Beyond Borders

Bernard VanCuylenburg (2020)

This is the story about a family – a personal story which I wish to share with you. This family consisted of four brothers who lived in County Antrim, Northern Ireland. They were the Eagars and one day, following catastrophic events in the land of their birth, they set their sights on far horizons and left their motherland for a little island still known today as the 'pearl of the Indian ocean'. One of them was my great grandfather, Halley Eagar.

But the genesis of this story actually is the humble potato! To set the scene, potatoes were introduced to Ireland from South America in 1585 and eventually became the staple in every home. But the year 1845 ended the reign of the potato in the emerald isle. Just as the disease 'Coffee Rust' (Hemileia Vastarix) decimated the coffee plantations in Ceylon in 1875, a mould was discovered on some potato plants and spread island wide, ultimately ravaging the potato harvest.

The consequences resulting from the spread of this mould were apocalyptic, and what followed is described to this day as "The Great Famine". It is estimated that three million people died or were forced to emigrate from Ireland. Potatoes being the staple food of a rapidly growing desperately poor population, the blight caused prices to soar. The repressive penal laws ensured that farmers crippled with high rents, could not afford the subsistence potatoes provided, and most tenants fell into arrears with no concessions given by indifferent landlords.

The British government adopted a 'laissez-faire' attitude, resulting in the deaths of between 500,000 and one million people and the emigration of up to two million.

The 'Great Famine' ripped the very soul of Ireland from glen to glen, down the mountainside, and it tore the heart of this wildly beautiful country. Mass emigration continued to reduce the population during the next century and many Irish emigrants found their way abroad, particularly to the United States of America. No Irish eyes were smiling then - there were no angels singing in the lilt of Irish laughter. Instead, to quote a line from the holy Bible," there was weeping and lamentation " in the land...There is no record or any evidence that Halley Eagar and his brothers decided to emigrate as a result of the great famine, but emigrate they did - from the Emerald Isle to a small tropical island in the Indian Ocean - Ceylon, another colony of Great Britain.

They did not leave hearth and home together. E.R. Eagar was the first to sail for those far horizons, followed by my great grandfather Halley Eagar, and his brothers. Arriving in Ceylon they turned their attention first to the coffee industry which at the time of their arrival was in its twilight years, and then to tea. In time, fortune smiled on them and they became very successful in the tea trade. They were:

  1. E.R. Eagar - Coffee planter from 1852 - 1870
  2. H.J. (Halley) Eagar - Coffee and tea planter from 1883 - 1884. He was also the part owner of Strathspey Estate, Upcot. until 1889.
  3. W. Eagar - Coffee and tea planter from 1887 - 1889
  4. Reverend R. Eagar - Partner of Strathspey Estate Dickoya, from 1887 -1889. He never visited Ceylon but there is an account of one of the Eagars having left for the USA and it could well be this Anglican minister. The Registry for Ceylon tea in its list of planters records the following:
    • H.J. Eagar: Manager, Strathspey Group 1883 - 1884. He was also the Assistant Manager on Gowravilla Estate from 1885 till 1886.

To give this article some perspective, some information from the annals of the Ceylon Planter's Association History may be useful - quote "Although the first mention of tea appears in the Planter's Association only in 1865, the plant had actually been introduced to the island much earlier. It is certain that about 1842 Mr. Maurice Worms planted some China tea on Rothschild Estate Pussellawa, and on Condegalle Estate in Ramboda. A Mr. Llewellyn of Calcutta introduced some ingenious Assam tea plants to Penylan Estate in Dolosbage". Of course the name 'James Taylor' is written in letters of gold in the history of Ceylon tea.

E.R. (Ronald) Eagar was the first brother to arrive in Ceylon, and he owned a large coffee estate called "California" estate in Urugala which is in the Medamahanuwara district. He left the island to return to his home in County Antrim Ireland and was away from 1858 - 1864. He died in 1879 and according to his Will, bequeathed the estate to his heirs. Halley Eagar my great grandfather did very well in planting and was the manager of Strathspey Estate, Upcot from 1883 - 1884, and of Gowravilla Group from 1885 - 1886. His story however has a very sad ending. In1889 he fell ill and had to return to England for treatment. Before he left for the UK, he made arrangements for his two sons John Albert Eagar, and John William Eagar to be boarded at St. Marks College in Badulla thus ensuring that their education would continue.

He had one daughter Elizabeth, and since there is hardly any news about this girl from the letters in my possession, I can only presume she stayed behind with her mother. He never saw his family or Ceylon again, because he died from his illness in a nursing home in London. His son John Albert Eagar was my grandfather, my mother's dad. My regret is that there is no mention of my great grandmother in this story, and I wonder why to this day…

There is a record of an O.S. Eagar who was an Army Surgeon in Ceylon from 1871 -1884, but there is no reference to him as being one of the brothers in the letters I possess.


As children, I recall my mum would on occasion talk to us about her grandfather and tell us the story about his visit to Ceylon with his brothers. It sounded interesting at the time, but children being children, we had other adventures in mind, other trails to follow and a world of delight to explore specially when we came home for the holidays. As the years passed and we went our separate ways on life's road, the story of my Irish great grandfather would sometimes come to mind and it remained just that - a beautiful story. Until, about 25 years ago my mum asked me - or merely suggested - it would be nice if further details about her grandfather and his family could be obtained. She surmised that there had to be other families with her maiden name 'Eagar' living in Northern Ireland and wondered if I could go to Ireland and delve into the ancestry records.

Since I was in full employment at the time and obtaining detailed information about ancestry could not be undertaken in a matter of days, I told her that I could not get the extended leave required to go to Ireland and then spend time perusing records from the National Archives and going through the marriage certificates, records of births, baptisms, deaths etc. to obtain complete and accurate details about my great grandfather (mum's grandfather) and his brothers.

She then handed me the letters which I have referred to in this article. I must confess to a tinge of guilt, being unable to accede to her request, although she fully understood my inability to get extended periods of leave from the full time and interesting job that I held as an Administrative Officer in the Victoria Police Department.

Mum passed away in July 2012, and a few weeks later, the tinge of guilt that lay stored away in the deep recess of my memory suddenly burst forth. With each passing day, apart from grieving at her loss, the regret I had being unable to fulfill her wish to find out more about her grandfather and his family when she was living, continued to haunt me until one day it magnified into the thought that this is something I had to do. I emailed the office of National Archives in London, who referred me to the National Archives in Belfast, and gave me an email address as the first point of contact.

Giving them the information, I had from the letters which mum had given me, I emailed them to obtain the necessary information.

Four days later I received an email informing me that there were sixteen families with my granddad's surname living in the County Antrim/Belfast area! This spurred me to take it a step further. I booked a flight and headed for that dear old land across the Irish sea. My first port of call was Dublin's fair city, and from there the next stop was Belfast - and the National Archives Office, armed with the letters which mum had given me. They told me what they already did in their email, adding that some of the families living in County Antrim had to be descendants of my Granddad's family, and his brothers.

However, they stated that if I wanted to definitely ascertain who these descendants were, I would have to spend time in tracing the birth records, baptism, marriage and death certificates of my Granddad's brothers, which would only be the first step in tracing the connection to any of the Eagar families presently living in the area. This would take some time and was not possible in a few days, considering how many families bearing this name were still around as their genealogy would have to be traced too. I returned to my hotel room and found no solace in the dark night to follow as the God of sleep "Morpheus" and I have never been on the best of terms.

With mum's passing her entire family have now left this earth, and I had no emotional strength to pursue this search further.

The road had been long with many a winding turn, so I decided to end the quest, content with the information which I already had. The next day was a journey back in time as I wandered the streets of Belfast and I felt a strong "sense of place" wondering if my granddad had walked these same streets whenever he visited Belfast. More than "a sense of place" I felt a strong connection and presence spanning a period of 129 years, to a man I knew in spirit, who had now become very lifelike as I found myself in the land of his birth.


The journey to and from Ireland has been one of the longest I have undertaken. It was not just a physical journey but one of the spirit emotionally charged, trying to connect with a member of her family who has been dead for the past 129 years. All of a sudden from the mists of a distant past I remembered the songs my mum often sang to us as children. They were the perennial Irish evergreens “Galway Bay", "When its nighttime in Killarney”, “The Old Rustic Bridge by the Mill", "If you are Irish come into the parlour”, “The Mountains of Mourne"..........the list is endless. Maybe in her childhood her dad often hummed these lullabies in their home. I am not aware if the songs I mentioned were know then, but "The Mountains of Mourne" had to be one because I learned it from her.

It was written by the Irish songwriter William Percy French in 1896. I hope in some measure, writing this odyssey will assuage the feelings of guilt I carried over the years. Attempting to set on paper stories of romance, searching for loved ones, lost love, reconciliation and other emotions is not simply a matter of 'writing' in a physical sense. It is often an affair of the heart - and to quote the title of Carson McCuller's classic novel, “The heart is a lonely hunter".

I hope that with the miracle of the Internet, a descendant or descendants of the brothers in Ireland will see this article and get in contact with me. Like a lighthouse in a stormy sea, this is a beacon of hope to ensure that - paraphrasing the title of the hymn written by Ada R. Habershon in 1907, "the circle will be unbroken......."


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