The Dunbars of Gortnacor

Ulster Scots

When it comes to being elusive, the Dunbars have been some of the most challenging ancestors to trace in my family tree.  With a surname like Dunbar, surely they must have come to Ulster from Scotland…but when?  I have never been able to conclusively make the connection.  When my wife and I visited Ireland in 2009 I can remember looking across the water from the Giant’s Causeway and being able to see Scotland.  It’s not hard to imagine people traveling back and forth by boat.  Had my ancestors made that same trip?

Griffith’s Valuation

Like anyone with a love for Irish family history, I began my search using Griffith’s Valuation.  Griffith’s Valuation was a property tax survey in Ireland carried out between 1847-1864 and in the absence of census records, serves as a kind of substitute.  I knew that my Dunbar ancestors had lived in a Townland called Gortnacor in the Parish of Blaris, so I began searching Griffith’s Valuation to see if I could find them.  On the hand drawn map below you can see the Townland of Gortnacor on the far left.


Sure enough, Griffith’s indicated that in 1862 a James Dunbar was living in the Townland of Gortnacor as a tenant of the Marquis of Hertford.  Living adjacent to James was a Thomas Dunbar and also living close by was an Alexander Dunbar Jr. and Alexander Dunbar Sr.  Untangling these relationships has been a bit of a challenge, however I suspect that there is a good chance the four men were related.

It appears that the two Alexanders were likely father and son.  I was fortunate enough to find the will of Alexander Dunbar Sr, which indicates that James Dunbar of Gortnacor was his nephew.  Alexander’s will can be viewed for free on the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland’s (PRONI) website, and makes for fascinating reading.

The identity of Thomas Dunbar has proved much more difficult to pin down, however I believe he was likely the father of James, and the same Thomas Dunbar who married Anne Balmer in the Parish of Aghalee in 1811.  If I’m correct, that would make Thomas and Anne my 4th great-grandparents, and the earliest Dunbar ancestors that I have been able to trace.

James Dunbar

James Dunbar was a weaver, and married a woman named Jane.  I have not been able to learn Jane’s maiden name or the date of their wedding, however it likely took place around 1847, during the height of the famine which was devastating Ireland at that time.  The couple had at least five children, and I have included their names below:

  • Margaret (b. abt. 1848)
  • William John (b. abt. 1849)
  • Jane (b. 1852)
  • Ellen (b. 1854)
  • *Robert (b. 1857) Robert was my Great, Great Grandfather

All five children were baptized in the Parish of Aghalee, with the youngest three being being baptized on 16 August 1857.   This caused me to wonder if the children’s parents might also have been baptized in Aghalee.  Sure enough, I found a baptism record for a James Dunbar who had been baptized there on 1 September 1811 and was listed as the child of Thomas and Anne Dunbar.

Robert Dunbar

Robert was the youngest child of James and Jane Dunbar, and was born on 30 June 1857.  In 1884 Robert married Martha Kidd, who was the daughter of a County Down

Robert Dunbar
Robert Dunbar (Soldier’s Christian Association)

blacksmith named William.  Robert was a linen weaver, and the couple were married in the Lisburn Cathedral Church of Ireland.  Robert and Martha had the following children:

  • William James (b. 1885)
  • Mary Jane (b. 1885)
  • Margaret (b. 1888)
  • *David (b. 1890) David was my Great Grandfather

The birth records of William James and Mary Jane indicate that the two were born on the same day at 17 Crosby Street, Belfast.  William James was born on 9 August 1885 at 08:15 and Mary Jane at 08:30.  Sadly, their mother Martha died of Bright’s Disease in 1895 when the children were still quite young.

In 1897 Robert married a spinster named Ellen Spencer, and by the time of the 1901 census the couple were living in Belfast at 48 Turin Street, with Robert’s son William James.  Robert’s three youngest children were recorded in the census as living with his

3 Spinster Dunbar Sisters
Ellen (L), Margaret (C), Jane (R)

spinster sisters who are also pictured below.  Following the death of Martha, Robert’s sisters probably helped to raise the children as Mary Jane (Minnie) and Margaret are recorded in the 1911 census as still living with their aunts in Gortnacor.

Unfortunately for Robert, things didn’t get any easier following the death of his first wife.  His eldest son, William James died of acute endocarditis in 1904, and his daughter Margaret died in 1911 of Tuberculosis.   Mary Jane (Minnie) also predeceased her father and died of Tuberculosis in 1922.  Her obituary, along with what is believed to be her picture can be seen below.

Robert’s youngest son David (pictured below), was a coach builder by trade and served his country with the Royal Irish Rifles in the Great War.  David married Ellen Cresswell in 1915 and together the family had five children.  I plan on dedicating a future blog post to David, and will save that story for a later date.

Lois 5 front
David Dunbar

Robert’s older brother John Dunbar died in 1904, naming Robert as the trustee of his house and property in Gortnacor and the guardian of his two youngest sons.  John’s will can be viewed for free by searching PRONI’s will calendars and provides some interesting insight into the relationships within that blended family.

While Robert lived and worked in Belfast, the Dunbar family remained closely connected to the Townland of Gortnacor and worshiped at St. Matthew’s Church in Broomhedge, where a number of them are buried.  The family probably didn’t have much in the way of money, as many of their graves seem to be unmarked.

Obit of Jane Dunbar 16 Feb 1924 Belfast News-Letter p.1
Obituary of Jane Dunbar – 16 February 1924


Robert’s later years must have been difficult as his second wife Ellen died in the Belfast Union Workhouse in September of 1929.  Ellen’s death record indicates that her (step) son David was present at the time of her death.  Then, on 6 October 1929 David died suddenly of a heart attack leaving behind a wife and five young children.  David’s death meant that all four of Robert’s children had now predeceased him.  Robert himself would die just weeks later.

St. Matthews's Church Broomhedge
St. Matthew’s Church, Broomhedge

I was able to order Robert Dunbar’s will through PRONI, and feel incredibly fortunate to have that in my possession as most of my ancestors of that time period did not leave one behind.  Robert left a small sum of money for David’s widow, Ellen and her children and he left his house in Gortnacor to his older sister Margaret, who was the only surviving member of his immediate family.

Margaret died in Gortnacor in 1933, and her death certificate indicated her occupation was O.A.P., which I had assumed to mean old age pension.  I had hoped Margaret would have had to ‘prove’ her age to receive the pension as this may have provided additional information about her siblings and parents, however to date I have not been able to find that documentation.  Truly an elusive ancestor!


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