inference to be drawn was that inasmuch as the Government might not be provided with a storm to scatter the next fleet of invaders, the people ought to “unite” to protect themselves.”

“This sermon he afterwards published under the title Wind and Weather. Although Mr. Porter had kept clear of treason, he knew well that he was exceedingly obnoxious to the local authorities. Accordingly, when the insurrection broke out in 1798, he retired to a place of concealment in the neighbourhood(sic), which he sometimes ventured to leave by night to visit his family. Being soon discovered, he was arrested. First, he was brought to Belfast and then to Newtownards, where he, was tried by court-martial on the charge of assisting to take a military dispatch from a post boy. Mr. Porter solemnly denied the truth of this accusation, and the boy refused to swear to his identity. A paid informer was then produced, who testified all that was necessary. On the unsupported evidence of this wretch, Mr. Porter was condemned.”

“After his condemnation, according to an oft-quoted MS., he addressed the Court as follows : “Gentlemen, during the course of this mock trial I was repeatedly interrupted when putting questions to that self-convicted witness, who stands before you to swear away my life and the lives of other men to save his own ; and I do most solemnly appeal to you as to the dreadful injustice of passing sentence of death on such evidence. You were much disappointed when the post boy could not identify me, and he was the only person who could recognise (sic) the individual who committed the offence (sic). But because there was a large reward offered for my apprehension, you were determined you would find a person who should accomplish your purpose, although at the expense of violating everything sacred in a court of justice ; else why put me on my trial and give a verdict against me on the sole testimony of a renegade and a notorious paid informer?  I pray God He may open your eyes to the iniquitous evidence now before you, or you will be guilty of the blood of an innocent man, and base gold will prove to be the cause of my destruction, and the unjust judgment will be registered in the records of heaven, with tenfold vengeance on your own heads when you shall appear before the Great Judge of the quick and the dead. Therefore pause, gentlemen, before you pass the awful sentence of death upon the individual now before you, who, in the course of a laborious and active life, never concealed his sentiments, but expressed the honest convictions of his mind, verbally and in writing, upon all occasions when he thought the interest of his country was concerned.”

“But this appeal was of no avail, and sentence was passed of death by hanging, and afterwards the usual brutal mutilation of the body. Again Mr. Porter addressed the Court to this effect : ” The verdict just pronounced by the Court has had the effect of rousing my indignation and giving energy to my spirit ; and if mercy — which I do not expect from this Court — does not avert the awful calamity that awaits me, what will become of my beloved wife and children, who are endeared to me by the tenderest ties of love, duty, and affection?  They will be desolate wanderers, and experience all the horrors of anguish and despair. May the God of all worlds, who is the Searcher of hearts, pardon my many weaknesses and errors ; and, as I freely forgive all my enemies, may God, in His infinite mercy, forgive them also.

Ballindrait Presbyterian ChurchBallendrait

“Thus was James Porter condemned for a crime he had never committed and learned his fate with resignation. {Before his wife left}, the order arrived for his execution. When informed that his remains would be given to his friends, he said to his wife, “Then, my dear, I shall lie at home to-night.” Even in his execution the spirit of revenge was distinctly visible. A member of his own congregation was compelled to erect the scaffold, and it was placed in such a position that it could be distinctly seen from the meeting-house and from Mr. Porter’s own private residence.”

“In addition to all, many members of the congregation were compelled to be present as unwilling spectators of the execution. Mr. Porter was hanged on the 2nd of July, 1798. His wife accompanied him to the scaffold, and was removed in a state of distraction. Mr. Porter then ascended the steps with courage and calmness. He sang the 35th Psalm, and after wards prayed fervently. In a few minutes all was over. His body having been brought home, was laid on a sofa. After a while one of the fatherless little ones, coming into the room, exclaimed “Father is sleeping long to-day.”

“The notice of the execution which appeared in the News-Letter next day is exceedingly brief “The Rev. James Porter, dissenting minister of Greyabbey, found guilty;  also sentenced to be executed on the 2nd, which was put into execution yesterday at the rear of his own meeting-house at Greyabbey;  head not severed.”

His remains were left to rest in the churchyard of Greyabbey, where their place of repose is marked by a flat gravestone thus inscribed :  “Sacred to the memory of the Reverend James Porter, dissenting minister of Greyabbey, who departed this life July 2, 1798, aged 45 years.” “Also his wife Anna Porter alias Knox who died 3rd November, 1823 aged 70 Years
Also Eliza Porter a child.”

The following paragraph’s were written by James Porter Jr. in America describing the day his father died and the affect upon the family:

“On the morning of the day which terminated my father’s life (2nd July 1798) he got into a carriage at the hour of 11 o’clock and was conducted by a guard of cavalry from Newtownards to Greyabbey where a temporary gallows was erected on a small hill which overlooked the meetinghouse (not only in sight of the meeting house – but with a refinement of cruelty such as fiends only could have imagined – commanding on the other side a near view of his cottage where his wife and children were waiting in a horrible state of agony for the lifeless body of a husband and a father.) Whether Lord Londonderry or Atherton suggested this worse than Boeotian (Greek monster 0f Myth) torment on a dying man I do not know,  I will not attribute it to either, for fear of depriving the other of the credit) where he had officiated as a pastor for ten years.”

“My mother rode with him to the place of execution. During the ride the conversation turned on her future course in life. He directed her to send his sons to America as soon as they were of age to leave her and told her that he had had too many evidences in his life of God’s providence to doubt that she and her daughters would be protected and provided for.”

“When they arrived at the fatal spot my mother kissed him for the last time. “He walked to the gallows with a firm step and dignified bearing singing the 35th Psalm and praying earnestly.” (Rev Bewglass) There was scarcely any one present, but the military, at the execution. It was intimated to the tenants of Lord Londonderry that it was his Lordship’s wish they should attend, but I believe nothing but force could have drawn fifty men in the Barony to have witnessed a spectacle which so shocked public feeling. The account, therefore, of his conduct in his last moments could only be gathered from the soldiers. They, I have been told, were much impressed by his firmness and resignation. It is stated he prayed for his family, asked forgiveness of his God for the sins he must have committed in life, declared he forgave his enemies and hoped God would do so – he then gave the fatal signal and was launched into eternity. His struggles, I have learned, were severe, and his death must have been painful.”

“When she returned to the manse, the children were all at the door, waiting for her arrival. She did not sit down. In an hour after, the body she had left in health and strength and all the pride of manly beauty was delivered to her a corpse. She had it carried into the room, and I remember that until the next morning no solicitation or entreaty could tear her from its side. Nor would she sit down. She stood and looked on it with her hands clasped. Not a tear fell, not a word escaped her lips”

There is commentary and  some primary sources that state that the Rev. James Porter knew and looked the informant in the eyes from the gallows and said that he “declared he forgave his enemies.” This informant was Nicholas Magin called “the Saintfield Informer” who gave the government often embellished information about the military plans and preparations of the United Irishmen in exchange for payment (Ironically he would die in debt)

*for more information see the Rev. John Cleland papers including the following item all housed at PRONI (Belfast)  15 Jan. 1799  Nicholas Magecan (Misspelled Magin)  John Cleland  Mr. Price Dr. Dickson. Deposition. Saintfield.

There are also some stories that still circulate that young Alexander Porter who was 11 years old when his father was murdered, participated (and even carried a flag that was blown to pieces) in the Battle of Ballynahinch the month before his father’s death. I doubt this!  Never mind the age,  but I really find it hard to believe the father would put his son in what was the one of the largest battle of the Rebellion of 1798.  Here is a part of the myth (Keeping in mind, there is also a little bit of truth in lore) “When the United Irishmen were defeated at the Battle of Ballynahinch, Alexander Porter escaped from the battlefield and made his way to the home of his father’s cousin, Andrew Stilley of Ballindrait (see above this is who Rev. James Porter made the Sundial for) who sheltered him. But after a time, he was recognised.(sic) He was then hidden by a neighbour, a tailor named Donald McGinley from Guystown.

He probably was hidden by his mother who was terribly afraid of repercussions on the part of Lord Londonderry and was known to hide the children when he passed by her house. When the tension was finally easing up (1801) over the failed rebellion, the idea was put forth to follow through with Rev. Porter’s plans of sending the two sons (Alexander Porter & James Porter) and apparently a daughter, to America with their Uncle Alexander Porter acting as guardian, this was circa 1801.

In the time period from 1785 to 1810, Emigration Agents were located throughout the larger towns of Northern Ireland encouraging people to leave Ireland for a new life and start in America. One example of an Agent representing the shipping companies was the Rev. Peter McMillan (McMullen) of the Presbyterian Seceder church at Ahoghill.~~~There will be more on him in future posts.

Several accounts have the mother – Anne Knox Porter, going to America with “most” of the children. But, she did not leave Donegal. For some time after his death, his widow and daughter’s resided in a small cottage near Greyabbey (Celtic called Gryba.) Mrs. Porter finally won her right to an annuity from the widows’ fund which was for a time in doubt; it was paid (including arrears) from 1800. She never remarried and died there in 1823 and is buried alongside her lamented spouse.

Of the six daughters of Mr. James Porter who stayed behind in Ireland they intermarried with prominent men from the region. The following are the daughter’s and who they married:

The eldest daughter Ellen Ann Porter married John Cochrane Wightman, Presbyterian minister of Holywood.

Matilda Porter married Andrew Goudy,  Presbyterian minister of Ballywater. They had two sons (including Alexander Porter Goudy) and a daughter.

Isobella Porter, married James Templeton, Presbyterian minister of Ballywater.

Sophia Porter married William Dickey Henderson of Belfast. She kept up correspondence with her brothers in the United States.

Rebecca Porter who married Mr Allison.

Eliza Porter died young and is buried with her parents.

Coming later this week:

Oaklawn Manor Plantation Louisiana and the 1798 Irish Rebellion Part 2 -America

 

 

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