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