The ghosts of wartime past - a local family legacy destroyed at the Somme

HISTORY enthusiasts gathered at Antrim Library last week to hear the poignant tale of Tom McKinney as they prepare to celebrate the Centenary of Armistice Day later this month.

Tom was the grandson of William Fee McKinney, a Scottish Presbyterian and patriarch of Sentry Hill, once a flourishing farmhouse and now a museum on the outskirts of Carnmoney.

Wesley Bonar, Museums and Heritage Officer with Antrim and Newtownabbey Borough Council, looks after Sentry Hill and gives guided tours.

He was the guest speaker at Antrim Library last Wednesday and admitted that his job has always been made very easy by the fact that William McKinney collected and labelled hundreds, if not thousands, of everyday items and artefacts, and kept every receipt and letter he ever received.

He also wrote a diary, which gives a fascinating insight into the customs of the time and in fact the house stands as it was in the Victorian era, packed with family mementoes and oddments from far-flung travels with farming implements sitting alongside a stuffed armadillo.

Mr McKinney senior also owned one of the earliest cameras seen in the locality at the time, whilst he also penned family trees for almost everyone in his parish.

His diaries are kept at the Public Records Office in Belfast and to this day, Mr Bonar uses McKinney’s research to help those tracing their ancestry from as far away as the USA and Australia.

It was this tradition of record-keeping in the McKinney family which enables Wesley and the author Phillip Orr to tell the story of young Tom.

By the early 20th century, the McKinneys had a farm of 76 acres.

In 1914, 82-year-old William McKinney, daughter Meg, son John, grandson Tom and granddaughter Elsie lived at their home at Sentry Hill.

John’s wife, Tom and Elsie’s mother had died when Tom was just tree, and Meg took on the role as carer for the children.

In 1912, Tom had been sent to agricultural college in County Cavan to prepare him to look after the farm.

Because most of the other members of the family had emigrated to become successful farmers in Australia, New Zealand and Canada, Tom’s destiny was to inherit Sentry Hill and all that came with it.

Photographs taken by Tom’s grandfather show a carefree boy, and his own diaries tell of his keen interest in attending events like the Ballyclare May Fair and even recording how his strawberries won prizes at Antrim Show.

Just like any other young boy his age, the Inst pupils enjoyed rugby and the cinema.

But the Great War was on the horizon and was set to change his life and the entire future of his family forever.

In 1914 Tom, now 21, joined the Public Schools Regiment in England, for which he was eligible because he had attended the Royal Belfast Academical Institution.

He was sent to the 20th Battalion, Royal Fusiliers, at Epsom. and sent many letters and pictures home, around 70 letters at least.

From a grand country pile, Tom now shared a hut with 50 others.

As their uniforms arrived late, they had to practice digging trenches in their Sunday best, a photograph of which still survives.

Other pictures show Tom and his friends enjoying a Christmas dinner.

His family had sent him a pudding, which he divided into eight and shared amongst his friends.

But pictures of Tom visiting Sentry Hill on leave in December 1915 show a more serious, sober young man - suggesting that he knew of the horrors to come.

Later letters told of trenches infested with rats and insects, with little food, in freezing conditions, and of how he could hear the Germans very clearly.

The Battle of the Somme came in 1916, and with it news that would devastate the family.

From No 1 General Hospital, a letter, dated July 10, arrived from Tom: “Dear Father - I am sure that you have been told a few times already that I have been wounded.

“I am going on as well as can be expected, but it will be a very slow business. I cannot write much as I am very tired and sore. Hoping all at home are quite well, I remain, your affectionate son, Tom.”

It is said that shrapnel had lodged in Tom’s thigh, a wound from which he never recovered.

Seven days later, the family was informed of his death.

Tom was buried at the Souvenir Cemetery, St Omer and in early 1917, his uniform and personal effects arrived back home.

A grief-stricken William McKinney passed away the following year and John McKinney died in 1934.

Meg and Elsie were unable to run the farm and Tom’s cousin Dr Joe Dundee took over ownership of Sentry Hill, but left his Aunt Meg and Cousin Elsie undisturbed in the house, moving in only in 1976, after Elsie entered a nursing home.

Following the death of Joe Dundee in 1996, his sons, John and Robin, sold Sentry Hill, with all its contents and remaining fields, to the council, so that the house and the story of the McKinneys could be preserved and the memory of Tom and his ancestors can forever be kept alive.

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