Chronicles Insight - Unbelievable Journeys

Thursday, 28 May, 2020
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In every pocket of the globe, there is an Irish community to be found. Many Irish people left their homes, either by choice or coercion, in search of a better life on new shores. Though many of these journeys follow a similar pattern, there are a number of Irish people throughout history who led remarkable lives of adventure that beggar belief. Here are just three examples of unbelievable Irish journeys. 

Mary Jemison

In 1743 Mary Jemison’s parents, Thomas and Jane, were embarking on an arduous sea voyage across the Atlantic to make a new life for themselves in Philadelphia when their daughter was born. It’s a miracle that the newborn even survived the journey, let alone all that was yet to come in her life. When they landed in America, Mary’s family settled in Marsh Creek where they built a life for themselves and, by all accounts, became quite wealthy. 

When Mary was 12 years old, her life took a dramatic turn. War had broken out in America in 1755 as the Seven Years’ War between Britain and France saw conflict occur on American shores in what was known as the French and Indian War. During these times, Mary and some members of her family were taken captive by a raiding party comprising six Shawnee men and four Frenchmen. All of the captives were taken to modern day Pittsburg where all but Mary and a little boy were publicly killed and scalped. This must have been incredibly traumatic for Mary. She was then taken in and adopted by a Seneca family who renamed her Dehgewanes which translates to ‘pretty girl’. Mary assimilated into life amongst the Seneca people and once she reached adulthood, she chose to stay with the people who had raised her from the age of 12. 

Mary played a role in the American Revolutionary War, as the Seneca people allied themselves with the British forces. During the conflict she helped to get supplies to the Mohawk forces. When the war was over Mary was instrumental in negotiating good terms for the Seneca people who sold large amounts of their land. 

Mary’s extraordinary life is recounted in the book ‘Narrative of the Life of Mrs. Mary Jemison’ by Minister James E. Seaver to whom she told her story. In her personal life, she married twice and had seven children. She died in 1833 and is commemorated by a bronze statue of her which stands on her grave. 

Thomas Legge

Thomas Legge was born in Donaghadee, County Down in around 1762. As a young man with no desire to take over his father’s shipping business, Thomas ran away on board a warship bound for India. However his time at sea taught him that a life in the navy was not for him. As soon as the ship made landfall in India, Thomas absconded. He spent the next few years travelling Northern India by foot, supporting himself by begging along the way. He eventually found employment as a mercenary under a Scotsman named Major Sangster. Thomas learned a great deal from his mentor about the construction of arms before setting off on his journey once more. 

The next leg of his travels brought him to Kabul, Afghanistan where he utilised his new found military skills to train young soldiers in combat and arms production. This became the pattern for Thomas, he would travel to a new place, apply his knowledge of weapons and combat to make money, then after a few years move on. After more than two decades of this lifestyle, Thomas felt that it was once again time for a change. He then came to Jaipur where he settled down and married. His wife was the great granddaughter of a famous Portugese astrologer, which opened up a whole new world of knowledge to Thomas. He became a skilled healer and studied alchemy and divination. 

Thomas’ life took an unfortunate turn when he was gravely injured in an attack on a rebel stronghold. His leg was severely damaged and he was not expected to survive the festering wound. He was sent to the camp of a man named Colonel Todd for treatment and it was to Todd himself that Thomas recounted the extraordinary tale of his remarkable life. Yet Todd noted that Thomas’ grip on reality was loose to say the least and that he was afflicted by madness, which may have been brought on by the wound to his leg. He returned to Jaipur and shortly afterwards left society for a solitary existence in an abandoned tomb in the mountains. He discarded his clothes and declared himself a Fakir, surviving on the kindness of passing strangers. He was discovered in a pitiful state by a European woman who tried to nurse him back to health but to no avail. 

Thomas Legge died in 1808 and it is thought that he may have been buried in the same tomb which had been his home in his final days. 

Eliza Lynch

County Cork native, Eliza Lynch was born in Charleville on the 19th of November 1833. Her family were well connected with a naval connection on her mother’s side and her father’s high ranking position as a doctor. Because of their high social status, the family were able to leave Ireland for Paris when the Great Famine began to devastate the Irish countryside. Eliza was 10 years old at the time. 

When she was just 16 years old, Eliza married a French officer named Xavier Quatrafages and followed him to Algiers where she remained for two years before returning due to supposed ill-health. However it seems more likely that the marriage had turned sour as Eliza soon requested an annulment which was granted on the grounds that Xavier had never been granted permission to marry by his commanding officer. A technicality, but enough to free Eliza from her marriage. 

Eliza’s new life in French society saw her befriending the aristocracy and rubbing shoulders with royalty. Encouraged by her close friend Princess Mathilde Bonaparte, Eliza became a courtesan and soon came to the attention of Francisco Solano Lopez, the son of the President of Paraguay. Lopez was instantly besotted with Eliza taking her home to Paraguay a year later, and though the couple never married, they stayed together for the rest of his life. They had six children together and when Lopez succeeded his father in 1862, Eliza became the de facto first lady of Paraguay. However Eliza was not well liked and she was widely blamed for pushing Lopez to engage in a bloody war with Brazil and Uruguay. When her husband and eldest son were both killed in action, Eliza was held captive and eventually banished from Paraguay. She returned to France with the rest of her children where she remained for the rest of her days. 

A step away from the norm

Though these journeys are far from the typical experiences of the Irish abroad, they are also not entirely unique. Many Irish people have lived remarkable lives and embarked upon unbelievable journeys across the globe. But all of these journeys, whether grand adventures or not, deserve to be recorded, shared, and above all, celebrated. Did your ancestors make a journey to a new country? Share their story on the Ireland Reaching Out Chronicles.


Click on the images to learn more about the entries that inspired this Chronicles Insight.

Mary Jemison 1743

Mary Jemison

Thomas Legge 1762

Thomas Legge

Eliza Lynch 1833

Eliza Lynch