A small forgotten monument at the top of Charles Street in Lurgan reminds the present day passer by of a young man cut down in the prime of life and who had merely been a resident in the town for eleven short years. Why then was one who sojourned such a short while endeared by the local community to the extent that a memorial was erected to perpetuate his memory?
Thomas Millar was born in Cookstown, County Tyrone in 1819, the son of a Presbyterian minister. His father was the local incumbent of 2nd Cookstown church, he being born outside Mocosquin in County Londonderry and was also called Thomas. Rev Thomas Millar senior, laboured in Cookstown for forty-eight years.
He was married twice, his first wife a local lady, Miss Sarah Weir of Cookstown, and his second wife was a Miss Lyttle from Portglenone. Rev Millar senior is best remembered for his contribution to education as he conducted an academy from 1806-1840.
Thomas Millar junior was educated at Cookstown Academy and at the Old College, Belfast (now Belfast Institute) where he received his general certificate in 1841. He was born by his father's second marriage to Miss Lyttle, whose brother was a former mayor of Belfast. His formative years were spent around the manse in Loy Street, Cookstown and he attended the school where his father taught. It is also worthy of note that the youngest member of the family, Margaret married Mr Thomas Galway Houston who achieved distinction as Headmaster of Coleraine Academical Institution.
Traditionally Presbyterians laid great stress on education, his father, probably for economic reasons because of his growing family, had undertaken the role of Principal. To emphasise the classical character of his establishment the school was known as the academy. Little is known of the young Thomas's school days as no roll book has been preserved and in those days there were no reports of Inspectors. However a school is judged by its results, always the searching test of education! The results indicated that classics were the strong point in the curriculum, father's teaching was described as sound, "for there grew up in Cookstown a community of men with a mental equipment which needed no apology in any circle". Great emphasis was laid on memorising extracts from the Bible and in a tribute to young Thomas's father a fellow pupil later recalled committing to memory a chapter of the Bible.
The young Thomas Millar was licensed by the Tyrone Presbytery on November 2nd 1841 and ordained into the Home Mission on 24th May 1842 aged 23 years. The Home Mission was an outreach of the Presbyterian Church established to spread the faith throughout Ireland. He was ordained as a Class 3 missionary, a missionary assigned to a station or an area destitute of churches. Millar was appointed to Tralee in South West Ireland and ordained in Bandon outside Cork with a Mr Thomas Patterson who was ordained to Cloughereen. This ordination has been quite an occasion as Mr Robert McEwen of the Presbytery of Newry was installed to the pastoral charge of that congregation by the Presbytery of Dublin on the same day.
The fact that Millar was licensed in November 1841 and ordained in May 1842 indicates something of his outstanding ability as a preacher. It is not unknown in this era for a student licentiate to act as supply for anything up to five years before becoming ordained. During this six month period he preached mainly around the Cookstown area. Millar's sojourn in Tralee made a tremendous impact not only in that town but in the three outstations where he laboured.
In a report he wrote for the committee appointed by the General Assembly in 1842 he gives a vivid insight into rural life in South West Ireland. "In My different rides over a wild mountain to these out stations, I have had many interesting conversations. In general the poor are so utterly uneducated that, until schools be established for their instruction it is almost useless to give them tracts or books in any language". Without doubt it was due to his labours in Tralee where he preached three times a week to, "an excellent attendance", that the Presbyterian congregation was established in 1846. He obviously found the experience most rewarding as he claims his exertions were blessed far above his expectations and that he would, "not willingly exchange my present post, but will cheerfully continue to labour in this distant field, as long as the Directors think I can further the interests of their mission".
His mission was quite exhausting when one considers he walked 18 miles to Killorglin and back again fortnightly, walking to Ardfert, seven miles distance, also fortnightly and riding to Milltown, eleven miles from Tralee, weekly. This exhausting routine was in addition to three weekly services in Tralee. While Millar's reception was gladsome among the Protestant population he was viewed much more suspiciously by Roman Catholics and lists a number of encounters with the local priests.
His accommodation for services ranged from a house in Killorglin granted by another Protestant clergyman, to a sympathetic follower in Milltown and the home of, "a Scotch family who give a truly Irish welcome to any Presbyterian minister". Such work was indeed exhausting and after two years labouring in the mission field he received a "call" to First Lurgan Presbyterian Church. The minister, Rev Hamilton Dobbin who presided over the building of the present church 1827-28 had not enjoyed good health in latter years and decided to retire on October 1st 1844. The congregation was expanding; this is explained by the statistics which showed the population had grown from 2,842 in 1831 to 4,677 in 1841. The statistics as quoted in the "Parliamentary Gazetteer of Ireland" 1844-45 describe the social state of the town.
"Houses 670. Families employed chiefly in agriculture, 250; in manufactures and trade, 524; in other pursuits, 118; Families dependent chiefly on property and professions 46; or the directing of labour, 497; on their own manual labour, 329; on means not specified, 20. Males at and above the age of five who could read and write, 431 ; who could neither read nor write. 538. Females at and above the age of five years who could read and write, 603; who could read but not write, 756; who could neither read not write. 785".
Romance blossomed for the young minister as he quickly settled to his new charge and the year after he arrived in Lurgan he was married to a local girl called Isabella Girdwood, the daughter of John Girdwood. John and William Girdwood were members of the church committee and are mentioned frequently in the minutes of the meetings held after 1853. As far as I can trace this surname has died out in the immediate area and I have not been able to locate any such surname anywhere in the province. In the records of the Church several references are made to Girdwood, one records John as a farmer in June 22nd 1847, Thomas as a steward in April 6th 1844 at Lakeview. In the tenement valuation records, Catherine Girdwood is recorded as the lessor of Hotel, Offices and Yard at 48 Market Street.
The Church Baptismal Records record the birth of a daughter Diana McCoubrey Millar on 10th November 1847. The child was baptised by Rev Hamilton Dobbin who remained resident in the manse beside the church in High Street. The Millar family were resident in 'Silverwood Cottage', now demolished. Already it was evident that this young, energetic man was determined to work for the good of his pastoral flock and indeed for the people of the town. There are many references to his work with the poor of the town. The urban population had grown dramatically due to the newly established power loom factories and this bulging populous was dependent on the foodstuffs grown locally. A letter dated February 23rd 1847 written by a clergyman of the Church of England to the Relief Committee of the Society of Friends, paints a grim picture of life.
'The population of this parish has been hitherto chiefly supported by weaving, carried on in their own houses. The weaver at present can only earn, by weaving a web of sixty yards, two shillings and sixpence to four shillings and sixpence, which employs him nearly a whole week in preparation, while at present prices such wages will not support the mere weaver without a family. Even with such wages, I can state it as a fact having come under my own immediate observation, that weavers are sitting up three nights per week in order by any means to procure food for their families. There is scarcely a family in the parish in which there is not some one or more members of the family sitting up nightly. I have seen them in returning to my home, (from visiting the sick) at 2 am working as busily as in the daytime. In several cases I hove relieved individuals in their own houses who from exhaustion had been compelled to lie down, and could no longer continue to work on the loom. This has been, and is now, the only means of employment. There are no private or public works carrying on, or about to be carried on in the district and even this mode of scanty and insufficient employment is now rapidly ceasing.
The distress has been greatly augmented of late by the turnip crop, on which numbers were subsiding, having become exhausted, it has been greatly increased by the fact, that the poor having now almost entirely sold or pawned all their clothes, even in many cases their Bibles, they have no further resources from whence to draw.
I have myself witnessed the living lying on straw by the side of the unburied dead, who had died three days before. Many cases from actual starvation have occurred amongst the able-bodied, without reckoning the aged and infirm, who have been cut off by the effect of starvation, or the many many unnumbered children who have died from the same cause. I have been called to see a girl of four years old, a few weeks ago a strong healthy girl, who then was so emaciated as to be unable to stand or move a limb. I hove visited houses where there was no article of food or clothing, nothing but straw to lie upon, not even a stool to sit upon, and some of whose inmates, I fear at the moment I write, must have perished. One of the poor-houses of the district, Lurgan is shut for egress or ingress; seventy-five died in one day.
In Armagh poor-house forty-five die weekly. Before Lurgan poor-house was closed, it emitted pestilence info our parish, already full of dysentery and fever. Last year, to have been buried without a hearse would have been a lasting stigma to a family, now hearses are almost laid aside; even the Roman Catholic priest ceases, (I have it from his own lips) to attend funerals in his grave-yard. His congregation, he has told me, has been reduced to almost nothing; while the congregation of the church of which I am clergyman has been reduced to forty from fifty or sixty persons. I saw with my own eyes on Sunday February 7th, the Presbyterian Meeting - a house emptying its contents - a congregation of four. We are, in short, rapidly approaching, and if unassisted must arrive at the worst of the pictures that have been presented to the public from the County of Cork.
This dreadful affliction of suffering, hunger and poverty moved the young clergyman to take steps to eradicate one of its causes, lack of education. In 1845 he followed in his father's footsteps and in conjunction with the church committee planned to open a school at the rear of the Presbyterian Church in High Street. Finance was raised through subscriptions and the tender of John McCombe, dated 6th May 1845 was successful. The agreed price for the school house was £235. An advert was inserted in the local paper for, "a suitable teacher who would also be able to conduct the singing on the Sabbath". Millar was determined to raise the social standing of not only his own flock but intended all the people of the town should benefit from his efforts. One of his greatest attributes was his ability to write, and perhaps it is in this role that he achieved most earthly fame.
On 5th January 1850 a notice appeared in the Lurgan Times regarding the installation of Rev T Millar as President of the Lurgan Literary Society. He had followed another notable business man of the town Samuel Watts, who died later that very month. In 1851 Millar began to publish a periodical known as, 'The Lurgan Monthly Messenger'. It was printed by a local firm, Richard J Evans of Lurgan. The well known text from Ephesians Chapter 4 verse 15 stated its aim, 'Speaking the truth in love'. Initially it circulated in an around Lurgan and district but soon its appeal became much more widespread and within a few years was circulating throughout all of Ireland. Eventually the word 'Lurgan' was dropped from the title and it became simply known as, "The Monthly Messenger'. No accurate circulation figures are available, certainly it was in the region of many thousand copies. Reference was made to one hundred and fifty copies being sent to Cork later in the 1850s.
Not content with his efforts to spread the printed word in a magazine, Millar assembled a few interested friends and formed, 'The Lurgan Tract Scheme'. Tracts were published and circulated locally, this scheme proved very popular and received widespread support. This was a time of tremendous population growth in the town, the new linen factories gave the promise of a regular wage and between 1850 and 1860 the population of the town doubled. Attendance at Sunday services was very high, obviously due to Millar's ability to preach. Indeed towards the end of the decade it was realised that the congregation had become so large that it would be necessary to open a second church, now known as Hill Street.
For some years the health of this dynamic young preacher/writer gave cause for concern and in 1856 he was forced to give up the editorship of 'The Messenger. The new editor was the Rev William Henderson of Armagh and in a tribute to Thomas Millar he wrote, "It is our desire to make the Messenger worthy of the name and position it had obtained under the able and judicious management of our esteemed brother whose name will be long associated with our publication. In His wise Providence, God has seen fit to lay His hand on this dear brother, and compelled him to retire from a post of usefulness he so honourably filled".
The minutes of the church meetings of 1857 and 1858 reveal their concern for the health of their pastor, indeed in February 1858 the suggestion of an assistant was noted.
During the month of May Mr Millar decided to take a fortnight break from his labours and went on a holiday to London. He also hoped to attend the May meetings, the anniversaries of the great missionary and other societies. The break would hopefully improve his health and fit him for his hectic lifestyle. On the Saturday he wrote to his wife informing her he would be home on Tuesday morning. Sadly, he was never to return. Thomas Millar died in a railway accident near Nuneaton, on the North Western Line on Monday 10th May 1858. The train in which he was travelling collided with a cow that had strayed on to the line, and several of the carriages were overturned. The accident caused the death of three passengers and severe injuries to many others.
His remains were returned to his adopted home and a few days later were interred in the cemetery to the rear of First Lurgan Presbyterian Church. The remains returned to Ulster by Fleetwood and the steamer arrived at the quay in Belfast on Thursday 13th May at six o'clock in the morning. A deputation from his bereaved congregation was in Belfast. A train conveyed the coffin to Lurgan station where it was greeted by an immense crowd, described as being between four and five thousand people. Among those forming the solemn procession were the Right Honourable Lord Lurgan, John Hancock, Rev Thomas Knox, the rector of the parish church and many clergy from the Dromore and Armagh Presbyteries.
Rev John Hall of Armagh delivered the funeral address and Rev Mr Macnaughton of Belfast closed the proceedings with prayer. On Sunday 30th May the Rev John Barnett of Moneymore conducted a funeral service in the church. Every available space was filled, two rows of seats were placed down the aisles, people sat on the stairs to the gallery, the library room was filled as was the vestibule, indeed large numbers were forced to go away. The text was Daniel 12 verse 3 and the sermon was described as "deeply impressive and affecting and there was many a moistened eye among the congregation".
The newspapers and periodicals of the time carried many tributes. Perhaps the tribute carried in his own creation, The Monthly Messenger, ably pays tribute. "In Mr Millar's removal, the Church to which he belonged has lost a faithful pastor from her ranks. His holy ingenuity in devising means of good, his gentleness, his devotedness, his mild and conciliating spirit, will not soon be forgotten. The congregation to which he ministered will miss the gentle voice that used to come when sorrow came, and the hand that used to come when the waters of affliction were not yet assuaged, to bring the leaves of promise gathered from Him, whose name is "the Branch".
His father, wife, child, brothers and sisters, his flock, indeed the people of Lurgan had lost a servant whose life was filled with doing good. On Tuesday 8th June a public meeting was held in the town court house; Lord Lurgan was requested to occupy the chair. The list of those who attended was impressive, among them the gentry of the area. Lord Lurgan said he felt in a position of great difficulty for he could not find the language to express the sentiments of sincere respect, of warm admiration and of unfeigned regret that he felt of the late Rev Thomas Millar. Many verbal tributes were eloquently voiced on that occasion. The meeting unanimously supported the proposal that a monument should be erected to perpetuate his memory, the money to be subscribed from the funds of the local banks. Many poems were published subsequently, all paying tribute to a man who had set the perfect example. Many many tributes were made, perhaps none more fitting than that from the Board of Guardians of the Lurgan Union workhouse where Millar had been a chaplain for ten years. "His zeal was so great that he thought it little to sacrifice his health in the service of his Heavenly Master".
Grateful thanks are also due to Rev J Matthews, Dr Barkley, Rev T Coburn, Rev S Hutchinson and to the staff of Presbyterian Historical Society, Linenhall Library, Public Record Office and Irish Section, Southern Education and Library Board.