Deb­bie Flint is proud to be re­lated to John McKane – a highly re­spected Belfast bar­ris­ter whose foray into pol­i­tics was cut trag­i­cally short

Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine - - CONTENTS -

Deb­bie Flint’s an­ces­tor was a bar­ris­ter and elected MP – un­til disas­ter struck

Although the cam­paign trail had been a suc­cess, it took a toll on John’s health

Pho­to­graph al­bums, bibles and jew­ellery are all heir­looms you might ex­pect to in­herit from your fore­bears. But when Deb­bie Flint started re­search­ing her Ir­ish an­ces­try, there was some­thing more unique within her fam­ily’s pos­ses­sion.

“My fa­ther al­ways thought I should leave our fam­ily his­tory alone, just in case I found any black sheep!” says Deb­bie. “How­ever, I was al­ways cu­ri­ous about a small mar­ble tablet he owned in the shape of a book, en­graved with the words ‘In mem­ory of John McKane’.”

In­trigued, but un­sure how the mys­tery McKane might fit into her fam­ily tree, Deb­bie scoured records at the LDS Fam­ily His­tory Cen­tre near her home in Cheshire. While vis­it­ing her mother in Belfast, she also made fre­quent trips to the Pub­lic Record Of­fice of North­ern Ire­land, which hap­pened to be a ten-minute walk from her mother’s house.

Not only did Deb­bie learn that John was the brother of her great great grand­fa­ther, she also dis­cov­ered that he had been a prom­i­nent lawyer and politi­cian dur­ing the sec­ond half of the 19th cen­tury. It was a fas­ci­nat­ing story that has cap­ti­vated Deb­bie ever since.

“John must have en­joyed a good up­bring­ing,” says Deb­bie. “His fa­ther, Robert, had made a for­tune out of the linen in­dus­try and man­aged to pur­chase a large amount of land through the 1851 En­cum­bered Es­tates Act, worth a stag­ger­ing £4,200.”

Robert ev­i­dently val­ued his chil­dren’s ed­u­ca­tion, and was happy for John to leave the fam­ily home in Bal­ly­mena to at­tend the pres­ti­gious Queen’s Col­lege in Belfast in 1854. The young stu­dent com­pleted both a BA and MA in English Law and was called to the Ir­ish Bar in 1864. Just three years later, he was ap­pointed Bar­ring­ton Lec­turer in Po­lit­i­cal Econ­omy at Queen’s Col­lege.

“He was clearly very tal­ented,” says Deb­bie. “Every­thing was on track for a suc­cess­ful ca­reer.”

By the 1880s, John was a well-re­spected fig­ure both in­side and out­side of le­gal cir­cles. He de­cided to re­sign from his lec­ture­ship and en­ter the po­lit­i­cal arena, stand­ing as the Con­ser­va­tive can­di­date in the newly cre­ated seat of Mid Ar­magh at the 1885 Gen­eral Elec­tion. But it was not all plain sail­ing.

“There were is­sues back home in Bal­ly­mena, with some peo­ple claim­ing that Pro­fes­sor McKane was not look­ing af­ter ten­ants prop­erly and evict­ing them off his fa­ther’s land,” ex­plains Deb­bie. “But re­ally it was just me­dia hype – a po­lit­i­cal smear.” The neg­a­tive press clearly did not hin­der John’s chances, and he ended up win­ning the seat with 61 per cent of the vote and a com­fort­able ma­jor­ity of 1,511.

Although the cam­paign trail had been a suc­cess, it took a toll on John’s health. What be­gan as a se­vere bout of bron­chi­tis de­vel­oped into a heart con­di­tion, from which he sud­denly died on 11 Jan­uary 1886. Sadly, he never made it to West­min­ster.

“John’s death af­fected a lot of peo­ple,” says Deb­bie. “Lo­cal news­pa­pers pub­lished let­ters of con­do­lence and ar­ti­cles about his fu­neral, which was clearly a big af­fair.

“He was buried in Bal­ly­mena Ceme­tery where there is a very large mar­ble tomb­stone, sev­eral feet high. A se­ries of me­mo­rial tablets were also is­sued, in­clud­ing the one that my fa­ther owned.”

Trag­i­cally, the as­pir­ing MP left be­hind a wife and two young chil­dren. But more pos­i­tively, a sum of money from John’s will en­abled Queen’s Col­lege to cre­ate two new schol­ar­ships and aca­demic medals in his hon­our. The ac­co­lades, for pro­fi­ciency in eco­nomics and ju­rispru­dence, are still awarded by the univer­sity to­day.

“John ap­pears to have started a trend within my fam­ily for work­ing in the le­gal pro­fes­sion,” says Deb­bie. “His son, Robert, be­came a so­lic­i­tor, and my grand­fa­ther also worked for a law firm.

“In fact, my cousin was even awarded John McKane’s medals while un­der­tak­ing his own le­gal train­ing at Queen’s. It has come around full cir­cle.”

De­spite his pre­ma­ture death, Deb­bie is proud of her rel­a­tive’s achieve­ments.

“John McKane is my fam­ily hero be­cause of what he man­aged to do in the short time he had avail­able. He had a priv­i­leged ed­u­ca­tion but wanted to give back some­thing, as shown by the gen­er­ous gifts he left in his will.

“Sadly, there is also the missed po­ten­tial – what he might have done had he man­aged to take up his seat and fight for his con­stituents.

“I’m a strong be­liever that we’re only where we are to­day be­cause of what has hap­pened in the past, and John McKane had a last­ing im­pact.” Jon Bauck­ham

Who Do You Think You Are? DEB­BIE FLINT lives in Stock­port and has been re­search­ing her fam­ily tree since 1995

John McKane was a re­spected fig­ure in Ir­ish law and pol­i­tics

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