Tomorrow’s your chance to look for Mad Aunt Celia and also to see Citizen Lane

The distinguished author and vice-president of the Royal Society of Literature, Anne Chisholm OBE, will be giving a talk in Holywood Library at 10.30am tomorrow Saturday, February 16 with the intriguing title ‘Looking for Mad Aunt Celia’.

The talk is the centrepiece of this year’s annual Henry Harrison Commemoration programme in Holywood and East Belfast.

Cecilia Harrison, self portrait

Cecilia Harrison, self portrait

(Register in advance to attend as space is limited, by ringing Holywood Library on 02890 424232.)

For many years the Parnell Society from Dublin has commemorated the life of Henry Harrison, a member of the family which owned much of the town of Holywood until 1917.

Henry was a staunch Irish nationalist who, while still in his 20s, was elected to represent mid-Tipperary in the early 1890s and acted as Charles Stewart Parnell’s private secretary.

Years after Parnell’s death, and in the context of all the criticism of his private life, Henry wrote a biography entitled ‘Parnell Vindicated’, which did much to restore his reputation.

Canon Sims leads a commemoration at Henry Harrison's graveside in the Old Priory in Holywood

Canon Sims leads a commemoration at Henry Harrison’s graveside in the Old Priory in Holywood

Sarah Cecelia ‘Celia’ Harrison was Henry’s older sister, and an important portrait painter and Irish political figure in her own right.

The History Group of the Holywood District U3A (University of the Third Age) is hosting the talk tomorrow and members of the organisation are delighted to play a part in bringing Celia’s achievements to a wider audience.

Both Celia and Henry featured in the U3A’s recent book, Holywood People, which was mentioned on Roamer’s page when it was published not so long ago.

There, Anne Chisholm recalls how she became aware of her family’s legacy a few years ago: “I found myself on a cold wet day in the ruined priory at Holywood, Co Down, placing a bunch of spring flowers on the grave of my paternal great-uncle, Henry Harrison, journalist and campaigner, who when he died in 1954 was described as Parnell’s last lieutenant. A few weeks later I was in the archives in Dublin, looking through the records for traces of his sister, my great-aunt S C Harrison, always known as Celia, a respected portrait painter, the first woman elected, in 1912, to Dublin City Council.

Henry Harrison

Henry Harrison

“She is buried in Mount Jerome cemetery; the inscription reads simply ‘Artist and Friend of the Poor’.”

Anne Chisholm’s initial research burgeoned into a major and extremely moving project.

“During the last few years I have been in pursuit of these two remarkable Anglo-Irish siblings, about whom I knew little apart from unreliable family stories. Celia – referred to by my father, with a kind of exasperated pride, as Mad Aunt Celia – was more of a presence than Henry, as several fine family portraits by her hung on the walls of my childhood home.”

As with another well-known chapter of Irish history, Anne discovered that a famous ship impacted greatly on her family history.

“I gathered that there had been some tragedy in her life, that a man she loved had been drowned during the First World War and that she had never recovered. Later I learned that the ship was the Lusitania, sunk by the Germans in 1915, that the man in question was the renowned art dealer Sir Hugh Lane, and that Mad Aunt Celia had made a great nuisance of herself by disputing his will and the proper destination of his magnificent art collection, now on display at the Hugh Lane Gallery.

“I knew nothing of her impressive record as a Councillor, always fighting for the poor and needy, her support for Home Rule and women’s suffrage and her founding of the Dublin allotment movement.”

Tomorrow afternoon the Holywood U3A has also arranged a public showing of the favourably-reviewed 2018 film ‘Citizen Lane’ which tells of Sir Hugh Lane’s experience as a young man in Dublin and his circle of artistic friends.

It’s being screened in the Strand Arts Centre on the Holywood Road in East Belfast and tickets are available online at or at the cinema door.

The History Group of the Holywood District U3A is working with North Down Museum on a project to produce a booklet about the Harrisons and their long association with Holywood.

This began in the 1850s when they first came to Mertoun Hall and then Holywood House.

Henry Harrison’s cousin John was a staunch Unionist and, needless to say, the two didn’t see eye to eye!

The senior branch of the Harrison family effectively owned much of the lands in Holywood until 1917 when they sold it off by public auction.

The details of the individual plots, shown on historic maps, together with the identity of the then tenants living in each property in the town, are recorded in the historic auction catalogue. (A copy has been digitised through the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland and is kept on DVDs held in the Library Archive.)

Robin Masefield, the convenor of the History Group, is hopeful that the Ards and North Down Borough Council will formally endorse a proposal to have the family commemorated in the naming of a new laneway as ‘Harrisons Lane’.

“We think this would be very fitting recognition of their historic role,” Robin explained, adding: “It is interesting to note that – within one generation of one family – so wide a spectrum of political opinion was represented.”

The family also made their mark on Holywood by donating one of the previous maypoles, erected in 1902 with a ceremony attended by Earl Roberts of Kandahar.

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