Thursday, September 6, 2018

Book Notice: "Dueling Dragons, The Struggle For Ireland, 1849-1875" by Marjorie Harshaw Robie

I received this book notice via email this week:



Marjorie Harshaw Robie’s DUELING DRAGONS recounts key years of tumultuous Irish history through three prominent citizens on the front lines.

Available October 15 on

IPSWICH, Mass. – September 5, 2018 – Inspired by a collection of ancestral diaries that survived intact through famine, revolution, generations of owners, a transoceanic voyage, a bank renovation, and a mistaken mailing to the American heartland, Marjorie Harshaw Robie’s new book DUELING DRAGONS tells the story of 25 tumultuous years in the history of Ireland through the words and actions of three men who lived on the front lines of revolution.

DUELING DRAGONS is the second in Robie’s two-volume history of early and mid-19 th century Ireland. Her first, DWELLING PLACE OF DRAGONS, was published in 2006. The new volume spans 1849 to 1875 when famine and emigration decimated the Irish population, religious conflicts divided Protestants and Catholics, and friendships and families were torn apart.

Robie’s unique perspective comes from familial diaries she found after an epic search, and through other first-hand accounts from newspapers and personal letters of the time. She incorporates the lives of three remarkable, interconnected men who struggled through much of the 19th century in a rapidly changing Ireland, and whose stories were told by their own hand, or the news of the day.

James Harshaw (Robie’s great-grandfather’s first cousin) was an Irish farmer and community leader
who endured hardships during the famine and kept detailed personal journals of his Northern Ireland
town, Newry, and of Donaghmore Parish. James’s nephew John Martin, inspired by his mother’s death during the famine to become an outspoken critic of British control, was arrested and imprisoned in a faraway land. But his writings and opinions—documented in personal letters, public speeches and newspaper articles—made him a widely respected political and moral leader. Martin’s schoolmate George Henderson edited an influential conservative newspaper, The Newry Commercial Telegraph, which covered news of the day and fervently supported loyalism, even as popular opinion changed. 

Robie’s meticulous research included transcribing the journals’ 3,000-plus pages, reading decades’ worth of the Commercial Telegraph, and researching other public and private documents in Newry over several years. She weaved together the disparate sources to form the story’s chronological backbone, and incorporated everyday stories of townspeople, visitors, one-time events and ongoing stories that give context and real-life flavor to the book’s larger themes.

What emerges from DUELING DRAGONS, Robie says, is a nuanced perspective on incidents generally familiar to those with a general knowledge of Irish history. “What captivates people most is how these stories shed light on what likely happened in their own ancestors’ lives,” she says. “History books–textbooks especially–are often written from a 30,000-foot view. The storylines are there, but the details aren’t always. It’s the small insights into people’s lives, the everyday feelings, struggles and triumphs that connect to history.”


“My two books exist only because of a wild set of unlikely events,” says Robie, who for decades heard her Harshaw relatives speak about a series of journals kept by a relative named James—a farmer during the Irish Famine.

In 1992, after a few years dabbling in genealogy to satisfy a curiosity about where her relatives lived in Ireland, Robie did a mass mailing to distant cousins throughout the U.S. She inquired if anyone knew of the diaries’ whereabouts. Many letters came back undeliverable. Of the relatives she reached, none had knowledge about the diaries.

But a relative Robie hadn’t known not only knew of the diaries, she had the diaries themselves. Robie’s letter had led one distant cousin in Pennsylvania to another in Iowa who had taken possession of the them with the hope a direct-lineage family member would one day turn up. “I was stunned that this family story, this Irish national treasure, was nearly lost forever,” Robie says. “My interest in Irish history catapulted from casual to intense.”

On a visit to Ireland after the diaries were found, Robie met more cousins, including one named Hugh
Harshaw who mentioned he sought in vain for James’s journals. “One of the great joys of my life was to tell him, ‘I know where they are’ and to see the look on his face,” Robie says.

When the diaries arrived from Iowa, Robie preserved them on microfilm with help from the New England Historic Genealogical Society in Boston. She transcribed the journals by hand and became a local hero in Belfast when she returned them nearly 100 years after they landed in the U.S.

DUELING DRAGONS is available October 15, 2018 on Robie’s first book, DWELLING PLACE OF DRAGONS (2006) is available on here .


Marjorie Harshaw was born in Minneapolis to a family with Irish roots. She attended Tufts University in Massachusetts, where she received a degree in English. After graduation she married Eugene Robie and spent time in Virginia and West Virginia before moving to the historic town of Ipswich, Mass., where the couple raised children and Robie was a school teacher. Robie’s interest in history led to years of service on the Ipswich Historical Commission, and a personal journey of genealogy that caught fire with the discovery of her ancestor’s diaries.

The diaries formed the structure of two fascinating historical volumes, Dwelling Place of Dragons (2008) and the new Dueling Dragons (2018). Robie has discussed Irish history on national television in the U.S. and Ireland. She wrote the entry for James Harshaw in The Dictionary of Irish Biography, and had a weekly column on Irish history for the Newry Democrat in Northern Ireland.  She is a sought-after speaker on Irish history, ancestral research, and the eternal clash of politics and religion.


Disclosure:  I received this book notice from a correspondent and thought that it might be of interest to Genea-Musings readers.  It sounds very interesting.

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