I Was Born in Belfast.
Belfast, which is known the world over for The Troubles, tragedies like the Titanic, and hard times… yet such a place raised a resilient woman who overcame adversity and brought joy and a different picture of Belfast to a small community a world away.
The poor daughter of John Johnston and – her children never knew her mother’s name as it was long lost. She was of proud stock. Irish all the way in her mind and experience. Far in the distance past her ancestors left Scotland for the promise of a better life in Ireland. They brought their Presbyterian beliefs with them and came fighting for their convictions, against the other established Churches and even within their ranks. There was no Presbyterian Church baptism for her as such a thing was outlawed when it was her time. Baptisms could be had in the Church of Ireland.
She was born Irish on New Year’s Day 1834, and it was a year ready for change. An outbreak of influenza, cholera, and typhus two years earlier had taken its toll. People were coming to Belfast for new job opportunities as flax spinning was introduced. Typhus reappeared when she was three and would continue to show itself along with cholera every few years. The flood of Belfast came when she was a wee lass of four. Water, water everywhere and a new obstacle to overcome. Life was hard. She learned to work to help make ends meet. No time for school. Work and learn to survive in the school of hard knocks. The fighting Irish spirit taught her to survive as it had for others like her over the centuries.
In the late 1830’s, modern life came to Belfast with the building of the first iron ship and the opening of the Ulster Railway. Both could become ways of escape. With the Great Famine of 1845-1850, came the Great Migration. People were swarming to the city and if the opportunity came, they caught a ship and left for a better life – mass migration. Building, improving, advancing, but many were left behind by circumstances, obligations, limitations, and convictions. She was a survivor. She survived the famine and the crowds. She was acquainted with manual work and wasn’t afraid to pitch in and do laundry and general servant work. Her faith sustained her.
By 1851, with over 20,000 families for nearly 14,000 houses, things got crowded. Rumors of a better life abounded with tales of the discovery of gold “over there”. She wanted what all Irish wanted – freedom from and freedom to. Some stayed and fought for it, but her destiny lay elsewhere. Then she saw her chance. Pawn what you don’t need at any of the forty-six pawnshops in town, pay your passage on a ship, and never get to look back. With a load of determination and some trepidation, she left the life she knew by the sea, for the long ocean journey and what would be life on the open prairie and hope for a safe home and freedom. She saw her share of joy beginning with marriage to a good Irish man in 1855, and the heartache of war, death of husbands and children, moving and working, but she kept a piece of her Irish homeland and the lessons she learned, in her.
She never learned to write, not even her name, but she could make “her mark” and she did so in more than one way. She was a pioneer, and after 81 years of life, her obituary testifies to the influence this Irish lady had. Everyone knew her as “Grandma” no matter whether they were actual relatives or not. She made her mark on them and they held her in loving esteem.
We visited Belfast in 2014 and I’m sure she would have loved to see how Belfast has also has adapted, persevered and overcome its hard times. The Titanic Museum is amazing and crowds of people sit peacefully together on the lawns of City Hall for lunch. Christine was a hardworking, persistent, loving, and faith-filled woman. “I was born in Belfast” says it all.
Thank you Karen for sharing that beautiful story of one of your Irish ancestors,
Slán for now, Mike.