The curious case of Hugh McCann

On Saturday 24 March 1894 the following news item appeared in the Mid-Ulster Mail –

“SUDDEN DEATH IN COAGH. On Sunday last an Irish-American named Hugh McCann, who was stopping in lodgings in Coagh, died suddenly. It seems that the deceased was in his usual health the previous day, but at night took ill with cramps. Inflammation supervened, and despite medical aid he died at 6.30 on Sunday morning. He had made preparations for leaving here on Tuesday for New York with his two-year-old child.”

Not much is known about Hugh McCann. The Ardboe parish registers show that he was born on 30 September 1855, the first child of James McCann and Sarah Henry. The McCanns had a 12-acre farm in Clunto-quin. On 14 November 1884 Hugh married Eliza Ann Lavery, who lived in the adjoining townland of Drumaney. Eliza Ann, born on 4 January 1863, was the eldest child of well-to-do farmers Hugh Lavery and Anne McStravog. It is not known when Hugh and Eliza Ann emigrated to America: there is no record of children baptised in Ardboe and it is possible that the couple took their leave of Ireland shortly after their marriage.

What did life hold for them in the New World? How did they fare? History is silent, for so far, on these questions. What is known is that Hugh McCann was back in Ireland in March 1894, and it was his intention to return to New York imminently with his two-year-old child. But death, sudden, violent, final, intervened.

It is at this point that the tale takes an unusual turn, as was recounted in 1988 by local seanchaí Gustin Dourish of Farsnagh (1902-90) –

“There was the man one time was raised. He was raised at the Oul Cross and re-buried in the Moortown. McCann he was. I think he was Hugh McCann. He came from Clunto-quin. She was in America when he died and they said she had insurance on him. I think Oul Laddie told me – that’s Kate’s father – that he was dead nine months. And she come home then out of America and she had to get him raised and she didn’t take the right way of doing it. She gave them, I think, pounds apiece – they took the hearse out of Coagh in the dark of the morning, in November, very early. They raised him and washed the coffin at Treanor’s well or pump and put it in the hearse, two or three of them, and came over the road, to bury him in Moortown. And it was all right, but then she had to get him opened and they opened him and it wasn’t a good sight, but they wouldn’t have done it only for her. They patched him up again and they went on to their beds and the hearse went on into Coagh with the horses. But it was no length till the police was out. Because they had raised him. The people said she had insurance on him and she had to see the body, and she was doing the thing straight. She wasn’t telling lies when she seen him. He was McCann. I looked at the stone one day – it was afore my time, you see – I might be wrong, I think it’s 1894 on the stone. In the Moortown graveyard, it’s over near where that big headstone of Lavery’s is, with our Saviour on it. His name is on it and the time he died. I would think the date she has on it is his death date. He was buried in the oul Church for a while. He knew the difference in the two places – which was the best! Well, that’s a true thing……”

There is no reason to disbelieve Gustin: it simply never would have occurred to him to exaggerate or to twist facts. Indeed the story of the man who was buried twice was well-enough known in the district in the first half of the 20th century, though inevitably with the passage of time the names and details were lost save in the memories of only one or two people.

Gustin was correct in saying that 1894 was the date on the headstone. The inscription reads: ERECTED BY E.A. McCANN IN LOVING MEMORY OF HER HUSBAND HUGH McCANN WHO DIED 18th MARCH 1894 AGED 38 YEARS

An interesting footnote is that the Public Record Office contains the Letters of Administration of Hugh McCann. The full abstract reads:

Surname – McCann

Forename – Hugh

Registry – Armagh

Date of Death – 18 March 1894

Date of Grant – 25 May 1894

Effects – £62

Full Abstract – Letters of Administration of the personal estate of Hugh McCann late of Coagh County Tyrone Labourer who died 18 March 1894 at same place were granted at Armagh to Eliza Ann McCann of Drumenny-Cunningham in said County the Widow

This would indicate that Eliza Ann had returned from America and had successfully obtained Hugh’s effects. Whether she waited until the dark nights of November to exhume his body and re-bury it in Moortown, or carried out this operation in May, will not be known unless she kept a diary. What we do know is that she erected in Moortown graveyard a graceful marble headstone on a granite base. The stone is just a few feet from the Moortown road; from 1894 onwards no passer-by or Mass-goer could have failed to notice it and reflect on the fate of the man lying beneath it, or to wonder again at the single-minded determination of his wife. A few years later Eliza Ann’s father Hugh Lavery died and in turn her mother erected a magnificent marble stone, depicting the crucifixion, beside the grave of Hugh McCann. There is no record of the death of Eliza Ann on either stone.

The McCann and Lavery headstones

The McCann and Lavery headstones

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