Harshaw, James (1797–1867), farmer, diarist, and presbyterian nationalist, was born in the townland of Ringbane, Donaghmore parish, Co. Down, last child of James Harshaw and Mary Harshaw (née Bradford). The senior James was one of the major landholders in the eastern part of the parish, leasing enough land to support four sons, and provide dowries for his daughters. No record exists as to the education James received. While there was no school in Donaghmore, he had enough education to become a proficient reader, and to write in a plain, clear hand. He became a lifelong learner through reading newspapers, such as the Newry Commercial Telegraph and the Banner of Ulster. Skill in basic mathematics resulted in his being called on to administer wills and manage the accounts of his church, though his primary interest always lay in working on the family farms.
When still under full age, James married Sarah, daughter of William Kidd, linen draper, and Elizabeth Kidd (née McKelvey). They settled in a small cottage, owned by his father, in Ringolish where they quickly established a family: eight sons and four daughters, all but two of whom lived to adulthood.
On the death of his three older brothers, Hugh, John, and William, James became sole heir to the 151 acres leased to the family, and returned to live in the family home in Ringbane. His sister Jane, after her marriage to Samuel Martin, had moved to the Martin holdings in Loughorne, a few minutes walk away. Their first-born son was John Martin (qv), the prominent Irish patriot.
James was a young man when he first began to write down some of his daily activities. By the middle of the 1840s, his diary entry was part of his daily routine. He never imagined that the resulting record of farm life in Ulster would provide a unique picture of a critical period of Irish history, as famine, emigration, and sectarian tensions devastated his country. The Harshaw diaries also reveal much about the author. Devoted to his family and his community, he was ruling elder of the Donaghmore presbyterian church for much of his life. A passion for education placed him among the leaders in efforts to build a school in Donaghmore parish. He was also active in efforts to establish the Donaghmore dispensary, which provided the poor with access to medical assistance, serving as its first secretary. For two terms, James represented the community as a poor law guardian for Donaghmore. When famine struck the area, James worked tirelessly to keep the poor cottiers from starving. He contributed much time and money in the effort, incurring financial hardships that continued for the rest of his life. But none of his workers starved, or was forced to turn to the workhouse for help.
With so many sons, James faced the fear that they would find no living in Ireland. He carefully sought out opportunities in businesses, banking, and the ministry for those sons who did not want to remain on the farms. Still, three of them went to America, and James recounted the agony this separation entailed.
Like his nephew, John Martin, James was a nationalist, but while Martin fought for Irish independence on a national level, James provided a model of tolerance and love of country in the farming area where he lived. Increasingly, he faced pressures to change his political views to conform to those of the majority of the protestant community. When he refused, he was accused of mishandling church funds by members of his own church. Defiantly, he retained his nationalist beliefs and membership in his church.
Financial difficulties and continued personal attacks undermined his health. On 26 October 1866 he suffered a major stroke, and three months later, on 30 January 1867, he died. After his death, the ledger pages he had written, now bound into six volumes, were sent to America, probably to his son William who lived in Paterson, NJ. When William died (1902), the diaries disappeared. A hundred years later, they were rescued from destruction by members of the Harshaw family in America, taken back to Ireland, and presented to the PRONI in Belfast.