Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Letters my mother never wrote to me...

Those of us who no longer have our mothers might sometimes daydream about conversations that can never take place and letters our mothers will never write to us. In the lead up to Mothers' Day I begin to feel jealous of those friends who still have their mothers, who can still talk to them about life, seek advice from them, and engage with them on any subject, even those matters of seemingly little consequence.

Like many others, I wish I had asked my mother more questions about family history, and indeed about her own history. Near the end of her life I did pose questions on topics about which I had not previously asked. The answers came at a time when it seemed as though almost nothing was off limits, but still there was some reticence. I have thought about a number of those answers and fashioned them into these letters my mother never wrote, a journey through some of her family history as my mother knew it.


Dear Jenn,

I'll call you Jenn only because some of your friends do, though I've always favoured Jennifer since it was the name I chose for you. You were always a very inquisitive child, annoying at times, especially over things we'd rather not talk about. My life was so very different from yours and I've often wondered if you understood that fact. 

You know your granny, my mother, died when I was five, but do you know how much I remember about her? I remember the softness of her cheek when she would embrace me in her arms, her gentle gaze, the wiry curl of her hair, the fragrance of her apron after she'd been peeling potatoes, and the laces of her black shoes. I remember the way her fingers would roll through the dough as she was kneading bread. I remember helping her in the days just before she died, petting her hand when she seemed so very tired, and saying 'I'll do that for you Mammy', as I wiped down the table. I remember the mark on her face, the thin purple line bruised with blue and yellow. It was there because her blood was poisoned. 

That mark was still there on Mammy's face when Mrs Doyle and the other ladies of Gordon Street came to our house to wash Mammy and dress her in her white burial clothes. Aunt Alice hung black crepe over every mirror in the house. We weren't allowed to gaze at ourselves in the looking glass because the devil might look back. Mammy was laid on her bed, a set of Alice's rosary beads was knitted around her hands, and we weren't allowed to touch her, but I did. Her skin was still soft but ever so cold and she did not look at me. Daddy was beside himself with grief, heavily sighing and very quiet. 

The curtains on the front window were drawn closed until Mammy was taken from our house. I looked for her later that day, and didn't understand why she was no longer in her bedroom. Instead she was inside a long box the men had carried outside. You know the rest of the story. Bernadette, Kathleen and I were allowed to look out the window when they placed that box inside a beautiful black carriage, what I now know to be a funeral cortège. It had glass windows lined with flowers and was pulled by horses, four I think, but maybe only two, beautiful black horses crowned with plumes of black feathers. There was steam coming from their noses, and their hooves made a thick clicking sound as they struck the cobbled pavement. We stood on tip-toes looking out the window each time the funeral cortege passed our house, as it circled the block once, twice, three times, and then it was gone and we never saw Mammy again.

Mary Fitzpatrick Ball, my maternal grandmother,
she of the soft cheek, the gentle gaze and the wiry curl to her hair.
1894 - 1936.

Dear Jennifer,

You’ve asked me about my grandparents, so I’ll share what I can remember of them, which isn’t much I must admit. My paternal grandparents died long before I was born so I didn’t know them, and my father did not talk about them, except to say that I was given my grandmother Jane Early’s name as my middle name, so I was christened Mary Jane Teresa Ball. The only other thing my father ever told me about Jane was that she was a gentle woman with a shock of long silver hair she always rolled up and wore close to her head. I  used to imagine her unfastening her hair and brushing it out long with a silver boar-bristle brush while seated in front of a dressing table — a fantasy I know, but that’s the way I liked to imagine her.

The only grandparents I knew were my mother’s parents, Thomas and Mary Fitzpatrick. To me they were grandmama and grandpapa, though I don’t recall ever addressing them by name. There are only a couple of things I recollect about interacting with my grandparents. My grandfather did not speak — at least I don’t recall hearing him utter a word — but I do remember he had a lovely welcoming face and a little tiny smile tucked in under his white and grey moustache. Sitting in the front room with us, he would cast his eyes toward the floor and smile that tiny smile. 

In a way I remember my grandmother much better, well not really her, but her boots. Our father told us that we were not to look grandmama in the eyes — she forbade it — so on those occasions when she visited I used to look at her boots, fearing that if I did otherwise I might meet her gaze. Once, I was scolded for looking too long at those boots, but I couldn’t help it. They were marvellous, mid-calf black leather, with hooks and laces like an old fashioned corset. I used to wonder how she managed to fasten them up.

Mary Hynes Fitzpatrick, the woman with the marvellous boots,
whose gaze the children were forbidden to engage.

Dear Jenn,

You have asked me about our famous family members and my recollections of them. To us they were not famous, they were family. We knew of our being descended from the Kettle family, and our connection to grandpapa's first cousin Thomas Michael Kettle. We always thought it was odd, and even a little embarrassing, that we had a relation with a bust on a plinth in St. Stephen’s Green. When we were children we knew Aunt Alice thought of the Kettles as the very successful branch of the family, unlike our family unit, the Ball family. Alice shared this in her own special way by treating our father with contempt and saying, ‘No Ball will ever set the Liffey on fire’. 

We knew Thomas Kettle’s brother Laurence Kettle was a very important man, Chief Electrical Engineer for Dublin City. When we were children we thought the best part of that was when he came to visit us and all the neighbourhood was aflutter over the fancy motor car and the chauffeur who waited on Laurence Kettle as he visited with our grandaunt Alice and our father.

We knew him as ‘Larrie’ Kettle, not Laurence. He was a generous, though somewhat intimidating, man who brought us gifts from his travels to the continent, boxes of Belgian chocolate, marzipan from France and rosary beads from Rome. We knew when he was to visit because Aunt Alice would keep one of us back from school to serve afternoon tea. Sometimes he would ask the child kept home a question or two about school, and then Alice would send that child away so only the adults were in the parlour for tea. 

So too, Alice was very particular about the way we were dressed when Larrie or another Kettle would come to visit. She would spend more than she should to make sure we were well fitted out, saying, 'I'll not have the likes of them see us looking poorly.' I was never certain how Alice felt about her cousin Larrie, but I believe he must have cared for her. In the end he paid for her to be taken into the care of the nuns at Roebuck Castle, and there she remained until her death in 1952.

Left: Alice Fitzpatrick Ward, circa 1945.
Right: Laurence Joseph Kettle, circa 1913.

Dear Jennifer,

In this last letter I will repeat what I said at the outset of the first letter, you and I had very different lives. I was raised to be a wife and a mother, and taught that education was not for girls. It was not until long after you graduated from university, once I had a career of my own, that I came to understand why you had wanted an education and held it in such high regard. 

You used to tell me I had a beautiful singing voice and when I was a young girl I had aspired to be an opera singer, but I knew that was never to be the path for me. Back then such aspirations were set aside in favour of learning to cook, to clean and to sew, to be a homemaker. Once, at school I was given a prize for being the best student at kneading bread. I remember hurrying home to tell Alice. It was one of the only times I can recall when I felt as though I had pleased her.

When I was a child I used to sit at the foot of my father’s work bench when he was carving wood, shaping a cabinet door or box lid. As he worked, the curled shavings from the wood rained down onto me. I would pick them up and pin them into my hair like ringlets, imagining my hair styled for a fancy dress dance with a handsome beau. I imagined marrying a man just like my father, a man who worked hard, as my father did. These were the dreams that filled my childhood, imagining a life to come, following a path which had been strictly laid out for me, a path that lead me to life with your father, and your brother and you. 

Mary Jane Teresa Ball Geraghty,
my mom at the age of 16, 1947.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Travel Thursday: The Sacred Site of Clonmacnoise

On the grounds of Clonmacnoise.
For many of us who search for evidence of ancestors, rarely are we able to cite the location of a found ancestor in a monastic settlement. Nevertheless, depending on where our ancestors settled on the island of Ireland, and how far back in time their homesteads were established, some among us may be able to count an ancestor or two among those interred on the grounds of these sacred sites. Sadly, I cannot count myself among those lucky souls. Still in all, I find early Christian settlements fascinating, and muse that perhaps one day I shall learn of an ancient ancestor or relative interred among the ruins.

Recently I visited two monastic sites— Monasterboice in County Louth, near Drogheda (founded in the late 5th century by Saint Buithe) and Clonmacnoise in County Offaly on the River Shannon (founded in 544 by St Ciarán Mac a tsar). The sites are approximately 140 kilometres (87 miles) apart via good roads. Today's post features images from my visit to Clonmacnoise.

Clonmacnoise is the much larger of the two, and is said to have been more like a small town than a monastic settlement — it is estimated that in the 11th century between 1,500 and 2,000 people lived here. Unlike other monastic settlements, there was a significant lay population living and working here. All of the domestic buildings were constructed of timber, so none remain, but traces of them have been found during archaeological excavation.

There are remarkable similarities between Clonmacnoise and Monasterboice, with respect to not only the structures, but also the High crosses, replete with carved figures said to have been used to illustrate biblical stories and the history of Christ. Such similarities between the sites give you a sense of the efforts made so very long ago to spread Christianity across the untamed wilderness of Ireland.


Perhaps it is its place on the edge of the River Shannon, or the fact that within the grounds of the settlement there are so many markers of lives once lived in this community, but the spirit of this place is palpable.

On his visit to Ireland in 1979 Pope John Paul II made it a point to include Clonmacnoise in his itinerary. Upon his return to Rome he reportedly said, "I will never forget that place ... the ruins of the monastery and churches speak of the life that once pulsated there. Whole generations of Europe owe to them the light of the Gospel. These ruins are still charged with a great mission. They still constitute a challenge."

From the hillside looking toward the River Shannon.
Between the 6th and the 13 centuries, the grounds between the buildings were used for burials.
Temple Connor: Also called the Little Church,
it has been roofed and used by the Church of Ireland since the 18th century.
Temple Finghin with its round tower.
Looking toward the round tower of Temple Finghin from the ruins of the Cathedral.
The Cathedral dates to 909, with the main entryway replaced around the year 1200.
In front of the ruins of the Cathedral, a replica of the Cross of the Scriptures,
placed outside where the original cross once stood
when the original was brought into the museum to protect it.
The original Cross of the Scriptures. The shaft and the ringed head were
crafted from a single piece of sandstone sometime around 900 AD.
It stands 4 meters tall (13 ft). The stories depicted with the carved figures include
The Crucifixion, the Last Judgement and Christ in the Tomb.
As well, there are figures of ecclesiastics and King Flann depicted on the cross.
One out of a large collection of burial slabs which date from the 8th to the 12th century.
These are now inside the onsite museum in order to protect and preserve them.
In English: ‘A prayer for Turcain by whom this cross was made.’
A burial slab. The inscription reads:
in English: 'A prayer for Tuathal the craftsman'.
Clonmacnoise Castle: dating to the 13th century, it was plundered on many occasions,
including one last time in 1552, when English soldiers from an Athlone garrison reduced it to a ruin,
carrying away what they could and destroying the rest.
The 'New' Cemetery beyond the walls of Clonmacnoise.
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