The Founding of the Presentation Brothers’ Schools at Birr in 1877; recollections of 1927 from J. Deering.
[Birr Historical Society meets again on Monday 4 December 2023 after a break of three…
Ireland has been associated with the loss of its people through migration for centuries. The analyses by the Central Statistics Office identifies that the famine of 1845 – 52 led to a peak in migration and changed the country’s demographic, political, and cultural landscape. Related themes of endemic poverty and religious intolerance were reasons why others left Ireland’s shores trying to find a better life. Literacy rates in 1841 were 47% but by 1911 had risen to 88%. Limited literacy hindered emigrants maintaining contact. Migration could mean that when someone left, they were gone for good and it was unlikely they would ever again speak to or see friends or family back home. Apart from emigration, Irish demographic anomalies, such as late marriage and large families led to people being dislocated from their families. The age gap between parents, particularly fathers, and children was frequently such that being orphaned in childhood was common. Often, there was also a large age gap between older and younger siblings, with the latter hardly knowing brothers or sisters who had left home or emigrated while they were still in infancy. [i]
This context helps me to understand a phrase my mother used when she reminisced about her family life with three sisters and parents, growing up in the Midlands as workers at the ‘big houses’. They would join friends and listen to fiddle playing in the evening occasionally. When I asked her about someone she had described and what happened to them, she would sometimes say ‘Oh, he just walked’ often adding ‘it was very common then’.
I began to think of the ‘lost’ people in my family when I was contacted by two third cousins within months of each other. One contacted through a friend who had read an article about the Evans family that I had written a few years ago for the Ballinagar Historical Society. The other third cousin found unexpectedly that his great-grandfather was Irish. He had come to St Mary’s churchyard in Geashill to look for the graves of his ancestors and found the plaque our family had erected in memory of my grandmother’s large Evans family buried there.
Third cousins can seem very distant relatives but as a member of a group of five cousins, we all know about each other’s grandchildren who are third cousins and some of these third cousins see each other on a daily basis at school as their families have remained in the same village north of Dublin. Stable location and communication would seem essential if they are to be seen in anyway as close relatives.
Of course, the huge increase in interest in genealogy means we can know more about our grandparents’ ancestors than they did themselves. However, when I started to re-look at my family tree and that of my newly-found third cousins, I realised that many of my relatives had been ‘lost’ to my mother as her parents had not passed down information about all their relatives to the point that their existence was unknown.
One of my great-grandfathers, born in the 1850s, was the eldest son of a mixed marriage. His parents were married at the Church of Ireland St Catherine’s (Kilbride) in Tullamore but thereafter only my great grandfather, the eldest of six children had association with the Church of Ireland being married and/or buried at St Mary’s, Geashill with his father and infant sister. His youngest brother went to England and marriage and birth records identify he took on the Methodist religion of his English wife. One brother remained in the local area and he and his wife brought up a Catholic family, many of whom remain in Offaly and the surrounding counties. It is hard to know from this juncture why so little is known of his family but it is likely to be lack of knowledge compounded with leaving the local area and lack of communication skills which made them unknown to future generations.
One of my grandfathers was born in Cork. However, this is only recent knowledge. My grandfather is another example of loss due to Irish demographic anomalies, His Protestant father married, aged 40, to his Catholic mother 25 years his junior. He became an orphan at 14, followed by the premature deaths of his elder siblings. He revealed nothing , not even his birthday and held no official papers. However, he would have seemed to make effort to find his family in his later years, placing a notice in the Irish Times when each daughter married. My mother saw it as a ‘cry for help’ to his extended family. Here is an example from my mother’s marriage which was placed in the newspaper on August 10th 1945.
It can only be speculated why he had hidden his immediate history. Ashamed of his parents’ mixed marriage, ashamed of his poor circumstances but a clear desire to be connected to his Protestant grandfather who if not wealthy, would have had some status, something he lacked working as a gardener in estates in the early 20th century.
His wife, my grandmother, also ‘lost’ the majority of her siblings to her daughters. It is only in recent years that documentation reveals she was one of thirteen children rather than one of six. My mother and her sisters had known two aunts and had seen a photograph of three brothers who played cricket against the Digby family and their friends, a fact of which she was very proud. However, she failed to mention her eight other siblings of whom two died in infancy and the rest of tuberculosis. Tuberculosis sufferers and their families often felt stigmatised and chose to keep quiet about it[ii].
My mother and her sisters were born in the early 20th century. My mother had been lucky enough to attend a Technical School between 1938-1940 where she gained qualifications in Commercial Arithmetic, Commerce, English, Irish, Shortland and Typewriting.
Commerce Certificate in Commercial Arithmetic, Commerce and English awarded by the Department of Education Technical Instruction Branch
However, living in a rural location without the means to travel, the only work she could find was in service. Like many other single women who had emigrated in the 1930s and 40s she wanted to go to England to find work and more freedom. The Free State and later De Valera’s government had passed legislation that eliminated women’s rights to serve on juries, work after marriage, and work in industry. In 1932, the marriage bar was introduced in Ireland which prevented any married woman from working in the public sector[iii]. My grandfather refused to let his adult children leave Ireland but it is said that they managed to persuaded him with a view of finding a Protestant husband if they left, the hope of finding one locally, negligible.
My mother joined the Auxiliary Territorial Army in Northern Ireland where she was able to use her skills in administrative work. After the War, like many of her colleagues, she moved to England and was able to find administrative work easily, work she did for most of her life. Weekly letter writing was a regular activity for my mother, aunts and grandmother, generally sharing mundane news but allowing strong family connections to develop. Fortunately, they did not become lost to each other. Towards the end of her life, my mother spoke of her friends more openly, people like her, both Catholic and Protestant who had gone to England but unlike her, had never returned. Reasons she gave were the lack of employment but the most poignant were those who had become pregnant before marriage or had mixed marriages. They cut their ties with home not wanting to bring shame on their families nor face being rejected by their families. Such examples are some of the many found by Lorraine Grimes in her paper entitled Migration and assistance: Irish unmarried mothers in Britain, 1926-1973 [iv].
Genealogy has limited purpose without context. Delving into my family’s past enables me, at some level, to understand how national events affected their lives, lives that were unlikely to reach newspaper articles or be recorded otherwise in any form. Also, it sheds light on why later generations may have acted as they did and where those decision led and have an influence on descendants today.
[i] Central Statistics Office Census through History @ https://www.cso.ie/en/census/censusthroughhistory/ accessed 27 September 2023
[iv] Grimes, L.(2020) ,Migration and assistance: Irish unmarried mothers in Britain, 1926-1973 available @