Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Stepping into the Looking Glass: Reflections of ourselves in our family trees

This is a post about questions, rather than answers, but I believe they are questions worthy of contemplation.

In the whole of your life if you never saw an image of yourself, would you wholly know who you are? What would your perceptions of yourself be?

These questions were inspired by a late 19th century image in Aoife O'Connor's book Small Lives, an image in which a group of farm children from Connemara Ireland are pictured (See the photos here: NLI Tuke Collection). The photographer, Major Ruttledge-Fair, showed the children a copy of a photograph in which they appear. While the children pictured could easily point out their friends in the photograph, they did not recognize themselves in the image. Fair accounted for this lack of recognition saying,

"[The children] know each other at once, but not one recognises himself or herself never having seen that same — looking glasses being unknown." (O'Connor 26)

Those of us who are blessed with eyesight are accustomed to the image in the looking glass each morning, even as that image changes over time. Even without a mirror in the house, like Narcissus, at some point we might find an obliging pond that would reflect back a wavy and watery shape which we would probably recognize as our individual self. Also, for better or worse, we receive 'reflections' of ourselves from friends and family who let us know how we look from their perspective — pale, ruddy, fat, thin, happy, sad — and who they believe we are — brilliant or stupid, succinct or verbose, creative or unimaginative, compassionate or indifferent, and many other things along the continuum between these extremes.

Are we not also reflected through the optic of our family history?

This works on two levels.

First, whose stories do we choose to share, and whose do we leave untended? What do those choices say about us as individuals?

Second, in whom do we see ourselves reflected? Which ancestor or relative do we most resemble, be it in the way that he/she looked, or how we imagine their visage, his/her manner of comportment, or the life he/she led?

Many identify with ancestors who emerged as heroes, whether in the battles fought in wars, or as workers for social justice, or in simply raising the fortunes of the family. However, is it perhaps too easy to see ourselves in the heroes? What if you found someone on your family tree who ended up in a workhouse? Would you be willing and able to see any part of that individual in yourself?

Some of us have ancestors and relatives who have suffered from mental illness. Can we see ourselves reflected in them? Are we able to tell their stories or are they kept under wraps?

As you look at your family tree, with whom do you truly have the most in common?

Who do you believe you would like most of all, and who would you honestly admit disliking?

With whom could you see yourself arguing, and upon whom can you see yourself heaping praise?

If you stepped inside the looking glass and down into your family tree in whom would you see yourself reflected?

Think about it.

This post previously appeared in February 2013.
Click on image to view larger version.

Saturday, January 19, 2019

‘Seek, Find, Bid: Discovering Irish History in an Auction House’

As an historian of Irish history, my hobby of seeking, finding and bidding on ephemera and collectibles of historical import complements my life’s work. This hobby came to life in 2008, while I was in search of the Cumann na mBan and War of Independence service medals that had been awarded to my paternal grandmother Annie and her brother Michael. I had been told that the family member, who inexplicably ended up with them, simply gave them away. Among my favourite auctions is the History, Literature and Collectibles auction that is usually held at least once a year at Whyte’s Auction House in Dublin (

Dating to 1880, this panel was produced by a woman with a likely connection to my family.
It was at a Whyte’s auction in 2010 that I found the embroidered panel pictured above. It dates to 1880, was created by a north county Dublin woman likely connected to my Swords, Lispopple and St. Margaret ancestors in Fingal (north county Dublin). The detail is extraordinary. It is replete with all of the traditional symbols of Ireland, including the shamrock, harp, Irish wolfhound, Celtic Cross, and the round tower. At its centre are the flags of the four provinces: clockwise: the red hand of Ulster, the three crowns of Munster, the harp of Leinster, and the eagle's wing and sword of Connacht.

At a Whyte's auction held in 2012, I came across two items that quickly made it to the top of my wish list. The first is a 1916 copy of Thom's Dublin City and County Directory, a directory with numerous entries connected to members of my family. The second is a letter that dates to 1930 and was composed by the Veterans of the Dublin Active Service Unit. It lists all members of the D.S.U., including my grand-uncle Michael Magee who served with the unit during the War of Independence.

The 1916 Thom's Directory offers a wealth of information.  
For the 2012 auction my wish list included two other lots, a group of 1916 postcards, and a collection of revolutionary period photographs. Very quickly it became clear I would have no chance of winning these lots, because a representative for a museum was bidding against me. Once I realized those lots were out of reach, I reallocated the funds I had planned to spend on them to another lot in which I was interested, namely a collection of books focussed on the revolutionary movement in Ireland from 1798 through to 1921. With the reallocation of funds, I won the bid for the for the collection of books. Additionally, my bids for the 1916 Directory and the 1930 letter were accepted.

A fascinating look at politics and corruption in the late 18th & early 19th century.
The collection of books included a very battered and fragile 1833 copy of Sir Jonah Barrington's ‘The Rise and Fall of The Irish Nation’, pictured above. The book includes what is likely one of the first 'Black Lists' ever to appear in print. In the so-called 'Extraordinary Black List’ Jonah Barrington revealed the names of those who sold out Ireland by voting in favour of the 1801 Act of Union 1.

The location of the medals awarded to my grandmother Anne and her brother Michael still eludes me; however, I will continue to seek them out. Further auctions of historical items have piqued my interest and I have made some fascinating finds. I will be forever grateful that my search for my grandmother's and granduncle's medals brought me to this hobby.

Have you ever participated in an auction of historic materials? If not, consider doing so. You might come across something extraordinary that connects to your family, or at the very least to their country of origin. Although participating in a live auction of historical memorabilia may not be for the faint of heart, I highly recommend it, especially if you are interested in owning a 'piece' of history, or even if you are just interested in the process and seeing what kinds of items are auctioned.

Here are six tips for participating in an auction:

1. Seek out reputable auction houses and/or sites with excellent reviews. Attend live auctions if you are able, or attend online 'live', if that option is available. If you cannot attend, find out if absentee bids or pre-bids are accepted.

2. Take a chance. Most reputable auction houses have items priced for museum budgets, or for the wallets of the rich and famous, but many also have available some very reasonably priced pieces.

3. Well before the auction begins be sure to register for bidding. Registration for bidding at an auction is quite straight forward, and may include a credit check before you are allowed to participate. A credit check ensures that those persons who might madly bid hundreds, even thousands, of Euros for items can actually afford to pay for them.

4. Set your budget limit and do not exceed it! A live auction is very exciting and you can easily get caught up in that excitement, so know your limit, and stay within it. Also be aware that there may be a buyer’s premium added to your winning bid. Be sure you know all of the possible costs involved (including shipping) before you make a bid.

5. If you lose out on any bids, move the money you had budgeted for those bids to other lots in which you are interested. 

6. Investing in history means that you are conserving history for future generations. Find out as much as possible about the items you covet. Reputable dealers usually will have information about the provenance, i.e. the history of the items being offered for auction.


1. Tabled in 1800, passed into law in August of that year, and effected on 1 January 1801, the Act of Union joined the island of Ireland to Great Britain as the single kingdom called The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.

Buoyed by the ideals of the French Revolution, including religious emancipation, many Irish, such as Theobald Wolfe Tone and the United Irishmen, saw breaking free from Britain as the way forward to liberty and democracy for all in Ireland. In order to prevent Ireland from supporting France in a war against Britain — remember the French landed in County Mayo to aid the United Irishmen in the 1798 Rising — and to quell the fervour for liberty and fraternity, Britain sought to rein in Ireland with the Act of Union.

The dissolution of Éire's union with the United Kingdom began with the proclamation of Irish independence, the opening volley of the 1916 Easter Rising. That declaration was ratified in 1919 by the newly created and secret Dáil Eireann, and the War of Independence ensued. The Irish Free State was established in 1922. Ireland enshrined its independence in its constitution of 1937, and any remaining ties with the union were entirely severed in 1949. Independent Ireland, called Éire, and described as The Republic of Ireland, is no longer subject to the Act of Union, and is not part of the United Kingdom (the State of Northern Ireland remains part of the UK).

Oddly enough, the Irish government did not officially remove the Act of Union from the law books in Ireland until 1983, and although it no longer applies, the Act of Union remains on the law books of the UK.

For more information about the Act of Union, please see my blog post 'The Act of Union Black List'

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