Monday, December 31, 2012

The 525,600 minutes of 2012: A season of love, loss and family history

'Seasons of Love', from the broadway play 'Rent', is one of my favourite songs, and as I began to reflect on the passages of the last year, this beautiful song was playing in my mind.  The year 2012 is not one I would care to repeat for so many reasons; however, within the 525, 600 minutes of this particular year, in addition to the darkness which fell upon us, there was also light. There were positive lessons learned, and insights about love within a family, and loss, as well as about family history, and the importance of celebrating all of the 'seasons' of life.

In part, the lyrics of the song 'Seasons of Love' read,

Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes
Five hundred twenty-five thousand journeys to plan
Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes
How do you measure the life of a woman or a man?

In truths that she learned
Or in times that he cried
In bridges he burned
Or the way that she died

It's time now, to sing out
Though the story never ends
Let's celebrate
Remember a year in the life of friends

The first time I saw the play Rent was in 2001, in New York City, just nineteen days after the terrible day on which the planes struck the twin towers.  We were in the old Nederlander Theatre down on West 41st Street — with almost a full house — and everyone in the audience and on stage seemed to be filled with the desire to embrace life.  During the encore all those in the audience were on their feet.  Through tears, and singing as loudly as we could, audience and cast were joined in unison belting out the song.  It was a life affirming moment I will never forget.  It taught me that no matter how dark life gets, it must be celebrated by those of us who remain.

So... as I thought about this past year, I realized it is possible to remember the bright moments which came along with the very dark.

Although January of 2012 ended with a diagnosis of terminal cancer for our beloved dog Sarah, we had her with us for nine weeks after her diagnosis.  It gave us the time to truly appreciate Sarah and care for her in her last days, recognizing the light she brought into our lives. We had just over five years with our girl, and during that time she brought us more joy than we might have had if we'd been given five and twenty years, instead of just five.  Losing Sarah in April made me realize how precious are all the creatures of this earth, no matter how great or small, and made me truly grateful that we have her little brother Ulee who is a bright spark of joy in our lives each and every day.

Springtime was further darkened by the loss of my mom, but there was light in the fact that we were able to let Mom know what she meant to us just before she died in May.  In the hours before my mom fell into the deep sleep that is death, I leaned down, embraced my mother, looked into her eyes and said, 'I love you Mom', and my mom responded in kind.  Mine was not the type of family in which we often said such things to one another. When I was growing up, parents and children had their roles to play, and you just got on with it.  When my mom was dying it was as though I finally 'got it', unlike when I lost my dad.

I did not properly say goodbye to my dad because I think a part of me did not believe he would actually die, so I was more concerned about making sure his oxygen mask was on properly, and the butterfly bandages which delivered morphine stayed in place.  The madness of those last moments, before Dad fell into his quiet sleep, leave a heartbreak which will never heal, but when my mom closed her eyes for the very last time, I was caressing her forehead and stroking her arm, telling her she was truly loved.

This year, in addition to looking inside libraries and archives for the history of my family, I looked outside, watched real life unfold, and wrote about what I observed.  In the summertime I saw something in my older brother Mike which I had never before recognized, and I learned many life lessons from him, and the way in which he dealt with the death of his closest friend, Charlie.

One day in June brought with it a lovely surprise when this blog was named as one of Family Tree Magazine's Top 40 International Blogs. That very morning over coffee I had been telling my husband that I desperately needed something good to happen, anything good, and then it did.

September brought me back to Ireland again, but it felt so different this time. My observations were made with eyes that were opened wide. I watched faces and looked at places as though I had never before seen them, and would never again set eyes on them. Less time was spent in graveyards, and more time in the company of family. The flood gate holding back previously unasked questions burst open wide, and I allowed myself to be like an inquisitive seven year old who never stops asking why.

There have been far too many emotional bumps along the way this year, but we are still here, blessed with life and love, and a passion for living which beats so very strong within our hearts.  So too, gratitude is here.  Like an umbrella over all of life's blessings is the gratitude I feel for my own place in this world, and the thankfulness I feel toward each one of you for allowing me to share my journey with you. Thank You!

As we look forward to the new year, I wish for each one of you much love in your life and many blessings along the way, including many family history finds. May this world delight you each time you open your eyes to it, and may you always find some light within any darkness you might face.

It's time now, to sing out

Though the story never ends

Let's celebrate...


Saturday, December 22, 2012

Advent Calendar of Christmas Memories: Missing you Mom

It's been seven months, eight days, and a few hours since you left us, and I am really missing you Mom.  Our Christmas tree stands in the corner of the living room, bare of all decorations.  I cannot seem to find the strength to unbox them and hang them on the branches, but we will, I promise.  There are the little Santa boots in which you used to place tiny candy canes.  I recollect the shopping trip for those little sparkling red and gold treasures, and the crinkling sound made by the cellophane lid, as you freed each one from the package.  Now, I cannot bear to look at them.

Last week, I drove by your house, and noticed that the people who now live there have dressed the eaves with Christmas lights, but they are not your lights. They have no angels in their front garden, and no lights streaming up through the pine tree at the corner of the house.  Mike and Charlie were not there climbing the ladder, stringing your lights across the front of the house and over the driveway, but you know that because Charlie is with you now. He is there with you and Dad and Sarah, in Heaven, and we are here, stuck.

On Thursday evening, travelling along the escarpment, I passed the hospital where you drew your last breath, and stopped at the lookout for just a few minutes.  The air was so crisp and clear, and the lights from the city below sparkled against the black sky.  Standing in the darkness, I closed my eyes and listened for your voice, but you were not there.  Do you remember our Sunday drives in the wintertime after evening mass, when we would say the city looked 'like diamonds on black velvet'?  We would just sit there in the quiet, enjoying the view, settled in the glow of contentment.

The Christmas Tree in the city centre seems much taller this year, and is all dressed in colour, but the lights glow a little less bright.  They have a carousel for the children, and a little red train too. The park side is lined with small red and white houses, holding tableaus of Christmas inside their simple frames.  It reminds me of meeting you outside of Eatons when I was a child, after you had finished a day's work. We would stand in the snow and the ice, waiting for Dad, and watching the whirl of figures dancing in the Christmas windows, the Nutcracker Prince, and the Mouse King, the ballerinas in fondant pink dresses and crowns of sparkling sequins.

In the cemetery, all around the grave you and Dad share, there is not yet snow, but the trees are wrapped in slender ribbons of ice, and the rain is gently falling.  The winter wind has begun its rush through the trees on the escarpment, and the grass fades in patches of amber brown.  I know this is the natural cycle of life, and death is the most inescapable part of it.  Still, we want you here, with us, in our own ever unchanging Christmas tableau. In my mind's eye I see you and Dad, and all of us around the table for Christmas dinner, with Sarah and Ulee chasing each other under our feet. I know it's just a fantasy, and I dream about it only because I'm missing you Mom, and missing Dad and Sarah too.

Have a very Happy Christmas in Heaven, but know that here on earth, you are much missed.


Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Wordless Wednesday, almost: On the train, Irish streetscapes and seascapes

With the shutter of my camera sometimes clicking away at full bore, I love to take the train in Ireland. It offers the chance to just observe and contemplate, without the worry of dodging cars while on a bicycle, or avoiding pedestrians while driving a car. I like to daydream about what life was like way back in time, and sometimes imagine my ancestors riding in a 'big iron horse'. As their train steamed through the city or the countryside, perhaps travelling along the same routes as me, did they ever think about those who came before them?

At Pearse Street Station, as the train enters the terminal.
Croke Park and a full house for the GAA Hurling Final.
Hello down there.
Just over the rail bridge, the Custom House
Just under an old fashioned bridge which takes you over the tracks.
Flying past walls of green...
...and walls of stone.
Dublin Bay at low tide
Stopping at Dún Laoghaire in a sec.
There it is.
Ah, the sea.
Bray Station 1854, now called Bray Daly Station.
The train waiting at Bray Daly to set on its way back to Dublin.
Copyright©irisheyesjg2012. All Rights Reserved.
Click on images to view larger versions.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Making Irish Christmas Pudding: a complex ritual fondly recollected

At the bottom of a column in an 1895 edition of the Dublin newspaper, The Freeman's Journal, appears this brief article which includes a recipe for traditional Irish Christmas Pudding:

The Freeman's Journal Newspaper, 22 November 1895.
Although it may not sound as if something boiled for eight hours would result in an appetizing outcome, if made properly by a talented cook — with a few improvements on this 1895 recipe — a delightfully delicious Irish Christmas Pudding can emerge after hours on the boil.

Certainly, there are many among us who cannot bear the thought of any sort of Christmas pudding, let alone one that has been boiling all day. Having tasted the puddings of some of the less talented cooks on our family tree, I can certainly understand why it might be avoided. I remember feeling deeply grateful when old auntie gave up on her Christmas pudding. Although I cannot imagine how it ended up in that state, her pudding often tasted like a combination of wallpaper paste and sawdust. At least Auntie had a good sense of humour about it, each time someone declined the offer of one of her puddings. My mother's Christmas puddings were always moist and delicious. I am sorry that all of you did not have the opportunity to taste one of them, and very sorry that I will never again get to enjoy her pudding with my tea.

Although my mother's formula differs in some ways from the 1895 version above, her ritual for making puddings was one inherited from generations of women before her. The talent for making it was in her bones; Mam never had to measure out a single ingredient, or consult a recipe. The preparations and the time taken would have never passed muster with Betty Crocker, because there were no shortcuts here. The time honoured course of preparation for the puddings was done over a period of weeks leading up to the Christmas season. Of course, fresh ingredients were always an integral part of the mix, and the care taken and attention to detail ensured the puddings were no less than perfect. Also, critically important were the proper implements in which to steam the mixture. When my mother emigrated from Ireland, among the items packed into her steamer trunk were the pudding tins which she would use for many years to come.

There were never ever any plums in the mix; the notion of Christmas pudding as plum pudding comes from the old English use of the word 'plumb' to describe raisins. However, there were mountains of golden sultanas, deep black currants and amber brown raisins, ruby red cherries and dates from Egypt. Added to the mix was Mam's homemade candied peel, crafted from deep yellow lemons and sweet oranges from Italy and Spain. Every piece of fruit had to be thoroughly washed, and any stems or blemishes removed. All was then dried, rolled and wrapped in white cotton cloths, and left on wooden boards for days.

Dozens of walnut, almond and pecan shells had to be cracked, and the salty nut meat pulled out, as full in its form as possible. Then the nuts had to be roughly chopped, slivered, or thinly sliced. When I was a very young child, my mother even had an odd little implement for slicing the almonds wafer thin. Bowls of flour had to be sifted, wafting down into the vessel like the softest snow. As noted in the 1895 recipe, the butcher's wares came into play as well. Mam would go to the shop of an old German butcher downtown, and ask for a couple of large squares of suet. She would slice off the outer layer of each one, and shave the suet down until it was almost as fine as flour.

Once the ingredients were properly prepared, all of the components were set out on the kitchen table. The end result would be many puddings, so my mother would have an assortment of large mixing bowls at the ready. Her hands would work the mix, so she scrubbed them thoroughly before touching a single ingredient. Then, from all that was laid before her, Mam would draw out and fold in various amounts — sultanas, currants, almonds, peel, flour — pausing to assess her work, making little additions here and there, turning and tumbling all in together, a mesmerizing whirl in the bowl.

After the ingredients were married together, parchment paper was placed over the mix, a china plate over the parchment, a fresh tea towel over the bowl, and it would 'rest' for a while, usually a period of days, until Mom was ready to add the Guinness Porter. Guinness Porter was not available in Canada when I was a child, and since he could not buy it here, each year my dad would ask a friend of his, who travelled to Dublin every summer, to bring back a couple of bottles. Usually a cardboard carrier with six small bottles would show up in the late Autumn, and Dad would place it on a storage shelf in the cool basement to keep it just right. I used to love watching Mam pour the creamy black porter into the bowls. The beer seemed to hiss and giggle as it rolled down over the ingredients. The fragrance of the entire concoction was heavenly.

When the porter was added, the time for making wishes was at hand. My mother would let each one of us take a turn, stirring the spoon through the massive amalgam in a large mixing bowl. Anyone who happened by the house while she was making puddings was welcome to have a stir and make a wish. As we plunged the large spoon into the mix, Mam would say, 'Three times around — make sure it's a full three turns, and be certain to make your wish'. Oh, when I think of some of the wishes made over those puddings.

After all of the preparation was complete, the resulting mixture in each bowl was again tightly covered with parchment paper, a thick layer of cotton tea towels, and a china plate on top as a weight. The bowls were placed on a shelf downstairs and left for days, sometimes weeks. There was no fixed schedule for this, my mam once explained. She would know when the time was right to 'tin' the pudding and steam it, based solely on the colour of the mixture and the fragrance emitting from it. Every couple of days, Mam would lift the elaborate cover and check on the pudding progress.

When the time was right, Mam would pile the gorgeous concoction into the pudding tins, place the tins into pots half-filled with water, and set them on the cooker. Atop each one sat an old china plate, ensuring just the right amount of weight to secure the pudding tin lid. Then the watching and waiting would begin. As the hours ticked by, Christmas music might play on the stereo, or the house might be still. Linens for the Christmas table might be ironed, or cards written out. Snow might be gently blowing in winter's breeze, or the crackle of ice might bite at the window glass, but all would take second place to the sound of Mom's Christmas puddings in the pots dancing on the cooker.


Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Jane & Teresa: A brief history of two sisters

Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, Little Women: From childhood, the best loved novels on my bookshelf were those which featured stories about sisters. I always wanted to have a sister, and imagined she and I would be just like Jane and Elizabeth Bennett from Pride and Prejudice. Together we would be not just sisters, but great friends and confidantes who only wanted the best for each other.

In uncovering the life of my maternal great-grandmother Jane Early Ball, I found a 'sister story' in the details of the documents, the story of Jane Early and her youngest sister Teresa.

There are no extant images of either Jane or Teresa, at least there are none in my possession. Imagination is now the only artist that can sketch the faces of these two women for me. There are neither pictures, nor paintings, there are only documents, the bare bones of these two lives. Looking at the documents elicits more questions than answers, but still I wonder, is it possible to find the real flesh and blood sisters, Jane and Teresa, ‘between the lines’ on those pages? Although you might imagine a thirteen year age gap would mean they had little in common, the documents speak to a relationship that must have been close.

Jane Early was born in Dublin City in April of 1852, the fourth born child, and second born daughter, in a family of fifteen children. The now faint entry in the parish register for 13 April 1852 tells of Jane’s parents, Thomas Early and Julia Moss, bringing their baby daughter to be baptized at St. Catherine of Alexandria Roman Catholic Church on Meath Street. Thomas’s sister Bridget Early was Jane’s godmother.

In terms of Irish history, Jane was born in the year which is usually acknowledged as marking the end of An Gorta Mór, the Great Hunger (1845-52), the second of two major famines which blighted the island of Ireland. Although the famine may have been over ‘officially’, in many areas of the country, including Dublin City, food shortages would continue to affect families for years to come.

The Early family lived in the ‘Liberties’, an area of Dublin notorious in the 19th century for its grinding poverty and filthy tenements. During the famine period matters were made worse in the area by an influx of persons, particularly from the south and west of the country. They had come to the city seeking food and shelter, in hopes of escaping the horrors of the famine. History tells us the streets of the Liberties were littered with many homeless and indigent desperately seeking relief.

Jane's family was still living in the Liberties when her youngest sibling, her sister Teresa, was born in March of 1865. Teresa was christened on St. Patrick's Day, 17 March 1865 in St. Catherine's church, the site of the baptisms of all of her siblings. Thirteen years earlier Jane had been baptized here, and now she was her youngest sister's godmother.

As they stood at the font on the altar of the church for the baptism of each one of these girls, I often wonder, what kind of life did Thomas Early and Julia Moss hope would come to pass for their daughters Jane and Teresa?

Along with their thirteen siblings and their parents, as sisters Jane and Teresa were growing up, they lived principally in the Liberties area of Dublin City. The family moved many times, living at various addresses on Meath, High, and Thomas Streets. With the birth of each child seemed to come a new address. By the time of their respective marriages, their father was dead, and Jane and Teresa were living with their mother on Strand Street Little on the north side of the river Liffey.

Jane did not marry until she reached the age of 32, and she married a slightly younger man. On 24 August 1884, in St. Mary’s Pro-Cathedral, Marlborough Street Dublin, Jane Early married her beau Francis Ball. Francis, the son of Patrick Ball and Mary McCabe, was a carpenter and box maker just like his father, and at the age of 31 was a few months younger than Jane. At 19 years of age, Teresa was by Jane's side as her maid of honor. There would be many times in Jane’s life in which I would find Teresa there by her side.

Four years after Jane and Francis pledged themselves to one another for life, Teresa Early also wed in St. Mary’s Pro-Cathedral, joined in marriage to John Pell on 23 September 1888. Jane did not stand as a witness for Teresa. Perhaps responsibility for her four month old baby daughter kept Jane from the task, but I like to think she was there for the occasion, watching Teresa take her marriage vows.

Left: St. Catherine's Church in which all of the Early children were baptized.
Right: St. Mary's Pro-Cathedral in which both Jane and Teresa were married.
Following their respective marriages, there was some common ground in the lives of Jane and Teresa, but for the most part their lives took markedly different paths.

After their marriage Jane and Francis lived at a number of different addresses. In the summer of 1885, on 27 July, Jane welcomed her first child, a boy whom they named Patrick Joseph, (my grandfather). The family was living in rooms in a house on Henrietta Street at the time of his birth. Down the cobbled road, the house is just a stone’s throw away from the prestigious King's Inns, the site at which barristers have been educated since the mid 18th century. The life of Jane and her family could not have been more different from that enjoyed by those educated at the King's Inns.

Civil registration record of Jane's eldest son, my maternal grandfather, Patrick Joseph Ball.
The street sign for Montague and the little
house at #16. It is now a restaurant.

When their daughter Jane was born in May of 1888, Jane and her family were living at 16 Montague Street, just a short walk from St. Stephen’s Green. Away from the tenements of Henrietta Street, and away from the heart of the ‘Liberties’, this small and simple accommodation could have portended a life of good things, but it was not to be. Over the course of the life of their family, Jane and Francis would move at least six times, and life would remain difficult.

Teresa Early’s household appears to have had more stability. First she and husband John Pell lived at 16 Merchant’s Quay, and then they moved to a small cottage at 23 Liffey Street, where they would live for the rest of their lives.

The birth of a baby was almost an annual occurrence for Jane, while Teresa had a child about every two years. There were also two years in which both women were pregnant around the same time. In 1889 both women gave birth, with a daughter named Rosanna Maria born to Teresa on 6 September, and a son named Christopher born to Jane on 16 December. In 1893, both women birthed sons; Francis Joseph was born to Jane in February, and John Junior arrived for Teresa in August of that year.

Jane's sister Teresa was godmother of the first three of Jane's five children, Patrick, Mary Agnes, and baby Jane, yet another reason why I imagine they were close. At the baptism of each child, as the priest gently poured the holy water over the baby's head, did Teresa gaze over to Jane and smile at her sister over the blessing of another child? Each time Jane learned she was carrying another baby, was Teresa the first sister she told? Did Jane have to ask Teresa to be godmother each time, or was it understood?

Only three of Jane's five children lived to adulthood, Patrick, Mary Agnes, and Christopher. Jane’s namesake and second born daughter died in 1889 at the age of fifteen months (see: Finding baby Jane: ‘Boxmaker’s child’). Youngest son Francis, namesake for his father, died in 1905 at the age of twelve (see: Francis Ball: 1893-1905: 'casemaker's son' lost).

Teresa would also know the loss of children. Her first born son William fell on the fields of battle in Europe during the First World War (see: A young man in a photograph...). Teresa's son John died in 1927, having lived only until the age of 34.

In August of 1889 at the time of baby Jane's death, Jane and Teresa and their respective families were living all together at 16 Merchant's Quay. Baby Jane's godmother Teresa was pregnant with her first child. On 7 September 1889, just one week after tiny Jane was buried, Teresa had a daughter of her own. Rosanna Maria Pell would never know her cousin Jane.

These losses bring more questions to the fore. When Jane brought her deceased daughter Jane to Glasnevin for burial, was baby Jane’s godmother Teresa by her side? When Jane returned to Glasnevin cemetery in June of 1905 to bury her youngest son Francis, was his Aunt Teresa there?

Jane not only saw two of her young children buried, but she had to bury her husband as well. Francis Ball was relatively young when he died, only 56. Suffering from dementia, Francis had been treated on two occasions in the infirmary of the South Dublin Union Workhouse in 1907, in July and again in August. He was committed to the workhouse infirmary for the last time in January of 1908, where he died 3 July 1909. Teresa's husband John survived her by four years, living until the age of 80, and dying in May of 1943.

In 1914 Jane died in Dublin, a full seventeen years before her granddaughter, my mother Mary, was born into a home just a few miles away from where her grandmother once lived. In an unkempt area of Glasnevin Cemetery, my great-grandmother is interred, alone and in an unmarked grave. Teresa died in 1939, a full twenty-five years after the death of Jane. Teresa is buried with her husband John and two of their children, their daughter Rosanna and son John.

In the middle of this patch of earth is the unmarked grave of my maternal great-grandmother Jane Early Ball.
Thus ends the brief history of two sisters, Jane and Teresa, born into hardship, and bred into the history of Ireland. Where is an accounting of the happy times?  Where is the joy? Surely we can see it between the lines. It is there, fully present, in the lives they lived within the heart of their family.


Burial Registers, Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin: see Glasnevin Trust.
Civil registration records, retrieved at GRO Reading Room, Dublin. (reference numbers available on request).
Crowley, John, William J. Smyth & Michael Murphy, editors. Atlas of the Great Irish Famine, New York University Press, 2012.
Parish registers of St. Catherine's Meath Street, National Library of Ireland (NLI) microfilm #s 7138, 7139, 7140.
Parish registers of St. Mary's Pro-Cathedral, NLI microfilm #9161.

Click on images to view larger versions.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Wordless Wednesday: The Spirit of Dublin

The ever present flower ladies
'Living Statues' busking on Grafton Street
There is always plenty of live music on show.
Tourist travel options: the old and the new
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Monday, November 19, 2012

Anointed with tears: One man's recollection of the long ago loss of a brother

Last November I wrote about my discovery of the records of my mom's brother Thomas, a brother who died almost three years before my mother was born. Mom had a photograph of Thomas, but beyond that knew nothing about him. His life was never spoken of, until my mother asked the question that had long been weighing on her mind, 'we had another brother, didn't we?'. The information gleaned from documents informing the passages of his life and his death do little to tell us of the mark Thomas made on his family, so when I was once again in Ireland I decided to ask my family members about him.

The story I was told made me realize that no matter how long each of us spends on this earth, no matter how small a footprint we make, we matter to someone. People hold their loved ones within their hearts, although decades may pass in which some names are never uttered.

It is a strange thing to hear the recounting of one man’s long ago loss of a sibling, a loss which conveys such fresh sadness that it belies the passage of over eighty years. It is as though the recollection brings us back into precisely that place and that moment in time, and there is an intimacy in the story which makes a listener feel like an interloper.


On the day their parents returned home without baby Thomas, there were no questions from the Ball children, although the elder among them longed to ask their mother and their father what had happened that afternoon. Instead, as she always did, Mary Ball began to prepare a simple evening meal for her husband and the little ones she still had. She leaned heavily into the table while her hands quietly completed their task, chopping cabbage, peeling potatoes, and slicing small rashers of bacon.

Little Gerard joined her at the table, standing steadfast next to his mother, pocketing himself into the folds of her long skirt, his tiny hand gripping tight to her apron. He could feel her body trembling, and almost swaying, as though she was rocking a baby to sleep. She would not utter a word. He looked up to see heavy tears silently streaming down her beautiful face. He gently tugged on her skirt and his mother gazed down at him, causing those tears to fall ever so lightly onto his forehead and down over his nose. Letting them dry where they anointed him, he would not wipe away those tears. They were the mark that told Gerard his baby brother Thomas was dead. He did not move away from his mother, but stood there silent and stock-still until she was ready to hang the cooking pot over the fire.

That night, tucked away warm and safe in the room he shared with all of his siblings, Gerard wept quietly, a little boy with no idea about how he could solve his mother's deep sorrow, but desperately wanting to do so. Gone was the tiny wooden cradle which once sat on the floor next to his bed.



Friday, November 16, 2012

Small Lives: Photographs of Irish Childhood 1860-1970: Book Review

This extraordinary book, edited by Aoife O'Connor features photographs drawn from an exhibition curated by her, and presented in the National Photographic Archive of the National Library of Ireland (NLI). The book takes us on a journey through one hundred and ten years of photographs chosen from collections held by the NLI, and includes many images previously unpublished.

Children from all walks of life are featured, in images showing them at work, at play, or at prayer. O'Connor juxtaposes images of children from the highest ranks of privilege with those fated to the lowest rungs of poverty, giving us insight into the very different kinds of lives lived by these little ones. Particularly moving is an image of children in the workhouse. The filthy conditions and desperate faces stand in marked contrast to the calm repose of wealthy children pictured on the very next page of the book. In their lace trimmed clothing, seated in a garden for a family portrait, they look as though they haven't a care in the world.

Some of the photographs in the book were taken in studios, while others are candid shots. Both methods of presentation offer insight into the way in which children have been perceived and presented in Ireland over the course of these one hundred and ten years. I highly recommend this beautiful book.

Check out a collection of 'Small Lives' images on the National Library of Ireland Flickr page to view a sampling of the sort of photographs featured in the book.

Consider putting together a 'Small Lives' exhibit of those on your own family tree. Here is a collage of a few images of little ones from my family tree, along with an early photograph of yours truly.

Click on images to view larger versions.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

A portrait trimmed in black crepe: William Francis Pell: 1891-1915

The Pell surname is a relatively new one on the maternal side of my family tree. The name emerged during a conversation I had with my mother back in July of 2011. Mom recalled her many childhood visits with the family, whose surname she felt sure was Pells. Visits to the home of the Pells, with her father Patrick, were something which my mom and her siblings excitedly anticipated. Mom did not recall the precise nature of the connection between her family and the Pells; however, she did recall some details about where they lived. In particular she remembered a portrait in a beautiful dark wood frame with a small ribbon of black crepe encircling the rim. The portrait hung above a side board in the front room of the Pell household; it was a photograph of a handsome young man in uniform about whom no one ever spoke.

While conducting research in Ireland, I discovered the surname is Pell, not Pells, but the error is understandable, since a visit to the family was probably preceded by the explanation, "We're going to visit the Pells." In a child's mind, one Pell becomes all Pells.

William Francis Pell was born in Dublin Ireland in the Autumn of 1891. He was the second born child, and first born son, of Teresa Early and John Pell.  Teresa Early Pell was the youngest sister of my maternal great-grandmother, Jane Early Ball. At various times in the late 19th and early 20th century, the two sisters and their respective families lived together. William's cousin, my grandfather Patrick Ball, was six years old when William was born. The Pell family in total appears on the 1901 Irish Census; William is notably absent from the 1911 Irish Census.  One might assume he was already serving in the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, but I have not yet found evidence to support such an assumption.

Unfortunately, not much remains of the World War One record of young William, aside from his medals card, an entry in Ireland's Memorial Records, and a photograph of his grave.  I do know that upon enlisting William served in the rank of Private, and his gravestone attests to the fact that he held the rank of Lance Corporal when he was killed, so one may assume that his short military career was a fine one.  Just as William Dunne (paternal tree) did serve, William Pell also served in the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers; his regimental number was 8328. William Pell was killed in action on 7 January 1915. He had only just celebrated his 23rd birthday.

I do not know how well William Pell and William Dunne knew each other, if at all. Their families were not yet connected, and would not be for some forty years to come. However, in an extraordinary coincidence, both of these men are interred in Prowse Point Military Cemetery in Belgium, two among a total of only two hundred and twenty-five interred. Their graves are only a few yards away from one another.

According to his medals card, William Pell was awarded the 1914 Star, the Victory Medal, and the British War Medal.  The card bears the telling phrase 'K. in A.', the benign way of noting that he was killed in action. The medals card also states his qualification date as 9 October 1914.  Since this date is just three months before his death, one can presume the medals may have been sent posthumously to his family. At the time of his death, the Pell family was still living in the home into which William was born, at 23 Liffey Street, Kilmainham, Dublin. Although there is no slip of paper bearing the signature of his mother or his father for receipt of those medals at their door, I wonder what that day was like when those medals arrived, and just when was it that the Pell family added the ribbon of black crepe to the portrait of their young man?

Prowse Point Military Cemetery, Belgium.  Site of the graves of William Pell and William Dunne.

William Pell's Medal card.  National Archives UK.

The Book of Ireland's Memorial Records under glass in St. Patrick's Cathedral Dublin.
Pell, William. Reg. No 8328, left column, third from top.
Click on photographs to view larger version.
Unless otherwise credited, All Photographs Copyright©irisheyesjg2007-2012.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Travel Tuesday: Into 'Albertopolis' on an afternoon off in London

As I have previously mentioned, part of the reason for my annual trip to Ireland is to conduct research for my history work, as well as family history research. For the last two years, part of what I am working on for my history work entails that I also use the facilities of the National Archives UK in Kew, London. This is a first class facility with plenty of helpful staff, and a wonderfully quiet study area in which you only hear the sounds of old paper and books being shifted around. Blissful!

After spending days combing through box after box of documents, I gave myself a much needed couple of hours off. I fled the archives, dropped my briefcase at the hotel, and headed into central London on the tube. I disembarked at South Kensington Station with the purpose of having a look around the area which was once widely known as 'Albertopolis'.

What is Albertopolis?

In the South Kensington area of London, following the fabulous success of the Great Exhibition of 1851, Prince Albert, prince consort to Queen Victoria, had the brilliance of forethought to create a metropolis of art, science and culture. Albert was worried that the British Empire was lagging behind the rest of the world, and so wanted to create schools for learning, as well as archives and museums, which would celebrate all the best of the British Empire, and mark Britain as the world leader in the areas of art, science, and culture. After Albert's death in 1861, Queen Victoria continued to add to this area, which had become colloquially known as 'Albertopolis'. Laying the cornerstone at what was to be named the Central Hall of Arts and Sciences, Queen Victoria officially christened it Royal Albert Hall. In effect Victoria ensured that the area serves as a national memorial to the memory of her husband.

Here's a slideshow I created and uploaded to YouTube, featuring some of what I came across on my journey through Albertopolis on that windy afternoon.

For more information visit: Albertopolis

Monday, October 29, 2012

New Pages: 'Civil Registration Districts' + 'Geographical & Political Designations'

Today, I am adding two more pages to this blog, pages which I hope will prove helpful with respect to your Irish family history research.

The page entitled 'Civil Registration Districts' is quite simply the list issued by the General Register Office, a list which offers a complete enumeration of the civil registration districts covered in the Birth, Marriage, and Death registers of the GRO.

The page entitled 'Geographical & Political Designations' is offered for purposes of clarification, and when you take a look at it you will fully understand what I mean. Recently, a friend of mine travelling around the southwest coast of Ireland risked a pummelling in a small country pub when he referred to the Irish as British. Although you may never find yourself in such a spot, it is always good to have an understanding of the difference between geographical and political designations with respect to Ireland. Knowledge of these designations is very helpful in terms of family history research, since you may encounter them on various documents in the search for your Irish ancestors.

As always, continued good luck to you with your research.


Thursday, October 25, 2012

Those Places Thursday: By the sea, by the sea, by the beautiful sea

On the train on the way to Bray.
There is something about the sea which is seductive to the soul. Perhaps it is the caress of salt air fresh against our faces, or on a much deeper level, our primordial connection to nature. Maybe it is the seemingly never ending horizon which meets the sea, and draws us in, reminding us of all the possibilities offered by life.

This is the sea my mother loved, the Irish sea, on the east side of the island. This is the sea I first fell in love with when I was a child. It reminds me of an old song my mom used to sing every once in a while:

'By the sea, by the sea, 
by the beautiful sea,
You and me, you and me,
Oh how happy we'll be'...

The Irish sea from the best vantage point in Bray, County Wicklow, known as Bray Head, holds memories of a wonderful day when I was thirteen years old, and my brother and I climbed to the top of the mountain with two of our cousins. If you peer into the photograph below you will notice a large cross on the top of the mountain. We were determined to have a close-up look at it. When I look at Bray Head now, I am in awe of it, but it also makes me laugh because it reminds me of the fearlessness that childhood gives you. The climb that day was wonderful, and wonderfully terrifying. The view from the top was well worth it. It seemed as though the sea went on forever.

Along the strand looking toward Bray Head
The dog in the photograph swims everyday, as his mistress runs alongside him on the shore.
Looking back toward Dublin, way in the distance.
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Monday, October 22, 2012

Finding Mary: Walking mother's footpaths in Ringsend

When I was in Ireland this time I found myself wanting to 'find' my mother Mary, to perhaps better understand what life may have been like for her when she was a child and young woman. To try and glean a glimpse of insight into her life, I walked along the streets my mother once travelled, stood by the seaside my Mom loved, and sat in the church where she once prayed, all in the hope of finding Mary.

The Dublin my mother once knew still exists in many ways, but outside in the light of day, at first it seemed as though it is barely there. Parts of the neighbourhood in which she lived are now so built up that the traffic betrays what were once quiet streets on which children could run and play. Still, in the very centre of the neighbourhood, within the labyrinth of streets which comprise Ringsend, the feeling of the past is there if you stand quiet and listen for it. The train which travels to the seaside she loved still rumbles on the tracks in the same way it once did, and the waves on the beach still crash up on the shore in a rhythm which affirms life. Some things do not change.

The morning of my search for the life my mother once knew began with a walk across the green known as St. Stephen's. Autumn has begun its slow creep into the place, and the bite of chill is in the air. The flowers of summer now quickly fade, and the gardeners dig them up, leaving fallow ground for winter's frost.

The first bus for my trip waits for me at the light, and so I scurry across the street clutching a royal blue and teal scarf around my neck. Of all the scarves in my cupboard, this was my mother's favourite, and so I wear it for her. I tell the bus driver where I am going, pay my fare, and climb the stairs to the upper deck of the bus. The driver calls me to alight at Townsend Street, and I smile. It seems so often there are family connections in this city no matter where I go. It is on Townsend, at number 180, that my maternal grandmother lived as a girl with her family in 1911, after they returned to Ireland from Liverpool. That front door is just a few paces away from the bus stop. I will cycle to it later in the week.

It is not long before the #1 bus 'Towards Sandymount' arrives at the stop. The route is very familiar to me, but this time I pay attention along the way. Looking out the window along Pearse street, I wonder, am I looking at sights Mom once observed, as she travelled from the city centre to her home on Gordon Street? Would the things which catch my eye have appealed to her?

St. Patrick's Church, Ringsend
At Bridge street, over the River Dodder, and just past the church in which my parents were married, I disembark from the bus. As I try to travel back in time, I feel a little unsteady, but make my way over the road, through the gate and into St. Patrick's Church.

The church is small and beautiful, and seems so much unchanged from the images in my parents' wedding album. I feel as though I have stepped inside one of the photographs, and I sit down in the last pew to take it all in. There is a small army of women cleaning every square inch of the church. As I stand up to look around, I feel compelled to ask one of them if it is alright for me to do so. "Of course", she replies, "why wouldn't it be?" She notices the camera bag slung across my hip and tells me I can take photographs too, and I tell her about my mom and dad and their connection to this church. She encourages me to step up onto the main altar and write their names in the book, so they will be remembered in prayers said each day. I write down their names, and the name of my brother's closest friend too.

I wander around the church, gazing at every statue in its respective nook, every image on the walls, and try to imagine my mother in this space. I picture her seated with her father listening to morning mass, or bent in prayer on the eve of a holy day. To the left of the main altar stands an old statue of St. Anthony, the saint to whom my mother always prayed, and I wonder if this is the first place in which she beseeched him.

I run my fingers along the wood of the narrow pews, glancing the small brass plaques which adorn every one, plaques which bear the names of members lost to other families. I sit for another moment in the church and notice the beautiful wood ceiling, every slat perfectly in place, all finely crafted to resemble the body of a great ship, a tribute to the long history of boat building in this community.

Turning back for one last look, I leave the church behind and make my way up the steep incline of the bridge over the River Dodder. The sight of swans quietly sailing along the water makes me take pause for a few minutes. Did my mother ever stand here watching swans in their gentle glide, or turn to see them take flight toward the Dublin mountains?

Swans on the River Dodder, just behind the church in Ringsend.
Swans taking flight in the direction of the Dublin Mountains.
Stopping at South Lotts Road, I wait for the light to signal my journey across Ringsend Road, and look over toward the home to which my mother, as a young teenager, was sent to live in order to care for her grand-aunt Alice, when the old woman could no longer care for herself. My mother did not want to go, but she was given no choice. Her obedience to family duty called her to leave the only home she had ever known, to care for the woman who had once cared for her and her siblings.

As I proceed up the street everything to my right is unchanged, but on my left a new world of business buildings and condominiums has grown up. It is as though I am balanced between the past and the present. It is along this street, my aunt has told me, that my mother always seemed to have a great fear of walking close to the road, so her younger sister would walk with her, keeping pace beside the road. As I travel down the footpath, I imagine them arm in arm, as they ventured out together.

I walk down toward Somerset Street, pause to photograph the converted old gasworks, and somehow lose my bearings. A bewildered look must mark my face, because a young woman approaching asks me if I'm lost. She confirms that 'yes, Gordon street is just there', and again I recognize where I am. As she turns away from me to cross the road, I notice her shoulder length hair has the same chestnut tone and lovely wave to it that my mother's hair had when she was a young woman.

Looking toward Gordon Street. The Gasworks Apartments is the round building in the background.
As I reach Gordon Street, it is very quiet. Where the streets intersect there is a stillness of which no map will ever tell. I wander up the middle of the roadway and imagine children who once lived here, laughing and playing in the street. I spy the front door of my mother's family home, and the Doyle house, and the Murphy family's cottage. There is something reassuring about seeing all of them here. Most of the people from my mother's time are gone from here now, but the brick and stucco houses remain virtually unchanged in this ever changing place. I pause for a moment to think about all that took place in the life of the home that was a part of my family: the births, the marriages, sons going to war and returning home again, the deaths of the matriarch and the patriarch, and my Uncle Gerard, the last brother to live within its walls.

Moving away from the house, I travel toward Barrow Street and notice the names of the streets which intersect from the right, names I have never before noted, 'Joy Street', 'Hope Street'. Seeing those names, suddenly it occurs to me that despite all the hardship and loss Mom knew as she was growing up, my mother was happy here. With that thought I feel as though I have caught a glimpse of my mother, as I walked along the footpaths she once knew best. I make my way out to the main road, pass the old Boland's Flour Mills, and walk back toward Dublin city centre with a lighter heart.

Click on images to view larger versions.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Home is where the heart is

As I write this, the evening sky is settling in around us, and I am home with my family, my husband and our little Ulee, at last. Home is definitely where the heart is, and my home is here with them. Both my body and my mind are tired from these last weeks, and I managed to pick up a virulent case of the flu in the last few days of my trip. I guess that's my reward for burning the candle at both ends, and in the middle, as my mom used to say.

My trip was a great success in that I was able to do a ton of research and reading for my history work, as well as some family history research; however, there were also some very frustrating elements at play, particularly in the National Archives UK. The times I loved the most include visits to old haunts, and opportunities to remember my parents in some of the places they knew best. My emotions have run the gamut from sheer joy to frustration and anger.

As I landed in Dublin I felt a mix of joy and sorrow. I was thrilled to once again be in Ireland, a land that I love, but felt great sorrow in remembering that now neither my dad nor my mom will ever again set foot in the land of their birth. My heart was lightened by conversation with the car driver, John Murphy, who took me from the airport to my hotel. I was amazed to discover that he grew up only a few streets away from where my mother spent her childhood in Ringsend. John Murphy is descended from men who were boat builders and wood workers, professions which for generations defined the lives of many of those who lived in Ringsend, including my maternal grandfather and some of my uncles. I will share more about that with you in a future post.

Looking out over the Irish Sea from the train on the way to visit my aunt.
If you look just below centre, and slightly to the left, in this photograph
 you will notice a man paddling out on a surfboard.
Visiting with my mother's youngest sister Kate and her youngest brother John was especially wonderful for me. My Uncle John told me he always imagines me as an inquisitive ten year old full of questions, so he finds it surprising to see me in the person of an adult seated before him. He was so kind to say he very much likes the fact that the passing of years has not abated my inquisitive nature. He was so open to talking about family history, and I felt as though I gained a better understanding about his feelings with respect to his place in our family after the death of his mother, my grandmother, who died when he was less than a year old. My grandfather's brother Christy and his wife May raised my uncle, so his experience of, and perspective on, our family history is a unique one.

It was wonderful to spend time with my Aunt Kate talking about our family history. She was open to any and all questions, and told me many things I did not know. Also, I felt glad that I was able to share with her some aspects of our family history about which she was unaware. Later in the week in which I visited with Kate at her home, she travelled into Dublin and we spent a wonderful afternoon together, walking arm in arm around parts of the city centre and through St. Stephen's Green.

One of O'Connell's Angels with an Irish Wolfhound.
It was great to see 'my Dublin Ladies', as I like to call O'Connell's Angels. There is something reassuring about finding those lovely bronze statues, ever unchanging, just across O'Connell Bridge. Like many cities throughout the world, Dublin has seen so much change come to the urban landscape over time. There are many neighbourhoods in Dublin in which developers would be quite happy to raze the old cottages and row houses in favour of high rise condominiums meant to attract wealthy 'up and comers'. In my mom's childhood neighbourhood it is astonishing to see the development which has taken place there just over the last couple of years. An enormous building which was not there last summer now dominates the end of Gordon Street. I dearly hope the wrecking ball bypasses the home in which my mother was raised.

On this trip rather than staying in Ballsbridge or Donnybrook as I usually do, I stayed in a hotel right on St. Stephen's Green, so I walked or cycled almost everywhere. I had planned to take a folding bike with me, but instead settled on renting bicycles from the Dublin Bike stands located throughout the city, a perfect alternative. On one Sunday a couple of weeks ago I spent the day tearing up and down the quays like a fifteen year old, taking lots of photographs as I went. It was a blissful day filled with all the elements of Irish weather, sunny skies and warm winds, dark clouds and cold breezes, and even a little rain.

One of the great bicycles I rented from Dublin Bike, parked on the James Joyce Bridge,
 with my camera bag in the basket, of course.
I am very glad to be home with my family on this side of the pond, and I have a lot to share with all of you, but for now I will bid you adieu until next time.

Cheers to you and yours,


P.S. If you are waiting for documents from me, I will be in touch with you shortly to send them your way.

Click on images to view larger versions.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Heading Home

In the west country, looking out the window on the train from Dublin
Tonight I am flying out to Ireland, leaving on a seven o'clock flight. Over the last while, plans which were so easy to put in place have been switched up by the living and the dying sides of life, but now everything is set and I am ready to go.

As I write this, I reflect upon how much life has changed since I travelled to Ireland last August, and how much my family has lost this year. We have spent far too much time standing by the bedside of someone we love, counting down to that last breath of life which tells us we are being left behind.

On the corner of my desk one of my mom's favorite scarves envelopes the red tennis ball that our sweet Sarah used to love to chase. Next to it sit two sets of rosary beads, one I brought from Ireland for my mom years ago, and one I held as a seven year old making my first holy communion. It is a little tableau of life which once was, and is no more.

Croagh Patrick: St. Patrick's Mountain, County Mayo
Sometimes it seems as though none of this matters. It seems as though it is all so much fluff, something to distract us from the end which awaits us. I find myself wondering, what is it we are looking for when we go in search of our ancestors?

I believe we are searching for ourselves among the ruins of old homesteads and piles of documentary evidence. We are searching for that marker which says, 'yes', your people have been planted on this earth for a very long time, they mattered and you matter now.

In the film The Hours, when asked why someone has to die in her novel 'Mrs. Dalloway', Virginia Woolf (as portrayed by Nicole Kidman) replies, 'In order that the rest of us might value life more'.

Are those of us who have been left behind valuing our lives more? Are we living the way we want to live, and doing what we want to do? Are we doing our level best to seek and to find, and to hold in remembrance those who have gone before us?
Yes, all serious questions, but worth contemplating I believe.

Some of you have entrusted me with the task of finding some things for you on this trip, and I want to sincerely thank you for your faith in me. I will do my best.

In return I ask that you take the time now to engage in a random act of kindness, genealogical or otherwise. If you are able, offer to help out someone who has sought help. Perhaps they are struggling with their research, or things just aren't clicking for them, and you could be the difference for them. Maybe they write a blog and just need a little encouragement.

Dublin City
Perhaps you have an ancestor in mind who has been forgotten up to this point in time. Remember them. Write down their story and then tell that story to the world. The story does not have to involve wealth, fame or feats of daring do. Sometimes you will find the greatest heroism in the ordinary family life of people who survived, despite grinding poverty. The history books will not bear their names, that is why it is up to you to tell their story.

Life isn't perfect. No matter how great someone's life might seem from the outside, little do we know how it looks from the inside. We all face challenges, and we only have each other, so add a little encouragement along the way.

Value your life more.

Until we meet again.

The Long Walk, Mount Jerome Cemetery, Harold's Cross, Dublin.

Click on images to view larger versions.

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