Monday, April 9, 2018

A fantasy tea party with my Irish grannies & great-grannies

In the summer of 2011, I first sat down for an imaginary tea party with my grandmothers and great-grandmothers. Once again I'm going to take tea in the company of women, whom I did not have the good fortune to know in life, to pose questions I would love to have asked them. I am inviting ladies from both sides of my family tree, and from the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries.

At today’s fantasy gathering we will dress in our best style, nibble on dainty cakes, delicate finger sandwiches and buttermilk scones, with lemon curd and clotted cream, cranberry and quince jam. We'll sip steaming cups of Assam, Earl Grey and Lapsang tea, while chatting across the centuries.

As part of the fantasy, since all of my grandmothers and great-grandmothers are Irish, the tea party will again take place in Ireland, specifically in the Lord Mayor's Lounge of the Shelbourne Hotel, St. Stephen's Green, Dublin. Founded in 1824, the place is replete with history. In 1922, Michael Collins had a hand in drafting the first Irish Constitution in room 112 of the hotel. Besides, they serve a lovely afternoon tea.

We would have had the tea at the carmanstage (a kind of inn) of my maternal 4th great-grandmother's family in Turvey, North County Dublin, if it still existed. Then again I'm not sure we would fancy traipsing out to the countryside, and Mary Brien Cavanaugh would probably enjoy a trip into the metropolis. We'll keep the numbers small, so as not to elicit too much attention. Without further adieu, I give you afternoon tea with my grannies and great-grannies.

The Guest List:

Paternal grandmother: Anne 'Annie' Magee Geraghty

Paternal great-grandmother: Mary Dunne Magee

Paternal great-grandmother: Margaret Toole Geraghty

Maternal grandmother: Mary Fitzpatrick Ball

Maternal great-grandmother: Mary Hynes Fitzpatrick

Maternal 2nd great-grandmother: Mary Kettle Fitzpatrick

Maternal 4th great-grandmother: Mary Brien Cavanagh

Welcome Ladies! Thank you for coming. I have so many questions to ask.

Paternal grandmother Anne Magee Geraghty (1900-1953):

Grandmother Annie, you joined the Cumann na mBan, the women's branch of the Irish Volunteers, in order to support your brother Michael's work with the Dublin Brigade. Did you ever feel nervous or worry you would be arrested for concealing guns and ammunition, and transporting them around Dublin during the War of Independence? You married somewhat late in life, for an Irish girl, and married a man 11 years your senior. How did you two meet? Did you find it difficult to settle into a life of marriage and children, after your adventures with the Cumann na mBan?

Paternal great-grandmother Margaret Toole Geraghty (1860-1948):

Great-grandmother Margaret, would you tell me how your husband Patrick, a labourer from a family of Mayo tenant farmers, ended up being a wealthy car proprietor living in the best part of Dublin? Was he as single-minded and ruthless as some say? No disrespect intended; I was just wondering.

Also, your father John Toole and your father-in-law Thomas Geraghty were both tenants of Sir William Roger Palmer — a landlord who refused to sign leases with his tenants so he could evict them at any time. Given this fact, did you ever live under the threat of eviction? Is that why you and your husband left Mayo for Dublin? 

Uh oh, great-grandmother Margaret looks annoyed. More tea perhaps? Cake, anyone? 

Paternal great-grandmother Mary Dunne Magee (1874-1939): 

Long before I ever laid eyes on an image of you, I saw your signature on a document you signed to receive the medals awarded to your brother William Dunne after he was killed in Belgium in 1914. William served with the Royal Dublin Fusiliers for many years, so I have often wondered how did you feel when, at the age of 15, your eldest son Michael joined the Irish Volunteers to fight against the British forces? Did you believe in the promise of a new Ireland, as did your husband and your eldest son and daughter?

Shall I refresh the tea? Any one for a fancy cake or cucumber sandwich?

Maternal grandmother Mary Fitzpatrick Ball (1894-1936): 

When I was a child I loved the photographs my mother had of you, still do. Grandmother Mary, you died when my mother was only 5 years old. Mam’s memories of you were the recollections of a 5 year old child, moments wrapped up in scents and sounds. When you were a little girl, your father and mother took your family to live in Liverpool, England. What do you recall of that time? Was the journey difficult? I’m very grateful they brought you back to Ireland, since it is in Ireland that you met my grandfather. I have always wondered where and how did you and my grandfather meet? 

Maternal great-grandmother Mary Hynes Fitzpatrick (1873-?): 

When I look at images of you, I see the face of a woman who dealt with a lot of hardship in life. Although you look into the camera’s lens, my mother recollected that you would allow neither her nor any of your grandchildren to make eye contact with you. Did you want to save them from the sadness in your eyes?

Was it difficult when you moved with your husband, and children Mary and Joseph, to Liverpool? A few years later you returned to Ireland with your husband, daughter and two more sons, but little Joseph had died in Liverpool. Was it a wrench to leave him behind? Were you ever able to return and visit his grave? Being back in Dublin brought you joy with the birth of your daughter Alice in 1903. That joy was overshadowed by pain with the death of Alice only 11 months later. How did you endure?

Maternal great-great grandmother, Mary Kettle Fitzpatrick (1832-1871):

Did you ever feel overshadowed by your brother Andrew J. Kettle, Secretary of the Land League? Did he practice his speeches on you? When you were a young child you and Andrew shared a room, along with your nanny Mary. Did you remain close as you grew into adulthood? In 1839, when you were only 7 years old, what was the night of the 'Big Wind' like? Did it really tear the roof from your home, and as your brother Andrew did, do you recall a sky filled with a million stars?

You died so young, only 39 years old. Your youngest child Teresa was ten months old at the time, but your daughter Alice took care of her. Eventually Alice took care of my mother and her siblings too, after their mother died. Thank you for teaching Alice so well.

Oh dear, now we're all crying in our cups. Shall we move on to one of our more colourful relatives?

Maternal 4th great-grandmother Mary Brien Cavenaugh (1775-?):

When I think about you I imagine you as a wild Irish woman. It seems you had much more freedom than many young women of your day, since you were working as a messenger and a buyer for your family’s extensive carmanstage at Turvey in North County Dublin. Is it true you illegally transported pikes in order to arm the men of north county Dublin for the 1798 Rebellion? Did you find it exhilarating? Did you worry about getting caught?

You are still known, by your female descendants far and wide, for your powers as a healer. Is it true some of the finest physicians in Dublin consulted with you on their most difficult cases? Your grandson Andrew J. Kettle said so in his memoirs.


Before we finish our tea and say farewell, I want to tell you how much I love and admire each one of you and ask, what is the one thing in your life for which you would like to be remembered?

Thank you, dear grannies, for taking the time to enjoy this fantasy tea with me.

Ah me, if only time travel was possible...

If it was possible what questions would you ask your deceased 
grandmothers and great-grandmothers?


Sunday, February 25, 2018

'Ireland is not a leaving place': For ancestors who stayed

In early evening, along the Liffey where the leaving ships once docked.
At night,
on the edge of sleep,

I can see the shore of Dublin Bay.
Its rocky sweep and its granite pier.

Is this, I say
how they must have seen it,
backing out on the mailboat at twilight,

shadows falling
on everything they had to leave?
And would love forever?
And then

I imagine myself
at the landward rail of that boat
searching for the last sight of a hand.

I see myself
on the underworld side of that water,
the darkness coming in fast, saying
all the names I know for a lost land:

Ireland. Absence. Daughter.

from 'The Lost Land' by Eavan Boland

For many who write the history of their Irish ancestors, the story is one of Ireland as a leaving place. As in Eavan Boland’s ‘The Lost Land’, and a number of other poems authored by her, Ireland is that place of one last look for a waving hand upon the pier, one last glimpse of a land fading from view, one last goodbye to a son or a daughter or an entire family who moved away from Ireland’s shores.

However, for most members on both sides of my family tree, the story was quite a different one. No matter what the pull, no matter how seductive the promises made by the lands ‘over there’, Ireland was not a place to leave behind. It was a place to stay and make a life. It is certain that in staying some suffered hardship and ruin, still others died on famine roads and in workhouses, but they also lived. By God, they lived.

Why did they stay?
What is it that kept them in Ireland?
Why did they not cut and run like those who saw a better life waiting for them on foreign shores?

It is not enough to say they were bound to Ireland because of family connections, or they could not travel because money was an issue, given that assisted passage was in place early on after the inception of Irish Poor Law, or even that they were ensnared by the beauty of the place.  Of course, we cannot point to a single reason for all of those who made the choice to stay, but for many there was something more than the obvious concerns. Ireland had forever entangled them in the history of the land, and she would not release her grip.

In the west of Ireland, in the counties of Mayo and Galway and Roscommon, in the annals of history my father's family name goes back to the 8th century. Down through history many of those bearing the Geraghty surname left Ireland behind, but many also stayed.

Although the spirit of the place is forever written on their bones, for my father, my mother and my brother, Ireland was a leaving place. In fact, in my dad's family of origin, he along with all of his siblings emigrated away from Ireland; all sought a better life on foreign shores. His elder brother Patrick left for Canada and then left Canada for the United States, his brothers Enda and Declan chose England, as did his sisters Mary and Kathleen, and his brother John found a better life in Australia. Was it only the siren song of fortune's call that drew them away from Ireland's shores, or something more? In moving toward a better life were not they also moving away from a life best forgotten?

Perhaps the draw to leave came because over time the tales from overseas grew better, the siren's song hummed louder and sweeter, drowning out the thump of the Bodhrán drum and the trill of the tin whistle. For some the chasm between life as it was in Ireland and the promise of life as it could be in another land grew ever wider, and only emigration could fill it.


In the generation before that of my father and his siblings, the generation of my paternal grandfather John Geraghty, John and all of his siblings, save one, stayed in Ireland. John's eldest brother Thomas worked for Guinness Brewery. His brother Michael became a priest and then a Canon in the Roman Catholic Church, and his brother Patrick became a professor at University College Cork. John's brother George worked for Bord na Móna, the company that harvests peat, a fuel once widely used for home heating, and his brother Austin worked for the ESB, the Electricity Supply Board. Neither of John's sisters Margaret and Catherine ever married, living out their lives together in Dublin City. Only their sister Maria Helen emigrated, leaving Ireland on her own in the autumn of 1909 to join her cousin Norah, Mrs. P.J. Moran, in Cleveland, Ohio, United States.

John's father, my great-grandfather Patrick Geraghty, had migrated within the country, moving with his wife and baby son Thomas from Leckanvy, Murrisk, County Mayo, to Dublin City, County Dublin. In Dublin City, Patrick found work, and over the following ten years Margaret birthed the other eight of their nine children. They lived there and they died there.

In Murrisk, County Mayo, looking northeast away from Clew Bay.
Most of my mother's family chose to remain in Ireland. Going back generations, there does not appear to ever have been enough of a trauma to push them out. They survived all of the famine periods which plagued Ireland — Bliain an Áir: the famine of 1740-41, An Gorta Mór: the famine of 1845-52, and An Gorta Beag: the famine of 1879 — as well as years of food shortages into the early 20th century.

Around the turn of the century, my maternal great-grandfather Thomas Fitzpatrick left Ireland for a time, moving to Liverpool with his wife Mary, daughter Mary Angela and son Joseph. Although their time away in Liverpool lasted for a period of about four years, and saw the births of two sons and the sudden death of Joseph, it was not permanent.

What was it that drove Thomas and Mary back to Dublin, to begin all over again? In Liverpool, there had been an ever present lack of work for Thomas, they had moved numerous times, always to less than ideal accommodations, and they were isolated from family in Ireland. On top of all of the hardships they faced, could it be that they also simply missed home?

My mother once told me that she spent their first two years away from Ireland crying, longing to return home. She missed Ireland and her family. She missed picnics at Sandymount and Howth, the fresh sea air, and the swans on the River Dodder, and she missed her dad so very much. An image of the last time she saw him was forever fixed in her heart and mind. From the deck of the Carinthia she had spotted him in the large crowd below on the pier at Liverpool. He had doffed his fedora, and his shock of white hair stood out in the sea of grey overcoats. He seemed so very small and fragile. She would never see him again.

It is not, I submit, only the purview of the romantics to believe there is an almost magnetizing energy in Irish blood that binds some to the land. Although I was born in Canada, I am the daughter of my Irish mother and father. I have no Canadian ancestors. It is Irish blood that flows in my veins, and it is that blood connection which has created in me a deep and abiding love for Ireland, and a longing that sends me back to Ireland time and again, in every season of the year. Although I am a family historian, I am also an historian by profession, and it is Irish history that drives my work. Hovering over all of it are the ever present questions, the search for understanding, the need to ask: Why?

In the mid-morning light, Clew Bay at low tide, Murrisk, County Mayo.
(This post originally appeared in November of 2014)

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