Wednesday, December 25, 2013

'Nollaig shona duit agus mise': Happy Christmas to you and yours!

Happy Christmas to you and yours! 

May you hold the love of family and friends,
both the near and the far, 
in your heart on this Christmas Day, 
and may many blessings come your way in the New Year.


Monday, December 23, 2013

The meaning of Christmas, and the year of the little red sewing machine

For our family, the last forty-eight hours have been a bit of an adventure. As the result of a severe ice storm, we lost electricity for over 30 hours, and our property is strewn with massive ice-caked branches that broke off and fell to earth from the large trees which loom over our garden. Without either light or heat, and in the interests of safety, we had to move out to a hotel overnight.

As a result of the storm, things have changed somewhat around home — with some minor damage, and a refrigerator that had to be emptied of Christmas goodies — but, all in all, we've come out of the storm only a little the worse for wear. We were very grateful when, around 9:30 this morning, our electricity was restored, especially considering that some 200,000 people in the greater Toronto area are still without light and heat, and may not have power until after Christmas.

This storm made us realize how very grateful we are for our home — not to mention electricity and heat — and all those other things which we take for granted every day.

The situation got me thinking about the real meaning of Christmas, and about a story I first shared in 2010. It is my recollections of a childhood Christmas, when I was old enough to have some understanding of the state of affairs in our home, but not old enough to truly appreciate what it meant for my parents to have a Christmas celebration for us that year. When you are a little child you never imagine what life is like for your parents, and what kinds of challenges they might face. You believe your mother and father can deal with anything.

Although I did not realize it at the time, the Christmas of the little red sewing machine was one of great struggle for my parents. It was not until years later that my mother told me the truth about that time. During that Christmas season my mother was still grieving the loss of her father earlier that year, and the loss of a baby to miscarriage in the September just past. Also, the company for which my father worked had closed down, so for a time my dad was left without a job.

My parents were always good at saving money, and my mother worked outside the home, so they used their savings and my mother's salary to take care of our family until Dad found another job. Although there was little money for Christmas that year, my parents made sure that Christmas was a memorable one.

For as long as I can recall, my mother made several traditional Irish Christmas puddings each year, but that year Mom made only one, and it was much smaller than usual. There was no Christmas cake, and no little dainties or shortbread, the treats which my mother made faithfully each Christmas season. Although I don't remember having a Christmas tree that year, Mom said Dad did bring home a small one, and we decorated it with just a few of the decorations we always used. Mom reminded me of my insistence that year of including the little feathered birds that I loved to clip on the ends of the tree branches.

The real change took place starting on Christmas Eve. Before that night, on Christmas Eve we had always been allowed to choose a single present to open just before we went to bed, but instead of a present, for each of us there was a new pair of soft flannel pajamas on our pillow, and new slippers on the floor next to our beds. I remember being excited about the appearance of the pajamas and slippers because never before had we done this. After we dressed in our new pajamas, we said our prayers, and Mom tucked us into bed.

In the morning there were no presents under the tree, instead there was to be a present hunt. We searched around the house as Mom and Dad gave us clues to lead us to a present, telling us whether we were getting 'warmer' or 'colder', as we searched for the gifts. I remember the sounds of a lot of laughter and silliness during the search.

Two presents were given to me on that Christmas day. One present was a little box of lace handkerchiefs, embroidered in bright red and green, the other was my little red sewing machine. There was no pretty paper around them, no ribbons or bows to untie, just these small special presents as they were. I still remember exactly where I found the sewing machine. It was tucked behind the tall white door which led into our living room. I was so excited when I found it that I held it in the air and danced around with it. It's funny the things you remember about such times. If I close my eyes now, I can exactly recollect the bright red colour and the coolness of the metal of that little machine, as though it was right in front of me. Also, I remember the delicate sheerness of those handkerchiefs as I draped one over my hand; they seemed so fragile that I was afraid to damage them.

In later years, my mom preferred not to think about that Christmas. It was difficult for her to associate any feelings of happiness with the fear of uncertainty that came with the struggles of that year. For me the memories of that Christmas stay with me because the greatest gifts I received on that day were the feelings of joy and love, comfort and security, that my parents imparted to us. Those feelings were better than any gift money can buy. Even though my brother and I were quite young, somehow we understood how much it meant to our parents for us to be happy on that day, and we were, we truly were.

It is in recollecting the feelings of that day so long ago that I find the true meaning of Christmas. For me, Christmas is a time for feeling gratitude for all that life has given to me, and for expressing pure joy in sharing with others those gifts that no money will ever purchase.


Friday, December 6, 2013

Advent Calendar of Christmas Memories: Manifesting Santa Claus

Thank you Graphics Fairy!

Christmas is the perfect time to reflect on the year nearly past, and to consider all the good there is in this world, and in your life.  In particular, on this day — the Feast Day of St. Nicholas — it is also the time when I think about those people who have been kind to me over the years, especially those who have acted kindly with no thought of receiving anything in return. These are the people whom I believe best manifest the magic of Santa Claus.

Years ago my mom told me a story about the Christmas season in which my brother began to doubt the existence of Santa Claus. Mom did not recall at what age his skepticism set in, but she did recall 'threatening' my brother with some unspecified punishment if he said anything about his doubts to me, his little sister. My brother is a good egg, and he never said a word to me about his feeling that Santa was a creature of dubious origin. I believe it is in part due to my brother that I still believe in Santa Claus.

Don't worry, I haven't lost my rational mind (not entirely), but there is honestly a teensy weensy part of me who still wishes for the whole landing on the roof and coming down the chimney extravaganza. I would be happy if it happened only once, just to see Santa emerge, red suit and all. After that I would worry about ensuring the chimney flue was open, and that there was no fire in the fireplace. Eventually it would be just too stressful, and I'd have to give Santa a front door key and the alarm code.

Nah! Overall a bad idea.

Instead, I believe in manifestations of Santa Claus. There is a kindness and a selflessness in old St. Nick which finds its way into people, not only at Christmas, but throughout the year. Over the years I have come across many people who have manifested Santa Claus in my life.

I am grateful for each and every one of those who are:

Definitely manifesting Santa.

In March of the year in which I celebrated my 11the birthday, while on my way to the public library downtown, I was hit by a car. A homeless man, and a woman who was passing by with her daughter, lifted me off of the road and waited with me until the ambulance showed up. I was badly injured, bleeding heavily from my mouth, and in shock. According to the woman, when the man noticed I was shivering he took off his coat, put it over me, and turned my head to the side so that I wouldn’t choke on the blood. Apparently, when they loaded me into the ambulance, I still had the coat over me, but by then it was covered with blood.

Afterward, my parents put an ad in the newspaper because they wanted to meet the man who had so generously helped me, to thank him and to replace his coat, but they were unable to find any trace of him. Every year around Christmas time, I think about this man who had so very little himself, but who nevertheless acted out of such kindness and selflessness to help me. In my mind he was definitely manifesting Santa Claus.

Of course, every day acts of kindness are not so dramatic as in this instance. Acts of kindness which manifest the magic of Santa show up in many forms. Here is a list of the many people I have encountered along my life's path who are

Definitely Manifesting Santa:

Family members and friends the world over who make my day, when they tell me they like something I've written in this blog. Sometimes comments include something about what is going on in their own lives. This makes me feel as though we are still connected as family, although many miles separate us.

The people who follow this blog, and those who comment, make my day by making me feel as though my blog matters.

* Fellow family history/genealogy bloggers who put themselves out there and share their research and their stories, their successes and their frustrations. They are a giant well of inspiration that will never run dry.

Thomas MacEntee, founder of the GeneaBloggers community, who inspires us, helps us, and brings our posts together, so that more people can see them.

Definitely manifesting Santa:

* The 'Christmas people', as I like to call them, who collect toys, clothing, and food for local food banks and for city wide charities.

The archivists at all of the repositories I've used, both for my history work, and for my family history research. So many of them have gone above and beyond the call of duty to help me, and I am so very grateful for that help.

The elderly man I met years ago at Glasnevin Cemetery who stopped on his way out of the cemetery, turned around and came back in, to help me search the rows and find my maternal grandfather's unmarked grave.

The Santa Claus at the Eaton Centre who made my day when he smiled and waved as I passed by.

Strangers who smile and hold the door for me, just to be nice.

* The man ahead of me in the Starbucks drive thru line, who paid for my coffee and for the orders of the five cars behind me, simply because he wanted people to have a good day.

They are out there everywhere, just waiting to do something kind, without giving it a second thought.

Definitely Manifesting Santa:

I am very fortunate because my most special manifestation of Santa Claus, my husband Matthew, wakes up beside me every day, loves me, encourages me, challenges me and supports me in my work. Each and every day I thank my lucky stars to have him in my life.

Who manifests Santa Claus in your life?

“The Advent Calendar of Christmas Memories (ACCM) allows you to share your family’s holiday history twenty-four different ways during December! Learn more at”

Graphic courtesy of The Graphics Fairy.


Sunday, December 1, 2013

Advent Calendar of Christmas Memories: 'Oh, Christmas Tree'

The tradition of having a real tree continues in our home.
Once again the season of Advent is upon us, and it has me thinking about Christmas times of long ago. In honour of this first day in the Advent Calendar, here is a story I have shared before of an adventure with my father and my brother, the year our Dad took us out to chop down a Christmas tree.

Oh, Christmas Tree

As I write this, the morning is cool and grey, with a combination of ice and rain lightly pelting against my window. It is not the sort of December day I recall from my childhood. The day I am thinking about seems so long ago.  It began with a morning on which my Irish father, still getting acclimated to the then bitter cold Canadian winters, took my brother and me out to a Christmas tree farm to enjoy the experience of finding, cutting down, and carrying home our Christmas tree.

It seemed Dad had diligently created a plan in the weeks leading up to that Sunday, his only day off in the week. He had spoken to the men with whom he worked, trying to discover the best farm with the best trees. He seemed a little disheartened, but not put off, when we awoke that Sunday morning to discover it had snowed heavily the night before.  Never one to be deterred, after a hearty breakfast, he dug the car out of the deep snow, grabbed the axe, and we set off for the farm.

Back then my dad drove a big blue Buick that we had named Nellie. He skillfully piloted 'her' down the snow-covered roads, spurred on by my brother and me chanting "C'mon Nellie, C'mon Nellie", from our places in the back seat. We drove for what seemed like hours in little kid time, but it was probably not very far. As we drove, once again the snow began to fall. By the time we reached the farm, it was freezing cold, snowing hard, and visibility was poor.

At this point I was a little (okay a lot) unsure about this adventure. As we trudged through the snow I kept my head down, with my eyes closed, trying to stop tears from streaming down my face. I clung tight to the sleeve of my dad's coat, as he carried the axe in his hand. The snow seemed to get deeper as we walked, so somehow he hooked the axe through the belt loops on his coat, held tight to my brother's hand, and swung me up into his arm, saying, "There now, you're alright". I remember hugging his neck and pressing my cold little face into his warm cheek. It was wonderful.

As we reached an open spot in the rows of trees, my dad pointed to one just in front of him and exclaimed, "There now, how 'bout that one?" He set me down next to my brother in front of what seemed like a gigantic tree. Together all three of us brushed away the snow from the base of the tree, so that Dad could clearly see the trunk at which he would swing the axe. He lifted us out of the deep snow, set us back safely out of the way, and struck the axe against the trunk of the tree. All the while shivering, my brother and I clapped our snow-caked mittens and shouted, "C'mon Dad, C'mon Dad".  It didn't seem to take very long before he had downed the tree.

We needed to get the tree back to the car, and Dad encouraged us, saying he needed our help. He took hold of a thick branch on one side at the bottom of the tree, and my brother and I took hold of a couple on the other side. It seemed as though together we dragged the tree back to the car, but I'm certain Dad towed most of the weight. He warmed up the car, and we happily climbed in while he strapped the tree to the roof. He got in and opened a big Thermos of hot tea, and a box of shortbreads, that my mom had tucked into a bag for us. It seemed as though we sat there for quite a while, drinking and eating, sniffling and giggling, talking about how great our tree was going to look, and how much Mom was going to love it.

Eventually the snow stopped and we made our way home. Mom greeted us at the door cheering and laughing about the size of the tree. Even though we had very high ceilings in our house, it seemed as though my dad had to cut at least two feet off of it, in order to get our tree to stand upright. When he finally had it trimmed to the right height, we all loved it.

These days every Christmas when my husband and I go out to the Christmas tree farm to buy our pre-cut tree, I recall that wonderful day with my father and brother. The fragrance of the tree we found and chopped down on that day is still with me.


What recollections do you have about family Christmas trees?

Copyright©irisheyesjg 2010-2013.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Wordless Wednesday, almost: Commemorating the 1913 Dublin Lockout

Dominating Eden quay in Dublin, Ireland, on the sixteen story SIPTU Liberty Hall building, this 50 metre high wrap of banners commemorates the lockout of 1913. The work of artists Robert Ballagh and Cathy Henderson, this beautiful tapestry instantly draws your eye down the quays from O'Connell Street, successfully keeping the lockout at the forefront of memory.

To read about the history of the 1913 Lockout, and to find out about the artists who created the tapestry, visit:
Lockout 1913

Click on images to view larger versions.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Travel Tuesday: By the sea...

Looking toward Lambay Island in the Irish Sea, North County Dublin
It is not simply that I am deeply attracted to the sea off of Ireland because of its beauty. Being near the sea gives rise to thoughts about how important a role the Irish sea and the Atlantic ocean played in the lives of my ancestors and family members who lived on the island of Ireland.

The sea brought my mother, father and brother to Canada, and although none of my ancestors further back emigrated away from Ireland, some of them did travel on holiday across the sea to England and to France. One family member in particular — Tom Kettle (1880-1916) — travelled across the Atlantic to New York City by ship, and to Chicago, in the very early years of the 20th century, to raise funds for the Irish Parliamentary Party.

In the west of Ireland, members of my father's family farmed land in Leckanvy, Murrisk, near the natural ocean bay called Clew Bay, on the Atlantic ocean. The tides of the sea, with their rhythmically moving waters, would have been a part of each day for them. My father's grandparents briefly farmed there before migrating to Dublin, but his great-grandparents, and other family members farmed in the area for generations.

On my mother's side, my great-great-great grandfather Thomas Kettle (1799-1871) farmed land near the Irish sea in North County Dublin, as did generations before him and after him. His granddaughter, my mother's grand-aunt, Alice Fitzpatrick Ward was married to a Master Mariner, Captain James Joseph Ward. The sea brought her husband to her, and tragically, life on the sea took him away from her.

When my mother was a child, sometimes her father would take her and her siblings out to Dublin Bay at low tide. The children would use little lengths of wood, the ends of which their father had whittled to a sharp point so that together they could dig through the sand, uncovering and collecting cockles and mussels. Grand-aunt Alice would cook the selection of clams in a large pot over the fire, and the family would sit down together to enjoy them with fresh baked soda bread and sweet butter. Mom had such fond memories of those days, with little granules of sand clinging to her socks, the scent of the sea in her hair, and the saltiness of the day's catch upon her tongue.

Just down the road, on the way to Howth Head.
Across the bay from the Poolbeg Power station. The lines of mist are from the rain on the opposite side of the bay.
Recently deceased Irish poet Seamus Heaney uses the sea as a metaphor in a favourite poem of mine:

Lovers on Aran

The timeless waves, bright, sifting, broken glass,
Came dazzling around, into the rocks,
Came glinting, sifting from the Americas

To possess Aran. Or did Aran rush
to throw wide arms of rock around a tide
That yielded with an ebb, with a soft crash?

Did sea define the land or land the sea?
Each drew new meaning from the waves' collision.
Sea broke on land to full identity. 

From the Summit of Howth Head, looking toward the light house.
Occasional gorse fires change the colour and contour of the landscape.
Early evening, and the light and colours change again.
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Monday, November 4, 2013

GRO Research Room: A very low priority: An Open Letter to Brian Hayes, T.D.

Dear Brian Hayes, T.D.,

How are you? I am writing to give you a little feedback about the location of the General Register Office (GRO) research room. Since the research room has been in the new location for a few weeks now, I'm including a few photographs, and a little information to help you out, along with my thoughts.

When you were rationalising the move of the GRO research room from the rented premises at the Irish Life Centre to a state owned building on Werburgh Street, you described the building as "at the rear of Dublin Castle". Since I've actually been to the place, I thought I would write to let you know that the building at 1 Werburgh Street which houses the new GRO research room is not at the rear of Dublin Castle.

At the rear of Dublin Castle is a beautiful garden and green space, complete with a labyrinth walk. It's quite lovely and welcoming. When I'm in Dublin I often take a walk around the labyrinth. The open airy space is quite conducive to helping one when there is a difficult decision to be made, or when one needs to give his head a shake about a poor choice he made. You might consider taking a labyrinthine walk. It's very beneficial.
The Labyrinth Walk and grounds to the rear of Dublin Castle.
You might even consider getting your driver to swing by the place on the way to the Dail. You could get out of your lovely car and take a walk from the labyrinth along the streets which take you to the new home of the GRO research room. 

The street I had to walk along in order to get to the new research room was neither lovely, nor welcoming, and although I was harassed by a group of ne'er-do-wells on my way to the building, at least I didn't get mugged.

Just over the road from the GRO Research Room. Look closely, you'll find it.
Click on the image to view a larger version.
It's good that you didn't choose to move the GRO research room elsewhere, such as into the under-utilized former Tourist Office on Suffolk Street. That might have made too much sense, and would have had us doubting whether or not you are a real politician. It's better that you made this backward move into a substandard building surrounded by prison-style fencing. It helps to remind some of us of our family members who were incarcerated during the Land War, the Irish War of Independence, and the Irish Civil War, without the need to once again stop by Kilmainham Gaol. Thanks. You've killed two birds with one stone. Such a time saving idea.

You mentioned that the new GRO research room location had undergone "extensive renovations". I guess I need to get a new dictionary to help me understand this new meaning of 'extensive', and maybe the meaning of 'renovations' too, or perhaps you could tell me, what do you mean by these terms?

It's just a short jaunt to the entrance down this lovely alleyway.
The entry gate: I love the spikes; perfect prison motif.
With respect to health and safety, I have a couple of questions, so please do read on.

Most of the windows at ground level are covered with metal caging, and with the exception of the one in the picture above, they are all opaque, so you cannot see outside — probably best given the dodgy area in which the building is located — but giving me some safety concerns with respect to the building itself. There is ONE single exit from this site for patrons using the reading room. Mr. Hayes, if there was a fire or any other sort of emergency, and that single exit were to become blocked for any reason, how would GRO patrons and staff escape from this building?

Also, there is a single toilet for the use of ALL patrons. There are enough tables in the room to seat about 40 researchers at a time, and throughout the day there are always many people who stop in to pick up birth, marriage and death information. Any person with even an ounce of sense would conclude that a single toilet for the use of more than 40 people is not just unhygienic, it is simply disgusting. Would you be satisfied if there was only one single toilet available for the use of the members of the Dail Éireann?

As to the exterior of the building, the ugly colours chosen are perfect — the sad grey facade and the teal to match the prison gates — because they remind us that maybe Ireland really isn't on the road to recovery after all. I especially like the old grey wall covered with graffiti, and the lovely lot next door to the building, and all the garbage moored up against the fencing. Was all of that part of the extensive renovations? Perhaps you can find a couple of heroin addicts and get them to hang out there. Doing so will make complete your apparent plan to bring a real gritty urban feel to the place. The tourists will love it.

By the way, leaving the GRO research room last week was a real treat too. In the pouring rain, I had to close my umbrella in order to make my way around a delivery van — pictured below — that was completely blocking the entry gate which leads to the building. Thanks for that narrow entry gate.
The delivery van which hampered my escape from the building.
The staff of the GRO research room are surprisingly upbeat, considering the prison-like nature of their new digs. Their work space is very cramped and there are no windows other than the very small ones at the top of the building. In terms of work ergonomics it does not strike me as a very conducive space, nor a particularly safe one. Some of the staff seem happy just to be employed, but even if there are some who are not content, who cares if employees are happy anyway? For that matter who cares about any Irish citizens who are very unhappy about the move? It's not as if they vote in elections.

The choice of this site makes it very clear that the Irish Government views the GRO research room as a very low priority.

In the future, it is likely I will be returning to the GRO research room simply because of my work as a historian, and I will deal with things as I find them. Clearly the Irish government is not interested in bringing the GRO research room into the 21st century. The promised research terminals are not in place, and I doubt online access will come into play anytime soon. Perhaps next time you need to save money, before you consider moving a facility such as the GRO research room, you might look at areas in which the savings would be of a more significant nature. For example, you might consider TD pension reform. Just a thought.

Have a nice day.

Click on images to view larger versions.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Sepia Saturday #198: 'A ship of dreams, on a journey toward the future'

The Carinthia: the ship on which my mother and brother immigrated to Canada.

Last year, in a post entitled 'Toward a brilliant dream': an immigration story, I wrote about the emigration away from Ireland of my father Michael, my mother Mary, and Michael, my elder brother. The choice to leave Ireland was a difficult one for my parents, a choice that brought with it the possibility of never again living in the land of their birth, and never again seeing the family members and friends they were leaving behind. Still in all, my father and my mother believed the decision they made to immigrate to Canada was the right one for their future, and for the future of their only child Michael, as well as any other children who might come along.

The plans my parents set in place for their emigration away from Ireland entailed that my father Michael would leave first. He would settle into the new job which awaited him — new immigrants had to have definite job arrangements before they would be allowed in — and acquire a home for his little family. All would be in place when my mother and brother arrived. Setting out for Montreal, Quebec, Canada on 10 April, 1956, my father was only 27 years old. Dad's mother and father were dead, and he did not know if he would ever again see his beloved brothers and sisters whom he was leaving behind. Nevertheless, he was excited about the prospect of Canada and the bright future awaiting him.

My mam and brother followed my dad to Canada in October of that year. Mam's favourite brother Patrick had moved away from Ireland before her, and was living in Liverpool, England. Along with my grandfather Patrick Ball, and Mam's siblings Kate and Gerry, my mother and brother flew to Liverpool, so that Mam could say goodbye to her beloved brother. They spent a few days in Liverpool with Patrick. It was Patrick's first time seeing his little nephew Michael, and possibly his last, so my mother felt the time they spent together was so very important.

In Liverpool, England on 31 October, 1956, my mother and brother boarded a ship, The Carinthia, that would take them to my father, and to their new life in Canada. Mam quickly scurried to the deck with Michael so that they could wave goodbye. Immediately she spotted her father Patrick, with Kate and Gerry in the large crowd below. He had doffed his fedora, and his shock of white hair stood out in the sea of grey overcoats on the dock. He seemed so very small and fragile. Mam said she felt her heart break a little when she saw her dad. In that moment she wanted to rush off the ship and embrace her father just one more time, but of course, she could not. She would never see him again.

Throughout her life my mother spoke only occasionally about their immigration to Canada. At those times talk usually turned to her visit in Liverpool with her brother Patrick, and to those last moments as the ship moved away from the dock, and the sight of her father faded away. Although there was much sadness about this time, Mam also delighted in telling me about the six day journey she and brother made on the ship to Canada. My mother had left so very much behind, but it seems travelling on the Carinthia with my brother was a bit of an adventure for both of them.

When she boarded the ship that day for their journey, my mother Mary was only 25 years old. Although she had travelled with family members on holiday to Kent, England, my mother had never before been outside of Ireland by herself. Onboard the Carinthia, she was responsible not only for herself but for her only child too. My mam found a friend in the ship's stewardess who had been assigned to their cabin, and who allowed her to have a peek at some of the first class amenities, as well as the restaurant, cinema, and other areas set out for the 'tourist cabin class'. Mam loved being onboard the ship and wandered around with my brother, taking it all in. The only time she recalled feeling a little unsafe was when she was enjoying a film in the cinema with my brother and felt the pronounced sway of the ship upon the sea.

'Immigrant - Landed', the visa stamp
in Mom's passport.
A few months before she died, I talked to my mam about their emigration from Ireland. She said that despite her initial uncertainty, she had absolutely no regrets about the choice they made to come to Canada. Mam reminded me of the fact that she felt so very proud to be a Canadian, and talked about the year she and my dad and brother became citizens. 

Despite finding happiness in Canada, both my mam and dad felt very glad to have been able to return to Ireland and England to visit with family and friends as often as they had. Mam's one unqualified regret about leaving Ireland was that it meant leaving behind her beloved father, and thus never seeing him again. Sadly, neither an adventure onboard a great ship, nor life in a land of dreams with the husband and family she loved, would make up for that profound loss.

Be sure to stop by the Sepia Saturday blog to see how others have been inspired on this day. Perhaps you'll be inspired too.


Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Travel Tuesday: Marsh's Library: A Treasury of the European Mind

In Dublin right next door to the cemetery grounds of St. Patrick's Cathedral, and tucked away just beyond a small gateway, is Marsh's Library. Founded in 1701 by Archbishop Narcissus Marsh, in a building designed by the Surveyor General of Ireland, Sir William Robinson, Marsh's Library was the very first public library in Ireland.

Today, the library is one of a very few 18th century buildings left in Dublin that is still being used for its original purpose. In fact, many of the books in the library are still kept on the same shelves chosen for them by Archbishop Marsh and by the library's first librarian, Huguenot refugee, Dr. Elias Bouhéreau.

The library holds some 25, 000 books and manuscripts dating from the 15th to the 18th century and covering such a wide variety of subjects — classical literature, mathematics, science, politics, music, medicine and law — that it has been fittingly referred to as a treasury of the European mind. There are bibles printed in almost every language, along with books in Hebrew, Arabic, Turkish, and Russian, and a significant collection of Latin Judaica.

The library is principally comprised of works from the collections of four individuals. The most significant of these is that of Edward Stillingfleet, the Bishop of Worcester, whose collection of over 10, 000 books was considered to be the finest private library in Europe in the period. It was purchased by Marsh in 1705 at the cost of £2,500.

John Sterne, the Bishop of Clogher, bequeathed his private collection to the Marsh library in 1745. Among those treasures is Cicero's Letters to his Friends. Printed in 1472, it is the oldest book in the library. The library's oldest manuscript also comes from Sterne's library; it is The Lives of Saints, which is written in Latin and dates to around 1400. The private collection of Narcissus Marsh, and that of the first librarian, Dr. Bouhéreau, complete the library.

Within the library, horizontal curios line one side of the central aisle, displaying all manner of fascinating materials. Also there are small cage-like enclosures in which the scholars of the day were required to sit when they were conducting research. A scholar could not simply peruse the shelves and choose the volume he required. Instead the librarian would retrieve the desired books and deliver them to the caged pupil for study.
Interior looking out, and the final staircase to the library.
The red hall is dominated by a portrait of Narcissus March.
Visitors to the library are not allowed to take photographs inside the library itself — thus all the outside views — however, I did manage to snag a shot just over a patron's shoulder before the door was closed to me. The last image on this page is the listing of librarians which hangs above the door into the library. Perhaps the name of one of your ancestors is among them.

You can get a glimpse of some of the treasures held by Marsh's library, and have a look at a 'study cage', by visiting the Pinterest or Facebook pages of the library.

Did any of your ancestors serve as a librarian at Marsh's Library?

Click on images to view larger versions.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Wordless Wednesday: Near day's end

Facing Clew Bay, as the tide begins to come in.
In the foothills of Croagh Patrick.
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Monday, September 23, 2013

William Dunne & William Pell: Following the road of my two Williams

In the early afternoon of a day on which change in the weather seemed to match my mood, we set out toward Messines, Belgium. The countryside in both France and Belgium is beautiful in its simplicity, lulling you into a sort of serene blissfulness, but then the history of the place calls out to you. The losses of war are ever present as the natural landscape is interrupted time and again by the sight of yet another cemetery filled with military graves.

On either side of the Great Cross of Sacrifice, two large weeping willow trees
add to the beauty and peace of Prowse Point.
Our destination on this day is Prowse Point Military Cemetery, the final resting place of the men I call my two Williams, my paternal great-grandmother's brother, William Dunne, and my maternal grandfather's first cousin, William Pell. It is purely happenstance that these two members of my family are interred in the same cemetery. Their sides of the family tree would not be joined together until my mother and father married, some forty years after William and William were killed on the field of battle during the First World War. 

Messines, Belgium
Turning just off Rue de Messines, I slowly follow the narrow road past a small farm house on the left. An old woman in a garden sweeps the sweat from her brow and nods in our direction, as though she knows exactly where we are going. It is difficult not to be drawn in by the landscape. The beautiful wide open fields are replete with burgeoning crops, sugar beets, potatoes, and barley. It seems all of life is here, food, earth, air, and family.

As I draw the car up onto the narrow pebble and grass shoulder of the road, dark skies hold heavy over Prowse Point cemetery, and I am sure it might start raining very soon. We climb out of the car and turn toward Messines. The village seems such a short distance away, a distance which must have seemed like light years to my two Williams.

A church still dominates the village as one did from the 11th century until the early part of the 20th century, before the First World War brought the bombardment that would level the church and the entire village, leaving only rubble and dust. There is something life affirming in seeing that the village was reborn, and the church was rebuilt.

The simple entry gate for Prowse Point Military Cemetery.
We turn away from Messines and toward Prowse Point. Before we open the gate and walk through, I immediately see William Dunne's grave. It is just a couple of yards from the gate. William and his fellow soldiers were some of the first interred here at Prowse Point. Their stones are the only ones in the cemetery which are drawn so close together, standing shoulder to shoulder, reminding us that when they were interred the three men's bodies may have been so destroyed as to be unrecognizable, and so they were interred together. They were killed 20 November 1914, William Dunne, age 34, of Dublin City, Ireland, and James McGuire, age 44, and James Gallagher, age 19, both of County Donegal, Ireland.

Three comrades together.
William Dunne's marker is on the far right.
All three markers note the date of death as 20th November 1914.
Kneeling just to the right of William’s stone, so as not to tread on the grave, I lay my hand on the face of the marker. It feels cool to the touch. My index finger follows the carved path which they have as his name — W. Dunne — as I say his full name aloud, William Dunne. I murmur a prayer and then make the pledge that he will never be forgotten. The flowers which once grew at the base of William's stone are gone, so only a small shrub grows there now. Instantly I regret not bringing a rose bush from Paris to plant in his honour, to show he is not forgotten.

A Soldier of The Great War
Known unto God.
We leave William for a moment and walk along the rows of graves observing the names, ages and countries of those interred. I recite each name out loud to the open sky. It seems fitting that each one of these names should once again float on the gentle breeze. So too, there are the graves of the unknown, marked A Soldier of The Great War / Known unto God. These stones give you pause to think about the family members of those interred within. I picture mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers searching through the cemeteries in the area, longing to find their family member who has no known grave, and wondering which grave holds their son or father, husband or brother. 

The deep quiet of the cemetery is broken by the sound of a tractor out on the narrow road. We look up to see a farmer hauling bales of hay. He waves his hat to us in greeting, and we return the sentiment. This brief exchange reminds me of the fact that the world still turned, that life went on without all of these young men, and so many, many more. The skies darken again, the wind becomes more determined, and the weeping willows rustle insistently, seeming to say, 'Remember, remember, remember!'

William Pell
Royal Dublin Fusiliers
7th January 1915 Age 23
As we continue to walk from stone to stone, the clouds part and the sun begins to shine, the sky feels wide open, and the air is fresh and clear. It makes me feel grateful to be alive. We arrive at the grave of my second William, William Pell. A stunning red rose sways in the breeze gently caressing the stone. I kneel down and repeat the ritual of tracing William's name as they have it — Wm. Pell —  as I say his full name out loud, William Francis Pell, then repeat a prayer, and make the pledge that he will never be forgotten.

Closing my eyes, I turn my face up to the glorious sun, feel her warm embrace, and think about the fact that the two Williams lived and died under this same sky. In the mornings of their lives their faces were awakened to the same sun, and at night their eyes closed under the same moon. All around us the fields are brimming with colour, green and gold, red and orange, and I realize how very different this landscape is from the one my two Williams knew. 

The trenches, the mud, the fire and the smoke, the stench from fields littered with the dead and the dying, theirs was a world so removed from earthly life, a special kind of hell. Scanning this earth and sky, I try to imagine what it was like for each one of them when they fell. Was the end sudden and swift or did they lie waiting to die, crying out for comfort that would never come, while the stretcher bearers scurried about choosing who to take and who to leave behind? What thoughts crossed the mind of each William as he realized his life was drawing to a close? Whose was the last face they saw?

We remain at Prowse Point for much longer than we intended. It is a difficult place to leave. In the book of memory that is kept with the cemetery register, I write what seem to be empty platitudes, asking for peace in our world, and for the remembrance of William and William, members of my family, neither of whom I ever knew and could not possibly know, since we did not exist in the same dimension of time, but to whom I nevertheless feel a deep connection. Thinking about the sacrifice each William made makes me feel ashamed for becoming frustrated about minor challenges I face in everyday life, the things that don’t quite go my way.

Plaque acknowledging the perpetual gift
by the Belgian people of the cemetery land.
Inside the small brick and mortar building on the western side of the cemetery is the plaque [inset left] which acknowledges the donation of the land by the Belgian people for the burial of members of the Allied armies. It is interesting to note that while both the French and Dutch translation refers to the fallen as heroes, the English plaque simply refers to 'those' who fell.

Transcription of the English plaque:
The land on which this cemetery stands is the free gift of the Belgian people for the perpetual resting place of those of the Allied Armies who fell in the war of 1914 - 1918 and are honoured here.

Translation of French plaque:
The ground of this cemetery was graciously offered by the Belgian people to serve in perpetuity. Field of the heroes of the armed Allied graves during the Great War of 1914 - 1918 and whose memory is honoured here.

Translation of the Dutch plaque:
The Belgian population gave this land as perpetual resting place of the fallen heroes of the Allied armies of the World War 1914 - 1918 and whose memory we honour here.

William Dunne and William Pell gave their lives. They are the only ones who truly knew exactly why they volunteered to go, but they did. They gave their lives for an imperative, meanwhile back in Dublin, Ireland, their respect families awaited their return, not knowing they would never again see their William.

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Saturday, September 21, 2013

'Too many names upon these walls': World War One Commemoration

One of the walls of the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing, Thiepval, The Somme, France.
Since I returned home in July the focus of posts for this blog have been principally about the young men on both sides of my family who were killed on the fields of battle in France and Belgium during World War I, forever changing the boughs and the branches of our family tree. When I saw the theme photograph for today's Sepia Saturday — women pictured with a banner bearing the word Peace — I thought it was fitting that I participate. The title of this post makes reference not only to the over 72,000 names which are inscribed on the walls of the British Empire's Memorial to the Missing, but also to the names inscribed upon walls in hundreds of graveyards and memorials throughout the world which bear witness to the loss of millions of people in World War I. There are too many names upon these walls. Recalling the loss of so many should have been enough of an imperative for Peace.

In the history of World War I, France emerges as a study in contrasts. In the museums of Paris, the halls are filled with some of the most beautiful paintings and sculpture you might ever lay eyes on. The incomparable beauty of such work offers a window into what is creatively possible for human beings, and evokes a sense of hope. However, all hopes are dashed when one considers the history of war — the First World War in this case — and is reminded of the fact that human beings are capable of profound cruelty toward one another. Within the walls of the Louvre, while Johannes Vermeer's Lacemaker silently and perpetually worked her needle, and the Venus de Milo stood ever mute, less than 100 miles northwest of Paris there was neither art nor beauty in the theatre of war. There, with fixed bayonets young soldiers scurried over the top into the sights of the enemy to be blown to bits by cannon and machine gun fire, their bodies left to the insatiable mouths of the maggots and the flies. Meanwhile somewhere in the safety of their lairs, the generals moved the lines a couple of inches on their precious little maps.

The standing stones of Island of Ireland Peace Park, Belgium.
Next year will see the commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the beginning of World War I. No longer are there any soldiers left to remind us of the catastrophe that was the war. For some it is perhaps too easy to be placated by the beauty of row upon row of perfectly crafted white stone markers, dressed in flowers, in the pristine green space of the manicured cemeteries. The perfection belies the magnitude of the loss. Some may be unmoved by numbers on a page or carved into a stone. In Island of Ireland Peace Park, near Messines, Belgium, the standing stones bear numbers which tell of 32,186, and 28,398, and 9,363 Irish killed or missing on the fields of battle. On the walls of the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing, the stone masons' chisels carved the names of over 72,000 members of the British Empire forces who have no known grave. At Pozieres there are over 14,000 commemorated. There are too many names upon all of these walls. Such numbers seem incomprehensible and yet represent only a small segment of the total number of persons killed on both sides of the conflict. How do we even begin to honour the sacrifice of so many lives? 

Pozieres Memorial, The Somme, France.
Over 14,000 members of the British Forces are commemorated here.
Perhaps we can begin to understand how important it is that we never forget the losses of war, and that we truly endeavour to create peace in our world,  if we remove from any sort of political context those individuals who were killed, if we just forget whose side they were on. Imagine if you will one soldier, one person, one beloved man lost, and consider how profoundly his family was changed by his death. Think about one little daughter who would never again be lifted into her daddy's arms, one young wife who would never again be warmed by the embrace of her beloved husband, one mother and one father who would never again gaze into the face of a treasured son. Take that tableau and repeat it over and over and over again. For so many their family tree was stunted at the root, cut off by the loss of those young lives.

Consider your own family now, mother, father, sons, daughters, sisters, brothers. Imagine if one of them was taken from you in this very moment, and taken in a manner so savage and so cruel that it is perhaps too difficult to conceive of such a loss. Imagine no body returned home for burial, and perhaps no grave anywhere over which to mourn, nothing to hold onto but the memories. The pain in your heart would never go away.

No matter what your political stripe, or your feelings about the First World War — the war which was supposed to end all wars — if you are a human being who has ever loved and lost another, then you must know the importance of remembering those individuals lost in war, and the importance of working toward peace. 

Today, on this International Day of Peace we must ask ourselves, can we ever become humane enough to stop destroying other human beings?

Commemoration at Notré Dame Cathedral, Paris, France.

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Monday, September 16, 2013

Find My Past Ireland launches Irish Newspaper Collection

Giving us some extra searching incentive, this morning I received the following press release from FindMyPast Ireland:

For immediate release

Find your ancestors in historical Irish newspapers

Titles covering all four provinces of Ireland

Articles dating from 1820-1926

Leading Irish family history website, has launched its Irish Newspapers Collection, making almost 2 million historical Irish newspaper articles available to search on the website.

Digitised from the collections of the British Library, the Irish newspapers collection on is a rich resource for genealogists in search of their Irish roots.

The collection features 6 newspaper titles (both national and local) covering areas in Leinster, Munster, Connaught and Ulster namely; The Belfast Morning News, The Belfast Newsletter, The Cork Examiner, The Dublin Evening Mail, The Freeman’s Journal and The Sligo Champion.

Different dates are covered by each title ranging from pre-Famine era right up until post-Irish independence in 1926. For family historians, the newspapers contain valuable entries like advertisements, obituaries and letters to the editor which help to paint a picture of what local and national life would have been like in Ireland hundreds of years ago.

Cliona Weldon, General Manager of, said, “We are delighted with the addition of Irish titles to our collection of British and World newspapers on The Irish newspapers allow us to really bring to life the happenings in our country all the way back to the Great Irish Famine and beyond. Whether you are searching for an ancestor in a local paper or simply interested in how the big news stories of the day were reported, you will no doubt uncover some fascinating facts.”

Overall date coverage for each of the newspapers is as follows:
The Belfast Morning News – 1857-1882
The Belfast Newsletter – 1828-1900
The Cork Examiner - 1841-1926
The Dublin Evening Mail – 1849-1871
The Freeman’s Journal – 1820-1900
The Sligo Champion - 1836-1926

This collection is also accessible on all findmypast international sites through a World subscription.

To find out if your ancestors were making headlines visit


Saturday, August 17, 2013

Sepia Saturday #190: Long before the Electric Picnic

We are fast approaching the end of August and the annual Irish music festival called The Electric Picnic. Although they may have had a singsong, the picnics pictured here were a long way from electric, but I am sure everyone enjoyed the simple pleasures of a picnic away from the work-a-day world in the company of family and friends.

In the first photo, with the men in suits and ties, the women in dresses, and their tea in china cups, they look as though they are having a lovely time. The small picnic basket belies the the full extent of what had to be packed for such a party. My mother used to laugh about how long it would take them to pack up such things as china plates, cups and saucers, forks, knives and spoons, and a primus stove for heating up the tea. All would be crammed into a large hamper and loaded into the boot of the car. A small basket such as the one pictured here might carry tiny sandwiches and small fresh baked scones with clotted cream.

You can almost hear the voices of the little ones in the second photograph shouting, 'Hurry up, take the photo, the sun is in our eyes'. When they were very young children my father Michael and his brother Patrick enjoyed many picnic trips and holidays at Rush with their Magee grandparents and Magee aunts, uncles and cousins. Although his grandfather Patrick Magee died in 1935, when my dad was only six, and his grandmother Mary Magee died in 1939 when he was ten, my father had wonderful memories of his time with them.

The third and fourth pictures are from the summer of 1949, the first year my mom Mary and dad Michael were courting. Mary was only just 18 and Michael was 20. Occasionally they would 'double-date' with Dad's brother Patrick and his girl. They enjoyed picnic trips to Glendalough, and to their favourite place of all, Ireland's Eye.

Be sure to stop by the Sepia Saturday Blog to see how others have been inspired by the theme photograph, and perhaps you'll be inspired too.

In the foreground my paternal grandaunt Mollie Magee Halpin; Mollie's husband Willie Halpin is pouring the tea. Behind Mollie is Willie's sister May Halpin Daly Barnwell. Next to Willie, the gent in the glasses is May's husband Dick Barnwell. The young fellow drinking his tea is one of the Barnwell sons. (1950s)
The large group of children in the foreground are Magees, with the exception of my dad Michael and his brother Patrick.
My dad is the little boy in the front far left, who looks as though he's being blinded by the sun.
Patrick is the little boy on the right who is turning away from the camera.
The adults shading their eyes are Mollie Magee Halpin and Willie Halpin.
The woman in the back far right is my paternal great-grandmother Mary Dunne Magee.
The man in the background wearing the hat is my paternal great-grandfather Patrick Magee.
Michael (my dad), Mary (my mom), Patrick (dad's brother), and Patrick's then girlfriend whose name I do not know.
Altogether for a picnic at Glendalough.
My beautiful mom Mary when she was only 18,
 taken that first summer at a picnic on Ireland's Eye,
the place that became one of their favourite spots for a picnic.


Saturday, July 27, 2013

A very special journey with a remarkable book of poetry: Tom Kettle: 1880-1916

Tom Kettle's Poems & Parodies
In an antiquarian bookshop in Paris — stocked with books written in English — my eyes scanned the shelves of the poetry section with the hope of making a wonderful discovery. Among the poetry titles I longed to see a book entitled Poems and Parodies. First published just over one hundred years ago in 1912, the book comprises a small collection of verse written by Thomas Michael Kettle, a first cousin in my maternal line. My search was in vain, but the propriétaire was very accommodating, and patiently listened as I told her about Thomas Kettle and his connection to France. She assured me the book would be brought into her shop should she ever encounter it. In the end I was able to find a copy online, and had it sent to me from a bookshop in Galway, Ireland.

For a while I had been searching for this edition of the book. It was published in 1916 in the months just after Tom was killed on the Somme, and so there is an introduction commemorating his death. As well, within its pages is the dedicatory poem which he wrote for his wife Mary, along with the very last poem Tom wrote and dedicated to their little girl, Elizabeth Dorothy, a poem entitled To my daughter Betty, the gift of God. There are a few of his early poems included in the book, as well as some political and war poems.

Surely there would have been a kind of magic at work if I had found the book of poems in Paris. Tom Kettle loved the city of Paris, and when he was killed in the advance on Ginchy, 9 September 1916, Tom was less than one hundred miles north of the great metropolis. If he had survived the war I have to believe he would have travelled to Paris again, perhaps with his beloved Mary and their precious girl Betty. I can imagine the three of them on a breezy Spring afternoon, strolling hand in hand along the River Seine or through the shady tree-lined paths of the Jardin des Tuileries.

When we travelled up into northern France, just past the village of Guillemont, and the fields of Ginchy, the words of Tom's poems played on my mind. From the east storm clouds were approaching, a deep growling emanating from within them like the sound of bombardment, a mnemonic powering memories of a past, distant and cruel.

So here, while the mad guns curse 
And tired men sigh with mud for couch 
and floor,
Know that we fools, now with the foolish
Died not for flag, nor King, nor Emperor,
But for a dream, born in a herdsman's
And for the secret Scripture of the poor.[1]

All along the roads on which we travelled were small patches of beautiful vermilion-coloured poppies, their faces turned up to the expanse of chalky grey skies. Then from the roadway I saw the most extraordinary sight, and we stopped so I could photograph it.

There, a long line of poppies cleaves a farmer's field in two. This stunning natural pathway brought to mind the thousands of young soldiers, just like Tom, who had marched through these fields of northern France and many others across Europe. At the bidding of the enemy's weapons, they fell upon those fields and drew their last breath there. Now it is as though each one of these poppies sways in the breeze in memory of each one of those souls.

As the sun died in blood, and hill and sea
Grew to an altar, red with mystery,
One came who knew me 
(it may be over-much)
Seeking the cynical and staining touch,
But I, against the great sun's burial
Thought only of bayonet-flash and bugle-call...[2]

We paused for a moment and stood in silent gratitude thinking about the history those poppies called forth to us. Stepping back into the car we continued along the roadway toward Pozieres, Thiepval, Lille, and on into Belgium. Dozens of military graveyards dot the countryside keeping the history alive for us, and Tom's words were ever present, whispering in my ear of the ultimate sacrifice made by so many Irish for the freedom of Europe.

Count me the price in blood that we have
not squandered.
Spendthrifts of blood from our cradle,
wastefully true,
Name me the sinister fields where the
Wild Geese wandered,
Lille and Cremona and ...[3]


Thomas Michael Kettle is commemorated in France on the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing (Pier and Face 16C).

The quotations included are from poems which appear in
Kettle, T.M., Poems and Parodies.
The Talbot Press, Dublin, 1916.
These poems are:
1. To my daughter Betty, the gift of God
2. On Leaving Ireland
3. A Nation's Freedom
4. Tom Kettle is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing because he has no known grave. Serving as a temporary Lieutenant with the 9th Battalion of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, Tom was killed 9 Sept. 1916, in the advance on Ginchy. Tom's body was interred by the Welsh Guards when they relieved the RDF some 24 hours after the RDF took the ground that was Ginchy; however, subsequent shelling destroyed the gravesite and it was never recovered. (NAUK, WO/339 and Kettle papers UCD, LA34)
5. The words of Tom's last poem to his daughter are carved in stone at Island of Ireland Peace Park in Belgium. He is also commemorated on a plaque in the Four Courts, Dublin, and on the WW1 plaque at St. Mary's Church, Haddington Road, Dublin, incidentally the only World War one commemoration to be found in a Catholic church in the Republic.

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