Ellis Island souvenir’s Cairncastle history

The commemorative medallion. INLT 45-002-PSB
The commemorative medallion. INLT 45-002-PSB

A CAIRNCASTLE woman has spoken of her shock after discovering a precious family heirloom during a visit to New York City.

Rachel McKeegan (nee Magill) travelled to the Big Apple last year with her sister, Rosemary Verstrynge, and the pair set off on the city’s tourist trail.

One destination on their sightseeing tour was Ellis Island - the former gateway for millions of Americans into the United States - which has now been transformed into the Museum of American Immigration.

The two sisters followed the displays of immigrant memorabilia and were greatly moved by the harrowing first-hand accounts left by those who had arrived on American soil for the first time.

The visit ended with the obligatory trip to the souvenir shop, where Rachel came across a gilt ornamental pendant with word’s from the Lord’s Prayer inscribed on it. She purchased the item and returned to her New York hotel room, and it was only after unwrapping her gift later that evening and reading the information pamphlet that came with it that she realised what she had stumbled upon.

Incredibly, it turned out the ornament had been adapted from an item that had once belonged to Rachel’s aunt Jane Magill, who immigrated to America over 100 years ago.

Jane, like many others from Ireland, had headed for the New World in the hope of starting a better life for herself. She left the Port of Derry on the SS Caledonia en route to New York in May, 1907. At the age of 18, she was the eldest child of the Magill family from the Meetinghouse, Cairncastle.

The records in Ellis Island, where immigrants disembarked after the rigours of the trans-Atlantic voyage before gaining entry to the USA, describe Jane as five foot six in height, with fair complexion, dark hair and blue eyes. She was carrying $22 in cash, which had been carefully sewn into her clothes.

Like all immigrants, Jane had to pack sparingly and take only her most useful and precious belongings. Among the few valued possessions in her travel trunk was a glass plate, inscribed with an excerpt from the Lord’s Prayer - “Give Us This Day Our Daily Bread” - which had been given to her grandmother as a wedding gift.

In later years in America, Jane kept the plate wrapped in a flannel cloth in her steamer trunk, before it was eventually donated and put on display in the “Treasures from Home” exhibition in the Ellis Island Museum.

The museum authorities felt the inscription on the plate held great significance, as it represented the desires of all the immigrants who passed through Ellis Island, and they decided to merchandise a souvenir of the item in their gift shop.

It seems like fate that two nieces of Jane’s should be the ones to discover this item after so many years and empathise so strongly with its sentiment.

“I was dumbfounded when I read the inscription,” said Rachel.

“I just couldn’t believe that after all these years I should be encountering a family heirloom in Ellis Island. To think that out of all those millions of immigrants who had crossed to the United States, it was our aunt Jane’s precious plate with its prayer that had been selected, and that out of all those millions of visitors to Ellis Island a century later, her two nieces should come across it.”

Retired Cairncastle teacher Paul Magill, a nephew of Jane’s, published a book last year called The Magills of the Meetinghouse, which traced the lives of his ancestors in the area.

He told the Times: “It was an amazing coincidence that it should be two nieces of Jane’s from Cairncastle who would come across this more than 100 years later. I was quite taken back when I heard about Rachel’s discovery, and unfortunately it came too late to make it into my book. Who know’s, maybe it will make it into a future edition?”

For more on the story of Jane Magill and her Cairncastle family, see the Magills of the Meetinghouse, which is available at £9.95 in Apsleys and Book Nook, Larne.