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Nobel Prize Winner John Steinbeck, is often hailed as one of the greatest writers of the 20th century, a talent he often attributed to his Irish lineage! The recount of his visit to Ireland still resonates with many visitors even today. It's a fascinating read that brings home the importance of that 'one' trip back to Ireland. 

John Steinbeck: I Go Back to Ireland

John Steinbeck, Nobel prize-winning author visited County Derry, Northern Ireland, in August 1952, in search of his roots. He wrote from Derry city, on 17 August 1952, to his friend and editor Pat Covici:

“We just got here. We’re on a hunt for the seat of the Hamiltons. The place they are supposed to have lived is not on any map no matter how large scaled but we have found a taxi driver who thinks he knows where it is and tomorrow we start out to try to find it. It should be a very interesting experience. I can’t imagine any of them are still alive since the last I heard of them was fifteen years ago and there were then two old, old ladies and an old, old gentleman and they had none of them been married. However, whatever happens it will be a story to tell.”  

John Steinbeck's Irish Roots

John Steinbeck's uncle, Joseph Hamilton of Chicago, Illinois had made the trip back to Ireland in the early 1920s. He "reported that the family was just about played out; there remained two sisters and a brother - Katherine, Elizabeth and Thomas - children or my grandfather's brother, all old and all unmarried."

John Steinbeck knew exactly where his roots lay: "We were looking for a place called Mulkeraugh. You can spell it half a dozen ways and it isn't on any map. I knew from half-memory that it was near to Ballykelly, which is near to Limavady, and I knew that from Mulkeraugh you could look across the lough to the hills of Donegal".

Full details of John Steinbeck's eventful trip to Derry city and Ballykelly were recorded in his feature, “I Go Back To Ireland", which was published in Collier’s magazine of 31 January 1953. You can access that here.

I Go Back to Ireland - John Steinbeck's Article in Collier's Magazine

John Steinbeck wrote in the opening paragraphs: “Every Irishman – and that means anyone with one drop of Irish blood – sooner or later makes a pilgrimage to the home of his ancestors....I have just made such a pilgrimage. I am half Irish, the rest of my blood being watered down with German and Massachusetts English. But Irish blood doesn’t water down very well; the strain must be very strong.”

I go back to Ireland

This article also includes photographs of his visit to the Hamilton ancestral home and burial place taken by his wife, Elaine, including the lead photograph in which Steinbeck can be seen crouching beside two Hamilton headstones in the graveyard of Tamlaghtfinlagan parish church, in the village of Ballykelly, with the elegant Gothic church looming above him.

A copy of this photograph hangs in the entrance porch to Tamlaghtfinlagan Parish Church, Ballykelly, with caption:

“This photograph which was taken in the summer of 1952 in the graveyard of Tamlaghtfinlagan Parish Church shows the late Bob Campbell, caretaker of the Presbyterian Church, and the world famous author Mr John Steinbeck. Mr Steinbeck made this journey in 1952 to visit the burial site of his relatives, the Hamilton family.”

Steinbeck's classic novel, East of Eden, was published (September 1952) in the same year that he visited Derry. John Steinbeck began writing this novel as a true historical account of his family's westward migration from New England to California. Although the manuscript quickly became a work of fiction one of the major characters was not disguised, namely Samuel Hamilton, Steinbeck's maternal grandfather.

The Hamiltons - Steinbeck's Ancestors in County Derry

Samuel Hamilton was born at Ballykelly, County Derry on 7 October 1830, of parents John Hamilton and Esther Clarke, and baptised in Ballykelly Presbyterian Church. His baptism entry in the registers of Ballykelly Presbyterian Church reads:

Year 1830
John Hamilton Ballykelly A Son Born 7th October Baptised Samuel

The Hamiltons farmed lands in the townlands of Ballykelly and Mulkeeragh. Samuel emigrated at the age of 17, at the height of the Great Famine, to New York where he married a young Irish girl, Elizabeth Fagan in the summer of 1849. They came to California early, crossing the "Isthmus of Panama" and settled near San Jose where Sam's eldest sister lived. In 1872 they moved to Salinas and from there to a large farm near King City, some 60 miles south of Salinas. They established a ranch on marginal lands in the foothills of the Salinas Valley.



The process by which Samuel Hamilton acquired his ranch in the Salinas Valley was described in East of Eden (Chapter 2):

"When Samuel and Liza came to the Salinas Valley all the level land was taken, the rich bottoms, the little fertile creases in the hills, the forests, but there was still marginal land to be homesteaded, and in the barren hills, to the east of what is now King City, Samuel Hamilton homesteaded.

He followed the usual practice. He took a quarter-section for himself and a quarter-section for his wife, and since she was pregnant he took a quarter-section for the child. Over the years nine children were born, four boys and five girls, and with each birth another quarter-section was added to the ranch, and that makes eleven quarter-sections, or seventeen hundred and sixty acres.

If the land had been any good the Hamiltons would have been rich people…From their barren hills the Hamiltons could look down to the west and see the richness of the bottom land and the greenness around the Salinas River.”

Samuel Hamilton saw himself as a frontiersman and pioneer. Steinbeck firmly believed that “movement and westering" built America. The Hamilton farm became a vital part of Steinbeck's personal life story, and it would appear many times in his fiction, as in the Tiflin ranch in The Red Pony. Steinbeck spent a lot of time there as a child. It was on the Hamilton farm that he learned so many of the practical things that stuck with him throughout his life. "Like his Grandfather Hamilton, he was a practical man who liked to work with his hands: to fix things, carve wood, build a boat, hang a door." (from John Steinbeck: A Biography by Jay Parini, published 1994.)

Samuel Hamilton's youngest daughter Olive qualified as a teacher at the age of seventeen. Olive married John Ernst Steinbeck, of King City, in San Francisco on December 22, 1890. John Steinbeck, their son, was born at Salinas on February 27, 1902.

John Steinbeck soon discovered, during his visit in August 1952, that the Hamilton connection with Mulkeeragh had ended two years previously with the death of Mary Elizabeth (Minnie) Hamilton, aged 84, on February 11, 1950. Mary Elizabeth was the daughter of William John Hamilton and Jane Ritchie of Mulkeeragh; William John Hamilton being the brother of Samuel Hamilton. 

In Collier’s he wrote, “An old man stood in front of one of the churches. “Mulkeraugh?” he said. “Second turning to the left - a quarter of a mile.”
Do you know any Hamiltons there?” I asked.

“They’re all dead,” he said “Miss Elizabeth died two years ago. You’ll find Mr Richey, her cousin, on the hill, though.”

Hamilton Burial Plot

The inscription reads: In Memory
William Scott
who died on the 17th April 1875
aged 89 years
Also his nephew
William J Hamilton
died 28th April 1879 aged 55 years

And his son
Alexander S Hamilton
died 15th November 1861 aged 3 weeks

Also his son
William S Hamilton
died 5th September 1876 aged 9

The Salinas Valley - A New Life

“Everyone knew the three children of my grandfather’s brother. Miss Katherine, Miss Elizabeth and Mr Tom. It was a good farm they had - about 200 acres - and a good house of two stories. These children never married, the two sisters and the brother.”

Samuel Hamilton didn't look back towards his roots in Ireland. As it says in Chapter 5 of East of Eden: "It was a whole clot of Hamiltons growing up on the ranch to the east of King City. And they were American children and young men and women. Samuel never went back to Ireland and gradually he forgot it entirely. He was a busy man. He had no time for nostalgia. The Salinas Valley was the world."

John Steinbeck was a romantic. As he says in Collier's, "I guess the people of my family thought of Ireland as a green paradise, mother of heroes, where golden people sprang full-flowered from the sod...Only kings and heroes came from this Holy Island, and at the very top of the glittering pyramid was our family, the Hamiltons."

A Hamilton presence in Mulkeeragh is long standing. In Kate Hamilton’s letter of August 1924 to her cousin, Joseph Hamilton of Chicago, she states that in 1751, “your great great Grandmother and mine came as a bride to Mulkeeragh bringing dowry of linen in a trunk, which bears her name and the date to this very day. In it is kept our most precious relics and documents”.

Julia E Mullin in her history of Ballykelly Presbyterian Church, which is recorded in The Presbytery of Limavady (North-West Books, Limavady, 1989), states: “During siege times [i.e. Siege of Derry of 1689] pewter plates belonging to the congregation were buried in the garden of the Hamiltons of Mulkeeragh.”

In the Conolly Estate papers (reference T2825/C/11/1) in the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland, Belfast there is a document, dated 24 August 1718, with the title “A List of Persons in the Manor of Limavady which is Gone and Going to New England and how Disposed of their land”. This source states that John Hamilton of Mulkerogh had gone to New England by August 1718, leaving his wife as tenant on the farm.

Today, the Hamilton farm at Mulkeeragh is approached by the lane which currently leads to Mulkeeragh Wood from Tully Road. As you walk up this lane, from Tully Road, towards Mulkeeragh Wood, the Hamilton farm was on your left hand side.

As John Steinbeck eloquently concludes in Collier’s,

"And that's the seat of my culture and the origin of my being and the soil of my background, the one full-blown evidence of a thousand years of family."

Finally, a story that would have amused John Steinbeck, an avid collector of tales. In the townland of Mulkeeragh the ruins of an ancient church known as Tamlaght Old Church stand. The Ordnance Survey Memoir of Tamlaght Finlagan Parish, compiled in 1835, records the following story:

Local tradition says that some time about the year 1755, John Morrison, then a poor landholder in Mulkeeragh, discovered in the north east corner of the ancient church of Tamlaght Finlagan, and in the spot where now is growing a board-tree bush in the interior of the church, an earthen crock full of ancient coin. The enclosure round the crock was composed of stone work and forming a circular cavity. This enclosure remained in its original form for many years after the crock had been taken therefrom. The aforesaid Morrison was afterwards known to change some of the ancient coins in Coleraine and Derry, and in short appeared very wealthy. He has since emigrated to America with some portion of his family. Informants William Thompson and others. 23rd April 1835.

Graveyard of Tamlagh Finlagan Parish Church

Tamlaghtfinlagan Parish Church was built in 1795 by the Earl Bishop Frederick Hervey (4th Earl of Bristol) for his cousin Rev Henry Hervey Bruce.

Thanks to Brian Mitchell Genealogy, Derry City & Strabane District Council for providing this article.

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