The early origins of the famous Ash family

UNLIKE much of the British Isles, the North West of Ulster has very few families that can claim a lineage that is representative of a nobility founded in the mists of time and nurtured over the centuries with at least some of their demenses still virtually intact.

The sad passing of John Beresford-Ash of Ashbrook, therefore, prompts an understandable interest in his family's origins, particularly as it is generally accepted that he was one of the few survivors into the 21st century of this special group.

The Ash family is of old Anglo-Saxon descent. Around the 5th century they settled in the Isle of Thanet, where the village of Ash, which it is believed that they founded, still exists. For our interest the Irish connection with the family commences in Ashfield, in Co Meath, during the latter years of the 16th century. Thomas Ash (knighted in 1603) and his brother, John, were involved with Elizabeth I's campaign against the Earls of Tyrone and Tyrconnel led by Sir John Davis. For their services as military commanders they were granted considerable estates in Co Cavan - Ashfield near Cootehill. The family forged many marriage alliances with the highest ranks of the aristocracy in Ireland and England. For example the Wellesleys, the Duke of Wellington's family, are related by marriage to the Ashs and the town of Trim maintained an Ash as its parliamentary representatives for over 200 years.

Locally Sir Thomas obtained grants of land at Glendermott, which passed on to his son Josias, and thus established an uninterrupted Ash association with Ashbrook for four centuries.

Exact dates for all of this are impossible to realise because records were destroyed in the Four Courts during the Civil War of 1922. Apparently the Grocer and Goldsmiths Companies of London chose this area for development with care, considering Professor Charlesworth's verdict on the Faughan Valley. He reflects on how "the beautiful valleys, around Glendermott, with their gently sloping hillsides and fertile boulder clay, suitable for crops and grazing, were formed by the mighty rivers of ice, several hundred feet thick, which ground the original rocks to clay and carved out a beautiful countryside". An idyllic setting for Ashbrook, sited on the banks of the Faughan, but not without setbacks from the very beginning.

Consider the fate of Alderman Skipton, a near neighbour of the Ashs, who had a dispute over land with the O'Cahans and was shot dead. Thirty years later, during the 1641 Rebellion, his son Thomas was compelled to flee from his Ballyshaskey home "without shoe or stocking and after narrowly escaping murder by the Irish".

His home was burnt and everything of value destroyed. He later sold Currynerin to the Ash estate, who, even during these difficult times, appeared to command popularity locally. Good reason for the continuation of this popularity would be shown during the next century.

It is with the Siege of 1688/89 that the Ash name continues to be associated. Captain Thomas Ash's 'Circumstantial Journal of the Siege of Londonderry' is recognised as an unbiased account of events, while the interpretations offered by Walker and Mackenzie, who rushed to the printing presses immediately after the conflict, must be awarded the occasional "pinch of salt" treatment.

In fact, Ash's account was not published until 1792 when his granddaughter decided that it deserved attention and we are indebted to her for her foresight.

Thomas Ash was born in 1660 at Eglinton and was educated in Londonderry. In the 1680s he managed his father, John's estates in Co Antrim and at 25 he was appointed Coroner for County Londonderry. He was on active service throughout the Siege, serving firstly as a Lieutenant with Colonel Parke's Coleraine Regiment and afterwards as a captain with Colonel Lance's Regiment.

Richard Doherty, military historian, believes that he may have been a former soldier, as his account of the Siege includes observations that indicate military experience.

As an aside, Captain Ash was the third son of Sarah, John Ash's second wife. John Ash was married three times and had 24 children altogether. He married his third wife, Elizabeth Holland, in 1665 who was mother of 12 of his children, all born at Ashbrook.

By his will of 1680 John Ash disposed of much of his estate to Elizabeth and her children. He died in 1684.

Thomas Ash served well throughout the Siege, as the poet Londeriados records: "The Irish pressed our trenches on the strand, Till noble Captain Ash did them withstand".

His diary entry for the 28th July 1689 is probably the best remembered. Commenting on the long awaited Relief he wrote: "A day to be remembered with thanksgiving by the besieged in Derry for as long as they live, for on this day we are delivered from famine and slavery".

He returned rapidly to reality a few days later when on 1st August he stated: "I went to see my farm, the roof of my house was smoking in the floor and the doors falling off the hinges".

It cannot escape our attention that Ashbrook nearly suffered the same fate on a few occasions over 300 years later under the stewardship of the late John.

Folingsby's iconic impressions of the Relief of Derry, depicting Governor Walker, surrounded by celebrating citizens, pointing to the relieving ships, includes Elizabeth Browning, an Ash of Ashbrook and wife of the brave Captain Browning, in the foreground tending to the sick and dying. Captain Ash is also present along with other members of the family.

The late Colonel Beresford-Ash in 1936 fortunately clarified some of the intricacies of the family tree at this period: "The hero of the Relief, Captain Browning, married a widow, Mrs Rankin, who was by birth an Ash of Ashbrook. They had no children. He had, however, a Rankin stepson and I am descended from him, because his daughter, Mary Rankin, married her cousin, George Ash, owner of Ashbrook."

The Siege hero and diarist, Thomas Ash served at the Boyne with Mitchelburne's Regiment and fell ill with fever. He married Elizabeth Rainey of Magherafelt in 1693 and they had 17 children and spent most of their married life away from Londonderry.

Near the end of his long life, Thomas Ash compiled the Ash Manuscripts (1735-37) and it was eventually published for private circulation by Henry Tyler of Limavady in 1890.

Richard Doherty has outlined the impressive military record of this family and I am certain that it deserves more of his expert attention. One stark fact alone stands out for me - a total of 17 members of the Ash family were either killed, gassed or wounded during the First World war.

I referred earlier to the abiding popularity of the family. Fr Coulter, in his 'History of Glendermott Parish' provides some evidence for this. When Roman Catholic worship was prohibited during Penal Times of the 18th century, Mass was conducted uninterrupted in the woods and glens near Ashbrook and there is a strong local tradition that an Ash, who was a magistrate, was ordered to arrest a priest and his congregation, when they assembled for worship at the Fincairn Glen. Ash warned all concerned well in advance and when he arrived with his troops, everyone had dispersed...memories are long in the Glendermott Valley!

I cannot claim to have conducted anything more than a brief passing acquaintanceship with the late John Beresford-Ash, but I was assured many years ago by my friend, the late Claude Wilton, that Mr Ash was an absolute gentleman of the best sort and that remains as a good enough recommendation for me.

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