Ballycarry link to story of romance and revolution in the Philippines

The forgotten grave of a Ballycarry woman which has been restored in far-away Hong Kong connects to an amazing romance between her daughter and the foremost national hero of the Philippines.

Wednesday, 7th April 2021, 1:26 pm
A statue in Manilla portraying Josephine's farewell to her husband.

Elizabeth McBride was from Ballycarry and married James Bracken, a soldier in the 28th Regiment of Foot in Belfast in 1868. She and James had several children, one of whom, Josephine Bracken, fell in love with Dr. Jose Rizal, and became his common law wife.

Rizal, who was a novelist and advocated Philippine independence from Spain, was executed by the authorities on trumped up charges in 1896 and today there are monuments and street names dedicated to him across the Philippines. There is even a statue of Josephine saying goodbye to him the day before his execution. It is believed that after his death she played a part in the revolutionary movement fighting for independence, but she later returned to Hong Kong where she died in 1902 at the age of 25. She was buried in the Catholic section of the Colonial Cemetery there, and her grave was unmarked – although it was believed to have been where her mother Elizabeth had been buried in 1876.

The Ballycarry woman’s grave was only marked with a small stone block inscribed with the number 4258. After years of research the location and the story of Josephine has been told by Mick Bourke, who lives in Co Kildare and has been in contact with the Knights of Rizal, a fraternity which has members in different countries and which keeps the memory of Dr. Jose Rizal alive in modern times. It is a story tinged with sadness.

Josephine McBride Bracken.

Shortly after his marriage to Elizabeth in 1868, James’ regiment was transferred to Gibraltar. Elizabeth remained in Co Antrim, probably living at her parent’s home at Mullaghdubh in Islandmagee, where she gave birth to the couple’s first child – Charles – in April 1869. Her father, Charles McBride, died in 1871 at the age of 82, and her mother died in 1895 aged 85. It is believed Elizabeth was an only child.

Shortly after the birth of her first child, Elizabeth re-joined her husband, and she gave birth to a second child, Nelly, in Gibraltar in 1871. The regiment was next posted to Malta and there they had another daughter, and a son who survived just three months. Shortly after that the regiment transferred to Hong Kong and Elizabeth died there about a month after giving birth to their fifth child, Josephine, in 1876.

She was buried in the Colonial Cemetery on Hong Kong Island and for almost a century and a half the only indication of the location of her grave was the small stone block inscribed with a number - 4258. After the death of his wife James Bracken was unable to look after the new baby, so Josephine was given up for adoption to an American living in Hong Kong and his Macau wife.

By 1880 James Bracken had settled back in Ireland along with his three other children, while Josephine remained in Hong Kong with her step-parents. When she was about 18 her stepfather began to go lose his sight. Along with Josephine he went to the Philippines where they had heard there was an ophthalmic surgeon named Jose Rizal who they hoped could provide a cure. After it became clear that the condition was incurable Josephine’s stepfather decided to return to Hong Kong. But Josephine remained with Rizal, as the couple had fallen in love.

Dr. Jose Rizal.

Jose Rizal was more than a doctor, and ophthalmologist - the first ever to practice in Asia. He was among many things an artist, a multi-linguist, a poet, a scientist; and as a novelist a persuasive voice for Philippine independence from its Spanish rulers. It was this latter activity that had resulted in him being banished to a remote corner of the Philippine archipelago shortly before Josephine was to meet him there.

About two years after they set up house he was falsely accused and tried for being involved in the recently begun uprising for independence from Spain - and sentenced to death. The night before his execution on December 30, 1896, he and Josephine were allowed to marry in his prison cell.

Mick Bourke, who has researched the Antrim connection to the Philippines national hero, said: “He was 35 years old. Today he is more widely commemorated in the Philippines than any other nationalist hero, with practically every town having a Rizal Street, a Rizal statue, a Rizal school, etc. His profile is on the basic currency unit, the peso coin.

“Josephine too is remembered there with streets named in her honour. Her role is taught in history classes, and she is included in a sculptural representation of Rizal’s life at the National Rizal monument in the centre of the capital, Manila.”

The grave of local woman Elizabeth Jane McBride in Hong Kong's Colonial Cemetery.

In March 1902 Josephine, aged 25, died in Hong Kong and was buried in the Colonial Cemetery there. The exact location of her grave within the cemetery is unknown since, unlike, her mother no record of her burial is known to exist.

Some speculate that she was actually interred alongside her mother, but there appears to be no definite evidence to support this. However, now her memory will be recalled with the new memorial stone placed at her mother’s grave providing detail on both women.

The Order of the Knights of Rizal, which has restored the grave, was founded in 1911 to honour and uphold the ideals of Jose Rizal and has over 60 active chapters in countries around the world including the UK and Ireland.

Mick Bourke, detailed that 10 members of a chapter of the Knights in Hong Kong decided to enhance the grave of Josephine’s mother, Elizabeth. Most of the work has been carried out by Mr Pieter Nootenboom, an engineer and a Dutch national with connections to the Philippines, while the unveiling will be carried out by a fellow knight, Mr Enrique (Ricky) Rueda Sadiosa, who is from the Philippines and is a publisher and photojournalist based in Hong Kong.

Knights of Rizal members who have helped restore the Bracken grave.

His most recent publication, Dr. Jose Rizal Travel 2020 Retracing The Footsteps Of The National Hero Around The World, was a five-year project that brought him to several countries in Asia, America, and Europe and involved a visit to Belfast in 2018. He is a cohost of a radio programme in Hong Kong.


Click here to read: Ballycarry group awarded £10,000 to mark NI centenary.


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