Thursday, October 10, 2019

'Down into the Darkness': Mental Illness & Family History

Van Gogh's Sorrowing Old Man (At Eternity's Gate),
a painting sometimes associated with mental illness. 
On this World Mental Health Day it is important to acknowledge that mental illness can be one of those uncomfortable topics some of us may not want to talk about; nevertheless, we may find evidence of it on our family trees. We might turn our hearts and our minds away from psychiatric illness, simply because we cannot figure it out; it is not easily solvable.

There is no visible wound, no gash to bandage, nothing like a broken bone that can be reset and covered with a cast. With the exception of Alzheimer’s, we tend not to accord heroism to those who cope with diseases of the mind.

Histories of mental illness dangle from many family trees, with stories that are spoken of in whispers or dismay. Perhaps there are tales of shell-shocked cousins who would cry out in the dark shadows of night, and then find it impossible to function in the light of day. We might focus on the heroic side of their military careers while failing to acknowledge the truth about the impact of war on their mental health.

So too, there are those histories to which reference is made in cruel jokes about ‘mad’ relations with strangely obsessive habits, aunties who wore bizarre looking hats and spoke to invisible companions, and uncles who weren’t quite ‘all there’.

For some family historians, there may be something soothing about dealing only with the stories of people who appear to have been cognitively rational. They fit into easy slots. We can say person A was a butcher or baker, person B lived in Dublin or Wicklow, but the mentally ill may not always fit so easily into the picture of family life. For some researchers, it may be easier to joke about mental illness, not out of maliciousness, but perhaps out of an ignorance of the facts, or simply a desire to distance themselves from a connection to something so unsettling.

Still, some of us know what it is to go down into the darkness. We have found the unwanted experience of mental illness laid right at our doorstep. Some of us have suffered from deep depression, the clinical sort, the kind that tips your soul right out of your body, and leaves you in a dark and forbidding place. When we find histories of mental illness on our family tree, aspects of those stories may feel disconcertingly familiar.

We have one beautiful boy on our paternal family tree who, on the brink of a brilliant academic life, emerged as a schizophrenic. Onset of the illness manifested in subtle changes over time — dropping grades and social isolation. A hammer attack on his mother was the horrifying signifier that his mind had completely moved on to an alternate universe. When he was a very little boy he was sweet and shy, curious and a little mischievous, and loved to have his photograph taken. He loved the infinitesimal details of maps, and obsessively computed the distances linking cities and towns, counties and countries, but could not connect with people. He lived with the voices inside of his head, voices who at times seemed to be the only ones who could understand him.

We have had a least two suicides on our family tree. Two beloved young men, a brother and a son, whose hearts were too tender to hang on to this world. Family members of both men have beautiful memories of times filled with light and laughter. However, in the minds of these young men the world was ordered differently, so for them the only hope of peace was to escape it. The deep and abiding love of family members and friends was not enough to keep them on this earth.

There have been periods in history when mental illness was viewed as a moral failing, or as a failure of control, with individuals characterized as self-centred and ‘giving in’ to their wounded or broken minds, and their inclinations toward deviance.

Our Edwardian period family members appear to have been very much a product of their time, and social class, believing those with mental illness made a choice to live inside of sorrow and allow it to feed on them. There was often no hint of understanding, just a recognition of, and sometimes frustration over having to deal with the ’shattered nerves’ and ‘melancholia’ of the individual in question.

Tom Kettle, a first cousin on my maternal family tree, was plagued by mental illness for years before his death on the Somme in 1916. Writing to him in May of 1901, Tom's brother Laurence scolds Tom for his melancholy, because it makes Laurence feel bad afterward. Laurence writes,

‘Why, oh why will you ever assume such a pessimistic attitude in your letters? It makes me feel uncomfortable for a week after.’

In The Ways of War, a book Tom Kettle co-authored with his wife Mary Sheehy, Mary offers an explanation for Tom's overall negative temperament, but she does not point to the origin of his pre-existing 'shattered nerves'. Mary writes,

'[A] brother, a veritable twin soul, to whom he was deeply attached died. This was an everlasting grief to him. This sorrow, together with his shattered nerves, was responsible for his somewhat tragic and melancholy temper.'

Tom’s beloved brother William died of tuberculosis in May of 1903. Perhaps triggered by this tragic loss, in the summer of 1904, Tom suffered a mental breakdown and was sent to recuperate in Innsbruck, Austria.

Noteworthy in the correspondence between Tom and Mary during this period are references to his 'black mood' and ‘miserable glooms’. In November of 1904, Mary writes,

'My dear Love, I see by today’s letter that you are allowing the black mood to keep you company...You must not do that...Keep looking forward — always forward and that will help.'

In a letter written later that month, Mary appears frustrated with Tom, insisting he has broken yet another promise by choosing to remain in care at Innsbruck, and away from her. Mary writes,

'If it is only the doctor who detains you — we have excellent doctors in Dublin..And I think I could help you and keep away those miserable glooms. You promised to be home in a fortnight and now you are five weeks gone — so I have had enough disappointments.'

It was around this time that Tom’s battle with alcohol also began to take shape. While he was a student at the Royal University, Tom had not been inclined to partake of alcohol; however, after William died Tom began to drink in earnest.

Dalrymple House at Rickmansworth, U.K. where Tom Kettle was treated.
There were other times when Tom received treatment for his mental health, including one last instance in 1915, when he was admitted to Dalrymple House, a rehabilitation clinic in Rickmansworth, Hertfordshire, England, where he was treated for alcoholism and a depressive disorder. The purpose of treatment was to make him fit for a return to military duty in France, where he was killed on 9 September 1916.

On yet another branch of my maternal family tree, in 1909, at the age of only 56 years, my great-grandfather Francis Ball died of dementia. Medical research shows that early onset and death from dementia may mean that Francis Ball also likely suffered from depression.

The working life of Francis Ball ended because of his dementia. With the income of the main breadwinner gone, there was neither money to care for him at home, nor to care for him in a hospital, so in 1907, he was admitted to the infirmary of the South Dublin Union workhouse for treatment. Francis was interned there on two occasions in 1907, from 16 to 17 July, and from 21 August to 5 September for treatment of a disorder of 'nerves'. In the winter of 1908, on 3 January, Jane Ball admitted her husband to the infirmary at the workhouse for what would be the last time. He would die there eighteen months later on 3 July 1909.

Part of what once was Grangegorman Mental Hospital, Dublin.
On the paternal side of my family tree, the first hints that there had been mental illness in the family came in those rare moments when I could get my dad to talk about his childhood. My father’s childhood homes in Stoneybatter and then Crumlin, Dublin, had been places of strife and violence, with the children, and their mother, suffering at the hands of a father, who may have been mentally ill.

In the last days of my father's life, Dad was telling me about what I should seek out and where I should look to uncover his family history. In those brief heart-to-heart talks came the confirmation that my paternal grandfather John had been an alcoholic, along with revelations that he was prone to inexplicable fits of rage, had suffered bouts of severe depression throughout his life, and at one point may have been interned in Grangegorman Mental Hospital in Dublin. What would have brought him to that terrible place, I wonder? Does such illness explain why my great-grandparents had treated John so very differently from his siblings for his whole life long?

Here in the 21st century, I find myself wondering about how well we deal with mental illness. We are supposed to know more, to be more empathetic, to be more accepting of people with mental illness, yet it is not a rare occurrence to see online rants against people who are characterized as 'crazy', 'demented', 'loony', 'psychotic' and so on. I have seen blog posts in which ancestors are described as 'lunatics, madmen and wackos'. A glance at any modern dictionary will give you more than 50 words to describe mental illness, so apparently we've taken the time to develop the descriptors.

However, have we taken the time to develop our understanding of what life may have been like for those relatives and ancestors whose lives were forever changed by diseases of the mind over which they had no control, or for those family members currently dealing with mental illness?

Can we liberate their stories from a one dimensional existence, and tell of the joys in their lives, while telling of their challenges with mental illness?

Do we have the humanity to cradle their histories and share them with compassion?

[Parts of this post originally appeared in June 2015]

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Tuesday's Tips: Falsehoods, fibs, & other fabrications: re: Four Courts fire, GRO and '26 Census

This blog post originally appeared in March of 2014, with the intent to correct some of the misinformation about Irish records then floating around the internet, with respect to the explosion and fire at the Four Courts, the difference between the PRO and the GRO, and the 1926 census. Unfortunately some false claims continue to be made, so on this Tuesday’s Tips, once again it is time to revisit falsehoods, fibs and other fabrications. In each case I have stated the false or misleading claim that has been made, and followed it with information which explains the truth of the matter. In addition, I have included a number of informative online sources which may assist you in your search for your own Irish ancestors.

The Four Courts, western aspect.

'All the records in The Four Courts were destroyed during the 1922 Rebellion'.


First off, there was no 1922 Rebellion. Second, not ‘all’ of the records were destroyed.

A timeline of conflict:

24 April 1916: The 1916 Easter Rising begins in Dublin. It is quashed by the British in six days. It is referred to as the Easter Rebellion, but is widely known as the 1916 Easter Rising, or simply The Easter Rising.

Be sure to visit the National Library of Ireland's excellent online exhibition:
The 1916 Rising: Personalities & Perspectives

1919-1921: The Irish War of Independence took place from 1919 until the truce of July 1921. The Anglo-Irish Treaty was signed by Britain and Ireland in December of 1921, and ratified in January of 1922, resulting in the formation of the Irish Free State. However, not all involved parties in Ireland were happy with the result. The divide was so deep that it led to the Irish Civil War.

1922-1923The Irish Civil War began 28 June 1922 and lasted until 24 May 1923.

On 30 June 1922, in the Battle of Dublin during the Irish Civil War, a huge explosion and fire caused significant damage to the Four Courts complex and destroyed the Public Records Office (PRO) in rear of the west wing. Hardline anti-treaty forces (called Irregulars by Free State soldiers), under the command of Rory O'Connor had occupied the Four Courts Complex from 14 April 1922.

With the intent of getting the anti-treaty soldiers to abandon the complex, on 28 and 29 June, the army of Free State soldiers of the Provisional Government [later the Irish National Army] bombarded the building. Given that anti-treaty forces had been stockpiling munitions in the cellars of the PRO since their occupation, some historians posit that the bombardment by the Free State Army led to fire reaching those munitions, resulting in the massive explosion. Still others claim the anti-treaty forces planted mines that were exploded upon their evacuation of the complex. 

See this post —> Going to the bookshelf to find family history for a couple of suggestions of books you might want to read in order to make a start toward learning more about this period in Irish history.

From my postcard collection: A view of the damaged Four Courts.

'There are no extant Church of Ireland parish registers, because they were ALL destroyed by the fire in The Four Courts'.


The blast and ensuing fire in the Four Courts resulted in significant losses, that is true, with official estimates saying well over 500 Church of Ireland parish registers were destroyed, as well as some other records of genealogical import; however, it is estimated that over 600 parish registers survived the destruction.

Ironically, concern over the safe storage of such records led to an 1875 amendment to the Public Record Office Act of 1867 (PRO 1867). The change in law required that all Church of Ireland (COI) parish registers, as well as other parochial records, be sent to Dublin for safe keeping in the new Public Records Office in the Four Courts. You can read the amended act —> here.

Changes to the PRO Act in 1876 gave the COI parishes the option of having their registers returned to them, so those registers could be kept in local custody, so long as they could prove they would provide safe storage, and a number of parishes exercised this option. If you want answers about exactly which Church of Ireland parish registers are extant, then you need to visit The Representative Church Body of Ireland website.

Members of the church are currently engaged in The Anglican Record Project, an ongoing programme to transcribe and digitize extant parish registers. A number of registers are already available online, not only for viewing but for downloading too. These registers hold records of Baptism (with many including birth date), Marriage and Burial, with some dating to as early as 1666.

Here is a fine example of the kind of information you will find in the transcriptions of the parish registers, this one from Christ Church, Delgany, Diocese of Glendalough, County Wicklow.

In the registers for the Cloghran Parish, Diocese of Dublin, County Dublin, there are some Roman Catholic burials noted — denoted by the 'RC' in the entry. The transcription of the Cloghran parish registers has Baptism records from 1782-1864, Marriage records from 1732, and 1782-1839, and Burial records from 1732-1864.

'There are no pre-1922 civil registration records of birth, marriage and death, because they were all completely destroyed in the fire at The Four Courts'.


Civil registration records of birth, marriage and death were NEVER stored in the Public Records Office at The Four Courts.

The ongoing confusion over this appears to stem from the fact that some researchers believe the Public Records Office (PRO) and the General Register Office (GRO) are one in the same. In fact, they are separate entities. The misconception about records of birth, marriage and death, may stem from an assumption that the Public Records Office and the General Register Office are one in the same, when in fact they are not and never were. The functions of the Public Records Office, and the State Papers Office, are now handled by the National Archives, established on 1 June 1988.

A Brief History of The General Register Office (They moved A LOT)

The very first repository for the records of the General Register Office (GRO) was the Kings Inns (1848-1872). From there the GRO moved to Charlemont house [the Hugh Lane Gallery since 1933] in Dublin (1872-1929). Relocation to the basement of the Custom House on the river Liffey took place in 1929; the GRO remained there until 1983. For accommodation reasons, as well as health and safety, in 1983 the office once again moved, this time across the river Liffey to Joyce House. In the same period the Superintendent Registrar's Office for Dublin was also accommodated on the ground floor of this new building. 

In 1992 then Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Albert Reynolds made a commitment that would see the General Register Office relocated to Roscommon in the West of Ireland. As this move involved a major modernisation programme for the entire civil registration system, the relocation did not take place until April 2005. 

The research room of the General Register Office, with its leather bound tomes, remains in Dublin; however, in autumn of 2013, it was moved to from the Irish Life Centre to Werburg Street.

The civil registration of non-Catholic marriages began in 1845. In 1863, bills were introduced in Parliament in order to change the law governing civil registration in order to include Catholic marriages, along with all births and deaths. Thus, beginning in 1864, civil registration included ALL births, marriages, and deaths on the island of Ireland. The Irish were legally compelled to register, and subject to fines if they failed to do so; however, this does not mean that everyone followed the law. Sometimes registrations were late, with dates of events changed to avoid fines, and some people simply did not register these life events.

If you are interested in acquiring copies of civil registration records for births, marriages and deaths visit the General Register Office website for full details. This link —> The History of Civil Registration will bring you to the GRO's full account of their history of registering births, marriages and deaths.


'The 1926 census is going to be released any day now. They’re working on it.'


Current Official Status: The 1926 Census Returns will be released to public inspection in January 2027.

Although the 1926 census returns are stored in the National Archives of Ireland, the records are under the control of the Central Statistics Office (CSO). Not even the staff of the National Archives are permitted to view the returns. The CSO has indicated the census will not be released until January 2027

Pádraig Dalton is the Director General of the Central Statistics Office. On 28 January 2014, he was in a committee meeting in the Dáil Éireann, the Assembly of Ireland, to discuss “a plan to capture the full value of our genealogical heritage”. In order to understand exactly what is going on, 
you can view the transcript of that meeting here on The Houses of the Oireachtas website.


Never let it be said that officials cannot be persuaded to change their minds. Even the most intransigent politicos and chief civil servants might sometimes be swayed, but we have to do our part.

Continuing the push for the release of the 1926 census is very important.

Visit the website of the Council of Irish Genealogical Organisations (CIGO) for more information and the link to sign the petition asking for the opening of the census.

If you are interested in statistics — numbers and percentages, no names — for 1926, as well as other census years, then visit the website of the Central Statistics Office. There are a number of interesting statistics pages on this site that will whet your appetite for the 1926 census. For example, on the pages about jobs in 1926 in the Irish Free State, 9 women are counted among the 2, 599 persons who worked in Mining and Quarrying occupations. Also, 114 women are counted among the 47, 671 persons working in 1926 as builders, bricklayers, stone workers and contractors. Out of 5, 333 persons claiming the occupation of painter and decorator, 5, 298 of them are men and only 35 are women. Lots of interesting information for your consideration.

As always, the Best of Luck to you with your research!


Click on images to view larger versions.
(Original post appeared 18 March 2014)
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