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Brian Mitchell, Northern Irelands' leading genealogist tells the story of the McCook family of Garvagh, County Derry who settled in Queensland, Australia, and New Zealand

McCook family of Garvagh, County Derry

The following family story which I first researched in 1988 and then told in the introduction to my Pocket Guide to Irish Genealogy (first published 1991, Clearfield Company, Baltimore, Maryland) “sums up for me what makes genealogy and the study of one’s family tree such an absorbing and fascinating pastime. The attraction for me lies in building up a picture – piece by piece – of your ancestry utilizing people’s memories and historical records. The detective work in building up a family tree is just as rewarding as the identification of a family line.”

The story begins: “If you understand a man the first time you meet him, there isn’t much in him to understand. And you won’t understand Robert McCook at the start, for he is an Irishman, and a deep one at that. A big lump of a man – 6 feet 2 inches in his socks – broad, thick-chested, going bald on top. You’d pick him out as a farmer if you met him on board ship or in a café in Paris. He looks the part.” This is how the Dairy Bulletin of June 1910 described Robert McCook, then the owner of a big herd of Jersey milking cows in Brisbane, Australia, but formerly a farmer’s son from Garvagh, County Derry. With this information I began my research into the McCook families of Ireland, Australia, and New Zealand, and what a story it turned out to be.

Robert McCook

Two Sunday afternoon chats around the fireside with 87-year-old Robert Graham, who now owns the McCook farm in Garvagh, enabled me to virtually tie up the McCook family tree in Ireland for descendants of McCooks living in New Zealand and Australia. Robert, leaning slightly forward on his walking stick, his eyes bright with recollection, recalled for a total of six hours the McCook family history.

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The McCook Story

The identification of a McCook gravestone [transcribed here] in the graveyard attached to the old First Garvagh Presbyterian Church (now demolished) and a search of the baptism registers of that church and of the 1901 census returns for the Garvagh area allowed me to complete the McCook story. It began around 1860 when Alexander McCook bought a farm at Edenbane, near Garvagh. He married and raised a large family, with the six eldest sons, Archibald, Alexander, Graham, William, James, and John, emigrating to Queensland, Australia. From John were descended the “Fighting McCooks” of New Zealand. John had arrived in Brisbane in January 1866, and from there he turned to farming in Auckland, New Zealand. He had 12 children, including four boys, Peter, John, William, and James, who all served in the New Zealand forces in World War One and were either wounded or gassed, three in France and one at Gallipoli in 1915.

Alexander’s youngest son Robert, the subject of the article in the Dairy Bulletin, at first stayed behind to farm the family farm at Edenbane, but on the death of his mother Jane in 1881 he sold the family farm and in 1883 followed his six elder brothers to Queensland. There were now no male descendants of Alexander McCook in the Garvagh area, but in the 1890s Archibald, the eldest son, returned and bought a farm at the Grove, Moyletra Toy, an adjoining townland to Edenbane. He married and Archibald’s 13 children were baptized at First Garvagh Presbyterian Church. In the early 1900s five of Archibald’s sons, Alexander, James, William, John, and Robert emigrated to the gold mines of Kalgoorlie in Western Australia. The youngest son Hugh remained and farmed at the Grove. Hugh married Robert Graham’s sister, but they had no children. With Hugh’s death, on 24 April 1960, the McCook surname died out in the Garvagh area. The McCook farmstead still stands, a solid two-storey house, which at one time was home to 13 children. It now lies empty and derelict, only Robert Graham’s cattle being in evidence, and adjoining the house is a substantial walled garden with tree stumps inside of a one-time orchard. In its day this was obviously a fertile farm. By contrast the McCooks in New Zealand and Australia are flourishing.”

But the story, as with all family history research, doesn’t end here, it continues to develop and grow. 

I hold in my possession a 12-page, illustrated booklet – The Edenbann Jersey Herd - The Property of Robert McCook “Edenbann,” Ennogera – June 30, 1910.  – which commemorates and celebrates the link between one farm in Queensland, Australa and another in Ireland. Read here.

This Edenbann refers to Robert McCook's farm at Edenbann, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia and his herd of Jersey milking cows, not to the farm he sold at Edenbane, Garvagh prior to his departure for Australia in 1883. The farm in Queensland, Australia was named after the townland in which Robert farmed in Ireland, i.e. Edenbane, Desertoghill parish, County Derry.

On 3 February 1990 (see below) an advertisement was published in Coleraine Chronicle, County Derry of notice of sale of Hugh McCook’s 96-acre farm at The Grove, Garvagh by the representatives of ‘Robert Graham, Deceased’. In 1977, with death of Elizabeth McCook, widow of Hugh McCook and sister of Robert Graham, the ‘McCook’ house and farm at ‘The Grove, Garvagh’ was bequeathed to Robert Graham.

McCook Family

Today, November 2023, Grove House (the former home of Hugh McCook) and grounds, including walled garden, have been returned to their former glory as a family home.

Brian Mitchell
Derry Genealogy

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