DR John McCavitt: The history behind the historian

Peter Bayne


Peter Bayne



Tuesday 25 May 2021 7:00

By Daniel Hill

Of the craft of Journalism, it has often been said that it is the first draft of history.

Indeed, one of the often overlooked and underappreciated functions of the journalist is at least in theory to act as an impartial chronicler of contemporary events and objective facts that will in the future be referenced as an accurate transcript of past events.

Many journalists, including myself relish the prospect that their written work could one day be viewed upon as the set-in stone written transcript of days gone by, making the task of documenting the present in a fair, accurate and unbiased manner all the more challenging and thus naturally all the more rewarding.

However, as daunting as the task of documenting the present accurately and fairly may be for those who have the prerequisite level of intellect (or as the case may be insanity) to become practitioners of this profession, it pales in the challenge that was set by a master of the art of drafting history, friend of The Democrat and self-confessed optimistic agnostic Rowan Hand. That is to document the history behind an historian.

In this case the former teacher and Newry born academic DR. John McCavitt, a member of the royal historical society and a man whom I quickly found I could have conversed with until the end of eternity.

I began the task that I had been entrusted with by my friend and mentor Rowan by paying John a visit at his home just north of Rostrevor, on what was a splendid sun-drenched day in the sacred month of May.

The scenery surrounding the plot were John and his wife Siobhann have decided to set up home drained me of what breath I had left in my lungs after I had ascended the short but steep rise to the front doorstep of this locally renowned character. Sitting at a strategic vantage point for anyone gifted with the sharpshooting eyes of a sightseer, the terrain surrounding John’s homestead, with a clear view of the reflected rays of the sun dancing in harmony of the blue serene surface of Carlingford lough to the south, and the wind caressing the green gown of Rostrevor forest to the east and finally with the monolithic brown stone face of the Mourne mountains casting a ubiquitous shadow across all land it holds in awe inspiring wonder beneath it, this place will leave an indelible influence on the eyes of anyone gifted with the privilege to witness its almost mythic beauty.

Befitting to the field of study that John has dedicated his long life to, the land surrounding his home would rob any scholar of the past of any amount of time they may have in unearthing the hidden secrets of the characters who once walked this land in days of yore.

John is keen to highlight a house not far away once owned by Frank Hall, a leading UVF gunrunner in 1914. Hall later became a member of MI5 with the codename “Q”. Hall questioned Sir Roger Casement after he was caught gun running in 1916. Casement was executed whereas ‘Q’ went on to become the inspiration for the James Bond character.

Another such actor that did more than just stroll across the stage of time and played more than a supporting role in the histories cast was one General Robert Ross, whose monument you can find along the Warrenpoint road only a stone’s throw away from John’s place of residence. In his capacity as an historian John has undergone the task of ensuring that every play that General Ross had a starring role in throughout the theatre of history is well-documented and not lost in the ocean of time like tears in rain.

Yuri Gargarin

But before I proceeded to query the historian on the characters he has written ever so finely about I did not neglect the first task that I had been entrusted with, to tell the history of the historian. I began by asking John to tell me about the first chapter in the book of his life knowing that like so many other books that I have read the book of John will quickly turn into a pleasurable page turner, the binding of which is still far from being completed with a back cover.

I can only guess that it was either providence, or just arbitrary chance that an historian of Johns calibre should be born on a day that was marked by one of man-kinds single greatest historical achievements.

“I was born on the 12th of April 1961, it was the same day that Yuri Gargarin became the first man ever to enter orbit. I spent my first three years in Cecil street in Newry, which I still have an abundance of happy memories of.

One such happy memory John cherishes had to do with the antics of a certain anthropomorphic bear with a penchant for stealing pick-nick baskets and a love of pork-pie style hats.

“One memory that has always remained with me from my first three years on Cecil street was the burning of what we referred to as the Yogi bear factory. This is a tale that I have related to my wife on several occasion’s and she always accuses me of making it up. You see Yogi bear was my favourite cartoon character and just across the street from us there was a factory that produced, amongst other things, Yogi Bear teddy bears. It burnt down when I was a child, and we were devastated that the Yogi bear factory was no more. There would be many people of my age in Newry who can relate accounts of having receiving Yogi Bears and other toys that were salvaged from the blaze. Although at the time I was only a very young child one thing that I remember quite distinctly about that event is the smell of burning rubber.

After having spent his most formative years in Cecil street John and his family then moved to a different locale in Newry, a move which John remembers vividly as the day of the move also coincided with his older brother’s birthday.

Cecil Street to Derrybeg

“After Cecil street we then moved to Derrybeg on the 12th of January 1965. I remember this not because I was a budding historian at three years of age but because it was my brother’s birthday. We experienced some degree of trepidation because we had so many friends in Cecil street but thankfully quite a few of the families from Cecil street moved to Derrybeg with us so that made the transition easier.

We had exceptionally happy times growing up in Derrybeg especially before the onset of the troubles. There was a great community organisation there with people coming from many different backgrounds in Newry. Some very visionary men and women got involved in setting up community activities. Our festivals were legendary beginning with parades from the town and big Frank Gallagher beaming from ear to ear as he drove “Miss Derrybeg” in pride of place at the head of the parade in various open topped vehicles. I used to love things like the piano smashing competition and the pram races in fancy dress.

In those days I went to Saint Patricks primary school in the Meadow. At the time there was an old church that people claimed was haunted. At this time Saint Brigid’s church was also being constructed and during the construction process one of the workmen was unfortunately electrocuted and died. I remember walking past that spot and being absolutely terrified because I knew it was the place where someone had died.

I was not surprised to learn that, like so many people of his generation, the next chapter in the book of Johns life takes place within the context of one of the most darkest chapters in the narrative of Northern Irelands own historical script, a chapter that would last in excess of thirty years.

“However, things changed to some extent with the troubles. On the 9th of August 1971 internment was introduced, that is almost fifty years ago now. It was an open secret that there was going to be internment. The people who were actively involved or were suspected to have been involved in paramilitary organisations would have anticipated this so a lot of them would not have slept in their own homes at night.

On that day when I was ten years old I remember two men were arrested on our street. My father went out to enquire about their wellbeing. I was a blurry eyed child just having got out of bed at four or half four in the morning. I remember hearing the army telling my father to go inside or they would shoot him.

I also remember that in 1973 Kevin Heatley a friend of mine was murdered by the British Army. I recall how chilling it was when our father told us about it the following morning. In the violence which followed I narrowly avoided death or serious injury when I was caught up in crossfire during a fierce gun battle. That same day a young boy who had down syndrome was shot by the army in the meadow. Mercifully, he survived.

Brother O’Hara

John was quite pleased to tell me that his initial passion to study history had its origins with a teacher he had at the Abbey Christian Brothers school Newry, one Brother O’Hara who believed John to have such a skill at comprehending past events that he felt it appropriate to award John with a fabled mark of one hundred percent on a fourth-year history test.

“Brother O’Hara was a lovely elderly man. He once gave me one hundred percent on a test in fourth year in history. This was the first time I had ever got one hundred percent in a test and this proved to be a defining moment in my life because I said to myself I must be pretty good at history as a subject.

From this initial seed that was planted in the fertile soil of Johns young mind to devote his life to the study of history by Brother O’Hara did spring the grand oak of knowledge and wisdom regarding all of histories innumerable branches. In the intervening time this sapling of scholarship was subsequently nurtured and feed in the hallowed halls of Queens University Belfast before it became the towering edifice of intellect that would go on to author four books on the subject.

“I went to Queens in 1979 and studied both modern and ancient history along with politics in first year. In those days you took exams at the end of first year to determine if you would be an honours student. An honours student would then do another three years were as a general student would undertake only a further two years of study.

It goes without saying that due to the historical context Johns university experience was not the same as any contemporary Queens student, however this did not stop him from attaining the highest degree of academic success.

“I loved my experience ay Queens and Belfast would remain one of my favourite cities. With the university experience there were thousands of young people mixing with one and another and people made their own fun back in those days. The city centre was blocked off and, you were searched going into it.

“At the end of first year I scored very highly, and I was one of the top students in ancient and modern history. It was then that I had an idea to study for a doctorate. Now how in heavens name you could make you mind up at that stage you are going to do a doctorate is beyond me. But anyway, I qualified earning my B.A in 1983 and winning a scholarship to help support me financially through my doctorate.

I then finished the three years of the Ph.D and did a one year teacher training course to qualify as a teacher.

For the next 30 years of Johns life, he would dedicate himself to instilling his own love of knowledge into the many students that he taught throughout his long career as a teacher.

“I taught in West Belfast near the city centre as a substitute. The community around the school was wonderful and eventually you got to know all the children and staff like they were your own family.

Working in Belfast John was at the very epicentre of the troubles and relates one particularly memorable story about the violence that has thankfully long since relinquished its hold on a now proud and beautiful city.

“While I was working in west Belfast the Castlecourt Shopping centre was under construction and the IRA placed a Semtex bomb in the cab of one of the large cranes that was being used in the construction process. At the time of detonation, I was standing in the yard of the school carrying out yard duty and when the bomb exploded I could feel the air rushing through my hair.

Belfast would prove to be only a short stop on the road of Johns journey as a teacher as it wasn’t long before he returned home to Newry to impart his wisdom to a new generation of students.

I taught in Belfast for five years before I got another teaching job In Newry, which was more convenient for me because it was closer to home. I really enjoyed my time teaching in Newry. While I worked as a teacher I also began researching and writing history books, with my first book being published in 1998. I spent most of my teaching career in Newry teaching A level Government and Politics.

John relished every opportunity he had to teach politics and has often received praise for the high standard of work that he conducted in his 17 years teaching the by many of his past pupils and their parents.

“Somewhat regrettably I had to retire from my teaching career because of ill-health but I still love meeting past pupils that I taught in Newry and their families. For example, there was a family in South Armagh of six sons and I taught all six of them A level Government and Politics. I would meet their mother at different times and she says that she really appreciates the job that I did because I gifted them with the vocabulary and knowledge to understand politics and really develop a passion for it.

In addition to his teaching career John has dedicated a large portion of his time to researching and writing books on British and Irish History in the late 16th century and 17th century having become quite an authority on the topic as well as having recently penned a book on the late General Robert Ross who played a vital role in what has become widely referred to as Americas second war of independence in 1812. As already alluded to John had his first title Sir Arthur Chichester published in 1998 and has been a leading consultant and advisor on a number of projects relating to the historical epochs he has expertise in.

“I had my first book published in 1998 and it was about Sir Arthur Chichester from Belfast whom Chichester Street in the city is named after. This book was reviewed in one of the most widely renowned and respected history journals by an Oxford Don and he called it a model monograph.

Flight of the Earls

After I finished this work on Sir Arthur Chichester I then wrote a book documenting the flight of the earls. I have spent 25 years researching and writing about this period in Irish and British history and wrote three books covering this era, so I have come to be regarded as quite an authority on this period. I was also a leading consultant on a BBC documentary on the flight of the earls.

In my time I have also received international invitations to speak in venues as far afield as Chicago and Lisbon. One international event that I look back on with a strong degree of fondness was the commemoration of the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the earls in Rome which was held in the Irish embassy in Rome. I was asked to speak at this event in which both John and Pat Hume were in attendance.

Another project that I contributed to considerably was a flight of the earls and plantation exhibit that is still in place at the hill of the O’neill in Dungannon.

Since moving to Rostrevor in 1988 john has always had an interest in the General Ross monument in Rostrevor. Until more recent years it was overgrown with bushes and brambles

“In 2007 having finished my research about late 16th and early 17th century British and Irish history, I began my research into the life of General Robert Ross. Although initially I knew very little about him thanks to my academic background I had the skill set to find out more about life.

Little did I know then that this interest would result in me writing a book about his life much less than i would end up being guest speaker of the white house historical association on the occasion of the bicentennial of its burning in 2014. When I began my research into General Ross I was delving in to a whole new field of study because my Ph.D was on British and Irish History in the late 16th and 17th century. My research into this book took me on a regular basis to the United States to cities such as Washington and Baltimore.

As I carried out my research into the life of General Ross I consulted with some of the top minds in the academic study of the American war of 1812. Some of them made the trip from America to Rostrevor and I welcomed them at my home. One of these academics was Professor Don Hickey who is regarded as the foremost authority on the war of 1812. He was sitting with me in my front garden drinking coffee.

Like any good historian John was more than capable of explaining the relevance past events have on the modern day.

“The life of General Ross has relevance to contemporary events. Whenever the capitol building was stormed back in January by Trump supporters many people compared it to the last time it was stormed which was in 1814, by Ross himself who set it alight.

When I was in Washington researching the life of Ross I approached the curator of the Whitehouse, Bill Allman, who is the person who preserves all the artifacts related to the history of the Whitehouse. He was more than happy to give me a personal tour of the building. He showed me some of the scorch marks where General Ross had set the building ablaze and since it was so close to a kitchen I joked that he was pulling my leg and what we were witnessing was the aftermath of a kitchen fire. He took the joke in good spirits though.

While I was there, Bill also gave me a copy of the letter written by then American Vice President Elbridge Gerry at the time who described Ross as a genteel, well behaved man”. I suppose the fact that the American vice president at the time said this about the man who burnt the Whitehouse is very telling about the character of Ross. Understand that Ross reluctantly carried out his retaliatory orders. He was in fact ordered by his superiors to burn all public and civilian property but Ross disregarded this order in relation to civilian properties

Besides currently being in the process of writing a fifth book Johns most significant ongoing project is in his capacity as an advisor to the Hispano-Irish association to find the body of one Red Hugh O’Donnell in Valldolid Spain. When he is not committed to his historical endeavours he enjoys creating various arts and crafts His most recent work includes a 1/50 scaled model of Narrow Water Castle made from pebbles. He also spends time doing community and charity work.

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