A Rebel with a Cause(way)

Family legends go with family history like oreos go with milk. While often not provable, there can be nuggets of truth to many of our families’ legends.

James Bones was born about 1766 near Randalstown, County Antrim, Ireland, the first child of John and Elizabeth (Scott) Adams. James had four brothers and one sister. As an adult, James worked in the ever-present Irish linen industry in the same area where he was born. He married Mary Adams about 1790. They had nine children.

James and his brother, Samuel, were members of The Society of United Irishmen, a group that sought a united and free Ireland in the last decade of the 18th century. At first the group tried to make changes through political means, but they were soon outlawed, which led to the organization going underground.

By 1798, events led to a coordinated armed rebellion in several locations across Ireland. Along with 5,000 other United Irishmen, James and Samuel participated in the capture of Ballymena, County Antrim. The rebellion was short lived and the participants fled, seeking refuge wherever they could find it.

At this point James’ story becomes legend. There are several versions of how James escaped being shot, while his brother, Samuel, received lashes. One says that his beautiful wife enticed the guards to release him, another says a man switched places with him, and another says that he hid in the chimney of the bread oven at Chequer Hall, the home of his father-in-law, John Adams.

After his escape, he made his way to the Antrim coast, stopped to take a bit of the Giant’s Causeway with him so he could remember his beloved Ireland, and fled to Jamaica, where he remained for a couple years.

I love all the versions of James’ escape, especially the detail of him taking a piece of the causeway with him. There’s something romantic about taking a piece of a place or person with you. I do not know if James actually took a piece of the causeway with him — it seems that it would have been hugely inconvenient to carry a heavy stone while fleeing for one’s life — but I believe the story reveals more about James than just his political affiliation and his willingness to risk everything for the cause he believed in.

James lived about 20 miles from the Giant’s Causeway. Business or leisure may have taken him that way. Perhaps he loved the causeway with its geometric-shaped rocks jutting out into the sea below the steep cliffs of the rugged Irish coastline; perhaps he loved climbing the rocks and looking out at the vastness of the blue-green sea; or perhaps he was enchanted by the legend of Finn MacCool. While all these are possible, I believe the legend does show how deeply James cherished his homeland and how hard it must have been to leave.

This post is part of my Ireland Genealogy Trip series.


  • Brown, Katharine L. “Antrim to Augusta: Adaptation and Identity among Ulster Emigrants in Augusta, Georgia, 1800-1875.” Scotch-Irish Studies 1, no. 2 (2001): 33-55.
  • Brown, Katharine L. “The James Bones Family Circle: A United Irishman’s Southern American Heritage.” Familia: Ulster Genealogical Review 1: 3-10.
  • Carmichael, James Hammond, Jr. “The Bones’s Family History: James Bones and his wife Mary Adams.” unpublished manuscript.

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