Northern Ireland owes a lot to the Huguenots, those valiant and courageous French Protestants, who were forced to flee their homeland because of the persecution of Louis XIV, King of France. Some people know about the great industry that they brought to Lisburn, where linen was expertly used to make garments and other necessities. Indeed, the Irish Republic owes much to Huguenot ingenuity and influence.
But who knows of the role the Huguenots played in South Londonderry, in Ballyronan to be precise? These followers of the teaching of the reformer from Geneva, John Calvin (1509 – 1564), played a most significant role in the development of business in our area.
Why did these French Protestants find themselves in Ballyronan?
Let me give you a brief local history lesson. The growth of Calvinism in France in the 16th century led to a long period of persecution and religious wars, which only ended when the Protestant leader Henry of Navarre changed his faith in order to become King.
As King Henry IV, he signed the Edict of Nantes guaranteeing the Huguenots freedom of conscience and worship and equality with Catholic citizens in all civil offices and professions.
His grandson, Louis XIV, signed its revocation in 1685. Many Huguenots remained in France and became nominal Catholics, but most held to their faith.
More than 200,000 however risked imprisonment or escaped the gallows by fleeing abroad. Most fled to Holland, many to Switzerland and Germany and some to Denmark. About 40,000 to 50,000 escaped to England where they joined those that had settled there earlier. About 10,000 came to Ireland and joined a smaller number who settled here in the 1660s during the years of growing persecution. Along with them came ministers of the French Reformed Church.
Jean Gaussen, a Languedoc merchant fled to Geneva in 1685 with his five sons. His son David wanted to settle in England and while traveling in a fishing boat with his wife, a maid and another lady, a storm forced them to shelter in Carlingford Lough.
They were shipwrecked and lost everything except their lives. They settled in Newry where David became a prosperous merchant. His only son, also named David, freighted the first large vessel from Newry when the ship canal was opened in 1770. He married Margaret Hogg the daughter of Dr Hogg from Moneymore.
Their son David, born 1753, settled in Ballyronan with his wife and three sons in 1788, having bought the business of Thompson and Maxwell. As well as extending the quay, the Guassens established a distillery (1824) and a brewery (1828 or 1830), also a school for girls. The steamer ‘Lady of the Lake’, built for David Guassen in the 1820s, operated a freight passenger service from Ballyronan to Lurgan to connect with the train to Belfast. Ballyronan was once a thriving little port on the west side of Lough Neagh, largely the result of the enterprise of the Gaussen family of Huguenot descent. The town was in the Salters' of London estate.
The family had a great influence on the life of the village of Ballyronan until the last member of the family, Arthur, went to England in the late 1920s.
Magherafelt also had three William Gaussens who lived in Meetinghouse Street, The Diamond, and in Town parks areas of the town, and also in Castledawson, one of the Gaussens lived. In the 1910 census, A. D. A. Gaussen, JP, worked as a coal merchant and importer of Indian meal in Magherafelt. So the name continued for many years in the nineteenth century.
Our area of south Londonderry is encouraged to remember our debt to the Huguenots. Their industry provided employment for many people. But the faith of these people also played a crucial role in the development of the area. They brought with them their Calvinistic faith, vague external memories of which are still to be seen in this area. Their simply, yet dignified, form of worship and church government was pleasing to the God they served, and their clear Gospel preaching had its life-changing impact on those who heard it.
How marvelous it would be were men of Huguenot spirit and conviction to live and work in our area once again! What they believed – Christ is the Redeemer of the world, and how they lived - giving dedicated labour in the service of their fellowman, is surely what we need today.
Acknowledgement of much of this information which was found at www.culturenorthernireland.org