The “Eagle Wing” 1636

This is an edited version of an article that appeared in the Presbyterian Herald March 2015 in which Professor Laurence Kirkpatrick tells the story of one of the early groups of people who made the journey westward to the New World.

Over the course of the 18th century, it is estimated that more than 400,000 people emigrated from Ulster to North America. Many of these were Presbyterians, who then established churches in the New World.

In the autumn of 1620 the Mayflower successfully transported around 100 pilgrims from the south coast of England to Cape Cod on the eastern coast of North America. Many similar voyages followed and the most significant Irish Presbyterian contribution, in 1636, was a dismal but somehow glorious failure: the voyage of the Eagle Wing. This ‘Irish Mayflower’ was nearer America than Ireland when those on board decided to turn back.

Why did they leave Ireland? 

Powerful human emotions are usually at play when a group of people determine to leave their home, never expecting to return, and undertake a risky sea voyage to an unknown land nearly 3,000 miles away. The last Tudor monarch, Elizabeth I, died on 24th March 1601, only one week before her Irish army general Charles Blount received the final surrender of the Gaelic chief Hugh O’Neill at Mellifont Abbey. From March 1601 the reign of James I had been marked by private plantation (from 1606) and public plantation (from 1611) schemes in Ulster. Thousands of Scots and English settlers had arrived in the hope of new opportunities to forge a living.

Initial enthusiasm was soon tempered by a realisation that there were not enough planters to permanently transform the landscape by displacing the native Gaels. The coercion of specified London companies into supporting settlement in the north-west is testimony, as is the time slippage in fulfilling settlement terms, to the, at best, partial success of the Ulster Plantation.

Presbyterians were under persecution in Scotland by an Anglican party and displaced Presbyterian ministers were subsequently employed within the poor Irish Episcopal Church. Thus a unique experiment ensued – Presbyterian ministers working in Church of Ireland parishes. The earliest known example was the Rev. Edward Brice who officiated at Broadisland (Ballycarry) from 1613.

These Presbyterian ministers were instrumental in a religious revival, which originated at Oldstone (near Antrim) in 1625 and helped transform the planter settlements in Ulster. However, government policy favoured an Anglican Church order and the Presbyterian clergy came under increasing pressure to conform. Suspensions were enacted against leading non-conforming ministers in September 1631, briefly lifted, but renewed again in May 1632.

Government patience was finally exhausted and five ministers, including Brice, were permanently deposed from their parishes on 12th August 1636. Knowing this sentence was coming, and fearing that they would never enjoy religious liberty in Ireland, several Presbyterians were already planning to emigrate to the New World.

Where were they travelling to?

Irish Presbyterians began to think of emigration to America as early as 1634. The Massachusetts Bay Company was formed in 1629 under first governor, John Winthrop, who was originally from England. About 20,000 ‘pilgrims’ travelled from England to the new colony during the 1630s and the persecuted Irish Presbyterians intended to be part of this exodus. Scotsman, John Livingston, was installed as minister of Killinchy in 1630 but was suspended from that ministry in 1634. He was appointed to travel to Massachusetts as a ‘Caleb’ for the Ulster Dissenters.  Severe storms and the serious illness of his travelling companion forced him to return unsuccessfully. Livingston sent a letter of enquiry to the colony and the governor’s son, also John Winthrop, arrived in Ireland in the autumn of 1634 to further discuss the possibility of a Presbyterian emigration. The Rev Robert Blair records in his autobiography that Winthrop ‘did earnestly invite and greatly encourage us to prosecute our intended voyage’.

A meeting took place among interested parties in the Antrim home of Sir John Clotworthy, High Sheriff of Antrim and staunch supporter of the Presbyterian cause in Ulster. Plans were laid to build a ship for the trans-Atlantic crossing and the Eagle Wing was ready in 1636. The Eagle Wing, named after Exodus 19:4 (“You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself”), sailed from Groomsport, Co Down, * to Boston on 9th September with around 140 passengers on board - men, women and children who had decided to face the dangers of the deep and all the uncertainties of a new and as yet unsettled land, rather than live any longer in a country that denied them peace and the rights of conscience. It is probably no accident that the state funeral of Sir Hugh Montgomery took place the previous day in Newtownards, providing ideal cover for large numbers of people travelling in the north Down area at that time.

Four ministers were among the Eagle Wing passengers: John Livingston, Robert Blair, James Hamilton and John McClelland. Initial difficulties on the Scottish west coast included leaks, contrary winds and the dismissal of the captain, but eventually the ship headed west across the Atlantic to the New World. Voyages of this nature in those days were not for the faint hearted. The conditions were aptly described by the Rev Blair, the acknowledged leader of the group who records: ‘When we had passed the back of Ireland and had entered the great ocean, O what mountains, not waves of sea did we meet. The swellings of the sea did rise higher than any mountains we had seen on earth, so that in the mid-day they hid the sun from our sight’.

This voyage, like that of the earlier Mayflower, was late in the season and severe storms battered the 150 tonne ship in mid-Atlantic, splitting beams, tearing sails and damaging the rudder. Livingston records: ‘Heavy rain did break our rudder, much of our gallon-head and fore-cross-trees, tore our foresail, five or six of our champlets and a great beam under the gunner-room door broke. Seas came in and wet all them that were between decks’. The rudder was eventually repaired due to the bravery of a volunteer who was lowered overboard with a rope around his waist. Blair records that in spite of the dangers and troubles and the lack of sleep the passengers generally remained cheerful and confident.

Though they had completed three-quarters of their journey, Blair and others interpreted these circumstances as God telling them to return to Ireland.  The Rev John Livingstone wrote: 'but if ever the Lord spoke His winds and dispensation, it was made evident to us that it was not His will that we should go to New England'.  They turned the Eagle Wing around and sailed back, arriving in Lough Fergus on 3rd November.

Miraculously, only one elderly individual and one child died during the voyage and were buried at sea. One baby was born, named Seaborn, and baptised the following Sunday by Rev. Livingston.

What happened when they returned to Ireland?

While some of those returning were of a mind to sail again in the spring of the following year, the majority believed that God had tested their faith in this enterprise and had brought them safely back to Ireland for a purpose. The authorities were still anti-Presbyterian so the ministers spent the winter preaching and teaching quietly among their people, always watchful for any move to have them arrested. Being reliably warned that arrests were imminent, the ministers moved to Scotland and actively preached throughout Ayrshire and Dumfries.

The long slide into civil war gathered pace with the signing of the National Covenant in Edinburgh on 28th February 1638. Presbyterians in Ulster also signed and the government response was to impose a ‘Black Oath’ upon Presbyterians, requiring allegiance to the king in all matters including expression of worship. It was this movement, not the fanciful fable of blackberry festooned faces, which coined the denomination nickname ‘Blackmouths’.

The 1641 uprising further added to misery in Ulster and peace was temporarily restored with the arrival of a Scottish army in the summer of 1642. The army chaplains formed the ‘army presbytery’ in Carrickfergus on Friday, 10th June and so this is the birth date of Irish Presbyterianism. Within months requests were arriving in Scotland for Presbyterian ministers to come to Ulster and nourish the infant church. The Scottish General Assembly had few to spare but agreed to send six ministers on short three-month terms of service. They included Revs. Robert Blair, John Livingston, James Hamilton and John McClelland – all Eagle Wing men.

Whether it was indeed divine intervention that drew the Eagle Wing back to Ireland or not, it is clear that the failed voyage was not only a significant step in the birth of Irish Presbyterianism but was instrumental in the re-birth of Presbyterianism in Scotland and was the spark that lit the flame of emigration which saw thousands of Ulster Scots journeying to America over the next two centuries.

The heroic attempt of the Eagle Wing to sail to the New World is commemorated at the annual Eagle Wing Festival in Groomsport, a celebration of the immense contribution made by Ulster folk to the American way of life.

* There is some doubt as to whether the ship was built in Groomsport. Adair in his autobiography just states that a ship was built near Belfast. Another possibility would be Carrickfergus. The ship certainly left from Lough Fergus (Now Belfast Lough).