The mysterious Mr. Gracey

The Battle of Carabobo, Martín Tovar y Tovar

In my last blog post, I wrote about a connection between my husband’s 2nd great grandmother Lillian Ann Gracey (c.1836-1920) and the Irish scholar and politician Eoin MacNeill. Now I’ll turn to another mystery, regarding Lillian’s father Robert Gracey.

Lillian married twice: first to Arthur Boyle in 1855, then to Hugh Macauley in 1867. In her 1867 marriage record from St Peter’s Roman Catholic cathedral in Belfast, her father was listed as Robert Gracey from Downpatrick, County Down. Irish census records for Lillian show her birthplace was consistently reported as Glenarm, County Antrim, and she appears in the 1851 census as “a friend” with the Charles McAuley family in Glenarm. For many years, I had no further information on Robert Gracey, until a search of old Irish newspapers led to a short death notice printed in the Belfast News Letter of February 19, 1839:

“On the 1st inst. at his residence in Glenarm, Robert Gracey, Esq. formerly of Lecale, in the county Down. He held a commission for some time in the Patriot army of the Liberator of South America. He was an officer in his own County Militia the South Downshire. His kindness of heart and benevolent disposition procured many friends, who have to lament their loss in his premature death.

This rang a few bells that pointed to this being my Robert Gracey. It places him in Glenarm, just three years after the approximate birth year for Lillian Ann in the same place. The town of Downpatrick lies within the old barony of Lecale in County Down, so that would fit with Robert’s home of Downpatrick. I’ve never seen the surname Gracey in any of the old Catholic parish records and Griffith’s Valuations from Glenarm, but Robert’s being stationed temporarily there as a soldier could account for that. Furthermore, in Lillian’s 1867 marriage record, her father’s profession was filled in with just a hyphen, which could imply that he was no longer alive at that time.

I also stumbled across an index listing for a document in the National Archives of Ireland in Dublin. It was for a letter written in late 1833 from a Robert Gracey, Glenarm, Ensign of the South Down Militia, to an official in Dublin Castle regarding a missed paycheck.

Searching for a Gracey from Lecale, I found several references to the family of an Alexander Gracey (born 1746) of Ballyhossett, a townland in Downpatrick. This was a Protestant family. Could Robert have been a member of this family who joined the South Down Militia and was sent to Glenarm in County Antrim?

Another fascinating question came from the mention of him fighting in the “patriot army of the liberator in South America”. This was a reference to Simon Bolivar, the Venezuelan revolutionary who led the early nineteenth century wars of independence against Spain in countries like Venezuela, Columbia, Uruguay, and Ecuador. Needing a constant supply of soldiers, Bolivar hired agents to recruit thousands of men from Ireland to fight as mercenaries in South America, with the lure of good pay and steady promotions. Some of the new recruits were seasoned soldiers, but others were inexperienced. What the men found when they arrived was not what had been promised – many died from tropical diseases, food and arms were in short supply, they often weren’t paid, and there were several mutinies among the troops. Casualties were high; in the 1821 Battle of Carabobo in the Andes Mountains, an Irish legion lost 150 out of 350 men. The steady supply of new recruits from Ireland lasted from about 1817 until 1829.

It’s highly likely that Robert Gracey found Glenarm a much more attractive posting than South America. Did he meet a young Irish woman there, probably Catholic? Was a Protestant father the reason why Lillian Ann’s baptism isn’t found in the Catholic parish records from Glenarm? Could his early death (and possibly the death of her mother) have been the reason why Lillian was living with the McAuley family in 1851, and why there are almost no other references to her parentage in the records I’ve found? If he was the correct Robert Gracey, I’ll have to hope that based on the report of his kind heart and benevolent disposition, he did right by Lillian and her mother.

On this trail, I’ve written to the Irish National Archives for a copy of Ensign Gracey’s letter of 1833. I’m also trying to get access to family tree information on the Graceys of Ballyhossett in the Linenhall Library in Belfast. The current pandemic is making all this difficult, but the story of Robert Gracey has waited for almost 200 years – it can wait a little longer.


  1. National Archives of Ireland online catalogue, Letter from Robert Gracey, Ensign, South Down Militia, Glenarm [County Antrim], asking to investigate with the Collector of Customs who have omitted to pay his allowance, 30 Sep 1883 – 16 Nov 1833
  2. Lecale & Downe Historical Society
  3. National Maritime Museum of Ireland, Simon Bolivar
  4. Wherever the Green is Worn: The Story of the Irish Diaspora, Tim Pat Coogan 2002
  5. The Irish Times, The Irish who fought for Latin America’s freedom, Tim Fanning 2016
  6. Simon Bolivar’s Quest for Glory, Robert W. Slatta, Jane Lucas de Grummond 2003

One Comment

  1. […] to visit the Linen Hall Library for some research on my husband’s ancestor, the mysterious Mr. Robert Gracey. I knew from marriage records that his daughter, Lilian Ann Gracey (my husband’s 2nd great […]

    August 1, 2023

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