Northern Ireland film crew visits Derry with MacGregor descendants

Union Leader Correspondent
March 04. 2018 11:01PM
Alan Laughlin, a former teacher from Northern Ireland and descendent of James MacGregor, speaks Saturday with New Hampshire relatives of the famous reverend who helped settle the modern communities of Londonderry and Derry. Laughlin and his son were in Derry to film a BBC documentary on tracking their MacGregor roots in the United States. (CHRIS GAROFOLO/UNION LEADER CORRESPONDENT)

DERRY — It was a bit of a family homecoming for Alan and Ainsley Laughlin, stepping foot along the same New Hampshire paths as their ancestor did almost 300 years ago.

The father-son duo from Northern Ireland on Saturday visited Derry to track their lineage to the Rev. James MacGregor, known as the Moses of the Scotch-Irish in America, and meet a few never-before-known family members on this side of the Atlantic. They are participating in a BBC Northern Ireland genealogy-based program from Waddell Media titled “Family Footsteps,” that follows their family roots from their home to New Hampshire.

Alan Laughlin, a retired school teacher, said the producers intentionally release just tidbits of information at a time in the three-part series.

Portions of the program have already been filmed overseas, but Laughlin was able to get a firsthand look at the original European settlers’ journey to the Nutfield settlement that his family helped found nearly three centuries ago.

“It sort of felt a little like (a homecoming). When I was approached, they wouldn’t tell me what it was about to start with, they wouldn’t give me any information at all. It was all a big secret,” Laughlin said. “It was a great honor to be chosen and to come here.”

It was a long journey for MacGregor and the 16 other Scots-Irish Presbyterian families, who fled religious discrimination in Northern Ireland in 1718.

They emigrated to Boston before they were quarantined that winter in Maine’s Casco Bay on an icebound ship.

Later, they secured a grant from the Massachusetts governor on a remote and uninhabited 12-square-mile tract of land, with a plentiful supply of nut and fruit trees. They arrived on Horse Hill (now East Derry Road) on April 11, 1719, the first sermon taking place the following day on the shore of Beaver Lake.

On Saturday afternoon, the Laughlins visited many of those landmarks from their pioneering descendants, including the public library and adjacent park named after heirs of the MacGregor family and the First Parish Church, which is in the midst of a multimillion dollar renovation.

MacGregor and the original settlers are buried nearby.

While visiting the library, the Laughlins were surprised by producers, who with the help of local historians, had organized nearly a dozen other descendants from the original 16 families for a meet-and-greet.

Alan Laughlin was happy to learn some of his distant relatives also were teachers, joking maybe there’s something in the genes.

“You wonder about the lineage of that,” said Ken Brewer, a former director of special education in Derry and descendent of MacGregor, shortly after embracing Laughlin.

Pastor Deborah Roof of the First Parish Church thanked the Laughlins for their “great great great great great great uncle for leaving when he did and bringing over families and others that started our church,” leading the impromptu reunion in a brief prayer.

“This is very overwhelming,” Laughlin said. “There’s something about this area with the churches and library. Everything seems to be here, which is really nice.”

The film crew also filmed walking around the downtown before stopping by the Derry Museum of History to view artifacts related to the MacGregor family, including a cane believed to have been used by the reverend, communion tokens from 1740 and one of the First Parish Church pew doors from around 1769.

All of Nutfield was first chartered as Londonderry in 1722. The town of Windham split and was chartered in 1742, one year after New Hampshire became a separate colony. Derry split and chartered in 1827.

All the former Nutfield communities are planning a large-scale 300th anniversary celebration in 2019, with local historian Paul Lindemann helping to lead the charge.

“It really magnifies the sense of importance of what we’re trying to do here — the fact that people in Northern Ireland consider it more important to their heritage to the point that they’re doing this fairly extensive, expensive trip over here, and that’s just a tiny piece of everything they’re doing,” Lindemann said. “To be supporting and a part of that is very gratifying.”

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