Turtle Bunbury

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Hacketstown, Co. Carlow, 1775. It is not clear what, if anything, William Presley had done wrong. Perhaps he was simply attacked because he was a Protestant loyalist. Perhaps it was a private vendetta. Or maybe he had been actively involved in trying to suppress the Whiteboys and other anarchic gangs that were on the rampage around the foothills of the Wicklow Mountains during those dark 18th century days.

In any event, on 17 August 1775 the man very nearly lost his life when he was attacked with sticks and swords by a gang that included five yeomen from the Carlow-Wicklow area. [i]

That he survived is regarded as a considerable blessing to the future of Planet Earth because, as the organizers of this weekend Elvis Presley Festival in Hacketstown would be the first to point out, his death might have meant there would have been no Elvis for Elvis was his great-great-great-grandson.

Elvis Presley’s lesser-known Irish roots have been the talk of Ireland’s sunny southeast ever since the eminent Carlow historian Michael Purcell unearthed a document connecting the King’s ancestry to Hacketstown in 2008.

The document published on the valuable Carlow Rootsweb website referred to the assault on William Presley in 1775 and to charges brought against the five yeomen three days after the attack.[i] Printed on faded parchment, it named the yeomen as William Wilson, Thomas Mathers, Andrew, Samuel and Thomas Morris and described how they and many other unnamed ‘evil disposed Persons and Disturbers of the Peace’ had ‘riotously, routously and unlawfully assemble[d]’ at Hacketstown. [i]

Armed with sticks and swords they had then broken into the home of Presley, recorded as ‘a true and faithful subject of our Lord the King’, where they ‘did beat wound and ill treat [him] so that his life was greatly despaired of.’ [i]

Mr. Purcell has been researching the Presley’s ancestry since at least 1987. The Irish branch is believed to descend from Andrew Presley, possibly an adventurer of Scottish origin, who settled in Ireland in the wake of Cromwell’s conquest in the 1640s. In 1654 Andrew purchased land at the foot of Eagle Hill in Hacketstown from John Richmond, a cavalry officer in Cromwell’s New Model Army. [ii] Subsequent research indicates that members of the family were being baptised in the nearby parish of Aghowle since at least 1702. [iii]

The attack on William Presley came during a particularly violent era in the Carlow countryside. This was in part inspired by the outbreak of war between Britain and the American colonies in April 1775. However, there was also widespread discontent across the Irish countryside, most memorably encapsulated by the re-emergence of the Whiteboys, an illicit and violent organization which championed resistance to the tithes, the hated compulsory payments to the clergy, as well as opposing evictions and rack-renting.

During the summer of 1775, the magistrates of County Carlow were particularly forceful in their determination to stamp out Whiteboyism. In May these Protestant vigilantes had captured two Whiteboys called Thomas Dowling and Martin Kavanagh who were subsequently whipped publicly in Fenagh, Myshall and Ballon, with the High Sheriff, the sub-sheriffs and most of the county’s gentry watching on.[iv]

The violence culminated in the passage of the Tumultuous Risings Act 1775, otherwise known as the Whiteboy Act. [v] It appears to have had the desired effect. In October 1775, when two magistrates embarked on a ‘vigilant search’ for ‘those deluded people called White Boys’, Finn’s Leinster Journal reported that ‘not one of these wretches were to be found.’ [vi]

It is pure conjecture that the men who beat up William Presley were in any way connected to the Whiteboys. As yeomen they were ostensibly loyal to the Crown so why pick upon a fellow loyalist? As is so often the case, the complexities of what really happened appear to have simply been lost in the ensuing 240 years.

In any event, William Presley clearly felt his near-death experience was too much and shipping records suggest that he and his brother Andrew left Ireland for New Orleans soon after the attack.

A number of Presleys remained in Ireland including John Presley, a Protestant yeomen who served with the Hacketstown infantry during the 1798 Rising, during which the hillside Carlow village was the setting for not one but two clashes with the United Irishmen. [vii] There was also a William Presley renting land at Askanagap in the parish of Moyne at the time of Griffith’s Valuations in 1852-1853.

It should be added that Hacketstown is by no means the only place to get all shook up about being the ancestral home of the Presley family. Other claimants include the Scottish hamlet of Lonmay in Aberdeenshire(where blacksmith Andrew Presley was born circa 1715), the German Palatine (from where Johann Valentin Bressler, aka Preslar, emigrated from the Palatine to New York via London in 1710) and the Preseli Hills in West Wales. [viii]

As Sean J Murphy at the Centre for Irish Genealogical and Historical Studies puts it: ‘Excitable and fanciful genealogical tales will no doubt continue to be added to the growing store of myths surrounding the deceased entertainer - that is, if he really is deceased.’

In deference to Hacketstown’s excellent festive ambitions, let us assume that the William Presley who emigrated to America in circa 1775 was the father of Dunnan Presley who was born in Polk County, North Carolina, in 1780.

Dunnan, whose father was another Andrew Presley, later moved to Monroe County, Tennessee, where his son, another Dunnan (or Dunning) Presley, was born in 1827.

Dunnan junior served in both the American-Mexican War of 1846-1848 and the US Civil War, although he deserted the Confederate Army in 1864 in order to attend to his family. His daughter Rosella never married but kept the name Presley and the fifth of her nine children was Jesse McDowell Presley.

Jesse was the definitive drifter but by his marriage to Minnie Mae Hood, he was father to Vernon Presley, father of the King, who was born in 1916. It’s rather amazing that Elvis’s father could quite feasibly still be alive today.

In 1933 Vernon married Gladys Love Smith whose ancestors were Scots-Irish emigrants. Elvis himself was born in 1935 and is thought to have been named for St Ailbe of Emly, aka St. Elvis, the 6th century Irish saint credited with founding the monastery and diocese of Emly in Co. Tipperary.

One of Elvis’s final acts before his death on 16 August 1977 was to send an autographed copy of his first ever record to an Irish Elvis Convention held in Bray, Co. Wicklow, three weeks earlier to fund a kidney transplant for a young Dublin fan called Sid Waldron.[ix]

Whatever the truth about Elvis’s Irish ancestry, Hackettstown will certainly be a-buzzing this weekend with impersonators, debate, music a-plenty and plenty of chat about whether the songs should have been called ‘Green Suede Shoes’ and ‘That’s Alright Mammy’.

The festival runs 11-13 Sept 2015; full details at www.elvisrootshacketstown.com

With thanks to Maria O’Brien, the Rev. Andrew Orr, Paul Canna, Harry Kenny, Michael Purcell and the Carlow Rootsweb.


‘Elvis Presley Roots’ by Emma-Jane King Murphy.

‘Was Elvis Irish, Welsh, Scottish, German or What?’ by Sean J Murphy via http://homepage.eircom.net/~seanjmurphy/dir/elvis.htm

‘William Presley’ by Michael Purcell and Brendan Lawrence via http://www.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~irlcar2/William_Presley.htm


[i] The transcription of the document recording the attack on William Presley on 17 August 1775 was made by Michael Purcell and can be found at http://www.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~irlcar2/William_Presley.htm

[ii] Richmond is described as part of Colonel Henry Prittie’s troop.

[iii] Aghold (or Aghowle), the site of Saint Finian's monastery, situated midway between Tullow and Shillelagh. The first of these was a Joseph Presley, baptized on 2 December 1702

[iv] The Whiteboys of Kildare stand accused of having buried a Catholic priest ‘naked in the ground up to the neck’, after having first surrounded him with brambles and thorns and ‘threatened the like usage to every other priest’ who had tried ‘to dissuade the Whiteboys from their wicked practices.’ [The Dublin Review, Volume 11, August 1841, p. 202.]

Such violence was unacceptable and it was not long before the gentry were organizing major vigilante hunts through areas where Whiteboys prevailed. In May 1775, Finn’s Leinster Journal informed its readers that William Steuart, William Paul Butler, Thomas Gurley and William Bunbury ‘and several other Gentlemen of said town and county’ had captured ‘one Dowling, a notorious White Boy’, and escorted him to the county jail. [Finn’s Leinster Journal, Saturday May 20th 1775, page 3.]

Four months later, Thomas Dowling and another White Boy called Martin Kavanagh were subsequently The two White Boys were also whipped in Myshall and Ballon and sentenced to six months imprisonment. Among those watching was Sir Edward Newenham, regarded as 'Ireland's most vocal supporter of the insurgent Americans at the time'.

At the same Carlow Assizes in which they received these sentences in September 1775, a man known as Slasher Bryan was also given six months for assaulting W. P. Butler. [Freemans Journal, Saturday, September 02, 1775; p. 3; Hibernian Magazine, September 4th, 1775.]

[v] For details, see ‘An Act to prevent and punish tumultuous risings of persons within this kingdom, and for other purposes therein mentioned’ of 1775 in Irish Statute Book from the Attorney General’s office at http://www.irishstatutebook.ie/eli/1775/act/21/enacted/en/print.html

[vi] Finns Leinster Journal reported that two magistrates called John Rochfort and William Paul Butler had spent 3 days and 2 nights on ‘vigilant search … of those deluded people called White Boys … [but] not one of these wretches were to be found.’ Finns Leinster Journal, October 25, 1775; p. 1.

[vii] The History and Antiquities of the County of Carlow (1833), by John Ryan, p. 381, via https://books.google.ie/books?id=ogQ-AAAAcAAJ&pg=PA381&lpg=PA381&dq=ryan+history+carlow+presley&source=bl&ots=MLbBmRF19-&sig=QcDWXR9R5FaEn_yW38Og7dwW8Uc&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0CDgQ6AEwA2oVChMI1tOv06nlxwIVi1caCh0csAG-#v=onepage&q=ryan%20history%20carlow%20presley&f=false

[ix] Sunday Independent, 24 July 1977, p. 1.