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c. 1770 - 1827

3/25/2001 Inventory found no noticeable damage to this stone erected 1999 by the Irish Cultural Society of Charlottesville. The actual Maplewood burial place for John is unknown. This monument was placed based on arrangements made between City Parks Division and the Irish Cultural Society.

WRITTEN BY Lois McKenzie A headstone dedicated to he memory of John Neilson, who died in 1827, was finally placed in Maplewood Cemetery in April hundred seventy-two years after his death. Although Neilson was buried in "public burying ground," (probably Maplewood Cemetery), his grave was unmarked. The gravestone was erected after dedicated research and fundraising efforts by a group of local Irish Americans, directed by Kevin Donleavy.

John Neilson, along with John Dinsmore, was one of Thomas Jefferson's most talented and valuable master builders. Both worked for Jefferson at Monticello and at the University of Virginia and for James Madison at Montpelier. According to K. Edward Lay, Professor emeritus of Architecture at the University of Virginia, "These two accomplished Ulstermen became Jefferson's most prominent master builders at the University and the overseers of his work." The research by Professor Lay actually provided much of the inspiration for the placing of the headstone.

It is Neilson's work at Upper Bremo Plantation in Fluvanna County, however, that has brought him respect as a architect as well. Built for John Hartwell Cocke between 1817 and 1820, Upper Bremo has been called "one of the finest Jeffersonian buildings not built by Jefferson." Papers discovered in the Upper Bremo cornerstone name Neilson as the architect, an honor previously attributed to others, including Jefferson.

John Neilson was born in Ballycarry, County Antrim, Northern Ireland (Ulster) in the early 1770s. Because of insurrectionist activities on behalf of a group called the Society of United Irishmen, John and his brother Samuel were exiled from Ireland by the English. Although Samuel would die en route to the West Indies, John escaped to America. He found his way to Philadelphia, where he was naturalized in September 1804, at which point he went to work at Monticello. From then until his death in 1827 John Neilson was a Virginian.

Although many people may not be familiar with John Neilson's name, they know his work: Monticello; Upper Bremo; and Pavilions IX and X, seven dormitories, the rotunda and the anatomical hall at the University of Virginia. He also left a legacy of skilled architectural drawings and paintings.

Neilson's gravestone was placed in an area of Maplewood Cemetery originally purchased by Allan Magruder in 1851. Fittingly, it is surrounded by graves of other Irish Americans who lived in Charlottesville: Leitch, Flannagan, Kelly, O'Connor, Hayes, McManus and others.

From The United Irishmen, Their Lives and Times by Richard R. Madden (New York, Vol II)


William Neilson was put to death after the battle of Antrim.

There was a poor widow by the name of Neilson, living in the village of Ballycarry, near Carrickfergus, who had four sons and two daughters; her second son, Samuel, had been taken prisoner on account of firearms having been found in the house, but was liberated on the 2nd of June, on giving bail. On the memorable 7th of June, the people assembled for the purpose of going to Antrim. William Neilson, a lad of fifteen years, being young and enthusiastic in the cause in which his elder brothers were engaged, after all was over, returned to his mother's house. He was taken and tried by court martial, and sent to prison.

At midnight an order came for his removal. He was torn from the arms of his eldest brother, John, who was confined in the same cell, and hurried to the new jail, where his second brother, Samuel, was confined. He was offered his pardon, on condition of giving information against the leaders at Antrim. He rejected the proposal; strenuous efforts were made to induce him to alter his determination, but they had no effect upon him. He requested that his own minister should be brought to him, the Rev. Mr. Bankhead. This request was granted.

In the morning he begged he might be allowed to see his brother Sam; that wish was also complied with. The brother expected he would share the same fate; the fear of it, however, did not prevent his encouraging William to persist in his determination. The boy was then brought to his native village, Ballycarry, and within a mile of the town he was met by his distracted mother, who was then on her way to visit her imprisoned family. She made her way though the soldiery, who endeavored to keep her back, but the poor boy caught her hand, exclaiming, "Oh! My mother!" when he was dragged her.

Her son was brought o her door to be executed; but he requested he might not die there. He was then taken to the end of the village. His presence of mind never forsook him. He made a last effort in behalf of his brothers, begging that his death might expiate their offences, and that his body might be given to his mother, which last request was granted. His body was brought to his mother's, and strict orders given that no persons should attend at his wake. That night some cavalry surrounded the house and forbid any strangers to attend the funeral. The next morning being the Sabbath, he was followed to the place of internment by his almost distracted mother, his little brother, and his younger sisters, all who were not in confinement.

His brother John was never brought to trial, but had to sign a paper consenting to his banishment for seven years, his brother Samuel for life. William's death took place the latter end of June, 1798.

His brothers sailed from Belfast in May, 1799. They were taken by the French, and the passengers being in general exiles, were treated with kindness. The vessel was retaken by the English, and got to America.

Their mother had been a schoolmistress, and had managed to get John bound to the first architect in Belfast, Mr. Hunter. He left a wife and child. He followed with success the business of a builder in America, and was engaged by some of the first people there. While engaged in building for president Madison, he attracted the notice of Mrs. Madison; and that lady, moved by the sad story of his brother's fate, showed, by many acts of kindness, the interest she took in his welfare. He died in American, 1827.

I remember his mother telling me that when William was told at the place of execution to cover his face, as was usual on such occasions, he refused, saying, "he had done nothing to be ashamed of." His mother represented him as a very handsome boy, fair and blooming, with light hair, and with his open shirt nect, looking even younger than he was. His mother was at the time extremely poor, and obliged to seek assistance from others. Some time afterwoards she left the place and went to live in Island Magee, as everything surrounding her in the place of her bereavement daily reminded her of the loss of her poor boy.

[excerpts from Richard R. Madden, "The United Irishmen, Their Lives and Times" (New York, Vol. II). (The Neilson family conversed with Mary Ann McCracken, who then spoke to Madden.)]

FROM The Ulster Question, 1603-1973 by T. W. Moody

In the last quarter of the 18th century, Ulster was the fountain head of a liberal movement of protestant nationalism that aimed (a) at winning independence for the Irish parliament and making it a genuine representative assembly instead of the preserve of a corrupt ascendancy that it was, and (b) at removing civil and religious disabilities both from protestant dissenters and from catholics. This movement, largely middle-class but supported by a liberal element among the nobility and gentry, spread throughout Ireland.

The Society of United Irishmen was founded at Belfast in October 1791, by middle-class radicals, largely Presbyterian, under the inspiration of a young Dublin protestant, Theobald Wolfe Tone. The United Irishmen adopted a programme that in effect demanded national independence, the democratisation of parliament, and an end to all discrimination between citizens on the ground of religion. Losing hope of achieving their aims by constitutional means, the more daring and resolute among them began in 1794 to prepare for rebellion with help from revolutionary France.

The sequel to the rising was the enforced union of Ireland with Great Britain. The union meant the termination of Ireland's existence as a separate state and the extinction of her parliament, which, however subservient, was the symbol of her separate identity. Partly by bribery, partly by threats, the Irish parliament was reluctantly induced to vote its own abolition.

Read about this headstone and the Irish Cultural Society of Charlottesville
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Read about John Neilson in K. Edward Lay's article "Charlottesville's Architectural Legacy"
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