This is the second part of the “Legend of Betsy Bell and Mary Gray” series commemorating Staunton’s two parks named in their honor.
II. The Irish Connection
The Legend of Bessie Bell and Mary Gray was transferred to Ireland in a way that can best be understood in its political setting. Rightly or wrongly, England looked upon Ireland as a threat to its national security. The long time enemies of England, the countries of France and Spain, posed potential dangers in their possible alliances with Ireland. These were supported by the fact that religion played a strong part in it. The three countries involved in the danger, France, Spain and Ireland were all Catholic, whereas England was Protestant. Encouragement and support of the papacy in Rome added to the emotional contention.
To deter the danger, as perceived by the English, they developed a policy of colonization called “Plantation”. The idea was simple, to confiscate the Irish land and settle it with English people. Mary Queen of Scots began the policy and Queen Elizabeth continued it. King James I planned a thorough plantation of Ulster. Many Scots had settled there already and other plantations followed. These were organized by “Undertakers” who persuaded people to come to Ireland.
The main group responding to this emigration were the Scots. So much so that some state and Ulster was settled almost entirely by the Scots. Be that as it may, they came in considerable numbers and were efficient colonists. They became what is known as the Scotch Irish. They brought to Ireland their Protestant religion, their customs and habit forms, their work ethic etc. They also brought their role models and of course they carried with them the Legend of Bessie Bell and Mary Gray. They told the story , they recited the poems, and sang the songs that had grown up around the life and death of these two beautiful maidens.
The locale of what was to be the Irish Locus of the legend was the ancient town of Newtownstewart in Tyrone County. (6) The Scottish emigrates from Perthshire noted that the area had an uncanny resemblance to the land from whence they came. In fact they even had a Newtownstewart in Scotland. The Tyrone Newtownstewart is a most interesting small town with a population of about 1460. It lies midway between the larger towns of Omagh and Strabane on the river Strule near the point where its name is changed to the Mourne. The Strule is crossed at Newtownstewart by a six arched stone bridge built in 1727. The castle of Newtownstewart was built by Sir Robert Newcomen around 1611. Unfortunately the castle was burnt in 1689 by Jacobits army retreating from Londonberry in 1689. Only one wall remains standing and still reveals Jacobean features.
Henry Avery’s Castle, 1KM S.W. of Newtownstewart is a medieval ruin with two giant towers. Little is known of its history except it is reputed that the builder, an O’Neill Chief, hanged 19 men who successfully refused to marry his ugly sister – they regarded marriage to her a fate worse than death. There are at least eight stone age cairns in 6 KM radius of Newtownstewart.
Newtownstewart was publicized by a famous murder over 100 years ago when an offical of the Northern Bank was murdered and robbed of his takings. The murderer was eventually discovered to be the police inspector in charge of the case.
However as interesting as these items of history may be, our concern is with two hills between which the river Strule flows. The hills were named Slieve and Caraveagh. However the Scottish settlers who came over about the time of the plague knowing the story of Bessie Bell and Mary Gray, changed their name, and christened the two hills after them. Slieve they named Bessy Bell, and Caraveagh they called Mary Gray, and so they have remained ever since.
Like the Psalmist who write “I will lift up my eyes unto the hills from which cometh my strength.” these Scotch Presbyterian also received inspiration from these two hills. Many poems and songs were written about them. One of them received world wide attention. written by the Reverend W.F. Marshall it reads:
Th’re’s Bessy Bell, she rises steep
You see her well from Cooley sweep
She wears a very purity crown
That’s changing now from blue to brown.
For looks, I’m certain sure there’s noan
To bate big Bessy from Tyrone
The district around the hills is lovely. One commentator states, “no matter what the season, spring is beautiful, autumn is magnificent, summer is glorious and even in winter there’s a peace and quietude around her feet.” referring to Bessy Bell, an old country ballad once said:
Like a queen on her throne
In sweet Tyrone
Sits the mountain, Bessy Bell.
The mountains explore
From shore to shore
And none will it excell
In the Kerry reeks there are higher peaks
But in hillside, grove and dell
The prospect neat you could not beat
From the top of Bessy Bell.
If home is where the heart is, then Tyrone and the hills of Bessy Bell and Mary Gray is home to the countless thousands of Scotch Irish who have bodily emigrated to other parts of the world but whose mind and heart is still there. One man who had left Newtoenstewart and emigrated to the States was reminiscing one dark and cold winter’s day in December 1909 wrote:
Historic hills of Betsy Bell
And heath clad Mary Gray,
An alien far from you I dwell
Three thousand miles away.
And picture my own native hills
Where in youth I often did roam.
Now bitter grief my sad heart fills
Far, far from old Tyrone.
And Newtownstewart, old ancient town
Between those towering hills,
Where Mourne’s river murmurs down
In beauteous sprankling rilles.
If it’s roofless castle’s wall could speak
Great tales they could tell
Of chief’s and clans that calmly sleep
Round heath-clad Bessy Bell
Oh! Could I feast mine eyes today
On each lovely native scene
Round Besty Bell and Mary Gray
And the Mourn’s banks between,
I could close my eyes and feel at rest
In my native Irish home
Neath those lovely hills with beauty blest,
Bright hills of Green Tyrone
It was inevitable that with so much heart felt sentiment attached to these two hills and the areas surrounding them that somewhere there should be localized some embodiment of these feelings. This came about in the American Connection. (7)
(6) The location of Bessy Bell and Mary Gray has been erroneously given as Donegal Ireland. The two hills are near Newtownstewart Co Tyrone. The confusion has apparently arisen from the fact that the hills of Co Donegal are clearly visible from the top of Bessy Bell.
(7) One of the last places seen by the departing emigrants as they left Ireland was a house lying in Dergalt, townland near Strabane. It was the ancestral home of Woodrow Wilson, the 28th President of the United States who was born in Staunton, Virginia, the very town founded by these Scotch Irish. The Irish house is preserved in the Ulster-American Folk Park, Mellon Road, Castletown, Omagh, County Tyrone, North Ireland. (The Legend of Betsy Bell and Mary Gray by Merlin E. Garber. )
Part III of this series will focus on the American Connection of Legend of Bessy (Betsy and Bessie) Bell and Mary Gray. Coming Soon….
This Staunton “Park and Recreation Blog” was posted by Jennifer Jones, Superintendent of Recreation
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