That’s the story pieced together, so far, by brothers Andrew and Les McGukin, who have spent a good portion of their lives learning about their grandfather, an unassuming man whose Georgia neighbors sometimes feigned confusion over his Ulster accent — just to rile him up.
The McGukin brothers are among the 36 million Americans who claim Irish ancestry every day, not just March 17. They have tried hard over the years to trace a path lost in time, researching names and visiting places that tie them and their large family to shared origins in the townland of Ballyalbanagh, in the former district of Ballyclare.
For Andrew, the tie is a living, 21st Century memory of a man born long before the Civil War. Back when he was a boy, Andrew played on the family farm in Center Point when John SEmD who had long since changed the name to McGukin — was still alive, selling fodder for his neighbor’s mules and making wine in Prohibition Georgia.
“There’s (still) some mystery for me,” says Les, a family therapist who lives on that farm. “What I’m looking at is what our ancestors did in Ireland.”
Here’s what they do know: John was born in 1848 and grew up in a house that’s still there, north of Belfast and west of the Irish Sea. It is a part of Ireland that was taken over in the 1600s by wealthy landowners, and colonized by people from Scotland and England SEmD Protestants in a Catholic land. Les says the “Mc” in the family name, originally, “Mac” is a good indicator the family once were Scottish.
The McGookins survived the Potato Famine, which had left so many Irish dead or emigrants, and farmed on land leased from the Marquess of Donegall. But in 1869, John, a Presbyterian, married a Catholic woman over the objections of both his parents and hers. The marriage was annulled, and John then left Ireland, accompanied by two of his brothers. John’s first child, a daughter, grew up without knowing him.
When they arrived in New York, John had only a nickel, which he promptly spent on tobacco. For the next few months, the three brothers travelled down the East Coast working wherever they could. One brother settled in South Carolina; another returned to Ireland. John kept moving until he found his way to Georgia.
In 1873, the Savannah, Griffin and North Alabama Railroad was being built from Newnan to Carrollton, and John, like many other Irish immigrants, had found work with the company. Assigned to clearing the grade ahead of the track, he was working one day near the Stripling Chapel community when he met a 19-year-old girl. It’s possible that Susan Martin had gone out that day to watch the railroad men work; they were less than two miles from her family farm.
“She got her skirt caught on a wire fence and grandfather got her skirt loose,” said Andrew. That chance meeting led to something more, and the two were married. Then John disappeared — for a year.
“The family kept telling her that he never will come back,” said Andrew. “He was with the railroad and he would be gone and not come back. But he did come back.”
Andrew believes the yearlong disappearance was due to the trouble the railroad ran into near present-day Whitesburg, when all hands were put to work to clear a huge rock shelf that had brought construction to a halt. It took a year because all they had were pickaxes, mules and wheelbarrows.
When John did return to the Susan, they started their life together in a converted chicken house on the Martin farm, located then at Stripling Chapel and Oak Grove roads. In the 1880s they began the move to Center Point, where the present-day farm was established in 1886.
They had 13 children. Andrew and Les’ father, Russell, was the next-to-last. John, now John McGukin, died in 1931 while Andrew was still a young boy. John’s daughter from his first marriage, and his 14th child, stayed in Ballyclare and kept the McGookin name. Andrew considers himself fortunate to have met her, in 1944, while he was stationed in the United Kingdom.
The discovery of his onetime lost relative was one of the starting points for Andrew’s search for the story of his grandfather and the bigger story of his Irish heritage. Les’ investigation has been no less intense, with more than a dozen trips to Ireland and a visit to the ancestral home.
“I just find pride in being there and feeling like I’m home,” said Les. “I have a lot of internal stirrings of familiarity when I’m there.”
Andrew finds a powerful message of kinship within the story of his Irish ancestry. “They were a strong family people,” he said. “They were knit together as family.”