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.


  1. They seemed such bleak times to live through then. Life must have been hard for them.

    1. Hello Bill,

      Thank you for your comments; they are much appreciated. Thinking about their lives makes me very thankful for my own. Sometimes I wonder how they survived it all. Underlying everything seems to be an incredible strength of spirit.


  2. Wonderfully researched and beautifully written. Thankyou, Catherine.

    1. Hello Catherine,

      Thank you for your comment; it is much appreciated.


  3. Thanks for sharing their story Jenn. Makes me thankful for my sisters.

    1. Hello Charlotte,

      Thanks for your comment; it is much appreciated. Hope you and your sisters have a happy holiday season.



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