Following in James’s and Molly’s Footsteps, Ireland Style

23, November 2015
scenic photo of a river and pasture in Bushmills, IrelandScenic River Bush in Bushmills, County Antrim, Northern Ireland. Photo by Ira Kodner, 2015.

From June 2011 to February 2015, the Missouri History Museum posted the letters of Civil War soldier James E. Love to his fiancée, Molly, on this site. As part of that project, I visited the three battlefields where James fought, and wrote about my experiences following in the footsteps of his war service. Earlier this year, the Museum published James’s letters as a book titled My Dear Molly: The Civil War Letters of Captain James Love. And this fall I decided to follow James’s footsteps home to his native Northern Ireland, including the towns of Derry-Londonderry, Bushmills, Ballymena, and Islandmagee. My parents came with me, and in October we spent five fabulous days in Northern Ireland, where I discovered a beautiful country and retraced James’s—and Molly’s—footsteps.

In his reminiscences, James recalled:

The coasts of Antrim and Derry are wild and rocky, full of lovely bays and strands, with numberless caves in picturesque cliffs. I explored it fully and the Glens of Antrim over and over again before I was 18 years old, on horseback, on foot or jaunting car but best of all by boat and the sound of the seas and waves are still booming in my ears. I know every foot of it from Larne to Coleraine, including antiquities, castles and caves.

During our visit, we saw everything that James remembered. We stayed in Belfast and took day trips to the four towns associated with James and Molly. This plan was only possible thanks to David Lyttle, owner of Chauffeur Car Services and our outstanding driver and guide. He drove us through the countryside and along the beautiful Giants Coast Highway from Larne to Bushmills, and played audio recordings of Irish music and legends along the way. At my request, he even agreed to read one of James’s letters, so I could hear it with the Irish brogue.

Photo of Derry-Londonderry pastureJames’s ancestors, four Love brothers, first settled in this area south of Derry-Londonderry in 1630. Photo by Ira Kodner, 2015.

One stop on the journey was Derry-Londonderry, where James’s ancestors, four Love brothers, first settled in 1630. In his reminiscences, James mentions the old Love homestead located seven miles south of Londonderry. As we approached the town, we stopped to take pictures of the scenery in the area, which James surely saw when he was growing up. We toured the old walled city, including St. Columb’s Cathedral. While in the cathedral, by chance, our tour guide started talking to cathedral historian, Ian Bartlett. She explained the reason for our visit, and he offered to check the cathedral records, dating back to the 1600s, for the Love surname. Several men with that last name were listed, but, unfortunately, I did not know the first names of the original Love brothers.

photo of the blogger and her guide in Bushmills, IrelandMolly Kodner, Nevin Taggart and his dog, Cory, at the Old Bushmills Distillery. Photo by Ira Kodner, 2015.

The visit to Derry-Londonderry was a great thrill, but Bushmills was my main objective. We drove from Belfast to Bushmills along the Giants Coast Highway, and saw the coasts of Antrim, the picturesque cliffs, and the Glens of Antrim that James described. Upon our arrival in Bushmills, I met Nevin Taggart, a native of the town. When the Museum first started posting the letters in 2011, I discovered that Nevin had mentioned the project on his North Antrim Local Interest List blog. I emailed Nevin then, and we have been in touch ever since. He checked resources in Northern Ireland that I could not access, and provided invaluable information about James’s family. When I told him that I was coming to Northern Ireland, he made arrangements for me to meet with several people in both Bushmills and Ballymena. After many discussions via email and Facebook, I finally met Nevin! He guided us on a walking tour of Bushmills, pointing out buildings that existed when James was there. He took us to the Presbyterian church where James’s parents, William Love and Esther Steel, were married in 1829. Unfortunately, the original church building is no longer standing, but I was able to see the handwritten record book that included a listing for William and Esther’s marriage. I also met Charles Macnaghten. For generations, his family lived in Dundarave House in Bushmills, which was built by a company operated by James’s grandfather, father, and uncles. Mr. Macnaghten kindly showed me original documents regarding the company’s involvement with the construction. John Watt, a local photographer and columnist, took a picture of Nevin and me, and wrote an article for the Ballymoney Chronicle and Ballycastle Chronicle newspapers. My trip to Bushmills far exceeded my expectations.

For my visits to Ballymena and Islandmagee, I had no expectations. To be honest, I had focused so much on Bushmills that I forgot that James probably spent more time in Ballymena. Islandmagee was Molly’s hometown. Through my research, I knew that Molly’s ancestors first settled in the area in the 1600s, and that she was a direct descendant of fairly prominent people in the area. Her maternal grandfather, Reverend John Murphy, was minister of the First Presbyterian Church in Islandmagee for 50 years. His wife’s maternal name was Jane Brown, and Islandmagee had a town named Brownsbay. Even with this information, I still did not expect to find any connection to Molly during my visit.

a group of people at a reception for Molly Kodner and her bookReception in Ballymena. From left to right: Councillor Stephen Nicholl, Ira Kodner, Molly Kodner, Nevin Taggart, Deputy Mayor of Mid and East Antrim Councillor Timothy Gaston, and Barbara Kodner.

In the end, my time in Ballymena and Islandmagee was a highlight of my trip, thanks again to Nevin. He contacted several people who made special arrangements and treated me like an honored guest. When we arrived in Ballymena, our first stop was a reception with Deputy Mayor of Mid and East Antrim Councillor Timothy Gaston and Councillor Stephen Nicholl. Then, Denis McNeill and Brian Reynolds kindly interviewed me on the Q Radio network, so I had the opportunity to share James and Molly’s story with their listeners. The greatest part of the visit was when local historian Debroy Barr led us to the Old Churchyard, where James’s mother, grandfather, and two sisters are buried. James had stood in the graveyard for the burials of these four people. Their deaths, and the death of his father, led him to immigrate to the United States, settle in St. Louis, meet Molly, and fight in the Civil War.

Old schoolhouse in Islandmagee, IrelandMolly Love most likely saw this schoolhouse attached to the First Presbyterian Church in Islandmagee. Photo by Ira Kodner, 2015.

I had followed in James’s footsteps as far as possible, but I still needed to visit Islandmagee. My first stop was to meet Reverend Peter Bovill, current minister of the First Presbyterian Church in Islandmagee. The original church building no longer exists, but a small schoolhouse attached to the church was there when Molly still lived in Islandmagee. As I took pictures of the schoolhouse, I realized that it was the first time I had been able to follow in Molly’s footsteps, and stand in a place where she would have stood over 160 years ago. It was a huge moment for me because her letters to James did not survive and the houses where Molly lived in St. Louis were torn down long ago, so this was my first link to Molly, but not the last. Next, we visited the old Ballypriormore graveyard, which is located down a wooded path behind the Islandmagee Riding Stables, just over a mile from the church. It was quite an adventure to reach the graveyard, but worth it. Molly’s father, grandfather, and uncle were all buried there, so Molly came to the graveyard many times. Unfortunately, the cemetery was too overgrown to find the location of the exact tombstones, but it was still moving to stand where Molly once stood.

headstones on Ballypriormore graveyard in IrelandMolly Love's father, grandfather, and uncle are buried in the old Ballypriormore graveyard, shown here. Photo by Ira Kodner, 2015.

I will never forget my journey to Northern Ireland. I had the opportunity to see James and Molly’s homeland, and to meet several kind gentlemen whom I now consider friends. After my radio interview with Brian Reynolds, he asked me what Missouri and St. Louis are like, and I struggled to compare my home to Northern Ireland because they are so different. The question made me think about James coming from the vast, hilly countryside along the coast of Northern Ireland to the city of St. Louis in 1850. I wish I knew what he thought of the differences, and how he decided to settle in St. Louis for the rest of his life. I’m so thankful that he did. Otherwise, I never would have known him or Molly, or been able to follow them home.    

—Molly Kodner, Archivist